08 November 2008

Every now and then I do a little hunt for useful services on the net, and today I found one: livestation.com . This site runs a peer-to-peer TV streaming service. Unlike many legitimate online video sites, this is TV as it's broadcast, not videos on demand. The quality is high, and so far I've not had any problems with juddering.

There isn't a wide choice of channels, but at least there's a wide choice of channels. Alongside several English-language channels, you've got Euronews in 7 languages, France24 in French and Arabic and Russia Today in Arabic.

It's worth downloading, even if you're only going to use it once or twice.

WARNING: peer-to-peer technology means that you are sending files to other people as well as receiving them. Using this for a long time may cost you if you're on a metered rate (such as 3G mobile internet) and even if you're not, you may hit a limit on your account. If in doubt, make sure to log out when you're not using it.

20 October 2008

The perils of "community" translations.
Recently Facebook, one of the highest valued websites since the inception of the internet, decided to become multilingual. Despite having raised a phenomenal amount of money from Microsoft, they didn't hire any professionals -- they opened the project to "the community".
Why? Because they wanted to expand their user base -- without investing a penny.
All well and good, but you get what you pay for, and that's what Facebook got.
I've already spotted one error in one of their translations, and it has a serious effect on the meaning of user profiles. The relationship status "it's complicated" has been translated to Spanish as literally "in a complicated relationship", which is a very different thing.
Why did this happen?
They asked specifically for native speakers of the target language only. Unfortunately that meant the team, such as it was, lacked sufficient source language knowledge. The Emperor's Nose fallacy holds whether you have a dozen, a hundred or a million people: the average of all guesses is not necessarily the right answer.

12 October 2008

The BBC has an odd relationship with the Celt.

BBC Wales recently filmed a series "based on" one of the most famous Celtic legends: the legend of King Arthur.

Merlin doesn't seem very... Welsh.  The legend as we know it is largely sourced from Wales' most celebrated epic, Y Gododdin, but the story presented in the series bears practically no relation to the legend (much like the recent Robin Hood series before it).

But it is not merely the lack of respect for the legend that I object to, but the bizarre ethnic confusion in the piece.

Arthur was a Briton, a lowland Celt.  The exact place origin of the legend is in dispute, but it certainly evolved among the Brythonic Celts during the early days of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Great Britain.  The Welsh are certainly his cultural descendants.  This makes it the largely Anglo-Norman aesthetic and the prevalence of home-counties accents more than slightly incongruous.  

That's pretty normal.

But there is a bit of Celt in the story.  Morgana, one of the key "bad guys" in the legends, has an Irish accent (although she's not bad yet).  The bad guy in the first episode was that Welsh woman from Torchwood.  The second episode saw an evil knight from the Western Isles, wearing Celtic knotwork (although he had a distinctly English accent).  OK, so Richard Wilson (a Scot) plays one of the good guys, and episode 3's bad guy's the Bionic Eastender, but overall, it's not very pro-Celt, is it?

Minority language television needs careful handling.

BBC Alba, the new Scottish Gaelic channel, went on the air a few short weeks ago, receiving an unsurprisingly mixed reaction.

Setting aside the tiresome and predictable -- too much money, dying language, shortbread tin, etc etc ad nauseum -- there were a few areas of comment that perhaps justify more examination: too many repeats, the same old faces, too much music.  OK, the number of repeats is to be expected as new programs cost money which any minority channel is going to be short of.  The same old faces?  Well who else has been trained to do the job?  But too much music?  That brings us to the heart of the one of the greatest problems in Gaelic broadcasting, and perhaps also the Gaelic public image.

Why so much music?

Well, put simply, music is cheap.  There's loads of people who rehearse in their own time and all you've got to do is bring them into a suitably kitted out studio or hall and record them.  Secondly, a music program is far more accessible to the non-speaker and/or outsider than a sitcom (something's always lost in the translation) or a debate on the impact of crofting reforms on the Western Isles.  Furthermore, traditional music is woefully underexposed by mainstream programming.  Combining music programming with Gaelic programming may not kill two birds with one stone -- many of the traditional music fans decry the lack of Scots, and many Gaels are seachd searbh sgìth of the whole harp-and-bagpipe scene -- but where statisticians are concerned, two half-dead birds are the same as one parrot that has ceased to be.

The use of music programming in the great ratings chase has done inestimable damage to Gaelic's public image: it reinforces the notion that Gaelic is primarily the plaything of anachronistic Celtic twilightists, and obscures the fact that Gaelic is a living community language, flexible to myriad situations, and spoken mostly by normal people with no particular cultural axe to grind.

But this music-heavy tradition still is of great importance to BBC Alba.

The BBC Trust have declared that for BBC Alba to be considered viable and receive the funding required to move to Freeview in 2010, they must have an audience of a quarter of a million.  This is more than four times the number of speakers of Gaelic in Scotland, so the channel has to reach out quite far to people with little or no interest in the language.

How is BBC Alba to compete?  Even if they bought the rights to a hit series on the scale of Friends or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who would tune in to see a Gaelic dubbed version with English subtitles when they can watch the original on another channel?  Creating a new series of that magnitude is pretty difficult given the budget they've had to settle for.  So what can they do?  Same old faces and too much music.  For now... but it's still not enough.

So the channel came on-line with two different active audience groups -- the supposed core market of Gaelic speakers and the supporting market of traditional music fans -- but these hardly go any way to providing the ratings needed, so the channel will either have to focus much of its expenditure in the forthcoming round of commissions on a non-Gaelic speaking audience or simply put it's head down, rely on integrity and produce a Gaelic channel.

Because in essence, what the BBC Trust has said is not that the Scottish Gaelic community can have a channel, but that they can make a channel.  Yes, make a channel, but for someone else.  Who?  The BBC doesn't care.  Just anyone other than Gaels.

You may have heard of the POOLS project, funded by the Leonardo II scheme during 2005-2007.  They collected short videos on permissive and open licenses in a number of less-studied languages.

Well, now they're back with POOLS-T.  The focus now is on tools, not materials; hence the T.  Things are only just starting off, but there's already a lot of material from the first round of work as well as donated videos in a variety of languages.

Gordon Wells made some excellent and very professional videos under the title Scottish Island Voices.  These are available in two versions, English and Gaelic, and have been included in the Pools project.  You can hear an interview with him regarding the project courtesy of the Irish National Digital Learning Repository.

Finally, I've been playing with some of these videos, trying to figure out how best to use the materials.  I've uploaded one of Gordon's sets of Gaelic films to YouTube, and I've been playing around with annotation and subtitling options.  You can check them out on my YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/NiallBeag.

The Pools project currently hosts videos in the following languages:


23 January 2008

The headache that is translating software.

I've never been a professional translator, but I do know it's a thankless task at the best of times.  Take Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge.  Household names? I think not -- I had to look them up for this article.

Bell and Hockridge translated the Asterix books into English.  This is not a purely technical task, but a creative one.  Asterix relies on puns and wordplays, most of which cannot be translated -- at all -- so it's fair to say that these two wrote a large portion of the jokes that English speakers read in Asterix books.

So, unknown despite their groan-inducing genius, but at least they had coherent material to start off with.

Pity the man who translates the computer program, for to translate something you must first understand it, and computer jargon in English is a right mess.

English is the first language of computing, and most people weren't there when it started.  I wasn't (I wasn't even born then), but I was still a relatively early adopter in the home-computing scene. I had a 32kB Acorn Electron and a 64kB C64.  They low definition screens of 320x 240 pixels, and each letter, number or symbol (including space) was 8 pixels high by 8 pixels wide. Have a look at the specs of your computer -- very, very different.

What I've written so far would have taken up the entire screen of a C64, so when you were writing something (when I was a child I wanted to write games for a living) you chose your words carefully.  With screen-space at a premium, the best word was normally the shortest.  It wasn't just the amateurs that did it -- the professionals were at it too, and the first computers had a lot less than 64k.

Why did they start using the word "error"? Why not "mistake" or "problem"?  The word they chose was predestined to become one of the most common computing terms, and by dropping 2 letters they knew they could save precious bytes, screen inches and printer ribbons (yes, printers had ribbons in those days!)

But what does "error" mean?  The Oxford dictionary lists 6 different senses, several of which are subdivided into multiple further senses.  When you look at your translating
dictionary, are you translating

"3. a. The condition of erring in opinion; the holding of mistaken notions or beliefs; an instance of this, a mistaken notion or belief; false beliefs collectively."

"4. a. Something incorrectly done through ignorance or inadvertence; a mistake, e.g. in calculation, judgement, speech, writing, action, etc."

"4. b. A mistake in the making of a thing; a miscarriage, mishap; a flaw, malformation."

"4. d. Math. The quantity by which a result obtained by observation or by approximate calculation differs from an accurate determination."

Each of these is different, and not all dictionaries make it clear which one's which.

The computer term "error" can mean either a mistake the programmer made in writing the software or a mistake in user input.  Does the same hold true in your chosen language?

Then there's the unnecessarily technical terms that people don't understand.  Did you mean that "delete" means to remove from a list?  No?  Well fine -- you don't need to.  This is just a peculiarity of how disc-drives work and while the first generation of computer users needed to know this, it's not really been very important since the 70s. (Oh yes, and it's a short word.)

There's also the category of analogies and metaphors.  Files, folders, desktops, mice... these are all figurative terms, but they've become fixed, sometimes to the detriment of clarity.  Take files and folders.  I knew someone who would always call a windows folder "a file".  In computer-speak, a file is a single document, and a folder holds multiple files.  However, in the traditional paper-based office where this gent had spent his life, a file is a collection of several documents -- it is a folder and everything in it.  The metaphor is flawed, so a direct translation of the analogy would be equally flawed: ie a waste of time.

Finally, there's the issue of random inconsistencies and redundancies.  Take, for example, the words "sign", "symbol" and "character".  "Character" is a term for the graphical representation of a letter, number or other symbol.  In Windows Vista, € is called the "euro symbol" and the Gaelic translation calls this a "samhla euro", whereas we have a "multiplication sign" -- "soidhne iomadachaidh".  Now there's no difference in Englishy meaning between sign and symbol in this context -- it's simply an arbitrary split of usage.  There is no reason for the translator to maintain a distinction that adds neither clarity not meaning.  I would have opted to merge the terms in Gaelic to a single form. And heck, I'd have included "character" in there as well, as it's just a technological term for any old symbol.
(Incidentally, my mum used to hate us talking about "pound signs" at home. "It's not a sign, it's a symbol," she would say, "A sign is something you see at the side of a road." The same could be said of Gaelic, because "samhlan" is a symbol, and "soidhne" is something you see at the side of the road.)

But that's not the final point, really, because all of the above can melt into one super-sized linguistic problem.

We have the technical term "key", a mechanical device used in musical instruments like pianos and clarinets to make sounds or to modify pitch.  During the industrial revolution, we invented numerous contraptions with key-like mechanisms, but most of these were round, and so the people called them by a word meaning "round thing": "button".

So here we have a technical term and a metaphorical term that essentially mean the same thing, and both of these words have multiple dictionary definitions. A key is the mechanism described above,something you stick in a door to lock or unlock it, a code for secret messages etc. A button is the mechanism, a round thing, or a clothes fastener.

How the hell do you translate that?

I keep meaning to get involved in FOSS translation projects, but every time I look at one I just shudder in dread.

15 January 2008

What's in a name?

Tis indeed a most vexing question. A rose by any other name would certainly smell as sweet, but would you like it as much if it wasn't a rose any more?

By choosing our own names for the things in our world, perhaps we are imbuing them with something of ourselves. Using someone else's name, therefore, makes the thing less familiar and more alien.

What started me thinking about this was Kidnappit, Matthew Fitt's Scots translation of Alan Clark and Cam Kennedy's graphic novel adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped.

If you're not familiar with the Modern Scots scene, it's a spectrum based on two poles: the New Makkars, who see Scots as a true "high" language, suitable for literature; and those who see it not as a language, but as a colloquial vernacular, only suitable to describe the people that use it in a "how they speak" style. Even if some of his work appears superficially frivolous (who else would have written a book called But n Ben A-Go-Go), Fitt quite clearly leans toward the literary end of the spectrum, which makes it curious that in his translation, peppered with old words like
"stravaig" (to roam, wander) he uses the modern colloquial term "Embra" in place of Edinburgh. Why does this word exist? No-one I know says Embra, and I live there! However, there seems to be a belief among certain segments of the public that "Edinburgh" is an English name, and that a truly Scottish name would, by nature, be simpler.

Well, let's get one thing straight: Scots has always been simpler than English in that it is more regular, but it is in no way more naïve, and has a fairly complex phonology (sound system). That a short form like "Embra" is somehow more authentically Scottish is a bit of an insult to the language.

Especially given the evidence to the contrary.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three other Scottish towns with the -burgh ending: Jedburgh, Musselburgh and Fraserburgh. Coincidentally, I can think of three English towns with an equivalent ending: Middlesborough, Farborough and Peterborough. Furthermore, the endings, -burgh can be found as a full word throughout Scottish history: mediaeval Scotland's equivalent to the European cities was the "Royal Burgh". The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue even gives us an example of the word burgh from 1393, although there has historically been a lot of variation in the form used.
Tyl the aldirmen [and] the baylis of our burgh of Elgyne; 1393 Charter Thos. Dunbar MS. (Reg. H.).

In fact, there is pretty huge variation between the forms, and both burgh and borough both appear in both languages. Burgh, seems to be the older form, and it can't be denied that Scots and English have a common ancestor. The difference in preferred spelling by the end of the Middle period, directly prior to the Union of the Crowns, can probably be explained by accent.

Many Scots accents have to this day retained the svarbhakti vowel, a weak vowel sound occuring between certain pairs of consonants that was once common to all Indo-European languages. As a child, I pronounced words like "girl", "film" and "farm" with two syllables -- I was not physically able to pronounce rl, lm or rm without inserting a vowel. Presumably rgh was another of these combinations and the Anglo-Saxon speakers pronounced burgh with two syllables. When the English started to lose their svarbhakti vowel, they would have either had to reduce burgh to one spoken syllable or explicitly write the second syllable. They chose the latter.

Burgh is not a foreign word, so what's wrong with "Edinburgh" as a Scots word? I would argue that Embra is more English than Edinburgh as it more closely matched the English pronunciation of borough than the Scots pronunciation of burgh.

It may have a place in a rewritten modern Scots, but Kidnappit, as I've already pointed out, is not a modern Scots book: it unashamedly and quite rightly uses "guid auld wirds that wir grannies wuid sey".

Embra, I believe, is change for change's sake, and has no place in books of this sort. 

12 January 2008

Anyone remember The List magazine's list of the 100 best Scottish books?  Well, when it came out I decided I would buy a copy and start reading the books on.  Over the next couple of months I went to various second-hand bookshops and bargain-bins looking for some of the entries.  Well, I found a few, and most of them are still sitting unread, 3 years on.

Time for a late New Year's resolution:
In 2008, I will read at least 25 of the titles on that list.

I'll start today with me and ma gal, written by my old second year English teacher Des Dillon. ISBN 1-84282-054-0.

I have a lot to thank him for: his class was fun and I enjoyed it immensely.  In the end, I got a 2, which meant I didn't go into the top set for standard grade, and the top set was taught by Mr Breen.
Mr Breen likes Phillip Larkin.
Mr Breen's pupils don't like Phillip Larkin.
Ergo Mr Breen's pupils don't like his class.

Anyway, so thanks to Des Dillon I got put in Mr Paterson's class.  Mr Paterson was a pretty normal bloke, a bit bookish and not massively inspiring, but he had a taste for literature which the class would find moderately interesting (moderately is about as interested as most teenagers get about literature) and knew his way around the material.  Standard Grade English was, well, no bad.  Which is about as good as it was going to be.  So thanks Mr Paterson, and thanks Mr Dillon.

This mild plug is the least I can do.
Howdy folks! Anyone who knows me will be familiar with the way I rave about Michel Thomas language courses. My only complaint was that there were so few: if you didn't want to learn German, French, Spanish or Italian... well stuff you, sort of thing.

I must say, I never quite worked out why a man with his rich cultural/linguistic background hadn't released courses in Polish, Hebrew or Yiddish; and I also think he squandered his talent on his ridiculously expensive private lessons when he could have learnt another few languages and put the courses on CD for the benefit of the world, and a handsome profit.

Anyway, now his posthumous publishers have commissioned new language courses using his methods. Are they any good? Well, that is the question isn't it. So, to answer it, I went to the official site, where you can order a free trial of most of their stuff.

I got the disc I had ordered, the mixed trial of Arabic, Russian and Mandarin (the three new courses currently available -- more are due in a few months). I had a listen and my reactions were a bit mixed, although I must admit to coming to this with some preconceived notions, which may have tainted my views somewhat. So, despite the effort I've gone to in writing this, I'd advise you to stop reading, follow the link and order all the free trial CDs available and have a listen for yourself, then come back and we'll compare notes.

Done that? Good.

The pair doing the Arabic lessons sound like they've never done this before.  They sound as though they're fumbling about a bit, and there's a few awkward pleasantries while the English woman tries to ask the Egyptian to say the answer.  They also started with too many nouns, and nouns with very little structural similarities, where Thomas himself lets the learner play around with verbs and pronouns.

The woman's introduction seemed a bit waffly and unconvinced, and I just don't feel like she believed what she was saying -- was this any more than just a quick buck for her.

The Russian was a bit better.   The woman sounds like she has been using the technique actively for a while and is comfortable with it.  Also, her non-native English accent helped me accept some of the contrived ways she, like Michel, used to prompt "proper" Russian from the learners.  Not quite Michel himself, but I want to wind up a friend who's been learning Russian for years, so I bought it in the sales.

Chinese -- well, the man definitely bought into it and new his way round the technique, having been taught by Thomas, but there was something about the stateside accent that rankled with me, like too many televangelists and motivational speakers. Also, we had a native Chinese speaker in the class, and while the switchover wasn't clumsy like on the Arabic course, it still didn't feel quite natural.  Thomas may have been teaching languages without a native accent, but it felt like a natural class nonetheless -- I find this relay approach a bit disorientating.

Anyway, I've now got the Russian, so I'll write a thorough review of that soon, and revisit the other two on the sample CD.

10 January 2008

The rudest word in English... pardon?

I recently came across a website with the following quote, allegedly from an English schoolboy to his teacher: My mummy says pardon is a worse word than fuck. The site goes on to state that there are occasions where a Gentleman might say "fuck", but never, not to save his life, would he ever say "pardon".  It's funny that we're brought up being told the correct way to speak is in a way nobody actually speaks.

However, people do say pardon, and I think the author missed the reason why the word is worse than fuck: only angry people say it. Seriously, listen to yourself and to others: only when you're upset will you say it, while you might tell your best friend to "fuck off" without meaning it.

"Fuck" does not unambiguously indicate a dislike for the other person, but "pardon" does, hence it is a far ruder word.