International Translation Day

Jerome - Patron Saint of Translators

Jerome - Patron Saint of Translators

The 30th September is our festival. On this day, the Christian Church celebrates the feast of Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translators. In turn, this date later became associated with translators. The International Federation of Translators officially designated the 30th September International Translation Day in 1991, although this date has for a long time been recognised by many as ‘our’ day.

Not only is Saint Jerome the patron saint of translators but also the patron saint of archivists, Bible scholars, librarians, school children, students and… archaeologists. Jerome – Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus – was born c. 347 in Stridon not far from today’s Ljubljana. Although initially sceptical of the Catholic Church, Jerome later converted and grew in stature becoming a Doctor of the Church (there are only 33).

As well as making it into the history books for his scholarly work for the church, he is much admired by translators and Bible scholars alike for his contribution to Bible translation and translation theory and practice. In order to reliably master his language skills, Jerome moved to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to improve his Hebrew after which he completed several translations from the Hebrew Bible.

Up to that point the Koine Greek Septuagint was regarded as the authoritative source text rather than the Hebrew original. Jerome’s re-workings, revisions and translations led to the production of Jerome’s Vulgate. For him, a reliable source text was of great importance. So highly valued and cherished was this translation of the Bible, that it became the official Latin version of the Roman Catholic Church. Saint Jerome had finally left his mark.

Saint Jerome is also known for his humility, which can be a great example to all fellow translators. He was well aware of his inadequacies and weaknesses and is known to have often held up his hands and pleaded ignorance and admitted to being at fault which led him to regularly return to his translations in order to amend, revise and correct them.

Saint Jerome, patron saint of translators, archivists, Bible scholars, librarians, school children, students and archaeologists passed away in Bethlehem, on the 30th September 420. His work on translation paved the way for all the translators that followed him. Without him, translation would no doubt look very, very different. To mark Saint Jerome’s Day, we celebrate our own profession and the work of our fellow colleagues. Happy Translation Day!

Visual Translation & Interpretation

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A New Ray of Light?

To mark the fourth anniversary of transubstantiation (which was actually in June), the passing of the 90,000 hits mark as well as the fact that we were nominated to the Top 100 Language Blogs competition, we feel it is about time to breathe some new life into transubstantiation and give the site a subtle facelift. We would also like to take this opportunity to thank you all for reading, commenting and taking an active part in the development of the blog. Without you, the readers, transubstantiation would never be the success that it has been up to now.

While giving the site a facelift one cannot help consider the importance of the visual medium in translation. How important is the way the text looks? By this we are not referring to the structure, grammar or coherence of a text but rather the font style, font size, page layout, quality of paper and so on. For most translators this is a secondary issue. The primary goal is the communicative role – the goal is always to appropriately convey the message from one language/culture to another language/culture.

All things being equal, the visual aspects of the translation (that is, font, page, paper etc.) will never take centre stage and will always take final position in the long chain of activities within the translation process. However, in today’s visually-oriented world, how one’s work looks has become of greater importance. There are no excuses for poorly-produced work as 99% of translators own a word processor (complete with a spell checker) and printer. In much the same way that today’s students rarely hand in hand-written work to their tutors so to are translators expected to produce high-quality electronic documents.

Unfortunately, this race to ‘look good’ has also had some negative consequences. Many budding young translators have put the cart before the horse when it comes to translating. They focus first on their choice of font style, font size, page layout, paper and only after do they begin with the task in question. For some, the translation locus has shifted. This shift has unfortunately filtered through to our understanding of texts to the extent that an excellent, yet poorly-presented, translation might be poorly-received. On the other hand, a poor translation which is well-presented may have a chance of success.

What is important is balance, of course. Perhaps a useful rule of thumb is for translators to always begin their work by focusing on the content rather than the form. As we are all aware, however, sometimes focusing on form is simply a subtle method of procrastination when a difficult translational problem eludes us. That being the case, focusing on the visual medium will do little to help resolve our linguistic predicaments. A surprisingly useful, if not revolutionary, method for dealing with such procrastination and problem-solving in our computer-filled cosmos is to resort to a much-trusted and highly-underrated tool – the pen.

The Babel Fallout

Jewish and Christian mythology tells us that the need for translators was born after the construction of the legendary tower at Babylon and its subsequent destruction by Yahweh. It is interesting that both Judaism and Christianity take such a negative approach to the birth of human languages (the plural is extremely significant here) and see the proliferation of human languages to be the direct result of man’s arrogance. However, let us appreciate the myth as it is told in the Jewish and Christian stories. The King James Bible (Genesis 11:1-9):

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

If we look at Hebrew mythology, we find a similar reference to this heinous crime (of building a tower) mentioned in the Book of Jubilees:

And in the three and thirtieth jubilee, in the first year in the second week, Peleg took to himself a wife, whose name was Lomna the daughter of Sina’ar, and she bare him a son in the fourth year of this week, and he called his name Reu; for he said: ‘Behold the children of men have become evil through the wicked purpose of building for themselves a city and a tower in the land of Shinar.’ For they departed from the land of Ararat eastward to Shinar; for in his days they built the city and the tower, saying, ‘Go to, let us ascend thereby into heaven.’ And they began to build, and in the fourth week they made brick with fire, and the bricks served them for stone, and the clay with which they cemented them together was asphalt which comes out of the sea, and out of the fountains of water in the land of Shinar. And they built it: forty and three years were they building it; its breadth was 203 bricks, and the height (of a brick) was the third of one; its height amounted to 5433 cubits and 2 palms, and (the extent of one wall was) thirteen stades (and of the other thirty stades). And the Lord our God said unto us: Behold, they are one people, and (this) they begin to do, and now nothing will be withholden from them. Go to, let us go down and confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech, and they may be dispersed into cities and nations, and one purpose will no longer abide with them till the day of judgment.’ And the Lord descended, and we descended with him to see the city and the tower which the children of men had built. And he confounded their language, and they no longer understood one another’s speech, and they ceased then to build the city and the tower. For this reason the whole land of Shinar is called Babel, because the Lord did there confound all the language of the children of men, and from thence they were dispersed into their cities, each according to his language and his nation.

Many sources believe the grand perpetrator of this crime against God to be Nimrod who is wonderfully depicted in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy as a babbling giant. Nimrod shouts out five words which, aptly, make no sense at all:

“Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi,”
the savage mouth, for which no sweeter
psalms were fit, began to shout.

And, in response, my leader: ‘You muddled soul,
stick to your horn! Vent yourself with that
when rage or other passion takes you.

“Search at your neck, you creature of confusion,
and you will find the rope that holds the horn
aslant your mammoth chest.’

Then he to me: ‘He is his own accuser.
This is Nimrod, because of whose vile plan
the world no longer speaks a single tongue.

“Let us leave him and not waste our speech,
for every language is to him as his
to others, and his is understood by none.”

To this day, traces of the Tower of Babel myth are seen in the English word babble which, of course comes from the word Babel. This in turn comes from the Ancient Hebrew word balal which means ‘to confound’; ‘to confuse’; ‘to jumble’. The English word babble is similar in meaning: ‘to utter meaningless sounds, or utter in an incoherent way’; ‘to talk foolishly’. It is interesting how, over time, the meaning of the word has remained relatively consistent.

The Three Languages (by the Brothers Grimm)

An aged count once lived in Switzerland, who had an only son, but he was stupid, and could learn nothing. Then said the father: ’Hark you, my son, try as I will I can get nothing into your head. You must go from hence, I will give you into the care of a celebrated master, who shall see what he can do with you.’ The youth was sent into a strange town, and remained a whole year with the master. At the end of this time, he came home again, and his father asked: ’Now, my son, what have you learnt?’ ’Father, I have learnt what the dogs say when they bark.’ ’Lord have mercy on us!’ cried the father; ’is that all you have learnt? I will send you into another town, to another master.’ The youth was taken thither, and stayed a year with this master likewise. When he came back the father again asked: ’My son, what have you learnt?’ He answered: ’Father, I have learnt what the birds say.’ Then the father fell into a rage and said: ’Oh, you lost man, you have spent the precious time and learnt nothing; are you not ashamed to appear before my eyes? I will send you to a third master, but if you learn nothing this time also, I will no longer be your father.’ The youth remained a whole year with the third master also, and when he came home again, and his father inquired: ’My son, what have you learnt?’ he answered: ’Dear father, I have this year learnt what the frogs croak.’ Then the father fell into the most furious anger, sprang up, called his people thither, and said: ’This man is no longer my son, I drive him forth, and command you to take him out into the forest, and kill him.’ They took him forth, but when they should have killed him, they could not do it for pity, and let him go, and they cut the eyes and tongue out of a deer that they might carry them to the old man as a token.

The youth wandered on, and after some time came to a fortress where he begged for a night’s lodging. ’Yes,’ said the lord of the castle, ’if you will pass the night down there in the old tower, go thither; but I warn you, it is at the peril of your life, for it is full of wild dogs, which bark and howl without stopping, and at certain hours a man has to be given to them, whom they at once devour.’ The whole district was in sorrow and dismay because of them, and yet no one could do anything to stop this. The youth, however, was without fear, and said: ’Just let me go down to the barking dogs, and give me something that I can throw to them; they will do nothing to harm me.’ As he himself would have it so, they gave him some food for the wild animals, and led him down to the tower. When he went inside, the dogs did not bark at him, but wagged their tails quite amicably around him, ate what he set before them, and did not hurt one hair of his head. Next morning, to the astonishment of everyone, he came out again safe and unharmed, and said to the lord of the castle: ’The dogs have revealed to me, in their own language, why they dwell there, and bring evil on the land. They are bewitched, and are obliged to watch over a great treasure which is below in the tower, and they can have no rest until it is taken away, and I have likewise learnt, from their discourse, how that is to be done.’ Then all who heard this rejoiced, and the lord of the castle said he would adopt him as a son if he accomplished it successfully. He went down again, and as he knew what he had to do, he did it thoroughly, and brought a chest full of gold out with him. The howling of the wild dogs was henceforth heard no more; they had disappeared, and the country was freed from the trouble.

After some time he took it in his head that he would travel to Rome. On the way he passed by a marsh, in which a number of frogs were sitting croaking. He listened to them, and when he became aware of what they were saying, he grew very thoughtful and sad. At last he arrived in Rome, where the Pope had just died, and there was great doubt among the cardinals as to whom they should appoint as his successor. They at length agreed that the person should be chosen as pope who should be distinguished by some divine and miraculous token. And just as that was decided on, the young count entered into the church, and suddenly two snow-white doves flew on his shoulders and remained sitting there. The ecclesiastics recognized therein the token from above, and asked him on the spot if he would be pope. He was undecided, and knew not if he were worthy of this, but the doves counselled him to do it, and at length he said yes. Then was he anointed and consecrated, and thus was fulfilled what he had heard from the frogs on his way, which had so affected him, that he was to be his Holiness the Pope. Then he had to sing a mass, and did not know one word of it, but the two doves sat continually on his shoulders, and said it all in his ear.

Just a Translator…

Football fans across Europe and the world were introduced to the fickleness of football fandom when FC Internazionale Milano (Inter Milan) took on FC Barcelona in a UEFA Champions League match. Inter Milan registered an aggregate win of 3-2 over two legs to knock out the Champions League Cup holders Barcelona and reach the Champions League final but one of the major talking points was the abuse hurled at Inter manager José Mourinho by the fans of FC Barcelona.

Much to the surprise of football fans and translators alike, the Barça fans expressed their hate of Portuguese-born José Mourinho by calling him “El Traductor” (the translator). To them, he was no a nobody. Mourinho, after four years spent at the Catalan club, also found the term derogatory. By calling him “El Traductor”, the Barça fans were not only disparaging his talents, but they were also suggesting he was nothing more than a translator.

Obviously, this was a classic case of ‘sour grapes’ as José Mourinho has in the past masterminded several victories over his former employees and the fans of Barcelona had no other way of venting their frustration, however, it is particularly saddening for translators and interpreters around the world to witness the ignorance of so many. On the other hand, José Mourinho can be a wonderful example to translators, interpreters, linguists and also non-linguists.

The former Porto and Chelsea manager and the self-proclaimed “Special One” was in fact an interpreter and translator working under manager Bobby Robson at Sporting Club de Portugal, then Porto and later at Barcelona, and following Robson’s departure under Louis van Gaal. Through his remarkable linguistic skills he was able to learn from the best in the business which helped him later become the best in the business. José Mourinho is fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, French and English.

His attitude to languages is fascinating. To him they are tools. He began learning new languages due to the fact that the knowledge he required as a student was only accessible in languages other than his native Portuguese. As a budding football manager under the wings of Bobby Robson at Barcelona he quickly learnt Catalan because, as he himself is quoted as saying, he would find it impossible to work in a country in which he did not know the language.

In many ways, Mourinho is a polymath of sorts: he is skilled in six languages (although, by his own admission he finds German difficult) and is one of the most successful football managers of his generation (having won over fourteen major prizes in world football). May the abuse hurled at José Mourinho be a shibboleth for all of us. If we could all accumulate languages in the manner that Mourinho has done and have even a fraction of the success he has had then may we all forever be called ‘just a translator’.

Genetic Linguistics & Translation

The bane of so many students of language and translation is often the subjects of “History of Language”, “Etymology” and the suchlike. Many language/translation students would rather eat their hats then have to study the history of English/Polish/Japanese/Spanish (delete where appropriate) in much the same way that students hated having to learn Latin and Ancient Greek.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the way in which the subject is taught leaves much to be desired. So-called ‘text-book’ teaching often turns a fascinating story of the growth, development and metamorphosis of a language into a dry history lesson stuffed to the brim with meaningless dates, odd facts and strange figures.

Secondly, it is often difficult to teach a language which, to all intents and purposes, is dead. Part of the reason for the grand failure of teaching Latin and Ancient Greek in years gone by was the fact that students had no real point of reference and were unable to put their theoretical know-how to use in a practical, real-life setting.

However, genetic linguistics, comparative linguistics, comparative philology, etymology are subjects that (unlike the languages under study) are very much alive. We are all aware of the practical uses of Latin and Ancient Greek. Even a little knowledge of these languages can be of great use to translators working with Indo-European languages.

Aside from the vast amount of linguistic knowledge that can be gleaned from the study of a language’s history, how it grew, developed and changed, it can also open a window into that language’s culture. As we are all aware, culture and language are of course two sides of the same coin.

A case in point is the curious example of the Lemba people in southern Africa (who can be found in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe). The Lemba speak various languages (depending on location) but are generally known as speakers of Bantu languages. However, for someone wanting to translate a Lemba, knowledge of Venda and Shona (Bantu languages) may not be enough.

A study of the history of the Lemba, their now extinct language, Venda, Shona as well as a genetic analysis of the Lemba people would tell us that they have a great deal in common with not only their closest neighbours, but with the Jews of Israel. Their customs include many elements of Judaism, and DNA analysis reveals that many Lemba share a Y-chromosome carried by many Jews.

Interestingly, the priestly Buba clan of the Lemba share common genetic elements also carried by the priestly Jewish Kohen clan. As obvious as it seems, any linguist or translator working with the Lemba needs, of course, to be aware of facts such as these and also the Lemba’s use of the Star of David, refraining from eating pork and use of ritual slaughter.

Study of a language does not only concern the analysis of the current functioning of a language (in temporal terms) but also concerns the historical context of a language which helps reveal important cultural elements. A language is a repository of  words, words with old meanings, history and, of course, culture.

Accidental Death of a Language

On February 4th 2010, most of the world’s press reported the death of the Bo language. With the passing of Boa Sr, the last surviving speaker of the language, Bo became extinct. Sadly, this was of no surprise to linguists and anthropologists around the world as the death knell for Bo had been sounded around forty years ago when Boa Sr’s parents passed away. From that point on, Boa Sr was no longer able to speak to anyone else in her native tongue. She was linguistically completely and utterly alone.

With her death, another piece of the human linguistic puzzle disappeared. Unfortunately, the loss of Bo is a blow to our understanding of the Great Andamanese language family, to which Bo belonged. What is interesting about this language family and the Andaman Islands themselves is the fact that some of these languages are believed to be over 60,000 years old. In fact, Bo Sr’s death breaks an alleged link to a culture over 60,000 years old.

The loss of Bo, and the subsequent extinction of all the other Great Andamanese languages, is extremely sad but nonetheless inevitable. As Jean Aitchison said in her Language Change: Progress or Decay (2001:4):

Language, then, like everything else, gradually transforms itself over the centuries. There is nothing surprising in this. In a world where humans grow old, tadpoles change into frogs, and milk turns into cheese, it would be strange if language alone remained unaltered.

There is little we can do to escape the inevitable. Languages change, languages are born, language die. Unfortunately, we live in times where the rate of language death is staggeringly fast. Of the world’s 6,500 or so languages, 3,000 are expected to die within less than one hundred years’ time. There are few cases of successful language revitalisation, Welsh and Hebrew being two remarkable examples. David Crystal in Language Death (2000) gives six factors which may help revitalise a dying language. He suggests the speakers of a dying language:

1. increase their prestige within a dominant community
2. increase their wealth
3. increase their power in the eyes of the dominant community
4. have a strong presence in the education system
5. write down the language
6. make use of electronic technology

If it is possible for a language to be reinvigorated, revitalised and perhaps brought back from near death then the job of linguists is to always support such initiatives. If we are able to preserve language life then by all means let us preserve it. However, sometimes this is not possible and then perhaps our most important task as linguists is to analyse, describe and document; set the dying language down so that we can use knowledge about it to further research into the general understanding of the human condition.