7th Annual ITA Conference: Event of the Year

The Israel Translators Association (ITA, www.ita.org.il) held a well-timed seventh annual conference, during the lull between this year’s two February rainstorms.  The conference’s opening, on the evening of the 23rd, was preceded by optional, separately charged workshops: “The Internet as a Driver for Your Business,” “Advanced Localization,” “Words in Context” (about the editing of translations), and “Good Time Management.”  

The first invited speaker to address the conference’s opening plenum was Adv. Yehuda Talmon, the president of Lahav, www.lahav.org.il .  For the various organizations of self-employed Israelis, Lahav is an umbrella organization working toward common goals.  Talmon explained that being founded with a socialist, collectivist outlook, the State of Israel has historically cared little, comparatively, for the welfare of the self-employed.  Lahav lobbies for the interests of the self-employed with respect to pensions, tax deductions, etc.  The work is Sisyphean, he says, but in each Knesset there are sympathetic members, not necessarily always from the same parties.  Lahav also operates a consumers’ club through which various deals are offered to members of its component organizations (including the ITA).

The evening’s keynote speaker was Dr. Gadi Taub, the editor of Mikarov, a periodical of literature & society.  He also lectures at the Hebrew University, writes books, and is a columnist for Ma’ariv, having left Haaretz rather bitterly.  He feels that Haaretz is the voice of an elite that is at worst contemptuous of Zionism and at best ignorant of it.  Zionism is what gives Jewish nationalism the necessary substance, but he finds that the Israeli educational system does not teach Zionism and even the teachers themselves seem to define Zionism in vague terms of good citizenship, such as volunteering at the local community center. Dr. Taub feels that Ben-Gurion gave the best definition of the Zionist purpose: to stand the Jewish people on its own feet.  But how can that be done when Jewish students don’t learn their own history?  Instead the educational system sees its purpose as providing them with “tools.”  Who can build an identity from tools?

Dr. Taub’s topic was “Values in Israeli Society,” and his approach was chronological.  He looked back to the scientific revolution, when Newton showed the world that the workings of nature could be logically and systematically understood.  If they could be understood, then they could be influenced; and if this was true of nature, then — people logically extrapolated — it could be true of society.

As society analyzed itself and reshaped itself into modern nations, it came to distinguish the realm of individual rights from the realm of social order.  I can paint my apartment walls green if I feel like it.  I can’t paint public property.  Each decision should be made by a forum of those affected by that decision.

Religion tended to fall into the category of individual rights, and many Jews attempted to follow that categorization, calling themselves for example “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion.”  The watchword was “Be a Jew at home, and be a citizen outside.”  But tension was inevitable because the Jewish people is defined not only by its personal life.  Certain Jewish customs such as Sabbath and kashrut are performed by the community, and the new European state saw no clear and legitimate place for any such community as a third party in the social contract between itself and the individual.  The Jewish people was branded “cosmopolitan” because of its cross-national nature, although it wasn’t really.  It was, however, a people whose feelings of fellowship applied first to itself, and also to humanity at large, but not overwhelmingly to its particular host country.

Leon Pinsker, the author of Auto-Emancipation, believed the Jews would be better respected if they found the way to stop behaving like grateful second-class members of other societies that would never fully accept them.

(The USA, by the way, is a special case in that Jews can be fairly well accepted there because the concept of a “hyphenated American” is considered to have validity.) In order to be accepted the way England is accepted as the homeland of the English, Israel in its Declaration of Independence emphasized historical rather than religious ties. But since 1967, the country has been divided because political differences run so deep as to split us into groups with different identities based on different national purposes. For the first full day of the ITA conference, the keynote speaker was novelist Eshkol Nevo, who spoke on “Secrets from the Writer’s Desk.”   He discussed the elements that go into creative writing and mentioned the balance between spontaneity and planning, between trust and control.

Sometimes the germ of a novel can come from something you read, or hear, or experience, and such a thing can touch off a sense of pain or anger that drives the writing.  Social and philosophical issues can find their way in even if they were not part of the original purpose.  Characters in the novel can take a grip on the writer immediately, or after they’ve been written about for some time; or the writer can realize after considerable effort that certain characters don’t interest him after all and he shouldn’t be trying to write their story.  On the other hand, a minor character can refuse to stay minor and can assume an important place that was not originally planned for him.

After Nevo, and continuing into February 25, there were half a dozen lecture sessions, each with different lectures held simultaneously.  I will mention only those that I at least partially heard.

Eitan Sarig presented the idea behind a company he has founded, LingoTip (www.lingotip.com).  Where a website accepts not only text but also widgets inserted by the general public (the way, for example, eBay does), users of LingoTip’s software can insert text in several languages along with a simple drop-down menu from which the reader of the site can choose a language.  For example, someone using LingoTip can advertise a second-hand car on eBay in Hebrew, English, Arabic, and Russian, and whoever sees the ad will see it in the default language with the option of switching.

If someone wants to post in several languages but does not know them all, LingoTip will provide the translation; it has translators on call, and it has a translation database.  It expects the database to handle more and more of the work as time goes by. The benefits of appearing in additional languages on the Internet are obvious; from an Internet that was 75% English in the 1990s, we have moved to an Internet that is only 25% English today; and just as the content is not necessarily in English, neither are the searches performed by the web-surfing public.

Yiftach Shilony, who is an experience coach, a consumer consultant, and manager of the Lekah consulting service (http://www.lekah.co.il) spoke about how to handle the injustice that life in general, and business in particular, present to us.  He believes that children these days are protected from depictions of evil and later don’t know what to do about it as part of their adult life — when other people abusively waste our time, ignore us, or belittle us. A frontal counterattack is not always worthwhile.  Some issues are too small, too sensitive, or too unclear.  A sidelong approach can sometimes bring impressive results; for example, the Chabad response to the attack against it in India was to fundraise, and a great deal of money did come in.  When Dennis Rodman kicked a photographer, he wasn’t just fined; the money went to cancer-stricken children, adding an element of mitzva.

Shilony provided a list of commandments for those who are susceptible to being wronged; that is to say, for everyone.

Document everything.  Record it, write it down, get it signed. Enlist witnesses.  If you can’t have witnesses in real time, tell people immediately what happened; it’s better than nothing.

Prepare a file, and keep everything together in an organized fashion. Work by registered mail, and if possible even sign the postal clerk to the document you are mailing.  (Someone could say “Sure I received a registered envelope, but it was empty.”) Read everything as carefully as possible.  What you don’t notice may come back and bite you.

Consider that maybe all you need is closure, not necessarily confrontation. Don’t bring out the heavy artillery until you have exhausted the more gentle methods. Persist.  Remember, if you have been wronged by someone, the same person probably has other victims and you represent them all.  Moreover, if you win, the other person’s behavior may change and you will save other people from victimization.

Jonathan Golan talked about trends in automated translation.  He began with a story out of the Irish news, concerning Prawo Jazdy the dangerous Polish motorist.  Irish police had accumulated more than fifty traffic violations in his name.  Each listed a different address, and there was no response from any of the addresses.  The matter was cleared up when it turned out prawo jazdy means driving license in Polish.  Dozens of Polish tourists had been stopped by policemen who copied down the wrong words from their licenses.

Although perhaps more amusing than relevant, the story does illustrate the need for better translating.  Most translators today, Golan noted, rely on the same tools as an elementary-school student:  Microsoft Office, Internet, e-mail, instant messaging, online forums.  In many cases, translators don’t even use them as well as a sixth-grader does.

Better-equipped translators have advanced knowledge of standard software, including macros. They have their own websites, and they use OCR, FTP, voice recognition, terminology management, and translation memory.  They use project management and workflow management systems; for large translation offices, there are more than half a dozen suitable software systems competing.

Translation memory tools are a requirement for translators who want to work with certain large and advanced companies — Google, Microsoft, Nokia.  They provide not only a memory of previously translated phrases but also an interface for translating passages of text that reside in HTML files, XML files, DLL files, and files from lesser-used programs such as Quark and InDesign.

The news in the world of computer-aided translation (CAT) is that SDL — a translation company with its own proprietary translation tool serving 13% of the market — bought out Trados, which had a tool serving 80% of the market.  Many players were distressed that a company supplying translation services had achieved a near-monopoly in translation tools, and new competing tools sprang up as alternatives.  There are more than half a dozen, but none has a large presence yet.

Machine translation, done without human intervention, is getting better all the time.  It is a profitable business because there is a considerable demand for translations that do not need to be perfect.  Interoffice e-mail within a company, for example, can often be translated well enough by machine, with the cost of occasional errors outweighed by the economic benefits.

A new technique, used only by a few large companies so far, provides even better quality.  It is the technique used by Google in its automatic online translations, and by Microsoft in automatically translating entries from its knowledgebase.  The technique is statistical machine translation (SMT).  It involves translating not by finding and re-expressing the meaning but by so-called brute force, based on comparison against a huge base of already translated material.  Research at Stanford in this field has produced a commercial application called Language Weaver.

Toyota is one business that uses a combination of techniques:  translation memory as a first pass, SMT as a second pass, and human translator/editors as a third pass.  Experts say that this system is the one that will come to dominate the business.

What can a humble human translator do in order to stay in business?  Learn the tools and technologies, says Golan, and find a niche to specialize in.

Daniel Goldschmidt, here from Switzerland, spoke on crowdsourcing and its applicability to translation.  He began by citing istockphoto.com as an example of crowdsourcing.  (The word crowdsourcing was coined by Jeff Howe in a Wired article.)

In the old days, stock photos — pre-existing photos that businesses buy for use in advertisements, for example, instead of hiring a photographer of their own — were snapped by professional photographers and sold for high prices.  Today, many people are shooting digital photos all the time and some of those photos come out well enough to serve as stock photos.  At istockphoto.com, anyone can upload photos and, if other people choose to use them, receive a tiny trickle of royalties.  For the person using the photo, the price ranges from $21 down to $1.  Because the system works so well, istockphoto.com was quickly bought out by Getty Images, which continues to run it.

So what is crowdsourcing?  Crowdsourcing is the assignment of a job to an undefined entity by means of an open call.  Crowdsourcing worked well enough to give us today’s Linux-based software, Wikipedia content, YouTube content, and innumerable blogs.  Another example is the Amazon Mechanical Turk, at www.mturk.com.  There, anyone can participate in human-intelligence tasks that require large amounts of work hours but can be split up among many people; such tasks might include, for example, locating certain images in a large number of online pages.

Crowdsourcing can emerge from existing communities or create new communities.  The incentive for the work can be more psychological than financial.  The translation of Adobe’s documentation, for example, was crowdsourced to its own user community.  The many translations of the Google user interface are crowdsourced.

Quality control can of course be a problem, but it too can be crowdsourced, by voting.  That’s how Facebook handled its own glossary; users voted on the translations, and even the translators themselves get rated.

In this world of Internet and of 3G cellphones (3G, Goldschmidt joked, stands for games, girls, and gambling), forty languages account for 98% of the web users.  If you’re not online in a recognized language, nobody cares about you; you’re doomed.

Shai Sendik, in “Getting into Character:  Creating Characters in Literary Translation,” proposed that a literary translator is like an actor, bringing a text into a new medium and unavoidably lending a personal touch to it.

He noted that a character is a performer with a personality and must be understood in terms of background, appearance, manner of speaking, etc.  Disclaimer:  I heard less than the whole lecture.

Tzviya Levin, Achamelsh Tasema, and Iris Malako are active in Tene Briut (http://www.tene-briut.org.il), a project that provides medical translation by telephone for Ethiopian immigrants.  They mentioned that besides helping patients communicate and understand, sometimes they persuade physicians to allow treatment by Ethiopian folk medicine, which they believe can be more effective than Western medicine for Ethiopian patients.  They find that the telephone as a medium is not a disadvantage in communicating with the patients; on the contrary, rather:  because in the Ethiopian community everyone knows everyone, the anonymity of the telephone can save embarrassment for the patient.

The translators in the project are paid, as a matter of principle; those in charge believe that professional work should not go unpaid.  But the organization hopes that some government ministry will adopt the project, because funding now depends on philanthropy. Disclaimer:  I heard less than the whole lecture.

Eliezer Nowodworski spoke on “The Translator and the Law.”  Unlike some other countries, Israel has no laws that specifically mention translators.  Translators are treated as part of whatever larger category seems appropriate.

Like other citizens, translators can apply to the small claims court regarding matters of up to NIS 30,100, for a fee of up to NIS 235.  It isn’t necessary to be represented by a lawyer there.  Details in Hebrew are at http://elyon1.court.gov.il/heb/info/choveret/hesb_ktanot.htm . Alternatively, a dispute could be settled by arbitration (which can be expensive) or by mediation.

Professional insurance is a problem.  Not many translators have it.  We don’t know of translators being sued for errors in Israel — perhaps because no one expects translators to have any money — but Josephine Bacon mentions a case in England where a translator forgot to translate “brandy” in a list of wines in a warehouse and was sued because a fire broke out and the unmentioned but flammable brandy contributed to the damage.  It could be that people would find reasons to sue Israeli translators too if the translators had insurance policies.  Unfortunately, there is no such thing in Israel as registering as an LLC (Limited Liability Company).

It is worth remembering that in Israel everything is open to negotiation, including those draconian nondisclosure agreements that companies like you to sign.  And it’s worth attempting to get a clause signed saying that the translation remains the intellectual property of the translator until it’s paid for.  It may not work miracles, but it can’t hurt.

Miryam Blum suggested a way of finding clients:  Many Israeli websites include mistakes on their English-language pages.  You can politely point out the mistakes and offer to correct further mistakes inexpensively.  The dentist, after all, offers an inexpensive checkup because later you’ll remember him when you need root-canal.  Similarly, you can make yourself known in a lot of places by correcting small errors and they may turn to you for larger jobs.  Try the websites of restaurants, museums, and other places that advertise to tourists.  Disclaimer:  I heard less than the whole lecture.

Alona Frankel, the well-known children’s writer, spoke not about her children’s books but about her prize-winning autobiography A Girl.  She was accompanied by Leszek Kwiatkowski, who translated it into Polish, Frankel’s native language.  Provided with a prize that would fund the translation of her choice, Frankel chose Polish because she still feels allegiance to the Polish culture with its courtliness, its way of including shy-away phrases (“Do you suppose that perhaps...”) in everything, and its avoidance of direct imperatives.  The contrasting directness of Hebrew, noted Leszek, may come from the fact that it was recently a means of communication between many non-native speakers.

Touring Poland with the book, Frankel found audiences sympathetic to it not specifically as a Holocaust story, which it is, but as a story of a miserable childhood.  There are no happy childhoods, Frankel says, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Although she feels her connection with Poland is merely abstract by now (and she could not have translated her own book without errors), Poles who had read her book would approach her as if she were an acquaintance or even a confessor, and Frankel didn’t know exactly how to deal with such intimacy.

Kwiatkowski is a Catholic, and indeed a former monk, who was first attracted to Jewish culture by Fiddler on the Roof and went on to learn Hebrew.  He is also a musician and he compares the relationship of writer to translator with the relationship of composer to conductor.  From time to time he visits Israel, and he says that the changes in Hebrew are quick enough for him to notice.  (A while ago, he noticed he heard the word dakotayyim everywhere; then it was gone.)

Frankel writes in pen, and she saves her used-up pens as souvenirs.  She likes the look of a successfully used sheet of paper, with its strike-outs, its variations in handwriting, and so on.  Writing by computer is too easy, she says, and you can tell by some of the books that come out.  When she has to discard a page, she crumples it into a ball and throws it on the floor for the cats to play with.

Although Polish does not change as quickly as Hebrew, there were Polish words from Frankel’s youth that Kwiatkowski didn’t know, and there were phenomena of the past that a contemporary Polish reader wouldn’t recognize.  Frankel decided that loading her book with explanations would be a mistake.  Melville didn’t explain all the nautical terms in Moby Dick.  In her youth, she had read a great deal that she didn’t understand, and it nonetheless made an impression.  Sometimes the understanding came later.  In any case, there are places where people can look up whatever they want to know.

Erga Heller talked about translating fantasy in our material world.  Once fantasy had a social or educational purpose and it was addressed to both children and adults, but today its purpose is often merely to make money from children.  From its original book, a fantasy story will go quickly into sequels, movies, stage plays, video games.  Children may know the same story in several media, and it is interesting that they may encounter different translations of the titles and the characters’ names.  Keeping the original name is not necessarily a solution in all cases because the original name may have the wrong connotation in the child’s language.

Gili Bar-Hillel’s translated character names for the Hebrew edition of Harry Potter were carried over into the Harry Potter Hebrew film subtitles but she was neither consulted nor compensated.

The official Arthur and the Minimoys site is in eighteen languages.  The books are written originally in French and are filmed originally (by the author, Luc Besson) in English.  There was, by the way, some censorship of the first movie because of kissing, and plans for marriage, involving underage humanlike creatures.

Doron Greenshpan noted that practically no scholarship pays attention to the translating of travel guides.  He chose a guide to Israel that was written from a proud nationalist point of view by Aharon Bier in 1971 and was translated for the World Zionist Organization in 1976.  There are many political choices to be made in a Hebrew-to-English translation regarding Israel.  Was the Temple Mount liberated in 1967, or occupied?  Is Joseph’s Tomb in Shchem or in Nablus?  Greenshpan found that the nationalist slant was sometimes less forceful in the translation, but at other times more forceful, so that a balance was preserved.