Friday, December 25, 2015

Mathematical Translatology

This post is for people who are mathematically minded. If you're not one of them, then skip it.

In my early days in translatology (aka translation studies) I laboured in machine translation (MT). There I was fortunate enough to work for a while under a brilliant French computer scientist, Dr Alain Colmerauer. He had begun his career, like many French computer scientists, as a mathematician, and he'd become an expert in the hybrid field known as mathematical linguistics (ML). In particular he specialised at that time in a type of ML called transformational grammar (TG). There's an article on TG in Wikipedia. His application of TG to translation, called Q-Systems (there's an article on them too in Wikipedia), was an early example (1970) of mathematical translatology and remains one of the best ever.

You still need maths to work on the design of MT systems, but since the late 1980s the maths has changed radically and TG has been swept away by statistics. Still, from time to time I'm taken by a nostalgia for the old days of ML. And so I set to thinking recently about whether ML could be used to characterise not the translation of specific sentences or sentence structures – which is what we mostly used to do – but the whole of translation. This is what I came up with.

Let I1 be an idea or message, piece of information, emotional feeling, etc.
Let I2 be another idea or message, piece of information, emotional feeling, etc., that is the same as, similar to or different from I1.
Let L1 be a natural language.
Let L2 be another natural language.
Let E be the expression function by which any I is expressed in any L.
Let T be the relationship of translation.

Let ei be an expression (utterance, text, etc) that is a product of E: ei = E(La, Ix)
Let ej be another expression (utterance, text, etc) that is a product of E: ej = E(Lb, Iy)

If Ix = Iy and La = Lb, then we have a paraphrase and not a translation.
If Ix = Iy, then ej is a precise translation of ei.
If Ix ≈ Iy, then ej is a paraphrastic translation of ei.

In either of the latter two cases, let's label the relationship as T(ei:ej).

The question of what constitutes precise and paraphrastic is too big to go into here. It leads to a whole literature on 'equivalence' in translation. For the moment it must remain a subjective evaluation.

So far so good and quite obvious, but let's go a little further.

Let us declare that the relationship T is ordered and reversible.
Then T(ei:ej) ≠ T(ej;ei) and Ta(ei:ej) => Tb(ej;ei).
The formula models a procedure that is widely used in certain fields of translation and is called back translation. It happens to be empirically testable using an MT system that operates in both directions. Why MT? Because that way we can be sure of the stability and objectivity of the translator's 'mind'.
Here's a test using Google Translate and translating between English and French.

Input 1: My mother has gone shopping and will not be back before lunch.
Output 1: Ma mère est allée faire du shopping et ne sera pas de retour avant le déjeuner.
Input 2: Ma mère est allée faire du shopping et ne sera pas de retour avant le déjeuner.
Output 2: My mother went shopping and will not be back before lunch.

The result is a paraphrastic back translation. (Went doesn't have exactly the same meaning as has gone, but the tense of the French verb est allée permits two possible translations into English.)

Let's now declare that the relationship T is transitive:
Ta(e1, e2) and Tb(e2, e3) => Tc(e1, e3).

Thus, according to Google Translate again, where L1 is English, L2 is French and L3 is German:

T1(My mother has gone shopping and will not be back before lunch, Ma mère est allée faire du shopping et ne sera pas de retour avant le déjeuner.)
and T2(Ma mère est allée faire du shopping et ne sera pas de retour avant le déjeuner, Meine Mutter ging einkaufen und nicht zurück vor dem Mittagessen sein.)
T3(My mother has gone shopping and will not be back before lunch, Meine Mutter ging einkaufen und nicht zurück vor dem Mittagessen sein.)

That's another paraphrastic translation, but close enough to validate tbe formula. (The mistake in the German is Google's.) Incidentally this example models that if either T1 or T2 is paraphrastic (or both are), T3 will also be paraphrastic. This operation is all the more interesting because it models a common procedure which is usually called relay translation or relay interpretation and is in practice widely used, especially in literary translation and conference interpreting, where a work or speech is often translated through an intermediate language by a translator who doesn't know the source language. Surprisingly, though MT was used to test it here, it's not exploited in any of the MT systems I've tried.

Well that's enough for now. A complete description would require incorporating other factors such as pragmatics. Have fun over Christmas!

Alain Colmerauer, Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur.

Alain Colmerauer. Les systèmes-Q ou un formalisme pour analyser et synthétiser les phrases sur ordinateur. Publication interne no 43. Université de Montréal, [Dép. d'informatique], September 1970. 45 p. "Ce travail a été subventionné par le Conseil National de la Recherche du Canada: ceci dans le cadre d'un octroi à titre personnel et dans le cadre du projet de Traduction Automatique de l'Université de Montréal."

Google Translate: the examples cited were obtained 24 December 2015.

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Syrian refugees land in Canada

"These are challenging times for Arabic and Kurdish language professionals who will not only be overwhelmed with work but will see an influx of non-professionals taking interpretation assignments out of the need to support the refugees.
— Multi-Languages Corporation, Toronto, December 2015

And where would they be without the non-professionals? And how would they get non-professionals without the Natural and Native Translators?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Syrian refugees upon their arrival in Toronto. Source: Multi-Languages, a very responsible provider of professional translation services.

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Um… Uh…

Preparing my paper for the NPIT conference in May forces me to look again at some of the things I've written. For instance, at what distinguishes the Expert Interpreter from the Natural or Native Interpreter.

Like all things natural, Natural Translation, as has been said before on this blog, has its pathology. So does natural speaking; and since one half of interpreting is speaking, the pathology of speaking tends to carry over into interpreting. See for example what has appeared here before about the interpreter's voice (enter voice in the Search box on the right).

There is a lady who calls her self Impromptu Guru (see Reference and Image) and who advertises on the internet. Her headline goes like this:

How to Eliminate the 'Ums' and 'Uhs' from Your Speeches.

and she calls them "cringe-worthy".

Linguists call them filler words, though they aren't really words. Filler sounds would be better. Their absence may be superficial but it's one of the symptomatic differences that distinguish the polished Expert Interpreter. I used to be in a team sometimes with such an interpreter who happened to be a French Canadian nun and worked only for NGOs. French Canadian nuns (and probably other nuns) are notable for their clear enunciation. One day somebody in our audience said to me, "It's a real pleasure to listen to your colleague. She speaks so firmly, never stumbles, never backtracks, never says er or um." And she was equally so in English and French. I felt envious and it made me conscious of my own tendency to do so, which is typical of native English speakers especially from the UK. We might call it 'the English disease'.

We must take Natural Interpreters as we find them, but it follows that the Expert Interpreter should be a good speaker; and this is especially true in consecutive interpreting, where the output is rephrased and is conditioned by the interpreter's own speech habits and there is more opportunity to aim for quality. It's also something to be considered when selecting candidates for training and during the training itself.

Jill Schiefelbein. How to eliminate 'ums' and 'uhs' from your speeches. Entrepreneur Network, 9 December 2015.


NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Einstein's Translator

Regular Followers of this blog know I have a penchant for history.
So I can't let this month go by without remarking on the centenary of Einstein's theory of relativity.

It was in November 1915 that he finished Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relitivatätstheorie and sent it to the prestigious printer, Johann Ambrosius Barth, in Leipzig. It was published the following year. In those days Leipzig was the Mecca of German scientific publishing and German was the dominant language of science. Until World War II, PhD candidates in the sciences were expected to have a knowledge of German. Therefore the fact that Einstein published in German was not such a drawback as it would be today and by 1919 the book was enormously famous in scientific circles. Nevertheless it was generally felt by publishers that an English translation was needed for the American and British markets.

The translator appointed was Robert W. Lawson, MSc., a lecturer and member of the Physics Laboratory at the University of Sheffield in England. In British universities, lecturer is equivalent to North American assistant professor. Note too that Lawson had an MSc., not a PhD. Until World War II the MA/MSc was considered a terminal degree in the UK, not the stepping stone to something higher as it is today. (When I was a student, the leading British linguist of his day, J R Firth, was appointed Professor of Linguistics in London with an MA.) Lawson was well known as a physicist. From 1913 he was an honorary Assistent (assistant lecturer) at the Vienna Radium Institute. Lawson set to work in 1919 and in August 1920 his translation came out in London and New York. There was already a second edition the same year and three further editions within two years. It's still the standard English version (see Amazon, etc.) and the one that's most read today in any language. It's one answer to the age-old question: Is it better to have a technical text translated by a translator who knows the subject or by a subject specialist who knows the languages? It's doubtful whether it could have been done so successfully in 1919 by someone who didn't have advanced training in physics. But where did Lawson learn such good German? He had taught in Vienna and he is said to have polished his German while a prisoner of war in Austria. He went on to translate a couple of other scientific books (see References). I haven't managed to find out more about him. Perhaps one of you knows something.

How did Lawson meet up with Einstein in the first place and obtain his approval? Shortly after the success of the eclipse expeditions to the South Atlantic in 1917 which proved part of Einstein's theory – another British contribution to Einstein's fame – Lawson wrote to him on behalf of the editor of the leading British science journal Nature asking him for a popular short article explaining his theories. A month later, Einstein told Lawson that the article was almost ready but it was probably too long, and he went on to prepare a shorter one. The first version was never published, but it was the beginning of their relationship.

Lawson wrote later to Einstein telling him about a letter he'd received from the British publisher, Methuen, while he was at work on the translation. It requested him to make the description of its contents
"as intelligible as possible to the ordinary man. Our travellers [i.e., salesmen] tell us that there is complete ignorance in the public mind as to what Relativity means. A good many people seem to think that the book deals with the relations between the sexes."
To give you a taste of Lawson's English, here's his translation of Einstein's famous first paragraph:
"In your schooldays most of you who read this book made acquaintance with the noble building of Euclid's geometry, and you remember – perhaps with more respect than love – the magnificent structure, on the lofty staircase of which you were chased about for uncounted hours by conscientious teachers. By reason of your past experience, you would certainly regard every one with disdain who should pronounce even the most out-of-the-way proposition of this science to be untrue. But perhaps this feeling of proud certainty would leave you immediately if some one were to ask you: 'What then do you mean by the assertion that these propositions are true?' Let us proceed to give this question a little consideration,"

For Einstein, Lawson did more than translate. He thought the book would be accepted better if its author could provide a proof of the general theory. So Einstein wrote a six-page paper for him in just a few hours and sent the manuscript to him in Sheffield. Lawson used it as an appendix to the book and kept the manuscript as a souvenir of his relationship with the great man. At the time of writing this post, the Einstein-Lawson papers are on display at Oglethorpe Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. USA.

Lawson deserves credit in any history of science translation. Though Sheffield started translation courses early on, there is no indication that Lawson ever took such a course. He began as a typical Native Translator.

Footnote 1: Bose
Lawson's wasn't the only English translation of Einstein published in 1920. There was also one by M. N. Saha and S. N. Bose (of boson particle fame), physicists at the University of Calcutta. But it was too remote to have a readership like Lawson's. Nevertheless it illustrates the universality of translation as well as the high standard of mathematics in an Indian university of the period. Einstein rewarded Bose by recommending him for a post at the University of Dhaka even though he didn't have a doctorate.

Footnote 2: Motte
Until Einstein came along, the dominant figure in mathematics and mechanics was still Isaac Newton (1643-1727). But Newton wrote in Latin and his magnum opus, the Principia, wasn't translated into English until 1729. The translator was another Native Translator, Andrew Motte, a London maths teacher. It was done during the transition from Latin as the universal language of science towards the European vernaculars and it's still Motte's version that's mostly read today. Meanwhile Einstein could have read it in German.

A. Einstein. Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativatätstheorie. Leipzig: Johann Ambrosius Barth, 1916. Published in Annalen der Physik, 4. Folge, Band 49, 1916, and as a separate offprint. Copies sell today for several thousand dollars.

Albert Einstein (University of Berlin). Relativity: the special and general theory. Authorised translation by Robert William Lawson (Physics Laboratory, University of Sheffield). London: Methuen and New York: Holt, 1920.

Albert Einstein. Relativity: the Special & General Theory. 100th Anniversary Edition. With commentaries and background material by Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn. UK and USA: Princeton University Press, 2015. This edition gives due importance to the role of Lawson.

Shelby Linerdman . Einstein papers at Atlanta's Oglethorpe still relative. WABE, Atlanta, 2015.

Johann Ambrosius Barth Verlag. Wikipedia (German edition), 2015.

Arthur Erich Haas. The New Physics. Authorised translation by Robert W. Lawson. London: Methuen, 1923.

Georg von Hevesy. Manual of Radioactivity. Translated by Robert W. Lawson. London: Humphrey Milford, 1926.

A. Einstein and H. Minkowski: The Principle of Relativity: Original Papers. Translated ino English by M. N. Saha and S. N. Bose. University of Calcutta, 1920.

Sir Isaac Newton. The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Translated into English by Andrew Motte. London: Benjamin Motte (Andrew's brother), 1729.

Jakob Philipp Wolfers. Sir Isaac Newton's Mathematische Principien der Naturlehre mit Bemerkungen und Erläuterungen. Berlin: Oppenheim, 1872.

Page from one of Einstein's communications to Lawson. Source: Linerdman.

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Help from Young Interpreters

If you are a regular Follower of this blog you have already been introduced to the organization in England that runs a movement for training child interpreters in schools. If not, enter emtas in the Search box on the right. It's the Young Interpreter Scheme of the Hampshire County Council (EMTAS) under the direction of Astrid Dinneen. Their latest Newsletter (November 2015) has just arrived. It emphasizes the aids YI offers to teachers who want to set up a scheme in their own schools. YI is not confined to the UK; it already has a few followers in other countries.

YI's aims are twofold. On the one hand an immediately practical one of providing communication between school communities with minority languages and English; and on the other, to encourage children and adolescents to express themselves and develop their personalities in their 'heritage' cultures. Many people don't realize what a multilingual and multicultural country England has become. When I go back and visit my old school there, I see the building hasn't changed much, but oh! the pupils.

There is also another aspect that should interest even the community of professional interpreters. Interpreting is a skill. Like any skill – be it languages, music or football – the younger you start practising it the better. And so it is with potential Expert Interpreters: Start 'em young. The notion that interpreting can only be taught to adults and after extensive education, even a university degree, is out of date. Of course the would-be Expert Interpreter has much to learn, not only linguistically but about the world. Yet there are basic components of the skill, for example speed of thought transfer, that can be practised with pleasure and amusement from childhood.


Young Interpreter Scheme.

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Are You Biscriptal?

You may well wonder what this question means.

Let's call the characters in which a language is written its script. The script of English is the familiar so-called Latin alphabet in which this blog is displayed.

A person who habitually speaks more than one language is said to be bilingual or multilingual. But how about a person who writes in more than one script? The term for that is biscriptal. It's much less known than bilingual: there are over 76 million Google mentions of bilingual compared with only 2,340 for biscriptal, a drop in the ocean for Google (though many of the references to bilingual subsume biscriptal). The disparity is indicative of the relatively little research that's been done on biscriptals.

There are two main reasons for being biscriptal. One is that you are bilingual in two languages each of which uses a different script. Thus, if you are English and you learn Russian you will inevitably end up being biscriptal in the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. On the other hand a person can be biscriptal in a single language if it uses more than one script. The language most often cited by far in the Google mentions of biscriptal is Chinese. Contemporary Chinese is actually triscriptal: there are the Traditional Chinese characters that are still the norm in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau; the Simplified Chinese characters that have replaced the former on the mainland since the Communists took over; and Pinyin, the official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet in China, Taiwan and Singapore. Let's call the former type (two languages) interlingual biscriptalism and the latter type (same language) intralingual biscriptalism.

A classic example of a biscriptal language was Ancient Egyptian and the most famous example of it is the Rosetta Stone, the original of which you can and should admire in the British Museum in London. It's a key document in the history of translation as well as of archeology. The Stone has three texts engraved on it. One is in Greek, which by the time of the Stone, 196 BC, was the language of government in Ptolemaic Egypt. The other two are the same translation of the Greek text into Egyptian – but in two different scripts. The better known of them is hieroglyphics, a semi-pictorial script, because it is the script carved on monuments and is more artistic. The other script is Demotic, which was much simpler to and faster to write than hieroglyphics and was therefore used by the scribes for the thousands of non-religious papyrus documents (contracts, etc.) that have come down to us. This doesn't mean that all literate Egyptians knew the two scripts (i.e., were individually biscriptal), but that Ptolemaic Egypt was institutionally bilingual and biscriptal.

Many of the questions we ask about spoken bilingualism can also be asked about biscriptalism. How are the different scripts stored in the brain? Is there interference? Does it impede children's learning, and so on? If we take another look at the Google citations we find that most of them that are not about Chinese are about dyslexia. There's plenty of scope for further research into the psychology of biscriptals. Nevertheless, there's one thing that's not the same in bilingualism and biscriptalism: the latter can't be natural in the way bilingualism and translation can. This is because writing isn't natural. We don't pick it up as soon as we can talk or draw. We have to go to school to learn it.

How about if we convert one script into another script, for instance if we 'Romanize' Russian for an English library catalogue. Is it a form of translation? Catford (see References) considered that it was: it represented the graphemic level of translation. But we have other words for it: transcription, transliteration, Romanization; so it's clearer to keep it apart. Transliteration often involves much more than just changing the shapes of the characters. Arabic, for instance, has no capitals and no block letters; it's all cursive and it's written from right to left.

I myself am interlingually biscriptal in Latin and Arabic. I am also intralingually biscriptal in several varieties of Latin. My computer keyboard,like most of them in Spain, has the characters, extra characters (ñ, ç) and diacitics (accents) needed for English, French, Spanish and Catalan. And I can do a fair rendering of both ruq'ah and naskh styles in Arabic. Beginners learning Arabic as a second language are usually not taught how to write it like an Arab, with the result that they imitate what they see in printed books and write like a young school child. The script in most printed books is a modification of naskh that was devised long ago to facilitate manual typesetting (see Images). I made that mistake until I took a course with the late T. F. Mitchell (see References). He even made us put aside our ball pens and fountain pens and sharpen our own broadnibbed reed pens - which raises another aspect of biscriptalism, its instruments. He had been a graduate student under the British linguist J R Firth, who "constantly emphasized the basic linguistic importance of the study of 'letters'," and who famously said that if you didn't learn to write a second language properly you would always write it with a foreign accent.

Simplified Chinese characters. Wikipedia, 2015.

Pinyin. Wikipedia, 2015.

Rosetta Stone, Wikipedia, 2015.

T. F. Mitchell. Writing Arabic: A Practical Introduction to Ruq`ah Script. London: Oxford University Press, 1953 and several reprints,

Hans H. Wellisch. The Conversion of Scripts: Its Nature,
History and Utilization
. New York: Wiley, 1978. The 'Bible' on ths subject.

J. C. Catford. A Linguistic Theory of Translation: An Essay in
Applied Linguistics
. London: Oxford University Press, 1965. Catford was another of Firth's students.

Upper: Linotype Arabic for printed books. All ligatures between letters on same line. Dots on letters (points in English, nuqat in Arabic) are distinct. Little contrast between thick and thin strokes. Source:

Lower: Arabic ruq'ah script. Words slant downwards from right to left. Points fused into short bars. Contrasting thick and thin strokes. Source:

NPIT3, Zurich, 5-7 May 2016. International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Michel Limbos: A Personal Recollection

When you get to an advanced age you become aware that your relatives and friends are falling like ninepins. Thus it was with sorrow and nostalgia that I heard last week of the death of Michel Limbos, a prominent member of the Ottawa translation and interpretation community. It's true that since I moved to Spain nearly two decades ago I had lost all contact with him, but in the 1980s we worked closely together. I knew him in two of his roles. He was year after year a reliable teacher in our undergraduate translator training program at the University of Ottawa, where it was our policy to employ professional non-academic translators as instructors. And more personally he was my valued booth colleague on conference interpreter assignments. He had a quality that made him very pleasant to work with: his courteousness. He illustrated that the best interpreters have qualities besides the linguistic ones. He was a man of the world, having been born in Africa, educated in Belgium, and come to Canada as one of the generation that was recruited in the drive for bilingualism and better French.

When he was translation manager at the Canadian Export Development he was also my employer for a while in the mid 1980s. At EDC he ran one of the few services in Canada for Spanish translation; however it was for French that he set me to interpret EDC's monthly country-by-country creditworthiness meetings for the Senior Management Committee. These were very lively presentations by a French economist. I learnt a lot from it, so I was grateful for the opportunity.

The two strands, interpreting and the School of Translators, came together in an incident that brought out another of his qualities: his loyalty. When we started the interpreter training degree we put into it a component a compulsory on-the-job experience period which we called the practicum. It was very unusual at the time but we were encouraged by the success we'd already had with practicums for written translation. Practicums are valuable in interpreter training courses for several reasons, and one of them is that conference interpreting is a performance. It may be performed before a small group or it may, these, days, be broadcast to millions. Either way, you have to overcome stage fright. So to give our students the necessary 'baptism of fire', we used to organize conference teams ourselves and hire them out. However, we put strict conditions on this activity, and one of them was that the students must always be accompanied by an experienced professional to counsel them and to take over if they broke down. Unfortunately this procedure ran into vehement opposition from some of the members of a certain leading association of professional interpreters. They threatened to blackball our students and they made it difficult for us to recruit supervisors. But Michel and another interpreter (Jacqueline Mejias) stood by us. Eventually the association in question admitted Michel, but that was many years later at the end of his career.

He also stood by me in my painful relationship with the board of ATIO, of which I was president at the time. On one occasion he was the only member who turned up on time for the meeting, while the others were in cabal outside.

Thank you Michel. I will not forget you.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

More About Translating The Book of Mormon

Long ago on this blog, in 2012, there was a post about the first translation of The Book of Mormon into Spanish. To find it, enter mormon in the Search box on the right. It's an adventure worth reading about. The translator, Melitón G. Trejo, was born in Spain and arrived in the American West by way of the Spanish army in the Philippines. In Utah he met Brigham Young himself, who appointed him to the translation team. Far from being a Professional Translator, Melitón ended up as a fruit farmer in Arizona.

There was a passing mention in that post of an earlier translation, the first of them all, into French, from which Melitòn drew encouragement. But only recently did I read the complicated history of that French translation. Like the Melitón story, the information is drawn from the pages of a historic American newspaper, The Deseret News, which has published a series of articles about early Book of Mormon translations from places as far apart as Denmark and the South Pacific. It was an era of surprising American missionary endeavour, and not only by the Mormons. When I was studying 19th-century Lebanon, I learnt about the contribution of the American Presbyterians to the 'Arab Awakening' in that country.
"The first French edition of the Book of Mormon, published in 1852, had on its title page: "Traduit de l'Anglais par John Taylor et Curtis E. Bolton." A more accurate statement would have credited Taylor as supervisor of the translation, which was carried out by Bolton, Louis A. Bertrand, a Mr. Wilhelm and Lazare Auge.

"In June 1850, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened the French Mission in Paris with then-Elder John Taylor, of the Quorum of the Twelve, (who later was the third president of the church) as president and Bolton and John Pack as counselors. Bolton, the only one who spoke French, was appointed by President Taylor to begin translating the Book of Mormon. Within the next few months, Bolton and President Taylor met Bertrand, an editor of the Icarian newsletter "Le Populaire." Bertrand and Wilhelm joined the church on Dec. 1, 1850. Bertrand began helping with church publication efforts. Wilhelm was assigned to help translate the Book of Mormon, but quit work in late February and left the church soon after.

"On March 22, 1851, Auge, a nonmember friend of Bertrand's in need of a job, replaced Wilhelm in the translation work, though he knew no English. Bertrand was fired from "Le Populaire" on Nov. 18, 1851, and this allowed him to take over for Auge and speed up the translating of the Book of Mormon, and it helped distance him from the volatile political scene.

"The translation was almost complete when, in the midst of political upheaval, President Taylor was ordered to leave France. He reorganized the mission presidency, making Bolton president and Bertrand counselor and departed.

"Printer Marc Ducloux began setting type on Jan. 13, 1852, and the first run of 1,000 copies was completed by Jan. 22."
Of the initial translators, McClellan (see Reference) wrote,
"In light of the political, cultural, and even social impediments in France at the time, it is no small wonder that this team of five men, each with different ideals and interests, was able to produce a translation that has endured for so many years."

I revert to the epic of the Mormon translations because there is bound to be a session on religious translating at the International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation (NPIT3) next May. Perhaps more than one session, because religious translating has always accounted for a large segment of altruistic translating activity. And we need to hear from and about the religions and sects that are less known than the Christian churches and Bible translation. If my health continues to improve, I hope to join you there.

Richard D. McClellan. Traduit de L'Anglais: The First French Book of Mormon. Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp. 29-34. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2002. Available online at

Rachel Brutsch. Book of Mormon translation: French. Deseret News, 2012.

NPIT3, Zurich, 5-7 May 2016. International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.

John Taylor, the third President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who supervised the first translation of The Book of Mormon into French. Source: Deseret News.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Four Miracles of Translation

My thanks, literally heartfelt, to the medical and nursing staffs of the La Fe, Paré Jofré and other hospitals in Valencia, Spain, for snatching me back from the brink. And particularly to Dr José Luis Velero of La Fe, who had me fitted out with a pacemaker in the nick of time.

A long spell in hospital ought to be an opportunity for deep reflection and profound ideas. The fact is inspiration doesn’t work that way and a lot of time can be wasted going over and over what one already knows. Nevertheless there is a belief that has dominated my thoughts these last days.

The Four Miracles of Translation
Back in the 1920s the philosophers Ogden and Richards opined that translation was the most complex of all human mental operations. I’m not sure of that, but it certainly is a miracle. Indeed not just one miracle but a pyramid of at least four miracles of evolution.

Translating is by definition an operation between two languages. The first miracle is therefore language itself. We know that it evolved (or appeared suddenly according to some linguists) but not when or where. Perhaps around half a mllion years ago. Not more, not spoken language anyway, because we hadn’t acquired the physical organs of phonation until then. Yet even that is misleading, because we could have developed non-sonic sign languages earlier. Anyway we learnt it and we learnt how best to use it. But because sound is evanescent and there was no recording, we have no record of its beginnings,

The second miracle, less obvious, is that each of us is made not only to learn one language or the language, but to master many languages. Three, ten... there is plenty of evidence of people learning that many. The limit seems to be imposed not by a person’s capacity to learn them but by the time and energy they have available to do it with. And not only to learn them but to keep them separate from one another in the mind from an early age (about three years) and use each of them appropriately according to context. Why did we need more than one? But then nature is profligate and we can do most things more ways than one.

The third miracle, the most crucial for us translators, is that we are able to transfer information and hold it constant between two languages. At least ‘information’ is what people usually think of; but in fact we also communicate feeling, emotions, whether we are aware of it or not. A translation that doesn’t do all of this may be a correct translation linguistically but it’s not a complete translation.

Is that all? Not quite. One thing still missing is the checking ability: a meta-miracle that enables us to understand and feel the original and the translation simultaneously and to judge whether they are equivalent, and if not to say why not. This is what translation teachers need. Yet most people, even expert translators, don’t think about this fourth meta-miracle, which enables us to detect fine shades of difference and can be refined with training.

C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning, 1923. Several modern reprints.
Origin of language. Wikipedia, 2015.

C. K. Ogden. He is best known as the inventor of Basic English, a stripped-down English that uses only 1,000 words.

Friday, May 29, 2015


Apologies for the recent absence of postings on this blog. Translatology has been ill, in fact he’s still ill. Postings will be resumed ASAP. Thank you for your understanding.

NPIT3, Zurich, 5-7 May 2016. International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies. Get with it!

Friday, April 24, 2015

NPIT3 Call for Papers

The long-awaited news of NPIT3 has arrived at last. Here it is. For those of you new to the field, NPIT stands for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation. We have to be grateful to IUED for picking up the ball and running with it. I've agreed to serve on the advisory committee.

Call for Papers

Institute of Translation and Interpreting (IUED)
Zurich University of Applied Sciences,
5-7 May 2016 in Winterthur (near Zurich), Switzerland

Probably the most widespread form of cultural and linguistic mediation, non-professional interpreting and translation has slowly, after 40 years, begun to receive the recognition it deserves within interpreting and translation studies. Pushing the boundaries of many definitions of translation and interpreting, it encompasses a dynamic, under-researched field that is not necessarily subject to the norms and expectations that guide and constrain the interpreting and translation profession. Even the designation “non-professional” is unclear, referring at once to unpaid, volunteer translation or interpreting and to translators and interpreters without specific training.

NPIT3 provides a forum for researchers and practitioners to discuss definitional, theoretical, methodological, and ethical issues surrounding the activities of non-professional interpreting and translation. Carrying forward the discussion initiated by the First International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation (NPIT1) at the University of Bologna/Forlì in 2012 and continued at Mainz University/Germersheim in 2014 (NPIT2), we invite proposals for panels, presentations, or posters that deal with any theoretical, empirical and methodological aspect of research related to the general theme of non-professional interpreting and translation.

Topics may include but are not limited to:
 Ad hoc translation/interpreting in everyday situations
 Language brokering by children and adolescents for family members and their entourages (oral. written or sign language)
 Other interpreting by children and the development of their ability
 Church and missionary interpreters and translators
 Non-professional AVT and new media (e.g. crowdsourcing, fansubbing, fandubbing, fanfiction)
 Non-professional translation/interpreting in community, health, pastoral or social care
 Non-professional translation/interpreting in crisis situations
 Wartime temporary interpreters and translators
 Interpreting in prisons and between prisoners
 Organization of non-professional interpreting and translation services
 Recruiting and/or training non-professional interpreters and translators
 Professionalization, certification, and para-professionalism
 Interdisciplinary approaches to research into non-professional interpreting and translation
 Mapping the field of non-professional interpreting and translation

The conference language will be English. However, presentations in German, French, and Italian are welcome. To facilitate peer evaluation, proposals and abstracts should be submitted in English.

Submission procedure:
Proposals for panels, individual papers, and posters should be submitted as an attached file (i.e. .doc, .docx, .rtf, or .pdf) to by 30 September 2015. Details about the form of each type conference contribution are provided below.

Panel proposals:
Panels should comprise 3-4 paper presentations given within a 120-minute timeframe and cover one or more of the topics listed above. Panels will be reviewed en bloc based on the abstracts provided by the organizers of the respective panels. A panel submission must include the following:
 an outline of the theme and aims of the panel as well as an appropriate title (including the names, affiliations, and email addresses of the panel organizers)
 a list of invited contributors and/or discussants (including their names, affiliations, email addresses)
 5 keywords that describe the panel (e.g., subject, methodology, theoretical framework)
 an abstract for each contribution to the panel (300 words including references)
Proposals for individual papers:

Each paper presentation will be scheduled for 20 minutes plus 10 minutes discussion. A paper submission must include the following:
 the title of the paper, name, affiliation, and email address of the author(s)
 5 keywords that describe the paper (e.g., subject, methodology, theoretical framework)
 a 300-word abstract (plus references)

Proposals for posters:
A slot in the conference program will be allocated to short poster presentations (max. 5 minutes), and the posters will be on view for the duration of the conference. A poster submission must include the following:
 the title of the poster, name, affiliation, and email address of the author(s)
 5 keywords that describe the poster (e.g., subject, methodology, theoretical framework)
 a 300-word abstract (including references)
All abstracts for panels, individual papers, and posters will be double-blind peer-reviewed and evaluated anonymously by the NPIT3 Advisory Board and local organizers. The submissions will be assessed on the basis of their relevance to the conference theme and topics as well as their theoretical background and research design.

Important dates
Deadline for submission (panels, individual papers and posters): 30 September 2015
Notification of acceptance: 1 December 2015
Deadline for speaker registration: 1 April 2016

Conference information
Registration, fees, accommodation, and venue: available on the conference website in early 2016
Conference chair: Gary Massey
Local organising committee: Michaela Albl-Mikasa, Maureen Ehrensberger-Dow, Andrea Hunziker Heeb, Raquel Montero

Image: Winterthur. Source: Wikipedia

Monday, April 20, 2015

Urdu Language Brokering in the USA

It's been quite a while since there was anything on this blog about language brokering in its heartland, the USA. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, language brokering is the interpreting done by the bilingual offspring of immigrant parents for their parents, families and other members of their entourage.) So I hasten to pass on a description that has just been published. It contains a surprise:
"Pakistani-Americans are the second fastest growing [immigrant] group in the United States according to the Pew Research Center, and yet many are unable to fully adapt to their new lives due to a persistent language barrier. Research conducted by Asian Americans Advancing Justice shows over 80% of Pakistani-Americans do not speak English at home, while over 12% suffer from linguistic isolation. Linguistic isolation is defined by the US Census Bureau as living in a household in which all members aged 14 years and older speak a non-English language and also speak English less than 'very well'."
"The Pakistani community faces the challenge of a language spoken rather rarely in America. Or at least perceived by Americans as rare [says one child of immigrants]."
It's at this point that the young language brokers come into their own as essential intermediaries.
"'As an 8-year-old child, I had to accompany my grandmother to the doctor to ensure the doctor could understand her,' [one now adult broker named Pandya says] of her own family's experiences with linguistic isolation. 'That's a huge burden on a child. For one thing, no 8-year-old knows all the medical terminology. I felt I was my grandmother's anchor.'
"Pandya also recalls how many Indian and Pakistani friends of hers helped their parents do the taxes and pay the bills – because the adults had trouble understanding even the most basic instructions. She says the problem can also affect the children's education. Linguistically isolated children are often forced to serve as interpreters at parent-teacher conferences if the schools are unable to provide interpreters. The young people I work with end up acting as interpreters [for their parents],' says Pandya. Imagine you're 15 years old. What are you going to do if you're serving as that intermediary? [Of course] you're going to tell your mom 'Yeah I`m getting straight As.'
"'The specifics of anything tend to do with class,' she says, 'If you are a well-to-do Pakistani immigrant…, you probably spoke English back home… It's more a function of class and language is tied to that.'
'The power dynamic is flipped, says Pandya. 'You are no longer the child, you're the adult now. You're growing up really quickly.'"

Eric Cortellessa. Lost in Translation. Newsweek, 13 April 2015.

Urdu. Wikipedia, 2015.

Urdu calligraphy. Source: Wikipedia.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fit For Purpose

In a paper she has recently revived on (see References), Elisabet Tiselius, citing Grbic, reminds us that there are other ways of evaluating interpretation quality than the traditional one.

So what's the traditional one? It's to chunk the source text and its translation into short segments (translation units), compare them one by one, assigning a score of 'good' or 'bad' to each one (a procedure that is inevitably subjective to some degree), and then add up the scores or else subtract them from 100. Modern alignment software makes this easy.

"Grbic explores the concept of quality as it has been treated in interpreting literature and interpreting studies. She divides the construct of interpreting into different dimensions according to how it is perceived…. Third, quality is defined as something that is fit for a certain purpose, with a premium placed on customer satisfaction and value for money."
What Grbic says about interpreting applies also to written translation.

Here are two examples to illustrate "that is fit for a certain purpose", or for short fit for purpose (FFP). The first has already been recounted on this blog but it was back in April 2010 – Gosh! This blog has been going for five years already! – so I may be forgiven for repeating myself. Back around 1990, a branch of the Canadian government was using machine translation (MT) to translate into French the notices of job vacancies that were posted up each day in government employment centres in English. It was a requirement of the Canadian laws on bilingualism. The MT system contracted to do it was, to say the least, rather primitive, and at one point it became notorious for a classic mistake. The French for man is homme. But Man. (with the initial capital and the dot) is also a standard abbreviation for Manitoba, one of the Canadian provinces. So whenever there was a job vacancy in a town in that province, the location would come out, for example, as Winnipeg, Homme. One day I found myself sitting next to a senior official from the ministry at a conference and I couldn't resist asking him about this. He was piqued to retort:
“The only people who complain about our translations are professional translators and university professors like you. Our clients are happy with them because they get them the same day. If they had to wait even 24 hours while we sent them to the government translation bureau, the chances are that the vacancy would already be filled. And as for Manitoba / Homme, well they soon learn that Homme means Manitoba. For them, our translations serve their purpose.”
The second example is much more recent, in fact from last week. A Spanish student wanted to find articles about how expert translators use their dictionaries. Among the many that Google found for her was one in German and she doesn't know any German. So she ran the title through Google Translate, which gave her:
"Para fundamento técnico-acción de uso del diccionario de investigación."
Apart from the bad grammar of the first part, the latter part of the Spanish is an outright mistranslation. If we compare it with the German
- Zur handlungstheoretischen Grundlegung der Wörterbuchbenutzungsforschung
we see that the translation ought not to be uso del diccionario de investigación (use of the research dictionary) but investigación del uso del diccionario (research on the use of dictionaries). Complex syntax is still a stumbling block for Google Translate and software like it. Never mind. All she wanted at that stage was a confirmation that the article dealt with the use of dictionaries, and she got it. The translation was screwed up yet it was nevertheless fit for purpose.

Incidentally this use of MT to search for relevant publications like needles in a haystack, known as scanning, was one of the earliest applications of MT. In the early 1970s, alarmed by the unexpected success of the Russian Sputnik, the United States Air Force used it at their Wright Patterson base to scan Soviet technical publications. Usefulness for scanning may still be MT developers' best defence against critics of their systems' output.

However, the admission of FFP as a standard of translation leads to another problem. How can we score it and scale it? Unlike the traditional approach, it has no established procedures. The government official implied his own simplistic answer: no user complaints means 100% FFP. But below 100%? Perhaps a solution lies in sounding out customer satisfaction with a one-line questionnaire to be attached to each translation:
"On a scale of 1 to 5 (useless to very satisfactory), indicate whether this translation has met your needs."
Other suggestions welcome.

Elisabet Tiselius. The development of expertise – or not. Three simltaneous interpreters' development over time. 2013. Available for downloading from (

Nadja Grbic (pardon the missimg diacritic on the c). Constructing interpreting quality. Interpretng: International Journal of Research and Practice in Interpreting, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 232-257, 2008.

Herbert Ernst Wiegand. Zur handlungstheoretischen Grundlegung der Wörterbuchbenutzungsforschung. Lexicographica No. 3, pp. 178-227, 1987.

Elisabet Tiselius.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Pragmatics 1001: How do we translate You?

A lot of electronic ink is spent on how to translate 'difficult' words from God downwards, but some of the complexities of translating lie in very simple, basic words that are used even by young child translators. Unfortunately most of the 'translation scholars' are too preoccupied with higher things to bother about them.

One such word is the mundane English You.

The English–speaking child who is addressing an older relative to say You in French, German, Spanish or any of many other languages must decide whether to use either Tu, Du, etc. (the familiar forms), or Vous, Sie, etc. (the polite forms). No fudging; it's one or the other; and once the decision is taken it should be applied consistently – though it isn't always. These days the increased informality within families makes the familiar forms more likely, but once outside – at school for instance – the choice arises. It has little or nothing to do with the acquisition of vocabulary, because both forms are valid translations of You and have the same deictic meaning. English is indeed exceptional in having only one pronoun for it: masculine and feminine, singular and plural, polite and familiar.

So what does it depend on?

On the perceived relationship between speaker – in this case the translator/interpreter – and the addressee. A social relationship inculcated a an early age. A relationship that is recognised by linguists – and more especially by sociolinguists – as belonging to a field they call Pragmatics. The simple example of You essentially says it all. Whenever I speak French, for instance, to somebody I haven't met before, I have to consider it. My choice varies according to social factors. In Canada, for instance, if one uses Vous (polite) to somebody who expects Tu, one may give an unfortunate impression of coldness and distance. On the other hand, when I was a research assistant at the University of Montreal, I once asked my boss, the very Canadian professor Guy Rondeau, which I should use to him when we went to meetings together. His reply was:
"Between the two of us, of course use Tu. But when we are in meetings with outside people, I would prefer you to use Vous."
I remembered his advice when I was doing conference interpreting.

This doesn't mean the child, or adult for that matter, arrives at the decision by conscious reasoning. The social relationship is something we feel intuitively, and so is its linguistic expression. Something we feel every day at all ages.

Pragmatics is still, after 50 years of progress in Machine Translation, one of its weaknesses. MT software isn't endowed with feelng and intuition, though it may simulate them somewhat. Here's a little test you can apply. Ask the MT system of your choice to translate x met y at the station into French. Which French verb does it select? Recontrer (run into by chance) or accueillir (welcome)? Both are valid translations lexically but the implicatiions are different. The choice depends on pragmatics. I first happened on this example in 1970 when I was a structural linguist, and it opened my eyes. But that's another story.

Pragmatics (Linguistics). Wikipedia. 2015.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Timothy Corsellis Prize Competition

The posts on this blog have been sparse of late, due to illness that hopefully won't last long. Meanwhile I'm posting something that has only a tenuous connection with translation. I do so at the request of an old friend, John Corsellis, as a tribute to his work as an interpreter in Europe at the end of World War II. For more about that, enter john corsellis in the Search box on the right. (It's important to include john in the entry because his wife Ann Corsellis is well known in translation circles.)

It's the Timothy Corsellis Prize Competition for young poets writing in English. The age limits are 14 to 25. Open to competitors world wide and funded for six years.

For full details, click here or go to

Timothy Corsellis. Source: Young Poets Network.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Young Interpreters As Research Subjects

Followers of this blog are by now well acquainted with the pioneering work of the Young Interpreter Scheme (YI) to promote communal language brokering in British schools. If you are not, enter EMTAS in the Search box on the right. The latest issue of their bulletin, Young Interpreters Newsletter, is just out. It contains the usual cheery news about the expansion of the movement, However, one item stands out as different from the others because it involves research. It comes from the Institute of Education of University College London.
Do you have any young people in your school who interpret for family members? Would you be willing to let us into your school to study Young Interpreters activities?
The Institute of Education has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to look at how Young Interpreters share cultural knowledge and how this influences their and sense of self. Researchers would like to observe some of your Young Interpreters while they do translation work and ask them to complete diaries about their interpreting lives. They would like to talk to Young Interpreters in Hampshire [the English county where the YI movement is centred].
If your school would be willing to take part or you would like to learn more about the study please contact either Sarah Crafter ( or Humera Iqbal (
To judge the likely value of this research, we would need to know more about its methodology, but it has striking features. One is that it comes from the UK, a country that lags far behind the USA in research on this area. And another is that it draws attention to the rich potential of YI as a source of data. It should be possible to follow many of the YI interpreters longtitudinally over several years as well as synchronically.

Term Note
Notice the use of communal language brokering above. A first according to Google. Language brokering is usually associated with a role played by individuals for and in their families. But a term is needed for when the same functions are performed by and in larger groups, as in the YI schools. Hence I propose this one.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

2015 Translatology Competition for Child Translators
is at last open.

Text, rules and instructions can be downloaded from, or by clicking here.

Age limit is 11 years old on 30 June 2015.

First prize is 400 euro.

Deadline is 30 June.

If you encounter any problem, please email with the subject line "Competition".

The scope of the competition this year is very limited because it's experimental. If it proves to be a success it will be enlarged.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Professional Awakening

This blog has long contended that teaching translation should capitalise on bilinguals' natural ability by starting young, and has given plenty of examples of it. Young means much younger than the traditional university level. Now the current president of that highly professional organisation, the American Translators Association, has come out in favour of it, at least to some extent. Caitilin Walsh recently addressed academics at the Modern Language Association's annual meeting in Vancouver about the need for increased translating and interpreting offerings in education.
"She then made the case for increasing exposure in education because of significant demand in the industry... She went on to stress that schools would best serve their students with more offerings."
Her motivation is different from ours. She is concerned with the future of her industry, we with child language development. But the conclusion is the same.

Redmond Reporter, 26 January 2015,

Caitilin Walsh. Source: Twitter.

Sunday, January 25, 2015


The competition announced for January has been postponed to February.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Adaptation versus Translation

A book I've been delving into (see Sources) and an article I'm composing myself both use the terms translation and adaptation. This obliges me to consider what the differences are between the two terms.

Amongst academics, the old study of translation has now been joined by a new branch, adaptation studies:
"In recent years, adaptation studies has established itself as a discipline in its own right, separate from translation studies. [But though] the bulk of its activity to date has been restricted to literature and film departments… it is, however, much more interdisciplinary."
At a superficial level, it can be treated as a matter of English collocation. We generally see, for example, stage adaptation (or version, which is a synonym of adaptation) or screen adaptation, often without a change of language, rather than stage translation or screen translation. (I myself once acted in a stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice!) But of course there's more behind the words.

To start with, adaptation certainly is the appropriate word when there's a change of medium or genre, irrespective of language. Thus a screen adaptation is
"a cinematographic interpretation of a work from another art form – prose, drama, poetry, song or opera or ballet libretto."
Whereas translation requires a change of language. So the final product can be both a translation and an adaptation: a tradaptation (yes, the word exists!). There are examples of it my article.

An enduring example of genre adaptation is Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, written in 1807 and still in print in several editions (see Sources).
"The book reduced the archaic English and complicated storyline of Shakespeare to a level that children could read and understand."
It came to be regarded as a work of literature in itself, but of children's literature.

However there's still more that's important, and the most important of all is that the concept of adaptation allows for changes in the content and style of the original that would be unacceptable in a translation; in other words for a much wider difference between the two that goes beyond the wording, and hence for a far more radical and unchained intervention by the translator/adapters. A glaring example of this is the adaptation of Aladdin for the British Christmas theatre For over two hundred years now, since 1788, Antoine Galland's original French text (itself a translation from Arabic) has been variously translated and adapted for the stage, modern music and topical jokes added, transgender dressing introduced, etc. The pantomime is a mishmash parody of the original Middle Eastern folk tale.

In any case the boundary between translation and adaptation has shifted over the centuries. Chaucer recognised both of them in his famous 14th-century retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales, where translacions contrasts with enditynges:
"Wherfore I biseke yow mekely, for the mercy Of God, that ye preye for me that crist have Mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes; and Namely of my translacions and enditynges of Worldly vanitees."
Yet all his many borrowings from French, Italian, etc. are adaptations in the modern sense. Indeed Chaucer often combined several sources in his re-tellings. Not that the concept of close translation didn't exist; but in Bible translation or legal documents, not literature. For his sake and for the sake of other adapters, we hope God forgave him.

Translation, Adaptation and Transformation. A collection of papers edited by Laurence Raw of Baskent University, Ankara. 240 pages. New York, etc.: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012. Paperback US$43.

Charles and Mary Lamb. Tales from Shakespeare. London, 1807. Still in print.

Brunilda Reichmann Lemos (Universidade Federal do Paraná). Some differences between Boccaccio's and Chaucer's Tales of Griselda. No date.

Aladdin. Wikipedia. 2014.

My own article, Translation and Adaptation for the British Christmas Theatre, will be available shortly on my page.

A stage adaptation from Orwell. Source: