Posted tagged ‘The Spectator’

Translation 21: Translating @ into Other Languages

28 August 2010

Have you ever wondered how the now indispensable email term “@” translates into other languages (apart from those which merely use the term as a symbol)?

Well, Dot Wordsworth, who presents a short and always interesting weekly column on English usage in the British Spectator magazine titled ‘Mind Your Language’, has recently offered this very useful piece, which I quote verbatim below. I recommend her other pieces to readers who are unaware of her research into English usage. (Taken from

21 August 2010

“I found myself in a fine pickle trying to give my email address on the telephone in Spanish. It was bad enough with W, an uncommon letter in Spanish. They have their own version of Alpha, Bravo, Charlie (or Able, Baker, Charlie for older readers), but I didn’t know it. Whisky for W seemed to work, but I dried up when it came to the @ sign.
The newly useful @ sign is called apestaartje, ‘little monkey’s tail’ in Dutch, and Germans follow suit. It is chiocciola, ‘snail’ in Italian, and a snail is also apparently what Koreans name it after. The Danes and Swedes liken it to an elephant’s trunk, but the Norwegians think of it as a pig’s tail.
The Spanish for ‘at’ is a, but a is also the name for the letter A. At last a nice friend of Veronica’s tells me that the Spanish for @ is arroba. I asked: ‘What does that mean?’ If I had asked that of a Frenchwoman, who would call @ arobase, she would have answered, ‘It just means that sign in email addresses.’
In Spanish, though, it had a meaning already, a measure of weight, a quarter of a quintal. If that sounds obscure, remember that quintal is an English word too, pronounced kwintl, formerly meaning ‘100lb’, later ‘a hundredweight’, which schoolgirls of my generation learnt was 112lb or a 20th of a ton. That means that an arroba is the same as our quarter: two stone or 28lb. Both the Spanish and the English words quintal come from Arabic, qintar. The dear old Arabs got that word from Latin. They borrowed lots of words from Latin, and qintar came from centenarium. From the same Latin word, we English derived centenary, a measure of weight as well as of years. (The Oxford English Dictionary gives the ‘regular’ pronunciation with the stress on the first syllable, which no one uses today.)
On a website called Purnas, partly devoted to the Aragonese language (there is such a thing), I found a learned article proving that the earliest use of the @ sign for arroba was not in Seville in 1536, as someone claimed last year. An example is given from a document written in 1448 in the Aragonese town of Ariza, recording a shipment of wheat.
Although arroba comes from the Arabic ar-rub, ‘a quarter’, modern-day Arabs call @ by the Arabic word fi, meaning ‘at’ — and ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘near’, ‘by’, ‘to’ or ‘times’, as in multiplication — which is a sort of correlative of ‘@’.”

Any other translations would be of interest if readers care to send them in.

Translating and Interpreting – 13. The Ultimate Sacrifice

13 December 2009

One or two previous blogs in this series have described some of the potential difficulties and disadvantages which may face interpreters (or translators), especially those who work in newsworthy national and international environments and occasionally find themselves being used as scapegoats to save the face of their prominent employers. Number 13 of the series deals briefly with the most negative consequence of this career choice: death on duty.

The conduct of the seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and their close (“in our face”) reporting by the international media – would have been impossible without the contingents of intrepid cameramen and local interpreters, translators and ‘fixers’ who have helped the American and allied forces and the battalions of foreign correspondents. A small proportion of these civilian interpreters (etc.) have paid the ultimate price for their work: death. (Others, as in other foreign wars, may well pay a similar price, when the coalition forces finally depart.)

On assignment in North Iraq in March 2003, Eric Campbell, a correspondent for Australian ABC TV was injured and his cameraman was killed in a terrorist attack (virtually on camera). When New York Times correspondent Stephen Farrell was taken hostage recently in Kunduz province, Afghanistan, he was freed in a subsequent commando raid but his “translator”, Sultan Munadi, was killed.

In an account of his own experiences in South Lebanon, another war correspondent, Sam Kiley, narrates the death of Abed Takoush, the fixer for the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen. Kiley also provides this background information on the unique job description of a fixer and an insight into the close bond between foreign correspondents (or the military) and their invaluable local assistants, referring also to the case of Sultan Manadi. (See The Spectator, 16 September 2009)

“Abed was a “fixer”, like Sultan Manadi, who was killed last week during a NATO operation to free the British journalist Stephen Farrell from Afghan kidnappers. ‘Fixer’ is an ignoble title. The word is sleazy and demeaning: it implies the local people hired by the foreign media are mere higglers. The reality is that without a worldwide network of local freelance drivers, translators, and general all-round fixers, there would be a lot of dead journalists, and pretty soon no foreign news at all.

Any nitwit, and I am living proof, can be a ‘war correspondent’ if they are lucky enough to come across a great fixer. These men and women usually earn no more than $100 a day. For that they provide introductions to gangsters, war lords, terrorists, politicians – as well as navigate, drive and give instant tutorials on Albanian politics, Somali clan rivalries and Balkan history. More important, they keep us alive. Behind our backs they apologise for our cultural insensitivity, anticipate our needs before we know that we’ve got them, and from time to time literally lead us through minefields.”
(The Spectator, 16 September 2009)

A happier ending: 30-year-old Australian SAS Trooper Mark Donaldson was recently awarded the Victoria Cross (Australia’s first for 30 years) for rescuing an Afghan interpreter under heavy fire in 2008. He was subsequently received by Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace.

Note: Sam Kiley is the author of Desperate Glory: At War in Helmand with Britain’s 16th Air Assault Brigade (London, Bloomsbury).

Global warming is not our most urgent priority, by James Delingpole

24 June 2008

At the risk of being sued for breach of copyright by my Beloved (the venerable but ultra-cool British Spectator magazine) and by the less venerable but highly talented and permanently impoverished writer James Delingpole (please send him a donation to allow him to maintain the lifestyle that he deserves), I would like to share with you this important (IMHO) article which transcends our solipsistic blog world.
(From: Bjørn Lomborg, the controversial Danish economist, tells James Delingpole that it is better to spend our limited funds on saving lives than on saving the planet.

Gosh, I do hope Bjørn Lomborg doesn’t think I was trying to pick him up. I’ve only just learned from his Wikipedia entry that he’s ‘openly gay’ which, with hindsight, probably made my dogged insistence that we conduct our interview in his cramped hotel bedroom look like a cheap come-on. Not to mention the way I sat there throughout, mesmerised and sometimes lost for words under the gaze of the handsome, trim 43-year-old blond’s intensely sincere Danish blue eyes which never leave yours for one second.

But it’s OK, Bjørn. You were safe all along, I promise. The reason for my awe is quite simply that I believe you are one of the heroes of our age. You’ve been called the antichrist, been vilified ad hominem in numerous scientific journals, even had custard pies thrown in your face (at Borders bookshop, Oxford, by an eco-activist), but still you’ve stuck to your guns and continued bravely to reiterate what for a time seemed almost unsayable.

Lomborg’s basic argument — as laid out in his bestsellers, The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It! — is that the world isn’t in nearly as bad a mess as the eco-doomsayers claim it is. And before we do anything too drastic to try to make things better, we ought first to ascertain what its most pressing problems are, rather than throw good money after hopeless causes.

Lomborg’s latest venture is a body he has founded called the Copenhagen Consensus. Funded mainly by the Danish government, this research panel comprises 50 leading economists, including five Nobel Laureates, and has spent two years applying cost benefit analysis methods to a list of global challenges — disease, pollution, conflict, terrorism, climate change, water and so on.

Its conclusions are hardly likely to win Lomborg new fans in the eco movement, for global warming comes so far down the list of urgent priorities that it doesn’t make the top ten. Far better to spend our limited pool of development aid money, say the economists, on schemes like micronutrient supplements (vitamin A and zinc) for malnourished children. For an annual outlay of only $60 million this would result in yearly benefits (through improved health, fewer deaths, increased earnings) worth more than $1 billion.

Also high on the list are unglamorous things like expanded immunisation coverage for children; deworming programmes in Third World schools; and community-based nutrition promotion. Number two on the recommended list is the — highly unlikely given resistance from the US and the EU — implementation of the Doha development agenda. Ending the trade tariffs, in other words, which are immeasurably to the developing world’s disadvantage.

‘It’s true that in the battle between exciting problems and boring problems we are defenders of the boring problems,’ agrees Lomborg, when I suggest that polar bears on melting ice caps tug the heartstrings far more effectively than flyblown African urchins. ‘Our uphill task is to try to show that problems involving the greatest pictures and the cutest animals are not necessarily the most pressing issues.’

This is the sort of dull pragmatism that so often gets Lomborg into trouble. People will read him saying that the threat to polar bears has been somewhat exaggerated, given that their global population has increased fivefold since the 1960s, and they’ll think: ‘Heartless, evil Bush shill, probably in the pay of Big Oil.’ Whereas all Lomborg is actually saying in his remorselessly logical, Danish statistics professor’s way, is: ‘Let’s take emotion and hysteria and fluffy white fur out of the argument and try to seek the objective truth.’

Ah, but what do economists know anyway? Aren’t decisions regarding the environment, nutrition and so on better left to experts in those fields? ‘But if you ask a malaria expert where the money is best spent, you shouldn’t be too surprised if the answer is malaria,’ says Lomborg. ‘What economists can do which natural scientists cannot is, in effect, to put the prices on the menu. They are not saying, “You should pick this meal or that meal.” What they are saying is, “If you pick the lobster, you’ll have less to spend on everything else.”’

The principal question Lomborg encounters is, ‘Why should we have to pick and choose? Why shouldn’t we be able to do it all?’ He even heard this line from a US congressman, who said, ‘I can understand why a small country like Denmark has to focus on priorities, but America is so big.’ ‘I had to remind him that even though the US is indeed a lot bigger, it still seemed to me that in the last 50 years it hadn’t yet fixed all the problems in the world.’

What non-economists tend to have difficulty understanding, says Lomborg, is the concept of marginal benefit. ‘We tend to think in terms of absolute magnitude, so people will say, “Global warming is overall a bigger problem than micronutrition so we should deal with that first.” But what economists say is, “No. If you can spend a billion dollars and save 600,000 kids from dying and save about two billion people from being malnourished, that’s a lot better than spending the same amount to postpone global warming by about two minutes at the end of the century.”’

In the early days of his campaigning, when he first transformed himself from left-leaning Greenpeace-supporting tree-hugger to environmental ‘skeptic’, Lomborg used to get a lot more stick than he does now. His unlikely ally, he says, has been the ongoing biofuels disaster, whereby a scheme introduced to help save the environment has helped bring about riots, rising food prices and the destruction of rainforest. ‘People have suddenly started to realise: “Ew! Not every drastic measure we take in panic is smart!”’ he says. (The American-accented ‘Ew’ bit, by the way, is the only moment where he sounds remotely camp.)

Unlike proper climate change sceptics (who are the equivalent, George Monbiot has famously claimed, of Holocaust deniers), Lomborg says his views on global warming are broadly in sympathy with those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Where he thinks the green movement has got things badly wrong is in attempting to shut down any form of critical opposition.

‘You cannot have a conversation about the biggest policy argument of the day, and then say that one side isn’t allowed to debate,’ says Lomborg. He thinks the greens have also done their cause a great disservice by talking up the climate change threat. ‘You can overplay your cards and screech so loudly that you end up losing the argument.’

The battle for common sense, though, is far from over. His worry is that the next Kyoto update — the Copenhagen summit in 2009 — will prove yet another wasted opportunity where politicians set themselves ever higher pie-in-the-sky targets on carbon emissions. ‘The danger is not that we’re not going to meet these targets, because I take that as granted — of course we’re not going to meet them, just as we didn’t after Kyoto in 1997. What’s far worse, is that yet again, it will stop us focusing on all the incredible things we actually could do with that money. So we end up wasting another ten or 20 years.’