Tuesday, September 26, 2006



Still on the subject of indigenous Australians and their depleted heritage, Language Log reports that
the Federal Court of Australia has just ruled ... that an aboriginal people, the Noongar, hold 'native title' to portions of the Perth Metropolitan Area. This appears to be roughly equivalent to usufruct in Anglo-American law
This illustrates nicely the shortcomings of the term ‘Anglo-American law’ as used to denote what it is otherwise known as ‘the common law’ i.e. the law of those countries whose legal systems are based on or derived from English law (as distinct from the civil-law systems of continental Europe, Latin America etc.).

That definition includes many more countries than just England and the US, of course. Most notably, for present purposes, Australia.

Can it properly be said that Australia is governed according to 'Anglo-American law'?

Moreover, the use of this term in the Language Log quote makes Australian law appear to stand in contrast to Anglo-American law, as if it belonged to a different legal family. This can hardly have been the writer’s intention.

But it is the reference to ‘usufruct in Anglo-American law’ that clinches it. Usufruct is a civil-law concept derived from Roman law. It is no part of English law or of the common-law tradition. The fact that it is to be found in certain states of the US is a legacy of the civil-law systems that once operated there under French or Spanish rule. If the unfortunate expression 'Anglo-American law' can be used to encompass such a quintessentially civil-law institution as usufruct (and far be it from me to argue with Language Log on this) then it is no longer synonymous or consistent with the term ‘common law’ and it is hard to see what else there is for it to mean.

It’s still preferable to ‘Anglo-Saxon law’, of course.

More here on the concept of native title in Australian law.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Language barriers

A European Court judgment during the week, as reported here, has been commented on here. The case was brought by an English lawyer wishing to continue to practise in Luxembourg without passing a test in that country's (three!) languages:
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) yesterday (19 September) threw out the requirement for a lawyer to speak the language of the country he wants to practise in.
This has of course to be seen in its proper context: the relevant provision of the European directive at issue before the ECJ contemplates migrant lawyers practising ‘under their home-country professional title’ - a French lawyer wishing to practise in England, for example, would do so as an avocat, not as a barrister or solicitor - so that it is clear to clients in the host country that the foreign lawyer is not necessarily conversant with the local law or proficient in the language. In addition, the foreign lawyer can be required to work in association with a local lawyer (who is subject to any language-testing requirements). And rules of professional conduct in any event debar lawyers from taking on cases in which they lack competence (including linguistic competence).

Moreover, this is one area of law that has been fully harmonised at EU level, so what applies here cannot be transposed to the great many other areas that have not been harmonised and perhaps never will be. For example, there was a case some years ago brought by a Dutch art teacher employed in a school in Ireland who objected to having to pass an examination in the Irish language in order to be made permanent, arguing that her day-to-day work did not necessitate any knowledge of the language. The ECJ decided however that the requirement was justified on public policy grounds.

For these and other reasons, the scope of the judgment is perhaps not as far-reaching as might appear.

On the subject of using language barriers to keep people out, Onze Taal reports that Australia is to introduce language testing for immigrants (Ook Australië gaat taaltest voor immigranten invoeren, 16 September 2006). Given that Australia has a hundred or so languages (compared to Luxembourg’s three), such a test, if properly designed, could prove an extremely effective barrier to entry. Happily, it turns out, it is only English they propose to test.

The indigenous peoples of Australia, whose linguistic (and territorial) heritage has been grievously eroded, must be kicking themselves they didn’t come up with a similar wheeze a couple of centuries ago (when there would have been even more languages for the then ‘immigrants’ to master).

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Contra literam

The big idea dominating EU affairs in the late eighties, when I took part in a recruitment test for European Parliament interpreters, was the so-called ‘1992 programme’ to dismantle all remaining barriers to internal trade by the end of 1992. In languages other than English, in particular Spanish, I suspect it may have been the (more sensible) practice to refer to the target as 1993 rather than 1992. So it was that the speech given at the test for interpretation from Spanish into English happened to refer to 1993 in that context, and candidates were faced with the dilemma of saying either ‘1993’ and being damned for their ignorance of current affairs, or ‘1992’ and risk summary elimination for a manifest contresens.

This came to mind last week when a taxi strike in Dublin had those of us with flights to catch scouring the airwaves for news as to when the stoppage was likely to end.

The Irish-language radio station RnaG reported
leanfaidh sé ar aghaidh go ham dinnéir
literally: it [the strike] will go on until dinnertime.

Meanwhile, the English-language RTE1 announced that it would end at lunchtime.

Now it’s well known that the same mealtime (and perhaps the same meal) can be designated as either dinner or lunch depending on social and cultural milieu. In political discourse, it seems, people who have their dinner in the middle of the day are down-to-earth, no-frills types while those who eat lunch are effete sophisticates.

Perhaps there is an implicit assumption that Irish-speakers belong to the former category and Anglophones to the latter.

But what is sure is that the drafter of the Irish version – which, since taxi drivers are not wont to issue press releases in Irish, was essentially a translation – has boldly gone where not too many translators, amateur or professional, would ever think of going i.e. against the literal meaning of the original, using language that on the face of it contradicts the source text, in order to render the underlying message more effectively. There are a great many translators, it has to be said, who cannot bring themselves to stray even one whit from the literal straight-and-narrow, as discussed previously. But even those who realise that a calque is not a translation and accept the need occasionally to translate praeter literam will probably baulk at the notion of translating contra literam.

So bravo bravissimo to the intrepid newswriter at RnaG (who should of course be fired if anybody missed their flight).

I will be keeping eye and ear open for further examples of translation contra literam.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


A mess of pottage

From last week’s Guardian:
In a scene of Felliniesque surrealism, the actress Nicole Kidman was barred from filming inside an historic Roman apartment building at the weekend by angry residents who wanted a higher fee for their cooperation.

The 280 families living in 41 via Vespucci in the Testaccio area claimed they had not been forewarned that the actress would be filming an advertisement in their architecturally admired palazzo or condominium.

When word got out about Kidman's starring role, and it was revealed that the administrator of the building had agreed a fee of only €6,000 (£4,000), the tenants rebelled.

Preparations for the film were halted as residents streamed out of their apartments, descending from the building's eight staircases, to gather in the central courtyard and to argue with the startled film crew, led by an American director.

Blocking access to technicians setting up cameras, lights and miles of cable and threatening to halt production, tempers flared as one tenant described the fee as a "plate of lentils" - a term used to describe a paltry sum of money.
That last sentence is a little surreal in its own right what with all those dangling participles, but the really intriguing bit is the reference to the "plate of lentils", which isn’t mentioned in the Italian reports of the incident. Are we meant to believe that the phrase has such force in Italian that it causes tempers to flare? Or does the reporter find the idiom so picturesque that she shares it with us for the sake of local colour - à la Hemingway in For Whom The Bell Tolls - or perhaps for the sake of that ‘Felliniesque surrealism’ (La Repubblica, more plausibly, describes the scene as Italian neo-realism)?

Either way, she appears unaware that English has an identical expression of the same provenance and with the same meaning (though no doubt the wrong register here).

Is biblical imagery in our culture destined to go the way of classical allusion? There’s a generation on the rise for whom these t'ings dat yo' li'ble to read in de Bible -
Li'l David was small, but - oh my!
He fought big Goliath
Who lay down an' dieth ...

Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale -
Fo' he made his home in
Dat fish's abdomen ...

Li'l Moses was found in a stream.
He floated on water
Till Ol' Pharaoh's daughter,
She fished him, she said, from dat stream.
- are about as meaningful as:
Wa-doo - Zim bam boodle-oo,
Hoodle ah da wa da - Scatty wah. Yeah!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Noscitur a sociis?

A bitter reality for translators, most acutely felt when it comes to negotiating prices with customers, is the yawning gap that exists between their own perception of the dignity of their calling and the view others have of it. While translators like to regard themselves as birds of a feather with the members of the prestige professions - doctors, lawyers etc. - the wider world, alas, sees us as having quite a different set of bedfellows, as illustrated by this collocation happened upon while idly thumbing through an abandoned copy of a travel guide to Italy (Lonely Planet, 5th edition 2002).

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?