Tuesday, February 21, 2006


The Big Orange?

The Island at the Centre of the World, by Russell Shorto, is described as 'the untold story of the founding of New York'. It is based on the work of Dr Charles Gehring who, in 1974, undertook the mammoth task of translating the official records of New Amsterdam, twelve thousand 'charred, mould-stippled' sheets of paper 'covered with the crabbed, loopy script of seventeenth-century Dutch ... written 350 years ago in ink that has now partially faded into the brown of the decaying paper'.

As of the time of Shorto's book, Gehring had already devoted 26 years to the undertaking and produced sixteen volumes of translation.

No doubt he backs up all his work carefully. A predecessor of his, attempting the same arduous feat in the early twentieth century, saw 'two years' worth of labour go up in the 1911 fire that destroyed the state library. He suffered a nervous breakdown, and eventually abandoned the task.'

New Amsterdam became New York in 1664 when the English seized the New Netherland colony. Like the state capital Albany (originally known as Fort Orange), New York was named after James, Duke of York and Albany, the future King James II of England. Similarly, New Jersey was called Albania for a spell.

In 1673, during the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch retook the territory. For the fifteen months they held it, before giving it back to the English as part of a peace settlement, New York was called Nieuw Oranje (New Orange) and Albany Willemstad (Williamstown).

A decade and a half later, in what for some reason is not known as the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, a Dutch armada invaded England, ousted James II and put William of Orange on the throne in his place. Somewhat out of keeping with the spirit of the age, the new King William III did not have the transatlantic outposts of his new realm revert to their earlier names in his honour, and so New York and Albany remained named for the toppled and much vilified King James.

The Orange in New Orange is indeed the town of that name in Provence, which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is the warmest in France and elects a National Front mayor.

Sunday, February 12, 2006


More literalism outlawed

A comment on the previous post brings to light the fact that several US states have a provision in their law expressly prohibiting the literal translation of 'notary public' as 'notario (publico)' - a measure introduced to stop unscrupulous notaries (who are not authorized to give legal advice etc.) ripping off Spanish-speaking immigants by representing themselves as civil-law notaries (who are). California was the first state to enact such a provision (in 1974), and most of the other states seem to have borrowed it verbatim:
Literal translation of the phrase "notary public" into Spanish, hereby defined as "notario publico" or "notario," is prohibited.
That prohibition would appear to catch only a single term. But some states cast their nets a little wider. Illinois, for example:
A notary public shall not, in any document, advertisement, stationery, letterhead, business card, or other comparable written material describing the role of the notary public, literally translate from English into another language terms or titles including, but not limited to, notary public, notary, licensed, attorney, lawyer, or any other term that implies the person is an attorney. To illustrate, the word "notario" is prohibited under this provision. Literal translation of the phrase "Notary Public" into a language other than English is prohibited.
All the states have this definition of 'literal translation' which is itself anything but literal:
"literal translation" of a word or phrase from one language to another means the translation of a word or phrase without regard to the true meaning of the word or phrase in the language which is being translated.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


Literalism outlawed

The Swiss have a rule of contract construction known as the 'Verbot der Buchstabenauslegung'.

Literally: 'prohibition of literal interpretation', but since this is about avoiding the literal, I will call it the 'rule against literal construction'. It means that in working out what the parties to a contract intended, the court must eschew a 'formalistic or purely grammatical' approach.
Buchstabenauslegung: Bei der Ermittlung des wirklichen Parteiwillens darf der Richter nicht beim Wortlaut stehen bleiben. Insbesondere darf er die Worte nicht formalistisch oder rein grammatikalisch interpretieren. Man spricht in diesem Zusammenhang vom Verbot der Buchstabenauslegung (Link)
Viele Juristen werden mir zwar entgegenhalten, dass das Gericht zumindest an einen klaren Vertragstext gebunden sei, da nach Massgabe der 'Eindeutigkeitsregel' weitere Auslegungsmittel nur dann zur Anwendung kommen, wenn der Wortlaut nicht klar ist. Dass diese Regel aber nicht verhält, hat in einem neueren Entscheid sogar das Bundesgericht festgestellt. In expliziter 'Präzisierung' seiner bisherigen Rechtsprechung hat es erwogen, 'que le sens d’un texte, même clair, n’est pas forcément déterminant et que l’interprétation purement littérale est au contraire prohibée. Même si la teneur d’une clause contractuelle paraît claire à première vue, il peut résulter d’autres conditions du contrat, du but poursuivi par les parties ou d’autres circonstances que le texte de ladite clause ne restitue pas exactement le sens de l’accord conclu' (BGE 127 III 445)

A similar line is taken in other countries, no doubt, but I have not previously seen the rejection of literalism elevated to the status of a prohibition.

Now I wonder if there's a country that bans literal translation.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Folk translation

The phony war refers to a period at the beginning of World War II when there was little or no actual fighting. In French, it is rendered as 'le drôle de guerre'.

A tax haven is a jurisdiction with low or zero taxes. In French, it translates as 'paradis fiscal'.

'Drôle', of course, means 'funny', not 'phony'. And 'paradis' means 'heaven' rather than 'haven'.

In each case, it seems, an unfamiliar word has been reinterpreted as a very similar sounding but more familiar word which still makes good sense in the context.

It's a sort of folk etymology across the language barrier. I wonder if there are other examples.

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