Obélix habla egipcio

Lo intenté, pero solo conseguí que me cortaran la cabeza.

Permítanme una generalización aún a riesgo de parecer un niñato imberbe sin mejor ocupación que la de fijarme en los errores de los demás y reírme de ellos. Pero aquí va. Puede que no haya ignorancia más grande, puede que no se pueda ser más animal que cuando uno se ríe de una persona cuando ésta está intentando hablar un idioma que no es el suyo. Déjenme que lo repita. No se puede ser más animal y demostrar mayor ignorancia que cuando uno se ríe del esfuerzo de otra persona por intentar comunicarse en un idioma con el que no se crió. Vale, hay políticos que merecen un comentario aparte por la nula capacidad de comunicación que demuestran en otras lenguas, propias o ajenas, pero aún así, el esfuerzo merece un reconocimiento.

Por eso me ha encantado este artículo  de El Mundo acerca de lo que se denomina como shibbolet, y como esta estrategia, descrita en la Biblia en el libro de los Jueces 12:6, usa la dificultad que tienen las personas para poder reproducir como un nativo ciertas combinaciones de letras. Ya sea porque ciertos fonemas no existen en un idioma en particular (como el fonema /e/ y /o/ en árabe. Por eso, no pueden decir tomate sino que dicen /tu’mati/) o porque simplemente una combinación de letras te recuerda a algo muy grosero en tu idioma. Y cómo poder olvidar la dificultad que tenemos los hispanohablantes de poder reproducir el sonido correcto para poder decir sheep, ship, sheet, shit… en la lengua de Shakespeare (otra palabra terrible de pronunciar). Otros fonemas terribles /v/, /h/, /w/ en inglés, o en alemán todas las vocales con la diéresis encima (a, o y u Umlaut). Flípalo lorito, por no mencionar a nuestros odiados vecinos del norte de los Pirineos y sus combinaciones (je vs. j’ai vs jeune; poison vs poisson; o como se pronuncian todas sus terminaciones verbales.) Por no mencionar las lenguas eslavas. Esas, para un hispanohablante, merecen un sitio aparte allí donde se ocultan las más terribles pesadillas.

Por eso, antes de reirse como un borrico de la incapacidad de los guiris para pronunciar “mi carro me lo robaron”, intente decir “I’ve never seen sheets so white!” sin ofender a nadie.


W(ords) of Mass Destruction

I was surprised, to say the least, when I saw this headline a while ago on the Spanish newspaper El Mundo (“The hunter of Cecil’s, the emblematic lion of Zimbabwe, macabre tweets”). Granted, I agree that the tweets shown as an example of this person’s lack of empathy are not those of someone who knows his way around PR and they (he) shamelessly tried to shift some of his guilt? to indicate that indeed, there are worse things going on in the world or have gone on in the world. I am not the first one to talk about it and will not be the last.

Having said that, I do not want to comment on whether I think that Dr. Hunter should be made to roam “naked ” (as if Cecil wore clothes in his normal day to day routine) to be hunted with arrows. Or whether he should outsource his marketing and PR department. What I would like to point out in this entry is the choice of words of the journalist and how by choosing certain adjectives, she has published a complete and utterly biased and charged piece of writing. The comments of those who left their opinion were not far off the tone set by the journalist, however cruder and more passionate (“I wish for him to be eaten by a lion”, “…what is truly important, [is] the vile and cowardly murder of a large mammal at the hands of a millionaire mess”, etc…)  are but a reflection of the feeling stirred by the writer.

I do however, believe that this piece of journalism (?) is a piece of propaganda. And the journalist is clearly jumping in the bandwagon caused by the hunt of this lion. Propaganda, in all its forms, has always been most effective way of stirring and influencing the public opinion (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda) and depending of the goal, can be positive (i.e, the current push of the DVLA in the UK to stop taking drugs/drinking and drive) or negative (any war related one or some tabloids, any for that matter).  It is important to undertand that propaganda does not only works with the intellect, but primarily with feelings. The all-so-important feeling of connecting with a group of like minded people, perhaps with people with whom there is common denominator (basically an urban tribe). It is not unlike a trendy artist communicating with his/her followers(singer, band, painter,…) Think of the Banksies, Justin Biebers, Julio Iglesias, Monets, Toulousse-Lautrecs, Lady Gagas, etc… of this world. If we were to analyze what is sung/said/painted… we would perhaps censor intellectually what we accept in our minds, but since we are drawn to the message by its package, its ribbons, the person who conveys the message,the warmth it brings to us, we are happy to let it in and become part of it. I would like to think that generally we dissaprove of violent, sexist or anything perceived as negative or detrimental to the community. But what about if we only approve of some of the content within the package? Would be more willing to accept a whole with the hope that we would not participate in all of it? Is it more like when you cast your vote to any given party because you agree with most/ some/ you like the jingle in that campaign?

A while ago I read a really interesting article about dehumanizing language (please forgive that I can not remember the source) and how the first step to commit to most horrendous of crimes (of any colour) is to first remove the humanity of the target. It should send shivers down anybody’s spine when we read the accounts of Lt Colonel Romeo Dallaire in his chilling book about the Rwandan genocide Shaking hands with the Devil, and the role played by the radio station Mille Colines calling the Tutsi minority “cockroaches”, “tall trees to be chopped down”, or when the terrorist band ETA called the Spanish police and armed forces “dogs”,  and many other horrific examples.

It is interesting -and terrifying- to see how language is used in normal day to day situations to degrade people and stir (willingly or accidentally) a feeling of animosity. Football will be a clear and horrendous example where players and coaches alike vent their verbal diarrhea and nobody calls for responsability and accountability (Mourinho being, in my opinion, the worst exponent of this form of communication, yet not, by far the only one). It should be concerning to hear the British government call the oposition  leader a “threat to national security”. Shameful. Having said that, David Cameron’s picture for the previous link is nothing but propaganda!

May this be my humble calling to responsible communication. There are already plenty of horrible examples trying to shift our interest out there.


That was not very funy, was it? it was?!

At uni, one of my assignments was to translate a piece of multimedia text from my native language into English. So I chose to translate a classic of the Spanish comics, Mortadelo y Filemón, which into English is translated as Mort & Phil.  In all my years in the UK, I have never seen it so I wonder whether it is very popular if at all. But in Spain, after 60 years is still huge with its completely in your face mockery of the political situation and a very localized humour. (My mother still remembers how a good friend of the family taught her how to read and enjoy it, as she is Chilean).

As part of my research, I read the magnificent Scott McCloud’s brilliant book (graphic novel, comic, essay…) Understanding Comics, in order to grasp how communication works in this medium. I also read different papers about humour, how it works and most importantly why it works. Not discovering anything that what is funny in one part of the world does not mean that it will be in another. That is just assuming that the same joke is told in the same language. If we also need to add the language dimension, things become a lot more difficult as it becomes another tool in the box rather than a simple medium of communication. If you interpret or translate, you will most probably come around this situation. I remember being really surprised at how many elements need to be present in order to make people laugh, be it an individual or a group.

Not long ago, my dad invited me to preach at the church he leads in Madrid and one of the comments he made was that the jokes I had told had somehow missed the timing. He even told me that my Spanish was funny! (not haha funny, but the other kind) For that particular ocassion, I had translated one of my sermons into Spanish from English and the response of the original had been fairly good. (I don’t consider myself as a very funny guy but my wife says that when I speak in public, I make people laugh, so I try to introduce humour in the talks I have to do.) Having said that, I do try to keep my Spanish as fresh as possible by reading, listening to the radio, speaking, etc… as I feel that sometimes my Spanish feels a bit stagnant.

That is why I found this blog entry from Danny Wallace at Shortlist quite comforting. I do not find him particularly funny. In fact, it annoys me quite a bit the way he writes as I perceive it as a mish mash of  leftie middle class with a pinch of screeching, wine and self-deprecation. Or perhaps because he reminds me too much of myself, don’t know. But I like to see how language, culture, self-awareness and the same idea can make something from mildly amusing to a complete riot, and in this particular entry, he, in his usual (annoying) style has captured so nicely.

By the way, the professor that corrected my work said that she had found my translation funny. But she was not laughing. Maybe, it is the Italian way of expressing amusement.

You want me to go where?

Image result for esparragos fritos

That I love languages, with my background, should not be a surprise. Ever since I started learning languages, I thought that it was the epitome of cool, the code that cool people used to pass between themselves their secret messages. I remember I used to look longingly at how the kids of our pastor (Scottish himself) chatted away in English. To me, learning languages has been one of those things that, same as having CDs and books, can’t do enough. I remember how it felt the first time that I was able to read a proper book in anything else than Spanish and how exciting it felt. It was like being able to enter a whole new universe at will.

One of my teachers of English, the one that taught me to love expressions and words and to cherish the language, once explained to me her theory of how languages are the way they are. She explained to me that languages are nothing but a reflection of the history of the people who use it. That would be why the Spanish languages is relaxed and laid back with our love of sun and food; the English being historically used to cunning and always protecting their island, hence phrasal verbs; etc…

But part of the language game is to understand that a language is not simply a collection of words that correspond to another language, but somehow to understand that language is the fabric and thread that weaves through individual and collective experiences. And that sometimes, there are ways of expressing things that just do not make any sense in our mother tongue. The writers of “From lost to the river”, a book that makes fun of the Spanish people trying to learn English and their revenge  is to literally translate Spanish expressions into English. It is more fun that it actually looks like, I promise. So here I came across this post from someone that did the same. You gotta love languages!

ART!!! MATHS!!! ART!!! MATHS!!! What?!?!? Qué?!?! Was?!?!

It never fails. Picture yourself. You are translating some document or other. You get stuck with some expression be it at SL or TL level and you do some research to try to understand the expression in its fullness, or at least, as much as you can. Unfortunately, your book have proven fairly useless and on-line dictionaries do not shed as much light as you would have hoped they would… So you proceed to a forum… And you type the question and if you are lucky you will find a series of answers, some good, some some, not so good. But there tend to be (this is not a scientific approach to the theory but my own, I confess, bug bear) two types of answers: the one that screams:- “I need more context. Impossible to say without complete context!” and the one that starts fumbling about some vague answer that leaves you scratching your head and checking that you have actually typed the right question.

I know, I know. I am being unfair and and perhaps a little childish towards my fellow translation colleagues. But at the same time, I can’t but help to think whether those two kind of answers are actually answers at all or more some sort of masked ignorance. I.e. it is better to make some noise than not make any noise at all, as long as you get your nick made known. And it always makes me think about a lecture about translating “untranslateables” where we were taught that actually there aren’t any untranslateables but merely a case of not knowing how to translate a word, expression, etc… correctly. You might not like the translation for a particular expression, especially if this translation is actually some explanation rather than a single word, for instance homeless or homelessness into Spanish, but this only highlights your taste rather than anything else.

Having said that, this article, again passed on by my wonderful sister-in-law, made me really think about what it is that I do, and actually why I do it. More often than not, I find myself thinking about how I would translate this or that or thinking how toconvey feeling not just intellectual knowledge into my readership. As a translator, the path from A to B is full of possibilities and sometimes, the straightest line is not the shortest route between the two points. Think about this. How would you translate “chair” into another language? Is the image the same to the one that you have in your head? I think that this has to do that my job as a translator is to interpret what I read and gauge it so that the intended readership can read an author that might or might might have had them at the time of writing the text, whereas an economist will look at a text the same way he looks at an equation. The simpler, the better.

Also, another reason why I love this article is because my older son has all the makings of being an engineer. And if that is the case, it will mean that we are going to have very heated arguments about everything. This article just gave me the heads up!

By the way, if you ask something in a forum, and you expect me to answer, you’d better put the context and who this text is addressed to!

Spanish, a dying language…?

A while ago, my sister-in-law, a linguist herself with a keen interest for anthropology in general but particularly Latin american, sent me this incredible article about dying languages knowing that as a translator, it would tickle my interest. It certainly did and it also made me wonder a couple of things. Firstly, whether the Kusunda language had been one of the casualties that should be listed in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Nepal in April. And secondly, whether my cousin, an anthropologist in the Chilean Tierra del Fuego, knew anything about Keyuk, the main character in the article. To the first question, I do not have an answer yet. However, to the second question I do have an answer and I am proud to say that my very clever cousin does indeed know Keyuk and works in projects to promote the Fueguinian culture and way of life.

For some reason that I think I am beginning to understand, this article felt particularly close at heart and perhaps, a little uncomfortable. Why? Because I have three little children at home. So? Well, the language that we try to speak at home is Spanish. My wife is Ecuadorian and me being Spanish should be an fertile ground to practice the language. But we seem to be fighting against the tide. Even though all of our three children speak Spanish fairly well (not counting the accent), and can communicate successfully in Spanish, the spend most of the time at school speaking English. In fact, our oldest son, who is in his last year of primary school, refused to speak Spanish in our last holidays there. He simply refused… I read to them in Spanish, we play films in Spanish…There is no reasoning that I can hurl, no bribe, no reward that I can offer… He just will not speak Spanish. I do hope that is just early teenage angst onset.

I also hope that this blog will not turn into a chronicle of an announced death. That death being the one of the Spanish language in our home.

map of disappearing languages