Category Archives: Featured

How Translation Keeps Literature Alive

The Test of the Great Bow, an iconic moment from Homer’s The Odyssey.

One of the reasons I love translation is that it truly is pulsing, living, evolving field. Sometimes, people assume translating from one language to another is mainly plugging in the correct corresponding word you find in a dictionary. Throw in the proper adjustments of grammar and you’re done. But as I’ve written on this blog before, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

When presented a text, whether it’s advertising copy for the last Gillette razor with seven blades (or whatever number of blades it’s at now), or a centuries old novel, the translator imprints his/her own personality, experience and prejudices into that translation.

No text can ever be perfectly copied over to another language. It’s impossible. There’s always a beautiful turn of phrase that must be amended, a lyrical flow that must be changed. Even if a translator conveys the spirit of a text exceedingly well, that spirit is open to interpretation and will emerge in a different body, so to speak. This interpretation is subject to the varied eras, languages, capabilities and intents of the translators.

This fact was on my mind as I read about a highly publicized new translation of the ancient Greek classic poem The Odyssey, which was published in English this month. What’s so special about this translation? It’s the first ever English translation of the text by a woman. Her name is Emily Wilson, a British professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Like many other lovers of The Odyssey’s incredibly imaginative blend of drama and adventure, I wondered why a woman translating a poem that’s been around for millennia was such a big deal.

Turns out, it makes a huge difference. In the New York Times, Wilson talks about the challenges of translating ancient Greek: “The fact that it’s possible to translate the same lines a hundred different times and all of them are defensible in entirely different ways? That tells you something.”

Its open-endedness is both a blessing and a curse. How to know which specific translation to choose? It’s a matter of opinion and focus:

Wilson translates The Odyssey into contemporary English. For example, “Sing to me of the man, Muse” becomes, “Tell me about a complicated man.” It’s a conscious decision to strip The Odyssey of its impenetrable academic vibe, to let the story simply speak to modern day readers. Elsewhere, Wilson often highlights certain characters as the slaves they were, rather than the chambermaids and servants described in other texts.

Wilson also gives special attention to neglected characters. The King of Ithaca, Odysseus, is the eponymous protagonist, and much of the epic concentrates on him, his male crew and several male gods. But there’s also female characters: his wife Penelope, patiently waiting 20 years for his return from war, the goddesses Athena, Circe, Calypso…etc. Where other versions of The Odyssey interpreted those female characters a certain way, as women in a patriarchal society, Wilson highlights their desires and motivations with a modern understanding.

This latest version of The Odyssey is a reminder of the important role a translator has to be. A translation is almost a new work in of itself, building on the original text, not merely a copy. In that way, even a nearly 3,000 year old text stays alive.

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How Fusing New Technology with Translation Benefits Society

I’m a huge fan of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 science fiction film Minority Report. Starring Tom Cruise as a fugitive police officer, the film is set in a near future Washington, D.C., where technology has overtaken all aspects of society. You’ve got some outlandish things like jetpacks and future predicting clones, but there’s stuff that’s increasingly looking realistic. Along with driverless cars and fully immersive virtual reality, everything operates by retinal scan: your identification is acquired instantly. Even commercials appear on screens targeting you specifically as you walk down the street.

So thoughts of Tom Cruise dodging jetpack-wearing police officers inevitably came to my overly imaginative mind as I read about the UAE Ministry of Justice’s plans this week:

“By 2021, there will be an online dispute resolution mechanism, a 100 per cent smart trial with no courtroom; video conferencing in court hearings; a unified translation centre that will connect translators to secretaries of court and judges via a computer screen; and mediation and conciliation services in criminal justice.”

In a country with as many nationalities speaking as many diverse native tongues as the UAE, the unified translation centre is genius. It will offer real-time translations in court proceedings via a screen. Those proceedings are often confusing to people not used to them, especially expats accustomed to different norms in their home countries. Having such a centre will streamline proceedings and cut down costs. It will reduce potential conflict and confusion in those attending the proceedings. So that got me thinking about what other areas of society could benefit from such a translation centre: municipal buildings, hospitals, airports, shopping centres…the list is endless.

Diversity is the strength of a country like the UAE. The language barrier is the other side of that coin and will always be a challenge, but it’s a challenge that can be overcome and reduced by technology. All you need is the distribution system and the product.

The product is information, and the benefits of more information in a society are incalculable. Along with on location screens, the distribution system is already there in the miniature screens in the hands of the population. That the vast majority of people have smartphones and tablets is a given at this point. Apps specialized for a certain facility or purpose can be downloaded and deliver the information right to the recipient’s language. A bank of translated answers to clients’ queries can be provided instantaneously. Especially in places where people don’t normally go but are vulnerable and in need of information, the results can only be positive.

So even though we’re not quite at retinal scans and crime prediction software, technology is changing our day-to-day lives in creative and innovative ways. I say keep it coming!

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Translation in the Arab World Matters


The big news coming out of Dubai last month in the world of education is His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s announcement of an e-Learning Project challenge to translate 11 million words and 5,000 video tutorials of math and science into Arabic by 2018.

The project is part of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives (MBRGI), which is aimed at establishing a knowledge base for Arab students in the ever-important fields of math and science. The plan is for the material to be available online for free for more than 50 million students across the Arab region.

These kinds of exciting projects are important to preserve knowledge and education in Arabic and to stem the brain drain the Middle East has experienced in recent years, and fight unemployment at home. According to the World Bank, youth unemployment in the Arab region reached 29.73% in 2014, slightly more than half the world average. This project shows the power of translation in fighting those issues and improving our lives.

The Arab world has a long legacy of impacting the world with its translations. A great deal of what endured of the Ancient Greek writings on philosophy, science and mathematics survived due to their translation into Arabic, particularly during the early Abbasid era. But that impetus on translation has waned greatly since then. In the past 1,000 years, the total number of books translated into Arabic is less than those translated to Spanish in one year. This needs to change in the world of globalization, where the spreading of information is key to growth and success in the 21st century.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s challenge calls out to volunteers and experts in different fields, from teachers to researchers to scientists to devote their time to this translation. Tabeer hopes this is the first of many projects of this nature in the coming years!

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The Art of Translating Idioms

We’re in an era where the Googles and Facebooks of the world have become exceedingly good at translating posts, articles and entire websites into multiple languages in the time it takes to click the option to do so. But while those translations can help you basically get by, there’s a few things computer translation can’t handle. One of the best examples of its limitations is the idiom.

Idioms are popular expressions that don’t quite make literal sense, but have a language and/or culture specific meaning and purpose. Some English examples include: “break a leg”, “under the weather” and “calling it a day”. Literal translations of those would make no sense.

There are also, of course, expressions that do make sense with a little bit of intuiting: “hitting two birds with one stone” and “biting off more than you can chew” are two examples of idioms that can be translated literally word for word while retaining their intended meaning.

In each of those cases, translating idioms requires a little bit of know-how and creativity. This is where the human mind and its knowledge of the intricacies of context and connection of region, country, subject and tone comes exceedingly handy:

In all cases, a translator needs to know if there’s an equivalent to an idiom in the language he/she is translating to. If one exists but the translator is unaware and chooses to use his/her own words, this isn’t an ideal translation. For example, “hitting two birds with one stone” coincidentally exists in several languages, but may use different subjects than birds and stones. A literal translation of the still easy to intuit idiom will sound odd and inauthentic to a native speaker. This is one example of what makes the difference between a robotic translation and a proper culturally aware one.

And in cases where no idiom equivalent exists, a translator needs to get those creative juices flowing. What matters in an idiom is the meaning it is trying to convey. Idioms like “under the weather” are simple to deal with. Simply replacing it with a translation of “feeling sick/unwell” does the trick. Idioms like “playing devil’s advocate”, short as they are, have an added layer of nuance to them. Finding a way to quickly and efficiently convey that idiom in a non-confusing manner isn’t easy, and there are many possible routes to take with it, with varying degrees of success and quality. Translating “playing devil’s advocate” to a person is “taking an opposing side to assess the quality of an argument or position” is clunky and overlong, but saying someone is “debating from the opposing view” is cleaner and quicker. This methodology is key to a proper translation of idioms and any text as a whole, and one that especially remains integral in many of its fields, from technical to prose to hard news.

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Do Blogs for Businesses Still Work?

Do Blogs for Businesses Still Work?

When the blogosphere first exploded, everyone from your grandmother to the bratty kids living next door dabbled in getting their own WordPress or Blogspot account. The appeal of a blog is obvious: your thoughts and ideas out there, accessible to the entirety of the internet. Sounds ideal, but the reality is quite different.

Often, blogs become forgotten wastelands of content, rarely visited and consequently, frequently neglected by its creators. The vast majority of blogs transform into lonely echo chambers, which might be fine if you’re an aspiring writer just putting up that poetry you never thought you could publish. But if you’re a business owner sending out a message that isn’t being read, this represents a wasteful investment of time and resources that could be used elsewhere.

That is, if you’re not doing it right. Here are a few tips to help your business’s blog:

1. Know your target audience

Every business has a product or service it’s providing, and if it’s doing its job right, it also knows the client base and target market it wants to reach. The inspiration for your content will always come from within, but the best approach to formulating and moulding your ideas is to also try and think of what your client is looking for and what your target market might find useful or informative.

2. Diversify, diversify, diversify

In this day and age with so much grabbing our attention with social media, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. Having a well-written, eye-catching blog is fine, but it can’t be the only thing you’re doing. If your business’s image and product translates well into pictures, a regularly updated Instagram account is a must. Even Snapchat is worth considering. Facebook and Twitter presences are becoming more and more essential. The best approach is to have each of your content streams linking and funnelling into each other, giving your audience a variety of channels that keeps them focused on your business.

3. Use your connections

Closely tied to the above tip, you have to use the tools of social media and your own network of friends and professionals to spread the word (literally). What’s the point of spending hours of work every week on creating this content if you’re not telling people (and specifically, clients) about it, sharing it across several platforms and actively promoting it?

4. Consistency is key

It’s one thing to write a blog post, it’s another to regularly make sure to do so. Finding the time can be difficult, especially if you don’t have a steady, predictable flow of business you can schedule around. But if you’ve made the decision that a blog will help generate more interest in your business, you might as well take the time to do it right, and do it often. Whatever your schedule ends up being, daily, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, make sure you stick to it. Your audience will come to expect new content on that basis, and things like this tend to snowball and grow over time.

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