The brains of the trainee interpreters had changed […] but not in the way you might expect

November 26th, 2014

In other words: inside the lives and minds of real-time translators

Looking down over the delegates at the IMO, I was reminded of the view from a captain's bridge, or the gallery of a television studio. I had a feeling of control, a perverse reaction given that control is one thing interpreters lack. The words they utter and the speed at which they talk are determined by others. And even though [on-duty translators] Pinkney and Soliño had copies of some of the speeches that had been prepared for that morning, they had to be alive to humorous asides. Puns, sarcasm, irony and culture-specific jokes are an interpreter's nightmare. As one interpreter has noted in an academic article, "Puns based on a single word with multiple meanings in the source language should generally not be attempted by interpreters, as the result will probably not be funny." Quite.

Go for the amusing anecdotes about mistranslations, stay for a fascinating look at how the hell the human brain copes with listening to one language and speaking another in real time.

[Via MetaFilter]

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Humour, translated

December 26th, 2013

I can well believe that this story from the letters page of the London Review of Books is variant #35 of one of the standard jokes told wherever two or three translators get together, but I still reckon it's worth telling:

Like Chris Sansom's story about translators, mine too is possibly apocryphal (Letters, 19 December 2013). A friend of a friend was the personal staff officer (PSO) to an air marshal. The great man was told, at short notice, to address a Nato meeting. He said he'd use the speech he'd delivered recently at the RAF Staff College. The PSO pointed out that it contained a joke about cricket which only the Brits would understand. He was assured that all would be well. When he got to Brussels, the PSO took a copy of the speech to the instantaneous translators. They agreed that the joke was impossible, but said they knew how to cope. When the air marshal approached the difficult section, the delegates heard in their headphones: 'The air marshal is about to tell a joke. It is about cricket. It cannot be translated. In the interests of Nato solidarity, please laugh when we say – "Laugh."' On the way back to London, the air marshal said: 'Didn't the joke go well. I told you it would.'
Clive Rainbow
Speen, Buckinghamshire

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Wikileaks is "transparent," like a cardboard blast shack full of kitchen-sink nitroglycerine in a vacant lot.

December 27th, 2010

Bruce Sterling on the Wikileaks saga:

Assange didn't liberate the dreadful secrets of North Korea, not because the North Koreans lack computers, but because that isn't a cheap and easy thing that half-a-dozen zealots can do. But the principle of it, the logic of doing it, is the same. Everybody wants everybody else's national government to leak. Every state wants to see the diplomatic cables of every other state. It will bend heaven and earth to get them. It's just, that sacred activity is not supposed to be privatized, or, worse yet, made into the no-profit, shareable, have-at-it fodder for a network society, as if global diplomacy were so many mp3s. Now the US State Department has walked down the thorny road to hell that was first paved by the music industry. Rock and roll, baby.

[Via The Null Device]

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December 5th, 2010

Daniel Davies, on how the international diplomatic corps will handle the fallout from the release of all those diplomatic cables.

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Parting Shots

September 30th, 2010

BBC Radio 4 has just started broadcasting a second season of Parting Shots, in which Matthew Parris delves into the archives of the Foreign Office to reveal the confidential valedictory despatches submitted by senior British diplomats upon leaving their postings.

The first ten minutes or so of the first episode spent a little too much time quoting ambassadors being unimpressed with foreign cuisine and manners and even architecture, but it did include one absolute gem of an anecdote:

Sir Julian Bullard: Bonn, 1998

There are the regional differences, which become more evident as one learns to recognise the surnames, accents and facial characteristics which go with certain attitudes of mind, but I think it is still possible to talk of German national characteristics. One of these is the seriousness, thoroughness, humourlessness, perfectionism and pedantry which have made the German the butt of so many anecdotes.

To quote a true one: the artist Philip Ernst painted the view from his window, leaving out a tree which spoiled the design. That night he was attacked by remorse, got up from bed and cut down the tree.1

The latter part of the episode was considerably better, focusing on the way that until very recently the Foreign Office simply expected diplomats' wives to act as a sort of unpaid hotel manager/hostess/event organiser/auxiliary diplomat2 and the way that modern spouses – having their own careers, and being less willing to pack their children off to boarding school for the duration of a tour of duty overseas – had organised a campaign to at least be paid for doing all that work, or to have a professional event manager paid to take on that side of the embassy's functions instead of everything falling to the ambassador's partner.

Assuming that they don't spend a third of every episode quoting British diplomats being undiplomatic about their hosts – the first season wasn't like that, so I hope this one won't go down that road – Parting Shots is going to be well worth a listen over the next few weeks. The first episode is available on BBC iPlayer3 for another six days.

  1. For what it's worth, I can completely see where Ernst was coming from.
  2. One diplomat's wife observed that traditionally one of the jobs of the ambassador's spouse when attending a function was to engage the dullest VIP in conversation, presumably so as to prevent their boring the pants off anyone important.
  3. For UK residents – or, more accurately, for those whose connection to iPlayer is coming from an IP address located in the UK. Correction: it turns out that you can listen to most iPlayer radio content regardless of whether you're in the UK. Thanks to Martin Wisse for the correction.


Going nuclear

June 22nd, 2009

Professor Stephen M. Walt applies theories from the study of International Relations to the art of parenting:

First off, modern realist theory focuses on the structure of the system and especially number of major powers in it. Right off the bat, this perspective can tell you a lot about the dynamics parents face as the size of their family increases. When parents have one child, the balance of power is in their favor. They can double-team the lucky kid, and give each other a break by taking turns. Life is good.

But if you have a second child the dynamics shift. If one parent is alone at home and both kids are awake, the balance of power isn't in the parent's favor anymore. Instead of double-teaming them, they get to double-team you. And once the kids are mobile, you learn about another key IR concept: the window of opportunity. You're feeding or changing Kid #1, and Kid #2 makes a bolt out the front door, just like North Korea tested a nuclear weapon while we were busy with Iraq. Or you're in the middle of a crowded department store and they each decide to head down different aisles. The potential complications of a multipolar order were never clearer the first time this happened to me. […]

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March 24th, 2009

Let nation speak clearly unto nation, for all our sakes:

At the height of the Cold War, American and Soviet scientists wrote handbooks for each other that attempted to bridge their language gap. Helping to explain some of the era's more arcane nuclear terminology, these handbooks were a crucial diplomatic tool that helped prevent potentially disastrous misunderstandings.


Take American nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis's 2007 book, The Minimum Means of Reprisal  –  a title lifted from a Chinese official's description of his government's nuclear stance. When the book was translated into Chinese, its title became The Minimum Means of Revenge.

In a slightly different context, Atlantic journalist Jim Fallows, who has been living in China for the last few years, has written about the apparent inability of Chinese officialdom to communicate effectively in English:

My job is not to help Chinese organizations advance their intended causes. But it doesn't help anybody […] if China's clumsy public diplomacy makes the country seem more menacing, opaque, hyper-controlled, and overall bad than it really is.

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