Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Department of Just One of Many Reasons Why the More You Know About Language, the More Impossible a Task You Realize It Is to Translate

Writes Souheila Al-Jadda, an Arabic translator, in a sorely needed eye-opener for the Christian Science Monitor:

The federal government's lack of Arabic translators and the insufficient understanding — and consequent poor translation — of the language by the translators it does have may mean more Arab-Americans, immigrants, and foreigners could find themselves caught up in the government's dragnet.

Noting the various levels of Arabic, from classical to modern standard to colloquial, Al-Jadda points out that there are also dozens of regional dialects, and variations specific to each of the 22 countries in the Middle East.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever studied a foreign language: Almost always, there is an "official" version of the language, used by politicans, newscasters, journalists, and others for whom public speech is their main venue of expression, and then there are various "set and setting"-dependent levels, and the confusion that can result from incomplete knowledge of any of them may have a humorous effect in the literary world yet be mortally consequential in the world of counterterrorism.

Examples, courtesy of Ms. Al-Jadda:

In Albany, N.Y., federal prosecutors have admitted mistranslating a crucial piece of evidence in a terror-related case against two Muslim men. At first, it was thought that an address book found at an alleged Iraqi terrorist training camp referred to one of the men, Yassin Aref, as "commander." The government later said the book's reference to Mr. Aref actually meant "brother" in Kurdish, which borrows many words from Arabic. The two men have since been released on bail.

It doesn't take much to mistranslate words, because many Arabic words use the exact same letters. Arabic does not have vowel letters. Vowels appear as short lines or symbols above or below each letter, indicating pronunciation. These markings can change the meaning of the words. Often in official or handwritten documents, these vowel marks are not shown. Thus, the reader must derive the word's meaning.

Meanwhile, when spoken, many words sound alike, but have various definitions.

For example, the word meaning "appear" sounds like bada. The word meaning "start" sounds like badaa, with a slight guttural inflection. When pronounced quickly in news reports or in conversations, these two words sound almost identical.

But there is a big difference in saying, "He appeared to shoot" and "He started to shoot." It could mean the difference between an acquittal and a conviction.

Boundless other such instances exist, naturally. Too, Al-Jadda's recommendations in response are no less reasonable for their predictability:

As the global war on terror continues, focusing on Arabs and the Middle East, the US government and its allies in this war must do more to increase the number of translators, screen them properly, improve their skills, and double-check translations.

Government translators and contractors must implement a standard checking system to guarantee the most accurate translations possible. Current translators must take more intensive refresher courses, especially in colloquial Arabic, to familiarize themselves with the nuances of different dialects. Translators must also enter immersion programs, allowing them to live in, understand, and experience the cultures from which they are translating or interpreting. Finally, better incentives must be offered to attract high-quality translators.

Know what, though? Dream on. It'll never happen. Not here, not in this country, not in this time we live in. Nobody in the USA gives a s*** about translators, or translation. And nobody, outside of a tiny circle of geeks and freaks, ever will. It's too bad, really. But it's something that I, as a translator, had to realize many moons ago, in order to avoid ending up bitter and shriveled. Instead, as a result, I am oversized and ecstatic!

Long live ignorance induced by monolingualism!