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Tag Archives: blogging

Lingua Tribute: Translators are not tools

[君子不器 Junzi bu qi] Translators are not tools

A Tribute to Linda Jaivin’s Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World

‘Linda Jaivin has been translating from Chinese for more than thirty years. While her specialty is subtitles, she has also translated song lyrics, poetry and fiction, and interpreted for ABC film crews, Chinese artists and even the English singer Billy Bragg as he gave his take on socialism to some Beijing rockers. In Found in Translation she reveals the work of the translator and considers whether different worldviews can be bridged. She pays special attention to China and the English-speaking West, Australia in particular, but also discusses French, Japanese and even the odd phrase of Maori. This is a free-ranging essay, personal and informed, about translation in its narrowest and broadest senses, and the prism – occasionally prison – of culture.’

The print version or ebook can be purchased by clicking this image:

The Confucian saying, 君子不器 Junzi bu qi, is not hard to decipher according to Linda Jaivin, just to translate. Take your pick: ‘The accomplished/gentleman scholar is not a utensil/pot/tool.’ If it’s possible for a woman to be to a ‘gentleman scholar’, then Linda more than fits that tag from her essay for the Quarterly magazine.

The contact page on her website is for ‘messages or love letters’. It entices the sender to engage ‘tutoiement’ – the process of using the informal ‘tu’ in French. We should all pay homage there to her invisible hand behind the subtitles that have enriched cinephiles’ lives for decades. As a former teacher of NESB [Non-English Speaking Background] students and an author and sub-editor with Global Voices Online, this is my response to her essay and my tribute to translators.

In 1980 I attended a matinee Woody Allen doubleheader in Lisbon. The packed house was a clear indicator of his international popularity. I remember laughing loudly during both movies. It was a tad embarrassing for my reactions were slightly ahead of the pack as most of the audience were reading the subtitles. His New York Jewish humour didn’t seem to ruffle the Portuguese audience’s enjoyment.

Lingua Voices

Our GV Lingua team has volunteer translators for approximately forty languages. They are as diverse as Aymara, Magyar [Hungarian], Swahili, Bangla, Korean and Amharic [official language of Ethiopia and second-most spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic]. In addition, posts are also translated into English as all stories on the main section use that lingua franca. Nearly 100,000 translations of posts have been completed since 2006.Volunteers choose which ones they will translate. It is a form of feedback that can be a bit disheartening sometimes but that is compensated for when quoted bloggers/ tweeters find their words in two kinds of Chinese, Filipino or Farsi and send messages of delight.

Word play

As an author and a sub-editor helping with translations into English, my earliest lesson was to avoid puns. Word plays are potential nightmares for audience and translators alike. The most common slang in Oz English can stump even experienced linguists. It belongs in Pandora’s box, with jargon and cricket metaphors, marked ‘never to be opened’. Allusions to Australian Rules football prove even more dangerous.

When I wrote ‘Coca Cola Machine ‘Out of Order’ in Australia’ it was translated into six other languages including Malagasy, Macedonian and Catalan. In French it became ‘Distributeur Coca-Cola « En panne » en Australie’ [‘Distributor Coca-Cola ‘Broken Down’ in Australia] abandoning the double play on words. The charged word, ‘machine’, just went through to the keeper. That’s wicket-keeper, not goal-keeper, in case anyone is translating this response.

Neologisms [new words] are an essential element of netizen-speak but they are not universally understood even amongst geeks or tweeps (not to be confused with tweeping). Inevitably we fall captive to the latest. ‘Lacticvist’ was impossible to resist when breastfeeding in public hotted up in early 2012 but its rendition as ‘les militantes de l’allaitement maternel’ was a real mouthful. De l’autre côté, ‘SlutWalks’ was simply incorporated into the German, Italian and French using quotation marks – a very slippery slope indeed for L’Académie français. The Spanish translator was more creative with ‘Marcha de putas’- roughly ‘march of whores’ though it had currency in Brazil by then. Portuguese prefers ‘Marcha das Vadias’ i.e. ‘Bitches’.

It is often hard to know exactly which connotations attached to words like these, especially in different languages and cultures. Linda observes, “The swearwords and curses of a language expose what is forbidden, what is permitted and what is held sacred in that culture.”The use of Twitter hashtags presents its own complications. Some tweeters use multilingual tags such as #Syria #Siria #Syrie #Syrien to reach a wider audience but limit the length of the message. Others tweet in more than one language. GV always includes the original text when quoting plus a translation. The 140-character limit adds a challenge normally confined to post titles or headings, where brevity invites wit but not always clarity.

Lingua global

Linda asks, ‘Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?’ When my partner and I visited Iceland in July 2013, we were entertained by an Esperanto choir on the grand steps of Reykjavík’s Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre. They were taking a break from the World Congress of Esperanto, which involved over one thousand participants from fifty-five countries. Linda would be glad to know that there were some Chinese involved. Hvað er merking hörpu? No prizes for guessing that one, though harpa has two distinct meanings in Icelandic.Sub-editing posts written originally in a LOTE (Language other than English) is both daunting and rewarding. I often use Google Translate to check a word or phrase or to get a better grasp on the context.

Google doesn’t seem to like Japanese but sometimes gets it right. A scandal about Tokyo’s governor taking a bribe had this: ‘The document is a note of hand to borrow 50 million yen with no interest, no collateral and no return date set.’  I presumed ‘note of hand’ referred to something hand-written but it turned out to be a legit term for an informal promissory note. I.O.U. might have sufficed even if some readers wouldn’t have understood the etymology. It is a clear forerunner of SMS and twitter-speak.

“Words have the power to change the way we think.”

Meanwhile the Chinese government is trying to eradicate Chinglish [中式英語]  in a bid to stop people who ‘slip carefully’ in their translations. Chinese netizens are also annoying the authorities by mining euphemisms that Internet surveillance software is not blocking yet. They started using the term “tea talk” or “forced to drink tea” [被喝茶] to describe vigorous interrogations by the internal security police.“River crab’ (censorship)  and ‘watch uncle’ (corruption) have required pest control. Mention of the 18th National Party Congress was banned on Sina Weibo [China’s version of Twitter] and their Facebook equivalent Renren, so it became ‘Sparta’ because of its similar sound. Modifying English words also became a game on Weibo. Freedamn [中國特色自由] is freedom with Chinese characteristics. You can raise the red lantern against China’s censorship by offering a friendly Internet connection for the new circumvention software called Lantern [燈籠].

You have to wonder what the Chinese censors would have made of the ChinaSmacks’ translation of the ‘My Vagina Says – If your vagina could talk, what would she say?’ meme. It certainly went against stereotype: “You need to be invited – to get in!”

Barbaros babble

Chinese is one of the United Nations six official diplomatic languages. The others are Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish. They are obviously vehicular but they don’t always travel that well. We spent a month in 1996 at a Spanish language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The teachers claimed that Cubans speaking Spanish sound like they have a mouthful of chewing gum. At that time my Chilean colleagues and students at Melbourne’s Westall Secondary College tested my tin ear by omitting the end or middle of words and sometimes both. They often contracted two of these into one word. There’s a word for everything in English, often borrowed. ‘Elision’ might fit here or perhaps ‘syncope’.Arabic should present fewer difficulties, at least for Arabs. However, a Tunisian blogger maintains that their vernacular can be almost impenetrable at times, even to near neighbours.

Linda canvasses “linguistic imperialism”. English may be the great vehicular language but assumptions about its  international currency are hazardous. The term ‘dog-whistling’ originated down under thanks to Prime Minister John Howard et al and has spread to some in the U.S. and UK. One of my posts began :

“There has been a contest for the worst pun following remarks by Teresa Gambaro [MP who] called for immigrants on work visas to be taught ‘social norms’ such as the use of deodorants and waiting in orderly queues.”

I was stretching all the rules about language accessibility but you’ve got to have fun. ‘Raw prawn’ and ‘hair of the dog’ were my favourites. My advice: “Check it out while the poop is still fresh”. You wouldn’t be dead for quids!

Northern Territory lights

Segue to Katherine High School 2002. After sharing my interest in etymology with my Year 8 class, I was approached on lunchtime yard duty by an unfamiliar youth who asked if it was true that I read the dictionary for fun. My confirmation brought the response, “You’re a very sick man!”When we were teaching in Maningrida in Arnhem Land during 2003-6, senior students were required to get exemptions to enroll in English as a Second Language [ESL]. For most it was not their second, third or in some cases even fourth or fifth. The indigenous community, and its homelands, has ten or more languages. Some are spoken by one or two extended families yet are healthy, rich and vibrant. Nakkara, with ap,proximately 60 speakers, and Rembarrnga are two of those. The township has a lingua franca but somewhat surprisingly it isn’t the local traditional owners’ Ndjebbana/Kunibidji but rather the other major language of the township Burarra.

Ars Poetica

Linda explores difficulties with translating poetry. They apply equally to song lyrics. Welsh band Manic Street Preachers’ song ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ didn’t faze some of our translators. Rezwan did an outstanding job in Bangla, going by my back-translation using Google. However, there was a stumble over ‘fascists’. Most online machines were fooled, ‘phyasistaderao’ being the only stab for ফ্যাসিস্টদেরও. Linda is, of course, no fan of “machine translations”.

Postscript

Finally, some wisdom from multi-linguist supremo, Danica Radisic, GV’s Central and Eastern Europe editor. Recently Niki wrote of her childhood growing up as a third culture kid:

Our parents’ work and lives allowed us to travel to different countries and often live on several different continents throughout our childhood, learn to speak countless languages and move seamlessly between cultures…”

Her ability to converse with someone simultaneously in their respective native languages is awesome. She concludes:

“…this spot on the Word Wide Web [GV] that is a scrapbook of different cultures and opposing views, is where third culture kids come when they grow up.”

The full story is on The Bridge at GV. Please join our global conversation.

The people versus Murdoch

Plato (428-348 BC) was opposed to the use of the written word; convinced that it destroyed memory. People, he argued, wouldn’t bother to memorise facts or stories. Spreading words indiscriminately was wasteful and they were not to be trusted.

How prophetic. And yet, though spoken over two millennia ago, how utterly contemporary. Look at our mainstream media (MSM) with their central tenet that their journalists are reliable, truthful and objective. Who do you believe? Them or Plato?

The direction we’ve seen in the MSM leans towards in the last couple of decades favours stories that are trivial, narrow, shallow and sensationalist. And often untrue.  Truth doesn’t sell a newspaper. If Plato were alive today he would no doubt bemoan the MSM have been spreading words indiscriminately and wasteful. And they most definitely are not to be trusted.

Some bloggers have publicly stated what Plato would have agreed to, and in response the MSM unleashed a ferocious and to some, a persuasive attack on the independent blog sites. A couple that I’d read earlier from the Murdoch stable exhibited a sort of  ‘xenophobic’ hatred, which first became evident a couple of years ago. Christian Kerr, a political journalist I admired, savaged the blogosphere with more zeal than I’ve ever heard him attack incompetent politicians, writing that:

It’s also worth noting that the `blogosphere’ supposedly outraged is the small incestuous clique of self-identified lefties, with readerships composed mostly of themselves, who were more than happy to out other bloggers a few years ago with whom they disagreed.

That last bit, for the uninitiated, is a reference to the modern dull and doctrinaire Crikey and its very own Adrian Mole, barrister-blogger Walter Jeremy Sear, and his role assisting The Sunday Age dissect the corpse of the spectacularly snarky site The Spin Start Here that offended sensibilities for years until it reached its logical conclusion and ripped itself apart. Sear was happy to help with an outing then.

The whole thing smacks of naivety and self-righteousness.

And naivety and self-righteousness seems to define the vast majority of the Australian blogosphere.  That and whining conspiracy theories.

Quite remarkably, Christian’s little dummy spit was shadowed by the editorial of the proclaimed masthead of the Murdoch empire, the Townsville Bulletin, which announced to stunned North Queenslanders that bloggers are cowards.

When reporter James Massola “outed” an anonymous blogger in The Australian newspaper last week, he received death threats and a torrent of personal abuse.

How dare someone in the mainstream media name one of these increasingly puerile bloggers, self-appointed guardians of righteousness and all that is wrong about society and, in particular, newspapers.

Grogs Gamut was named as a Canberra public servant and the reaction from his mates was as predictable as it was boring.

Those who hide under the veil of anonymity, taking cheap shots to satisfy their trendy social agenda, don’t like it when they are thrust into the real world.

The great thing about newspapers is that, love us or hate us, we’re the voice of the people. We represent the community, their views, their aspirations and their hopes. We champion North Queensland’s wins and we commiserate during our losses.

Represent the community! Don’t you mean control the community?

Blogging has profoundly influenced the nature of modern communication and obviously this doesn’t sit well with the traditional print media. The above references are indicative of their opinion that blogs produce public discussion that falls well below their standards. I disagree. News stories these days are nothing more than opinion pieces to which nobody is held account.

The blog sites are now holding them to account and this sits very uneasy with them.

Many blog writers have a natural gift of being able take the single main story of the day – turn it into something worth reading – and foster the expression of a range of opinions that otherwise would not, or may not, have the opportunity of being expressed to a wide audience via the MSM.

In a few short years, blogging has become a global phenomenon. It has not only has reshaped our view of journalism, but has unlocked previously unrealised publishing opportunities. Blogging itself, in my opinion, is journalism. The readership is limited, hence blogging sites with similar agendas often link their sites together to broaden the impact of their commentary.  The blog sites of the MSM usually filter out contributions from bloggers whose opinion do not fit into their schema, so while independent blog sites provide minimal impact, the avenues through the MSM can provide none.

Then what are the impacts of the independent blog sites?

It is in the political sphere, that the impact of blogging is being nurtured.

In his/her March 2010 essay titled The Influence of Political Blog Sites on Democratic Participation, ShariVari wrote that:

A computer-mediated environment may make it easier for citizens to express their feelings about political candidates and allow them to speak more candidly than if they were in a face-to-face situation.  The diversity of the internet gives citizens access to a wide variety of opinions and information that they may not have access to otherwise, and this may play a role in changing or shaping an individual’s political views.  After disregarding any blog sites that have a corporate financial objective or are engaging in political agenda-setting, political blog site users can begin to discuss their personal view points with peers.

I found the essay to be rather heartening.  As a blogger who has lost all faith in the MSM it was good to know that we can indeed have an impact, albeit small at this stage.  If we follow the trend seen in the United States, we may one day see a healthy blogging industry flourish in Australia.

ShariVari concludes that:

All of the research shows that increased opportunities for participation can only encourage democracy . . . This research means that citizens are increasingly turning to and trusting the Internet for accurate information, using it as a platform for participatory democracy, and becoming more knowledgeable about political information in the process. A Spiral of Silence is less likely to exist where citizens have only each others’ opinions to evaluate in terms of their own civic participation and lack status cues such as gender, race, and socio-economic status. Blog sites definitely are increasing the ways in which citizens can participate in their democracy.

Up until recently, people in democratic societies wishing to have their ideas and opinions published had to contend with editorial policies that were generally based on the ideology of the editors, and of course, on what was sellable. However, this regime of control over what content is allowed to emerge is collapsing in today’s world of participatory media.

Today’s audience want to be part of the media, rather than passive receivers.  Not only do they want to comment on the news, they want to be part of creating it.

Many bloggers believe they are better suited to provide the diversity that today’s democracies need, yet which are often ignored by traditional journalists.  Blogging advances the opportunity for bloggers to expose doctored or omitted facts from mainstream media and point out the bias by particular reporters who do not provide such opportunity for his/her readership to give voice to alternate opinions.

Bloggers also encourage contributors and readers to think objectively and ask the probing questions that might often be avoided by a mainstream media organisation, particularly if they are working to a different (or hidden) agenda.  Further, through blogs, people have the opportunity to analyse and disseminate the news and opinions thrown at them from the established media; the blogosphere is awash with a more objective and factual analysis.

Blogs have exploded in number, not because they are the echo of dissenting voices, but because the MSM has created an arena for them to enter.  If the MSM was objective, impartial and committed to providing a quality service then in a modern democracy there may not be any bloggers, or for that matter, the millions of blog sites that exist purely to fill in the gaps exposed by the mainstream media empires.

In other words, it’s the people versus Murdoch.

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