Monday, May 30, 2011

The Babel Paradoxes

This year’s volume of Babel, the venerable research journal of the International Federation of Translators, starts off with an intriguing and learned article by Caroline Disler of Toronto about the Babel legend. The best-known version by far is the one in the Old Testament. In case you don’t remember it exactly or don’t have a Bible to hand, here’s Caroline’s quotation of it.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’
The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’
So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because the Lord confused the language of all the earth… (Genesis II:9)
As Caroline comments, “It is a brief uncomplicated tale, surprisingly short for the widespread influence it has had in Western culture.”

Nevertheless, it leads to several paradoxes. The first concerns the familiar English geographical name Babel.
“The Hebrew ’original’ bavel occurs over 200 times in the Hebrew Bible. With very rare exception, all the other occurrences of bavel in most English Bibles is rendered by ‘Babylon’, awe-inspiring capital of long-time enemies of the ancient Hebrews… In short, the customary English equivalent for the Hebrew bavel is ‘Babylon’. stemming from the Greek Babylon. That the English translators chose not to follow this convention only in Genesis II:9 remains a mystery.”
Actually not only the English translators but translators into other languages as well. Whatever it was made the translators do that, to me the effect is clear. By using a ‘fictitious’ name and avoiding the name of a real city, they kept the story in the realm of allegory instead of history.

Another surprise is the extent of other ancient versions of the story. One of them is the following.
“The biblical story… was not created ex nihilo. A number of earlier traditions that were committed to writing well before Babel have in all likelihood informed our narrative. Despite widespread debate, most scholars ascribe the date of composition of Genesis to the first half of the first millennium BCE… The Sumerian epic of Enmarkar and the Lord of Aratta describes the conflicts between Enmarkar, legendary king of the ancient city of Uruk (see image), and the unnamed ruler of Aratta. Although the available tablets date from around 2000 BCE, the epic itself was most likely composed centuries earlier… the extant tablets include a passage that bears startling similarities to some themes in the Babel narrative.”
Here’s an extract:
Man had no rival…
The whole universe, the people in unison,
To Enlis in one tongue they spoke…
Enki, the lord of wisdom, the leader of the gods,
Changed the speech in their mouths,
Set up contention into it,
Into the speech of man that until then had been one.
There’s also an Egyptian version in which the god Thoth is addressed as the one “who made different the tongue of one country from another.” Caroline comments, “It is intriguing to observe that divine agency in the differentiation of language appears both in Mesopotamia and in Egypt long before the biblical story of Babel was composed.”

After so much that’s of interest, where I nevertheless part company with Caroline is when she says that
“…we ourselves, as translators, must be prone to a certain disquieting hubris in order to ‘reverse God’s act’ – or, if one prefers, in order to claim to understand the meaning of a source message so well that we presume to [re?)produce it in another language.”
Where’s the hubris? To pursue the allegory, it was that same Lord who both fractured the single language at Babel and who endowed Man with the faculty of translating between the pieces. He did so along with the ability of each individual to learn and use more than one language. If He did it before Babel or concurrently, than He must have known that the ‘confusion’ He was introducing could only slow down communication by its inconvenience, not prevent it. If he did it after Babel, perhaps He relented. Either way, Man did not “reverse God’s act”, God did. For translating was not devised by Man – and here I step outside the allegory for a moment – it evolved along with multilingualism, and the ground was prepared perhaps even earlier in the form of a more general human or pre-human multifunctioning – the ability of an individual to do anything in more ways than one and to convert between them.

Nevertheless, Caroline provides us with another apt quotation that perhaps explains hubris, though it also leads to another paradox. She cites a translator known as ‘the grandson of Sirach’ who “sometime after 132 BCE” translated the biblical Book of Ecclesiasticus from Hebrew to Greek, and who apologised as follows for the shortcomings:
“You are invited… to be indulgent in cases where, despite our diligent labour in translating, we may seem to have rendered some phrases imperfectly. For what was originally expressed in Hebrew does not have exactly the same sense when translated into another language. Not only this book,… the rest of the books differ not a little when read in the original.”
Yet that didn’t prevent the grandson of Sirach from doing his translation and thinking it worth ‘publishing.’ And there’s the paradox in all translation: it’s never perfect, yet we still do it and use it. The solution to the paradox, as with many paradoxes, is a matter of semantics. The term translation is often used in a way that confuses usable translation with perfect translation and leads – as the French linguist Georges Mounin concluded long ago – to the paradoxical assertion that ‘translation is impossible’ when it’s being done all the time around us. There’s an Arabic proverb that runs al-’ismah lillâhi wahdah, which means ’Perfection belongs to God alone’; so He bestowed on Man translation as we know it with all its imperfections, and told Man to go forth and communicate.

Caroline Disler. Before Babel: in memoriam Daniel Simeoni and Brian Peckham. Babel 57:1, 1-14.

Babel is published for the International Federation of Translators by John Benjamins,

The Bible quotation is from the New Revised Standard Version. Although the NRSV was published in 1989 and in the United States, it can be seen that its English is pretty archaic and full of translationese.

Samuel Noah Kramer. The ‘Babel of Tongues’: a Sumerian version. Journal of the American Oriental Society 88(1968):1.108-11.

Georges Mounin. Les problèmes théoriques de la traduction. Paris: Gallimard, 1963.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Old Translators Never Die...

...they simply fade away.

There are many mentions in this blog of how young humans can be when they start to translate, but how old can they get before they lose the power? There's only been one post that suggests an answer to the latter question, the one about the Spanish lady in her seventies who spontaneously interpreted for another guest at a dinner. (To find it, enter "age limit" with the quotation marks in the Search box on the right.)

When I was in my fifties, I met a Professional Translator in Toronto who was in his eighties and still working. I expressed surprise that he'd gone on for so long. He replied, "One of the good things about translation is that you can go on doing it to an advanced age."

I've known one or two conference interpreters who were still working in their seventies, but none who was older. However, that's not necessarily an indication for written translation, because interpreting is much more high speed; and furthermore it's of the nature of a performing art with the stress that playing to a public imposes. Both the professional associations I belong to have a category for 'retired' or 'senior' members, but that doesn't tell us how many of them have stopped translating entirely. In any case, the limit for Professional Translators may not be the same as for Natural and Native Translators.

One piece of data I am sure of, though. This week I'll be 82 myself. I long ago gave up conference interpreting, but I still do some community interpreting and I translate. I have to thank many people for helping me get so far, but first of all my parents, for bequeathing me their genes and arranging for me to be born under the sign Gemini, which is an ideal sign for translators. I once read in a horoscope book that the ideal careers for Geminis included interpreter and international telephone operator, and I've been both. Of course my parents also did a lot of other things for me.

This week I'll again be interpreting for the Englishman who's stricken with dementia in a Spanish coastal resort. (For the earlier posts about him, enter Cullera in the Search box on the right). But not medical interpreting. This time I'll be a Community Native Interpreter between his wife and the local social services.

This week I'll still be translating and certifying documents for Spanish doctors who are going to work or study in Canada. This is because the Canadian medical authorities won't accept translations done by a Spanish official translator; they have to be done by a Canadian one. It's tit for tat really, because the Spanish authorities and courts will only accept translations by a Spanish sworn interpreter. This widespread international non-recognition is something the International Federation of Translators should campaign against. However, it's a turf conflict that only affects Professional Translators, so no more about it here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Changes in Bilingualism and Translating: Japan vs. the UK

Over at The Liaison Interpreter, Lionel Dersot reports as a Professional Expert Interpreter on a recent development concerning interpreters and 'facilitators' in Japanese industries.
"There are so many employees able to very well function in-house as liaison interpreters that once you get a foot inside, you understand the potential market is even thinner than your previous hypothesis. A new generation of internationally raised children of international couples have brought perfectly fluent employees who at various echelons can work without interpreting, or can help as interpreters on the spot. The few examples I see are probably of the natural interpreter types."
I would say, rather, that by this time they're probably Native Interpreters who've learnt what's required of them by seeing other interpreters at work in their industries. There's nothing new about in-house interpreters in large Japanese organisations. The first Professional Japanese Interpreter I ever met, Sen Nishiyama, 30 years ago, worked for Sony. However, Lionel is talking about "a new generation," and traces its advent back to an increase in bilingualism due to "internationally raised children of international couples." The Natural Translation Hypothesis (NTH) predicts 'the more bilingual children, the more Natural Translators'; and a corollary is that the more Natural Translators there are, the larger the pool from which exposure to more advanced translating activities can develop Native Translators. Unlike Expert Translators, whose training should make them versatile, the full translating competence of Native Translators is likely to be restricted to their own field of activity, in this case Japanese corporations. Thus, Lionel says,
"They may lack something, being insiders and part of the inner ecosystem of the corporation. They are part of the inner drama which is the unique view of the world projected from the inside by each entity. Each entity creates its own world view that shuns the possibility that there are other, viable world views."
So an increase in the bilingual population leads to an increase in the number of Native Translators, and from these the trainee Expert Interpreters can be recruited, provided the necessary training resources – courses, mentors, placements – are available. It follows that in countries where adequate training is offered, the availability of Expert Interpreters is indirectly symptomatic of the state of bilingualism.

Now let's turn the argument around and look at an area where bilingualism is decreasing. As an ardent reader of The Linguist, I see constant complaints about the decline of foreign languages in British secondary schools and universities since they ceased to be compulsory for the school leaving certificate (GCSEs). This doesn't necessarily signal an overall reduction in the number of bilinguals in the country especially since there are many members of immigrant families who speak, and speak fluently, the languages of their countries of origin as well as English. But most of the immigrant languages, from Punjabi to Jamaican, are not among those required for working in international organisations and businesses, and they are not the ones traditionally taught in UK schools.

Now then, NTH would predict negatively that 'fewer bilinguals mean fewer Natural Translators, and consequently fewer Native Translators and a smaller pool from which to train Expert Translators.' And that seems to be what's happening in the UK. Amanda Page, writing about the shortage of English literary translators, says,
"The decline in the study of languages at secondary school, coupled with the closing of many university language departments, is also having a profound effect on the profession. In the space of just 40 years, first Latin, and then many modern languages, began to be dropped from state schools. The longstanding university entrance requirement of a basic classical and a modern language ended when O-levels were replaced by GCSEs, and the situation got dramatically worse when the Government ended compulsory language learning at Key Stage 4 [in the secondary school syllabus]."
In the case of literary translators, the decline is doubly serious because the traditional secondary school language courses included a large dose of foreign literature:
"Removing literature as a necessary component of... language courses... is surely counter-intelligent... the literary translator needs a cultural understanding of the text."
I've always found it ironic that, while German bombs were raining down horror on London during the Blitz in World War II, we grammar school pupils in a London suburb were still being made to read snippets of German literature from the Minnesingers to Stefan George and Thomas Mann. But I've never regretted it, nor the French and Latin literature we tasted.

The effect just described is not, however, being felt only in the stratosphere of literature. At a more down-to-earth and better paying level, the European Commission in Brussels is now experiencing a shortage of native English Expert Translators, who are needed to maintain the standard of English required for its official publications. Rosie Morfey explains,
"The translation services are finding it difficult to recruit to recruit sufficient numbers of skilled linguists working into English. With falling numbers studying modern languages at British universities... or limiting themselves to one foreign language, there are fewer and fewer people who can offer the required range of language skills."
To sum it up, here's a derived hypothesis from NTH: more bilinguals mean more translators at all levels, and conversely more translators are symptomatic of more bilinguals. Vice versa, fewer bilinguals, etc...

Photo: "Momoko Gill, a young, Japanese-British woman who was finishing high school in Santa Barbara, California. She told me she was born in England and spent her first five years there, then ten years in Japan, before three in Santa Barbara. She grew up speaking both English and Japanese. Her eloquent articulation of interest, plus persistence, made her my eventual choice. She had no interpreting experience, but she was a serious jazz drummer and basketball player and I thought those backgrounds were good for this line of work." — Sam Stephenson. The “line of work” was conducting interviews for research on a famous photo-journalist.

Lionel Dersot. Liquefaction. The Liaison Interpreter, May 6, 2011.

Amanda Hopkinson, Changing the page. The Linguist, vol. 49, no. 3, pp. 8-9, 2010.

Rosie Morfey. Scouting for talent. The Linguist, vol. 49, no. 1, p. 24, 2010. Incidentally, Rosie herself translates at the European Commission from French, Swedish, Danish, German, Estonian and Hungarian into English.

The Linguist is the bi-monthly magazine of the Chartered Institute of Linguists,

Sam Stephenson. Q&A with Momoko Gill. Jazz Loft Project Blog, May 2011.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Zubeyda, Deaf Culture and Advocacy

This is a continuation of the preceding post.
A Term note has been added to the first version of the present post.

A constant theme in Zubeyda Melikyan's description of her life and work is the cultural aspect. Indeed, she starts off with a classic Sapir-Whorf or 'linguistic relativity' declaration (see References):
"My mother’s first words to me were in sign language. I have perceived the world through this language."
She goes on:
"Don’t pity me, I am a representative of a different social-cultural minority."
All her life, Zubeyda was trying to understand who she was and says she got the answers to her questions at the age of 40, in 2000, when she started participating in seminars organized by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) held in Finland.
"I understood that I am a small cell of a 70 million society. We have our language, our culture, and our history.... My unique feature is that I am a kind of a bridge between two cultures – those who can hear and those who cannot."
She explains that deaf people are divided into several groups within their society:
"The first group is represented by deaf parents with deaf children. Here the culture and language of deaf people is preserved.

The second group is deaf children with hearing parents. These are people with low awareness level – children are treated as if they were ill. There is a huge parent-child gap and lack of understanding. [Of course, she's talking about Armenia.]

The third group is made up of deaf parents and their hearing children. I represent that third group. But we – the children of deaf parents – are always ready for an assault; we are used to being constantly misunderstood by society. We, all translators who have deaf parents, are doing our best to protect the deaf."
Thus deaf people feel that they not only have a different language, they belong to a different culture from hearing people. Of course they share much in common with the culture of the hearing society around them, because they live in the same environment. However, it's splitting hairs to argue over whether theirs is a culture or a sub-culture. The point is that they perceive themselves as having a different culture. And this perception is not confined to Armenia.

In the 1980s, I was president of an association of professional translators and interpreters in Canada, and like the other similar associations in the country, we belonged to a national umbrella organisation, the Canadian Translators and Interpreters Council (as it was called then). At that time, however, the visual language interpreters had recently (in 1979) formed their own national organisation, the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC). So I approached some of its members with the idea that AVLIC might integrate into the national council. I was rebuffed with the comment that it would never happen, because AVLIC served the deaf and the deaf belonged to a different culture. And it never has happened.

Therefore Expert Visual Language Interpreters need a knowledge of and empathy with the local deaf culture. Most of them are drawn from the deaf community itself; but there's a small minority who've learnt Sign Language as a second language through courses, and they have to mix with and become accepted by their deaf clients.

To be concluded.

The culture difference shows even in the usage of the term interpreter. For hearing people, it normally means a translator who speaks the translation. Consequently, if the interpreter doesn't do that we have to add a qualifier, such as in sign-language interpreter or visual language interpreter. But for the hard of hearing, the tables are turned. For them, an interpreter is a visual language interpreter, and then it's for us speaking interpreters that a qualifier is needed. My Canadian colleagues used to refer to us as the voice interpreters.

Gayane Mkrtchyan. Zubeyda: Helping others 'hear with eyes'. ArmeniaNow, 24 April 2011. The quotations above are from this article. The emphasis is mine.

Linguistic relativity. Wikipedia.

Deaf culture. Wikipedia.

Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada. AVLIC.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Sign Language Interpreting from Natural to Expert

Visual language interpreters (see Terms below) haven't been adequately represented on this blog. They've only been mentioned very occasionally, for example in connection with church interpreting. Perhaps it's because I've had little contact with them myself. I did work with some of them at conferences in Canada, but that was long ago; and I don't have any contact with the deaf community in Spain, though I see Spanish, Catalan and Valencian Sign Language interpreters on TV. So this post is intended to make partial amends. It's drawn from a report that has come unexpectedly from Armenia, and hence it involves Armenian Sign Language (see Terms below). It begins:
" 'I am Zubeyda. My parents are deaf. I was born and brought up in a family where my mother’s first words to me were in sign language. I have perceived the world through this language,' says specialist in sign language translation Zubeyda Melikyan, 53 years old, who was Armenia’s first TV sign language interpreter (see photo)."
Zubeyda was born and brought up in Gyumri, a provincial town. She had a hard childhood because of people's attitude to the deaf there, and for many years she was ashamed of her parents. But it doesn't seem to have hindered her language development.
"'In fact, I have been doing sign language translation since I was two,' Zubeyda says."
This is the Natural Translation stage. Two may seem very young, but we should bear in mind that
a) She doesn't say precisely when. Two years exactly? Two years and nine months? At that age, a few months make a big difference.

b) She doesn't say what she was translating. At age 2, most children are still talking at the level of 'single word sentences'. We know from the literature that other children have been observed doing that kind of translation at that age.
A little later on (age not stated), circumstances made her a Language Broker. We can deduce it because she tells how she used to accompany her mother to market, so she must have helped her mother by interpreting.

Furthermore, we can deduce that at latest once she went to school she became to some degree tri-lingual. This because, in her time, Armenia was part of the Soviet Union and therefore Russian was compulsory in all schools.

She must have had a good secondary school education, because she went on to graduate from the local Teacher Training College. By that time, her education would certainly have made of her a Native Translator. From there she became Professional:
"I wanted to continue my education, but deaf people immediately took me to work as their translator."
Thus, she developed into an Expert Translator:
"Zubeyda was the first public sign language translator in Armenia. She appeared on the air of H1 (Armenian Public Television), A1Plus, H2 TV channels. In 1990 Zubeyda started working at the educational center for children with hearing impairment as a tutor, and from 2000 as a teacher of sign language. She has published books for deaf children to study sign language, and they are now used in the educational center."
Among her many activities, she has done church interpreting.
"Zubeyda says the Lord’s Prayer in sign language. She has also translated a holy mass. Clergyman of Holy Trinity Church in Yerevan Ter Yesayi Artenyan supported her to write the dictionary of religious sign language."
To be continued.

Visual language interpreter. A cover term that's needed because there are several other forms of communication between deaf and hearing people besides sign language, the best known being lip-reading, and there are interpreters for all of them. More perhaps some other time.

Armenian Sign Language. There's a popular misconception that Sign Language for the deaf is the same everywhere. Far from it: almost every country has its own, and sometimes even internal regions do. Armenian Sign Language is the indigenous sign language of Armenia. It's not related to the sign languages of Europe; it's what linguists call an isolate.

Natural, Native, Expert and Professional Translator. For definitions of these terms within a developmental model, see the post of November 12, 2010, which you can find quickly by entering "essential definitions" (with the quotation marks) in the Search box on the right

Gayane Mkrtchyan. Zubeyda: Helping others 'hear with eyes'. ArmeniaNow, 24 April 2011.

Armenian Sign Language. Wikipedia.

On very young interpreters, see Brian Harris and Bianca Sherwood, Translating as an innate skill, in D. Gerver and W. H. Sinaiko (eds.), Language Interpretation and Communication, Oxford and New York, Plenum, 1978, pp. 155-170. The book is out of print, but a digitised copy of the paper is available free from

On church interpreting, see the previous posts by entering "church interpreters" (with the quotation marks) in the Search box on the right.

Image: Photo by Nazik Armenakyan for ArmeniaNow.