Saturday, May 19, 2007


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.

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