Forword Translations Blog
All things language and translation
Zoe was standing on the stage with a microphone in one hand and a battered piece of loose-leaf paper in the other. There were nineteen people in the audience. It was a Tuesday night in April, and we were in a high school auditorium. This was the worst turnout for a poetry slam that we’d had all year. Zoe’s fingers were white on the microphone. These were nineteen more people than she was at all used to speaking in front of. I began to wonder if maybe this had been a mistake.
Zoe is severely autistic. In the months leading up to that Tuesday, she began to shape the viscerality of her thoughts into words, and those words into haiku and free verse, alliteration and onomatopoeia. Besides the hour and a half she spent once a week in my poetry workshop, she was learning how to cross streets. She was given worksheets about basic spelling. When she was not in classes, she liked to sit and do jigsaw puzzles. Every week at the poetry workshop, I watched the heavy steel doors of her face open like sighs and close again. She shook her head when we asked if she had written anything.
Her classmates were also on the autism spectrum, but many of them were “higher functioning” than Zoe. I put that phrase in quotes because I don’t think there is necessarily a hierarchy of function. There are simply many different methods by which one functions, working in conjunction with each other.
But I won’t deny that I was worried she wouldn’t have much to say. Her world collided with itself. She was seventeen, she played hopscotch at lunch. She had acne on her face and no one had ever bothered to tell her there were no monsters under her bed. She heard the languages of city streets every day; her teacher asked her again and again to spell out C-A-T. She almost never spoke, and so she heard everything. What she heard was full of contradictions.
As the workshop leader, I was frustrated. I wanted to translate her, find the key to unlock her language. And one day I realized that in order to translate, one must first listen.
Walt Whitman wrote, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” The next week in the workshop, I didn’t ask any questions, or give any prompts. I just sat down and told the class to write.
And Zoe wrote. It was strange and wonderful poetry, full of the cracks between the world she occupies and the world other people want her to occupy. “Every light has a lamp,” she would write. “I’m high when I’m tall.” But there was a beauty in the contradiction, in the pure translation of her world and mine. We build meanings out of language and applaud only the language as being beautiful. But language is mosaic coating statues, and the pieces are as beautiful as the forms they surround.
Back on the stage, Zoe moved closer to the microphone and began to speak. I shouldn’t have been worried. Somewhere in the amalgamation of childhood and adolescence, of jigsaw puzzles and New York City, the poem emerged, statuesque beneath the beautiful and strange mosaic of her translation.
For this post, we'd like to credit The Global Language Monitor, a fascinating resource. It is a website run by Paul J.J. Payack “on the understanding that new technologies and techniques” are needed to understand “big data”. One of the things this page does is track trending words in language using advanced media analytics. You can find more about the organization and the full list of trending words here.
The list of 2014’s trending words showed how words affect various areas of our lives. Some influence our social interactions: “Emoji” (1), “Futebol” (2), “Conscious Decoupling” (10).
Other words encompass our knowledge and interest in sound bites from the news, like “Pontiff” (9), “Ghost Plane” (4), and “Chinese” (15).
Politics and history also dominate our vocabulary: “The Great War” (12), “Crimea” (8), “Mid-term elections” (7), “V.V. Putin” (14).
Meanwhile, the environment is an important topic, as perhaps the impending destruction of the Earth should be: “Climate Change” (3), “Denier” (6), “Blood Moon” (13).
Only a few of these words I did not personally recognize, although I am not sure what that means. Does it mean I am “up” on the current lingo of today? Or does it just mean that a certain segment of the population is talking about it more? If I use all of the words on a list for a particular year, does that prevent me from becoming old-fashioned?
Either way, the excitement of the World Cup, the electricity of international politics, and the immediacy of ecological changes are clearly present in our global dialogue. I am glad that someone is there to point out what we are all talking about already!
A few years ago, I visited Idealist’s fabulous graduate school fair. During the fair, I talked with a representative from a university who tried to convince me to sign up for a Master’s in Translation or in Localization. When he explained “localization” to me, he mentioned the infamous example of the Chevrolet Nova. In English, the name Nova evokes wondrous sensibilities like “new” and “star birth” and “PBS.” But in Spanish-speaking countries, the recruiter explained, car sales didn’t go well because “Nova” means “doesn’t go!”
We all laugh, and we say, oh those fools at Chevrolet, how could they all have failed high school Spanish? Well, while “Nova” might mean “doesn’t go” in Spanish (and you'd have to say it with the stress on the wrong syllable), it wasn’t a death sentence for car sales. In fact, a Spanish-speaker wouldn’t express frustration with their broken down car by saying “nova” any more than we would say, “Yes, Triple A? The problem is my car: it doesn’t go”.
Many English words also mean other things when picked apart. Would you really imagine airborne sticks of processed cream if a business called itself “Butterflies”? Do you wonder whether fire has an expiration date every time New Year’s Eve rolls around? The fact-checking website Snopes gives a good explanation and debunking of this widespread myth about localization. Anyone interested in this should definitely look at their page for the full scoop.
The lesson of localization is heard loud and clear. But the next time someone mentions it, we hope you think about the source!
When Forword Translations posts job notices, we get a lot of résumés from translators and interpreters. Because of the nature of our organization, we get applications from across the globe. It is interesting sometimes to see what different cultures consider a good and comprehensive résumé.
The American standard is a brief summary of your work experience. One, maybe two pages; the hiring manager probably won’t look at anything more than that. Who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re interested in. Styles vary, especially depending on the position you’re applying for and what you want to highlight about yourself, but a good résumé for Americans doesn’t go on too long.
In Europe, there is a common résumé format, Europass, that asks for a lot more, sometimes in 5 or 6 pages. It asks for your sex and nationality as well as a picture, things that Americans might balk at divulging. Knowledge of foreign languages, with proficiency levels in each, has a greater focus, located on the first page. The template also contains information about each kind of skill you have (communication, management, computer) as well as your “driving licence” category. Finally, it asks you to attach copies of your degrees and certifications or testimonials and letters of reference. Americans and Europeans even call it different things; Europeans’ preferred term is a Curriculum Vitae, or CV.
The differences in résumé format reflect the differences in culture as well. In America, proficiency in a second language is viewed more as a bonus to jobs than a requirement. In Europe, where more than a dozen languages can be heard within a hundred miles of your country’s borders, your proficiency in a second language may be very important. The EU also has programs that make it possible for citizens to travel and find work freely between borders of member countries; your nationality and your work location may influence future EU policy.
In other areas of the world, résumé formats also differ considerably.
So, is it the job of the employer to consider each résumé equally, regardless of the format? Or is it the job of the applicant to adjust his or her résumé to the country in which he or she is applying? On the one hand, I as an employer may trash a six-page résumé for a very qualified translator simply because it is six pages and unfamiliar or difficult to read. On the other hand, one sign of a professional translator is the ability to adapt the language of one culture to an appropriate expression in another; that could mean the language of hiring and interviewing, not just world languages like English and Spanish.
My guess is that it may take a little of both to reach the perfect scenario. If you’re an applicant to an American company, take a look at a sample American résumé. If you’re a hiring manager, do your best to consider where the applicant is coming from, and create a standardized test so you can evaluate the quality of their translation work, not the quality of their résumé. With a little give and take, let’s hope a good translator and a good employer can find each other.
How has Coca-Cola made itself known throughout the world, seemingly with ease? They are so wealthy and profitable that they can spend millions upon millions of dollars on marketing their product. That kind of spending can make a nonprofit director wistful, or perhaps jealous. If only that amount of money could be spent marketing people to get vaccines, to eradicate polio from every corner of the world!
Nonprofits naturally have a disadvantage when it comes to budgets. You only have a certain amount of funding, and any additional funding doesn't come from selling more products but from asking for more money. A good Director of Development can do a lot of good for a nonprofit organization.
But think of what a Director of Development actually is. He or she is an investment. You don't pay this person 5 or 6 figures a year to write blog entries. You pay this person to write grants and hold events, to bring in significantly more money than you pay her in salary and benefits. There is a limit to the amount of utility you can get from a position like this - that is, 100 development associates doesn't mean 300 times the revenue - but one or two or even ten development associates, depending on the size of your organization, can really help you help the people to whom you provide services.
Many nonprofit directors I speak with are hesitant about translation services, saying they have "other priorities." I completely understand. Paying the electric bill and keeping paper supplies in the office is definitely more important. Expanding your programs is more important. Keeping a healthy and engaged staff is more important.
But like a Development Director, translation is an investment. A pretty safe one, in my estimate. Think about how you are funded – does that funding increase, the more people you serve? Translation doesn’t affect the type of services you offer, usually; just the number of people looking for those services. If funding comes from government, most grant programs give more in amount or frequency in accordance with an increase in numbers of people who benefit from the project. If it comes from donors, the more people you reach, the more likely it is that philanthropists will donate. If funding comes from things like gift shop or ticket sales, then there’s no question that funding increases with more people coming through the doors. Translation is an investment, but it’s usually a good one – if you charge, say $10 for a ticket, it only takes two additional visitors to your site per week to make up a $1,000 investment over one year. Better than the bank’s interest rates, for sure!
So you can sink a grand or two into translation services, and not see any immediate results; it seems like a low priority. But if you think like an investor, you'll realize that the results come later, built upon your other activities. Once the translation of your website exists, you draw two or three, or two or three thousand, more Google searches. Once you've translated the brochure describing your services, you're able to reach two or three, or two or three thousand, more people, without changing your services. Sounds to me like more bang for your buck.
You can wonder why Coca-Cola spends millions of dollars promoting their brand on billboards, TV commercials, sports arenas, and the sides of buses, even though everyone in the world knows what Coca-Cola is. Or, you can wonder why everyone knows what Coca-Cola is. The answer? They tried to reach as many people as possible, while still sticking to that classic recipe.
In recent days, the United States has been embroiled in a political battle over funding the government. The House of Representatives, which controls the federal Government’s purse strings, has not passed a budget that did not include amendments to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare. The Senate has refused to pass budgets that do include amendments to the ACA. It is now October 2nd, one day after the start of the Government’s fiscal year, and a budget has not been passed by both Houses. What does the deadlock and the ensuing furlough of approximately 800,000 workers mean for translation and interpretation services these days?
Although the situation affects federal agencies that hire interpreters, such as Social Security and the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge (under the Department of Justice), business continues mostly as usual. The support staff may be missing, but Contract Interpreters continue operation since the money was set aside from the FY 2013 budget. Furthermore, Judges are considered “essential” personnel; this means that they continue working and holding hearings even if their support staff is absent. And many times, you can’t hold a hearing without an interpreter!
Most other proceedings - say, traffic court - are not under the purview of the federal government. Since they are left to states, counties, and cities, whose budgets are separate, their orders of translation and interpretation are not directly affected.
As for document translation, the government often orders translations many months in advance of the date it is absolutely necessary. If the furlough lasts only a few days or weeks, a dip and a bump in service will be all it shows for translation services. Let’s hope that this is the worst-case scenario!
We at Forword, just like everyone else in America, are hoping that a resolution to the budget problems comes soon.
Recently Forword received some comments about a statement on our webpage: "Freelance translators are a cheaper option, but are less reliable in terms of quality and availability." The statement has since been amended to be more specific, but the core truth remains. Here is our explanation.
Freelancers are the most valuable part of the translation industry. Very few translation services companies employ their linguists full-time or give them the salary and benefits of a company in a different field. That means that almost every translation, including those done through translation services companies, is done by a freelance translator. They are an incredibly important part of how our work gets done.
There is a danger, however, of believing that all translations are created equal. A poorly qualified linguist, in skill or experience, can cause errors of the "all your base are belong to us" kind. Some translators are too literal, translating word for word where a more abstract translation would be appropriate. Imagine Shakespeare without the witticisms or Chekhov without the penetrating storytelling they are famous for! Other translators are the opposite, adding in words or phrases that they believe help explain the author's intent more fully. Some rearrange the sentences to create what they believe is a better flow throughout the paragraph. Imagine a legal document with an extra clause that removes the gray area in favor of the translator's partisan affiliation. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, it is not the job of a translator to coach an author to better writing, but she must also avoid killing the spirit of a text. Being a translator requires a special skill, and its responsibilities are great.
So it is true that a client in need of a translation may find an excellent linguist for their project through word of mouth, craigslist, or by having their friend take a look. But if you are not experienced in the industry, it is a gamble to assume that a freelancer is giving quality. It's a gamble to go with the moving company with few online reviews; it's a gamble to take your car to the local mechanic; and it's a gamble to have a freelance event planner take the reins for your wedding. Freelance translators, like most other kinds of workers, have to prove themselves worthy in order to get more consistent, higher-paying work. The crucial difference for translation is that usually, you cannot see or understand the quality of the work after it's done. If you see that your moving company scratched your coffee table and broke your grandmother's vase, you have learned your lesson and you know not to use them again. With translation, the final result is often a jumble of characters you can't read. If you are choosing a freelancer, it may be very good or very bad for the price you pay. That is why a translation services company is a good alternative to a freelancer; they can connect the work to the worker while separating the curds from the whey, so to speak.
Every one of us working at Forword has been a freelance translator at some point, and we truly understand the trials of freelancing. Forword, like all language services companies, vets its translators through a rigorous testing process. The position of translator, although it is a freelance position, is not given out lightly. We know from experience that some freelancers are diamonds in the rough, and others... less so. Excellent translators are few and far between. This doesn't mean that it is wrong for a company to find a single, excellent freelance translator for their projects. In fact, it would make good fiscal and common sense to do so and we would encourage it! It just takes a lot of work and in the end it is a gamble. Even the best freelancers err, and a second or third eye never hurts when it comes to the meticulousness many clients require. Freelancers may charge less, but it may be worth the extra penny or two to avoid poor translations like this.
At Forword, we take a lot pride in our translators – all of them freelance translators – and try to give them the work opportunities they desire while guaranteeing our clients the quality they need for their project. Who would expect anything less?
Forword is proud to present a newly redesigned logo and icon courtesy of Saskia Leggett at SNL Design, based out of New Orleans, LA.
High school students everywhere will rejoice at this news – Spanglish is a language!
Well, it depends on who you talk to, but under my definition, pidgins and creoles count as languages, and under my definition, Spanglish is a pidgin.
A pidgin is a tongue with a very small vocabulary, usually a couple hundred words or fewer, and is how two people from very different linguistic backgrounds would communicate. Trading in the days of yore had to be accomplished with pidgins – the Finnish and the Russians had one, and Basque-Icelandic was hot in the 17th century.
If a child grows up hearing a pidgin more than the language of his or her parents, a creole is born. A creole is the adult form of the larval pidgin, because what was once just survival language now makes intuitive grammatical sense to the child. Whatever expressions don’t yet exist in the creole are simply made up according to the rudimentary existing grammar. For this reason, creoles, especially newer ones, have a very simple structure. Where French would conjugate a verb, Haitian Creole leaves it untouched; where a French speaker distinguished meaning between two related words, in Guadeloupe they are one lumped word.
Spanglish is the pidgin that might arise if a structured education system were not in place and a Texan needed help from a Mexican. “Hola, I need some agua.” “Yes, tengo un bottle de agua.” Leave this elementary communication system in place for a few decades and gradually a creole will be born (fun fact: the origin of the word “creole” is in the Spanish/Portuguese root “criar”, meaning to “raise,” “bring up.”) Imagine it – legitimate Spanglish!
I once worked at a restaurant where an American cook, Gordon, and the dishwasher from St. Maarten, Felix, communicated in a pidgin of English and Haitian Creole. Gordon would shout out to Felix to get him something from the cooler. “Hey Felix, bring me some concuchon and brasson!” he’d say, and Felix would understand to fetch ribs and fish. Funny thing is, concuchon and brasson are not the words for ribs and fish in Haitian Creole; it’s just what Gordon heard from “vyann kochon” and “pwason.” They didn’t know it, but they were contributing to the foundation of a new language, Cringlish or Engleole. The same way I would say “sayonara” in Japan or “hakuna matata” in Tanzania, I would say “brasson” for fried grouper in Haiti and hope for the best, making the world one language richer.
It’s nice to think you don’t have to be Tolkien to create a new language. Try creating a Spanglish or Franglais poem yourself, and see what you come up with - hopefully both you and your interlocutor will understand what you have to say!
The past week has been interesting for Americans, to say the least. On Tuesday, Americans re-elected the incumbent Democratic president, Barack Obama, over his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. Whatever policies these two parties decide to implement during the next four years will surely affect the economy. But what about the election itself? How does it affect the private sector, including language services companies like Forword? The question is too large and complicated to tackle completely in a blog post; however, we can look at what issues generally affect language companies.
Language services companies do one or more of three things: Translation & Interpretation (translating documents or words from one language to another), Education (teaching English or a foreign language), and Transcription (writing down words from listening to audio). Surprisingly, immigration policy does not have much of an effect on these institutions.
First, the immigration policies under debate today largely have to do with illegal immigrants who are already in the United States, not with how many we legally let in to the country. Illegal immigrants do not frequently buy translation services; they will only need a birth certificate translated if they come legally.
Second, immigration policy may affect which languages are being taught at companies that teach foreign languages, but not necessarily the quantity of people learning them. As China grows as a trade partner, more people are learning Mandarin. But America is anything but xenophobic; we are already a hodgepodge of cultures and languages, which is why language learning companies are so popular and profitable here. We don’t expect that illegal immigrants being granted amnesty or being deported really affects who learns Spanish in New York.
Furthermore, international businesses that require translation and interpretation to operate will probably require translation regardless of how we protect our borders from illegal entry. A drastic situation would be a business that relies solely on this demographic for its sustenance – but then this is likely to be a supportive nonprofit rather than a language services company.
How much funding goes to education may affect companies like Forword, but not directly. We hire only the best translators and reviewers of documents, and we constantly seek highly educated people who have had the opportunity to go to college and travel the world. Experience in translation is also a highly desirable characteristic.
But we don’t expect that an increase or decrease in spending on education will affect our clients too much. It will only affect the people we hire in the next decade or two. The exception is businesses that deal internationally and will pay for their employees to learn a new language. Those businesses are more affected by tax policy.
Like all sectors, businesses in language services have to consider what tax policies are best for them. Larger companies may benefit more from a Republican tax policy; for small businesses, it’s a constant debate. More importantly, much of a language company’s revenue can come from the government or government-like institutions; the United Nations, Social Security, and the judicial system all demand our services. Although translation and interpretation will surely be used by governments no matter what, restriction of the budget will cause the frequency or length of government contracts to diminish.
This doesn’t mean that all language companies advocate large government. Indeed, we are also strongly affected by how much we do business with other countries, a characteristic of the private sector in large and small companies alike. We are affected by how much discretionary income that Americans have to spend on “luxuries” like picking up the French they learned in high school. We are affected by the decision of a larger company like Coca-Cola to expand or contract overseas, or to reach out to a non-English-speaking demographic. We are affected by a lot of issues, but fortunately we have a balance of government, private sector, and nonprofits contributing to our success.
It’s too soon to know what’s best for us here at Forword. We haven’t been around long enough to know which immigration, education, or tax policies are truly optimal. So we don’t endorse Obama or Romney. But a resurgent economy will be good for everyone, and that’s a policy we can get behind. We’re hopeful, of course, and always looking Forword.
With Hurricane Sandy threatening to affect over 60 million people on the East Coast, many governments are bracing for impact. The procedures they are implementing not only involve safeguarding the coastlines and preventing water damage, but also informing the public of the situation and the decisions of the government.
But what happens when a city’s residents speak more than 200 hundred languages, as is the case here in New York City? The government of New York City does a tremendous job of trying to include non-native speakers of English, especially those with large, concentrated populations. Speakers of Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Korean are strongly represented in the City, and many safety announcements are posted in these languages. Dialing the city’s universal information line, 311, can also connect you with someone who speaks one of these major languages.
But during an emergency, things move very quickly. There isn’t always time to inform all your residents of the situation. A press release about Sandy went out in Spanish, but the translation was clearly done hastily: accents are replaced with odd characters as a result of copy-and-paste malfunctions, a few words are misspelled, and there is even a note asking the reader to excuse the translator of mistakes due to the need to accelerate promulgation. These kinds of things happen in an emergency, but the important part is that the translation is there.
Spanish is by far the greatest minority language in New York and in America, so Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, tries his best to reach out to that group especially. But New York also has the highest concentration of Chinese people outside of Asia, with nearly 700,000 people. How can we disseminate a press release in Chinese? Or what about the Russian population, many of whom live in the Southern part of Brooklyn, where the coastlines are subject to even more extreme flooding?
Governments do their best in these types of situations to cover everything. One thing they should always keep in mind is that if their residents don’t know the situation, they can’t adequately prepare. If they don’t know the subway shuts down at 7 PM, they can’t plan to get home on time. If they don’t know that their area is under mandatory evacuation, they obviously won’t know to leave and may be exposed to high danger.
Crowdsourcing this information will be a key tool in years to come. While static items in the media should be translated professionally, it is better in emergency situations to have volunteers translate information into appropriate languages to ensure that as many people as possible know what to do.
If you speak another language and are updated on the events of Hurricane Sandy, please volunteer and translate important updates from the government and from news sources on your Twitter and Facebook pages.
Most people set short term and long term goals for themselves. Depending on how determined they are to accomplish their goals they work to their greatest ability, without necessarily thinking that these goals may not realize themselves. Often time we forget that things change and life can take very unexpected turns.
My parents are originally from Liberia, West Africa. After having lived in the US for about 6 years for their educational pursuit, they moved back to Liberia in the 70s to start the rest of their lives together. In 1989, my mother came to New Jersey, US to give birth to me and after a few months, moved back to Liberia. Like many West African nations, Liberia suffered from political instability which transitioned into a Coup d’état and ultimately into a civil war.
In the early months of 1990, my family and I fled to New Jersey in sought of refuge. My father eventually joined us and after about 3 years, we relocated to the Ivory Coast, West Africa. Prior to all of the chaos, heartache loses and travels, life was decent and I don’t believe that my parents ever thought that their lives could take such a drastic turn. However, I am a sole believer that “everything happens for a reason”. I’ve lived a life enriched with different languages, cuisines, music, cultures, religions and political dynamics. I have become a highly culturally diverse person. My family and I lived in the Ivory Coast for about 11 years; every childhood memory of mine is from the Ivory Coast. I remember being the family interpreter and translator for all of our 11 years there. Seeing that we moved there when I was about 3 years old, it was much easier for me to learn the language and adapt to the culture than it was for my parents. That is when I was first introduced to the idea of language barriers and bilingualism. It took me a few more years to realize the real importance of communication and the hindrance that language barriers can have on trying to move from one point to another.
In 2001, the Ivory Coast began to experience its own governmental turmoil’s and within a few months, my family had to separate and move again. My father along with his co-workers and the organization that they worked for moved to Tunisia, North Africa. My mother and I moved back to New Jersey, where we’ve always had extended family until my father was settled and could accommodate us. In 2004, we moved to Tunisia where I eventually graduated from High School. Tunisians speak Classical Arabic mixed with a Tunisian dialect, but the national language is French. Thankfully that enabled me to communicate and move around easily, I picked up bits and pieces of Arabic and Tunisian dialect, but never became fluent. Living in Tunisia was one of the best experiences of my life. It was more difficult for my mother to fall in love with it, because she was restricted when it came to the languages.
In 2007, I moved to Chester, PA for undergrad where I studied International Relations with a minor in French. Having lived most of my life in the developing world, it was evident to me from a very young age that I needed to be a part of change. I grew up intrigued by the inequalities that existed in the very communities where I lived. It never made sense why there could be 3 shacks constructed next to a mansion; why international organizations offered bags of rice to families in remote villages, but never taught them how to farm. Naturally, French became my minor, because I knew what an important role it played in myself not only for myself, but for my family. A lot of times we take things for granted, especially when it’s been a part of us for a long time and we don’t remember life before it. It wasn’t until recently that I obtained the highest level of respect for the art of translation and interpretation and the field of languages.
I recently worked as a case manager in a non-profit organization called the International Institute of New Jersey (IINJ) through AmeriCorps which is the domestic version of the Peace Corps. At IINJ, I worked with mostly francophone survivors of torture and international domestic violence. The individuals with whom I worked come to the United States in search of political asylum. I had 14 clients who range between the ages of 22 to 65 years. It occurred to me that while residing in the Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Liberia, although I was aware of the many development and security issues that existed, at that age I did not fully understand the personal violations of human rights that took place. I recall what I witnessed at large as well as what was publicized in the media; however I never fully listened to any individual’s life experience. It takes having a personal or professional relationship with a victim of torture to understand the misfortunes of some African regimes in its entirety as well as the dire need for reform. Something else that I did not fully appreciate is my fluency in English and French. Working with these individuals truly shed light on the necessity and importance of translation and interpretation services. I assisted my clients with everything from social, medical to legal needs, all of which made up their lives. Coming to a foreign country, not understanding the system or the language is very difficult. Enhancing language services and taking them more seriously will definitely help more people in this country and allow businesses and organizations to touch more communities.
At some point in the remarkably quick-developing life of the computer, it was programmed to play chess. For forty years, humans were always able to beat the computers at the game. No matter how advanced computers became, said experts, their strict adherence to mechanics blinded them to the “bigger picture” ideas utilized by the human brain. Computers couldn’t realize that humans are sometimes irrational, that sometimes they don’t play their best move, that they more than occasionally act on “gut” – incalculable factors that a computer’s input sensors snub. Respected polymaths, including Douglas Hofstadter, the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, declared grandly that computers were fallible and would never beat a grandmaster. In 1997, they bowed their heads in chagrin as Garry Kasparov tipped over his king to IBM’s Deep Blue.
Computer translation has been the holy grail of many for a long time. A world in which a machine takes in any text at all, no matter how nuanced and idiomatic, and produces an exact copy of it in a different language is a nicer world indeed. The roadblocks that keep immigrant children from attaining the educational level of their peers generation after generation gradually disappear. Tourism becomes cheaper and easier. Businesses and governments save lots of money as public health quality skyrockets and ethnic conflicts are reduced to the petty problem of not having an iPhone on hand to translate.
Knowing full well that I may someday bow my head in chagrin, I do not believe that computers will ever be the best translators. They already do it faster than a professional and better than the average high schooler, but they won’t replace the human translator for a number of reasons.
First, the rules of chess don’t change, but the rules of language don’t stay the same for more than a few minutes. Despite chess having an unfathomable number of possible moves (10^120, a gajillion times more than the 10^80 particles in the universe), you don’t even need to bring up the word “infinity” to play them all… you just need a really long time. You can, however, produce an infinite number of sentences in a single language. You can even reach multiple levels of infinity depending on whether the sentences have distinguishable content. The sentence “One plus one is two” can easily be extended to “One plus one plus one is three” and so on, thereby encompassing all of the real numbers without using very many words at all.
Go ahead, try putting in any random sentence you might say out loud into Google (in quotes), such as “The cat ate the food that was given to him yesterday” and you will get no results; the mindboggling number of sentences that are possible make it extremely unlikely that anyone before you or after you has ever said or will ever say, in order, the last five sentences you spoke contiguously. Even if you didn’t include silly sentences like “One plus one plus one plus one is eight” and you only took sentences with distinct content, by the time you got to writing out the same number of sentences as there are possible moves in the first two turns of chess, English would sound more like Hittite than English. If only it were “like Greek” to you then!
I apologize for getting all philosophical. Down on the ground, another reason that online translators won’t replace humans is that they only give one result for your text, when there are multiple possibilities. Computers are certainly capable of giving more than one result, but you would need a human to tell you which is the correct, and not “most likely the best.” Google Translate works by searching the internet for the most appropriate combination of words in the target language out of the many possibilities it could be, based on the words in the subject language. For example, the term “World Series” could mean a lot of things, from “universal number set” to “global order” to “Earth list.” Google searches in the target language for the most common of these possible phrases (also using the rest of the words in the sentence for context clue) and exports this into a tidy translation. Normally, “World Series” refers to the baseball championship, so that phrase comes out in, say, Albanian, as Kampionate Botërore. But let’s say some scientist is making good use of the malleability of language by adding a pun to her thesis and referring to “planetary alignment” as World Series. Google doesn’t recognize the pun, probably because it’s extremely uncommon and also a bad pun. The Albanian version of her thesis suddenly has a reference to a championship.
Our language is filled with myriad bad puns, copious similes, gobs of inaccuracies, hordes of falsehoods, mountains of mixed metaphors, a plethora of uncommon expressions, a cornucopia of plays on words, and a great multitude of synonyms. Remembering that English has an extremely large number of archaic words and fine distinctions of meaning that other languages don’t have (and vice versa), it is not just unlikely but impossible that every English word has a Google-verifiable counterpart in Turkish. For all the computer knows, maybe the best translation of “plethora,” “cornucopia,” and “multitude” is all çok (it’s not, fortunately). Nevertheless, it would be much less interesting if I had written “Our language has many bad puns, many similes, many inaccuracies…”
Finally, there is the problem of human reviewing. Even if the computer were able to produce a translation of the same quality as a human translator could produce, someone would have to check it. The only reason we know that Deep Blue beat Kasparov is because we checked to make sure it followed the rules and didn’t cheat (actually, Kasparov thought it did). It’s much easier with chess, where there are set rules to verify an outcome. In translation, the rules are nebulous and constantly changing, and you need a referee who also plays for both teams to make sure the text came out the other side. Someone has to make sure that a game of baseball doesn’t turn into astrology or vice versa.
So, I said it. It will have to be Forword who takes care of business for you, until the day of the perfect online translation comes. On that day I will have to ingest my vocabulary.
A Spanish doctor once told me about an American patient of hers who walked into the hospital complaining of nausea and high fever.She was examined and had a couple of tests done.While in the examination room, she grabbed a bedpan suddenly and threw up in it, getting unpleasant matter on the doctor’s shoes.Then she said, in Spanish,
“I’m so pregnant!”
She meant that she was embarrassed (the Spanish word for “pregnant” is embarazada) for ruining the doc’s trainers. But the doctor was more concerned about the girl’s last statement, and rushed her into another room while barking orders to a nurse. They suspected that the girl’s high fever was due to, or could affect, the fetus. When an aide started rubbing KY jelly on the patient’s abdomen, the girl knew something was wrong. After much confusion, the hospital found for her an English interpreter, and the problem went back to being the flu.
When it comes to the medical field, the correct translation is essential. Millions of dollars are spent on medical translation each year, but fivefold the current amount would be spent in medical errors and mistakes (not to mention the ensuing malpractice lawsuits) if no translations existed, and tenfold that would be spent if the translations they made had the wrong kind of mistake.
As a legal assistant for a disability office, I had to review medical records and compile them into exhibits. Once I saw a document with a list of standard questions that the doctor used to assess problems that may have arisen in the patient due to a debilitating accident. Some of these were:
Do you have difficulty sleeping?
Do you have shortness of breath?
Do you feel tired?
Have you noticed a recent change in vision?
Below this list was a Spanish version, with an appalling number of mistakes.In such a short list, one or two mistakes are acceptable in an informal setting.In a formal setting, when it is seen by patients, their families, other doctors, and perhaps lawyers or judges, it is not acceptable.In a medical setting, it is completely unacceptable and very dangerous!In this Spanish list, there were dozens of offenses:
First, some of the questions were in the formal tense, the rest in the informal. An elderly woman being treated like a child by an innocently ignorant doctor is a bad way to start an examination. These twenty mistakes are italicized.
Second, I found eleven spelling mistakes (bold), only one of which was repeated, six punctuation mistakes (underlined), four grammar mistakes (red font), one inappropriate dialectical variant (highlighted green) and one exclusion of important information (highlighted yellow).
Third, what makes these mistakes all the more egregious are:
1. I am not a native speaker of Spanish;
2. I have no special medical knowledge;
3. I have not consulted a dictionary in this assessment; and
4. Before correcting this list, I didn’t review the original with the translation line by line to determine whether the translations were accurate; I immediately discovered these mistakes with a cursory glance. Upon comparison and further analysis I spotted another one or two mistakes, and noticed some things I definitely would have changed for accuracy’s sake (roncha, for example, is not the only way to say "rash").
As you may have read in another entry of this blog, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a perfect translation. But I do believe that some are better than others, and boy is this one bad. Below is the list of Spanish questions, with the source document questions below that.
1. Tienes dificultades al dormer?
2.Cuantas veces se levanta ha orinar durante la noche?
4.Le da sed frequentemente?
7.Has tenido cambio de habitos intestinales?
8.Su apetito esta buena?
9.Tienes palpitaciones o rapido latidos cardiacos?
10.Tienes respiracion corte?
11.Tienes dolor de pecho?
13.Tienes dolores de cabeza frequentemente?
14.Se siente debil?
17.Tienes adormacimiento, hormigueo o dolor en tus dedos de las manos o pies, las manos pies?
18.no translation given]
21.Tienes cambios de humor?
22.Sientos mucho calor o frio frequentemente?
23.Has notado cambio en su vista?
24.Tienes ronchas, ulceras o otras problemas de la piel?
1.Do you have difficulty sleeping?
2.How many times do you get up to urinate during the night?
3.Are you urinating very frequently?
4.Are you very thirsty frequently?
5.Do you have constipation?
6.Do you have diarrhea?
7.Have you had a recent change in bowel habits?
8.Is your appetite good?
9.Do you have palpitations or rapid heart beats?
10.Do you have shortness of breath?
11.Do you have chest pain?
12.Do you have dizziness?
13.Do you have frequent headaches?
14.Do you feel weakness?
15.Do you feel fatigue?
16.Do you feel tired?
17.Do you have numbness, tingling or pain in your fingers, toes, hands, or feet?
18.Do you have increased hair loss?
19.Do you feel depressed?
20.Do you feel nervous?
21.Do you have mood swings?
22.Do you feel very hot or cold frequently?
23.Have you noticed a recent change in vision?
24.Do you have rashes, ulcers, or other skin problems?
Top ten most spoken languages (according to one of many sources with similar results)
1. Mandarin Chinese (845 million)
2. Spanish (329 million)
3. English (328 million)
4. Hindi-Urdu (242 million)
5. Arabic (221 million)
6. Bengali (181 million)
7. Portuguese (178 million)
8. Russian (144 million)
9. Japanese (132 million)
10. German (90 million)
Top ten most translated languages into/from English (according to one source)
Top ten most translated books (according to one source)
1. The Bible
2. Thirukural by Thiruvalluvar
3. Don Quixote
4. Steps to Christ
5. The Little Prince
6. The Very Hungry Caterpillar
8. Sherlock Holmes
9. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
10. Andersen’s Fairy Tales
Most translated document: UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (370 languages) (source: Guinness)
Most translated author: Agatha Christie (6,598) (source: Guinness)
Six languages used in the UN:
Out of the 191 UN members… (calculations by Forword Translations)
30.4% list English as an official language
17.8% list French as an official language
11.5% list Spanish as an official language
2.6% list Russian as an official language
1.6% list Chinese as an official language
12.6% list Arabic as an official language
34% list none of the six UN languages as an official language
9.4% list exactly two official UN languages
0.5% list exactly three official UN languages (thanks to US territories)
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In Kazakhstan, most business is done in Russian. Kazakh, the state language, is only spoken by about half the population, and many of those speakers live in rural areas. In the cities, where nonprofits and businesses thrive best, almost all of the day-to-day is conducted in Russian.
Some of that is changing, especially in the south of the country, where the ethnically Kazakh are a majority. But since Russian has been used in these organizations for many decades, the technical vocabulary that nonprofits and businesses use has not been translated into Kazakh. The words that have been translated sound fake (because they are) and the average person even within the industry won’t know what it means.
Globalization in Russian is globalizatsiya. Pretty easy. Kazakhs talking about globalization will use this word, because its newness as a concept means they didn’t use it back in the days of herding cattle and roaming across the steppe as nomads. In Kazakh, the new word is jahandyq. Jahan is an old word for world, and dyq is a common nominal ending. To the average Kazakh, this means something like “macrocosmitude.” Familiar sounds; not a word.
I was trained in the newer, official Kazakh. When I used these words around my co-workers, they would laugh and tell me about another Kazakh word that was always used in Russian. The pentasyllabic mouthful sangyrauqulaq is the new Kazakh word for mushroom, which most will cast away for the easier Russian word grib. A word more pertinent to business is kasiporyn, which means enterprise. It’s on enough buildings that people will have heard the word and know that it has something to do with business, but 90% will use the Russian equivalent. So, “I’m going to eat mushrooms in my new business enterprise, a gas station” would be in official Kazakh versus everyday Kazakh:
Men janarmay ortalyghy degen janga kasiporynymda sangyrauqulaqtardy jeyin dep jatyrmyn.
Men zapravka degen janga predpriyatiyemde gribyny jeyin dep jatryrmyn.
Whoa, what a difference!
So a problem a Kazakh-English translator might face – and there are a lot of them in Kazakhstan right now, due to its burgeoning economy – is whether to use the official Kazakh, as the government suggests, or use the Kazakh that people can understand. What is the best way to forcefully change the vocabulary of a people?
I think the solution lies in footnotes and endnotes. For some reason, modern readers have gotten it in their heads that footnotes are appropriate only in non-fiction, academic writing. Why should this be? You don’t have to read the footnotes; they’re optional. If you really wanted, you could buy an un-annotated translation. But because of all the peculiarities of language and the difficulty of translating them, I think it’s important to add footnotes in order to make the text clearer.
Without footnotes, you’d never know that Odysseus telling the Cyclops his name was Metis was a clever trick to escape because Metis means “no man” in Greek (it also means “guile, cleverness”). You’d never know, if you were not an English speaker, that Dumbledore’s “pensieve” was a play on words. You’d never know a lot of things you currently don’t know but would with footnotes.
Footnotes marking Kazakh technical words with their oft-used Russian counterparts would solve a huge part of the problem. Nonprofits and businesses could use the words that are relevant to both writer and reader and avoid all the confusion. And it’s not just about Kazakh and Russian – the idea is applicable to translations between all languages, because a phrase will never be one to one.
Like everyone, I love talking to people about my thesis. Unfortunately, no one likes talking to me about my thesis.
But because this is a blog, and I can, I’d like to tell you about the subjunctive mood. For all you people out there who aren’t language geeks, the subjunctive mood is used in many languages all over the world to distinguish between the crux of a sentence and a dependent statement related to the crux. In today’s Spanish and French classrooms, teachers like to tell you that it separates the real and factual (indicative) from the unreal and imaginary (subjunctive). Although sometimes that’s true, it is my expert opinion that the subjunctive should not be defined as such.
But what I’m going to talk about today is the problem of translating the subjunctive, because English doesn’t have it but for a few choice expressions. “If I were an Oscar Mayer weiner”, “God Bless America”, and “It’s important he understand” are relics of a more ancient usage. But the subjunctive in Spanish and French are very important to the understanding of the sentence as a whole, and so it may be necessary to translate sentences differently depending on what the sentence contains. Look at these sentences:
Buscamos una iglesia que está cerca. (Spanish, indicative)
Buscamos una iglesia que esté cerca. (Spanish, subjunctive)
Nous cherchons une église qui est près d’ici. (French, indicative)
Nous cherchons une église qui soit près d’ici. (French, subjunctive)
All of these sentences might be translated into English “We are looking for a church that is nearby.” But the difference between the indicative and the subjunctive is that in the first scenario, you know that a church is nearby, but you’re lost and you’re looking for it. In the second, you don’t know that a church is nearby, but you’re wandering around looking for one. The distinction between lost and wandering is an important one! It’s the difference between a vagabond and a nomad, between dying in the desert and going for a walk, between hitting on a pedestrian and having a blind date.
In addition to these quandaries, French has a particular problem. The subjunctive can sometimes be spelled and pronounced exactly the same as the indicative. It’s usually not a problem, but what do you do when the difference would change the meaning of a sentence? Check out this little number.
Nous cherchons un homme qui habite près d’ici.
This sentence means “We are looking for a man who lives nearby.” Or does it?
One reading could mean that a man lives nearby, and we are searching for him; another reading implies that we are in such a desolate place that we seek a man, any man, and hope that one lives nearby. But because habiter conjugates the same for the third person singular in the indicative and the subjunctive, we cannot distinguish which meaning to project. We need more context to verify our understanding of the phrase.
Issues like this are important in translations. Big companies are bent on efficiency, and their translators will just do what it takes to produce a translation. Their clients usually have no idea what the translator chose (the man nearby who exists or the man who doesn’t necessarily exist?), assuming that the translation fits the meaning of the original. But with the integrity of your document hanging on such details, don’t assume!
Just so I don’t keep you hanging, here’s how I would have translated those sentences, as they are without context:
Buscamos una iglesia que está cerca.
Nous cherchons une église qui est près d’ici.
We are looking for a church that is nearby (or near here).
Buscamos una iglesia que esté cerca.
Nous cherchons une église qui soit près d’ici.
We are looking for a church that might be nearby.
Nous cherchons un homme qui habite près d’ici.
We are looking for a man who lives nearby.
We are looking for any man who lives nearby.
How would the “best” translator do it?
If you travel back 50 million years in time and kill a butterfly, will the world now be very different? No one knows, but let's consider another situation that would have changed the world in a wild way. What if Facebook, the most popular social networking tool of today, had not started in English, but in Kâte, a language spoken by about 6,000 people in Papua New Guinea?
-If it had followed the same rate of growth as the actual Facebook, it would have taken 208,333 years to get to a million users.
-The first non-Kâte edition of Facebook would have appeared in September of the year 922,483 AD.
-Given the rural area in which Kâte is spoken, the first expansion would have had to reach people about 20 miles away. These people would not have heard of it until 2159 AD.
-Its profits today would be a meager $4,000, compared with its current yearly profit of about $1 billion.
Of course, these statistics are not very accurate, because they are based on very rough estimations of growth rates and the number of speakers of Zuckerberg’s language. A lot more goes into a business like Facebook than the language of its first users and the number of people who speak that language worldwide. There’s a very good chance that the Kâte version of Facebook would have taken off at a much faster rate because it would have used another language – probably English – almost immediately. The web does not support Kâte very well; the Kâte-speaking inventors of Facebook would have recognized this from the start and probably hosted the site in a more widely-known language.
Perhaps this gives you a sense of the importance of multilingualism. Even if English is the primary language you want your business and/or social media webpage to be in, don’t discount the 845 million native Mandarin speakers or the 232 million native speakers of Arabic. And don’t forget that all the Indo-European languages combined make up the native tongues of almost 2 billion speakers, and English accounts for less than a sixth of that. Start a Facebook, and double the growth by having it translated into a couple different languages. By that reasoning, you could get to a million users by next week!