Saturday, January 20, 2018

L’imparfait de subjective

Perfection is a concept that is useful for comparison but futile for satisfaction.  An example is the mythical concept of a perfect translation. Like Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10, there is a belief that a flawless version in another language must exist. Alas, the path of improvement never ends. It is always possible to find a better word or phrase the sentence just a bit better.

The explanations for this inevitable failure to reach perfection in translation include the lack of skill by translators, the uneven quality of the original text and the nature of the improvements themselves. Depending on the case, any or all may be relevant. However, I see a bigger problem: Perfection in the case of translation is an impossible level to define and reach.

First, the ideal, the modal of perfection, is subjective. There many ways to translate a phrase. Each is different but each has its charm and strength. The assessment of better and worse quickly approaches the level of a matter of taste, referred to as preferential in the profession.  Pick up a few different translations of Don Quixote or War and Peace and compare. Can any specific one be qualified as the absolute transmission of the original?  The answer is explicitly negative as each translation both subtracts and adds to the original merely by the nature of target language.

However, even if the masterpiece did exist, few if any translators have the skill to reach that Mt. Olympus goal. Good translators have thorough knowledge of the target language, generally their native tongue, great familiarity with the target language and culture, two inseparable elements, impeccable work and quality control techniques and mastery of the technical means to apply all those. Clearly these skills are not incompatible with each other. Yet, few of us can honest claim to be experts in all. Most of strive for improvement to become solid and hope for excellence in one or more of those skills.

Assuming that the translator has these skills, one of the great difficulties of reaching perfection in anything is the lack of proper conditions. Most translators work at home, are female and freelancers. This means the translators have to balance many time demands, including cooking, cleaning, children, home repairs, friends calling and, last but not least, making a living. According to the 80/20 rule, the last 20% takes as much effort as the first 80%.  For an example, professional sprinters practice thousands or hours to reduce a tenth of a second from their time. So, in an ideal world, perfection is possible. Practically, there is a deadline for this project with more on the way.  Perfection is as far away as a week in Tahiti.

This leads to the fundamental conclusion, applicable to many fields besides translation. Perfection is not a required result in almost all cases.  In business, it is called good enough, a flexible term defined by customer needs and demands. A translation for internal consumption must be accurate and reflect the original; it does not have to be a masterpiece of literature.  It is generally clear a week later that the phrasing could have been improved here and there or another synonym would have been better. In practice, all the interesting parties were able to read the document painlessly and effectively and may even have not noticed the minor error. A webpage must be clean of all errors but does not have to be literature. Each case has its parameters.


That said, I do not intend to say that mediocrity is acceptable in anything. As the expression goes, anything worth doing is worth doing well. A mythical state of perfection spurs professional to strive and improve.  Yet, taken too far, the search for the ideal only frustrates people and makes them feel bad for no reason. The human language as the human body has countless forms, each with its own good and bad points. It is natural to strive to enhance the first and minimize the second. It is harmful to throw out the baby with the bath water, especially in reference to subjective concepts. It is the nature of the imparfait du subjunctive.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

On the menu

It can be very adventurous, even romantic, ordering from a menu in a language you do not understand at all.  Unfortunately, the result can be a bit shocking unless you like lamb’s brain and Jerusalem artichoke paste or something too “exotic” for your tastes. On the other hand, to read a menu that is translated frequently results in releasing experience, specifically of tension, laughter or tears.

To explain, starting a restaurant is an expensive affair: kitchen, chefs, waiters, tables, environment, plates, silverware, fire and health licenses, to name a few.  Somewhere on the bottom of the list in most places, i.e. last and definitely least, is translation of the menu.  A Google search for “funny menu translations” will bring up countless outrageous dishes from China, Arab countries, Europe, except for America where restaurants generally don’t not even bother to translate as “everybody knows English.” Even in my little corner of the Galilee, there is a nice Arab restaurant whose Hebrew translation tells us they roast “Celebs”, which is supposed to be the Hebrew word for quail but misspelled, becomes much famous, or maybe infamous.

When faced with farcical translation, people’s reactions vary. The more pedantic inform the waiter of the error in question, ignoring the fact that the menu was printed three years ago. Those with poor sensitivity or high blood alcohol levels start laughing out loud, which is no more effective but does improve the atmosphere of the table. Professional translators start to carefully examine the menu to find more creative translations to tell their friends. As they say the more, the merrier.  The stilted diners notice and move on, completed unfazed by the fractured dish descriptions, like a cab driver noticing that a driver that failed to signal.  Chacun a son gout.

The interesting question is why menu translation is often so poor. Budget is one factor.  Many restaurants are shoe-string potato budgets. A lack of awareness of the tourist business is another factor. Many owners are unaware how many people do not understand the local lingo. There is also a common false impression that a cousin who got a high grade in English in high school can translate a menu just fine and, moreover, can be paid peanuts (or humus, fish and ships, or whatever the local cheap food is). The causes are numerous.

Regardless the reason, the all-too-common result is linguistic and culinary mayhem. The poor diner has to multitask, i.e., try to understand what is being offered while laughing, openly or not. In any case, it is not wise for a restaurant to be penny wise and pound foolish, spending a fortune on the menu and almost nothing on its translation. For the price you have to pay for the food, the least they can do is to properly inform you of what you are eating!


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Digital Idiot Savant

The world of translation for both the general public and professionals is the midst of a revolution.  Machine translation has taken off.  Google Translate may be its most public form but far from its most important use. Corporations such as Nestle and Amazon are using and developing better forms of machine translation. 

To explain the process, phrases and sentences are compared with company-prepared glossaries, known Internet-accessible translations and grammar rules to create translated documents. Of course, as anybody that has ever used Google Translate can testify, the results are sometimes ludicrous but more and more often quite satisfactory.

Recently, I post-edited a very long machine translation of a complex tender offer in French.  I felt I was dealing with an idiot savant in the sense that genius and stupidity were randomly mixed. While for confidentially reasons I cannot provide specific examples, I can say that a perfect translation of a complex sentence would often be followed by an irrelevant translation of a simple sentence. The same word would be translated differently in consecutive sentences. The grammar ranged from Oxford correct to awful first year ESL student. In short, unlike human translation, there was no rhyme and reason to the quality of the translation.

This required me to treat each sentence as completely isolated in terms of my confidence level in the translation. When editing human translation, it is a bit like observing the driver ahead of you: you quickly get a sense of whether to trust or avoid him/her. Here, my mind had to refuse to trust any translation based on the previous segments. Even harder psychologically, I could not even say to myself “what an idiot” or “what a good translator” because the translator was digital. All in all, it was a very different editing experience.


Many translators fear that machine translation is the end of the profession. The probable truth is the opposite. Translation is one of the fastest growing professions in the world thanks to the world-village phenomenon, among other reasons. It is clear that machine translation handles certain jobs, especially large masses of text and very standard email messages, much more efficiently and cost-effectively than human translation. However, technical translation of all kinds, including medical and legal, requires the human brain both with and without computer help. As we have all experienced, there is nothing more intelligent and stupid than a computer.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Jerusalem of gold, copper and light

Trump’s controversial announcement to move the US embassy to Jerusalem has elicited a larger than usual number of skew comments.  What I mean is that the various reactions do not relate to the same Jerusalem although the name of the city is the same.

To explain, to religious and ideological Jews, Jerusalem is the soul of Judaism, the basis of the faith, and is symbolized by the Wailing Wall and Temple Mount.  Without Jerusalem, Israel has no anchor for existence. While this image is very strong and commonly felt even by non-religious Jews, it ignores many facts. A Jewish state without Jerusalem in ancient times did exist when there was a split between Judah and Israel. Secondly, administratively and population wise, East Jerusalem is more Jordanian/Palestinian than Israeli.  Many of its key institutions are directly or indirectly run by Amman, including the educational system and Waqf. Despite the fact that Jerusalem was united more than 40 years ago, it remains a divided city.

That does not mean that the official Muslim portrayal of Jerusalem is any more accurate. In the eyes of many Muslim, Jerusalem is the city from where Mohamed rose to heaven. Its holiness is symbolized by the Golden Dome Mosque, Al-Aqsa. Jewish control of the area represents a spiritual threat to the religion as a political threat to the Palestinians, who also consider Jerusalem as their religious anchor. This approach ignores the fact that the mosque is build on the ruins of a church, which is built on the ruins of the two ancient Jewish temples, which was built in the area conquered by the Jewish King David from the …….  There is no certainly no clear Muslim or even Arabic title to this land. Moreover, the Koran does not even directly mention Jerusalem, although the city may be referred to indirectly. Thus, to claim that Jews have no title to the city is ridiculous.

The “neutral” international attitude to Jerusalem is muddled. Jerusalem has an important place in Christianity. Yet, Christian access is not threatened either by the former or new US position. More importantly, the world is bewildered by the fervency and lack of rationality in regards to any discussion regarding the city’s status. Thus, it prefers to bury the issue under the carpet and allocate to later discussions between the disputing parties, who so far cannot agree on far simpler matters. On the other hand, like any fundamental dispute, the status of Jerusalem and its holy places will continue to heighten tensions to everybody’s loss. It is a bit of a Gordian knot. It is often forgotten that Jerusalem is not only a symbol but also a real city with people trying to cope with a complicated geographical, architectural, political and social structure.

My view is that fundamentally Trump’s declaration and eventual implementation changed very little. In any case, the US Embassy would be located in West Jerusalem. This move would not in fact prevent the Palestinians from having their own state and making East Jerusalem their capital if such a solution is ever agreed upon. The facts on the ground should (but do not always) determine the reality.  The two state solution is theoretically possible with Jerusalem as a divided city, albeit not necessarily according to pre-1967 borders on the condition that freedom of religion for all is maintained and the parties can agree.


Yes, I know the John Lennon song Imagine comes to mind, hopefully or cynically. In any case, we need a bit of Naomi Shemer‘s light to enter the Middle East and allow people to live their lives in peace. Let all of us pray to the peace of Jerusalem, whichever city you have in mind.  If we can make that happen, anything is possible.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Spot the difference

The Galilee is the home of many cultures, interacting and even living together. These cultures include Jewish of all types, including Ashkenazi, oriental, Yemenite and Ethiopian, as well as Moslem and Christian Arabs, not to mention Circassians and Druze.  The terms “Jewish” and “Arab” almost lose their meanings given the constant mixing of value that occurs here.  For example, Israeli “Arabs” can barely speak pure Arabic, interspacing their mother tongue with Hebrew on a regular basis, while Eastern Jews are proud of their food and music traditions that are very similar to the ones of the Arab countries from where they families came from. Appearances can be very deceiving.

In term of culture clash, a trip to Acco is most educational.  Jews, Muslims and Christians have lived together in Acco for generations, thus providing a great view of this cultural mix.  One of the interesting cultural aspects involves the manner of dining and celebrating. When dining in a Jewish owned restaurant, everything is more restrained. The music may be “Arab” but the volume is kept low. The people enter and greet each other quietly, without great ceremony. Men and women generally sit together and talk quietly.  Also, the ban on smoking in public spaces is enforced. The atmosphere is quiet.

By contrast, going to an Arab restaurant is a public celebration, even if the actual table is private. The music tends to be louder; the greetings noisier, and signs of affections, real or otherwise, more dramatic. When large groups or families gather, you can often see seating by gender and/or status. A meal is intended to be a happy ceremony and is so performed. It is an occasion to express warmness and affection.  Smoking hookahs is often tolerated, making such restaurants a bit challenging for those used to a smoke-free environment. Diners enjoy their food, essential the same food as in the Jewish-owned restaurants, but are much less restrained in their expression of the social pleasure.


Given that all human beings, regardless of their faith and culture, view eating as a central part of their social life, a dinner in Acco is a wonderful opportunity to view the different styles of public dining. Which is better?  Chacun à son gout.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Cheese – A tale of three countries

A rose is a rose is rose but cheese is not fromage, which is not גבינה  [gvina]. While the translation is correct, the meaning is fundamentally different in the United States, France and Israel.

All types of food, including cheese are available, in most places in the United States.  However, the word cheese on a menu generally brings up the yellow flat pieces known as American cheese, although fancier places will use cheddar. Supposedly, there is some milk-based material in American cheese but I have to take that on faith.  Instead, it is used as a taste element, albeit rather high caloric, to supplement various dishes, including omelets and hamburgers. In Israel, people use powdered chicken broth for the same purpose. Regarding it as a cheese and not a texture-element, I wonder how many people eat slices of American cheese au natural, without bread or some other accompaniment. Other cheeses are considered foreign and exotic, either attracting or turning off Americans according to their food bents and budget.  So, in America, for many people, the term cheese brings up an image of a flat, yellow slice.

By contrast, cheese in France is not food item but instead a world into itself. A visit to a French cheese shop is a voyage through France with all its smells, colors and tastes. Experts can identify a brie or camembert by area or even village. The more striking the cheese is, whether in smell or taste or both, the better.  Mild cheese is for wimps or certain cooked dishes. That Anglo-Saxon adventurous choice, cheddar, is an also-ran in the competitive arena of a fromagerie. Even less sophisticated French appreciate a good chèvre (goat cheese). So, in France, le fromage is a microcosm of the country.

Israel is developing country in terms of cheese.  Once upon a time, for economic reason, the only cheese available were two types of גבנ"צ [gavnatz], yellow cheese. Since the opening of the country and arrival of millions of Russian immigrants, the sky is the limits.  Countless types of cheese are not easily attainable, albeit for a pretty penny.  Still, for everyday use, people use the standard yellow cheese. I have to say that the Israeli standard is significantly higher than the American standard cheese and quite tasty in itself.


When in Rome do like the Roman but don’t go too far and do something stupid.  In France, visit a fromagerie. You may like it (or may run away for that matter). In the United States, unless you like it, do not order cheese unless they tell you which cheese.  To be fair, there is nothing wrong with a good cheddar. In Israel, you won’t be disappointed by the standard cheese but go to a Russian supermarket and enjoy the wide choice of tastes, if not smells. Say cheese!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Masochism or vicarious living?

Is it natural for a person to spend a 3+ hours getting annoyed, cursing, occasionally throwing object at t the floor, punctuating by expressions of joy but mainly those of frustration, but still looking forward to repeating the whole experience the next week? The answer depends on your culture.

To explain, as an expat, I relish watching my American sports, specifically baseball and football (the one with the larger athletes).  So, I reserve Sunday night at 8:00, Israeli time for the 1:00 pm east coast games, for watching sports.  I prepare properly, i.e., do not schedule any work, read the pre-game analysis, make sure there is a bottle of beer and some pistachios in the house and finish my daily telephone duty (calls to parents and daughter) beforehand.  Then, I go into my office, put my feet up, invite the cat to take a long nap on me, which he almost always welcomes, and begin the evening in the most cheerful of moods. My wife has learned to leave me alone for two reasons: I am “away” mentally; and she does not handle my emotional merry-go-round very well, whether voiced or not. Since I am a fan on the Pittsburgh Pirates in baseball and Cincinnati Bengals in football, not exactly elite teams in their sport, they are rather prone to playing poorly at times.

This is where culture comes in.  When I return to reality around 11:00 pm, generally disgusted with what I have seen, my wife looks at me and wonders why I insist on going through this seemingly unpleasant drama every week. It is clear to her to them that my behavior is irrational and possibly connected to some stupid American ingrained behavior. Granted, I have not conducted a study of attitudes among Israeli women to sport but I strongly suspect that this bafflement is the general rule among Israeli females. By contrast, if I had married an American woman, the odds are that not only would she understand my vicarious living, she might join me. To be perfectly clear, I am glad that I married an Israeli woman but still culturally mixed marriages bring out cultural differences, small and big.  In this case, my wife has no problem racking it up to background, not insanity.


So, I will continue to enjoy my Sunday nights, granted in an irrational manner, while my wife will knit away and try not to hear my mumbled curses. As we agree to disagree, the answer to the question whether it is natural or not is completely irrelevant.