August 2010 Archives

Danton's Death

Last weekend, I made a trip to London to see a production of Danton's Death by Georg Büchner at the Olivier Theatre.  The play was, of course, in translation, and I was pleased to see that the translators, Jane Fry and Simon Scardifield, were given a credit in the programme for the literal translation of the work.  

I was curious to know exactly what was meant by "literal translation". As the play was billed as "a new version by Howard Brenton", I imagine that the translators produced a faithful translation (but not necessarily word-for-word translation of the original text) which Brenton then used as the base from which to develop his adaptation. He had quite a task on his hands for he had taken a text written by a young German in 1835 which had the French Revolution as its theme. Brenton wanted to bring it to an English-speaking 21st century audience in London. It is hardly surprising that he had to adapt it a little!

This process of producing a translation targeted at a specific readership - such as a particular age group, income bracket or area of interest - is sometimes called "transcreation" in the translation industry. Transcreation involves translating the original text and then adapting it appropriately to make it relevant for the foreign readership. Sometimes this may require a few tweaks here and there, on other occasions, it may require a substantial reworking of the original text. I find, with one of my specialisms being Marketing, that I often have to produce transcreations to ensure that a German document is suitable for the British/English-speaking market.

Was Howard Brenton's transcreation of Danton's Death worth seeing? I think it has made something of an impression on me as I've been humming the Marseillaise for the past few days! It is not an evening of light entertainment (the clue is in the title) but it is certainly an absorbing one. Danton is played excellently by one of this country's most versatile actors, Toby Stephens, and I loved Elliot Levey's interpretation of the incorruptible Revolutionary purist. And the final scene is worth the ticket price alone. Breath taking.

Reviews of the play can be read here in The Independent, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. Interestingly, two of these reviewers complain that this version is too pared down. For me, such criticism just demonstrates how difficult the task of transcreation is. Overtranslation or undertranslation - and everyone has their view on where the line should be drawn!

 If you are interested in seeing the play, it is running until October 14.

Fry's English Delight

Stephen Fry is presenting a series of 4 radio programmes that take us on a gentle meander along the highways and byways of the English language. In this week's episode, he considered whether men and women use language differently. And also offered thoughts on whether one gender spends more time talking than the other.

The programmes are first broadcast on Wednesday mornings and are available on iPlayer for the following week. Click on the link to listen to the most recent edition.

'A' level results and gap years for linguists

Yesterday, the nation's 'A' level students were released from their agonising two-month wait for their results. Inevitably, there were the usual comments and discussions about whether the exams have become easier over the years, the introduction of the new A* grade, reports on school-leavers who did not get the grades they needed for their chosen university having to apply to other universities through Clearing and whether government policies causing cuts in university funding and caps on admissions were cheating suitably qualified students of places.

Of all the statistics and analysis I heard, I was interested to learn that there was (once again) a decrease in the number of pupils taking modern languages at 'A' level. Of those who did take one or more languages, most took Spanish, with French and German the next most popular subjects. I wonder how many of these young people will be reading for degrees in Modern Languages?

I am also curious to know how many would-be language undergraduates did not achieve the grades they had hoped for and are now wondering what to do with the rest of their lives. Do not despair, young linguists. There is hope and a future! Although you may be understandably disappointed that all your hard work has not been rewarded in the way that you had anticipated, all is not lost.

Mary Curnock-Cook, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), is reported in an interview in last week's Sunday Telegraph as saying that 'the golden age of the gap year is over," and wants to change the name to "bridging year". By the "golden age" it seems that she means 'acquiring life experience on an extended holiday'. Speaking from my own experience, I would advocate that a gap year for linguists is invaluable.

When I left school, gap years were relatively unusual (in fact, I don't remember them being called gap years then, we used a less snappy phrase: "deferred entry to university" - perhaps this would suit Ms Curnock-Cook better?) and my teachers were not enthusiastic about the idea. I've never really understood why they took this stance. When I returned from a year abroad in Germany I found that a couple of other fellow students on my course had followed a similar route. We discovered that by having been immersed in the language and culture we had a huge advantage over our fellow students. Where they were still struggling with grammatical structures in their spoken language, we were able to converse fluently; where they were having to work hard at reading the set works in literature, we were able to read with ease and understanding. We had absorbed the language almost unconsciously; our translations were more idiomatic and we did not collapse in a quivering heap when confronted with Middle High German (although Old High did present its challenges!!).

My advice to any post-A-level student, with or without their required grades, who is thinking of reading Modern Languages at university, is to consider spending at least six months in the source language country/ies and to soak up as much of the language as possible. It's much more fun, not to mention easier, to acquire fluency this way than slogging through language seminars. University admissions officers worth their salt must surely recognise that a student who is fluent in the language, has a genuine love for the country, its literature and culture, is acquainted with its customs, and counts its citizens as personal friends will bring far more to their chosen course than undergraduates who at 'A' level acquired a whole galaxy of A stars? 


A voice for a bereaved Russian father

Avaaz, which means "voice" in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages, was launched in January 2007 with a simple democratic mission: organize citizens everywhere to help close the gap between the world we have and the world most people want.

It holds regular on-line campaigns to fight for justice for people throughout the world. These campaigns range from climate change and environmental issues to human rights concerns.

I have just received an e-mail from the organisation highlighting the plight of a young Russian woman (whose father is a member of the Avaaz community) who was tricked by unscrupulous men into leaving her homeland to follow her dream of becoming a translator/interpreter.

This is part of her father's appeal to the Avaaz community.

"My daughter Oxana was a beautiful, wonderful girl, gifted in languages. She left our home when she was 20 to take her dream job as a translator in Europe. We were so happy for her. Three weeks later, the police told us she died falling from a 5th story window, trying to escape men who fooled her about the job and forced her into a sex club. I died when she died. Now I live only to stop this from happening to other girls. Please, help me."

Avaaz states: Oxana was killed by a brutal and growing global industry - the rape trade. A major part of this trade is girls taken in Russia and sent to Europe and the US where they face an awful future of daily rape and brutality.

Oxana's father Nikolai is appealing to Russian Prime Minister Putin to sign a powerful new convention requires strong laws to stop the rape trade. If you would like to sign a petition to encourage Mr Putin to sign the convention, then please click this link to visit Avaaz's website. And give Oxana's father and young women like Oxana a voice. 

Another experience of interpreting


Recently, I wrote about a radio interview with an interpreter broadcast on the BBC World Service. This post concerns a very different experience of interpreting by a tribesman in Sudan. Despite the title of the book, strictly speaking, he is actually an interpreter, not a translator but do not allow that detail to put you off!

The Translator: a tribesman's memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari is a fascinating but harrowing read.

Daoud Hari relates the background to the unrest in Darfur. He paints a picture of peaceful village life where everyone knows everyone else - not only in their own village but also in villages across the desert. Respect is shown to the elders and life appears to be relatively harmonious until Sudanese government-backed militia come to murder, rape and burn.

Hari had led an "unconventional" life in his youth and 20s but as he says himself , "Poverty generously provides every man a colourful past."

His schooling and his unconventional life have taught him English and, when he escapes to Chad as a refugee, he volunteers as an interpreter and guide for TV crews and journalists travelling over the border to Sudan. It is on one of these missions that he is arrested for being a spy.

I was particularly struck by this man's generous world view - which may or may not be typically African, I don't know enough to decide. He sees all his tribespeople, whether he actually knows them personally or not, as his family and mourns for their pain as much as for that of his immediate family. He gives an insight into how conflicts between tribes were dealt with - away from villages and the vulnerable - and in a way that no one publicly lost face.

It is a moving and elegaic account of a way of life which, due to the genocide, is passing into history. In some ways, this book could be considered its epitaph.

Calling native speakers of North American English

I have recently discovered that Yale University is conducting a survey of dialects spoken in North America.

Being a Brit, I'm not able to participate but, if you are a native speaker of American or Canadian English, you might be interested in contributing to the research.

Click here for more details.

August 1: Switzerland's National Day

Last week, I mentioned that Diccon Bewes had been interviewed on Radio 4's Excess Baggage. Bewes is a Brit living in Switzerland so he is well placed to report on the idiosyncracies of the Swiss from a foreign point of view. By means of his blog, Swiss Watching, Mr Bewes can also be considered a translator and interpreter - and thus be included here. For although he does not earn his living by translating the written or spoken word, he interprets Swiss life and culture for those of us who do not live there and cannot get under the skin of the country. His full immersion experience allows him to report on aspects of life that are not always apparent to the average tourist. It will not come as any surprise that Switzerland is not all skiing, watches, holey cheese and Heidi; Bewes reports on politics, football, avoiding social gaffes and perhaps the most important difference between the British and Swiss cultures: how not to queue.

Bewes has written about Switzerland's National Day (which falls today) giving a good flavour of how the day is celebrated. For the British, a national day is something of a foreign concept. I have often found myself explaining to incredulous foreigners that we, unlike the Germans, Americans, French, etc., do not celebrate our nation in this way. There has been some discussion in Parliament about instituting such a day but, so far, little progress has been made.

I have fond memories of visiting friends in Basel on August 1st one year so here's wishing my Swiss clients, colleagues and friends a happy national day!