Translating Mandela

It probably comes as no surprise to most Europeans that Nelson Mandela wished for his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, to be translated into several African languages. It seems the obvious way of making the book accessible to all as well as acknowledging minority languages and the diversity of communities sharing the country of South Africa. But reading an article by Antjie Krog, translator of Long Walk to Freedom into Afrikaans, I was surprised to discover an opposite perspective:

“An important barometer of the power of a language is the number of texts translated into it, so imagine my surprise when I received a request to translate Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, from English into Afrikaans, my mother-tongue, spoken by only 13.5 percent of the South African population.

“I was informed that Mandela wanted it to be translated into Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and Northern Sotho. Why? I wondered. The translation of the Bible into our indigenous languages was frowned upon as a form of colonisation: a way for Western values to gain entry into the traditional heart of the indigenous communities. But as we came to know the man, this request was vintage Mandela.”

As a European translator, I see translation as a vehicle for mutual understanding, the sharing ideas and international peace. Coming across such a view was both striking and humbling.

Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog

Photo: (credit: Philippe Matsas)


French is so Last Century!

A new bill was discussed at the French Assembly yesterday proposing to allow classes in universities to be taught in English to encourage foreign students to come and study in the Hexagone. The proposal is causing no small stir, with some claiming that such a law would turn the French language into an “ordinary language, or worse, a dead language” (Bernard Pivot).

The Constitution stipulates that, in the name of equality and access to the same education for all, education must be provided in French only. For the same reason, local minority languages have never been recognised by the State.

There are long-standing fears amongst the more conservative French nationals concerning the longevity of the Francophonie (French-speaking culture). Just like the British seem never to have recovered from the loss of their great empire, with some still sulking on the fence about Europe (to the amusement and/or annoyance of the rest of the Union as well as part of the British population itself), many French still cling on to the memory of the long-gone days when the ability to speak their language was considered a sign of refinement and erudition in many cultures across Europe and beyond (to the amusement and/or annoyance of rest of the French population).

In light of the polemic and in support of the proposal, the newspaper Libération published on Tuesday a front page entirely in English, advising in its article, “Let’s stop behaving like the last representatives of a Gaulish village under siege”.

If this new law is passed, i.e. not considered anti-constitutional, will it create a precedent for Breton, Alsatian, Basque and other languages to gain recognition at long last?

Asterix & ObelixCartoon by Uderzo

English, the ‘International’ Language – but for how long?

The ‘supremacy’ of English in the world of trade is a good excuse for native English-speakers not to learn another language. Let’s face it, why bother when you can go abroad and everyone there speaks English? The British don’t seem to be born linguists anyway, do they? And so on and so forth… We’ve all heard it and we’ve heard it all.

This complacency costs the UK £7.3bn each year in lost trade, which former Treasury Economic Adviser James Foreman-Peck calls “the tax on trade”. 75% of the UK trade takes place with countries where English is not the first language. (English is the first language for 6% of the world population only.) As Willy Brandt says, “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

Last year, the EU recruited for 308 jobs in Brussels, needless to say with language skills as a must. Only 1.5% of the applicants were British; 7 were successful. Can we expect to have an influence on the EU if we do not have a stronger presence in its offices?

Being insular isolates us culturally, economically and politically, and with the BRIC countries growing fast, the days of the English language’s ‘supremacy’ are counted.

The USA to become Los EUA (Estados Unidos de América)?

The Latino population in the States (originating mainly from Mexico) has doubled in the past 20 years. Miami in particular seems to have turned into a Hispanic metropolis, with some shops advertising “English spoken here” in their windows. This southern wave is seen by some white English-speaking Americans as a threat, and the US government is going ahead of the duel over linguistic supremacy by passing a new law to “declare English as the official language of the United States”. This new tension is rather ironic for a country built on immigration. Can there really be such a debate between two non-native languages?

Meanwhile, a few hundred Native American languages are dying while their cultures and peoples are conveniently forgotten, dispossessed of their land and confined to reserves, just like wild animals – with the difference that animals benefit from reserves. But of course this is not about legitimacy or fairness; it’s about evolution. Migrations have always occurred and attempts at putting barriers to the Spanish tide over the States will intensify tensions without stopping it.


Word Creation

In 1604, King James brought together 54 scholars to translate the Bible, a project finalised in 1611. In order to facilitate the popularisation of this new version, one of the requirements was to make the language and style of the translation accessible to all.

Four hundred years on, this Renaissance marketing trick still has an impact on how we speak today. Many expressions or clichés in our everyday vocabulary were originally coined for the purpose of this translation. Here are a few examples:

BibleFrom time to time (Ezekiel 4:10)
The root of the matter (Job 19:28)
Know for a certainty (Joshua 23:13)
Turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6)
No small stir (Acts 12:18)
Stand in awe (Psalms 4:4)


ALS (MoJ Supplier) to be Taken to Court?

This is brilliant irony: “The attorney general has been urged to bring contempt of court proceedings against the private contractor awarded a monopoly to provide interpreters to all courts in England and Wales.”

Here are a couple of examples as to why: one suspect remanded in custody in one prison had to rely on a second suspect from another prison to translate proceedings, and “The Commons justice select committee has been told a court resorted to Google’s online computer translation because no Lithuanian interpreter could be found.”

And Crispin Blunt persists in defending that all is well.

Read the full Guardian article.

Interpreters earn 6-figure salaries. Who says?

There have been endless reports on the chaos in courts throughout the country following the new agreement between the Ministry of Justice and ALS for the provision of interpreting in court. (See BBC report). As a result, petitions have gone round, and a demonstration took place in London this afternoon from the MoJ to the Commons.

In anticipation of this protest, Today’s programme this morning reported that Minister of Justice Crispin Blunt claimed that interpreters earned a 6-figure income. Where does this information come from? Does anyone know?

Only this week, the ITI and the CIOL published the “2011 Rates and Salaries Survey for Translators and Interpreters”, which states that “the median gross income for full-time freelancers is … £31,000”, for translators and interpreters together. That’s before tax, national insurance, and the cost of running your own business. Six-figure income!?

Since the aim of this contract is to save money and it’s actually doing the opposite, there will come a point when the MoJ will have to face the music and revert back to using the national register. And the sooner the better! Meanwhile, the mess proves that there is more to interpreting than being able to chat in a couple of languages.