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Posts Tagged ‘translation

“The map is not the territory”*…


Much of the area around a Tanzanian safe house for girls threatened with genital mutilation isn’t recorded on Google Maps. By logging buildings and streets on OSM, volunteers can help outreach workers navigate. (OpenStreetMap)

“For most of human history, maps have been very exclusive,” said Marie Price, the first woman president of the American Geographical Society, appointed 165 years into its 167-year history. “Only a few people got to make maps, and they were carefully guarded, and they were not participatory.” That’s slowly changing, she said, thanks to democratizing projects like OpenStreetMap (OSM).

OSM is the self-proclaimed Wikipedia of maps: It’s a free and open-source sketch of the globe, created by a volunteer pool that essentially crowd-sources the map, tracing parts of the world that haven’t yet been logged. Armed with satellite images, GPS coordinates, local community insights and map “tasks,” volunteer cartographers identify roads, paths, and buildings in remote areas and their own backyards. Then, experienced editors verify each element. Chances are, you use an OSM-sourced map every day without realizing it: Foursquare, Craigslist, Pinterest, Etsy, and Uber all use it in their direction services.

When commercial companies like Google decide to map the not-yet-mapped, they use “The Starbucks Test,” as OSMers like to call it. If you’re within a certain radius of a chain coffee shop, Google will invest in maps to make it easy to find. Everywhere else, especially in the developing world, other virtual cartographers have to fill in the gaps…

Too often, men– and money– decide what will be mapped and why.  But a team of OpenStreetMap users is working to draw new cartographic lines, making maps that more accurately—and equitably—reflect our space: “Who Maps the World?

* Alfred Korzybski


As we find our way, we might send exploratory birthday greetings to Sir Richard Francis Burton; he was born on this date in 1821.  An explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. He was famed for his travels and explorations in Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures (according to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian and African languages).

An exception to the pervasive British ethnocentrism of his day, he relished personal contact with human cultures in all their variety.  His best-remembered achievements include: a well-documented journey to Mecca in disguise, at a time when Europeans were forbidden access on pain of death; an unexpurgated translation of One Thousand and One Nights (commonly called The Arabian Nights in English after early translations of Antoine Galland’s French version); the publication of the Kama Sutra in English; and a journey with John Hanning Speke as the first Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile.



“Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish”*…


… and sometimes, it turns out, the reverse is true:

About 20 per cent of the United States population (60 million out of 300 million people) are non-native speakers of English. Speaking multiple languages has advantages – for example, you get to talk to people from different cultures. But being a non-native or second-language (L2) speaker also has its challenges. In addition to often feeling self-conscious about their accents, L2 speakers can be viewed by native speakers as less intelligent, and less trustworthy.

Thus it might come as a surprise that, in 1980, Henry Kissinger (the former US secretary of state and a non-native English speaker, originally from Germany) told Arianna Huffington (the Greek immigrant and entrepreneur/writer who would eventually start The Huffington Post) not to worry about [her] accent, ‘because you can never, in American public life, underestimate the advantages of complete and total incomprehensibility’…

We can think of the errors in non-native English as a noisier language model than a native-speaker model. Listeners expect more errors and are therefore more likely to think that L2 speakers mean something sensible when they say something implausible. But if a native speaker says something nonsensical, listeners are more likely to take them literally, because they know their language model has less noise. Kissinger was advising Huffington that, given her accent, listeners would likely give her the benefit of the doubt…

An MIT cognitive scientist explains “The unexpected benefits of getting lost in translation.”

* Euripides, The Bacchae


As we filter signal from noise, we might recall that it was on this date in 1535 that The Bible, that is the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testament, faithfully translated into English— better known as the Coverdale Bible— came off the press in Antwerp.  Prepared by Myles Coverdale, it was the first complete Modern English translation of the Bible (not just the Old Testament or New Testament), and the first complete printed translation into English (using William Tyndale‘s New Testament work together with Coverdale’s own translations from the Latin Vulgate or German text).



Written by LW

October 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”*…


In 1872 a British general named Alexander Cunningham, excavating an area in what was then British-controlled northern India, came across something peculiar. Buried in some ruins, he uncovered a small, one inch by one inch square piece of what he described as smooth, black, unpolished stone engraved with strange symbols — lines, interlocking ovals, something resembling a fish — and what looked like a bull etched underneath. The general, not recognizing the symbols and finding the bull to be unlike other Indian animals, assumed the artifact wasn’t Indian at all but some misplaced foreign token. The stone, along with similar ones found over the next few years, ended up in the British Museum. In the 1920s many more of these artifacts, by then known as seals, were found and identified as evidence of a 4,000-year-old culture now known as the Indus Valley Civilization, the oldest known Indian civilization to date.

Since then, thousands more of these tiny seals have been uncovered. Most of them feature one line of symbols at the top with a picture, usually of an animal, carved below. The animals pictured include bulls, rhinoceros, elephants, and puzzlingly, unicorns. They’ve been found in a swath of territory that covers present-day India and Pakistan and along trade routes, with seals being found as far as present-day Iraq. And the symbols, which range from geometric designs to representations of fish or jars, have also been found on signs, tablets, copper plates, tools, and pottery.

Though we now have thousands of examples of these symbols, we have very little idea what they mean. Over a century after Cunningham’s discovery, the seals remain undeciphered, their messages lost to us. Are they the letters of an ancient language? Or are they just religious, familial, or political symbols? Those hotly contested questions have sparked infighting among scholars and exacerbated cultural rivalries over who can claim the script as their heritage. But new work from researchers using sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and even cognitive science are finally helping push us to the edge of cracking the Indus script…

A tale of antiquities, A.I., and academic rivalry: “Cypher Wars.”

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (5.6)


As we dig in, we might send carefully-excavated birthday greetings to Gertrude Caton Thompson; she was born on this date in 1888.  An influential English archaeologist at a time when it was unusual for women to be allowed to lead in the field (pun intended), she distinguished two prehistoric cultures in the Al-Fayyum depression of Upper Egypt (the older dating to about 5000 BC and the younger to about 4500 BC.), and she demonstrated that the ruins in southeastern Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe known since the 16th century as Great Zimbabwe were the product of a “native civilization” (not outsiders, as some others had asserted).



Written by LW

February 1, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I just enjoy translating, it’s like opening one’s mouth and hearing someone else’s voice emerge”*…


The Highbrow Struggles of Translating Modern Children’s Books Into Latin.”

* Iris Murdoch


As we try transliteration, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Umberto Eco; he was born on this date in 1932.  Most widely known as a novelist (primarily for his international best seller The Name of the Rose), Eco was also a literary critic, philosopher, and university professor highly-regarded in academic circles for his contributions to semiology.

An occasional translator, Eco once remarked, “translation is the art of failure.”



Written by LW

January 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”*…



Just as the boundaries of a guitar string (how it is pinned at both ends) determine how it vibrates, the distant past and far future of the universe may govern what happens today.

… imposing old Newtonian Schema thinking on new quantum-scale phenomena has landed us in situations with no good explanations whatsoever. If these phenomena seem inexplicable, we may just be thinking about them in the wrong way. Much better explanations become available if we are willing to take the future into account as well as the past. But Newtonian-style thinking is inherently incapable of such time-neutral explanations. Computer programs run in only one direction, and trying to combine two programs running in opposite directions leads to the paradoxical morass of poorly plotted time-travel movies. In order to treat the future as seriously as we treat the past, we clearly need an alternative to the Newtonian Schema.

And we have one. Most physicists are well aware of a different framework, an alternative where space and time are analyzed in an even-handed manner. This so-called Lagrangian Schema also has old roots and has become an essential tool in every field of fundamental physics. But even physicists who regularly use this approach have resisted the last obvious step: thinking of the Lagrangian Schema not just as a mathematical trick, but as a way to explain the world. Perhaps we haven’t been taking our own theories seriously enough.

The Lagrangian Schema doesn’t just allow future-based explanations. It demands them. By treating the future and the past on the same footing, this framework avoids paradoxes and makes new explanatory opportunities available. And it just might be the viewpoint that physics needs for the next major breakthrough…

More at “To Understand Your Past, Look to Your Future.”

Anthony Oettinger (though often mis-attributed to Groucho Marx)


As we disentangle entanglement, we might spare a thought for Bede (or as he is more frequently remembered, Venerable Bede); he died on this date in 735.  An English monk, Bede studied and wrote widely on scientific, historical, and theological topics, ranging from music and metrics to exegetical Scripture commentaries.  He was an accomplished translator (Pliny the Elder, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace, and other classical writers in both Greek and Hebrew).  And his  Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) has earned him the title “The Father of English History.”  Indeed, it was in this work that Bede established as common practice the use of “BC” and “AD” with dates.

Bede as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493


Written by LW

May 26, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Translation is the art of failure”*…



For to ride a horse.

Very dissatisfied customer (brandishing pistol): Here is a horse who have a bad looks. Give me another; I will not that. He not sall know to march, he is pursy, he is foundered. Don’t you are ashamed to give me a jade as like? he is undshoed, he is with nails up; it want to lead to the farrier.

Terrified horse dealer: Your pistols are its loads?

O Novo Guia da Conversação em Portuguez e Inglez— or English as She is Spoke, as it was titled in it’s English version– was a Portuguese/English phrase book published in 1855.  It’s widely believed that it was written by Pedro Carolino and misleadingly additionally credited to José da Fonseca, whose (perfectly serviceable) Portuguese/French phrase book was the source for Carolino… who spoke no english, and simply used a French/English dictionary to make literal translations from da Fonseca’s work.

The result is a masterpiece of unintentional humor– one of which Mark Twain wrote:

In this world of uncertainties, there is, at any rate, one thing which may be pretty confidently set down as a certainty: and that is, that this celebrated little phrase-book will never die while the English language lasts. Its delicious unconscious ridiculousness, and its enchanting naivete, as are supreme and unapproachable, in their way, as are Shakespeare’s sublimities. Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure…

Read (or download) English as She is Spoke in its blissful entirety at Project Gutenberg.

* Umberto Eco


As we polish our phrasing, we might recall that it was on this date in 1494 that the first recorded mention of scotch whiskey occurred: an entry in the Exchequer Rolls lists “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae (water of life, as the then-medicinally-justified liquor was known)”– a sufficient quantity to produce almost 1,500 bottles, suggesting that distilling was already well-established.  Indeed, some historians believe that the “Heather Ale” drink brewed by the Picts was actually early scotch whisky– suggesting that whisky could date back to the late Iron Age (100-50 years BC).



Traduttore, traditore…


Over at the always-fascinating Langage Log, Victor Mair responds to an amusing– but as he points out, slightly misleading– piece in The Daily Mail.  In “Lost in translation: Hilarious advice signs from foreign airports… where their English leaves a little to be desired,” The Mail features a series of Asian signs awkwardly, if not entirely incorrectly, translated– like this one:

But as Mair observes, some of the signs featured are perhaps even more amusing, precisely because they are perfectly accurately translated:

Though the English may sound strange, neither of these signs is mistranslated. That’s what the Chinese really says:

       yóuyú mǒuxiē yuányīn yánwù 由于某些原因延误
“delayed due to some reasons”

       wénmíng jīchǎng 文明机场
“civilized airport”

These two signs are examples of what might be called “un-Chinglish”. Technically, their “lost” quality is due not to mistranslation but to unfamiliarity with the sociocultural expectations of the circumstances in which they are found…

… which is all just to remind us that the world is even more wonderfully weird than we know.


As we treasure our phrasebooks, we might send epic birthday greetings to a man whose work transcended translation, Akira Kurosawa; he was born on this date in 1910.  One of the most influential filmakers in cinema history, he directed 30 films in a 57 year career.  His Rashomon, a surprise Golden Lion winner at Venice in 1950, went on to commercial success in Europe and the U.S., opening those markets to Japanese film.  He went on to make such masterpieces as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985)… a body of work for which he won essentially every major film award offered in Japan, Europe, and the U.S., including a Lifetime Achievement Oscar (1990).



Written by LW

March 23, 2013 at 1:01 am

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