snousle: (castrocauda)
[personal profile] snousle
I kinda knew this, but the way it's explained here really brings it home. You can't just translate sentences in isolation. Instead, you pretty much have to know the whole story behind the sentence before you can convey it accurately in another language. It makes me wonder how those simultaneous translators at the UN can function at all.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you want to say even the simplest thing, like "Humpty Dumpty sat on a …" Well, even with a snippet of a nursery rhyme, if you try to translate it to other languages, you'd immediately run into trouble. Let's focus on the verb for a moment. Sat. To say this in English, if this was something that happened in the past, then you'd have to say "sat." You wouldn’t say, "will sit" or "sitting." You have to mark tense. In some languages like in Indonesian you couldn't change the verb. The verb would always stay the same regardless of whether this is a past or future event. In some languages, like in Russian, my native language, you would have to change the verb for tense, but you would also have to include gender. So if this was Mrs. Dumpty that sat on the wall, you'd use a different form of the verb than if it was Mr. Dumpty.

In Russian, quite inconveniently, you have to mark the verb for whether the event was completed or not. So if Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall for the entire amount of time that he was meant to sit on it, that would be one form of the verb. But if he were to say "have a great fall" that would be a different form of the verb.

In Turkish, and this is one of my favorite examples, you have to change the verb depending on how you came to know this information. If you actually witnessed this event with your own eyes, you were walking along and you saw this chubby, ovoid character sitting on a wall, that would be one form of the verb. But if this was something you just heard about, or you inferred, from say broken Humpty Dumpty pieces, then you would have to use a different form of the verb.

I like the Turkish example too, because that's one of my conscious habits - I always temper statements with "I read that..." or "He said that..." or "It could be that..." if it's not something I have first-hand knowledge of. Just because I want to avoid even the possibility of misinforming anyone. It would be very handy to have that distinction be a deeply embedded part of the language.

Date: 2013-04-05 04:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I always temper statements with "I read that..." or "He said that..." or "It could be that..." if it's not something I have first-hand knowledge of. Just because I want to avoid even the possibility of misinforming anyone.

Good god, man, are you mad‽ You do realise this is the internet, right?

Date: 2013-04-05 04:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I always temper statements with "I read that..." or "He said that..." or "It could be that..." if it's not something I have first-hand knowledge of.

Isn't this roughly the equivalent of Fock Snooze's "Some people say..." :)
Edited Date: 2013-04-05 04:56 pm (UTC)

Date: 2013-04-05 05:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
"Some say that Bill Clinton is just a space lizard wearing a rubber mask!" <--- TRUTH

Date: 2013-04-05 05:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I've mentioned many times before that I have a tremendous amount of respect for simultaneous interpreters. I've only been forced to do it a handful of times in my life and it is exhausting.

At least in the case of the UN, the context and register is pretty much a given: it's all diplomats making formal statements about politics. It's got to be the more casual conversations at cocktail parts and the like that are the real nightmare. Was that sarcastic? Is she talking about something that happened or that she'd like to see happen? Is that a joke to break the tension? Or is it a deliberate insult calculated to raise it?

Date: 2013-04-05 05:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, and incidentally, the Turkish phenomenon referred to is called evidentiality. People's first reaction to learning of it is almost always, "That would be so handy!" But speak to anyone whose native language grammaticalises it and they'll tell you people use it to lie as easily as we do.

You might be interested in the conlang project Láadan. One of its more interesting grammatical features is a robust array of evidential particles.

Date: 2013-04-05 08:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I straddle two languages every day, German and English. Often when I'm listening to the radio or watching a news story in German, Gary will ask me what they are talking about. If I watch the WHOLE segment, it's much easier to summarize afterwards than giving a simultaneous interpretation, which I'm quite capable of - but it is EXHAUSTING. Of course, once I leave the comfort of my areas of expertise in German or English, it becomes SO much harder to do. A lot has to do with anticipation of what comes next; in any language there are standard phrases and ways of saying things, and the context will often give you enough tips to actually know the words that may follow before they are spoken. It's almost like in English when someone correctly finishes your sentences for you. Of course, interpreters will hold onto these possible word-choices before the speaker actually says the words that are needed, but they are almost cued up and ready to go when they are spoken. That buffering of possible words is the thing that is most difficult, especially if the person speaking is nervous and talking fast or doesn't really speak the language well [a non-native German speaker for instance]. It requires a LOT of concentration, more than 10 minutes of simultaneous German -> English or the other way around is more than I can handle. If it's not in real-time, I have no problems taking my time and carefully read the source material first, possibly a few times, before starting the translation, absorbing the context and meaning, and then I go about shuffling concepts into another language and culture.
Edited Date: 2013-04-05 08:23 pm (UTC)

Date: 2013-04-05 09:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Growing up most of the adults on my father's side spoke Italian, when I got a little older I found out they spoke pigeon, fragmented Italian and English. When I turned 18 I went to Italy and thought I would have no problem with the language and it turned out I had a lot difficulty understanding people and being understood.

Date: 2013-04-06 01:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Standard Italian may go back to Dante, but only a small percentage of Italians were conversant in it when Italy first became a country. Everyone else spoke dialect at home. It's only really since the Second World War that that situation has changed significantly.

One of my partner's friends grew up in an Italian household. But his family was from near the French border, so what they spoke was some variety of Piedmontese or maybe even Provençal. His only exposure to the standard language was through opera. So when he finally went to Rome, he tried communicating in a mashup of dialect and operatic Italian, supplemented by his knowledge of Latin. Needless to say, the Romans thought it was hilarious.


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