Archive for the ‘Translation’ category

Translation 50. Michel Houellebecq. Soumission. Background to the Triple Publication of his latest Novel

15 February 2015

Soumission, published by Flammarion, 7 January 2015. (250,000 copies printed)
Sottomissione, published by Bompiani, 15 January 2015.
(Translator: V.Vega) 200,000 sales claimed in first week.
Unterwerfung, published by DUMONT Buchverlag, 16 January 2015.
(2 translators: Norma Cassau and Bernd Wilczek) (250,000 copies printed)
An English translation, Submission, is announced for September 2015.

Having read and enjoyed this latest (futuristic) novel by bestselling and perennially polemical French author Michel Houellebecq, I understand why hundreds of thousands of readers of the French original and the German and Italian translations have purchased the novel in the past month. In view of the flood of vigorous media attention (literary and journalistic) devoted to the novel, inevitably magnified by the tragic coincidence of the publication date with the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and also in view of the distant date given for the English translation, I have selected a small range of articles (mainly in English) which chronicle the novel’s first month of sales. (In view of the embarras du choix, I have tried to avoid the work of hacks and “churnalists” (journalists who do not consider a careful and fair reading of the novel as a sine qua non for robust reporting on literary works of this kind).

The articles are all linked for direct reading, but, for those who do not have time, I have added short quotations in order to present many of the aspects of Houellebecq’s work which have been discussed by critics and other commentators.

Background reading on Michel Houellebecq and Soumission

For background information on Houellebecq’s life, ideas and previous work, see The Fall 2010 issue of The Paris Review for the interview, ‘Michel Houellebecq. The Art of Fiction, No. 206’, by Susannah Hunnewell.
A few snippets.
“Michel Houellebecq was born on the French island of La Réunion, near Madagascar, in 1958. As his official Web site states, his bohemian parents, an anesthesiologist and a mountain guide, “soon lost all interest in his existence.” He has no pictures of himself as a child. After a brief stay with his maternal grandparents in Algeria, he was raised from the age of six by his paternal grandmother in northern France.”
The Elementary Particles is also the novel that made critics focus on your biography because the characters seem to have many points in common with you. But it seems you find it irritating, that people reduce everything to biography. ”
“Yes, it’s annoying because it denies what is the essential trait of fiction writing, namely, that the characters develop by themselves. In other words, you start with a few real facts and then you let the thing roll with its own momentum. And the further along you get, the more likely you are to leave reality behind altogether. You can’t tell your own story in fact. You can use elements of it ̶ but don’t imagine that you can control what a character is going to do a hundred pages later. The only thing you can do is, for example, give the character your literary tastes.”
“What about your critics? Can you just sum up briefly what you hold against the French press?”
“First of all, they hate me more than I hate them. What I do reproach them for isn’t bad reviews. It is that they talk about things having nothing to do with my books my mother or my tax exile ̶ and that they caricature me so that I’ve become a symbol of so many unpleasant things ̶ cynicism, nihilism, misogyny. People have stopped reading my books because they’ve already got their idea about me. To some degree of course, that’s true for everyone. After two or three novels, a writer can’t expect to be read. The critics have made up their minds.”
“Like the comedian, you compulsively take the politically sensitive subjects of the moment and then are irreverent to the point of insult. And it’s funny. It makes you laugh out of shock.”
“You laugh because the insult claims merely to state the obvious. This may be unusual in literature but it isn’t in private life.”
“I want to be loved despite my faults. It isn’t exactly true that I’m a provocateur. A real provocateur is someone who says things he doesn’t think, just to shock. I try to say what I think. And when I sense that what I think is going to cause displeasure, I rush to say it with real enthusiasm. And deep down, I want to be loved despite that.”
On Soumission, see the 2 January 2015 Paris Review Interview by Sylvain Bourmeau (translated by Lorin Stein): Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book.
“I don’t think we are witnessing a French suicide. I think we are seeing practically the opposite. Europe is committing suicide and, in the middle of Europe, France is struggling desperately to survive. It is almost the only country that is fighting to survive, the only country whose demographics allow it to survive.”
” My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.”

The Tragedy of Book Launch Day, 7 January 2015

Given Houellebecq’s fame and reputation as well as the advance publicity from the publishers of the three versions of Soumission, and the intense media interest which had already been in evidence for two weeks, huge sales had been expected and were prepared for by the publication of about 250,000 copies in each of the three countries. Normally, therefore, the Charlie Hebdo coverage (a caricature of Michel Houellebecq and a caustic remark on the Cover and satirical remarks on the novel) would have been a tiny part of the media contributions (with a modest but influential audience). However, the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices on the morning of 7 January and the shockwaves around Europe and other parts of the world dealt Houellebecq a devastating blow (and a close personal one as well, since one of his friends had been executed by the terrorists).

One of the journalists present at the fateful Charlie Hebdo staff meeting that morning was Philippe Lançon. This journalist, along with many others, had published a satirical and teasing (but good-natured Gallic) review of Soumission in the left-wing newspaper Libération in the pre-publication days.
“Ceci est un roman, plutôt comique : comme toujours avec Houellebecq, mais peut-être plus encore qu’à l’ordinaire, l’humour est la politesse ̶ ou l’impolitesse, comme on voudra ̶ du désespoir. Avec un goût de potache froid. Soumission n’est donc ni un essai sur Huysmans, ni un discours sur la montée de l’islam en France et en Europe, ni un rapport sur l’université déclinante, […] même si ces sujets de causerie occupent le livre, le font dériver avec une légèreté, une perversité et une ambiguïté assez efficaces pour permettre à tous de faire ce dont chacun raffole dès qu’il s’agit de Houellebecq : répandre son avis sur lui à propos de n’importe quoi.”
[… to allow readers to do what they are longing to do whenever Houellebecq’s name crops up: to spread their opinions about him on absolutely any topic.]

” Son style est là: neutralité féroce, phrases nettes, coups de pattes, sens du dialogue et de ’absurde, dégagements philosophiques, italiques à l’ironie sociologique, points virgule à la presque Flaubert.”
(See also John Vinocur’s useful comment below.)

Five days later, Lançon, who also works for the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, was present at the massacre and was extremely lucky to survive, albeit with serious injuries. On 13 January, he dictated his account of the atrocity from his hospital bed.
“Journaliste à Libération et chroniqueur à Charlie Hebdo, Philippe Lançon a réchappé au massacre, mercredi 7 janvier. Blessé, il entame une longue guérison. ”
“Chers amis de Charlie et Libération, […]

[He reflects on why he is a writer, and gives an idea of the lively but friendly debates with his colleagues, some now murdered.]
“… j’y pensais en regardant le corps le plus proche, celui de mon ami et ce jour-là voisin de tablée Bernard Maris, qui n’a jamais laissé ses fonctions limiter l’expression de ses enthousiasmes et de ses curiosités. Il venait de parler du roman de Michel Houellebecq, que nous aimons, et je l’avais engueulé… pour ce qu’il avait écrit du traitement de Libération. Puis nous nous étions aussitôt réconciliés sur les passages de Soumission qui, bien entendu, nous avaient fait rire. […] Et nous étions tous là parce que nous étions libres, ou voulions l’être le plus possible, parce qu’on voulait rire et nous affronter sur tout, à propos de tout, une petite équipe homérique et carnassière, et c’est justement cela que les hommes en noir, ces sinistres ninjas, ont voulu tuer. ”
Selected reviews of Soumission in English (with sample quotations)

John Vinocur, The Wall Street Journal (USA), 5 January
‘A Novel Approach to France’s Future, and Present’
“In Soumission, the author goes after French lethargy, observing through the eyes of a 44-year-old professor the country’s contempt for its existing political parties. Their rejection in 2022 leads to a coalition, headed by the Muslim Fraternity party, against Marine Le Pen’s nativists; the election of a slick Muslim president; and, soon enough, his soft-sell version of Shariah law.”
“My goodness. The sky is falling. Heart rates quicken.
At least Libération’s literary critic, Philippe Lançon [see above], appearing in the same edition as his boss, took a deep breath. In his review of Soumission he said the writer handled his “rather comic” novel “[w]ith a lightness of touch, perversity, and ambiguity sufficiently effective to allow everybody to do what they love to when it comes to Houellebecq: state their opinion on him regardless. Encouraging discussion is, after all, a social virtue of a good novelist.”
“The fact is, the Houellebecq hullabaloo demonstrates the distance in France ̶ perhaps greater than in any other European democracy ̶ between the political correctness of the left, the bigotry and discrimination of the extreme right, and any kind of reasonable discussion of how France can be accommodated (not just vice versa) by its six to eight million Arab Muslims.”

Naben Ruthnum, National Post (Canada), 4 February.
“Michel Houellebecq ̶ the French novelist caricatured on the January 7th cover of Charlie Hebdo as a drunken, smoking Nostradamus ̶ wrote a novel doomed, both by its capsule summary and the author’s notorious reputation, to be viewed by those who haven’t read it as a racist, fear-mongering text.” [italics added]
“In interviews spanning his long career, Houellebecq has referred to nationalists as “primates,” a sentiment that rings through the pages of Soumission: the “identitaires,” (nativist, France-for-French nationalists) are buffoons or aristocratically rich schemers […]”
Soumission’s narrator, François, is a middle-aged academic, and the book begins as a slow reflection on his most significant relationship: that with the subject of his long-finished dissertation, J.K. Huysmans. This friendship, with the long-dead, decadent author of Against Nature and a whole series of novels detailing, among other things, the turn of their author toward Catholicism, suggest both the isolated, disengaged loneliness of François, and the narrative that will come to unfold for him: like Huysmans, his is a story of conversion.”
Steven Poole, The Guardian, 9 January
Soumission by Michel Houellebecq: Much more than a satire on Islamism’
“But is France’s most celebrated controversialist offering a splenetic vision of the Muslim threat to Europe or a spineless “submission” to gradual Islamic takeover? Actually, neither. It’s much more interesting than that.”

“Those riffling impatiently through the opening for controversy will be disappointed, as we are introduced slowly to the narrator, François, a middle-aged literary academic who teaches at the Sorbonne. He is an expert on Huysmans, the cultish 19th-century anatomist of decadence, and he sleeps hungrily with his students. But he is bored. The narration is enjoyably sardonic, a pungent mixture of deadpan jokes about sexual politics and close reading.”

Gaby Wood, Daily Telegraph, 15 January
‘Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission: More prescient than provocative’
“The narrator of Soumission (or “Submission”), François, continues the tradition of the Houellebecquian hero made infamous by previous novels such as Atomised and Platform. He’s solipsistic, disillusioned, excruciatingly cruel. The rhythm of his sentences is almost incantatory in its distaste for life, and his comic timing is irresistibly gloomy […]”

“François is dismissive of everything […]”
“He teaches 19th-century French literature at the Sorbonne and his specialism is JK Huysmans, a writer who changed tack halfway through his career – from naturalism to decadence, then from decadence to monasticism. Huysmans’s most famous work might as well be the title of all of Houellebecq’s: A rebours (“Against the Grain”).”
Gilles Rozier, Haaretz (Israel) 22 January
“The French language has even been enriched thanks to a new adjective, “houellebecquian” – a privilege granted to few authors, some French, such as Rabelais and Balzac […].
“But it seems that this adjective refers to the awakening from illusions in an ultra-liberal world, which celebrates the victory of money as the object of desire, and presents consumerism as an answer to frustration of whatever kind. The houellebecqian novel describes a world from which love is absent, where the males are reduced to satisfying their urges via prostitution […]”
Soumission is a houellebecqian novel in every sense of the term. All of the author’s preferred topics are here: a person suffering from ennui, a criticism of liberalism, of the god of wealth, of the objectification of women.”
David Sexton, The Spectator, 17 January
‘The Really Shocking Thing about Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission: He rather likes Islam’
Soumission will be published in translation here by Heinemann, but not until the autumn at the earliest. A pity ̶ it’s electrifying; no recent English-language novel compares. Early on François explains why Huysmans, as a representative of literature, the major art of the West, matters to him so much:
“Only literature can give you this sensation of contact with another human mind, with the whole of this mind, its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its fixed ideas, its beliefs; with all that moves it, interests it, excites it or repels it… A book that one loves is above all a book whose author one loves…
There it is, j’adore Michel, myself.”

Anthony Daniels, New Criterion, February 2015

France’s “Submission”–Submission–8075/

“Houellebecq is a writer with a single underlying theme: the emptiness of human existence in a consumer society devoid of religious belief, political project, or cultural continuity in which, moreover, thanks to material abundance and social security, there is no real struggle for existence that might give meaning to the life of millions. Such a society will not allow you to go hungry or to live in the abject poverty that would once have been the reward of idleness, whether voluntary or involuntary. This, in Houellebecq’s vision of the world, lends an inspissated pointlessness to all human activity, which becomes nothing more than a scramble for unnecessary consumer goods that confer no happiness or (at best) a distraction from that very emptiness.”

“The very success of the Enlightenment project is the root of its failure. Having eliminated myth and magic from human life, it has crushed belief even in itself out of society.”

Christopher de Bellaigue, The Guardian, 6 February
‘Soumission by Michel Houellebecq. Review – France in 2022’
“Houellebecq is France’s best-known writer internationally, his stock-in-trade being satires on various distortions in contemporary life seen through bibulous, chauvinistic, highly sexed men – men like François, the Sorbonne literature professor whose flirtation with the new Islamic regime is the main narrative thread in Soumission.”
“Here, from Europe’s premier literary misanthrope, is an enthralling, stunningly pessimistic view of human nature, which argues that when ideologies are being weighed it is the perks that tip the scales […].”

“Houellebecq’s plot seems totally unrealisable, and yet there is truth in his moral tableau.”
On 12 January the outspoken independent commentator Mark Steyn reminded us on his website that he had suggested a similar general 2020s scenario for France in 2006

“I saw someone on Twitter ̶ was it Mehdi Hasan? ̶ fretting that this sounded like a mere literary gloss on a Mark Steyn polemic. He doesn’t know the half of it. From page 119 of my 2006 book, America Alone:
“Picture a French election circa 2020: the Islamic Republican Coalition wins the most seats in the National Assembly. The Chiraquiste crowd give a fatalistic shrug and M de Villepin starts including crowd-pleasing suras from the Koran at his poetry recitals. But would Jean-Marie Le Pen or (by then) his daughter take it so well?”

Reviews of the Italian and German translations: Sottomissione and Unterwerfung.
If full translations are needed, this is surely an excellent chance to check the present quality of Google Translate and Microsoft Translate (BING).
(More on that subject in my next Translation blog, perhaps.)

Davide Barile, Cronache Internazionale, 7 February.
Michel Houellebecq, ‘Sottomissione’
Nessuna islamofobia nel nuovo romanzo di Houellebecq, che invece si interroga sui destini di una Francia (ed un’Europa) incapace di gestire la propria libertà.
(Google Translate)
No Islamophobia in the new novel by Houellebecq, who instead is pondering the destinies of France (and Europe), unable to manage their own freedom.

“In conclusione, col suo nuovo romanzo Houellebecq denuncia in realtà la mancanza di prospettive della cultura europea e, se l’immagine che ci dà dell’islam può essere opinabile per la superficialità che a tratti la caratterizza, non si può certo dire che essa sia negativa.”

(Google Translate, with light Post Editing of Machine Translation: PEMT)
In conclusion, with his new novel, Houellebecq is really complaining about the lack of prospects of European culture and, although the image of Islam that is presented may be debatable for the superficiality that sometimes characterizes it, you certainly cannot say that it is negative.

Christoph Vormweg, Deutschlandfunk, 18 January.
‘Rezension von Unterwerfung
An interesting 2,000 word essay. (2 excerpts, with a hybrid English version from Google Translate, Microsoft Translate, and some personal PEMT)

“Provozieren ist und bleibt Michel Houellebecqs liebster Sport. Er pfeift auf jede Form der “political correctness”. Aber um es gleich vorweg zu sagen: Sein Roman “Unterwerfung” schildert zwar die Machtübernahme eines muslimischen Präsidenten in Frankreich. Doch verbirgt sich hinter seiner aufstörenden Zukunftsvision keine Attacke gegen die islamische Religion oder ihre Gläubigen. Mit keiner Zeile liefert Michel Houellebecq den extremen Rechten antiislamische Argumente oder gar Parolen. Der Goncourt-Preisträger von 2010 imaginiert lediglich, wie sich ein solcher Wandel in Frankreich vollziehen könnte. Und deshalb ist der Roman “Unterwerfung” vor allem eine herbe Abrechnung mit der heute herrschenden politischen Kaste – Fernsehmedien inklusive.”

Provocation is and remains Michel Houellebecq’s favorite sport. He does not care about any form of “political correctness”. But to come straight to the point: Although his novel Submission describes the takeover of power by a Muslim President in France, behind his startling vision of the future there is no hidden attack against the Islamic religion and its adherents. In no line does Michel Houellebecq provide the extreme right with anti-Islamic arguments or even slogans. The Goncourt Prize winner in 2010 imagined just how such a change could take place in France. And that is why the novel Submission is mainly a bitter reckoning with the prevailing political caste – TV media included.
“Literatur ist nicht die Wirklichkeit. Aber sie erlaubt es, Versuchsanordnungen mit Blick auf die Zukunft durchzuspielen. Michel Houellebecq bleibt in diesem Sinne ein Aufstörer, ein Querdenker. Und das ist gut so.”

Literature is not reality. But it makes it possible to play with experimental arrangements with a view to the future. Michel Houellebecq is in this sense a troublemaker [? stirrer], a lateral thinker. And that’s a good thing.

Translation 36. Free Internet Translation Software: The Contest between Google Translate and Microsoft’s BING Translator. Russian and Hindi

13 June 2012

In my article Translation 33, I attempted a rough assessment of the efficiency of free online translation software offered by Google, Microsoft (BING), and the venerable Yahoo Babel Fish.
In this test both Google and Microsoft proved to be competent in French and Spanish (into English) translation (at this general level). My stated next step was to check the online translation of other languages with different scripts and/or syntax by taking a look at Russian (as an example of a different script, Cyrillic) and Hindi (both script, Devanagari, and syntax).  This is what is attempted in this new article (using short extracts from Russian and Hindi Wikipedias).

A preliminary and very topical comment to make is that further reference to Yahoo’s Babel Fish will not be possible here because, as of 30 May, 2012, Yahoo Babel Fish has been either subsumed into or replaced by BING Translator, as indicated in the following recent note from Microsoft:
“We are pleased to welcome Yahoo! Babel Fish users to the Bing Translator family. We have been working closely with our friends at Yahoo! to make this an easy transition, and Bing Translator is a natural upgrade to the experience with Yahoo! Babel Fish. We support all the languages you used with Babel Fish, and provide a superset of all the features.”

Let us now look at the Russian to English situation. The piece chosen is an extract of  172 words from the Russian Wikipedia article on the Indian writer, intellectual and activist, Arundhati Roy. (Section:Политическая деятельность (Politicheskaya dyeyatyel’nost’)  Political activities) The style is simple.Here are the two translations for comparison:

Google Translate: (
Subsequently, Arundhati Roy has used his celebrity to draw public attention to important political issues. In a number of essays and speeches, it is opposed to nuclear weapons in India and neighboring Pakistan, as well as against Indian nationalism [citation needed 537 days]. She also took part in protest actions against the dam project on the Narmada River, as such projects are usually at the expense of the earth’s poorest and marginalized populations. Due to its popularity, Roy was able to attract the attention of national and international media to these problems.

Arundhati Roy’s literary activity is completely focused on illumination and critique of political and social themes. She opposed the so-called “war on terrorism” launched by the United States against the war in Iraq and against the policy of the World Bank and WTO. With its rigid stand it has become one of the best known environmental activists, anti-globalization movement and the peace.

In 2002 the High Court in Delhi has sentenced her to prison because she blamed the judges that they wanted to suppress the protests against the construction of a dam on the Narmada River. However, the symbolic conclusion was only one day. (196 words)

The Microsoft BING version: (

Subsequently, Arundhati Roy had used their celebrity to draw public attention to important political problems. In a number of essays and speeches, she spoke out against nuclear weapons for India and neighbouring Pakistan, as well as against Indian nationalism. She also participated in the protest activities against the dam project on the River Narmade, as such projects are carried out, usually at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. Due to its popularity Roy was able to draw the attention of the national and international MEDIA.

Arundhati Roy completely literary activity focused on reporting and criticism of the political and social order. She opposed the so-called “war on terrorism” launched by the United States against the war in Iraq, as well as against the policies of the World Bank and the WTO. Thanks to its unwavering position it has become one of the most prominent environmental activists, peace and antiglobalizacionnogo movements.

In 2002, the Supreme Court in New Delhi sentenced her to jail because she accused judges that those would like to suppress protests against the construction of a dam on the River Narmade. However, the symbolic conclusion was only one day. (197 words)

As with the previous passages from French and Spanish, both Google and Microsoft convey an English version which makes good general sense, without reaching the standard of a professional translation. In spite of obvious flaws and errors, they are both useful to readers who do not speak Russian. More detailed examination of the translations and the Wikipedia originals will be of particular interest to professional translators and experts in Machine Translation (MT).

It would therefore seem reasonable to hypothesise that the Cyrillic script is not a special obstacle to “Western” Machine translation – just as it is reasonable to state that in learning Russian as a second language the Russian script does not present major problems in reading or writing, at least for Europeans.

Now we can move on to present for examination and comparison the performances by Google and Microsoft with an extract from Hindi Wikipedia (201 words; 10 sentences) on the same writer and activist (Section: kraaNtikaaree vichaar. Revolutionary idea). Warning: Readers may be bemused or irritated by these results.


From U.S. imperialism, nuclear arms race, building dams on the Narmada, etc. Many
Local – international issues have been a voice against Arundhati Roy. But now
He believes that at least non-violent protest and civil disobedience in India
Movements is not the point.
Parliamentary system, part of the Communists and who believe in violent resistance
Arundhati admits that he caught in the Maoist ideology of Gandhi fan
Are not. In his words: – “After all, Gandhi was a superstar. When they are hungry – used to strike the
The hunger – strike were sitting on the superstar. But I do not believe in superstar politics.
If the people of the slums, hunger – strike that, no it does not care. ”

Arundhati Bajharwad that go on flowing in the flow of voices of protest in India
Being ignored. Against anti-people system, judiciary and media
Efforts have failed to impress. He said, “I understand that for us
Is very important to consider where we are right, wrong and where. We have given the arguments
They are right … But the violence did not work. ” (184 words)

Microsoft BING

US imperialism from the nuclear arms race, the Narmada dam, construction etc

Local-international issues that Arundhati Roy-voice ascendant are. But now
He believes in non-violent protests at India and civil disobedience
Movements not talk.
Became part of the parliamentary system and violent resistance in the count Communists
The Maoists of ideologies in which Arundhati admits that Gandhi’s andhabhakt
Are not. In their words-“end Gandhi a superstar. The hunger-strike, so they
The hunger-strike on superstars. But I do not mind you in the superstar.
If the people of a slum, a hunger-strike that it doesn’t care. ”
Arundhati believes that going away bazarvad flow-down of vowels in India
Unheard. janvirodhi system-the judiciary and media
Efforts have failed to impress. He said, “I think for us
It is important to consider where we are great, and where the wrong right. We gave arguments
They are right … But nonviolence is not effective.” (150 words)

These unsatisfactory performances (which, in my experience are not uncommon nor unrepresentative) clearly need much more attention and comment than the Russian translations above, or the French and Spanish ones. For Machine Translation, there is much more work to be done before satisfactory translations from Hindi to English (and some other languages) can be achieved.

From a reading of the English and without any reference to the original, the best that can be said of the translations is that they give glimpses of the subject material but they are not very useful. One can also see that the syntax is disjointed, many sentences are incomplete, and some references are inaccurate. In both Google and Microsoft versions all lines begin with a capital letter (which suggests a new sentence is beginning). From a comparison with the original one may add that the translations also offer some false information or impressions, as well as obvious problems with vocabulary identification and pronoun gender.

The reason why the Google and Microsoft translation systems have not yet been able to cope more satisfactorily with Hindi (and presumably with a number of other languages) is that they still have basic problems in identifying the complicated script, the very “different” syntax of Hindi and even the organisation of print, sentences and paragraphs.First of all, Hindi does not use upper case letters (nor italics or bold distinctions). Secondly, the main punctuation is a vertical bar as a full stop. Commas are used but often sparsely. The inability to deal with these characteristics must surely contribute to the peculiar look of the translations above, with initial capital letters at the beginning of each line.

Finally, let us look at the first sentence of the Hindi Wikipedia original (in transliterated form) to get a further glimpse of what can go wrong.

Amreekee saMraajyavaad se lekar, parmaanu hathiyaaroN ki hor, Narmada par baaNdh nirmaan aadi kaee sthaaneeye – antarrashtreeya mudhoN ke khilaaf avaaz bulaNd kartee rahee haiN arundhati raay. 

(my rough translation:)
From American imperialism, the nuclear arms race, to the construction of the Narmada Dam, etc., Arundhati Roy is raising her voice loudly on many local and international issues.

In the Hindi word order, a list of nominal groups is followed by “etc.” and then (literally) “several local-international issues against” (an example of the numerous Hindi “postpositions”, which are very basic and frequent sentence elements) and, finally, the sentence’s Verb and Subject (Arundhati Roy). Very different from: “From U.S. imperialism, nuclear arms race, building dams on the Narmada, etc. ManyLocal – international issues have been a voice against Arundhati Roy.”  and “US imperialism from the nuclear arms race, the Narmada dam, construction etc
Local-international issues that Arundhati Roy-voice ascendant are.”

I gave both systems a second chance by submitting the last part of that first sentence on its own. Without the cumbersome word order, Google did better but BING did not.

के ख़िलाफ़ आवाज़ बुलंद करती रही हैं अरुंधति राय
ke khilaaf aavaaz bulaNd kartee rahee haiN aruNdhati raay [roy]

Google: Arundhati Roy has been a voice against
BING: Is Arundhati Roy of that lofty-sounds

We must be grateful to Google and Microsoft for their valuable work on Hindi but we must also hope that the massive problems, briefly signposted in the above exercise, can be solved in the not too distant future. And similarly for other problem languages.

The next logical step would be to examine the quality of Google and BING translation from English into other languages. I will do my best at a later date, using the same four languages.

Au revoir. Hasta luego. Do sveedanya. Phir milenge.

Translation 32. David Bellos’s Revealing Book on Translation and the Meaning of Everything. (Reposted)

27 December 2011

(Originally posted on 10 November 2011, and clumsily deleted. Reposted 27 December)

It took a group of fifty scholars from twenty countries to produce the academic tome Translators Through History in 1995 (edited by Jean Delisle and Judith Woodsworth and co-published by John Benjamins and UNESCO. See this review by Alex Gross, with a list of eight other recommended works on translation history). That erudite and expensive collection of 345 pages now languishes on University library shelves, for the convenience of research use by a select minority of researchers.

Sixteen years later, an academic (Professor David Bellos) has distilled a distinguished career as university teacher, researcher and award-winning literary translator into 390 pages of multi-faceted views of “Translation” (and translators), whose title clearly indicates a desire to address a broad swathe of the educated public: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything.
Within a few weeks of its publication on both sides of the Atlantic (Faber in USA and Penguin in UK), the general appeal of Bellos’s very original work has been convincingly demonstrated by a unanimously favourable number of independent reviewers (mostly from widely-circulated culturally prestigious newspapers). Here is the list of eleven reviews (plus a strategic intervention by David Bellos), in order of appearance, with some selected points of view which present flavours of the book:
8 September 2011: The Times Higher Educational Supplement. Matthew Reisz, ‘Derrida had a word for it.’
“At a graduate ceremony at Princeton University, where he is professor of French and Italian and comparative literature, David Bellos recalls “a rather plump, pink-faced parent who came up and started chatting. When I told him I was a translator, he said: ‘But a translation is never a substitute for the original, is it?’ Trotting out a piece of folk wisdom as if it were an important new truth! I was so annoyed that I went home and started writing a diatribe. That’s how the book started.”
“More generally, Bellos is keen to challenge academic as well as popular misconceptions about translation.”

10 September: The Economist. Loftily anonymous, as is their habit; also hurried, superficial and with errors but very favourable. A good review for the author and publisher to have in the bag.

13 September: The Independent. David Bellos, ‘How Google Translate Works’.
David Bellos posts a book extract about Machine Translation and high praise for Google Translate (with many critical and other comments from readers).

14 September, The Sunday Telegraph. Maureen Freely, ‘A Witty Look at the Dark Art of Translation’.
“Bellos seems to have no anger in him whatsoever. Even as he demolishes the myths of translation, he delights in its chequered past and its contemporary ubiquity.”

22 September: The Guardian. Michael Hofmann, ‘Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos – review. An inquiry into the finer points of translation’.
He implores a section of his readers: “anyone with no interest in translation, please read David Bellos’s brilliant book.”

23 September: The Independent. Shaun Whiteside, ‘No word for fig? Have a banana’.
He refers to Edith Grossman’s recent “stout defence of the translator’s art, Why Translation Matters, to richly deserved acclaim” and confesses to envy for Bellos’s ability to
“entertain while getting difficult linguistic ideas across to the general reader.”

The September issue of The Literary Review, pp. 46-47.
Frederick Raphael, ‘Speaking in Tongues’. A short piece by the eminent novelist and screenwriter’.

1 October: The Spectator. Robert Chandler, ‘Art of Translation’
Chandler makes this distinction:
“This book fulfils a real need; there is nothing quite like it. Why Translation Matters, by Edith Grossman, is equally well written, but it is limited to the field of literary translation. Steven Pinker’s books about language have been highly praised, but they leave me wondering how closely the author has ever wrestled with any language other than English. And ‘Translation Studies’ as taught in universities is a highly theoretical discipline that is beyond the understanding of most practising translators — let alone of the general public.”

8 October: The Irish Times, Theo Dorgan, ‘Mind Your Language’.
“Bellos is a witty and perceptive writer, a provocateur in the best sense of the word. He is particularly enlightening on the linguistic protocols of the European Union – I had not known of what he calls the Basic Rule, originally laid down as article 248 of the Treaty of Rome, which stipulates that the treaty (now encompassing 24 languages for 27 member states) is “a single original” in each of those 24 languages.”

24 October: From the blt [Bible, Literature, Translation] group blog: JD Gayle,‘A Book Review: Is That A Fish In Your Ear?.
An interesting and very favourable review by a an academic and translator. Gayle adds a lengthy lobbying comment on Bellos’s “short shrift” for women, perhaps in deference to the recommendation of the adage “A review, to be worthwhile, must add something.” Gayle also gives us the information (from Bellos) that the paperback is due next year and will include corrections and amendments and that a French translation is in preparation.

28 October: The New York Times. Adam Thirlwell, ‘The Joyful Side of translation’.

5 November: The Australian. Weekend Review. Miriam Cosaic, ‘It’s not all Greek to the Translators’.

I also learned of the following three reviews through the excellent Omnivore (Criticism Digested) books and reviews website but unfortunately the links are broken by News Limited’s paywall in two cases and for unknown reasons for The Scotsman reference, so I cannot report on them.
10 September: The Times. Michael Binyon.
18 September: The Sunday Times. Robert Rowland Smith.

11 September: Jennie Erdal, The Scotsman on Sunday. Not only a broken link but this review was not even accessible through a direct search on The Scotsman website.

There is a common thread of strong approval running through this rich batch of early reviews: the very broad range of the coverage (variegated facets of Translation, many illuminated for the first time), the author’s engaging style and sense of humour, and his original and sometimes challenging views and questions about what Translation is. (Longer more specialised reviews will, as is customary, take more time to appear but they will undoubtedly provide further food for thought and discussion for translators and others with a close interest in Bellos’s stimulating research and conclusions on the nature and varieties of Translation activities.)

So Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is already well on the way to bestseller status (including Kindle and other e-book versions). Dr Bellos is to be warmly congratulated for significantly raising public awareness of this vital but often misunderstood activity, or group of activities (including Interpreting) and of its hierarchy of practitioners, from the foot soldiers and pedagogues to the élites engaged in international geopolitics and literary translation.

STOP PRESS: Bellos’s success with younger readers is now guaranteed: He has sensibly joined Twitter as D.Bellos@Cinoc123.

In conclusion I add my own very enthusiastic endorsement and gratitude for Davis Bellos’s excellent work and append a few personal comments from a translator’s point of view.


Bellos’s views on translation (the whole book).
His highlighting of Translators as a motley group and his attention to many of their roles.
The author’s agreeably light touch and humour, passim. He even plays with the Font styles of Chapter headings as well as the title of the book.
His emphasis on both practical and theoretical questions.
The welcome absence of detailed discussion of eminent academic theoretical linguists of the distant or very distant past such as de Saussure (p. 326), Whorf (remember the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?), Bloomfield, Chomsky and George Steiner. Although perhaps provocative, it is also deliberate, as Bellos himself makes clear at the end of the book:

“Readers familiar with translation studies may notice other omissions. Some of them are intentional. George Steiner’s After Babel is still in print, and my reasons for not commenting on Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’, can be found in Cambridge Literary review 3 (June 2010), pp. 194-206.” (I was unable to locate this.)
Elsewhere (page reference missing) Roman Jakobson is equally quickly passed over.

My favourite chapters:
Chapter 10. ‘ Global flows. Centre and Periphery in the Translation of Books’ (pp. 208-223)
Do not be put off by the title! The chapter deals in fascinating depth with the world translation publishing industry. You may be surprised at the revelations.
Chapter 21. ‘Ceci n’est pas une traduction: Language Parity in the European Union’ (pp. 237-249)
An inside view of one of the European Union’s key institutions. (Especially topical in the context of the current EU financial crisis.)

Perhaps Bellos’s conclusion to the chapter has a wider significance too in relation to the historic European Union venture: “The laudable aim of treating all languages of Europe as equal produces the unwanted but perhaps inevitable result that ECJ [the European Court of Justice] rulings are sometimes so pithy as to defy comprehension in any of them” (p. 249)

Chapter 23. ‘ The Adventures of Automated Language Translation Machines’ (pp. 256-267)
Bellos accords very high praise to the “ Google Translate” venture and makes a confidently optimistic forecast of its future trajectory.
(Still to be taken into account: Google’s undoubted high performance with some highly trafficked languages with huge corpora of data should be contrasted with its inevitably much less satisfactory results so far with less trafficked – but very important – languages like Chinese, Hindi and Arabic.)

Chapter 24. ‘A Fish in Your Ear? The Short History of Simultaneous Interpreting’ (pp. 268-282)
A fascinating in-depth portrait of this very specialised élite (crème de la crème) of the translating profession, for whose almost superhuman members Bellos has nothing but praise. More alarmingly, he also foreshadows a possible shortage of such specially equipped persons in the future, as you will find out if you buy the book.

On page 354, David Bellos admits to the following conscious omissions:
“the uses and pitfalls of translations in the military, in war zones and in hospitals. I plead ignorance. There is surely a lot to be learned from the courageous language mediators who work in those fields.”
I am sure that for future editions he will find collaborators to contribute material on these important themes, especially from the health and forensic fields. In Canada, Australia and USA, a significant body of expertise has been developed over recent decades.

I hope I have added something.

Postscript: For a note on Edith Grossman, see here.