Translation Apps Are Getting Better.

This BBC News story by Emma Woollacott starts with some glitches that are old hat and have been covered here and/or at the Log, but goes on to some interesting material:

“Rather than writing handcrafted rules to translate between languages, modern translation systems approach translation as a problem of learning the transformation of text between languages from existing human translations and leveraging recent advances in applied statistics and machine learning,” explains Xuedong Huang, technical fellow, speech and language, at Microsoft Research. […]

But a new project from Mr Lample and a team of other researchers at Facebook and the Sorbonne University in Paris may represent a way round this problem [of “low-resource languages for which the amount of parallel sentences is very small”]. They are using source texts of just a few hundred thousand sentences in each language, but no directly translated sentences at all.

Essentially, the team’s system looks at the patterns in which words are used. For example, the English words “cat” and “furry” tend to appear in a similar relationship as “gato” and “peludo” in Spanish. The system learns these so-called word embeddings, allowing it to infer a “fairly accurate” bilingual dictionary. It then applies the same back-and-forth techniques as we’ve seen with Microsoft Translator to come up with its final translation – and not a biblical reference in sight.

Thanks, Trevor!

Jingrwai lawbei.

Agence France Presse reports on an interesting form of musical language:

Curious whistles and chirrups echo through the jungle around Kongthong, a remote Indian village, but this is no birdsong. It’s people calling out to each other in music — an extraordinary tradition that may even be unique.

Here in the lush, rolling hills of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, mothers from Kongthong and a few other local villages compose a special melody for each child. Everyone in the village, inhabited by the Khasi people, will then address the person with this individual little tune — and for a lifetime. They have conventional “real” names too, but they are rarely used. […]

Kongthong has long been cut off from the rest of the world, several hours of tough trek from the nearest town. Electricity arrived only in 2000, and the dirt road in 2013. Days are spent foraging in the jungle for broom grass — the main source of revenue — leaving the village all but deserted, except for a few kids. To call out to each other while in the forest, the villagers would use a long version lasting around 30 seconds of each other’s musical “name”, inspired by the sounds of nature all around. […]

The custom is known as “jingrwai lawbei”, meaning “song of the clan’s first woman”, a reference to the Khasi people’s mythical original mother. […] The origin of “jingrwai lawbei” isn’t known, but locals think it is as old as the village, which has existed for as long as five centuries. The tradition’s days may be numbered, though, as the modern world creeps into Kongthong in the shape of televisions and mobile phones.

Thanks, Kobi!

Translation and/as Disconnection.

Joshua L. Miller and Gayle Rogers have produced a “Translation and/as Disconnection” issue (Volume 3, Cycle 3) of Modernism/modernity with fascinating-sounding articles: “Death Ships: the Cruel Translations of the Interwar Maritime Novel” by Harris Feinsod, “Translation in Noh Time” by Carrie Preston, “Disconnecting the Other: Translating China in Spain, Indirectly” by Carles Prado-Fonts, “Before Global Modernism: Comparing Renaissance, Reform, and Rewriting in the Global South” by Lital Levy, “Philology Contra Modernism: Translating Izibongo in Johannesburg” by Matthew Eatough, and several more. Miller and Rogers write:

We are scholars who, in our own work, have explored modes of interconnection across a number of sites, texts, and figures. But like many others before us, we also acknowledge the pitfalls of connectivity, and in a moment when the map of global modernisms seems increasingly networked, it seems timely to pause and consider the kinds of work connectivity does and doesn’t do—and about connection’s unintended effects. Furthermore, we want to consider how intertextual and linguistic disconnection formed both the modernisms that feel familiar (national, regional, and global) and those we have yet to recognize or have possibly misconstrued. If we set aside our predisposition to celebrate connection and to mourn disconnection, and instead view them as integral to one another’s functions, the field before us can look refreshingly unfamiliar.

Thanks, Jonathan!

Lost Writings Found.

1) Massive trove of centuries-old undelivered mail seized by British warships going online:

Somewhere in the U.K. National Archives in London, there are 4,000 boxes containing more than 160,000 undelivered letters from ships captured by the British during the naval wars of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Now those letters — some of which are bundled in old mail bags and affixed with wax seals that have never been broken — are about to go online.

“You can imagine the excitement being confronted with such a treasure,” said historian Dagmar Freist, director of the Prized Papers project, which aims to digitize the entire collection. “These letters have not been filtered, they have not been censored, nothing has been thrown away. Quite a few have not been opened.” […]

The documents shed new light on world history, with detailed ship logs of climate conditions, cartography, trade ledgers and correspondence about major events, including colonialism and the American and French Revolutionary wars. There are records from the slave trade, listing the names of enslaved people, their costs, and what slave owners paid for them. But what fascinates Freist the most are the personal letters between ordinary folks — a part of history she says is often overshadowed in favour of stories about powerful people.

There are some touching stories mentioned in the piece.

2) Discovery of Galileo’s long-lost letter shows he edited his heretical ideas to fool the Inquisition:

It had been hiding in plain sight. The original letter — long thought lost — in which Galileo Galilei first set down his arguments against the church’s doctrine that the Sun orbits the Earth has been discovered in a misdated library catalogue in London. Its unearthing and analysis expose critical new details about the saga that led to the astronomer’s condemnation for heresy in 1633.

The seven-page letter, written to a friend on 21 December 1613 and signed “G.G.”, provides the strongest evidence yet that, at the start of his battle with the religious authorities, Galileo actively engaged in damage control and tried to spread a toned-down version of his claims. […]

The letter has been in the Royal Society’s possession for at least 250 years, but escaped the notice of historians. It was rediscovered in the library there by Salvatore Ricciardo, a postdoctoral science historian at the University of Bergamo in Italy, who visited on 2 August for a different purpose, and then browsed the online catalogue.

My hat is off to all diggers in archives!

m-Talá.

A Conversation with Chus Pato, by Michael Kelleher, is an interview with “one of the most significant poets writing in Galician today”; I confess I know little about Galician and less about Galician literature, so I was glad to read it. (Note: a Galician version of this conversation is available here.) Kelleher begins:

In Secession, you write, “my native language is a linguistic conflict.” Your native language is Galician, a language once outlawed by Franco (under whose regime you grew up), a language that now exists as co-official with Spanish within the “autonomous community” of Galicia in Northwestern Spain. Can you talk about the complexities of Galicia as a place, of Galician as a “co-official” language, and what it means for a poet to write in Galician? In other words, what is this “linguistic conflict”?

Chus Pato responds:

That’s what I wrote, and that’s how it is. […] I belong to an intermediate generation; my parents were native Galician speakers but always spoke to us in Castilian, as they didn’t want their children to have painful issues in adapting, as they’d had. […] Today, the situation of Galician is opposite to that when I was born. The younger generations now don’t speak Galician because it was not transmitted to them. They don’t know how to speak it [on a daily basis]; they can read and write in it but it’s a dead language for them, for the majority of them. Of course, Galician is alive in a minority that could become a majority if there were decent linguistic policies. Will this ever happen? Anything is possible.

[Read more…]

Antillia.

If I knew about this, I’d forgotten:

Antillia (or Antilia) is a phantom island that was reputed, during the 15th-century age of exploration, to lie in the Atlantic Ocean, far to the west of Portugal and Spain. The island also went by the name of Isle of Seven Cities (Ilha das Sete Cidades in Portuguese, Isla de las Siete Ciudades in Spanish).

It originates from an old Iberian legend, set during the Muslim conquest of Hispania c. 714. Seeking to flee from the Muslim conquerors, seven Christian Visigothic bishops embarked with their flocks on ships and set sail westwards into the Atlantic Ocean, eventually landing on an island (Antilha) where they founded seven settlements.

The island makes its first explicit appearance as a large rectangular island in the 1424 portolan chart of Zuane Pizzigano. Thereafter, it routinely appeared in most nautical charts of the 15th century. After 1492, when the north Atlantic Ocean began to be routinely sailed, and became more accurately mapped, depictions of Antillia gradually disappeared. It nonetheless lent its name to the Spanish Antilles.

I learned about it from this post at Poemas del río Wang, where you will find the usual mix of stories, information, and gorgeous photos.

Some Bunting Odes.

I have been asked, in a revived 2004 thread, to provide more poetry, and since that post was a Basil Bunting poem and I love Bunting and I haven’t posted any Bunting in quite a while, well, here you go, from his Uncollected Odes:

1
Coryphée gravefooted precise, dance to the gracious music
Thoughts make moving about, dance to the mind’s delicate symphony.

5
The flat land lies under water
hedge-chequer-grill above concealing
(not long) heliotrope monotony.

Cold water shin-embracing clacks
desolately, no overtones. Lukewarm
moist socks trickle sea-boot squeezed
black gutters muttering between the toes.
Moreover it rains, drizzles.

Utter-horizon-penetrating glances
spoil only paupers towing derelict home
the flat land hedge-grilled heliotrope under water.

7 Envoi to the Reader
From above the moon
      to below the fishes
nobody knows
      my secret heart.
Do you suppose
      I’d publish it?
Spell out a fart
      and have it printed?

Translating Culture vs. Cultural Translation.

Harish Trivedi, professor of English at the University of Delhi and “a prolific and engaged commentator on the politics of global English,” has a wonderfully acerbic essay (from 2005, but surely still applicable) on what Bathrobe, who sent me the link, calls the postmodernist appropriation of the concept of “translation.” He starts with a brief account of the historical reasons for the recent boom in translation, which “are probably traceable back to three distinct moments across the span of the twentieth century”:

The first of these was the concerted movement of translating Russian fiction into English which began in the 1890s and went on until the 1930s, which revealed to readers in English a body of imaginative work from an area outside Western Europe which was so new and exciting as to be shocking and indeed to induce a state of what was then called the “Russian fever,” with writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence not only enthusing about the newly discovered nineteenth-century masters of Russian fiction but actually helping to translate them in collaboration with the Russian emigre S. S. Koteliansky. The other two moments belong to the other end of the twentieth century, occurring as they did in the 1970s and the 1980s when two other bodies of literature from hitherto unregarded parts of the world were translated into English and caused a comparable sensation: from Latin America, and from the East European countries lying behind the Iron Curtain.

He then gets into Translation Studies, Cultural Studies, and “something called Cultural Translation”; here is a sample of his peroration:

If this is cultural translation, we perhaps need to worry about the very meaning of the word “translation.” One wonders why “translation” should be the word of choice in a collocation such as “cultural translation” in this new sense when perfectly good and theoretically sanctioned words for this new phenomenon, such as migrancy, exile or diaspora are already available and current. But given the usurpation that has taken place, it may be time for all good men and true, and of course women, who have ever practised literary translation, or even read translation with any awareness of it being translation, to unite and take out a patent on the word “translation,” if it is not already too late to do so. […]

All the recent talk of multiculturalism relates, it may be noted, not to the many different cultures located all over the world, but merely to expedient social management of a small sample of migrants from some of these cultures who have actually dislocated themselves and arrived in the First World, and who now must be melted down in that pot, or tossed in that salad, or fitted as an odd little piece into that mosaic. These stray little flotsam and jetsam of world culture which have been washed up on their shores are quite enough for the taste of the First World. Migrancy, often upper-class elite migrancy as for example from India, has already provided the First World with as much newness as it needs and can cope with, and given it the illusion that this tiny fraction of the Third World has already made the First World the whole world, the only world there is. Those of us still located on our own home turf and in our own cultures and speaking our own languages can no longer be seen or heard.

Over the top? Maybe, but most worthwhile polemic is over the top to some extent, and I enjoyed it a lot. (Warning: contains prophylactic doses of Bhabha and Derrida.)

The Loss from the Fire.

I had heard about the recent fire at Brazil’s National Museum, but hadn’t realized its linguistic consequences; Diogo Almeida writes on Facebook:

Translating the news from Cinda Gonda, a Brazilian colleague, just breaks my heart even more:

“Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.”

(Yes, of course that’s not the most tragic loss; I think we can take that as given.) Thanks, Trevor!

Teaching Classical Chinese Without Prerequisites.

Victor Mair had a Log post with a suggestion that I found surprising and immediately convincing:

I am strongly opposed to requiring Mandarin as a precondition for the study of LS/CC. I know of many schools that require two, three, or even four years of Mandarin for students who wish to enroll in an introductory LS/CC course. I think that is absolutely ridiculous. I don’t even think that we should require one year of Mandarin for students to take LS/CC. […] I have studied Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hindi, Italian, French, etc., and I’m certain that Mandarin is further removed from LS/CC than Italian is from Latin, than Modern Greek is from Classical Greek, or Hindi is from Sanskrit, yet we do not demand that students of Latin first become proficient in Italian, that students of Classical Greek first become proficient in Modern Greek, or that students of Sanskrit first become proficient in Hindi or Bengali, etc. […]

As for the language of instruction, Mandarin would not be a good choice, not only for the reasons outlined above, but also because students who learn LS/CC tend to mix up the two languages and become very sloppy in the precise parsing and explication of the literary / classical language. Furthermore, it means that students whose primary, or only, East Asian language is Japanese, Korean, etc. cannot participate. I welcome students in my Introduction to LS/CC course to recite the texts in Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, and so forth. I have even had students with a background in Sanskrit, Greek, and Sogdian (yes!) and do very well without vocalizing the hanzi / kanji / hanja at all.

At first it seems obvious that one should know the modern form first, but Classical Chinese is so different (I once lived with someone who studied it intensively, so I got some idea) that, as Mair says, acquaintance with it would tend to just muddle your understanding of the ancient language. I encourage others to follow his lead!