You know it’s unseasonable weather for a sleigh ride together

So I’ve been in Melbourne for the last week and a half, enjoying the weather growing warmer as Christmas approaches, and adjusting to a new time zone. I’ve gone from being up for only three hours in the morning before my chiefly French clients end their business day, to being awake for about six hours in the evening coinciding with the earlier part of their opening hours (or “trading hours” in Australian, and yes, I’ve been cataloging the English phrases found here that are unfamiliar to my American- and British-trained senses).

Queen Victoria Women's Centre, exemplary of Australian Edwardian architecture.

Besides being happy, warm, vibrant, and rife with gentle drunken antics on weekend night, all the things you want when you’re adjusting to a new city, Melbourne’s Central Business District has a feature distinctly missed in New York: pedestrian alleys. My writer friend Rachel Haimowitz once pointed out to me that despite what novelists who’ve never lived there seem to think, there are almost no narrow gaps between buildings in Manhattan where a mugger or kidnapper could pull an unsuspecting protagonist, at least not without wire fences. Melbourne has them, and they do lend some mystery to a city that’s otherwise a bit too predictably cheerful. There are alleys here that unexpectedly lead to German beer gardens. Alleys that lead to art galleries. Alleys that have been converted into skinny shop-and-café arcades. Alleys where gangs of forty-something white middle-class people jump out to scare you and laugh themselves silly. (Antics, like I said).

Large wooden wombats like these are worshiped as idols by Australia's "bohemian pagans", known locally as "bogans".

Longtime residents tell me that it’s only been in the past few decades that Melbourne has been transformed from a mere state capital to a true global city. Perhaps most impressive (and certainly impossible before Australia’s non-European immigration laws were loosened in the early ’70s) is the dizzying diversity of Asian restaurants in the area where I’m staying. The reductive semi-official name “Chinatown” does not suit this neighborhood. A single square mile offers nearly every cuisine hailing from east of the Hindu Kush and south of Siberia. There are sushi bars, Korean barbecue joints, all variants of Chinese cooking, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, and even attempts to recreate Malaysian and Taiwanese street food. I don’t think there’s a single neighborhood of New York where this wide a variety of Asian restaurants exists. I’m not sure there’s a small patch of any city in the entire world that this can be said of.

Yummy pork bao bun from Taiwan Café.

Posted in Australia | 2 Comments

Translation in Media: Review of “Chinglish” on Broadway

Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), chief executive of Ohio Signage, wants to land a contract with a Chinese ministry in the city of Guiyang, where a new cultural center is being built. Citing genuine examples, he notes that China’s bustling leaders should find it unacceptable that a bilingual sign for a handicapped restroom should read “Deformed Man Toilet” in English. Or that foreigners should have to puzzle out for themselves that a plaque on a door reading “Financial Affairs Is Everywhere Long” is meant to say “Chief Financial Officer.” His prospective clients in Guiyang nod in agreement, but for Daniel, the seemingly simple path to reaching a deal turns out to be just as twisted as the translations.

This is David Henry Hwang’s new play Chinglish, which had its Broadway premiere last month. It features plenty of comically bungled translations like those, of the sort familiar to language professionals — the theater’s supertitles, for example, reveal that a tone-deaf attempt at repeating the Mandarin for “I love you” can sound like “Dirty sea mud.” The real point that veteran playwright Hwang is striving for, though, is about overconfidence in one’s ability to effectively traverse cultural and even interpersonal borders through communication. Daniel has lined up a meeting with the bustling town’s culture minister (Larry Lei Zhang), and a British expatriate with perfect Mandarin skills (Stephen Pucci) to serve as consultant and interpreter during his sales pitch. Act humble and bow the right way, Daniel thinks, and he’ll land that contract. He’s sure he’s already figured out how to bridge the cross-Pacific divide, or at least that it will simply be a matter of a few weeks before he truly “gets” China.

This first meeting doesn’t go as planned, though; Daniel doesn’t even know how to place his locally-unknown hometown of Cleveland and the culture of the Midwest in a context his hosts can comprehend, with simple points of clarification spinning off into misguided digressions about Chicago steakhouses and the region’s agricultural history. (After Daniel notes that Cleveland’s economy is no longer supported by farming, the minister’s inexperienced interpreter surmises that he means “Their crops failed long ago.”)

By the time Cavanaugh figures out that it’s best to explain Cleveland to locals as being the American equivalent of the non-coastal, high-aspiring Guiyang, he’s already being tripped up by newer, deeper misunderstandings about the culture he’s volunteered to immerse himself in. Even when Daniel understands himself to be talking to a key magistrate, he’s still shut out of an important side of the conversation, because the exoticism of the English title “magistrate” itself is blinding him to a shocking truth, one which later casts the whole bizarre scene (in which Daniel finds himself quizzed by the official on juicy details of the Enron scandal) in an entirely different light.

Despite the fairly amusing plot, few of the characters stand out as truly vivid, because the performances are a bit flat. A notable exception is Zhang as the conservative minister, stubbornly resisting market reforms and vowing to stage his beloved traditional operas at the new cultural center instead of more foreigner-pleasing acts like acrobats. Ironically, Zhang is himself masterful at physical comedy; he does a great job pantomiming an acrobat who’s spent years training to balance a chair on his nose, adding “I’d like to tell him he’s wasted his life!” That line, like almost half the dialogue in the play, is in Mandarin, but fortunately Hwang-penned supertitles appear in the walls of the set for the audience’s benefit.

Candace Chong is credited as the Mandarin translator of these lines. She worked closely with Hwang on the script, and the theater Playbill gives her translation credit a prized placement reserved for special, unique contributions to the production. Another exceptional feature worth mentioning is the unusual dual-turntable production design, on which two sets of walls rotate independently to form offices, hotel lobbies, and lonely hotel rooms, giving Guiyang a broad but fractured sense of space. Chinglish is currently in performance at the Longacre Theatre.

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ATA 52nd Conference Wrap-Up, Part 1: I’m In Love With Massachusetts

CC-BY-SA-2.0 by Konstantin Papushin

Ducklings and mother duck on the Boston Common. Photo CC-BY-SA by Konstantin Papushin on Flickr.

Last week, the American Translators Association was in Boston for its 52nd annual conference, and so was I. The Association’s organizing efforts were excellent, as they usually are, and some 2000 people from the language industry were in attendance. My own presentation was slipped into the final time slot of the last day. I was worried that the timing would cause a lot of people to miss it, but over 100 people stayed to hear me talk about speech-to-text software as a productivity booster, and to watch Dragon NaturallySpeaking dazzle and occasionally stumble in a live, unscripted demonstration. Tremendous thanks go out to everybody who showed up to the Dragon seminar and especially those who participated by offering their own insights. The slides can be downloaded here, and at the end of part 2 I’ll tack on a few points that were brought up by participants last Saturday and which will aid in making an informed choice about whether to take the speech-to-text plunge.

It became clear, the more I talked to translators who were excited by Dragon, that the paucity of non-English support will be a big obstacle to wider adoption in this industry (it is only available for Windows in English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish, and on a Mac, Spanish and Dutch are not even options). This limits it to those who translate into one or more of the supported languages. My understanding is that Nuance owns IBM’s ViaVoice technology, which offered some support for Asian languages, so I hope this is just a matter of not figuring out how to tap the bounty of the translation market rather than a severe technical issue. It is also a bit troubling that there is no serious competition for Dragon in the speech-to-text market, at least not if you’re looking for a tool that can enter text in any CAT tool or word processor and train itself to your voice for accuracy, as most translators intrigued by the idea of dictating text to save themselves both time and aching shoulders are. However, I did outline a prospect for combining existing translation memory software with voice dictation that enterprising developers could look into.

The best two talks I attended on the first day of the conference (Thursday) were the ones given by translators Karen Tkaczyk and Jost Zetzsche. Karen presented in the Language Service Providers division, and her talk was chiefly addressed to translation agencies that outsource work to freelancers. She highlighted some of the ways that agencies can build relationships of communication and trust that leave translators eager to collaborate again and again, and to pass along the good word to other freelancers. This includes offering greater transparency to the freelancer, offering up unsolicited but critical information like whether the project would be proofread internally, and conveying a sense of what sort of information the end client wants to glean from the translation. Jost’s talk focused on the ongoing revolution in liberating data from translation memories, a decades-old software technology where full sentences are stored as matches for their human-generated translations. These sentences are of little use unless an exact match or an 80%+ “fuzzy” match comes along in a new document, which will be almost never. Breaking them down into “subsegments” (individual words or phrases, matched with the words or phrases in the corresponding sentence in the other language that mirror them most clearly) has enabled search tools like Linguee and Taus that offer more refined results.

In the next couple days, I’ll fill the second installment of this wrap-up with details from later talks that were given about machine translation, French spelling reforms that have taken a while to catch on, more about Dragon, and why I have no pictures of my own from Boston to put up.

Posted in translation, trends, voice-to-text | 3 Comments

THE FATAL SHORE, Part 2: The First Fleet

As I head off to the ATA conference in Boston—which you’re invited to follow using the #ata52 hashtag on Twitter—Leonard Pierce returns to continue our series on Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore. —Andrew

The more one reads about the settlement of Australia with the eyes of a contemporary American, the more the parallels between the two countries become stark. But what’s especially surprising – and instructive – isn’t just the way the nations grew and developed together along divergent but familiar paths; it’s the way the events leading up to the founding of Australia are reflected in modern-day America.

The idea of transporting prisoners to serve as involuntary labor for a colony was not new in Britain; it was an idea floated over two centuries before the First Fleet departed for Botany Bay. But it took a concatenation of events to finally make it happen, the foremost of which was a crisis among what as referred to as “the criminal class”. That this was essentially another way of speaking of the poor comes as no surprise; much like contemporary America, which jails more of its citizenry than any country in history, Great Britain’s way of dealing with its idle population was to imprison them. Unwilling to accept the notion that unrelieved poverty was a driver of crime, and under the sway of voguish nonsense about inherited personality, the law set down harsh penalties for even the most piddling of offences.

Yet the jails in England were few in number, and built with no thought towards rehabilitation. They soon became so overcrowded that prisoners were housed in hulks – near-ruined ships floating precariously on the Thames and off the coasts, an impractical stopgap solution. One of Robert Hughes’ chief insights, little appreciated in either of our countries, is that the revolution led by George Washington played a critical role in the founding of Australia America had been Westminster’s first choice for forced deportations for nearly as long as the Crown had been settled in the New World, but the revolution made it off limits; even afterward, Australia was not thought ideal. Locations in Africa and the Middle East were the first choices, but climatic factors pulled them out of the running, and by default, the continent still known widely to Europeans as “New Holland” became the destination of choice.

The First Fleet, in another historical circumstance that echoes through the ages to contemporary America, had to deal with enormous hardship long before they arrived on the fatal shore, much of which was caused by a combination of ineffectual government and corrupt profit-seekers eager to indulge the former’s taste for getting work done at the least possible cost. The practical and protective Captain Arthur Phillip, who oversaw the fleet, strove to make his naval superiors see the light about the raw necessities of the voyage, which had been outfitted with enough supplies to cover a six-week trip when it needed enough for one that would last eight months. With some items – most especially food – there simply were not enough allocated; with others – in particular, anti-scorbutics – the crooked contractor tasked with supplying them short-changed the fleet and pocketed the difference. So, in an all-too-familiar pattern of lack of will by those in safe positions of responsibility, the settlers were doomed to a share of starvation and disease before they ever left port.

Who, then, were the men and women of the “criminal class” who starved in jail, starved on ship, and starved on land? Many legends have grown up around them, tainted by the prejudices of the time. One is that they were mostly political prisoners and whores, a rather sexist notion that flatters the men and defames the women (unfairly so, since prostitution was not a crime punishable by deportation). In fact, as Hughes makes clear by laying out the court records, the majority were petty thieves, sentenced to everything from seven years to death for stealing ribbons, trinkets, and especially food. It was an exile colony of Jean Valjeans. Another, more contemporary myth is that the Australian settlement was not an issue of transportation at all, but rather a scheme to provide Britain with important ports from which they could access Asian trade and block a possible French colonization of India. This is appealing in that it posits a slightly more noble reason for Australia’s founding than the search for a place to dump society’s undesirables; but Hughes insists it is largely a lie. It was largely promulgated by early boosters of the Australia plan, who exaggerated its closeness to India and China in order to make their idea seem more appealing.

But there’s no need to come up with alternate histories to glorify the founding of Australia. While there were flaws among the convicts (especially their exploitation and racism towards the Aborigines) and the government (embodied in their often arbitrary cruelty towards the convicts), they showed surprising resourcefulness and dedication in the face of unimaginable deprivation. Their rations were cut to the bone when it became clear that Australia wasn’t the agricultural paradise it had been made out to be, and additional supplies were delayed, with fatal results, by bad luck at sea. More ships arrived with more mouths to feed, and the original two-year supply of foodstuffs was exhausted well ahead of schedule. But through it all, through disease and overhunting and starvation, there were many who felt that a chance to die on their own terms in a land they’d made was preferable to a return to the poverty, despair and hopelessness of returning to England. From the ranks of these convicts arose men like Richard Phillimore and James Ruse, who tended the first working farms that would produce natively grown food for Australia. These were the Emancipists, the men and women who served out their terms but stayed on in hopes of making a nation of their own.

Not everyone was so civic-minded. Next, we’ll look at the bushrangers, the recidivists, and the men who people “the worst places in the English-speaking world”: Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land.

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Training a Dragon: My Presentation at the ATA Conference in Boston

Thursday the 27th, one week from today, will mark the start of the 52nd annual conference of the American Translators Association. I’ll be giving a talk on Saturday, in the last time-slot of the event, entitled “Training a Dragon: Using Speech-to-Text to Enhance Productivity.” It’s my first time presenting at a conference, and since the software I’ll be demonstrating live can give unpredictable results now and again, I’m rehearsing each week, to iron out all the potential nasty wrinkles.

Using Dragon Naturally Speaking to augment my typing with vocal dictation has been a tremendous boon for me, which is surprising given that as recently as five years ago there was little market for speech-to-text-input among those who were physically able to use a keyboard. But suddenly, personal “listening machines” are everywhere (this month, the novelty of the Siri voice assistant has made an otherwise minor hardware upgrade to the iPhone 4 into a big seller). They’re not just for big companies anymore, like those customer service call-answering systems that can take voice commands. As a freelance translator, Dragon has allowed me to increase the pace at which I work by 20% to 40% on average, leading to hundreds of hours saved over the years.

It’s not always easy; even after years of voice-training have made the software especially clear-eared as long as it’s my voice speaking into the microphone, it still feels like a normally obedient dog that needs a rolled-up newspaper from time to time. But the occasional frustration is worth the gains in productivity and the reduced typing strain. Not everyone who’s tried Dragon has gotten to that point with it. The goal of my presentation will be to help people decide if it’s worth the time and money for them (not cheap, at $199 plus the cost of a good headset), and I’m confident there will be several people in the audience who ultimately find that it does.

Below is a video that may or may not make it into the final version of next Saturday’s seminar. This is an actual patent I translated before I owned Dragon. When I went back some years later and dictated a new translation using Dragon, as seen in the video, it took only 102 seconds to enter 124 words, including the time needed to correct two mistakes. That’s 73 words per minute entered accurately, and I have difficulty typing over 50 words without errors in that same time.

You can follow the Conference on Twitter with the hashtag #ata52. I’ll have lots of updates for those who can’t make it (@andrewlevine). If you can, don’t be afraid to say hi. I’ve had all my shots at the vet.

Posted in translation, voice-to-text | 1 Comment

Quantification bias in language: The late Tony Judt grabs the Human Mic

CC-BY-2.0 by Timothy Crause

Woman at Occupy Wall Street, October 17, 2011. Photo by Timothy Crause on Flickr

I wanted to have something more to say about the Occupy Wall Street protests going on in my city (and now, apparently, everywhere else) and some of the linguistic roots of the present economic/political griefs. But historian Tony Judt spoke to this point in Ill Fares The Land, published as his last book a few months before his death in 2010, much better than I could:

Markets have a natural disposition to favor needs and wants that can be reduced to commercial criteria for economic measurement. If you can sell it or buy it, then it is quantifiable and we can assess its contribution to (quantitative) measures of collective well-being. But what of those goods which humans have always valued but which do not lend themselves to quantification?

What of well-being? What of fairness or equity (in its original sense)? What of exclusion, opportunity — or its absence — or lost hope? Such considerations mean much more to most people then aggregate or even individual profit or growth. Take humiliation: what if we treated it as an economic cost, a charge to society? What if we decided to “quantify” the harm done when people are shamed by their fellow citizens as a condition of receiving the mere necessities of life?

In other words, what if we factored into our estimates of productivity, efficiency, or well-being the difference between a humiliating handout and a benefit as of right? We might conclude that the provision of universal social services, public health insurance, or subsidized public transportation was actually a cost-effective way to achieve our common objectives. I readily concede that such an exercise is inherently contentious: how do we quantify humiliation? What is the measurable cost of depriving isolated citizens of access to metropolitan resources? How much are we willing to pay for a good society?

Even “wealth” itself cries out for redefinition. It is widely asserted that steeply progressive rates of taxation or economic redistribution destroy wealth. Such policies undoubtedly constrict the resources of some to the benefit of others — though the way we cut the cake has little bearing on its size. If redistributing material wealth has the long-term effect of improving the health of a country, diminishing social tensions born of envy or increasing and equalizing everyone’s access to services hitherto preserved for the few, is not that country better off?

As the reader may observe, I am using words like “wealth” or “better off” in ways that take them well beyond their current, strictly material application. To do this on a broader scale — to recast our public conversation — seems to me the only realistic way to begin to bring about change. If we do not talk differently, we shall not think differently.

Much as a shouting voice can be carried further when a hundred people are repeating it in unison, the value of injecting a catchy word into the lexicon (and amplifying it once it’s there) is evidenced by the clarity of the terms the European and American press have been using to talk about Occupy Wall Street. All year, the French press has been referring to “los indignados” of Spain as “les indignés” in their own pages, using the most plain translation. When OWS began, headlines in France immediately began calling the movement “les indignés américains” — seeing not something new, but rather a link to existing activities in Europe, while the American press has been a bit slower and more reluctant to draw the connection. But as the Times article linked up top shows, I think this context is already filtering through.

Posted in borders, language, trends | 3 Comments

New day rising

Sorry for the long delay in posting. I had a long time coming off my vacation in Bermuda (which I’ll write about in a bit, in connection with Australia and their shared origins as naval bastions/indentured labor colonies for the British Empire), but I do have another post on The Fatal Shore coming through the pipeline and more from Leonard Pierce already in the can. After a long stretch of translation work, I’m now free to ease up. Things will get moving here this week.

Hondius map of Bermuda, 1636. Every present-day settlement in Bermuda was already in existence by the end of the 1600s. Thanks to James William Roy for the map.

I really do intend to bring up more about translation and language on this blog, especially on my upcoming presentation at the 52nd American Translator’s Association conference in Boston at the end of October, but for now I want to spotlight on this article in Forbes by Tim Lee. He speaks to the folly of journalists trying to nail down some terms as failing to live up to a standard of “neutral” writing, because the evolving nature of language means that words which people contend over see their neutrality fade over time.

Such standards, I feel, do change, but not because an imaginary editor somewhere didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings. We didn’t reach the point where we stopped speaking of homosexuality as a “perversion” because a team of thought police came on the telescreen and told us we had to. We got there because the more people learned about what LGBT lifestyles really were, the more they found the old ways of thinking to be an affront to human dignity. Language is, by nature, a tool shaped by collective hands.

Posted in Australia, language | Leave a comment

THE FATAL SHORE, Part 1: The Vengeance of Property

Andrew’s on vacation this week, so today we turn the blog over to San Antonio’s Leonard Pierce to kick off our series on the founding of Australia and one of the modern classics published on the subject. Take it away, Leonard:

It never pays dividends to speak for one’s countrymen, but if my experience is any indicator, the average American knows little about Australia, let alone its astonishing history. Our schools seem to have enough trouble teaching American history, so the chances of learning anything about a foreign country are slim – even a country whose history is as closely tied to our own as Australia. The two nations began their official existences only a decade apart, and, indeed, Australia’s selection as the dumping ground for a new kind of colonial labor was necessitated by the Revolution that had made America off-limits for the exportation of “the criminal class.” But geographically and politically, America and Australia were worlds removed from one another: the U.S. was populated, in its early goings, by zealots who found the religious climate of England insufficiently fervid for their liking, while Australia was settled by men and women who had been hurled away from the shores of the kingdom with great force.

Our educational and cultural conception of Australia, then, is a largely incoherent collection of clichés and stereotypes: a kaleidoscope of references from ‘80s comedies, a notion that its hard-drinking, independent, rough-and-tumble ways make it “England’s Texas”; and, of course, somewhere crawling on the surface of that part of our minds that wants to reduce every nation to a single characteristic, the knowledge that it was founded by criminals. The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’ tremendous history of the birth of the only country that is also a continent is a perfect prescription for those of us whose initial reaction to the very name of Australia is to make snickering comments about watching your camera, but he does the opposite of shy away from the low and brutal realities of its settlement. Indeed, he goes out of his way to make it clear that “the System” – the gingerly bureaucratized term for the forced exportation of criminals to serve as bound labor for the creation of a rich new colony – is as sensitive a topic for the Australians as slavery is for Americans. His explanations of how political and psychological factors kept detailed accounts of the System out of Australian history texts for decades are only the first of the many fascinating insights that seem as revelatory now as when the book first appeared 25 years ago.

Convicts Embarking For Botany Bay

Thomas Rowlandson, "Convicts Embarking for Botany Bay." From the National Library of Australia.

The Fatal Shore begins with a compelling description of the flora and fauna of the land on which the first wave of the banished arrived in 1788. Hughes makes it seem, in near literal language, like an alien planet, and not without reason; although one of the Transportation System’s selling points was that it was nominally more humane than execution (Georgian England prescribed hanging for literally hundreds of crimes, from murder on down to uprooting plants on a nobleman’s property), it shipped the criminals so far away they might as well have been removed from the face of the Earth. Adding to the enigmatic strangeness was the fact that almost nothing was known about Australia; previous inland exploration consisted of an alarmingly brief stay by the legendary Captain James Cook, whose visit to a microscopically small area of the continent led to recommendations for its use no better informed than those of the proverbial blind man laying his hands on an elephant.

Of course, there were those to whom Australia was anything but alien and strange. To the aboriginals who already lived there, it was as comfortable and familiar as eternity, and to Hughes’ credit, he moves almost immediately to telling at least part of their story. He is determined to speak of the cruelties, ignorance and disruption inflicted on them by the European settlers, while never soft-pedaling the brutalities of their own traditions (he is especially effective at recounting the low status and grim prospects of women in aboriginal societies), but in the end, the conclusion is foregone. Irrespective of the virtues and vices of Australia’s native cultures, he writes, “it had not the slightest chance of surviving white invasion.”

But this white invasion was of a different color than that which had prevailed elsewhere. This was not the predatory exploration of the conquistadors, or the religious haven of the American colonies; the settlers of Australia lived under a complex system of class-based control. They were the subjects of a unique form of social experimentation never tried before or since, and as Hughes is all too aware, its closest analogue is the bottomless inhumanity of the gulags. Even the journey was murderous; anyone who has flown from the U.S. to Australia in climate-controlled, jet-propelled ease knows that the trip seems crushingly long, but to see the original route (England to Brazil to South Africa to Botany Bay) and imagine it being made on an 18th-century sailing ship under the worst of privation is unimaginable. After they arrived, the transportees were kept under conditions not far removed from slavery, and faced dreadful disease and starvation with no access to aid.

And yet, Hughes insists, transportation worked. The Australian colonists survived and, in some cases, thrived. Refuting modish theories of genetically inherited criminality, the children of the convicts grew into law-abiding citizens of the Crown. Even more surprisingly, those freed from bondage to the System almost universally decided to remain in Australia rather than return to England. Who they were, and why they made the decision to stay in conditions of uncertainty and danger rather than go back to the familiarity of home, is something I’d like to talk about in our next installment.

Posted in Australia, The Fatal Shore | Leave a comment

Robert Hughes and The Fatal Shore: Introduction

The world’s most widely read history of early Australia, Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, turns a quarter-century old this year. When it was first published, Australia was in preparations for its 1988 Cook Bicentenary, and a number of historical retrospectives entered print. Despite decades of fine books put out by respected career historians, like Geoffrey Blainey and Manning Clark, it would be the unlikely authorship of art critic Robert Hughes, previously known for biting proclamations against some of the fashionable Postmodernist movements of the 1980s, that secured The Fatal Shore its place in libraries around the planet (it has been translated into at least five languages, and is one of the rare Australian history books to have never been out of print in the US or the UK since its first edition). Hughes took his keen eye for examining art through its political context, and cast it on the society of convicts, career military officers, and adventurous free settlers who composed the first English-speaking inhabitants of Australia. His book was rewarded with a spot on the best-seller list and was one of only nine non-fiction works to be ranked among the New York Times Editors’ Choice books for 1987.

His exhaustive research and compelling prose aside, part of this global success may have been due to Hughes’ being a long-time resident of New York City, and a respected fixture in its intellectual circles. In addition to the Times review, my edition of The Fatal Shore bears gushing jacket blurbs from Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, and one of my favorite students of American history, the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. It’s hard not to notice that all of them, like Hughes, had resided in or near New York for some years at the time of the book’s publication and were no doubt familiar with his art criticism (most famously, his broadsides against Brooklyn’s Jean-Michel Basquiat and his insights into the abstract expressionists of mid-century New York) before they cracked open his first foray into history. Mapping these sources of early praise makes it clear that staking a cultural claim in one of the two global center-cities of the English-language literary world (London being the other) had done Hughes a great deal of good, where worthy efforts by his countrymen who had only rarely lived outside Australia had gone unrecognized. The “tyranny of distance” that Blainey had described as limiting the influence of Australia on the rest of the world also restricted the fame of Blainey himself and his counterparts.

Davey's Proclamation

A government proclamation from Tasmania around 1830, intended to cross language barriers with an all-pictures format. It was only one small part of the cruelty visited upon the island's original inhabitants that this universally-understandable message of justice and harmony among blacks and whites reflected real policy in no way whatsoever.

Cultural geography may have made The Fatal Shore a smash hit, but it was Hughes’ unsentimental view of white Australia’s muddy origins, and his effortless glide between factual statistics, sober assessments, and shocking anecdotes, that made it a book worth reading. The author cuts off his narrative with the ending in the 1840s and ’50s of the transportation system that had seeded the Australian nation with a motley crowd of strivers and fortune-seekers. Over the course of the next two months, history buff Leonard Pierce and I will be honoring the book’s 25-year anniversary with an in-depth review and some attempts at tracing the line, left blank by Hughes for the reader to fill in, between how a hazily conceived slave-colony of thieves that was hoped to someday prove useful to its motherland, evolved into one of the freest and most prosperous sovereign nations in the world. We hope you’ll join us.

Posted in Australia, The Fatal Shore | 1 Comment

Wordgames without frontiers

As my first post mentioned, translators must often navigate treacherous linguistic spaces fraught with cross-cultural traps, where simple dictionary lookups and Google searches can shed little light. A prime example is in the title of this blog itself. When Kiwi songwriting brothers Tim and Neil Finn penned the lyrics “The lust of the pioneer/will acknowledge no frontier,” they weren’t imagining a pioneer whose spirit of adventure leads him, counter-intuitively, to spurn rather than embrace the sort of wide open frontier spaces that we associate with the American West, Canadian Prairie, or Australian Outback. They were using frontier in its British sense, a usage retained in their New Zealand dialect, where it generally just means “a border.” The American author Bill Bryson wrote of the United States’ 19th-century westward push:

Frontier, which meant (and still means) a national border in British English, took on in America the new sense of the ever-moving dividing line between wilderness and civilization.

The Finn brothers’ adventurer, then, is one whose passions drive him to travel the globe without thought of being hemmed in by any country. So we can see the potential for a massive gap in understanding. When frontier drifts from its European usage to its North American usage, the image of a line drawn on a map, or a long series of stakes planted in the ground, likewise shifts to the image of a space expanding outward. You can’t build a home or a community in a one-dimensional line. But you can easily envision one being built within a space. And that’s how North Americans understand a frontier today, as a great wilderness; it doesn’t even really imply “borderlands” as much as it once did. Up further north, a government-run “Invest In Canada” website tells readers:

Yukon is one of the last vast frontiers on Earth, with a wealth of natural resources and untapped business potential.

As dictated by the federal government’s bilingualism policy, this same text is also available in carefully written French, and if you click the “Français” link, you discover that these “vast frontiers” come out in French as “vastes étendues de terres vierges” (vast expanses of unspoiled land). Assuming that the French was written after the English rather than the other way around, this is a fine translation of the phrase. It accurately renders the idea that in the Canadian linguistic consciousness, just as the American one, a “frontier” represents a habitable space rather than a mere dividing line. This reflects the thinking of Canadian historians like Ian Angus and Charles Blattberg, who considered a frontier to be a borderland that moves over time by absorbing the areas beyond it. What the Yukon text’s translator didn’t do, and clearly shouldn’t have done, was translate “frontier” as frontière, even though this might be a British-trained translator’s first instinct.

Like so many other linguistic paradoxes across cultures, the tendancy of Europeans to think of borders and frontiers in a different way than North Americans do has its roots in diverging etymologies: word histories that drifted apart as colonists fanned out across the globe. Both of these English words come from French—the roots are bordure and frontière—and in the language of origin, frontière remains synonymous with a boundary dividing nations. You’ve probably heard of the aid organization that was founded in Paris in 1971 as Médecins Sans Frontières. Within a few years, Americans had begun referring to it as “Doctors Without Borders”, a name that seems to have first popped up in English, in lowercase form, in a 1976 Time Magazine article. The British, however, have always referred to the humanitarian group by its international acronym, MSF, even as its New York office has formally adopted the name Doctors Without Borders.

Just six years before Bernard Kouchner and his associates founded Médecins Sans Frontières, a lighter-hearted mission began within the confederation of regional broadcasters, the EBU: a sort of continent-spanning TV game-show that would match the popularity of the EBU’s annual Eurovision Song Contest while fostering a sense of brotherhood among nations. The result, Jeux sans frontières (literally, “Games Without Frontiers/Borders”) didn’t outlast Eurovision. But it ran for decades, and gave us the clip of people in penguin costumes slipping around a spinning Antarctic gameboard at the top of this post. It also inspired the British musician Peter Gabriel, who included the French refrain “jeux sans frontières” (sung by Kate Bush) in his hit song entitled—what else?—“Games Without Frontiers.”

So far, I’ve left out Australian English’s take on borders and frontiers. But that’s worth a post to itself.

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