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Category: translation Page 1 of 2

Tom Christensen reading José Ángel Valente at the Library of Congress

Reading Valente at the Library of Congress

Just found out today (from someone who actually watched it) that this is online. I guess it’s been up for years.

Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the books of you?

“Shamed by you English? You can speak soon and write like a graduate college if me let you help for a day of 15 minutes.”

Another new book: Selected Poems of Jose Angel Valente

Jill Schoolman of Archipelago Books asked recently if I would be interested in translating the major twentieth-century Spanish poet Jose Angel Valente.  As it happens I would, and I am grateful to her for thinking of me. Valente is a kind of platonist of the word, who seeks to ruthlessly strip bare received language and produce a vitalized text of absolute immediacy. (I’m far from an expert on twentieth-century poetry of Spain, so I’ll need to work at getting up to speed in better understanding his place in the scheme of things.)

I will select roughly eighty poems from his body of work. Unfortunately, I won’t have the sustained time to work on this project until I finish my work on 1616, but I’m looking forward to this challenge. Here’s a very preliminary example:

The wine was the indeterminate color of ash.

I drank it with residue of dark
shadows, shadows, a wet
body on the sands.

You arrived,
You came tonight.

The insidious depths of the glass
conceal an anonymous god.
+++++++++++++++++++++You gave me
blood to drink
of the god drunk to the dregs.


By the way, I think I finally figured out how to keep WordPress from stripping out spaces when you have to indent lines in irregular ways like this. You can insert invisible characters, with this kind of code:

<span style=”visibility: hidden;”>++++++++++++++++++</span>


UPDATE: Looks like the hidden style attribute doesn’t work with RSS.


World Book News: Dictionary of Americanisms

El Pais is talking about a new Dictionary of Americanisms (Diccionario de americanismos) published by the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua in Madrid under the direction of Humberto Lopez Morales, secretary general of the academies. Lopez Morales, though now a resident of Madrid, was born in Cuba and lived in Puerto Rico.

Americanisms are a more vexing problem in Spanish — the second most spoken language in the world — than in English. Travelers across the Americas have to learn new words even for simple things like straws, napkins, and avocados as they travel from Mexico to Argentina.

And of course the language is always changing. While dictionaries of Americanisms exist, there has not been a major new work in this area for twenty or thirty years. This book fills that void.

Logging in at 2,500 pages, the dictionary costs 75 euros — about a hundred U.S. dollars — but for those of us who sometimes translate from Latin American Spanish it will be an essential reference to own or at least consult.

A universal story

As I have mentioned, I’ve just returned from a vacation in Italy, and some posts will be a little off-topic for the next few days. Somewhere along the line I acquired Italian phrasebooks by the Rough Guide and by Langenscheidt, and we took these with us as a hedge against pointing in the supermarket and babbling “that one.” The Langenscheidt got no use, except for one evening when I pulled it out and soon found myself convulsed with laughter.

Norwegian Hell Children

Do they sound tasty? Google Translate thinks so (if they’re marinated). Via Google Blogoscoped:


Copper Canyon to publish Chinese anthology

Copper Canyon has been selected by the NEA be the U.S. publisher for its International Literary Exchange with China. According to Publishers Weekly, “Copper Canyon will receive $117,000 to support the translation, publication and promotion of a bilingual anthology of work by about 35 Chinese poets born after 1945.”

This is an excellent choice. Copper Canyon has been a reliable publisher of international poetry for decades, and all of their books are prepared with care and attention to detail. Bravo!


The Old Man’s Verses

I’m on the road and having trouble with my internet connection. So this will be brief.

I’ve mentioned I’ve been helping to judge a translation award. Now that a set of finalists has been announced (although the Chronicle, true to form, omitted the translation category from their story; I’ll list the finalists later) I can say that the book I especially liked among the eligible titles was The Old Man’s Verses byIvan Divis, translated from the Czeck by Deborah Garfinkle.

The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction

the best of contemporary mexican fictionRight Reading received this e-mail from Olivia Sears, president of the Center for the Art of Translation.

I hope you are all enjoying The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction. I wanted to send along some of the press the book has received. Martin Riker at Dalkey Archive Press has done a tremendous job of promoting the book.

Out to lunch

"out of office" sign (welsh translation eror)

Remember the restaurant known in English as Translate Server Error? Well, be thankful the directions for finding it were not in Welsh.

Northern California Book Reviewers Translation Award

I’ll be on the road for a while, and posting could continue to be light until mid January.

Meanwhile, I’ve agreed to be a reader for this translation award. Books translated in calendar 2008 by writers based anywhere  between Fresno and the Oregon border are eligible. So far these are on my reading list:

  • Castellanos Moya, Horacio, Senselessness, translated by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
  • Do, Nguyen, and Paul Hoover, eds., trans., Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry (Milkweed)
  • Holderlin, Friedrich, Odes and Elegies, translated by Nick Hoff (Wesleyan)
  • Holderlin, Friedrich, Selected Poems, translated by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover (Omnidawn)
  • Nobuo, Ayukawa, America and Other Poems, translated by Shogo Oketani and Lez Lowitz (Kaya)
  • Peri Rossi, Christina, State of Exile, translated by Marylin Buck (City Lights)
  • Rodamor, William and Anna Livia, eds., trans., France: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts)
  • Rojas, Gonzalo, From the Lightning: Selected Poems, translated by John Oliver Simon (Green Integer)
  • Saba, Umberto, Songbook, translated by George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan (Yale)
  • Talebi, Niloufar, ed., trans., Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians around the World (North Atlantic)
  • Toussaint, Jean-Philippe, Camera, translated by Matthew B. Smith (Dalkey Archive)
  • Zambra, Alejandro, Bonzai, translated by Carolina de Robertis (Melville House)

This is a pretty strong group of candidates. It makes me feel encouraged about the state of literary book publishing today (but notice all were published by independents or university presses — corporate publishers have abandoned the the kind of publishing that built houses like Knopf).


Translate server error — yum!

translate server error restaurant, china

You might have heard about the restaurant in China that, in preparation for the Olympics, decided to translate their name into English. I guess the translation program was down and, well …

Here’s a picture from tenz1225’s photostream.


More marvels of machine translation

Google Blogoscoped has translated several Garfield strips into Chinese and back again using Google Translate.

garfield translated

Here’s the text, in case the strip is hard to read at this size.

Jon: Garfield, I retrieved a pair of slippers
Garfield: I am sorry, the cat is not worth a pair of slippers
Garfield: I will, however, capture extract


How I always say it: this hole is quite fine good!

Machine translation: there’s nothing like it.

Enjoy this short video with babelfished dialogue.

Reader sues over translations

The reader, Bradley LaShawn Fowler, is suing two Bible publishers (Thomas Nelson and Zondervan), alleging that the translators erroneously rendered a passage resulting in a false suggestion that it condemns homosexuality.

At issue is I Corinithians 6:9, and whether two Greek terms allude to homosexuality or prostitution or something else. (The King James version of the passage gives “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind.”)

The case is reported at Language Log, where the lively discussion it provoked included the following comments:

JACK COLLINS: Biblical scholars are actually pretty stumped about what exactly ???????????? were, since the term appears nowhere in the Greek corpus before Paul. Considering that there were quite a few terms for various sorts of male-male sexual practices in Koine Greek, it is curious that Paul chose to coin a whole new word. Literally, it would translate as “man bedders” or “bed men,” but that doesn’t really narrow it down. It is possible that Paul meant to allude to the Greek (Septuagint) translation of Leviticus 18:22 (??? ???? ??????? ?? ????????? ?????? ????????…, lit.”and with a man you will not sleep a woman’s bed…”). Whatever Paul’s intent, it probably was not to condemn male-male sexual relations between men of equal age and social status, since such relationships were rather uncommon in the Hellenistic world.

GORDONOZ: Maybe rich men should sue Bible translators, claiming they have been embittered and disappointed by their failed efforts to fit camels through the eyes of needles.

CRAIG RUSSELL: My opinion is that Fowler is barking up the wrong tree here. Paul probably did want to single out men who engaged in sexual activity with other men-especially given the context. “Pornoi” (as seen from the English derivative) and ‘moichoi’ are unquestionably sexual terms. Paul probably did consider it a sin for men to have sex with each other. For Fowler to insist that the Bible must mean what he already believes it to mean is no different from a fundamentalist insisting the same-it’s putting the answer before the question.


Language Wars

Language Hat has been following the arguments about Russian translation that have been taking place at the NYT Reading Room blog. Are the renderings of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky superior to those of Constance Garnett and others? Pevear and Volokhonsky have said that Garnett (for example) smooths out the originals and makes them read more fluidly in English than they do in the original; they have tried to retain something of the originals’ roughness. But it appears from the comments that there is a bit of a Pevear/Volokhonsky backlash taking place.

Madam Mayo

C.M. Mayo will be reading at Alta on Saturday. Her site, Madam Mayo, is a good blog for those interested in Latin American (especially Mexican) literature and the art of translation (although I subscribe to the belief that blogs should have comments enabled). Click the screen shot to visit the site.

the latin american translation blog of c.m.maya

New Worlds / New Words book launch

I don’t think I’ve mentioned here the book launch that will be held tonight at 6:30 for our new anthology of Latin American literature. The venue is Chronicle Books, 680 Second Street. You can read about it here.

The Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook

A classic skit on the perils of translation.

Google Translate, no longer using Systran software, goes head to head with Yahoo’s Babelfish

Systran software has ruled computer translation for years. It has been the technology behind both AltaVista’s Babelfish (now owned by Yahoo), and Google’s translation service, called Google Translate. But now Google has replaced Systran technology with its own translation software.

Google says their approach was to “feed the computer billions of words of text, both monolingual text in the target language, and aligned text consisting of examples of human translations between the languages. We then apply statistical learning techniques to build a translation model. We’ve achieved very good results in research evaluations.”

This approach sounds a bit naive on the face of it. Could it work? Let’s try a sample translation on both Babelfish and Google Translate. To keep things fair, I consulted my Yi jing page, which randomly produced hexagram 39, “Stumbling” (hmmm). The lines go like this (those after the asterisk are the commentary portion of the text):

Stumbling forth and strutting back
Porters stumbling under loads
Stumbling and turning about
Turning back to join with friends
Friends appear for welcoming
Stumbling forth and riding back


Water over mountain. Hard to get a foothold.
Choose the easier path.

Okay. We’ll translate into French and then back into English and then into German and then back into English. We’re using two languages that contributed heavily to the development of English rather than languages that are unrelated to it, so this should be a piece of cake, right?

Babelfish results first:

Stolpern in front and pavanement the back luggage cart-loads, those under the loads stolpern and turns around revolution again with stolpern, connects to the friends to assemble those the friends for the Stolpern of the admission in front and after looks * finished Montagne of the water. A balance strongly reach. Select the simpler way.

Gibberish, although I do like the way a Chinese flavor is creatively introduced by rendering “hard to get a foothold” as “a balance strongly reach.” Now let’s try Google Translate:

Stumbling block strutting back and forth
Owners stumbling block under strain
Stumbling block and
To return to connect with friends
Friends at the reception
Stumbling block fourth and riding back


The water on the mountain. Hard to get a foot.
Select the way.

Somewhat better — at least all of the words are English — although most of the sense is still wrong (how in the world did “forth” become “fourth”?). Still, while I’m not eager to add to the Google world information monopoly, it looks to me like the Google engineers have indeed surpassed Systran. The Google translation is not only a bit more intelligible and closer to the original but it also retains the format of the original. And the web interface was cleaner and easier besides. It’s not the result I was expecting, but I have to say, comparatively good job, Google.

With the caveat, of course, that both results are nearly useless. Bottom line: if you really need something translated correctly, hire a human.

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