Monday, February 19, 2018

English interference


Hebrew is not a difficult language to learn.  Due to several thousand years of forced stagnation, it failed to develop new roots and became quite regular.  The result is that each “root” learned allows the learned to understand countless new words.  To demonstrate, the root katav כתב  is used in many words, write, letter, address and dictate, to name just a few. Furthermore, there are only three tenses, past, present and future, simplifying grammar use.  The number of exceptions is rather limited and carefully organized into categories. Thus, despite its initial impression, learning Hebrew is not an especially difficult task.
That said, native languages always interfere in one way or another  with foreign languages. I have lived in Israel some 28 years and am quite fluent in both speaking and reading.  Yet, I continue to repeat certain errors despite all of my wife’s corrections. It is as if my brain insists on certain ways of doing things.

In my case, this inability to adjust to Hebrew comes out in three areas: letter pronunciation, syntax and gender chaos. Regarding the first, the transition from one language always involves some problematic sounds and letters.  For example, the French truly struggle with the English th sound. In the case of Hebrew, I pronounce the voiced and unvoiced h sounds, as represented by the letter heh ה, het ח and hof  כ almost without any distinction even though they are three different sounds in fact. Likewise, I massacre the difference between the sounds of the letters alef א  and ayin ע although I am cognizant of it.

Every language has its own syntax, its own way of framing the sentence, which can lead to misunderstandings when applied to another language. A nice example is the American expressing her frigidity instead of lack of body heat in the classic direct translation of English to French: Je suis froide when it should be J’ai froid. Regarding to Hebrew, since English sentences require a subject and verb, it is common and acceptable to add “it is” before adjectives to arrange the grammar while in Hebrew there is no need in some cases.  So, I constantly say זה קר בחוץ, literally it is cold outside, instead of just קר בחוץ , cold outside. It just does not seem natural.

Finally, the whole genderification of pronouns is a constant trap.  All pronouns, 1st, 2nd and 3rd person, have a male and female form in both singular and plural.  By contrast, English has he and she, with all other pronouns being neutral, such as I and they.  Not only that, the Hebrew verb must agree with the gender and number of the noun, unlike the non-gender specific forms of English verbs. The result is the constant need to consider the gender and adjust the grammar.  When speaking quickly or under pressure, these details can get lost.  In my case, everybody else in my house, i.e., my wife and daughter, is female, leading me to always use the female forms.  Unfortunately, quite often that rule does not apply out of the house, leading to people  to think “what a stupid American.”

In summary, language interference is a part of the learning process.  To a large extent, it can be overcome most of the time.  Still, no matter how long I will live her and how well I know the language, English will interfere from time to time.  Ultimately, it is not that important.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Bunker living?


Watching TV today is a bewildering experience.  With the formal choice of hundreds of channels and programs in multiple languages, both new series and reruns, recorded versions of missed programs and multiple means of viewing them, from 88” television screens to tiny telephones, deciding what to watch on a given evening can be a daunting decision. It almost is too much for a person tired from a long day of work and simply desiring to switch off the brain.

On a collective scale, aside from a few events, such as the Super Bowl or Academy Awards ceremony, it is impossible to guess what a coworker or friends watched the previous night.  It literally could be anything. The viewing experience has become extremely personal.  Before I can share my experience, I have to inquire what the other person’s choice was.
I remember of the days of limited choice, 1960’s and 1970’s. The United States had 3 channels (CBS, NBC and ABC), not including the rerun channels, which did not count. Israel had one while France had two. Cable and Internet streaming did not exist. The only alternative to TV was radio, not exactly a visual experience, and movie theatres, which required getting dressed and leaving the house.

While certainly lacking today’s choice and abundance of program options, the TV of yesteryear had a bit of a unifying effect.  Everybody knew who killed JR. In Israel, no weddings were scheduled on Sunday or Thursday night because of Dallas and Maccabi Tel Aviv European basketball games. Colleagues could begin a conversation by mentioning their impression of the last MASH with reasonable certainty that the other person had seen it.  A life basketball or baseball game (Saturday morning, PST) on TV was special. TV was not gourmet but most people shared the same taste, albeit not by choice.

It is not my intention to want to regress to the age of limited choice. I enjoy today’s luxury of being able to watch all 162 games of my beloved Pirates (although I am not that masochistic to actually do so). I would even argue that nothing has really changed in terms of content.  The Gershwin song was and still is relevant: we got plenty of nothing.  Yet, with this blossoming of media forms, society has lost of a bit of its cohesiveness, a shared experience linking young and old, rich and poor.  We did really care to know who killed JR, even in today most of us can no longer remember. In a certain sense, to quote Archie Bunker, “those were the days.”

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Greek Samarian tragedy

Judea and Samaria, the Occupied Territories and the West Bank are three names that describe the complex reality of almost 6,000 square meters of rolling hills punctuated by gentle slopes.  Of all issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is the true Gordian knot, almost irresolvable.

The names reflect the strong emotions attached to this area.  For religious Jews and fervent Zionists, it an integral part of Israel and a homeland, inhabited by Jews as early as there were Jews.  Israel without it is a shadow of itself. For Palestinians, it is their land slowly and unremittingly being usurped by Israeli colonists.  As much as Jerusalem, it is the core of Palestine as they see it. Geographically, it is a beautiful landscape matched by its gentle climate, warm during the day and cool and night. In short, it is a beautiful place prized by conflicting parties.

A naïve person would say that there is plenty of land for everybody.  95% of the population there (and everywhere) simply want to make a living, raise their family and live in peace. With such a preference for pacifism, it would seem obvious that neighbors of different faiths could live in reasonable harmony as they do in the Galilee.

Alas, each side fundamentally wants the other side to disappear, one way or another. This hope for total victory, however improbable, opens the field to extremists among Moslems and Jews to call for hate and violence. The result is absurd: Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages adjoining each other but without relations of any kind due to the heavy distrust of each other. Not only that, a mythical return to the pre-1967 borders is as realistic as a return to pre-Cromwell borders in Ireland.


In my view it is a human tragedy above all. As is generally true in the Middle East, there are no angels and devils in this story, merely two groups of people justifiably insisting on their right to reside in the land of their forefathers. As for the solution, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the answer is blowing in the wind of those beautiful but contested hills.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Camels and Israel

One of the strangest tourist purchases in Israel is a wooden camel with the word “Jerusalem” printed on it.  First of all, there are and were no camels in Jerusalem.  Secondly, its continued sales suggest that tourists view Israel as a great desert, a smaller version of the Sahara if you will. The reality is that Israel is a small country with a rather wide variety of landscapes, flora, fauna and climates.

The coastal region is flat and humid, albeit with some sand dunes where developers have not yet received building permits. Inland, north and south are very different. The Galilee gently rises from coast, reaching its peak at Mount Hermon, some 9,000 feet above sea level and dropping to the Sea of the Galilee, some 700 feet below sea level.  Rain is plentiful by local standards, meaning that flora thrives most of the year. The summers can be hot, but are far less humid.

Continuing eastwards, the Golan Heights, barely an hour’s drive from the Galilee, is a high volcanic plain, punctuated by gorges and flowing rivers (streams in other countries).  Hot in the summer and cold, even snowing, in the winter, it is a place rich with plants, including wineries, and animals with few human inhabitants.  My wife and I recently spend a weekend there and enjoyed the view and noise, specifically the tweets of all the birds at our window unaccompanied by rumble of vehicle motors.

In the center of the country, a steep road leads to Jerusalem, some 2000 feet above sea level, surrounded by mountain forests. Eastwards, the rolling hills of Judea and Samaria reflect a somewhat dry climate, green in the winter and brown in the summer but attractive in any case.

Traveling southwards, somewhere past Gadera, the Negev desert begins, reaching its arid peak at the Dead Sea. Yet, even here, the landscape is not uniform.  The northern part does receive some rain, creating incredible but short lived fields of flowers. The horizon is broken by protruding rocks, dry steam beds and crevices.  The closer to Eilat, the Southern tip of Israel, the drier and sandy the view becomes. However, at various oases, such as Ein Gedi, date palms flourish.


Of all the places I mentioned, the only real place you will find camels is in the Negev, where you can actually ride a camel, a surprisingly pleasant experience. That is why the Jerusalem camel is so absurd. On the other hand, a wooden rock hyrax, a much more common site, would be much harder to explain.

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.