Reflections on translation

1 – Among my favourite mistranslations are Welsh signs that have been translated by English-speaking officials in their efforts to retain bilingualism in Wales. One sign written as Rhybudd: Gweithwyr yn ffrwydro, which in Welsh means ‘Warning: Blasting in progress’ was translated as ‘Warning: Workers are exploding.’

2 – Recently, there was quite an uproar over whether a white translator should be allowed to translate the work of a black writer. Dutch writer and winner of the International Book Prize Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was tasked with translating Amanda Gorman’s presidential inauguration poem into Dutch. The most vociferous attacks came from activist-journalist Janice Deul, who said it was ‘incomprehensible’ that a white person had been chosen for the job. If sharing an identity grouping is necessary between writer and translator, Deul missed out the fact that Rijneveld was born female and identifies as non-binary, making ‘them’ even less qualified. In this way of thinking, Rijneveld should have gained some points for being a poet and in their 20s, like Gorman. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for the publisher to cave in at the thought of a boycott and lost book sales to pull Rijneveld from the assignment and issue an apology for the poor choice of translator. I share in the sentiments of Gorman’s Spanish translator, Nuria Barrios, who described Deul’s victory as a ‘catastrophic…victory of identitarian discourse over creative freedom.’ 

3 – Apparently, historians had deliberately mistranslated – or perhaps creatively translated – love letters sent by Frederic Chopin to his many men ‘friends’ in order to make the composer appear straight. According to one German source (er, which has been translated into English), many of the translations from were fraught with consistent ‘errors,’ such as male pronouns in Polish being translated as female in the target language.

4 – In Nice, there’s a restaurant with a bilingual menu that lists the French salade aux avocats in English as salad with lawyers. Bon appétit.

5 – Language documentation involves the preservation of dying languages, mostly indigenous languages that have lost out to conquests and the globalisation of the world’s leading lingua francas, such as English, French, Spanish and Arabic. I was pleased to read about a linguist who has been translating newspapers dating back to the 1890s from Hamaii, the dying native language of Hawaii, into English. Even though the original project was about documenting the language and the culture of the pre-American Hawaiians, a by-product has been the discovery of a treasure trove of meteorological and geographical information. Climatologists are now using these digitalised translations to help predict earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other potential disasters.

6 – George Steiner once said, ‘Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.’

Thoughts and Translations on the French Laïcité

I love a good mistranslation as much as the next person, but some mistranslations are not funny. Worse, they can be dangerous.

After the barbarous death of history teacher Samuel Paty, French president Emanuel Macron supported the teacher’s right to teach students about freedom of speech using the infamous Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed. Among those to express their discontent with the French president were the international English-speaking press, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the UK’s Financial Times. I’m not alone in thinking this has to do in part with the translation of French into English. In condemning terrorists, Macron spoke against ‘séparatisme islamiste’ in France which has been translated as an attack on ‘Islamists’, a negatively loaded word referring to extremist and violent supporters of Islam. What Macron meant would be more accurately translated as ‘Islamic separatism,’ which is seen as harmful to integration. To put this more into the French context, for decades debates about séparatismes religieux have been about the Catholic faith and the fact that Catholicism hasn’t been the country’s official religion since the laïcité was put into law in 1905. The laïcité is mainly about individual rights to freedom of speech and religion in a secular state, a government not run by any single religion.

As with many mistranslations, cultural differences are at play. In countries like America, discrimination of minority groups, such as Muslim people, puts the media and well-meaning left-wing thinkers on hyper-alert for anti-Muslim racism. I’m not saying racism against Muslims doesn’t exist in France – of course it does. However, according to a recent survey by the National Institute of Demographic Studies, most Muslims in France feel socially and culturally integrated. Other studies also support these findings. As someone with a second home in France, I don’t find this surprising.

Interesting too that it appears most of the Muslims who were angered by Macron’s speech linking terrorism and separatism, live outside of France in non-French speaking countries, where  the president’s words were translated into Arabic and Turkish. Since I don’t speak either Arabic or Turkish, I’ll step aside from this part of the debate. Plenty of polyglot scholars in the French media in recent weeks who have raised this issue of mistranslation are doing this work for me.

In fact, there has been so much published and podcasted about these misunderstandings of the laïcité and mistranslations in France, I wasn’t going to bother writing about it. That is, until a couple of nights ago when Channel 4 News (UK) ran a story about Muslims in France being discriminated against by new integration measures proposed as laws. A French speaker mentioned the laïcité, and it was translated into English as ‘secularism.’ While secularism is part of the principle of the laïcité, keeping church and state separate, the first definition of secularism is typically ‘indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations’ (Merriam-Webster English Dictionary) – which is not laïcité.  As much as I am a devotee of Channel 4, I think on this occasion their liberal slant (which I usually lap up) may have played a role in both the reporting and translation.

Whether these translations involve English, Arabic or other languages, given social sensitivities and political tensions, I do wonder the extent to which these mistranslations are triggered by some sort of unconscious bias. Seeing this in the Channel 4 report has made me wonder about my own.