Reflections of a translator

As many of you know, I am slightly obsessed about languages. About a year ago, I began turning such passion into a job, and started working for several translation agencies; I passed exams and interviews, and my work is regularly reviewed for accuracy.

Despite what some people think and claim, it’s not just a matter of reading in one language and writing in another: especially when dealing with legal or technical documents, even a short text can require a substantial amount of research. Of course, over time it becomes easier, as one learns where to look for reliable information, and simply stockpiles commonly used turns of phrases to look up in a pinch.

I have worked on projects big enough, sometimes for huge companies whose products you most likely use or have used—I cannot be any more specific due to non-disclosure agreements I have signed—to realize, first-hand, that translation is way more than that. Each individual project, no matter how big or small, has its own peculiarities. Translating a mobile app for children requires a different approach compared to the technical manual of a safety valve testing rig, for instance, and a certificate of pending charges has very little in common with the product descriptions of an online shop specialized in DJ equipment.

While mistakes can happen, translation is one field in which striving for perfectionism is a very basic requirement. It is true that once the project is delivered, never hearing again from the client is a good sign (it means everything went fine and no revision is required!), but sloppiness is never a good way to start. This is especially true for certified translations, a field I recently started working on.

Knowing that a translation is going to be certified by the agency means that, as a translator, I represent the agency; and the agency is solemnly claiming, to the full extent of the Law, that the translation faithfully matches the original text. Nothing is allowed to go wrong. And this opens up a whole new can of worms for each project: should I use the American date format, with the month before the day, or the European date format, with the day before the month? Should I use the British or the American spelling, if I’m translating into English? What is the best way to rephrase this without drifting too much from the original, while at the same time being fully clear for the reader? And what if something simply does not exist in the countries where the destination language is spoken?

It can be daunting. And it’s a good idea never to feel too confident, for overconfidence is the root cause of catastrophe (“look ma, no hands! look ma, no teeth!”). I was lucky to have wonderful supervisors and coordinators for all the agencies I work with: they guided me as I took my first few steps and encouraged me, putting up with my incredible level of early paranoia. Sometimes I still worry when I pick up a job: the customer may not be clear in her requests, or something may be unreadable if it’s a scan, or I may just have no idea how to translate a specific passage until I research it in detail.

But I always made it work, and it’s very rewarding on many levels. Sometimes I stop and think about what I do, and what it means to me—why I love it so much. Translation is the ultimate tool for communication. When you speak one language, your message has a limited pool of potential recipients: those who understand that language. By translating it into other languages, the pool grows considerably, and your message gets one step closer to being universally understood.

As a translator, I am enabling people to achieve that goal, whatever their message may be. It’s often commercial in nature: press releases, apps, websites. Sometimes, however, it’s not: I have translated texts for charities, for projects that involved or were targeted at kids. I distinctly remember one Sunday morning, when I almost accidentally picked up one such job; I couldn’t stop myself, and left a comment to the customer simply thanking them for what they were doing, and for allowing me to be a small part of it.

And then of course, there’s the other kind of material: the certified documents that end up on the desks of notaries, lawyers, ambassadors. Each one of these, no matter how small or short, make me feel honored, and that’s for a simple reason: because they all tell a story. Sometimes the customer shares a few basic details: “I need this to apply for citizenship”, or “this is for my son’s passport”. Other times I can infer it: a university transcript is the prime sign that the student is packing to work abroad, for instance.

Yet many times, there’s not enough context to tell what it is for, and my imagination runs wild. I wonder why this person with a French last name is requiring his father’s birth certificate to be translated, or what the property mentioned as being for sale looks like, or whether there is any update on the prognosis described in this medical report. I wonder, and imagine, and dream. Like when I was thrown all the way to a hundred and thirty years ago, trying to read the gorgeous but amazingly cryptic cursive of a birth certificate from the 1890s. That was barely thirty years after Italy was united into a single country. That was before the first modern plane flew. That was before the world knew what the Great War was. That was when school was something for the rich, and the common folk couldn’t even sign a certificate because they simply couldn’t read or write. I have no idea why this stuff needed to be translated, or what the customer’s ultimate goal was; I cannot come up with any reason beyond genealogy research.

But at the end of the day, as curious as I am, I do not even want to know. I’m content with knowing that someone’s communication need was fulfilled, and I was the one who enabled them to do so. That’s why I do this.

Languages: ambiguous parsing

There is one reason computers are great at numbers and awful at languages: the latter are difficult to parse. While complex mathematical operations can be carried out in a well-known order, parsing text can be exruciating difficult even for humans.

This is especially true for languages — such as English — that allow long sequences of words to be joined together without prepositions, and that use the same word both as a noun and as a verb.

Continue reading “Languages: ambiguous parsing”

Languages: the strange case of Pirahã and Aymara

In my last post, I wrote about the connections between language and thought, ie. linguistic relativity / determinism.

In today’s highly globalized world, languages get mixed and evolve at a much faster pace than ever before. English, for instance, is no longer only divided into British, American and Australian English; we could say that there is a variety of English for any other natural language: Spanglish, Chinglish and so on. When French was the de-facto lingua franca of diplomacy (and, by extension, of Western Europe), it was not substantially modified by other local languages. When English replaced it, after World War I and especially after World War II, it started changing immediately.

English, especially its American variety, was not only originally used for international diplomacy; rather, as the United States rose a superpower in many fields (technology, business, etc.), one could argue that its language became widespread from the bottom-up. The average Joe in most other Western countries was exposed to American words: they wore blue jeans, they put coins into juke-boxes, they went to a bar. As English words became naturalized over time, this ultimately led to the creation of what could be easily considered a series of creoles that are for the most part mutually intelligible.

Continue reading “Languages: the strange case of Pirahã and Aymara”

Languages: linguistic relativity, words vs. thought

One of the most intriguing concepts in linguistics is the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity principle. Simply put, it states that the language we speak can influence the way we think. Another common name for this theory is linguistic determinism. There are some subtleties in the usage of these different names (no pun intended), but in order to avoid confusing them and giving wrong information, I’ll refrain from attempting. There are many resources online about the details of this topic for those who wish to delve deeper. For the sake of this post, I will freely use the terms interchangeably.

Anybody who studied a foreign language, even without reaching fluency, has most likely had an experience with the linguistic relativity principle. The farther the language in question is different from the native language, the more the phenomenon is obvious.

Continue reading “Languages: linguistic relativity, words vs. thought”

Languages: life, evolution, death and extinction

To call a language “dead” is often an exaggeration. Languages seldom really die; they evolve, and sometimes they fade out of usage.

Latin, for instance, is usually deemed to be a dead language, but this is not the case. To begin with, Latin is still the official language of the Vatican, and while catholic functions have been in local languages since 1964, papal documents continue to be redacted in Latin to this day. Moreover, while there are no native Latin speakers, there are hundreds of millions of people whose native language is directly derived from Latin: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian; these are usually called “romance” or “neo-latin” languages. The word romance has unfortunately nothing to do with feelings, and is rather a reference to roman. Ancient Romans did, in fact, spread the usage of Latin around the world.

Continue reading “Languages: life, evolution, death and extinction”

Language: defining identity

In my previous post about language, I said that the ability to conceive and communicate complex thoughts is what sets humans apart from animals. I want to make it clear that I do not mean in any way that animals are stupid, on the contrary. However, seeing as they rely on instinct much more than we do — partly because we traded off instinct with learning — they are more radical in their behavior than us. Anybody who tried to calm down a scared cat or dog knows exactly what I mean. I hope this settles any doubts that readers might have had about my point of view.

I have already said that language is the foundation of human culture. It is, however, more than that. Language is one of the very few “inner traits” that define the different ethnic groups, that is traits not immediately visually discernible when seeing someone new. Everybody can tell if somebody has a similar ethnic background: Caucasian people look different than African people, or Asian people. Yet, while is it true that a Swedish will probably look different than an Italian, it will be virtually impossible to discern a Spanish and a Portuguese just by looking at them.

Continue reading “Language: defining identity”

Language: the foundation of culture

Language is the fundamental trait that sets apart homo sapiens from other animals. The physical ability to generate complex sounds has given us the ability to go beyond instinct.

Culture could not exist without language, and not only because we wouldn’t be able to share it with one another. Animals, lacking full languages, are only able to communicate simple pieces of information: there is food over there; a predator is approaching; I am ready to mate. Contrary to popular belief, they do not chit-chat with one another; they are simply relaying basic information. A cat might indicate to one of its kind that it is happy, but will not seek a full conversation with its fellow. They lack the body parts to do so, and are therefore unable to conceive any higher form of communication. This is not unlinke people who are blind from birth: not having ever seen colors, they simply don’t know what color is. It’s an entirely abstract concept to them, much like every human fails to grasp the concept of a fourth dimension. (I strongly recommend reading Edwin A. Abbott’s “Flatland” to get a better idea of the problem.)

Continue reading “Language: the foundation of culture”

Righties and lefties

An Italian proverb says that you can’t thread all the weeds in one bunch. It’s exactly what comes to mind when I see people commenting on the iPhone 4 antenna issue by saying that “it only affects left-handed people.”

The basis of such theory is that, since the problem stems from a gap on the lower left side of the phone, it is more likely for left-handed people to trigger it. That may be, but there are many people who are generally right-handed, yet prefer to do things with their left hands. I do, for instance.

I often hold my phone in my left hand in order to use my right hand to navigate it, especially when pinching to zoom. I am also left-eared: for some reason, holding any phone to my right ear feels very innatural to me. Of course, that leads to holding the headset with my left hand, which has the added benefit of leaving my right, dominant hand free. I also open bottles by holding them with my right hand and unscrewing the cap with my left hand, and I bring my left eye to the viewfinder of my reflex camera. On the other hand (pun not absolutely intended), I cannot write with my left hand at all, at least not with a pen: I fare much better using my left index finger on a misty window.

Most of you probably do the same. There is nothing like complete right-handedness and complete left-handedness… or complete ambidexterity, for that matter.

Analysis of a misspelling

Some time ago, Lamebook showed a picture that captured my attention. Here it is:


(Click to enlarge)

It seems to me that the author of the message is not even a native English speaker. The syntax of the phrase is unusual; nobody fluent in the language would say “I do apologise,” unless someone complained about not getting an apology in the first place. Moreover, while “inconvenence,” “mechines” and “workin” might be a direct spelling of the local parlance, there is no way that “apologise” would be written “apploiges.” Misspellings are always homophones or quasi-homophones of the correct attested variants, but “applogies” has an entirely different pronunciation than “apologize.”

What is interesting to note is that the author might however be familiar with the British usage of the ending -ise. The caption of the picture does indeed mention KFC Byker, and Byker is a ward of Newcastle upon Tyne in England. On the other hand, the -s ending in “applogies” might stem from confusion the plural ending; even in that case, though, the unlikely singular “applogy” was pluralized correctly, rather than turning into “applogys.”

Also note that the author has no problems writing shorter words such as “about,” “thank,” “but” and the never-mistreated-enough “are,” which oftentimes magically turns into “our.” It is indeed a fact that shorter words are more easily remembered, at least because they tend to be more common. In any case, I am entirely unable to guess where the author of the sign might be from.

In any case, rather than the misspellings, what I find annoying is the comment of the person who posted (and presumably took) the picture: “The intelligence levels at kfc byker are sooo high! Lmfaooo.” The person who wrote the sign is ignorant, in that he or she doesn’t know English well enough, but talking about lack of intelligence is a bold and inappropriate claim at least. That might make sense (from the point of view of logic) only in case someone keeps making the same spelling mistakes over and over, even after being instructed properly.

The line between completely different concepts should not be crossed. Intelligence and ignorance are not the same. Saying so — or implying so — is not only Orwellian, but also plain wrong. At least the person who misspelled the sign is likely a foreigner and can be excused!

Apple MacOS X 10.7: code name Cougar?

Since the times of version 10.2, the internal code name of OS X major releases has become public knowledge and Apple has started using it in marketing. While there is a whole series of arguments for and against the usage of a non-sequential version numbering, I would say that in the case of operating systems it works just fine. After all, people only have to remember what the current release’s name is, and maybe the names of the two that came before it. Not a big deal.

Continue reading “Apple MacOS X 10.7: code name Cougar?”