Found in Translation
As the world gets smaller and even the most isolated cultures open up, more works of literature are being translated to reach new audiences.
The Chinese government is supporting China Publishing Group’s effort to translate 500 classics of social science literature, one of the largest projects of its kind in modern China. China’s biggest publishing house is adding to its existing collection of foreign works to further academic and cultural development. In light of the inconsistencies in English language education, the translations could serve an important role in exposing Chinese students to social science writings from other places and times.
Meanwhile, in Cairo Humphrey T. Davies is hard at work translating Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s
Al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq. The award-winning translator is tackling this complex book, fraught with archaic language and obscure references, to increase accessibility and exposure to a masterpiece that many in the Arab world have heard of but few outside of academia have actually read. Al-Shidyaq, one of the first Arab novelists and a modernist ahead of his time, has never been translated into English, like of the literature in the Arab world. Many of his ideas on freedom of expression and human rights will resonate with participants and observers of the Arab Spring; this project could not have come at a better time.
Finding talented translators who can bring works to life in other languages help spread art and thinking, which makes the world a more interesting, and more educated, place. It can be a small(er) world, after all.
The Joy of Translating
Throughout history, translation has generally been viewed as the identification of equivalent words in other languages (also known as nomenclaturism). This has disappointed some literary critics in the loss of emotion that results. David Bellos would like to change this. A professor of French and Comparative Literature and the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton, his new book, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” explores the history and sociology of translation and challenges the conventional wisdom around its practice. Rather than strictly and literally interpreting a text, Bellos proposes interpreting the style and context so that the reader gains more insight into the artistry of the literature. This stance could have great impact as the earth’s population, aided very heavily by the Internet, becomes more interconnected and more people speak English as a second language.
While the Wall Street Journal questions the validity of this anti-nomenclaturist stance and the weight of Bell’s theory, The New York Times reviewer of this book sees this as a great opportunity for Google Translate, with its pattern matching algorithm. However, one may disagree with Thirlwell that machine translation as it stands today can accurately provide the context and flavor of colloquialism and idiom in most literature and poetry. Dr Bellos himself wrote an editorial a year and a half before his latest release in the New York Times stating that machine translation can get the job done in a pinch; he acknowledges the limitations of human interpretation yet still finds it preferable to the often clumsy and unreadable output from Google Translate and other computerized services.
SpeakLike recognizes the value of “the human touch” in its on-demand translation service. Not only are translations routed to people, the completed work is reviewed and monitored to ensure smoothness and elegance in flow, with potential machine translations being flagged. In an increasingly globalized world, being able to understand one another is fundamental. SpeakLike’s aim is to make that process easier while still preserving the lingustic flavor and creativity of the text itself.
Op-ed in The New York Times about Google Translate
There’s a very interesting op-ed in The New York Times about the strengths and shortcomings of Google Translate. The gist of it is that while Google Translate is very powerful, certain language pairs remain deficient and the system still has a lot of trouble with anything that might be termed “literary translation.” A quote: “For works that are truly original — and therefore worth translating — statistical machine translation hasn’t got a hope.”