Thursday, July 27, 2006



A couple of streets away from here is the house where 150 years ago yesterday George Bernard Shaw was born.

Shaw was a man of many parts. A crusading vegetarian, socialist and pacifist, he also devoted considerable time and energy to matters orthographical and campaigned for a reform of English spelling whereby the Latin alphabet would be replaced by a phonetic writing system. He put up a prize of £500 for a competition to find the best such system.

The shortcomings of the existing system he illustrated by pointing out that the word fish could equally be spelled ghoti (gh as in rough, o as in women, ti as in nation).

He also had the distinction of being the only writer to win both a Nobel Prize for literature and an Oscar for best screenplay. Nowadays, however, his works are deeply unfashionable, to the point that no theatre in his native city has thought it worthwhile marking the anniversary by putting on any of his many plays.

His epigrams, however, continue to fill books of quotations, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language” being one of the better known.

Switching between TV news broadcasts tonight on the US network CBS and Britain’s BBC and SkyNews, I note that the division is ever-present, although I’m not sure it’s primarily linguistic. While both the British channels led with lengthy and detailed reports, complete with flak-jacketed war correspondents at the scene, of the destruction by Israeli bombers of an apartment block in Tyre, the same incident barely merited a mention on the US network, and this only as background in a soft-news piece about the evacuation of US citizens.

Friday, July 14, 2006


Read his lip II

Wednesday’s much anticipated interview with Zinedine Zidane on Canal Plus seems to have proved something of a damp squib for those commentators who had been promising themselves a verbatim account of the taunts that earned Zizou’s violent ire in Sunday’s World Cup final.

One thing he did say, in explaining his headbutt on Marco Materazzi, was reported on the BBC (and in relevant part on SkyNews, EuroNews and elsewhere) as follows, with emphasis added:
I am a man and some words are harder to hear than actions. I would rather have taken a blow to the face than hear that.
This is another illustration of why literal translation, contrary to a widely held notion, is anything but faithful. The literal rendering of ‘je suis un homme’ as ‘I am a man’ strikes the wrong note in the context, with its overtones of ‘a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do’. It suggests Zidane is adopting a ‘macho’ posture rather than simply pleading his human frailty, as he was.

The BBC’s video report of the interview (no longer available on the website, it seems) has a better stab at it and uses ‘I am a human being’. This version came out later, no doubt, so there was more time to get it right.

Which draws attention to the fact that in these situations, the timeframes of spoken and written translation are reversed, with the written version having to be done more or less on the fly while the spoken version can be put together at comparative leisure.

Usually it is the other way round, with those whose job it is to produce written translation (i.e. translators) having time to ponder their choices while those producing spoken translation (i.e. interpreters) have to get it out in real time.

Not that the guy doing the voiceover on the BBC was an actual interpreter, of course. Real simultaneous interpreting is rarely heard on TV, at least in the English-speaking world. But I wonder whether viewers realise that that smooth, composed delivery they hear is not real live interpretation but a voiceover artist reading a script that he will have had time to work on in advance.

Perhaps interpreters should be up in arms about this ‘simulated simultaneous’, exposure to which may mean that when people come across real-life interpreting they won’t understand that allowances have to be made for the occasional hesitations, stumbles, disfluencies etc.

We could take our cue from the musicians, who apparently secured a TV ban on the mimed playing of musical instruments against backing tracks, at least on the aforesaid BBC (cf. the old story about Bob Geldof and the candelabra).

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Back translation

The Financial Times Europe edition of 6 July leads with a story entitled “EU tax on offshore savings falls flat” (still available here and elsewhere).
Europe's 14-year struggle to tax its citizens' offshore savings has flopped, after investors in countries such as Switzerland and Luxembourg exploited loopholes in a controversial savings law
(The "savings law" referred to is Directive 2003/48.)
The law was only agreed after 14 years of haggling among EU member states and after fraught negotiations with third countries such as Switzerland, which fought a successful battle to defend its banking secrecy laws.

But the directive is riddled with loopholes, some inserted by EU members to maintain their appeal to offshore investors. Others were created by loose legal definitions, while ambiguity was added with the translation of the original draft law from English to French and back to English.
Now what could possibly be the point of translating the thing from English to French and then back again? I mean, assuming they did it properly, they would surely end up with exactly the same text they started out with.

I wonder if perhaps the FT has got the wrong end of the stick on this one.


Read his lip

The BBC reports on two different attempts to sort out exactly what it was that provoked the red-card incident in Sunday’s World Cup Final.
BBC Radio Five Live asked for help from a deaf lip reader, Jessica Rees, who read the words phonetically to an Italian translator.

She deciphered the insult as being "you're the son of a terrorist whore" - a translation also carried by many national newspapers in Britain on Tuesday.

The BBC's Ten O'Clock News also called in experts to study the television footage of the incident and determined the following:

Materazzi's first word to Zidane was "no" before he then told him to "calm down".

He then accused him of being a "liar" and wished "an ugly death to you and your family" on the day the Frenchman's mother had been taken to hospital ill. This was followed by "Go f*** yourself".
Not sure about the methodology of having a deaf lip reader read the words “phonetically” to an "Italian translator”. The experts called in by the Ten O’Clock News appear to have been actual Italians.

I’m going with their version. But time may tell.

For those who take an interest in these matters only once every four years and don’t know what a typical day at the office involves for the lovely Marco Materazzi, here to give the flavour is one of several video compilations of his past exploits that have been posted on youtube.

The true fan will wonder how it can be that an assault on Materazzi constitutes even a foul, let alone a red-card offence.

And the true fan’s heart will also go out to the various sponsors, so cruelly undone by this unforeseen finale. One feels in particular for Budweiser, whose presence has been particularly insistent – let’s hope nobody gets the idea of associating beer consumption with incidents of violence or verbal abuse.

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