Ephemeral Translation

One of the most difficult aspects in translation is understanding and dealing with ephemeral expressions and concepts. How do we cope with phrases that may only last for a week, month and then disappear never to be heard of again? How do we even begin translating something which is scribbled down on a scrap of paper and has a useful life of thirty minutes at the most?

The successful translation of ephemera relies, obviously, on the translator’s ability to nigh on perfectly understand the source text and culture. More importantly, understand the sociolect or jargon that is being used. Ephemera are often used in specific environments and are often particular to a given field or domain. The understanding of context is therefore paramount and perhaps more important than his/her knowledge of the target text.

Within corpus linguistics the study of ephemera is seen as both important but at the same time one of the most difficult tasks in the creation of corpora. How does one systematically collect ephemera? What is/are ephemera? Post-it notes? Memos? Text messages

Ephemeral language and the study of it (what we might term ephemero-linguistics) would give us valuable insights into the day-to-day working of language. Knowledge of the structure of ephemera (thats is once we have reliably defined the term) would help us understand how ephemeral language is formed and, in turn, would help us in its translation.

Examples might include Back in 5, CU l8r, Gr8 idea. Language always seeks economy and the language of post-it notes, memos and text messages are great evidence of this. In everyday speech what do we delete? Verb? Nouns? Other parts of speech? How is grammar affected? Can we define an ephemeral grammar in much the same way that we can talk of the headline grammar of newspapers?

Knowledge of everyday language and a future ephemero-linguistics could give us valuable insights into the real working of language. We all concede that the translation of idioms are difficult but ephemera are perhaps the most difficult nut to crack. Research into the subject is scarce and published material on the subject is practically non-existent. Does this mean there is no such thing as ephemera or does it mean we need to invest more time into this area?


7 thoughts on “Ephemeral Translation

  1. Fascinating post and thoughtful questions. I’ll be thinking about ephemera for a long, long time now. Two of my favorites: “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds” (from Mission Impossible) and “mene mene tekel upharsin [(or was it) parsin (?)]” (that mysterious disappearing handwriting on the wall from the Book of Daniel). And my questions now: 1) Once they’re translated, are they still ephemera? 2) And what would it take to let the word “ephemera,” our English transliteration of the old Greek epi + hēmeros (literally “upon a day”), become ephemera? Yes, call for the research and let it continue!

  2. Two wonderful examples.
    As to the first question, if the act of writing them down in the first place does not cause them to cease being ephemera then we might also assume that translating ephemera will likewise not change their status.
    The second question (and perhaps the most difficult to answer)… my diacritic nomenclature of “ephemera” does not necessarily presuppose the uniqueness or originality of the word within linguistics or translation (although it may suggest that) but is only an idiosyncratic use of quotation marks.

  3. The economy of language is sometimes bizarre, especially in text messages. I can understand expurgating grammar words to cut down on the number of signs or eliminating punctuation but there was(is) a fashion in Polish language for shortening words to make them more hype. “Do zoba”, “cze” and “trzym sie” are typical examples. Such phrases pose a challenge to translate them and maintain their original structure. One of the comedians used that idea to create one more which was “szczęść bo” to mean god be with you:)

  4. Language serves communication and therefore economy is key. The shorter and simpler our utterance, the more likely we can be understood. Langauge naturally seeks economy and so this is a subject that will soon need to be taken up and developed, especially with the rise of the new multimedia technologies.

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