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Photo: Netflix/Lupin.
“The French mystery thriller Lupin became the most-watched non-English series on Netflix and is also the platform’s most popular series of 2021; it’s been lauded for its seamless translations,” reports Zocalo.

I’ve spent many months plowing my way through The Magic Mountain mainly because I’d read about the challenges Thomas Mann’s first English translator, Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, faced. I was curious. If characters suddenly start speaking French, how do you show they aren’t speaking German anymore? One character is a real Mrs. Malaprop. In German. What do you do? If a different character purposefully makes a play on words, how do you translate that and still make sense?

Most people are exposed to this sort of thing when they read subtitles on foreign films. Although I like having subtitles on all films (British accents can be hard to understand; Americans mumble), if I know a bit of a foreign language being badly subtitled, I find it really distracting. There’s an art to translating well.

Recently, translator David Buchanan wrote about subtitling at Zocalo Public Square. “If you don’t notice my work,” he says, “it means I’m doing my job properly.

“I’m an audiovisual translator, which means that I — and others like me — help you understand the languages spoken on screen: You just click that little speech bubble icon in the bottom-right corner of your preferred streaming service, select the subtitles or the dub, and away you go. …

“I decided to become an audiovisual translator because it allows me to combine cinema and French culture, my two favorite things. But there is also something about the anonymity of the work that appeals to me, which is the name of the game for our craft. As Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, put it in The Art of Subtitling, ‘Good subtitles are designed to be inconspicuous, almost invisible.’

“Of course, it’s impossible to be truly invisible. Translating film and TV always involves some form of compromise. … Whether working (as I do) from French into English, from Spanish into German, or Japanese into Swedish, the process is always the same: We pay close attention not only to the meaning of the words, but to the actors’ emotions, the cadence of their speech, their body language, the themes and narrative structure of the script, the historical period, and the social context. Together, these cues provide a host of tiny hints, all of which add extra layers of meaning and must be accounted for in the translation.

Translating all these layers is a bit like solving a Rubik’s Cube — it’s easy to do one side, but what about all of the others?

“Say I’m dubbing a ghost story set in a bourgeois Parisian household in the year 1850. The French grandmother stands in a doorway and whispers, ‘A tout de suite, mon petit.‘ How would you dub that into English? I might try, ‘See you in a minute, my darling,’ but that doesn’t sound stuffy enough for the 19th-century bourgeoisie. It needs to be more uptight, more formal. So what about, ‘See you in a moment?’

“The issue there is the cinematographer has lit the scene so the actor casts a sinister shadow into the room. She’s not just standing there, she’s lurking, and if I were a grandmother trying to lurk in a doorway, I wouldn’t say, ‘See you in a moment.’ However, I might say ‘See you soon.’ That could work — especially when you consider the spooky quality about the alliterative s’s and the ghostly ‘ooh’ in ‘soon.’

“ ‘See you soon, my darling’ perfectly fits the atmosphere of the scene. Except this introduces a new dilemma: ‘my darling’ doesn’t sync with the actor’s lip movements. Her mouth is closed for the ‘p’ in ‘petit,’ whereas the ‘d’ in ‘darling’ would require it to be open. In dubbing, the end of a sentence is one of the most important parts to get right: If the last word is poorly lip-synced, it sticks out like a sore thumb. …

“In an ideal world, I’d find a new term of endearment that syncs with ‘mon petit.’ … In this case, a compromise is necessary. At the end of the day, a loose translation is less distracting than bad lip sync.

“At times, I also must compromise when it comes to personal taste. For example, I might be subtitling a rapper renowned for Eminem-style punchlines, like: ‘C’est le retour de la légende de Jimmy, même si j’peux craquer à tout moment comme Djibril.‘ With these lyrics, they’re making a tasteless joke, comparing themselves to Djibril Cissé, a French footballer who has broken both of his legs. I don’t find broken legs especially funny, nor is it a joke that I would ever make myself. Still, this sick humor is a key element of their controversial persona, and the English-speaking audience deserves to understand what they’re saying so they can make up their own minds. A translator must never censor the source material: I must put my own opinion to one side and render the translation as faithfully as possible. It’s a challenging task, but also an instructive one.

“In this case, since most Americans are unlikely to have heard of Cissé, I start by ‘translating’ his name into that of another famous sportsman, a popular figure that an American audience would recognize by name. In order for the punchline to work, I need someone who would have suffered some kind of terrible injury. A fairly gruesome Googling session suggests the late basketball player Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash. Now I need to reverse-engineer the scenario. At first, the rapper pretends to be arrogant (légende), then undercuts themself by admitting they’re scared of failure (craquer… comme Djibril). After looking for an arrogant-sounding phrase that rhymes with ‘Bryant’ —eventually settling on ‘rap giant’ — I must find a way to describe Bryant’s accident that also acts as a metaphor for failure. … The offensive punchline leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but because it leaves the same bad taste as the original French, it feels like a faithful translation. …

“These days, though there are more films and TV from around the world than ever before, in many countries (such as the UK, where I live, or Spain, where my colleagues assure me the situation is even tougher), rates are falling and deadlines are getting tighter. This has inevitable repercussions on quality, not to mention our livelihoods. It can be hard to publicize our achievements because we usually sign non-disclosure agreements, and more often than not, filmmakers regard us as an afterthought, something to be rushed through at the distribution stage. Thankfully, many of the best filmmakers realize how important the translation stage is and are closely involved in the subtitling and dubbing process. They also pay fairly, so that we can take our time getting it just right.

“It’s possible for subtitles and dubs to be so seamless that they feel invisible without pushing audiovisual translators ourselves out of sight. I’m proud of what I do, and I want the world to know how much care and consideration I, and thousands like me, put into our work. That being said, there is still a certain satisfaction in being the hidden conduit between cultures, the solitary name that appears in a film’s credits after everyone has left the cinema. …

“Translation is about helping people to understand each other, and it feels good to be able to do that on a daily basis.”

More at Zocalo Public Square, here.

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Photo: Ismoon
The earliest recognized form of “written” communication may have been small bits of clay, called tokens. This charming one is from the Indus Valley.

Nowadays, one reads almost too much about artificial intelligence, AI. I myself have an ever increasing list of things I’d rather not have AI managing for me. But using it to translate ancient texts is one application that seems to make perfect sense.

Ruth Schuster writes at Haaretz, “Understanding texts written using an unknown system in a tongue that’s been dead for thousands of years is quite the challenge. Reconstructing missing bits of the ancient text is even harder. …

“Filling in missing text starts with being able to read and understand the original text. That requires much donkey work. Now an Israeli team led by Shai Gordin at Ariel University in the West Bank has reinvented the donkey in digital form, harnessing artificial intelligence to help complete fragmented Akkadian cuneiform tablets.

“Their paper, ‘Restoration of Fragmentary Babylonian Texts Using Recurrent Neural Networks,’ was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September.

“ ‘Neural networks’ … means software inspired by biological nervous systems. The concept dates back more than 70 years. … The base concept is to teach machines to learn, think and make decisions. In this case, the computer decides on the plausible completion of missing text. …

“Gordin and the team feed their machine transliterations of the extant Babylonian texts i.e., what the text would have sounded like.

“Then what? When it comes to missing bits in a papyrus or tablet, humans can intuit that “’…ow is your moth…’ isn’t a query into the well-being of your mothball.

With machines, it’s all about mathematics and probabilities based on knowledge gained so far. …

“It may have been trading that inspired the earliest recognized form of communication: ‘pseudo-writing’ on small bits of clay in Mesopotamia around 7,000 years ago. The clay bits, called tokens, were shaped into simplistic imagery such as a cow or other ancient commodities. …

“Then we start seeing abstract signs; repetitive strokes or depressions are interpreted as numbers (price, perhaps); and possibly also personal names, using the first sounds of different imprints to put together words you can’t draw. …

“Anyway, after pseudo-writing came proto-writing: figurative proto-cuneiform inscribed on tablets, which arose about 5,500 years ago in the city of Uruk. … Within mere centuries, proto-cuneiform evolved to become increasingly schematic and Sumer was apparently where it happened, [Gordin] says. And figurative hieroglyphic script began to appear in ancient Egypt at about the same time, about 5,000 years ago. …

“By the time cuneiform became a thing, writing had passed the stage of ‘Sheep : four : Yerachmiel’ and reached the stage of official records, letters and formulaic recounts of the wondrousness of the ruler. …

“For cuneiform, we have the gargantuan multilingual text at Behistun, Iran. Darius the Great had his exploits described in three different cuneiform scripts. [The] Behistun text was monumental: 15 meters (49 feet) high by 25 meters wide, and 100 meters up a cliff on the road connecting Babylon and Ecbatana, all to describe how Darius vanquished Gaumata and other foes. …

“And over decades, linguists slowly interpreted the languages of Babylon and Assyria, thanks to Darius’ monumental ego. …

“Interpreting a dead language is a mathematical game, Gordin says. … Neural networks are a computerized model that can understand text. How? They turn each symbol or word into a number, he explains. …

“When humans reconstruct missing text, their interpretation may be subjective. To be human is to err with bias, and quantifying the likely accuracy of the completion is impossible. Enter the machine. …

“The machine proved capable of identifying sentence structures – and did better than expected in making semantic identifications on the basis of context-based statistical inference, Gordin says. Its talents were further deduced by designing a completion test, in which the machine-learning model had to answer a multiple-choice question: which word fits in the blank space of a given sentence.”

Not sure how many readers are into that kind of thing, but I do find it intriguing. More at Haaretz, here.

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John told me that my efforts to learn Swedish online with Duolingo help to improve Google Translate and similar translation services, which purchase the history of users’ mistakes in order to refine their translation algorithms. I think Google Translate has fewer howlers lately. Maybe I helped.

Now along comes a product that claims to translate as you converse with a speaker of another language. Spenser Mestel has the story at the Atlantic.

“Last week, New York City-based Waverly Labs announced its recent invention, Pilot, a set of two ear buds that costs $299. Scheduled to be released by spring of 2017, the device purports to offer near-simultaneous translation for four languages.

“Inspired ‘when he met a French girl,’ Andrew Ochoa, the company’s founder, says that Pilot promises ‘a life untethered, free of language barriers.’ …

“Despite how quickly machine translation has progressed in the last few decades, language is a data set that’s far more complex than it seems, so no matter how quickly translation technology evolves, the stochastic messiness of speech will always outpace it. …

“In 1949, the scientist Warren Weaver proposed an alternative to rule-based translation called statistical machine translation (SMT).  Instead of attacking language one minutia at a time, Weaver suggested a two-pronged approach: First, the computer would mine millions of documents looking for statistically significant linguistic patterns, thereby discovering the grammar, syntax, and morphology rules for itself. At the same time, the program would create a model to predict how certain phrases are translated and where in the sentence they should appear. …

“Waverly Labs hasn’t yet released the details of its software, but it likely works in the same fundamental way as Google Translate, which uses these rules and the predictive model to give the most statistically likely translation, the one that best mirrors the patterns it already found. …

“Even if it lags and stutters, Waverly Labs’s Pilot … could allow for more substantive engagement with the world.” More here.

Photo: Waverly Labs
The Pilot in-ear translators from Waverly Labs

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111315-Lawrence-Weiner-artistLawrence Weiner discusses art in Dewey Square.

The latest Greenway mural in Dewey Square comes courtesy of MIT’s List gallery and is the work of Lawrence Weiner.  I admit to liking it even though it seems to be nothing more than bright orange letters on a blue background, with words saying, “A translation from one language to another.”

I am letting it sink in. Perhaps it’s about the translation from the artist’s idea to a work that others see. Perhaps something is lost in the translation. Perhaps it’s about how differently we understand one another, even without so-called language barriers.

Here’s what the Greenway writes, “Lawrence Weiner is considered a key figure in the Conceptual Art movement, which includes artists like Douglas Huebler, Robert Barry, Joseph Kosuth, and Sol LeWitt.

“A primary motivating factor behind Weiner’s work is the desire to make it accessible, without needing to purchase a ticket or understand a secret visual language. He contended that language reaches a broader audience, and situating language in contexts outside traditional art-viewing settings, such as art museums, furthers that reach.

“Thus, he began creating works consisting of words and sentences or sentence fragments that he displayed in public spaces, books, films, and other accessible media, as opposed to the cultural institutions that might deter broad and diverse viewership. Click here for an interview with Lawrence Weiner.” More at the Greenway site.

Malcolm Gay at the Boston Globe adds, “For Weiner, the work is less about art historical knowledge, outrage, or relating to other people. It’s about a viewer’s individual response to an object in the world — an object that’s been created by another person.

“ ‘Our job is not to throw things at people,’ he said. ‘The work doesn’t exist unless somebody decides to deal with it. You can pass it on your way work, and it’s not going to screw up your day. But if you pay attention to it, it might screw up your life.’ ”

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092515-Lawrence-Weiner

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In Sweden, mangata is the word for the roadlike reflection the moon casts on the water. In Finland there’s a word for the distance reindeer can travel comfortably before taking a break: poronkusema. A terrific German word that people familiar with Concord, Massachusetts, will appreciate is Waldeinsamkeit. What do you think it means? Yep. “A feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and a connectedness to nature.”

National Public Radio staff say:  “Just as good writing demands brevity, so, too, does spoken language. Sentences and phrases get whittled down over time. One result: single words that are packed with meaning, words that are so succinct and detailed in what they connote in one language that they may have no corresponding word in another language.

“Such words aroused the curiosity of the folks at a website called Maptia, which aims to encourage people to tell stories about places.

” ‘We wanted to know how they used their language to tell their stories,’ Maptia co-founder and CEO Dorothy Sanders tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.

“So they asked people across the globe to give them examples of words that didn’t translate easily to English.”

I loved this report. You will, too.  Read more at NPR, here.

Art: National Public Radio, “All Things Considered”

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The NY Times had an article today about the subtleties of standup comedy in different languages.

Not only can jokes get lost in translation, but an immigrant from one country may be completely hilarious to an immigrant from another country while falling flat with temporary visitors from his own country.

Sarah Maslin Nir writes, “In a city where a priest, an imam and a rabbi really could walk into a bar on any given day — along with just about anyone from around the globe — what different cultures laugh at is as diverse as the city itself. …

“Cultural stumbles are a theme in immigrant comedy in New York, said Oleg Boksner, a Brooklyn comedian who is preparing a one-man show called ‘From Russia With Laughs.’ In it he has fun with his heritage through caricatures like the transplant from Communist Russia who tries to join in with the American custom of Halloween, but  scares away trick-or-treaters with his Soviet-style treats: a raw potato and an onion. ‘I’ve had people from Mexico relate to it as well,’ Mr. Boksner said of his act, ‘because they relate to the difficulties of being an immigrant in one form or another.’

“But when he played before a crowd of Russian visitors at B. B. King Blues Club and Grill in Midtown a few years ago, those jokes bombed. …

“And every foreign comedian must tackle the thorny task of figuring out which jokes just will not translate. Take the Mexican one about the chicken who was the height of foolishness. Why? Because he was looking for a pencil when he was surrounded by pens! ‘Plumas’ in Spanish, means ‘pens’ but also, critical to the joke, ‘feathers.’ ”

More.

Photograph: Yana Paskova/NY Times
Ali Sultan, a Yemeni-American comedian who lives in Minnesota and performed at the Comic Strip in Manhattan last month, claims to have studied at the University of I’ll Just Google It.

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