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)


The Subjectivity of Colours

In Zur Farbenlehre (On the Doctrine of Colours), published in 1810, Goethe advances that warm colours are produced by the weakening of light towards darkness and that cold colours come from darkness brightening up into light, as exemplified by dusk and dawn respectively. Goethe also stated that warm colours evoke “gaiety and happiness”, whereas cold ones made “restless, susceptible and anxious impressions”.

Following the translation of Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre into English in 1843, J. M. W. Turner, disagreeing with Goethe’s theory on what emotions warm and cold colours convey, was inspired to paint two scenes of the biblical Flood: Shade and Darkness – The Evening before the Deluge, an evening of warm colours announcing a gloomy event, and Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge, Moses writing the Book of Genesis, an alleged morning of hope and promises  “alleged”, because Turner did not think that God had held his promise of never taking life again.


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.