Saturday, 2 June 2012

Verbosity does/does not translate

Like many people in Canada, I guess, I watched the Peter Mansbridge interview with Conrad Black out of sheer curiosity what hubris looks like. For a man who hides behind obscure, polysyllabic mots, the man certainly gives away a lot of his contempt with his sneering, shifty-eyed, clinched-teeth, monotonic delivery (morse code has more soul). Clearly, it is not eloquence but passive, legalistic disclaiming of the sometimes cruel and crude things he wants, needs to say, for his singular satisfaction.

He claims to be a writer but that is like saying because someone is good at calculating numbers they is a math wiz. One could admit that he (lord black of cross-currents) is a writer if one is willing to admit that adding big numbers together is great arithmetic. It sounds impressive but does it really say anything?

Baron Black's interview got me thinking a lot about some of the translation material that passes my desk. These are usually research proposals by newly minted Masters and PhD degrees. The quality of academic writing tends to change and improve with the experience of the author, thankfully, which is more than I can say about the fat old cat. The best writing I see in scientific papers is done by Department of Fisheries & Oceans. They just do excellent science, and it shows through in the way they draft their official responses...

Now, after this long-winded, windbaggery: I was thinking about how cultural archetypes, including class and social positions, colour our subconscious perception of certain people (especially in cross-cultural situations). More precisely, I was thinking about Eco's maxim: The limits of interpretation are determined by the freedom of the text (or something to that effect).

It sounds impressive (if not campy and dated), for example, to English speakers to give "superheros" names like:

The Green Lantern;


Mermaid-man and BarnacleBoy

or, better yet, take Hollywood titles rendered in foreign languages - some real gems in them thar titles. I've heard that "Donald Duck" in Chinese is "Walking, talking, yum-yum old man peiking duck"

The Green Lantern in Inuktitut sounds silly: Uujaujaq Naniruuti;
Superman sounds really sexist (pilgrim): Angurjuarmiaq - super, big macho man - HA! - the appellation of [-juaq-]/[-suaq] is usually given after the person has died: Qillaqsuaq was most likely never used on Qillaq while he was alive but when he passed into legend, -suaq (the great) was added.

The CPC campaign in Nunavut was couched in quasi-religious terms because their propaganda is designed that way. In the last federal elections Minister Aglukkaq told her audience that her "work is not yet completed" invoking images of Christ threatened to be prematurely crucified...

Much to my chagrin, her tactics worked.

The Eco maxim is real. As a linguist and translator I've always believed in it and have spent a great deal of time thinking about its meaning. In the hands of cunning, unscrupulous political parties and corporate advertisement (and their legal departments), auto-suggestion is this type can be utterly devastating. There is almost no way but to respond emotively, viscerally because one is forced to react to something that is not, strictly-speaking, there rather than to what was said (which is often nothing). This is one of the many reasons why I love watching politics and debates.

Harper would have lost bigtime if he had gone through with his acceptance of Iggy's challenge for a public one-on-one debate. He cannot operate, cannot afford to operate outside of his script. He doesn't have the depth of intelligence nor the honesty to say something convincing outside of the script. Improvisation requires honesty and authentic reactions to a fluid situation. Fluid situations are sheer chaos to the CPC "Brain Trust" whose MPs often cannot engage in debate but spew out rigid talking points.

I dare Minister Oliver to publicly demonstrate his willingness to drink from the next decommissioned tailings pond and not come out 'til he reels in a (mutant) fish. It is that kind of rhetoric rather than responding to policy challenges with intelligence and cunning that divide true debates from propaganda.


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