Wednesday, May 23, 2007


A bad day at the office

Is what I would call this:

The Floyd Landis doping arbitration hearing stalled and ran aground for much of the day Tuesday on a language barrier -- an embarrassing episode for a high-profile international proceeding. An interpreter brought in to translate the first of what could be a parade of French-speaking witnesses from the lab where Landis' samples were tested was let go after it became clear he was not up to the task.
The unfortunate episode can be seen here in all its gory detail. The relevant portion consists of the final few minutes of the morning session and the beginning of the afternoon session on 15 May.

Most unusually, the interpreters are identified by name in the media reports, which the hapless one could certainly have done without. Anyone can have an off-day but he'll surely find it hard to live that one down. It is a little ironic that a proceeding intended to salvage one man's reputation and career may have succeeded in destroying another's.

And though the interpreter certainly went through a bad patch, who's to say he wouldn't have come good if given the chance?

After all Floyd Landis himself had a complete nightmare on stage 16 of the Tour de France but managed to turn things right around on stage 17.

Perhaps he should have taken the interpreter to one side and told him how it's done.

Saturday, May 19, 2007



So many native speakers find this word an abomination it comes as no surprise that it was coined by the Dutch (as an English word, of course, mode oblige), although the concept behind it is most commonly associated with the Danes and their 'model' of easy hiring and firing coupled with generous unemployment benefits and back-to-work schemes. Since Denmark has managed to combine the low unemployment of the US model with the low poverty rates of the European model, the flexicurity approach has attracted much attention within the European Union, offering as it does the possibility of squaring the circle and avoiding unpalatable trade-offs in economic and social policy.

Of course the Dutch have terrific language skills, or perhaps they just think they do -
The Dutch have a high opinion of their ability to speak French, German and English. The reality is very different, according to new research.
Newspaper 'Het Parool' reported that a quarter of the respondents were hardly above beginners level in the three neighbouring languages, even though they regarded themselves as advanced or even very advanced.
The Nijmegen research was triggered by a European project that indicated most Europeans are better in foreign languages than they think.
The opposite is the case in the Netherlands.
- but either way they didn’t trouble themselves to coin equivalents to flexicurity in the other EU languages, and so French, for example, has ended up with a multiplicity of competing terms.

Wikipedia lists this bevy of uglies:
flexicurité, flexécurité, flexsécurité, flex-sécurité, flexisécurité, flexi-sécurité
The one that has invariably been used at the EU meetings I’ve worked at has been flexisécurité.

Technologies du Langage has been here already, I see:
Le mot magique de la présidentielle de 2002 était insécurité (une trouvaille géniale de Chirac). Celui de la présidentielle 2007 sera-t-il flexicurité?

Ou bien flexécurité? C'est assez amusant de constater que les deux formes constituent tout un programme d'affrontement: dans FLEXIcurité, il y a plus de flexibilité, dans flexECURITE, plus de sécurité. Je parierais que Nicolas Sarkozy a employé la première!
The term flexibility is ambiguous in itself and can refer to a number of different ideas in this context. But in whichever sense it is used in English, the term has a generally positive connotation. Not so the French cognate, it seems.

Here is French socialist politician Pierre Moscovi, speaking in English:
Flexibility in French is an awful word, it means that the workers are totally submitted to the will of the firms, that they are like objects or merchandise and that's what we don't want
At meetings I work at that deal with questions of labour market flexibility, the problematic nature of the French word flexibilité is sometimes raised by French-speaking participants. There then follows much head-scratching and hand-wringing about ‘cultural differences’ and the like. The idea of using a different, more appropriate translation does not seem to occur. My Francophone colleagues tell me souplesse is a good fit, and this is indeed the term used in the French version of the European Union’s Employment Guidelines.

Linguistic laypersons can find it very difficult to grasp the notion that just because words in different languages may look the same doesn’t mean they are the same.


Two wrongs...

I have been reading Wars of Words – The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-2004, by Tony Crowley, Chair of Language, Literature and Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester.

In it, he relates an episode that took place in the late nineteenth century involving the Gaelic League, an organisation that had recently been set up to promote the Irish language:
The league’s battle with various arms of the educational establishment were important both in terms of its own aims and in cultivating the esteem in which it was held by the majority of the Irish population. One of its first public successful debates was with T. W. Rolleston, Trinity College graduate, poet, and founding editor of the Dublin University Review, whose charge was the same that had been laid against the English language in the Renaissance period: that Irish was simply not copious enough for modern intellectual thought and culture.

Rolleston’s challenge was to present a passage of scientific prose to the Gaelic League for translation into Irish. The piece would then be given to an Irish speaker for translation back into English, and the translation and the original could then be compared for intellectual coherence. Accepting the challenge Hyde translated into Irish and MacNeill worked the piece back into English; after comparison Rolleston was convinced and later joined the Gaelic League (Reference: O’Fearaíl, A History of the Gaelic League)
On the face of it, a resounding victory for the Gaelic League and its cause, but I suspect Rolleston may have sold himself short, duped by his own device. He was hardly the first and certainly not the last linguistic innocent to have placed his faith in the powers of back-translation, though in his case it was not the adequacy of a mere translation that he was out to determine but that of an entire language.

Neither Hyde nor MacNeill - both of whom went on to hold high office in post-independence Ireland - seem to have had a background in science or any experience of technical translation (let alone into or out of Irish). So the chances of them producing perfect translations in both directions must have been slight.

But it is a perverse feature of back-translation, as discussed before, that two unskilled translators, by cleaving to the individual words and phrases and not even trying to come to terms with the overall meaning, may yield a close approximation of a source text, although the target language version – the one that matters – may make no sense at all.

For example, an obvious back-translation of the meaningless film title 'The 400 Blows' would be the original 'Les 400 Coups', giving a perfect match. But it is most most unlikely that a back-translator would come up with anything like the exact words of the original French if the English version actually meant the same thing.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Zschertnitz and Zschieren

These are districts in Dresden, where I was working last week (it's the German EU presidency).

Like so many place-names in Germany's eastern states - all those -ow, -itz and -in endings - they are of Slavic origin, as is the name Dresden itself. But what catches the eye is that initial consonant cluster, which appears to be quite common in those parts: Zschepen, Zschortau, Zscheplin, Zschettgau, Zschölkau...

To take the Encyclopaedic Muret-Sanders as a proxy for the language as a whole, German has no word between zottlig and zu, so this Zsch- must be regarded as phonologically and orthographically alien.

Yet, in Dresden and Saxony at least, entirely domesticated.

According to Ethnologue, there are still several thousand Sorbian speakers in Saxony and Brandenburg. And 'perhaps a few in Texas'.

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