Wednesday, May 25, 2011 11:06 AM
What’s the point of learning a second (or third, or fourth) language if you can just have your iPhone translate it on the fly? A new augmented reality app called Word Lens is capable of translating signs written in Spanish to English, or vice versa, reports Technology Review. Word Lens scans the input from your smartphone’s camera and, after decoding the Spanish, will repaint the picture in English.
According to the Technology Review, Word Lens was actually a programming tangent: It “pushes the boundaries of handheld computing, given that optical character recognition—a trick it performs in real time—was designed for the less challenging task of reading scans of paper documents.”
All of the bugs aren’t worked out yet, per Wired’s field test. “In our tests, it worked smoothly, although the words had a tendency to wiggle around a bit, switching between English and Spanish and flipping between alternate translations,” writes Charlie Sorrel at Wired. “You could get the gist of a sentence, but not read it clearly. Holding the camera very steady helped mitigate the ‘wiggling’ effect.” Ultimately, though, the magazine’s technofuturists were impressed:
Word Lens is a taste of science fiction, something like a visual version of the universal translator or the Babelfish. Only instead of being a convenient device to avoid movie subtitles, it’s a real, functioning tool.
Of course, the app doesn’t solve the problem of actually being able to speak to people from exotic locales. But until we’ve caught that Babelfish, Word Lens will inch us closer to speaking a digital Esperanto.
Sources: Technology Review(free registration required), Wired
Friday, November 07, 2008 4:16 PM
So much of the world’s great literature is lost for lack of awareness. Sure, Harry Potter has been translated into 60 or so languages, but it’s not as easy to find lesser known written works. That’s why it’s quite exceptional to find an anthology that translates the writings of up-and-coming authors the world over.
Two Lines: World Writing in Translation
, is the Center for the Art of Translation’s annual collection of poems, short stories, and essays that “could never have been written first in English, as their necessities so clearly reside in the soil and local waters of their cultures,” according to co-editor Sidney Wade. This year's anthology, edited by John Biguenet and Wade, is titled Strange Harbors, with original works in Bengali, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish, to name a few, side by side with their English translations.
In "Thirteen Harbors," Vietnamese author Suong Nguyet Minh blends a local folk tale with the consequences of Agent Orange, the poisonous chemical herbicide the U.S. military sprayed during the Vietnam War. In the story, translated by Charles Waugh and Nguyen Lien, a young woman repeatedly fails to carry children to term. Unaware of the source of her birthing troubles, she believes herself to be cursed. Only later does she find out that her husband, Lang, was exposed to Agent Orange while he fought in the war:
“How could I know?” said Lang. “I feel fine. But after speaking with the doctor, I thought about the defoliated forests we had to cross. We drank water from streams running through them and even put some in our canteens. Once, in the jungle, we watched American planes flying slowly overhead spraying a dense white mist. A few days later, the leaves shriveled and came down easily in the breeze. All the trees withered and turned the color of death.”
Wrapped in my husband’s heart, I felt a pain there like one I’d not yet seen. Withered and bitter myself, I had no comfort to pour into him.
More lighthearted is Teolinda Gersao’s story “Four Children, Two Dogs and Some Birds,” a wry account of one woman’s difficulty trying to do both the traditional tasks of a wife and mother and take care of her career. Originally written in Portuguese, Gersao’s story presented a challenge for the translator, Margaret Jull Casta, because first-person narratives have a distinct tone of voice that is not easily carried over to another language. In stripped down syntax, Casta succeeded in capturing the humor and latent sadness of Gersao’s main character:
The number of times I regretted having given in to the children and bought the animals. And the number of times, too, that I regretted having had the children. Not, of course, that I said as much.
Anyways, what was done was done, and now I just had to get on with it and look after the whole lot of them.
And then one day, I got really angry; enough is enough, I thought, and it was then that I decided o look for a live-in help.
A loving help, asked the concierge, puzzled, mishearing what I said when I informed her of my plan.
Exactly, I said, and the sooner the better. Today. Yesterday even.
Because I’ll be dead tomorrow, I thought, starting up the car. Tomorrow I’ll be dead.
Nothing in translation can be exact. Obscure connotations can throw an intricate metaphor off balance or lead it astray completely. Alliteration and quirks of diction are often forfeited, and cultural idioms may go tragically unnoticed. For this reason, reading literature in translation can be a strange experience, shrouded in doubt about the translator’s adherence to the original text but spiked with awe at the thought that you have the opportunity to read it at all. A good translator, however, can deliver a story as close as possible to the way in which it was initially written, and for that I am grateful. The stories and poems within Two Lines open the reader up to a world that would otherwise be closed entirely, and to connect with that world is truly fortunate.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008 10:38 AM
The Translators Association of the Society of Authors is 50 years old this year, and to mark its anniversary, the group has released a list of 50 outstanding translations—from the past 50 years, but of course. Are your favorites on the list?
Translating is a noble but complicated endeavor, as we’ve discussed in some recent posts, which is why I’m happy to partake of the organization’s expertise, in spite of its modest claim that the list is “a sampler… by no means definitive.”
Image by Kenny Louie, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, July 09, 2008 2:16 PM
Anyone who’s tried to conquer a foreign language at a certain age is familiar with the requisite textbook formula: You follow a few characters on adventures that somehow expose you to the vocabulary for fruits, polite greetings, and how to get medical help all within a simple, tidy storyline. (“Excuse me,” said Heidi, “I don’t mean to bother you, but I ate a poisonous apple and require emergency care.”)
In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Harvard Law student Joel B. Pollak rails against the narratives available for the 24,000 students of Arabic in the United States. His main gripe is a political one—there’s too much Gamal Abdel Nasser-loving and too much Israel/America-bashing in his class materials—but it’s his description of the forlorn protagonist of his textbook that struck me:
We learn in Chapter 1 that Maha is desperately lonely. In later chapters, we are told that she hates New York, has no boyfriend, and resents her mother.
Soon we encounter her equally depressing relatives in Egypt—such as her first cousin Khalid, whose mother died in a car accident and who was forced to study business administration after his father told him literature "has no future."
The characterization jogged my memory to one of my favorite readings in the last year, a piece by Anand Balakrishnan in the Summer 2007 issue of Bidoun. In it, Balakrishnan recalls the primary theme of his Arabic studies in Cairo: failure (or fashil).
The Arabic word for failure is built from the tripartite root of f-sh-l to become fashil, the harshest, most damaging word in the language, at least the way my Arabic teacher pronounced it. The word often twisted his dyspeptic mouth, spattering our lessons like ordnance from a cluster bomb. Everything was fashil. Me as a student, himself as a teacher, Cairo as a city, Egypt as a state, the Middle East as a region, Asia as a continent, communism as a theory, democracy as an ideal, Islam as it was practiced, humanity as a species, and, in the summer when the smog congealed, the sun as a source of light.
Balakrishnan’s is a beautiful meditation on the theme of failure throughout Arab literature and Arab society. Pollak may or may not have a legitimate beef regarding his own lessons, but his polemical demand for a language neutered of politics and feeling rings hollow after reading Balakrishnan’s “Muse of Failure.” More important than the sterile reformulation of one language into another is the transcendent project of cultural translation.
Image by “Dr. Yuri Andreievich Zhivago,” licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008 11:13 AM
Poetry magazine steps into the international realm in its April 2008 issue, “The Translation Issue,” which contains poems from around the globe translated into English from 18 languages. The conversion of words and ideas from one language to another can be a challenging task, and it's not always that readers get a glimpse of this involved process. In this case, however, a short essay written by the translator accompanies each poem. “Like the ‘columns, arches, vaults’ of an edifice, the abstract proportions of poetry—as of any art—make promises they cannot keep: a world of perfection, beyond chance and change,” writes Hoyt Rogers following his translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s, “San Biagio, at Montepulciano.” Three poems are featured on the magazine’s website, so you’ll have to pick up a copy of the issue if you want to read them all.
Monday, April 07, 2008 8:56 AM
We need more novelists and poets to be translators, writes Stephen Henighan in the April Quill & Quire (article not available online). While he’s addressing mainly his Canadian audience, his observations certainly pertain south of the border: Multilingualism, as he makes clear, used to be part and parcel of a thriving literary culture.
In the 19th century, many Europeans would have read in both their native language and in French, while in times previous, a working knowledge of Latin and Greek predominated among the literati. More recently, translators have acted as aesthetic gatekeepers, spurring affection for Russian literature in the 1930s and for French existentialism in the 1950s and ‘60s.
These days, however, as Henighan points out, two of the most “internationalized cultures—the Anglo-American and the Muslim-Arabic—have the planet’s lowest rates of translation activity,” a claim that lends itself to our image of East-West misapprehension.
Though such socio-politics are central to the argument in favor of translating literature, Henighan emphasizes the creativity associated with multilingualism. He mentions, for two examples, the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Isabel Allende. Both honed their idiosyncrasies through the study and translation of languages foreign to them. Translation is therefore vital not only for the health of communication between cultures, but also for the renovation of literary style.
Monday, December 03, 2007 1:22 PM
Much of the world’s best writing is simply unavailable to most people: If you don’t speak every language on the planet, you are no doubt missing out on great literature. The website Words Without Borders (WWB) tries to bridge the language gap, exposing foreign-language writing to English speakers by offering a plethora of translated pieces online. According to their website, 50 percent of all books in translation are translated from English, but only 6 percent are translated to English. WWB does its best to correct this imbalance, with new offerings each month.
The November issue highlights great writing from many tongues, allowing even the monolingual among us to get a taste of literature from around the world. Stories, poems, and reviews in the issue have been gathered from France, Estonia, Germany, China, Spain, Arabia, Korea, and Albania, among others. The pieces range from the pleasant and humorous tone of “Quim Monzó” (I Have Nothing to Wear), which talks about getting dressed for a blind date, to the more serious and introspective poem “Ra Heeduk” (Crying Over Light Green), which traces a Korean man’s thoughts.
Offering the translated works for free, Words Without Borders makes international art accessible to the greatest number of people possible. “Our ultimate aim,” according to the group’s website, “is to introduce exciting international writing to the general public—travelers, teachers, students, publishers, and a new generation of eclectic readers—by presenting international literature not as a static, elite phenomenon, but a portal through which to explore the world.”
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