How a Tomato saved my sanity, or at least my job

Translation is one of those art/science things, much like writing novels. And, much like novel writing, there is a lot of information available about technique, methodology, finding work, marketing… Some good books cover how to keep yourself on task, but I’m not so good at that part of the job.
Screenshot_2014-12-16-12-19-55I have often suffered from procrastination. I think most of us have. Sometimes the hardest part for me is to just sit down and work. I usually know what I have to work on, but keeping myself on that task can be challenging at times.

One of the many times I spent an hour searching the internet for advice on how to be productive (rather than being productive), I came across an article about the Pomodoro Technique. You can follow the link for a neat little video explaining the system, but here is the short version:

An Italian (thus pomodoro, Italian for tomato) grad student was working on studying for his exams and was facing this kind of dilemma: how to stay focused, but still stay fresh enough to study everything he needed to. He came up with an idea, probably not a new thought, to do intervals. He had a kitchen timer, shaped like a tomato, that would time up to 25 minutes, so he went with 25 minutes of work and a five minute break, with a 15-minute break after four “pomodoros”.

That’s the short version. I had a timer on my iPhone that was pretty straight forward, a circle that drew itself and shrank and numbers on the screen counting down. It worked alright, and I liked that it ticked like a clock, even in the background of music I was listening to. But the design was uninspiring. When I gave up my iPhone and moved back to the Android world (with a Samsung Galaxy Note 4), I went looking for a timer. Most of them looked a lot like the iPhone one, and then I ran across Pomodoro Challenge in the Google Play store.

The visuals are industrial, the colors are very attractive (to me), and the slight mean streak reminds me of another of my favorites – the “sudo” (or superuser do) command line utility in Unix/Linux/FreeBSD. If you compile it with insults active, it flips you a ration when you mistype your password. Pomodoro Challenge does similar things. When you start out, you are given the rank of “Unrepentant Slacker” and work your way up from there. So far I have worked may way up through Recovering Slacker and Dead-eyed Drone to Resigned Attendant; there are 11 higher ranks, I’m looking forward to seeing how high I can go as I use it daily – a few days before Christmas, then five days off didn’t do much for my standings.

Anyway, this app is fantastic. Between the design and achievements, I am really enjoying using it. The Pomodoro Technique works.

The Sorcerer’s Stone 1 حجر الفيلسوف

Many translators do not care to have their work critiqued in the open, so I want to start by expressing my admiration for this work. Raja Abdallah (رجاء عبد الله ) translated the first two books, three and four by another translator, and each of the others had their own translators. I will not speculate on the reasons for the change, but I would have tried to stick with one translator for the entire series in order to keep a consistent voice. I have not read them all yet, just the first two, so I will have to address that as it comes. There are a few things that jump out at me as a reader from the very beginning of the Arabic version of the book. Most of which are negative and persist throughout the entire translation. Before I go into those things that I do not particularly care for, let is begin with the positive. I am sure no one will mind if I quote the first full paragraph:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
Here is the Arabic:

تفخر أسرة «درسلى» والتي تقيم في المنزل رقم 4 بشارع «بريفيت» بأنها أسرة طبيعية.. وهى فعلا كذلك، لا أحد نتصور أن تتورط مثل هذه الأسرة فى أية أمور عامضة أو مريبة!

And finally, a back-translation. I am going to perform these back-translations a bit more literally than I would normally want to do. This is to demonstrate the translation techniques used by Abdallah. I want to reiterate; I have great admiration for anyone who tackles the translation of a book, especially one as well-known and well-loved as Harry Potter. I will be pointing out differences in how I might have done it, but remember that I am not a native speaker of Arabic, and I would not even consider myself a very skilled Arabic writer. That is, after all, part of why I want to go through this exercise. Reading and analyzing these texts will help me develop my own skills. Hopefully I will gain an audience and start to hear feedback on my commentary. Back to the issue at hand:
The Dursla family, which resides in house number 4 on Privet Drive, is proud that it is a normal family.. It really is, no one would imagine that this kind of family would be involved in any strange or mysterious issues!
Here are the things you will notice, and I left them there on purpose to illustrate.

  • Dursla – the translator here follows a convention that I have seen in many places and that I suspect is widely accepted. The Arabic letter ي ya’ in the final position gives the long “ee” sound, as in “Dursley”. The Arabic letter ى, without the two dots underneath, is actually an alif (the ‘ah’ sound), and not a ya’. This means that, were I to have read the Arabic version of the book before reading the English or seeing the movie, I would think the family name was “Dursla” not “Dursley”. As one proceeds, other Arabic words that must end in ya’ use the alif instead (fi, which means “in” is fa, ‘hiyya’, the feminine she or it, is ‘ha’, but these are obvious to any reader). Though it is widely used, I personally do not care for it. The two-dot version of the letter is under the “D” on the keyboard, the non-dotted alif is the letter “N”. No shifting or special characters required.
  • Two dots, but a different kind: You’ll see that the first sentence ends with two periods instead of one. In my head this makes it feel like an incomplete ellipsis. I feel like the whole book is breathless and full of incomplete sentences because of this. This appears to be a publisher (and probably broader than the publisher) accepted form; each of the seven books uses the two-dot sentence ending (more frequently in the first couple of books, less so in the last book of the series). By contrast, the Arabic translation of Hunger Games uses only a single period to end a sentence.
  • On punctuation, the translator seems to love exclamation points. Far more than J.K. Rowling does. This first paragraph ends with one. One could argue, I suppose, that it is for emphasis rather than exclamation; in that scenario the exclamation point takes the place of the phrase “they just didn’t hold with such nonsense”.
  • Quotation marks. I applaud the use of the French-style chevrons rather than English-style quotation marks. I think they suit Arabic text much better, though it is a bit awkward to put them in (in Word and in Open/LibreOffice one must use insert symbol). On the other hand, reading further into the book we find that quotation marks are used around non-Arabic words, but are not used for actual quotations – real quotations have no special punctuation to separate them.

These are the issues in the first paragraph. They are present throughout the entire book; at least it is consistent! Consistency means that the reader’s eyes can adjust to these points, and move on.
Now to the point where I hang it all out here. Everyone feel free to laugh behind your hands or right out loud. Here is how I would translate this. I expect that my biggest problem here is going to be the one that most beginning translators (and, though I consider myself a professional – and have a certification from the American Translators Association – in translating from Arabic into English, I am a beginner when going into Arabic) suffer from: overly literal work.

يفخر السيد والسيدة درسلي، سكان منزل رقم 4، شارع بريفيت، بأنهما عاديين كاملين، وممتنان على ذلك. هم من آخر الناس الذين ممكن تتصورهم يتورطون في أمور غامضة أو عجيب لأنهم لا يقبلا سخافة من ذلك النوع.

Back translation:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, residents of house number 4, Privet drive, are proud to be completely normal, and they are grateful for that. They are among the last people you could imagine being involved in anything mysterious or strange because they do not accept that kind of silliness.
Or, at least, that was what I was going for.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone readthrough

January 2015 is nearly here, and I am going to start on a project I’ve been meaning to do for some time. I want to do a read-through of the Arabic and English versions of Harry Potter! I bought the entire Arabic series from a bookseller in Florida through eBay, and I picked up the English books as they were published. I bought the first one on a lark – it was on the clearance shelf at a Hallmark store at the Landmark Mall in Alexandria, VA. I was there for work, away from home and my wife for a long time and just decided to give it a shot.

English and Arabic Harry Potter

English and Arabic Harry Potter

I have long been a fan of fantasy and sci-fi books. I actually got started, as many kids do, with the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis; I doubt I was more than seven or eight at the time. I also read the Belgariad series (and the follow-up books) by David (and Leah) Eddings in my tweens and teens. And, of course, the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. All excellent books. I have read hundreds of others, but these were the tales that got me started.

JK Rawling’s epic – that is what it is, like it or no – captured the hearts and minds of a generation, and will probably keep on capturing them in the future – my own 5- and 7-year old kids love the stories. I grabbed the Arabic books for many reasons, mainly to practice reading Arabic using a familiar set of stories.

I fully support the translation movement. I really believe that a love of reading can lead to a love of all sorts of intellectual pursuits. I’m not silly enough to think that it always works that way, but I really believe reading, especially in speculative fiction like science fiction and fantasy, can help someone learn to think creatively and actively. In fiction we can safely explore society and relationships in a safe environment. We can explore race and gender relations, and break free of the confines of socially accepted norms.

I am confident that I will be making plenty of those kinds of observations, but my primary focus will be the story and the translation. I do not plan to analyze Harry Potter as philosophy or as an example of great storytelling, but rather to discuss the choices made by the Arabic translator. I will offer some alternatives, and I hope to learn more about the art of translating literature as I go.

When I finish with HP, I will (if I can find hard copies or legal electronic versions) move on to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books, and possibly to the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings – I have paperbacks of the Lord of the Rings in Arabic, and I will be searching for the Hobbit and Hunger Games (the trilogy has been translated, it is just hard to find a copy where I will not pay more for shipping than for the books!).

Happy reading!

Arabic writers, why so bold?

Arabic writers, why so bold?

I have a bit of a rant.

First, I would like you to do me a favor and go visit this page: It is a technology blog in Arabic. Even if you can’t read it, please just take a look. Now, trot along with me to another page, this one a web forum (nominally dedicated to Harry Potter fandom, but this article is about an interview with John Hurt: And another forum posting here (this time with a light background) about protecting the v-Bulletin admin control panel from hackers:

What do you see? The more “professional” technology blog used a few different fonts, used bold text for titles, and it looked… normal. To me, at any rate. The two web forums? Everything is bold.

Why so bold?

I’ve seen this in Arabic on the internet since I first started seeking out Arabic on the internet in around 1996 (back then you had to use Arabic Windows or the Arabic Language Kit on a Mac to see Arabic, now it just works. Thanks Unicode!). For some reason that I do not understand – and I would really like to hear an answer – many Arab writers seem to prefer bold text. I do not. I think it is the Arabic equivalent of TYPING IN ALL CAPS. I FEEL AS THOUGH I AM BEING SHOUTED AT. I don’t care for it.

I was willing to occasionally complain to friends or coworkers and then let it go, but then I started reading In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation by Mona Baker. The book is very good so far. As I’ve mentioned, I am guiding a book club of like-minded translators through it. We have reached the sample texts in chapter 2:

With the above proviso in mind, we can now look at examples of strategies used by professional translators for dealing with various types of non-equivalence. In each example, the source-language word which represents a translation problem is underlined. The strategy used by the translator is highlighted in bold in both the original translation and the back-translated version. (2011, p. 23)

Sounds good, nice and clean, and easy to follow. In this section, there are examples in Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Greek and a few others. Rather than jump straight to the punchline, I’ll share a German example from page 33 (as an image):

Looks great! I do not speak German, but I can follow right along. The same goes for Spanish, Greek, and the other Latin-based scripts. But for Arabic… Can you guess?
Anyone have a guess as to where put is in the Arabic sentence? If you do not read Arabic, here is a hint: the whole Arabic statement is in bold text. For the curious, here it is (I have used a red box to mark put):
Now, in the first edition of the book – published in 1992 – typesetting mixed Arabic and English was a bit more difficult than it is today. I could forgive the typewriter-like font and bold-appearing text back then; it was just nice to have Arabic samples in an English book on translation. Now, however, things are a lot easier (thanks again, Unicode!). Anyone with a copy of Microsoft Office, OpenOffice (or its sisters), or InDesign (for real DTP) can properly lay out Arabic text. I am not an expert in Arabic typography or DTP, though I am trying to learn more about both, but I can tell a bold font from one that is not. Add to that that the Arabic used in the cover art is broken… It is disconnected (this is from the web page, but the graphic is the same):


The Arabic word here is supposed to be لغة, language (لغة for those who prefer bold…).

Oh, and by the way, I do not read Chinese or Japanese, but I think the book has the same problem for both of those languages. Here is an example:


So, again I ask: why so bold?


Literary Translation, Culture, and maybe Ethics

pigpenI have just started reading the Arabic translation of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, translated by Said Hassanieh, reviewed and edited by the Arabization and Programming Center (سعيد الحسنية and مركز التعريب والبرمجة), and published by Arab Scientific Publishers, Inc. (الدار العربية للعلوم ناشرون).

Before I get into the meat of the issue, let me first be clear: This is not about Islam or any nutjob conspiracy about creeping Sharia or Islamization. This is about translation of a very popular Western novel into Arabic.

I cruised along, enjoying myself – I’ve read the books in English and seen the movies that have come out – until I got to the first flashback scene where Katniss remembers meeting Peeta behind the bakery. Peeta’s family has a pig; this is part of the story because Peta is instructed to throw some bread to the pig – no spoilers, OK?

In the Arabic translation it says:

اعتقدت أنه كان يراقبني في أثناء سيري بمحاذاة حظيرتهم التي احتوت على الحيوان المقزز الذي يربّونه

[I thought he was watching me as I walked along the pen that contained the filthy animal they were raising]

The original:

He must have been watching me as I made my way behind the pen that held their pig

The word “pig” comes up a few more times in the same passage, and each time the translator uses the “filthy animal” euphemism. So, why is it a big deal? I am well aware that Islam considers pigs unclean and forbids eating them. But really, this is a symptom of a larger problem, what appears to be a decision that when translating things into Arabic, anything that might offend Muslims must be toned down. One other example that comes to mind is the Arabic dub of the movie Ratatouille. In that movie, wine becomes juice, even when the characters on screen are becoming obviously intoxicated by it. To see the food critic asking juice recommendations to go with his fresh serving of reality, ultimately to select a fresh, cold apple juice (a red liquid served in a wine glass, from a wine bottle) just boggles the mind.

Certainly observant Muslims would not have wine with their dinner or raise pigs behind a bakery. That is their choice, and their cultural norm. But to make the characters in books and movies who are clearly exhibiting non-Islamic behavior seem to be observant, or to think that one can avoid insult by using a euphemism… Well. I don’t think it is right. Part of why we read non-fiction books is to have adventures in our imaginations, to experience new things and see new points of view.

I don’t think it is right as a translator, regardless of my personal faith. If I were translating a book from Arabic into English, let’s say a sci-fi or speculative fiction novel set in an alternate universe or a future in which Islam is the predominant religion, and there is some off-hand reference to something that would be perfectly normal in Islam, but which might seem odd for a Western non-Muslim audience in the story. Let’s say a group traveling somewhere pauses to pray; though other than these kinds of things there is no overt reference to Islam. As a translator, I would leave it in. No reason not to. On the other hand, were I to westernize the story, I could change that pause to a rest break, or references to the prophet into references to a war hero from long ago or some other type of role model.

It would not be right. To me, the fact that the family is raising a ‘filthy animal’ demonstrates to the reader that they are not Muslims, and the word خنزير (pig) would not make that any worse. Just like the fact that the French characters in Ratatouille drinking wine is a simple, normal expression of French culture that did not budge the film from its “G” rating here in the U.S.

Having said all of that, part of the company name given credit for editing is “Arabization”. Maybe they feel this sort of thing is appropriate; but if so it should probably be “Islamization”, as I know many Arab Christians who enjoy both wine and pork products

Having said all of that, I would welcome level-headed, non-religious debate about whether it is appropriate for translators to change literary devices that could be offensive to their target audience.


Said Hassanieh contacted me through Twitter; I’m thrilled to know he is looking! He said he consciously made the choice to avoid using ‘pig’; and that is good enough. I am simply happy to know that there was real consideration behind the issue. As long as the choice was made intentionally rather than a knee-jerk fear of upsetting the audience, I am alright with the choice they make. Obviously, I am not paying for or performing this translation. I still stand by what I said above; I think one of the biggest things that sci-fi/fantasy offers to all of mankind is the opportunity to place us outside our comfort zones in a safe place – within our own minds and imaginations – but it gives us a way to think about things and, possibly, expand our horizons.

In Other Words, Part 1

Coffee shop readingThis series of blog posts will deal with a translation textbook titled In Other Words – A Coursebook on Translation by Mona Baker.

I have a small group of fellow translators with whom I will be working through this book. No matter how much experience we have, we can all benefit from making some effort to improve ourselves. This book, and our little book club, represent one way we can continue our professional development. I’ll be using this blog, or at least this series of blog posts on it, as an online place for us to chat about what we read and what we learn; or what we disagree with and why.

So for now, I’ll get going with chapter one, the introduction.

Mona Baker starts out with the purpose of the book and discussing the issues facing the “professionalization” of translation.

Part of the problem facing translators is that there is a long-standing image of a translator as someone advanced in years, cloistered in a room full of musty books, but who – in younger and more vigorous days – was widely traveled and experienced in several career fields. Like Baker, I have no wish to disparage those who came to translation in this fashion. Bilingual adventurers with a flair for both languages can, and often do, make wonderful translators. The issue facing those of us who come to this career younger – and my experience kind of splits the difference, I’ll get into that later – is the feeling among the other type that we can’t possibly know enough to be good. Taking some college courses, or other classes on translation, and just jumping in… well, that just isn’t how it’s done. Baker goes a bit farther in combatting this life-experience is the only way mindset:

“The ability to translate is a gift, they say: you either have it or you do not, and theory (almost a dirty word in some translation circles) is therefore irrelevant to the work of a translator. . . . [T]o take the analogy with medicine a step further: if we accept this line of thinking we will never be seen as anything but witch doctors and faith healers.”

A bit harsh, perhaps, but witch doctors and faith healers worked for many, many generations of man’s existence. I’m sure that many of the incredible and renowned translators of yore were translators by happenstance rather than by selected profession; often operating based on a desire to spread their faith or to understand a foreign culture – again, the adventurer/translator. Today we have professional doctors, regimented education, and examination boards. There is no reason why we should not have professional translators. Organizations like the American Translators Association in the U.S. and similar organizations in U.S. states and regions, Canada, Europe and elsewhere in the world are making strides. Certification examinations and continuing education requirements bring us at least to the level of certified experts in the field of computers and networking. Just as with the field of technology starting in the 1990s, more and more colleges are starting to offer higher-level degrees in foreign language and translation.

Baker goes on to describe how professionalism requires us to engage in a greater degree of introspection. We have to analyze how we do what we do; to break it down to its parts and build it back up again. Over the course or reading through this book, that is exactly what we will be doing.

And a discussion of professionalism would be half-done if we do not discuss ethics. Translators have to be faithful to the source text, sensitive to the target language and translate the meaning into a form appropriate to the target audience. Different types of translation will require or permit different kinds of freedom. Poetic imagery can be shifted to match the target culture in order to convey the right feelings; or it may be translated exactly in order to retain the feeling of `otherness’ in an attempt to teach the reader about the source culture.

So more on all of it later, but here is where we start!

Why I still don’t use Translation Memory

I recently received an email asking me about an article I wrote in 2005 titled Why I Don’t Use Translation Memory. First, they wanted to know if I had changed my mind, and second, if there was any more I had to say on the topic.

In essence, the answer is a simple yes. The article is still valid. Here are the reasons why I still don’t use translation memory tools:

1- They are expensive! Most TM tools range from $900 – $1500 for the freelance user versions.
2- In my freelance work – which is a relatively small amount, I hold a full-time job – most of the work I get is either hard copy or an image of hard copy. The state of Arabic Optical Character Recognition is such that I would not want to rely on it for production use. If anyone knows of any cheap, reliable OCR, let me know!

Two reasons. That is about all there is to it. Now, I have looked into using open source translation memory tools. Specifically, I have looked closely at OmegaT and Anaphraseus. These products both have a lot of potential, and I will be experimenting with them more in the future. They might change my mind, having taken cost out of the picture. The best part is they both run on Windows, Mac, and Linux/FreeBSD systems.