Syntactic Mirroring and Lazy Diction (Part II): Curing Translations Infected by These

The last post lamented syntactic mirroring and lazy diction — scourges that infect much of Arabic>English media translation today.

Syntactic mirroring produces English translations that rigidly reflect the order in which phrases and terms appear in the Arabic source text. Lazy diction is to blame for translations in which literal, often dictionary-limited, English terms are defaulted to, when only a non-literal translation of Arabic source-text terms will achieve authentic equivalency of meaning in the English product.

The last post described these amateurish translation practices as dangerous shortcuts, because while they tend to generate translations that are long-winded and complex, they require much less time to prepare than do translations that apply just the right measure of translator’s license. That license is what should inspire the translator to depart from source-text structure and lexicon in order to achieve what is really the primary objective of translation: serving the intentions of the source text’s author while meeting the needs of the translation’s eventual reader.

Utilizing the sample source texts previewed in the last post (excerpts of an article by Dr. Edy Cohen published in journalist ‘Abdallah Al-Hadlaq’s column in the 8/27/15 edition of Al-Watan, Kuwait (http://alwatan.kuwait.tt/articledetails.aspx?id=447045&writerid=50)), the following alternative translations will show the superior results that are achieved when the Arabic>English translator liberates her/him-self from the Semitic syntax of the Arabic source text and chooses English terms and turns of phrase that are equivalent, rather than dictionary-literal:

مما لا شك فيه، أن كثيرين من الشعب الكويتي يجهل حقيقةً تاريخيةً مفادها أن ما يقارب المليون يهودي كانوا، لعقود منالقرن الماضي، مواطنين لدول عربية امتدت من المحيط الىالخليج. حيث عاشت القبائل اليهودية في شبه الجزيرةالعربية قبل الإسلام، ووجدت فيها ملجأ ومأمنًا، هربًا منالاضطهاد الروماني الذي احتل ارض إسرائيل

Translation infected by syntactic mirroring and lazy diction:

There is no doubt but that many among the Kuwaiti people are ignorant of a historical fact the import of which is that nearly a million Jews were, for decades of the past century, citizens of Arab countries extending from the Ocean to the Gulf, such that the Jewish tribes lived in the Arabian Peninsula before Islam, and there they found shelter and refuge, fleeing from the Roman oppression that occupied the land of Israel.

Professional-quality translation:

Many Kuwaitis are, very likely, unaware of the historically significant facts that throughout the last century, nearly a million Jews lived as citizens of Arab countries extending from the Mediterranean Ocean to the Arabian Gulf, and Jewish tribes had lived on the Arabian Peninsula prior to the advent of Islam and found refuge there in their flight from the Roman oppression that had overtaken the land of Israel.

أنا شخصيًا، أبصرت النور على أرض لبنان، كبرتوترعرعت في حي وادي ابو جميل، في سبعينيات القرنالماضي، حيث تشاركت طفولتي مع أبناء وطن لوّنهم الدين،فكنا نلعب في الأزقة مسيحيين مسلمين ويهود، وتجمعنامقاعد دراسية لم تميِّز بيننا لاختلاف الانتماء الديني… مرحلة لا يمكنني نسيانها، طبعت في ذاكرتي، ولا زلت أعيش انعكاساتها حتى اليوم

Translation infected by syntactic mirroring and lazy diction:

I, personally, glimpsed light on the land of Lebanon, and I grew up and thrived in the neighborhood of Wadi Abu Jamil, in the Seventies of the past century, where I shared my childhood with the sons of a nation whom religion had painted diversely, and so we used to play in the alleys, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and school chairs grouped us together and did not distinguish among us due to differences of religious affiliation . . . a phase that it is not possible for me to forget, and that is stamped in my memory.  And I still live its repercussions today.

Professional-quality translation:

I, myself, breathed my first breath in the land of Lebanon, and I grew up and thrived, during the 1970s, in the Wadi Abu Jamil quarter, where I shared my childhood with Lebanese children of diverse faiths. Christians, Muslims, and Jews — we all played together in the alleys.  School benches joined us together without distinguishing among us on the basis of differences in religious affiliation . . . That period is impossible for me to forget.  It is imprinted on my memory, and I still experience its effects today.

وصلت الى إسرائيل عام 1995، تاركًا وراءي 23 عاًما منسنين حياتي اينعت في لبنان، حاملًا ثقافة مغايرة عن ثقافةأبناء أمتي، فشعرت بالغربة في أحضان عائلتي، ووجدت صعوبة في التأقلم في البداية، فلغتي الأم هي العربية ( لغةالضاد)، ورؤيتي الحياتية قائمة على قيم وعادات تختلفعن تلك المتبعة في كيان الأباء

Translation infected by syntactic mirroring and lazy diction:

I arrived to Israel in the year 1995, leaving behind me 23 years of the years of my life that ripened in Lebanon, bearing a culture different from the culture of the sons of my community.  So I felt in exile in the midst of my family, and I found difficulty in the adjustment, in the beginning, for my mother tongue was Arabic (the language of “dhad”), and my life view was based on values and customs different from those in the entity of the fathers.

Professional-quality translation:

I arrived in Israel in 1995, leaving behind 23 years of a life that had ripened in Lebanon, and taking on a culture different from that of the people in my new community.  I felt a sense of exile even in the presence of my own family, and in the beginning, I encountered difficulty in adjusting, for my mother tongue was Arabic (proudly described by its natives as “the language of the letter ‘Dhad'”), and my outlook on life was based on values and customs different from those followed in the nation of my early ancestors.

وصلت الى إسرائيل وأنا الآتي من أرض لا تبعد عنها بضعالكيلومترات محملًا بقناعات عززتها تجربة حياة الا وهي السَّلام بين شعب إسرائيل والعرب حقيقة وجدت فيالتاريخ، ولا بد من اعادة إحيائها

Looking forward to comments and questions on this theme, and to suggestions for future topics.  The next post is going to digress, a bit, in order to address some of the glaring gaffes that English-speaking broadcast media professionals commit when attempting to pronounce frequently-referenced Arabic words and names.

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Syntactic Mirroring and Lazy Diction (Part I): Shortcuts that Guarantee Bad Translations

In this and coming posts, I’m going to analyze examples of the immensely expressive political-advocacy genre of today’s Arabic-language journalism, in order to illustrate both the best and worst approaches to take when translating modern Arabic into English.

The materials I’ve selected for the launch of this effort are a series of particularly elegant guest-column pieces penned by a multi-lingual and multi-cultural native of Arabic (Dr. Edy Cohen of Bar-Ilan University) who deliberately crafts his advocacy writings to resonate with readers habituated to the patterns and flourishes prevalent in the writings of Muslim interest groups in the Middle East.

In other words, Dr. Cohen’s Arabic writings are themselves the product of serious reflection on, and expert emulation of, the styles and choices that characterize Islamic-themed journalism, and his work product, therefore, provides a linguistic depth that presents an unusually instructive challenge for the English-native translator.

Coming posts will demonstrate that in the translation of Arabic into English, 1) mirroring the syntax of the Arabic source material in the English translation, and 2) favoring literal and unvarying English translations of the vocabulary used in the Arabic source material, inevitably yield poor-quality, and even unreadable, translations.

To set the foundation for the upcoming analyses, and for the benefit of Arabic linguists following this blog, I’ll wrap this post up with some excerpts of a piece by Dr. Cohen (published in journalist ‘Abdallah Al-Hadlaq’s column in the 8/27/15 edition of Al-Watan, Kuwait (http://alwatan.kuwait.tt/articledetails.aspx?id=447045&writerid=50)) that will form the focus of the next few posts:

 مما لا شك فيه، أن كثيرين من الشعب الكويتي يجهل حقيقةً تاريخيةً مفادها أن ما يقارب المليون يهودي كانوا، لعقود منالقرن الماضي، مواطنين لدول عربية امتدت من المحيط الىالخليج. حيث عاشت القبائل اليهودية في شبه الجزيرةالعربية قبل الإسلام، ووجدت فيها ملجأ ومأمنًا، هربًا منالاضطهاد الروماني الذي احتل ارض إسرائيل

أنا شخصيًا، أبصرت النور على أرض لبنان، كبرتوترعرعت في حي وادي ابو جميل، في سبعينيات القرنالماضي، حيث تشاركت طفولتي مع أبناء وطن لوّنهم الدين،فكنا نلعب في الأزقة مسيحيين مسلمين ويهود، وتجمعنامقاعد دراسية لم تميِّز بيننا لاختلاف الانتماء الديني… مرحلة لا يمكنني نسيانها، طبعت في ذاكرتي، ولا زلت أعيش انعكاساتها حتى اليوم

……..

وصلت الى إسرائيل عام 1995، تاركًا وراءي 23 عاًما منسنين حياتي اينعت في لبنان، حاملًا ثقافة مغايرة عن ثقافةأبناء أمتي، فشعرت بالغربة في أحضان عائلتي، ووجدت صعوبة في التأقلم في البداية، فلغتي الأم هي العربية ( لغةالضاد)، ورؤيتي الحياتية قائمة على قيم وعادات تختلفعن تلك المتبعة في كيان الأباء

وصلت الى إسرائيل وأنا الآتي من أرض لا تبعد عنها بضعالكيلومترات محملًا بقناعات عززتها تجربة حياة الا وهي السَّلام بين شعب إسرائيل والعرب حقيقة وجدت فيالتاريخ، ولا بد من اعادة إحيائها

Connectors and Context Must Outweigh Punctuation, in the Translation Process

Punctuation is almost entirely foreign to classical Arabic, and the role that punctuation plays in Western languages has, historically, been filled, in Arabic, by connective words and phrases.  

 In today’s Arabic newspapers and bureaucratic writings, as well as in Arabic academic and law materials, periods are used sporadically, to break concepts apart; but good translators of Arabic know not to feel bound by these when translating into English, because sometimes these periods function as commas and semi-colons would, in English, and at other times, they don’t belong conceptually in the text at all (because no break has been indicated by content).  On the flip side, good translators of Arabic know to supply periods where none appear, whenever content shifts call for this.

 Commas are also sporadically used in modern Arabic materials, but these should also be treated as nonbinding, in favor of the more dispositive content/context, when translation is into English.

 Question marks did appear in classical materials (and these are a reverse image of English’s question mark, because of Arabic’s right-to-left flow), and they continue in use today, often being used in just the way we would use them in English.

 I don’t think I’ve ever seen a colon in an Arabic text of any era.

 Now for the bane of the new Arabic>English translator’s existence:  In Arabic, the letter representing “and” (which can also mean “while,” “with” and several other things, depending on context) should almost never be translated when it appears at the start of what is a new/independent idea/point, but new translators typically make the following mistake:  Instead of learning to ignore the “and,” and making the decision to end a sentence before the “and,” and begin a new sentence where the “and” appears, they will translate the structure connected with the “and” as a nonsensical multi-clause sentence, or as an outright and ungrammatical run-on sentence.  

 In other words, what makes for good translation of Arabic into English is, in part, the confidence of the translator in deciding, regardless of any punctuation supplied, when to start and end sentences and clauses.  Both technical skill and art are required, in this endeavor.

 The foreignness of the whole idea of punctuation, in Arabic, is fully offset by the presence, in Arabic, of a very rich menu of “connectors.”  My mentor at American University of Cairo, Professor Ahmad Taher Hassanein (who has sinced moved on to another University), focused some of his early linguistic scholarship on the fantastic nuances conveyed by Arabic’s connector words and clauses.  (His materials on this are still available in a book that he authored with Nariman Naili Al-Warraki, The Connectors in Modern Standard Arabic (available, e.g., at http://www.amazon.com/Connectors-Modern-Standard-Arabic/dp/B00958NH76/ref=sr_1_fkmr2_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1393081257&sr=1-3-fkmr2&keywords=ahmad+taher+hassanein.)  Often, these connectors mean different things in different contexts, making correct translation of them into English quite a challenge.  I have found that only prolonged and heavy exposure to written Arabic can build the skill required for working well with connectors, when translating Arabic into English.

 

Arabic’s Special Challenge: The Imperative of Reliance on an L1-Target Translator

MODERN STANDARD ARABIC:   Elegant, Sometimes Mysterious, and 

Best Rendered Into English By Natives of English 

Arabic is not a uniform language.  It is a collection of dozens of regional dialects, each with its own grammar and syntax, linked to a universally recognized variant known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA).  In turn, MSA itself has a spoken-only variant, sometimes called “‘amiyat al-muthaqqafin” (“everyday language of the educated”), which includes most, but not all, of the structures of written MSA.  The translator of graphic, as distinguished from audio, Arabic materials is typically asked to translate from MSA.

Like Latin and some modern European languages, MSA is a declined language.  This means that suffixes appended to nouns convey the key relationships among words, and that separate connective terms, when used in MSA, function differently from the way in which they function in languages like English.   In MSA, the lexicon is built upon three-letter meaning clusters, and there are up to eleven derived-verb forms for every single triliteral cluster.  Nouns may arise directly from a triliteral cluster, or, instead, be formed by derivation from verbs or even adjectives.

For example, the triliteral cluster, “sharika” (made up of the letters Sh, Ra, and Ka, and meaning ‘to share something’), gives rise to seven additional derived verbs, including “tashaaraka” (to enter into a partnership) and “ishtaraka” (to join in or collaborate).  (Often the meanings across the multiple derived-verb forms are separated only by a tiny nuance.)  The triliteral cluster Ra-Sa-La, for example, gives rise to the fourth-form derivative verb “arsala” (to send), and this verb, in turn, forms the basis for the noun “irsaliyya,” which means ‘shipment’ or ‘consignment.’

Word order is, in a real sense, relatively unimportant in MSA, because the structure, and not position, of a given MSA word dictates its relationship to other words in a passage.  For this reason, it takes many years of reading MSA for a Westerner to be able to make ready sense of a passage’s overall meaning, and ultimately, this is what constitutes the native-English translator’s single greatest challenge when working from MSA.

At the same time, it is precisely the difficulty inherent in imposing English semantic order on source material that is not order-sensitive that makes it highly advisable for MSA-to-English translation to be left to English natives.  

Here, by way of an example of the challenge, is a short passage taken from Egyptian Statute No. 174 of 2005 (Regulating Presidential Elections):

 ويزاد عدد المؤيدين للترشيح من أعضاء كل من مجلس الشعب والشوري ومن اعضاء المجلس الشعبية

المحلية للمحافظات بما يعادل نسبة ما يطرأ من زيادة على عدد أعضاء أي من هذه المجالس٠

An overly literal translation, prepared by a non-native of English, and closely following the word order contained in this source material, might read as follows:

“The number endorsed for candidacy from among members of each of the Assembly of the People and the Shura Council and from among the members of the popular local council for the Provinces is increased by the equivalent of the percentage of what occurs in the way of an increase over the number of members of any of these councils.”

In contrast, an English native’s professional translation of this passage, conforming to standard English usage and sentence structure, might read as follows:

“The number of members to be endorsed for candidacy from each of the People’s Assembly, Shura Council, and local popular Provincial council shall be increased commensurately with member-number increases in any of these bodies.”

The differences between the two translations presented here help to underscore the imperative of relying on translators who are “L1” (native) with respect to their target language.  While there are some fully bilingual translators who may be able to produce an English translation that imposes the necessary syntactic adjustments for an English-reading audience, consumers of translation services are always best advised to seek out translators who routinely translate into, and not from, their native language.  This tenet is the official policy of both the American Translators’ Association and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in Great Britain.