A Facebook friend posted some stunning photos of herself and friends hiking in Jirisan National Park. Facebook’s auto-translation of the post included the rather worrying “Cancer is not an option to postpone”. Reading the Korean original and some research allayed my concerns, fortunately. The Korean original is 사성암은 미룰 수 없어요. I know that 암 is used in the names of usually smaller Buddhist monastic establishments, usually translated as hermitage, by far the most famous being 석굴암, Seokguram. But 암 by itself doesn’t mean hermitage any more than 사 by itself means temple.
So how did the translator get to cancer? The Korean word for cancer is 암, which I previously didn’t know because it’s not included in Korean for beginners or travellers books. The translator encountered a word it didn’t recognise and instead of simply transliterating it (which it did with several other proper nouns in the post), it guessed that the 암 on the end was the relevant part of the word.
Online translators don’t do much better. Google and Bing offer Sandstone cannot/can’t be postponed and Papago (which I have found to be the more accurate overall) the meaningless I can’t delay tetragonal cancer. But sandstone is 사암; 사성암, if it means anything at all, is four star cancer, compare 삼성, three stars. Even though it was the worst translation overall, Papago at least attempted to translate the whole of 사성암. [PS the next day: I commented on my friend’s post and she replied that 사성암 is ‘four saints hermitage’.]
The bigger issues here are how translators deal with proper nouns, and how they recognise that they are proper nouns. Do they transliterate them (eg 경복궁 as Gyeongbokgung) or (attempt to) translate them (eg as Brilliant Fortune Palace or Greatly Blessed by Heaven Palace, just the first two meanings I found)? I suspect that the more famous a place is, the more it is transliterated rather than translated. (There is a map of world countries giving the literal meaning of their name. I am typing this in Southern Land.)
A related issue is the use of common nouns as names. Two Korean-Australian friends named their first daughter 사랑, so once a year I see photos of “Love’s birthday party”. A Korean friend and his wife named their son 우주, so one post included the startling “I put the universe in the car”.
Between my first and second trips to Korea I gained a masters degree by online study. One of my subjects was Asian Languages, and the textbook was The Languages of East and South-East Asia by Cliff Goddard. The cover has words in three or four scripts, and the presence of the Korean word 말 (mal, word or language) in the bottom left-hand corner made me suspect that all of them had something to do with words or languages.
One day the manager of the language college I was working at noticed the book on my desk and asked me if I knew what the first row of Chinese said. I said I didn’t. He explained that it was a four-character phrase (which I think I’d vaguely heard or read about) and said that it means something like “Few words, many actions” (more about which later).
Soon after, my class had their weekly test and I took the book into the classroom to read or at least browse while I was supervising them. One young Chinese student took a long time to settle down to doing the test, so I held up the book and pointed to those words. That shocked her into doing her test.
Before I went to Korea for the first time, I bought, among other things, the then-current edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Korea. In the Culture section, it says:
PROVERBS Traditional saying provide an uncensored insight into a nation’s psyche. … An unblemished character is a Korean’s most treasured possession. To avoid any suspicion of being a thief, ‘Do not tie your shoelaces in a melon patch or touch your hat under a pear tree.’
Yesterday evening I was browsing through TV Tropes and found its page for Translation: “Yes”, which it explains:
While we commonly expect short phrases in one language to be equally short in another, sometimes short phrases are translated into surprisingly long ones: however, many shows parody this completely by having a single word become a long phrase in English, or a ridiculously long phrase to a single English word, often the word ‘Yes’.
I noticed this many years ago when proofreading transcripts of court proceedings against the audio recording. There would be exchanges like:
Barrister (in English): Did you see the accused do something on the night in question? Interpreter (in other language): [Approximately that long sentence.] Witness (in other language): [Very long sentence.] Interpreter (in English): Yes.
The judge and barristers never seemed to notice or question this.
Ordinarily, I would have been singing at church on Good Friday, but the service I would have been singing at was presented online by the ministers and readers only, with music pre-recorded by the main choir interpolated. Instead, I listened to a performance of the St Matthew Passion of J S Bach, which someone had recently mentioned and which I can’t remember ever having listened to in its entirety.
Today, following a theme, I tracked down a performance of the little-known Brockes Passion by Handel. The text, by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, draws on all four gospels and other sources, and was written during the 30 Years’ War, so there’s rather more blood and guts than in Bach’s versions. (Bach knew the text and Handel’s setting of it.)
Unfortunately, I found a text entirely in German (which I won’t identify), which I got Google to auto-translate for me. The first problem was that the German text is badly typeset. The second was that it’s full of 18th century formal religious and/or poetic words, which obviously Google Translate doesn’t have a large dataset for. For either or both reasons, the English translation was at best questionable and at worst outright hilarious. Sometimes there was an obvious reason for it, even with my low level of German (I can spot obvious cognates, and have picked up a few other words along the way, and Google sometimes does better with single words than with a poetic sentence.
(I don’t want to sound like I’m singling Google Translate out here. One of the few things I know about auto-translation is that it’s very very hard. I’m more surprised that it gets so much right.)
(Strong language warning for one word after the break.)
Our editor has a list of words which he thinks are overused and which he wants us to reword if possible. One of these is iconic. An article I was subediting today had it, and I mentioned it to him. He said something to the effect of “Oh, ‘iconic’ is the cliché du jour”.
du jour is French for ‘of the day’, especially soup du jour, the soup of the day. It is perfectly good French, but may be overused in French restaurants in English-speaking and is a cliché anywhere else. In fact, Google Ngram Viewer shows that the most common noun du jour is the plat, plate. Other nouns are the point (daybreak), plats, mode (the fashion of the day), ordre (agenda), menu, compter (‘the count of the day’, Google Translate couldn’t translate in its entirety but a French-speaking friend informed me it means ‘as of the date’, ie ‘as from the date that the goods were purchased’) and naissance (birth, daybreak again). All of which shows that the French phrase really hasn’t penetrated into English.
Some years ago (first guess 2001-2003) I bought a CD of this work. The booklet calls Balmont’s translation “more precisely, a re-interpretation” and includes his text transliterated into the Latin/‘English’ alphabet and translated into German, English and French. Whether the unnamed translator was equally free in translating Balmont’s Russian back into English or not, the result is very different from Poe’s original.Continue reading →
During the week I edited an article which quoted a company spokesperson talking about the company’s pizza which included an “Edam, mozzarella and Cheddar” topping. Edam and Cheddar are real places (in the Netherlands and England, respectively), and their cheeses originally had an upper case letter (and often still do). Mozzarella is not a place; the name is derived from the Italianmozza, a slice. So do I really have to have that mix of upper- and lower-case letters? Fortunately not. The Macquarie Dictionary styles edam and cheddar (the cheeses) with a lower-case letter, so the magazine will have “edam, mozzarella and cheddar”.
Various food and drink products have “protected designation of origin” status; for example, only sparkling wine from that region of France can be called (upper case) Champagne. There is, in the European Union, at least, no such thing as (lower case) champagne.Continue reading →
Various articles (for example) have been written as to why the name Benedict Cumberbatch can survive being transformed into Bandersnatch Cummerbund, Bandycoot Cumbersnatch, Bendandsnap Candycrush and more.
Recently, a Facebook friend posted a link to a series of photos rendering famous actors’ names into (supposed) Italian, sometimes based on sound and sometimes on meaning (which I didn’t bookmark, so I can’t link to. Seek and you will find). Among them is Benedetto Ingombranteinfornata. Say what? Google Translate doesn’t recognise Ingombranteinfornata, instead suggesting Ingombrante infornata, which it translates as bulky goods. Ingombrante by itself is cumbersome and infornata is batch. Continue reading →
A few days ago the topic in the textbook was books, especially translating books between languages. Most of the students I’ve ever taught read very few books, and this class was no exception. Some of them had read books in English. I asked about Harry Potter, probably the most famous set of novels in English in the recent past, and available in many languages. Some had read at least some of the books either in their language or English, but not both. I asked about the titles. The first book is usually either ‘magic stone’ or ‘magician’s stone’, but the Korean word translates as ‘wizard’. The Nepalese students conferred, then said ‘shining stone’. Continue reading →