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.