What Rocksmith has taught me about translation

Rocksmith (fully: Rocksmith 2014 Remastered) is a video game. Someone saw how popular the Guitar Hero video games were and decided to make a similar game that used a real guitar and make it into a tool to teach guitar.

For a very long time now, any time someone asked me what my hobbies were, I would say “translation.” That means I translate all day at my full-time in-house job, then come home and do freelance work, and occasionally – up until last summer – try my hand at translating a chapter from a book or a poem for fun. As you might imagine, it left a fairly one-track life. I read and watch movies, but other than spending as much time with my kids and my wife as I can manage, my life is all translation.

Then comes 2020. I look at the acoustic guitar hanging on my wall, and the electric guitar in the corner and remember the video game I tried out some ten years ago, but didn’t stick to. I also tried to learn guitar once before, back in about 1993 for about 3-4 months. I decided I’d take another try, more serious this time. This was partly inspired by my daughter asking for a ukulele for Christmas and us attaching lessons to it – and I took her to the lessons and she wanted me to stay in the room with her and the teacher. I remembered the times I tried guitar, and my years playing violin from elementary to high school and decided to try the guitar again.

I still stink, of course, I’m playing a game 4-5 times a week, mostly focused on the lessons and technique stuff to build fundamental skills. And that brings me to the point.

When I play Rocksmith, there are some exercises built into the “Learn a Song” section – scales, finger strength, speed, and so on. When you play these, the song keeps going whether you get it right or not. It gives you grade at the end, but no matter what you do, unless you give up and smack the escape key on the keyboard, the song and the prompts keep coming. (I tried to take a video of this, but the sound didn’t work, maybe I’ll update this article in a day or two if I manage it.)

As a translator, I have a terrible habit of getting stuck. I’ll cruise along in whatever I’m translating, but as soon as I hit a word or phrase that I don’t know, or that seems out of place, I’ll stop. I’ll research. I’ll send emails and text messages, then I’ll go down the Google rabbit hole – and eventually to YouTube or I’ll pick up a book, cook dinner, help a daughter with homework… and next thing I know it’s been an hour or a day or (to my shame) a week.

The thing I’m learning from Rocksmith – apart from how to play the guitar – is that I have to keep going. I’ve heard the advice, and I’ve even tried it several times, of highlighting the problem phrase/sentence and moving on, leaving the research for the first edit pass. Now I’m starting to implement that plan more often than distracting myself after a brief search.

That’ll do, then. Whether you like Nike (Just Do It.) or Dori (just keep swimming), the music goes on and you have to keep playing – it won’t wait for you to catch up.

Notes about the computerized ATA exam

I just wrapped up my first time as a proctor for the American Translators Association certification exam. Everything went pretty well, no one violated the rules  or caused any trouble; but as I watched everyone working so hard on their exams, I thought it might be good to share some suggestions about how to give yourself as much of a boost as possible.

Since the exam is now set up so you can work from your computer, let’s start there:

The Instructions

You will get instructions before the exam. Read them at home as soon as you get them. Make sure you understand the rules, code of conduct, and the technical requirements before you get to the testing site. Your proctors will go over the main points, but will not read the entire package before the test starts. Do not waste your money, time, and effort by violating a rule that invalidates your exam.


The physical device
You will be using a laptop. If you have been working as a translator (or studying translation) long enough to be ready to take the ATA exam, you probably already have some preferences in this regard. The most important point to take away here is that you will be working from this device for the full three hours of the exam.


There may not be a lot of power outlets in your room. I’m sure your proctors will bring a few power strips, but it would be wise to be prepared with one of your own. Also be sure that your battery is fully charged. Most computers made in the last five years or so will have a battery life of greater than three hours, but why take the chance? Charge up, bring your power supply, and bring an extension cord.

Screen Size

I think most people select laptop computers based on what they are willing to pack around. It is not always easy to make the compromise between a large enough screen to use as your single, full-time computer, and a small enough system to carry around with you. I won’t make any recommendations here, except to say that if you have two laptops, e.g. a larger home laptop and a small one you usually travel with, bring the bigger one! The last thing you want to have slowing you down is eye strain.

Keyboard and Mouse

Most of the folks at this exam used the trackpad and keyboard built in to their laptop. Some people brought external mice, and one person brought an external, ergonomic keyboard. You are allowed to do this as long as it is a silent keyboard. At home, I use a loud, clicky-clacky mechanical keyboard because I find that noise comforting and a nice indicator that I am actually getting something done. In an exam room, however, I think you would make a lot of enemies if you make a lot of noise. So, external keyboards are OK as long as they have silent, laptop-style keys.

Operating systems: Windows

I am a Windows user (with some background in Linux/FreeBSD, more on that in a moment). I am not trying to bash Windows, but it is notorious for updates. Since you will be connecting your computer to the internet to do research during the exam, it is possible that Windows will run an update in the background. This can make your computer misbehave in all kinds of mysterious ways. Here is my recommendation: manually run Windows update two or three days before the exam. You can do this by clicking the Windows button and typing “update,” then select “Check for Updates.” Run the check and then install anything that is pending, then reboot if needed. If you have time before the exam on that day, boot up the computer and run updates again. If you happen to be using Windows 10 Pro, you can pause the updates from Advanced Options on the Windows Update page.

Operating systems: General

No matter what OS you run, you need to understand how to use it. Here is a list of the computer-based tasks you will need to be able to do:

  • Connect to a WiFi network.
  • Insert a thumb drive.
  • Use a rich text editor (not a word processor) that is capable of creating double-spaced, 12-point (or larger) text.
  • Save this rich text file to the thumb drive as you work.
  • Create a PDF of that text file when you finish your translation.
  • Save the PDF to the thumb drive.
  • Delete the rich text files.
  • Safely remove the thumb drive.

PRACTICE THIS SERIES OF STEPS! Yes, I’m shouting. Start a week or more out from the exam. Grab a thumb drive and go through this process – boot up your computer, hook up to WiFi, insert a thumb drive, create a rich text file saving it ONLY to the thumb drive (NOT your computer!!), create a PDF and save it ONLY to the thumb drive, then eject the drive.

Your proctors are going to be selected because they have some computer skills; in our group we made sure that our three proctors included at least one familiar with Mac OS. Luckily, I have some background in Linux because one candidate brought a laptop running Linux for the test.

Text Editors

You are not allowed to use spelling or grammar checking as you work; if you did, it would put the people who still choose to take the exam by hand at a disadvantage. If you are using Windows, you will be required to use Microsoft WordPad which is part of every Windows OS since Windows 3.1. For the Mac OS candidates, they use TextEdit and must disable spell-check.

Linux is not addressed in the instructions; I’m going to go out on a limb here (and send this to the testing group) and recommend AbiWord on Linux. It is in pretty much every flavors’ software repository and not terribly difficult to build from source if you have experience in that sort of thing. Unlike most of the plain text editors (KWrite, Gedit), it has the ability to set your paragraph style to double-space, disable spelling (under tools->language), and create a PDF file directly from file->save as. I’m going to be setting up a spare laptop with Linux in the next few days, I’ll be double-checking AbiWord and I’ll create a step-by-step tutorial for the ATA. I’m sure you understand, though, that because of the massive number of different flavors of Linux, I (we) cannot provide installation instructions.

Web Browsers

You can use any web browser you like. Make sure you know how to use it. Do not copy and paste from your translation into the search bar, type in all of your searches manually. Copy and paste will make your proctors nervous; you aren’t allowed to save your translation anywhere other than the thumb drive.

You are allowed to use dictionaries, glossaries, references (like Wikipedia). ProZ is specifically listed as a forbidden site, and as a general category any web site you can submit a question and have another human being answer you is forbidden, as are, of course, all forms of chat tools and programs.

I cannot emphasize how strongly I recommend using an ad blocker during the exam. I understand that most of these online dictionaries get their revenue through advertising, and I usually let the ads run. For the exam, however, you cannot risk having an advertising script lock up your web browser (that happened to one poor soul today). There are plug-in ad blockers for pretty much any browser you chose. If you happen to like a browser that does not have an ad-blocking plug-in, consider switching. If you switch, do so enough in advance to create any bookmarks and get familiar with how the new browser works before you get to the exam.

Window Layout

At home, I use multiple monitors. I like to have my source document on one screen, my translation on another, and a research/browser in a third. That does not work when you are only on one screen. For a single screen, I prefer to “snap” my tools to each edge of the screen. You can manually resize the windows to do this if it isn’t built in to your operating system. The important thing is for you to be comfortable. I recommend doing something that lets you type in your translation while you can still see the content of your research browser or glossary file. Again, practice is key to having this be a natural part of your workflow.


No matter where you are taking the exam, I can promise your proctors have almost no control over the environment – chairs, tables, temperature, lighting; all outside our control. We do not select the chairs, the tables, and probably cannot alter the thermostat.


If you have back trouble or sciatica or anything of the sort, bring a cushion that will ease you for the three hours. Exams are often held on college campuses, and schools are not known for tending to student comfort – chairs that are great for a 50-minute class lecture can get very uncomfortable at the two-and-a-half hour mark.


Dress in layers. I personally like cold rooms, 68°F or 20°C is about right, particularly for keeping me alert and focused. Unfortunately, it seems most of the rest of the world likes rooms a few degrees warmer. Old buildings are hard to heat or cool, and air conditioning is sometimes disabled on weekends. Be ready for anything: dress in layers. A bottom layer that will be comfortable if the room is warm, a mid layer for “just right” and a sweater or jacket in case of a cold room.

Food and Drink

Three hours is a long time. You will likely get a little hungry and thirsty during that time. Feel free to bring a thermal mug with a hot beverage, or bottled water, or whatever you prefer; spill-proof containers, please. For food products, repackage them in something that won’t make noise when you access it and try to avoid crunchy foods that might distract people around you. No crinkly paper or crunchy chips or nuts, please.

Restroom Breaks

If you need to go to the restroom, you’ll have to deposit your cell phone with the proctors. You aren’t allowed to access the cell phone during the exam, either, but we have to be sure it isn’t in your pocket when you leave the room.


All of the people around you will be taking the certification exam, too, so they will almost certainly be behaving in a way that is respectful to your focus. However, they will be shuffling papers, writing by hand, typing, opening and closing suitcases full of books, searching through books, and typing. Proctors will be hovering around the room, looking over your shoulders. People will be going to the restroom, there may be events in rooms around you and people talking in the hall outside. I did not see anything in the rules forbidding you from bringing earplugs, if you are easily distracted. My recommendation would be to make some of your practice sessions at a local library. Sure, you could go to a coffee shop, but a library is likely to be closer to the environment you’ll experience for the exam – people will be trying to be quiet, at least.


I am nearsighted, and I wear glasses. Some people prefer contact lenses for vision correction. If that is you, bring your glasses. The last thing you want is for a mishap with a contact lens to cause a huge distraction or make it impossible for you to finish the exam.

If you wear reading glasses, even if only rarely, bring them. You might end up in that one spot in the room without quite enough light, and the glasses might make the difference between being able to read easily and needing to squint and concentrate for the full three hours.


Whether you are taking the handwritten or computerized exam, your source text will be on paper. I know, but again – if you have a computer failure, you could at least go on with the exam writing your translation by hand.

Copy Holder

There are many options: clips that hook up to your laptop screen, metal mesh stands that you use magnets to hold up your text, or plastic stands with a sliding ruler. You can create something of your own with a wire coat hanger if you must, but it will be a lot easier to work with the text held vertical next to your screen than with it lying flat on your desk. Do a little searching, you’ll find something you like, I’m sure. And again: practice with it.

A ruler might also be a good thing to have, to help keep your eyes trained on the line of text you are translating and to be sure you do not accidently skip a line. The copy holder I use has a straight edge that slides up and down the page, this works well.

Pens, pencils, and highlighters

At the very least, bring a pen for signing things. If you like to mark up your source text as you translate, bring the tools you usually use for that. I like to use mildliners (they aren’t as brilliantly bright as highlighters) and a mechanical pencil. Your proctors will have plenty of paper if you need some for notes or end up needing to handwrite the translation. All paper notes must be turned in with your exam at the end of the session, so do not use a personal journal or notebook.


Almost all the advice I have read about taking the ATA exam – including the fantastic prep video available on the ATA’s YouTube channel – focuses on the translation task. I wanted to share some of the things I observed while watching a group of candidates. Taking an exam, particularly one that could be as important to your career as the ATA exam, is stressful. The more obstacles you can remove from the path, the better you will be able to focus on the test. The exam is intended to mimic a short-deadline assignment in the real world, so the best way to approach it is the way you would approach a real translation assignment; use the things you normally use in the way you normally use them. If that’s impossible (e.g. a second monitor is out of the question), then adapt and practice as much as you can.


[translated] The Press and Despotism on the Anniversary of Samir Kassir’s Assassination

By Tammam Hanaydi

On this date ten years ago at 10:45 AM, explosives planted beneath a car in the Ashrafieh district of Beirut exploded, taking the life of the car’s owner, Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian journalist and author, Samir Kassir.

It was part of a series of political assassinations throughout Lebanon. If those assassinations specifically targeted politicians and journalists, bringing to mind images from the civil war, they also gave journalists back some of their importance, something they thought they had lost since the Arab states fell under the power of the “exclusive leader”.

As a matter of principle, dictatorships and telling the truth are not compatible. A dictator cannot admit his mistakes and cannot tolerate people who hold differing opinions. If we wanted to find some evidence to back this up, we can step back to the twentieth century. We find a perfectly clear example of the reality of the struggle between despotism and the truth in the events of May 6, 1916. On the orders of Jamal Pasha “the Butcher”, hangman’s nooses throughout Damascus and Beirut played host to a number of politicians, authors, journalists, and poets who had expressed their opposition to Ottoman occupation. This event led to both countries marking the date as Martyrs’ Day, remembered to this day.

There is no end to proof of this struggle in Lebanon. Following its independence, at 1:00 AM on May 8, 1958, an armed man entered the office of Nasib al-Matni, shot and killed him. Al-Matni was the Editor-in-Chief and owner of The Telegraph at that time and had spent years as a voice of dissent against the authorities, since the days of President Bechara El Khoury who had been forced to step down by public opinion in the year after a three-day general strike in response to Al-Matni’s trial in 1952. Al-Matni held to his chosen path. He stood firmly against President Camille Chamoun until he was assassinated, and that assassination, attributed to Chamoun’s supporters, triggered the 1958 revolution in Lebanon.

On May 16, 1966, another prominent journalist’s pen was silenced forever; Kamel Mroueh, who had started the Al Hayat newspaper in a room at the Annahar newspaper building. Mroueh was a prominent journalist in his time, considered one of the most courageous. These epitaphs may have come to him because of the title he chose for his column in Al-Hayat: “Have your say and go”. In addition to Al-Hayat, Mroueh founded the Daily Star and Beyrouth-Matin. He was also part of the movement to breathe new life into the work of journalists; he was an innovator in writing a brief opening editorial. Mroueh continued to press for the publication of truth in the age of Nasserism, when, though many have debated the appropriateness of political choices being made, the environment was nothing short of an “age of state police”. A young Nasserite called Adnan Soltani walked into Mroueh’s office and assassinated him.

The Lebanese Civil War followed, bringing this clash with it, and a new list of journalists as targets. At the forefront of these writers were Selim Lawzi and Riad Taha. Selim Lawzi was assassinated on March 4, 1980. He had been known for his opposition to the Syrian regime after it had occupied Lebanon. Lawzi was the founder of Al-Hawadess Newspaper, though he started out working as a writer for radio serials and the Near East radio broadcast in 1944. Later he worked for a magazine called Roza Al-Youssef in Egypt. He also worked as a correspondent for two other magazines, Al-Musawar and Elkawakeb. Lawzi moved to London during the civil war in order to escape repeated threats to himself and his family. Then he decided to go back to Lebanon in order to help support his mother. He was kidnapped on the airport road, and his body was found a few days later, horribly disfigured.

On July 23 of that same year, it was Riad Taha’s turn; gunmen fired dozens of rounds into his car in Beirut. At the time of his death he was the president of the Lebanese Journalists Union. Riad Taha was a prominent journalist for Asharq al-Awsat. He founded a number of media organizations, like Akhbar al-‘Aalam, Al-Bilad, and Al-Kifah. He was the first to set up an official Arabic news agency, the Orient News Agency. Taha was one of the voices calling for moderation and for people to set aside their differences. He was known for holding reconciliation summits for the different parties in conflict during the war in Lebanon; it was for this reason many believe he was killed.

The war in Lebanon finally came to an end, but the struggle between the press and party power – the gangs – is eternal. Assassination once again took center stage in 2005. It started with Samir Kassir, author of brash and daring articles. His articles, along with the pivotal role he played in the creation of the Intifada of Independence (also called the Cedar Revolution), were the main reason his life was taken in such a barbaric way. But Kassir was not the last; on December 12, 2005, journalist Gebran Tueni was assassinated by a car bomb as he was driving through Mkalles.

Tueni was one of the most important names to stand in opposition to the Syria’s “Era of Heredity” over Lebanon. He was the scion of a family with proud ties to the press. Gebran, his grandfather, established one of the largest Arabic newspapers, Annahar, and was a famous writer in his time. His father, Ghassan Tueni, following his father’s example, established himself as a journalist, a politician, and parliamentarian. One of the unusual points that might be worth mentioning is that Annahar stood in the gap between East and West Beirut during the civil war, in a position that seemed to confirm the neutral role that the press plays in the world. Ghassan Tueni confirmed this when he expressed his support for his son Gebran by calling for “spite to be buried with [his] son”.

The media has not been spared from being targeted in Lebanon or anywhere else, even if some of its professional journalists have been rescued from attempts to assassinate or kidnap them. Today, remembering the assassination of Samir Kassir, the situation is no different in the struggle burning between those who hold the torch of truth and those who walk in the darkness of despotism.

[H/T Raseef22

About a cat…

Since hearing from Said Hassanieh about the post I made concerning “filthy animals“, my interest in finishing reading The Hunger Games in Arabic has been renewed. I started over, this time paying closer attention to the story and how it is being told. This post concern’s Buttercup, a cat Prim rescued and brought home and Katniss was going to drown rather than feed.

As I have said, I aspire to translate literature someday. I know that when I do, any other translator will be able to pick on my work and find little things like this to pick on. When someone does, I will feel like an idiot and question why I ever set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I admire the courage, skill, and artistry of those people who brave the world of literature. I have been impressed by the first by Said Hassanieh’s translation, and once I finish reading through this series I will be picking up some of his other translations. His Arabic is wonderful, clean and easy to read, and very expressive.

That said…

The paragraph introducing Buttercup struck me when I read it. It comes in right at the beginning of the first chapter, and I think it sets a lot of tone for the story. In this chapter we learn the following bits of information about Katniss:

  1. She loves Prim and will give her nearly anything. We don’t know it yet, but the family is subsisting barely above starvation; Katniss hunts and they eat her game to supplement their rations, and Katniss sells anything extra to buy the things they need.
  2. Katniss is in charge. Prim stopped her from drowning the cat and begged to be allowed to keep the cat. Katniss let her, and mom took care of the cat’s health.
  3. Katniss is willing to make hard choices and values things that pay their own way.

I’ll go into a bit more detail after the text especially about why I think these things are important and what happened in the translation.

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named her Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin, and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

جلس أبشع هرّ في العالم على ركبتي بريم، فبدا وكأنه يحرسها. رأيت هذا الهر بخطمه المنتفخ، كان فاقداً لنصف أذن، أما لون عينيه فيمثل لون الكوسى الفاسدة. أطلقت بريم اسم الحوذان على هرّها هذا، وأصرّت على القول إن لون فرائه الأصفر الداكن يماثل لون تلك الزهرة النضرة. يكرهني هذا الهرّ، أو دعني أقول على الأقل إنه لا يثق بي. أظن أنه لا يزال يذكر ذلك اليوم الذي أحضرته بريم إلى المنزل، كان ذلك منذ سنوات عدة، عندما حاولتُ إغراقه في دلو مليء بالمياه. كان هرَاً صغيراً وهزيلاً يمتلئ بطنه بالديدان، وتتنقل البراغيث في أنحاء جسده. كان آخر شيء أحتاج إليههو فم إضافي ملزمة بإطعامه، لكن بريم توسلت إليّ بشدة، وحتى إنها بكت، كي أدعها تبقيه في المنزل، فرضخت لمطلبها. سارت الأمور على ما يرام في ما بعد لأن والدتي تمكّن من من تنظيفه من تلك الحشرات، فبدا وكأنه ولد من جديد، حتى إنه تمكّن من اصطياد الفئران بين الحين والآخر، كما اعتدت أن أطعمه أحشاء الفرائس بعد تنظيفها، لذلك كان يتوقف عن المواء عندما يراني.

Back-translation (translated as though it were an Arabic document, and I am trying to make it read as well in English as I can):

The ugliest cat in the world sat at Prim’s knees. It looked like he was guarding her. I saw this fat-muzzled cat that had lost half an ear, yet its eyes were like the color of rotten zucchini. Prim gave this cat the name of the buttercup, insisting that its dark yellow fur looked like the color of that bright flower. This cat hates me. Or, let me at least say that it has no confidence in me. I think he still remembers that day, when Prim brought him to the house several years earlier, when I tried to drown him in a bucket filled with water. He was a small gaunt cat, his belly full of worms and fleas moving all over his body. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged me, she even cried, so I would let her keep him in the house. I gave in to her request. Things were alright after that because my  mother was able to cleanse him of the vermin. It seemed like he was born again. He was even able to catch mice from time to time, and I used to feed him the entrails of my kills after I cleaned them. That is why he stopped meowing when he saw me.

Alright. Before I start with the critique: the first time I read the Arabic was well over a year after I read the English. The cat is not a major character in the story, though he has some value (as I listed above). The larger part of that value is retained in the translation – it was an ugly little sick kitten that Katniss had tried to kill but ended up letting Prim keep it (showing Katniss was in charge, not mom). It is in the last couple of sentences where some of the impact is lost, and that is where my focus is going to be. Keep in mind that this is a bit of foreshadowing; the cat will be taking over Katniss’ role as guardian and a hunter when she goes off to fight in the Hunger Games.

One major note: This novel, in English, is written in the first person, present tense. This voice is generally used to make the reader feel as though they are going through the experience with the narrator. I haven’t read enough Arabic literature to know the justification (do Arab authors avoid that voice?), but the translator changed the whole thing to first person, past tense. Is this a big deal? I do not know, but I feel like I need to find out, especially if I ever plan on translating an Arabic novel into English – or if, someday, I stick my neck way out and translate an English book into Arabic. Why? Well, here is the question. If I find a sci-fi or fantasy novel written in Arabic in the first person and past tense, would it be appropriate to change it to the present tense in English? It is a global decision that impacts the entire work.

The physical description of Buttercup is alright. I could argue about fat (the Arabic) vs. mashed-in; but since I am not a native speaker of Arabic, I can’t be sure that this is not the perfect word to describe the shape of a cat’s muzzle for those breeds that have flat faces, like Lizzy here:

Red Persian

Were the assignment mine, I think I would try to find a cat fancy web forum in the Arab world and see if there is a technical name for it, or (more appropriately) a nickname that pokes fun at this look.

Buttercup. That’s what Prim (named after a flower herself) names the cat. In my translation below, I’ll show you how I would have done it differently; but the short version is that I feel the definite article doesn’t belong. By making “buttercup” (الحوذان) definite, it changes the structure from an indirect object (Prim named the cat…) to a possessive noun construct (Prim gave the cat the name of the…). The easiest fix would have been to put the name in quotes, but one of the many things that makes me a fan of Hassanieh’s work is that he avoids all of those cheap tricks and writes in a very clean style that is easy on the eyes.

Alright. I’m going to stipulate the rest of the description, and Prim’s pleading, Katniss caving in, and mom healing. The translation is very solid and keeps all of the points and impact that the author is expressing.

The next thing I take issue with is the cat being “born again”. This is a case where I think the translator simply misunderstood the English. Buttercup was “a born mouser”. This means he was a natural hunter of mice, driven by instinct, and that he was good at it. Good enough that from time to time he caught a rat (much larger and generally more inclined to fight back than a mouse). I think it is important to get this phrase right because of what it shows us about Katniss’ character. She can make hard decisions; as a hunter she regularly kills and cleans animals, and she was prepared to euthanize this bedraggled cat. She has a soft heart; she gave in to Prim’s pleas. She has deep appreciation of people (and cats) that are able to pull their own weight in the family – this attitude is further explored in her conflicted love/anger at her mother, who has a gift as a healer but let the living family down when her husband died. And again, the cat is going to be filling her shoes as hunter/protector soon.

These things are first hinted at in this innocent little description of the cat, so I think it is important to get it right. The cat hates Katniss – or at least, doesn’t trust her. Katniss recognizes the cat’s value, both emotional (Prim loves it) and intrinsic (as a fellow hunter), so she starts to feed the cat the parts of her game that the people won’t eat. This brings us to another place that I think the translator missed the point. Katniss feeds the cat entrails, and now it doesn’t hiss at her. The Arabic says it stops “meowing” (المواء). A hiss and a meow are two very different things, as anyone who has spent any time with cats knows. A cat will meow for basic communication. Hungry, lonely, looking for a mate, maybe trapped or hurt. Hissing, on the other hand, shows anger and a readiness to attack or defend itself. The fact that Buttercup used to hiss at Katniss demonstrates the hatred/mistrust that Katniss attributes to her attempt to drown the bedraggled little critter. Cats tend to not meow most of the time (other than my sister-in-law’s dear, departed Hairy – she taught him to talk pretty, and he used to chirp at the birds), so there doesn’t seem to me to be much significance to the fact that Buttercup stopped meowing when Katniss came around unless it is that Buttercup was afraid of her.

So here goes. Feel free to laugh behind your hands or right out loud:

يجلس عند رقبتي بريم ابشع هرّ في العالم، يحرسها. الهرّ، ذو خطمة محطمة، نصف أذن غائب، وعينيه لهما لون الكوسى الفاسدة. اطلقَت بريم عليه اسم حوذان، أصرّت أن لون فرائه الأصفر الداكن المشوش يشبه لون الزهرة النضرة. يكرهني هذا الهرّ. أو على الأقل، لا يثق بي. بالرغم من السنوات التي مضت، اعتقد أنه لا يزال يذكر أني حاولت اغراقه في دلو مليء بالمياه عندما احضرته بريم إلى المنزل. كان هرّا صغيراً وحزيلاً، بطنه متورم بالدودان وتنتقل البراغيث في انحاء جسده. كان آخر شيء احتاج عليه فم اضافي ملزمة بإطعامه. لكن توسلت بريم عليّ بشدة، حتى كانت تبكي، فلا تركت لي اختيار غير الموافقة. سارت الأمر على ما يرام. والدتي نظفته من تلك الحشرات، وهو  صياد الفئرات طبيعي، وأحياناً يصيد جرذاً. في بعض الأحيان بعدما أقوم بتنظيف فرائسي، اعطيه الأحشاء. توقف عن البخيخ عليّ.

الأحشاء. عدم البخاخ. هذا الحد الأقصى لنا في اتجاه الحب.

As always, I eagerly welcome commentary and criticism. I am a novice at translating into Arabic, and have not read a great deal of Arabic literature. I have a lot to learn about style and convention, and appreciate any honest effort to help!

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?


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!