3.00 FYI France: Ejournal and archive

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

July 15, 2004 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on July 15, 2004.

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Versions of the following have appeared online regularly, since 1992, as a feature of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which is distributed for free via email every month except August. Ejournal subscriptions may be obtained via email request to: kessler@well.sf.ca.us

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Translating the French...

.... aaaaand a very large truckload of very smelly cheese to... Charles Krauthammer...

It is time, it seems, for the Anglophone and Francophone worlds to brush up on their mutual translation abilities. Recently too much, which once might have been consigned to the fuzzy although entertaining areas of "l'ironie" and "double entendre", has begun to stray over into the far more dangerous and apparently far more crystal-clear arenas of "politics" and "national policy", where these days there is too little humor left.

A first step might be made by considering the art of translation: particularly on the Internet, where too much of momentous import gets imperfectly researched and discussed and defined, nowadays.

It never is entirely obvious, what another who knows it imperfectly is trying say in one's own language: "meaning" rarely enough is obvious even among native-speakers, let alone among those of us who learn another's language imperfectly and only in school or at college or even later on in life.

Translation at least pretends to ease the communication process. To someone French struggling with the meaning of an American phrase such as, say, "pre-emptive strike" -- or to someone in the US attempting to figure out a French term such as, say, "force de frappe" -- it can be reassuring to have a rendering of terms and explanations in one's own native language to turn to. Assuming, that is, that the rendering is correct... and that it explains policy nuances, and context, and subtleties, and history...

A brief exploration of language "translation" alternatives currently available follows here, then: perhaps useful to websites, researchers, writers, libraries "digital" and otherwise, Internet developers, even to political columnists --

* "Commercial" translation services.

One current commercial leader in the translation field is the "Language Line" service, begun by a San Jose police officer and developed by AT&T --


-- an airport police officer, tackling a suspect who protests in some strange argot, or comforting a bewildered elder sobbing in a weird-sounding gibberish, now has only to dial a password-protected telephone number to gain rapid access to fluent speakers of 150 human languages...

So criminal situations get sorted out more quickly now, and lost passport situations resolved, and health emergencies dealt with -- in this Globalizing world characterized, daily, by tense situations involving every one of those 150 human languages.

And this commercial service -- just to begin, here, with a commercial example -- offers many other forms of "translation" help. Increasingly services like this one are being sought by governments, and corporations, and many others, as we all cope with said Globalization. But the services of commercial firms like "Language Line Inc." are not free: their document translation fees, for example, currently are advertised as --

I would expect that such prices are the most expensive rates, and that discounts must be available for any customer -- or consortium of customers, say... -- which could promise such a firm a steady business flow. Still, though, such "translation" is not cheap: something for legal and business documents, perhaps, and for emergencies. One senses that Internet access might be useful, in this, but one senses as well that "security" issues, or at least worries, might complicate that.

Another "commercial translation service" variety nowadays includes those which are directly online, on the Internet.

Altavista's "Babelfish" is one established example:


-- another is "FreeTranslation.com" --


-- or consider "Google Language Tools" -- offering translations to & from Pig Latin! --


All this is the much-lampooned land of "machine translation": where input such as "la plume de ma tante" gets rendered as "the feather of my aunt"... or ponderous Biblical sayings such as "the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak", get transformed into the very non-Biblical "the whiskey was good but the steak was bad"...

Nevertheless... such free services, and their many not-so-free extensions now getting built up around them by their providers, can be useful. For getting "the gist" of a foreign phrase or document, if not its exact meaning: for example nowadays at least someone French is able, very easily online, to render a tortuous American English language passage such as, say,

-- into the parlance of Voltaire, or sort of, thus --

-- even though, rendered back à l'américain, the passage does appear to have changed a bit --

-- nevertheless perhaps, as Mercutio put it, "'tis enough, 'twill serve": the French reader can get the general gist, at least, of what the Americans are trying to say. Not that this makes her/him feel any better about the message, in this particular case. But understanding the language used is a start: later, then, for the "context", and the "entendre double"...

So there are "commercial translation services" available now: some of which can be expensive, but also some of which, although they can be less "perfect" than the others, still are useful, and are free of charge.

Other alternatives not so commercial and not so expensive now exist too, though, for "translation", many of these thanks to the new global networking capacities of the Internet:

* "Campus" translation services.

Any "campus", academic or corporate or government or other, nowadays contains enormous and largely-untapped human language translation resources: in the large and growing segments of campus populations composed of native speakers of other languages, people who often even are fluent in several.

Consider any large university, nowadays, with all of those "foreign" students and researchers and professors and staff... Or consider any large hitech or other company anywhere, now, where multiple nationalities pass each other in the halls constantly: all of those people "know other languages", and each of them could "help with translation"...

Even government agencies and departments -- those which have remained politically open-minded enough to still employ recent immigrants and foreign nationals, anyway -- there too, when "government" emergencies and other language needs arise, there is a huge and largely-untapped language translation resource, simply in the daily workstaff of most such organizations. Someone in "the department" who speaks Urdu, or someone fluent in Bengali... or a typist who, it happens, was born and raised in Paraguay and may know Guaraní ("anybody else know Guaraní?")...

Or a computer technician who as a teenager fled troubles in her native land but still retains her knowledge of Yoruba, or of Ibo: when the documentation on some new problem in Lagos comes in, and even the English in it appears to be indecipherable, passing it by that native speaker, on the chance that she might understand some double meaning or other context involved, might be very productive for the department. Or say it's a radio transmission, and she can tell others that the speaker is not, in fact, where he says he's from, just by his accent...

Would that we in the US had had more such capacity for translating and interpreting various forms of Arabic, for instance, over the last few years, in our "government departments"... we had it, but we didn't use it... there might have been more realistic "alerts", and greater understanding...

The language translation problem on any campus, I suggest -- in any campus situation, for we now have the virtual campus, increasingly, scattered across the planet but tied more and more closely together by the Internet -- is the problem of reaching the translators when we need them.

They are there: Globalization plus multi-culturalism plus our shrinking planet increasingly guarantee that foreign language speakers are nearby, no matter where we happen to be. But as generations of librarians have discovered with OPACs, "you can lead a user to the catalog but you can't make her use it"... The problem is tieing in these foreign language speakers to a system, so that those in need of translation can get to them, rapidly and effectively, when needed.

The Internet... Would it be so difficult, on any campus, academic or corporate or government or other, to assemble databases of people with language abilities, and a system for putting people in need of such capacities into contact with them?

Would it be expensive? Would the translators be paid? Depends on local conditions... But would the coordination of such a "language translation network" be possible, and easy? Yes, I would think, using the Internet: sounds to me like just a simple list, in the simplest case -- email addresses.

To offer a concrete example, taken from a very traditional library context:

Translation services for digital libraries: at the online reference virtual "desk"

A recent FYI France issue, that of May 15, presented the new Guichet de Savoir service of the Bibliotheque municipale de Lyon:

Several correspondents since have asked about the multi-lingual access capacities of such a service. The BM Lyon's proud and generous reply has been,

But then of course the BM Lyon is in a position to make such a reply: they are an enormous library, amply-endowed with collections both ancient and extensive, and multitudinous and talented staff, and good government and international connections -- not all libraries wishing to provide online reference service enjoy such exalted status, and resources, as does the BM Lyon.

Lyon also prides itself on being somewhat of an international city -- "European", at least -- and "trans-national", even. The city does healthy international / trans-national business, and boasts a major airport and TGV link, and a notable university, and other such resources: a library can draw upon all of these, perhaps, for language translation work.

But need any library do so, any longer? Shouldn't it be possible for any library, anywhere, to obtain language translation assistance simply by using the Internet?

All that is required, in principle, is an email to someone, and an email back: "Here, we have this Ural-Mongol-Finno-Turkic online reference desk inquiry which I need to understand: if you would be kind enough to translate it for us, we promise to do the same thing for you, the next time you need something translated into our specialities, French / English / Spanish / Tagalog..."

Something along the lines of Inter-Library Lending, perhaps: but so much easier, and cheaper, as all it would require would be Internet email organization... a Language Translation Network...

(If anyone reading this knows of working examples of such "campus" or "campus situation" networks for human language translation -- already in existence or under construction, informal or otherwise -- academic, corporate, government agency or department, libraries "digital" or other, or anything else -- I would like very much to hear about them. Pls send me email at kessler@well.com.)

* "Independent" translation services.

The traditional publishing industries long have used "translators". As a trade, as an industry, as an art form, "translation" has employed the talents and dedication of countless individuals, drawn from all walks of life, for centuries.

From Michael Ventris poring over the mysterious scribblings of "Linear B", to Joseph Needham wading through the nuances of thousands of years of Chinese scientific effort, to Champollion's personal mastery of Hebrew & Arabic & Syriac & Chaldean & Chinese & Coptic & Ethiopic & Sanskrit & Zend & Pahlevi & Persian (!), translators of human language and cultural traditions have been remarkable individuals: as focussed as Ventris, as encyclopedic as Needham, as eclectic as Champollion.

And nowhere near as omnipresent in the past as they now are, thanks to the Internet... I would think that any "campus" or other translation effort -- one to mount multi-lingual web pages, for example, or one to provide translation services for students and researchers and others -- might take advantage, easily, of the global reach of networked information, to tap into language translation abilities located far from "home".

How many Tamil-speakers, fluent also in English and even in French and other languages, reside now in Tamil Nadu? Once a long way away, now merely a URL or an email address... So the documentation in the terrible political fight now brewing in the US over "foreign outsourcing callcenters" might be translated from Tamil into English, and from English into Tamil, and from both into Hindi and vice versa, the better to enable participants and journalists and researchers on all sides to understand the issues. No, everyone "out there" does not, "_really_ all know English ok, don't they?"... as a very young American Internet developer once pointedly demanded of me, over a decade ago...

Or consider the AIDS crisis: the views, and concerns, and realities, of people faced with this problem in Cameroon, might best be expressed in translations from their own native English, to people in France -- or from their own native French, to people in the US -- or perhaps "really" from their own native Fulani, to people in both places.

And, if English and French translation happens to be plentiful, in France and the US, what about Fulani?... Nowadays, though, Fulani translation is a simple step away, via the Internet: find someone in Yaoundé who knows it -- just a mouse-click away.

So why aren't we doing more of this? Why aren't all libraries, and other organizations as well, offering global human language translation services? It seems simple.

The Internet reaches most nations, now, and most international language groupings: if all 6000 or so human languages are not yet fully "online" they will be soon, via Unicode, and in the meantime there always is voice & fax transmission, once the initial contact is established via email. So there seems to be little excuse left, nowadays, for the purely-linguistic barriers in human communication at least, language translation being so readily available now via Internet.

* Confidentiality and Competence

There do seem still to be a number of generic questions involved, though, in the process of human language translation, no matter how eased this process has become thanks to digital communications. Among these are confidentiality and competence.

The question of confidentiality has come up in the emotive political noise now surrounding the increasingly hysterical "foreign outsourcing callcenter" issue of the US presidential campaign. Notorious incidents have included that of the outsourced worker in India who, cheated of her pay by the US "backoffice" service bureau which hired her, threatened to reveal online the medical records of patients at a major US hospital.

Also, now, there are worries about outsourced "contractors" of the US military in Iraq, who unlike official military personnel appear to be subject to neither the laws of the US nor those of Iraq, nor of anyone else, and who recently have been implicated in Abu Ghraib and other scandals... and whose revelations under pressure might prove to be embarrassing to many...

The question one needs to ask, however, regarding the confidentiality of the "foreign outsourcing" of anything -- of military contracting or recordkeeping or language translation or anything else -- is how relevant the "foreign" aspect of this really is, to concerns such as reliability and security.

If the worst, or among the worst, "terrorism" and other such incidents in fact are committed by a nation's own citizens upon one another -- the Oklahoma City bombing still ranks as among the worst, in the US, and that was a crime not committed by "foreigners" -- then perhaps concerns for confidentiality, in "foreign outsourcing", are overblown. If we use the Internet to get human language translation done, then, we should be careful -- there are all sorts of "nuts" online, on the Internet -- but not all of them are "foreign"... most of them aren't, maybe...

And as with "confidentiality" so with "competence", and perhaps so with most other concerns about turning to our global Internet for language translation. The question is not so much where to obtain the "best" translation, as it is where to obtain one "better" than another.

Certification of translation is an imperfect process itself, even in the most formal and official procedures used by courts and government agencies, in the US or France or elsewhere. Human language is a supple and imprecise communications tool at the best of times, and two human translators no matter how expert rarely will come up with the identical rendering of any phrase at all complex or significant, let alone of any document of any length.

So the question becomes whether to settle for "imperfect" translation: the answer being that we'll make do, and when something "perfect" comes along well then maybe we'll change to that...

Still, though, improvements can be made: native-speakers generally do a better job of understanding a language than do those who have acquired their proficiency in it later on in life. So the new ability to reach more native-speakers in more places, than we ever have in our history, thanks to the Internet, would seem to indicate that human language translation ought to benefit from this new access in some way.

So, competent to translate? Well, perhaps... But perhaps the more relevant question to ask is that asked of the "machine translation" which can garble phrases on occasion: Mercutio's whether "'tis enough, 'twill serve"?

For a court document perhaps not, but all translation is not just court documents. For French Internet readers worried about a new American pronouncement on "pre-emptive strike", though, perhaps it is enough at least to get the best translation of such an awful-sounding phrase which can be found -- and a native speaker of French who also knows American "official" English well, and is acquainted with the general context and history of the phrase, might translate this more usefully than someone American possessing only high school French.

Likewise for "force de frappe": we now have many native speakers of American English available, via the Internet, who know the French context and thus can translate both syntax and semantics, and context and history, for those of us in the US wondering and worrying about such a phrase.

It might do us all well to work on expanding such translation capacities, then: at a time when, ironically, we have such wonderful technological capacities to aid us, but at the same time our intellectual understanding for and sympathy toward one another seem to have taken a few severe hits -- an era of much heat but little light, and as such always dangerous.

* Translation is an art, not a science

The last word on "competency" in translation, though, is the gentle reminder provided by the example of Arthur Waley, the last century's famous British translator of ancient Chinese classics: that human language translation is an art not a science.

Waley was a true artist: his wonderful renderings of Chinese poetry and other literature into English have mystified many Chinese, as well as English speakers in possession of exacting knowledge of the classical Chinese language themselves. But Waley's work nevertheless did its job better than any other, reaching and inspiring generations of Westerners to open and enjoy and appreciate Chinese works which, but for Waley, would have remained inaccessible and unknown to them.

The merits of Waley's translations, and their eccentricities, are memorialized in the title of an "appreciation and anthology" of his work, Madly Singing in the Mountains (Berkeley : Creative Arts Book Co., 1981, c1970) -- which is a phrase from Waley's translation of a 9th c. Chinese poet, but one which only could have been uttered by an Edwardian English Bloomsbury gentleman...

The most general point being, I suppose, that human communication itself is an art, not a science. As observed initially here, "meaning" rarely enough is obvious even among native-speakers, let alone among those of us who learn another's language later on in life, and imperfectly... Nevertheless, we must make the attempt: to translate what we say and write, to and about one another, and to communicate, and to understand. And we all need to try harder than we have been, recently: between the Americans and the French -- old friends who seem to be having some fallings out -- and with other old friends, and among friends and enemies.

There is too much at stake now not to try. "Walking a mile in the other man's moccasins" may not be practical, in world affairs, nor even "standing in his shoes", but at least translating and understanding what he has to say would be a start: all of our websites need to become multi-lingual -- our children, too. All "libraries" need to offer all languages. Translation services need to be provided, and the Internet can help.

As for Time columnist Charles Krauthammer... and other France-bashers on the western side of the Atlantic, or for that matter America-bashers on its eastern shore... the Republic founded in 1776 might do well to heed a few of the sincere warnings sent to it by the Republic founded in 1958, following Kent's advice,

For France has faced all these current things since long before 1958, after all: the threats and temptations which America now confronts are as old as humanity. So Americans might do well to "translate" what our foreign friends are saying to us nowadays very carefully, and to understand it well: so that we Americans, again following Kent's advice, might,





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Last update: July 21, 2004