10 of my favourite books in translation

This week an article in The Guardian talked about readers’ favourite children’s books in translation. As a child I enjoyed Aesop’s Fables, Tintin and Asterix (although I never understood the latter’s wordplay e.g. Getafix until I was older!), but as an adult with an interest in international literature (see my blog post about that here) I also enjoy translated books.

A few statistics: out of 505 books that I’ve listed on Librarything, 335 were originally in English, 130 originally in French, and the 35 remaining* were in other languages which I don’t read, so were translations. I read 70% of all my listed books in English, and 30% in French.

Below are a few of my favourite books in translation:

Kleifarvatn, July 2012

  • L’Insoutenable Légèreté de l’être [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] by Milan Kundera, translated from Czech to French by François Kérel. This 1984 postmodern novel is about two women, two men, a dog and their lives in the Prague Spring period of Czechoslovak history in 1968.
  • Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong aka Lü Jiamin, translated from Chinese to English by Howard Goldblatt. This semi-autobiographical novel is about a young Beijing student who is sent to live among the nomadic herdsmen of Inner Mongolia. Caught between the advance of civilisation from the south and the wolves to the north, humans and animals, residents and invaders alike struggle to find their place in the world. Will be released as a film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 2015.

Teaser poster for the film ‘Wolf Totem’

  • Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende, translated from Spanish to English by Margaret Sayers Peden. Spanning four decades and set in the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue and the lavish parlours of New Orleans, this novel leaps between the social upheavals from the distant French Revolution to the Haitian slave rebellion, to a New Orleans fomenting with cultural change.
  • Woman At Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi translated from Arabic to English by Sherif Hetata (the writer’s husband). This novel is the first-person account of Firdaus, a murderess who has agreed to tell her life story before her execution.
  • Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, translated from Swedish to English by Reg Keeland aka Steven T. Murray. Is there any need to present this trilogy of crime novels?
  • The Swarm – a Novel of the Deep by Frank Schätzing, translated from German to English by Sally-Ann Spencer In this science-fiction novel full of twists, turns and cliffhangers, a team of scientists discovers a strange, intelligent life force that takes form in marine animals, using them to wreak havoc on humanity as revenge for our ecological abuses.
  • La vie rêvée des plantes [The Reverse Side of Life] by Seung-U Lee, translated from Korean to French by Mi-Kyung Choi and Jean-Noël Juttet. This highly acclaimed Korean novel reveals how the conflict of the secular and the divine manifests in the real world.
  • Who Ate Up All The Shinga? by Wan-Suh Park, translated from Korean to English by Young-Nan Yu and Stephen J. Epstein. In this ‘autobiographical novel’ Park, growing up in Korea, describes the characters and events that came to shape her life.
Shinga (Aconogonon alpinum)

Shinga (Aconogonon alpinum)

  • Night by Elie Wiesel, translated from the French by Marion Wiesel (the author’s wife). This work recounts the author’s experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945, at the height of the Holocaust and toward the end of the Second World War.

What about you? Please share your favourite translations in the comments.

* the total doesn’t equal 505 as a few books use two languages to a greater or lesser degree




Around the web – March 2014

Been busy this month? I’ve curated a number of interesting articles about translation and language that have been published on the internet this month and that you may have missed.

The thorny issue of dialects

The thorny issue of dialects

The Etiquettrix

The Etiquettrix


Related articles

Back to school!

Last week I took a half-day break from normal work to participate in the Forum des Métiers (Careers Morning) at the local collège (≈ junior high school). My task was to talk about the profession of translator and interpreter to six successive groups of pupils, aged 13-15.

The school where I gave the presentations

Each talk had to last about 30 minutes, and I quickly realised that half an hour would pass very quickly so I would really need to get the essential across. I created a Powerpoint presentation with about 15 slides on the following subjects: difference between an translator and interpreter, what we actually do, examples of texts translated and situations where an interpreter is needed, how and where we work, what are the qualities of a good translator/interpreter, how to become a translator/interpreter, and I finished by talking about the personal/professional life journey which led me to becoming a professional linguist. I purposely ended with this topic as I knew I could expand or shorten it as necessary depending on how much time was left before the bell. A chance remark by one of the teachers a few days before made me realise that some (most?) pupils don’t even know what a translator is/does, so I made sure I started the presentation with an explanation. I also showed some photos of humorous mistranslations, told plenty of anecdotes, and threw in a few questions (e.g. “how many languages are there in the world?”) just to make sure the pupils didn’t fall asleep.

I made sure I was wearing this T-shirt

I made sure I was wearing this T-shirt which I won in this Translating For Europe competition.

I’m not sure how many of the 85 collègiens I talked to will later work with languages, but in any case I hope most of the them went home that day with a somewhat better knowledge of our profession.

Bastard Tongues

Travelogue, memoir, intellectual detective story, linguistics primer. All these epithets could be applied to Derek Bickerton‘s Bastard Tongues, which I recently finished reading. Subtitled “A trailblazing linguist finds clues to our common humanity in the world’s lowliest languages” I knew this book would appeal to me given my interest in Creoles, and I was right. After a prologue in Palau, the book starts in Ghana then heads to Guyana, Curacao, Colombia, Brazil, Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, and Surinam, not forgetting stopovers in the UK, USA, Europe, Mauritius, Caribbean …

Cover of "Bastard Tongues: A Trail-Blazin...

Book cover (via Amazon)

Although he’s now a Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, British-born Bickerton’s preferred method of Creole research during the 30 years he spent on the subject (mainly 1960s-1990s) was far from hoity-toity – it was often in bars, isolated communities or slums (“drunks are the world’s most underrated language teaching resource”). His thirty or so years of research led him to originate the language bioprogramme theory (LBH) as to the origin of Creoles, according to which their formation is from a prior pidgin by children as the latter share a universal human innate grammar capacity. In the 1970s Bickerton proposed an empirical test of his theory, which would have involved putting families speaking mutually unintelligible languages on a previously uninhabited Pacific island for three years. Funding was obtained, but the experiment was finally cancelled over ethical concerns about informed consent.

Derek Bickerton

Whether or not Bickerton’s hypothesis is true (see here for other Creolisation theories) his book, as well as being an interesting read, raises a number of important points about Creoles. Attending an international conference on Creoles held in the late 1960s he recounts how some Creole scholars had, as students, been warned off Creole studies as ‘professional suicide’: “Weren’t there more than enough real languages to go round?”.  Along the way he informs us that Creoles have grammars that are often stricter and more regular than those of European languages, and asks how, in some instances, Creole grammars so similar could have come into existence in so many different parts of the world. We also learn some fascinating history along the way such as the slave situation in 17th Surinam (the place where the most ‘extreme’ Creoles were born), how plantation societies were created, or Hawaii’s hidden history – Hawaii being the place where creolisation has happened most recently. We learn for example about the creation of Pidgin Hawaiian (which confusingly, despite its name, was actually a Creole):

When people think about pidgins they immediately think of Pidgin English, Pidgin French, Pidgin of some European language or other. The idea of the big white guy on top, and all the little nonwhite guys under him struggling to cope with the sophisticated complexities of his language is so firmly fixed in our minds that the idea of a pidgin based on a language of nonwhites, clumsily and haltingly spoken by members of the master race, seems almost inconceivable.

Some linguistic explanations are a little too technical for my taste, but they form a relatively small part of the book. My main gripe is a map at the beginning, actually a world map of Creoles and places that Bickerton studied and/or took an interest in, but which is labelled “Creole Languages of the World”. Given that there are only 22 labels on the map a novice could be forgiven for thinking that only 22 Creoles exist (worldwide there are actually 127 Creoles according to a 1977 study by Ian Hancock).

A somewhat more detailed world map of Creoles

I’d like to end this post with the following quotation from the book’s last lines:

Creoles are not bastard tongues after all … they are the purest expression we know of the human capacity for languages. Other languages creak and groan under the burden of time … Creoles spring pure and clear from the very fountain of language, and their emergence, through all the horrors of slavery, represents a triumph of all that’s strongest and most enduring in the human spirit.

Further reading:

Around the web – January 2014

Been busy? I’ve curated a number of interesting articles about language and translation that have been published on the internet this month and that you may have missed.

'Translator' all over Europe

‘Translator’ all over Europe

En français :

  • Etes-vous d’accord ? 11 mots qui nous manquent en français. (Pourquoi 11 ? Parce que c’est le nombre de lettres dans “pochemuchka” un mot russe désignant une personne qui pose trop de questions.)

© amanky / Flickr

Most Popular Tweets of 2013

Blog readers who follow me on Twitter will know I’m a fairly prolific and experienced ‘twaducteur‘ (translator who tweets). Nevertheless I’m always amazed by which tweets are the most popular – it’s not always those that you would think. Anyway, here, in ascending order, are the 10 most popular* tweets I sent in 2013:

10. Translator vs. Translation Agency “It is a monumental misconception that bilingual speakers are also able to translate”.

9. How can you find out if your language is endangered? on the TermCoord blog.

8. Vivre avec un traducteur : ces phrases à ne pas prononcer… the only Tweet in French to make the Top 10.

7. A detailed account of of the IAPTI conference in London on October 5th by Charlie Bavington.

6. 10 handy French phrases to use in an argument ten handy phrases to have ready for the next time you unexpectedly end up in a slanging match.

5. English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet Linguists are recognizing the delightful evolution of the word “because.”

4. Why some people retain an accent in a second language – this was a retweet, originally shared by Erik Hansson and Gaëlle Gagné.

3. Jose Mourinho literally gives press conference interpreter the shirt off his back.

2. Top 12 French expressions they don’t teach you at school some of the best and most colourful French expressions that you wouldn’t  pick up in a classroom.

1. Why plural days and nights in Spanish greetings? Why ‘Buenos Dias’ in Spanish whereas in other languages the greeting is singular? This tweet in late April was the most clicked on link that I tweeted!


While we’re at it, here are the most-viewed posts here on my blog in 2013, again in ascending order:

10. The Icelandic Language

9. Getting Your Back Up

8. 10 questions for translators

7. International Translation Day 2013

6. Grâce au traducteur surviendra un miracle …

5. Malagasy – the language of Madagascar

4. Self-translation

3. A few facts about the Korean language

2. 7 facts about Reunion Creole

1. Too funny for public transport?

* ‘most popular’ = most clicked on

Do you have a favourite link you’d like to share? Don’t hesitate to leave it in the comments below.

Translation-treason conference

I recently attended a two-day conference at the University of Reunion on the theme of “Translation-treason: translation in multilingual and multicultural contexts.” Local and mainland French University professors and PhD students presented a variety of papers, and there were debates after every session.


Conference poster

In the first presentation Prof. Bernard Terramorsi compared the 1920s translation of a traditional Malagasy story: Roze manan draza fia (literally “those who have fish ancestors”) with a more recent (2010) translation. The 1924 translation was carried out by a Lutheran pastor, and Prof. Terramorsi showed how – consciously or unconsciously – the pastor’s western and conservative mindset led to mistranslations, in particular concerning the main character of the story who is an ampela manana’isa or ‘woman with gills’, and not a ‘mermaid’ (sirène) or ‘nymph’ (nymphe) as he translated into French.

This was followed by a paper by Patrice Uhl about the difficult translation of the arabic sequence in the Vth song by the troubadour William IX, and then “The respective affinities of German and French in fictive descriptions” by PhD student Sylvia Boyer. Anca Andreea Braescu Chetrariu gave an interesting presentation about the prolific French to Romanian translator Irina Mavrodin. Prof. Gwenhaël Ponnau then talked about re-translations. Why do we re-translate literature? Is it to erase a past translation/translator, whom we are opposed to? Can it be likened to a ‘competition’ between translators? How easy is it to retranslate a “canonical” translation? And is the most recent translation always the best?

13-century miniature of William IX

13-century miniature of William IX

I devoted a separate blog post to Georges Latchimy’s presentation axed on his personal translation of “Los Traductores” by Antonio Muñoz, which you can read here (in French). Next, Hajasoa Picard-Ravololonirina talked about structuralist descriptions of the Malagasy language, followed by Prof. Marie Brunette Spire who talked about (mis)translations in the first English to French translations of Israel Zangwill‘s Children of the Ghetto. She examined how linguistic and/or cultural ignorance as well as an ideological filter and conscious or unconscious prejudices can distort a text’s original meaning. Children of the Ghetto describes Jewish life, and some of the mistranslations she cited are translating ‘skullcap’ by bonnet; ‘minister’ by Ministre, and ‘best coat’ by veste de dimanche. The first day’s final paper was “Miss a word, change the world” by Laurence Gouaux-Rabasa, which coincidentally examined a somewhat similar theme to that of Prof. Spire: how Hinduism is expunged from the French translations of Indian-origin authors writing in English. She gave examples from Où irons-nous cet été ? the translation by Anne-Cécile Padoux of Where Shall We Go This Summer? by Anita Desai, and asked whether this negation is deliberate, or the result of an overly-superficial reading of the source text by the translator.

English: Israel Zangwill עברית: ישראל זנגוויל

Israel Zangwill

Work commitments meant that I missed the first two papers of the second day, which were “Comparable corpora and aligned corpus – A contrastive English ↔ French approach” by Issa Kanté and a study by Christine Pic-Gillard of  how Guarani and Spanish are (supposed to be) used bilingually in Paraguay. I arrived in time for Jean Volsan and Prof. Jean-Philippe Watbled’s presentation about translating the New Testament into Reunion Creole. They raised the valid point of language hierarchy – why are some languages seen as linguistically richer or nobler than others? Although Jesus didn’t speak Reunion Creole, he didn’t speak French or English either, so there is no reason for a translation into one of the latter languages to be superior to a Creole translation. Is the current situation of ‘Reunion Creole vs French’ perhaps similar to that of  ‘French vs Latin’ in the Middle Ages? Continuing the Creole theme in the afternoon Evelyne Adelin and Mylène Lebon-Eyquem looked at the use of Reunion Creole in the classroom. They showed that teachers need to translate French ↔ Creole in order for the two languages to be recognised as distinct.

Prof. Claude Brissac-Feral looked at the interpreting during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and whether it betrayed the victims’ commitments and sacrifices. Given the great discrepancy between the emotions of the witnesses and those interpreting them, how much of the impact was lost in interlingual rendition? Nathalie Peyrebonne gave a presentation on title translation – while it is part of a book’s main identity, it also often the text that is the least faithfully translated. Finally Prof. Michel Prum wondered whether “Traddutore, traditore” is a paronomasia for the French translations of Charles Darwin‘s work. Darwin’s first French translator, Clémence Royer, was a Lamarckian and thus ‘Natural Selection’ became Election naturelle. Translators Jean-Jacques Moulinié and Edmond Barbier also changed certain sentences that they found to be too radical.

Clémence Royer, 1865

Clémence Royer, 1865

While highly academic and often far removed from my day-to-day preoccupations as a professional business translator, the conference was nevertheless very interesting and thought-provoking, in particular concerning the issues of retranslation, language hierarchy, and mistranslation arising from cultural prejudice.

Grâce au traducteur surviendra un miracle …

J’ai le plaisir de vous proposer ici une traduction par Georges Latchimy d’un article écrit par le célèbre écrivain espagnol Antonio Muñoz Molina, “Los traductores“, publié le 29 septembre 2012 dans le journal El País.

Les traducteurs

L’essentiel tend à être ou à devenir invisible. Parce qu’ils sont essentiels et parce que leur travail est omniprésent, les traducteurs tendent à s’évanouir dans leur invisibilité, mais aussi parce que mieux ils font leur travail, moins il en reste de traces, au point de faire croire qu’ils ne sont pas intervenus. Nous remarquons qu’une traduction « nous fait grincer des dents », de la même façon que nous remarquons le grincement dans les changements de vitesse qu’effectue un conducteur affolé ou inexpérimenté. Il saute un mot étrange, une tournure qui visiblement appartient à une autre langue et c’est seulement à ce moment-là que nous reconsidérons vraiment le fait de lire une traduction. Que nous songions presque exclusivement au traducteur quand nous sentons qu’il s’est trompé est une preuve simultanée de la valeur de ce travail et de la maigre reconnaissance qu’il reçoit d’ordinaire, davantage encore en des temps où les textes circulent sur Internet sans la moindre constance dans leur origine et où certaines personnes s’imaginent qu’il n’y a guère de différence entre un traducteur automatique et un correcteur automatique d’orthographe.

Mais il en a peut-être toujours été ainsi. Je me suis rendu compte que la plupart des livres que je lisais étaient le fruit d’une traduction aussi tard que les films avaient un réalisateur. Je remercie chaque jour l’effet qu’ont eu sur mon imagination et ma vocation les romans de Julio Verne – je n’arrive pas à écrire Jules – mais je n’ai jamais pensé aux personnes presque toujours anonymes qui les traduisaient, sûrement à un très modeste profit, pour les maisons d’édition Bruguera, Sopena ou Molino. La première fois que j’ai su le nom de l’un des traducteurs de Verne fut quand, durant les années de privation de lecture de l’université, je trouvai les nouvelles traductions de certains de ses meilleurs romans qu’Alianza avait commandées à Miguel Salabert, qui a aussi retraduit il y a quelques années L’éducation sentimentale et Madame Bovary. Mais qui aurait aussi traduit pour moi sans que je ne le sache Le Comte de Monte-Cristo ou Le journal de Dany ou Papillon ou Sinouhé l’Egyptien, pour ne pas prendre de grands airs dans notre bilan de lecture, ou ces pages de La Peste qu’il me semblait opportun de remplir de phrases soulignées, peut-être avec l’espoir que quelqu’un (du beau sexe de préférence) prenne note admirative de mon acuité intellectuelle.

Vingt Milles Lieues Sous Les Mers de Jules Verne, illustration par Milo Winter (Photo: Blue Lantern Studio / Corbis)

Un ami éditeur et poète très apprécié et monstre de sagesse m’assurait récemment qu’il avait décidé de ne plus lire de traductions, parce qu’il s’est forgé la conviction qu’il est plus satisfaisant de se concentrer sur des littératures de langues qu’il connaît déjà. Comme dans son cas, elles comptent, que je sache, le castillan, le catalan, le français, l’allemand, l’italien, le latin et l’anglais, j’ai l’impression que mon ami n’est pas très représentatif. Nous autres, dans une plus ou moins large mesure, avons besoin de la médiation continue des traducteurs et c’est une marque de notre pénurie intellectuelle croissante que de constater à ce point, en ces temps de marchandages et de restrictions, la faible considération du métier, la maigre récompense qu’obtiennent les meilleurs et la hâte ou la négligence avec laquelle on laisse passer des traductions médiocres ou franchement inacceptables. Curieusement, la mauvaise traduction a aussi ses admirateurs, et son influence littéraire : on trouve toujours plus d’articles de presse voire de pages de romans qui sont écrits comme s’il s’agissait de traductions amatrices de l’anglais, voire d’atroces doublages de films. On voit que sur les chemins de l’ignorance et de la crédulité nous revenons aux temps de mon adolescence, où les stars de la pop autochtones ne connaissaient pas un mot d’anglais mais affectaient un accent américain en chantant en espagnol.

Celui qui dépend le plus du traducteur est, bien sûr, l’écrivain lui-même. Vous êtes dans une autre langue exactement ce que le traducteur fait de vous. Dans la plupart des cas, et à part mon ami polyglotte qui connaît sans doute davantage de langues que je ne le croie ou en a encore appris une depuis la dernière fois que je l’ai eu au téléphone (il a peut-être une plus grande capacité encore à parler au téléphone que d’apprendre des langues), on est pieds et poings liés : un jour vous recevez un livre qui doit être à vous puisqu’il y a votre nom sur la couverture et peut-être votre photo au revers, mais ce qui ressemble sûrement à ce que vous avez écrit naguère est totalement indéchiffrable, comme si c’avait été parfois écrit avec les caractères d’une ancienne langue morte. Une profession de foi est nécessaire : si l’on sait toutes les fois où l’on a pris du plaisir, où l’on a appris, où l’on a été ému à la lecture de traductions du russe ou du japonais, ou de l’hébreux, ou du grec, il est tout à fait possible que se produise maintenant l’effet inverse. Grâce au traducteur, surviendra un miracle : ce que vous avez écrit résonnera dans la conscience de quelqu’un dans une langue tout autre que la vôtre, dans des endroits du monde où vous n’irez jamais. Des personnes qui vous semblent aussi étrangères que les habitants de la Lune sont au final presque exactement comme vous. Je peux témoigner que tous les jours ou presque, par exemple, Elvira Lindo reçoit d’Iran des lettres de lecteurs adolescents et juvéniles qui sont devenus accros aux aventures de Manolito Gafotas en farsi. Le plus singulier, sans cesser de l’être, demeure intelligible presque partout. On perd toujours quelque chose même dans la meilleure traduction, mais l’on gagne aussi quelque chose, où l’on renforce quelque chose, peut-être le noyau d’universalité qu’il y a toujours dans la littérature.

Manolito Gafotas, jeune héros des romans d’Elvira Lindo

Pendant deux ou trois jours, à Amsterdam, j’ai cohabité avec un groupe de traducteurs de mes livres : en hollandais, en français, en allemand. Certains, d’avoir tant travaillé avec moi pendant des années, étaient déjà des amis : Philippe Bataillon, Willi Zurbrüggen ; j’ai connu les autres ces jours-là : Jacqueline Hulst, Ester van Buuren, Adri Boon, Erik Coenen, Frieda Kleinjan-van Braam, Tineke Hillegers-Zijlmans. Un même livre devient légèrement différent dans l’imagination de chaque lecteur: mais cette multiplication, cette métamorphose est encore plus accentuée chez tout traducteur. Le traducteur est le lecteur suprême, le lecteur si complet qu’il finit par écrire mot à mot le livre qu’il lit. C’est lui ou elle qui détecte les erreurs et les négligences que l’auteur n’a pas vues et que les éditeurs n’ont pas corrigées. Il se voit forcé de jauger le poids et le sens de chaque mot bien plus scrupuleusement que le romancier lui-même. Willi Zurbrüggen a utilisé un terme musical pour parler de son travail : ce qui ressemble le plus à une traduction, surtout dans des langues aussi différentes que l’espagnol et l’allemand, c’est la transcription d’un morceau de musique.

J’écoutais parler ces personnes, si différentes les unes des autres, si égales dans leur dévotion au travail qu’elles font, et j’éprouvais de la gratitude et un brin de remords : un mot que j’avais choisi au hasard ou d’instinct, une phrase à laquelle j’avais peut-être consacré quelques minutes, ont pu leur causer des heures ou des jours de tourment. Apprendre sur les limites de ce qui peut être traduit vous fait prendre davantage conscience qu’il y a aussi des limites à ce que les mots eux-mêmes peuvent dire.

Antonio Muñoz Molina

Cette traduction a initialement été publié ici sur Windows On El Mundo, le blog consacré au monde hispanique de Georges Latchimy, un « voyageur scrutateur et traducteur ». Pour Georges dans cet article Muñoz « se penche sur le dur labeur de traducteur. Il en fait un art délicat dont il précise les contours. Traduire pour le littérateur ibérique c’est avant tout un travail de disparition, c’est se fondre dans le texte original avant de le restituer avec la plus grande pureté. Pour ce faire, un talent de caméléon est nécessaire ainsi qu’une patience mâtinée de persévérance. »

European Day of Multilingual Blogging – Reunion Creole

Yesterday was European Day of Multilingual Blogging which gives bloggers a chance to highlight the multilingual dimension of the internet.  The idea is to feature one or more languages on your blog that you don’t normally use (thanks to Christine Schmit and J. Scott of  Word to Deeds for indirectly bringing this to my attention). So, here, a day late, is my small contribution – the Aesop‘s Fable The Fox and the Crow in Reunion Creole (it’s not been translated by me – see here for source). Note that as a mainly spoken language Reunion Creole does not have a universally accepted writing system; I’ve chosen to print using the ‘KWZ’ writing system, so-called because it makes strong use of the letters K W & Z. Other systems called Tangol and Lekritir 77 also exist.

Lo Korbo ék lo Ronar

Konpèr Korbo, anlèr inn pyédbwa,
Té tyinbo dan son bèk in formaz.
Konpèr Ronar, ki té anbèt son bous,
La di ali paroli-là :
« Wopé ! Adyé, Misyè Korbo.Ou lé byin zoli ! I arsanm ou lé gadianm !
M’i manti pa, si out santé
Lé parèy out plim,
Ou lé lo Payanké lo bann zabitan dann bwa-là. »
Lo Korbo ki antann sa, i santi ali tarzé ;
Epi pou amont son zoli vwa,
Li rouvèr gran son bék é li kit son manzé sapé.
Lo ronar i kap ali, épisa i di : « Mon bon Misyé,
Aprann aou tout tarzèr
I viv soupléyan sat i akout ali :
Lamontraz-là i vo byin inn formaz, somanké. »
Lo Korbo, k’na ont épi lé pérdi,
La ziré, soman tar minm, k’i ginÿ arpi trap ali.
English: An illustration of the fable of the F...

An illustration of the fable of the Fox and the Crow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more posts on Creole(s) and/or Reunion see these links:

Malagasy – the language of Madagascar

Recently returned from my fourth trip to Madagascar – the world’s fourth largest island – I thought I’d share with you some information about the Malagasy language.

The first people arrived in Madagascar about 1500 years ago from Indonesia/Malaya via Southern India and East Africa using outrigger canoes, and as a result Malagasy belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian language group. It’s the westernmost member of this language branch, which also includes Malaysian, Tagalog, Indonesian, Maori and Tahitian. The Indonesian origin shows strongly in the language, which is spoken and understood, with regional variations of dialect, throughout the island. The linguistic influence of later migrations from Africa can be seen in coastal populations, where there are slightly more Bantu-Swahili words than elsewhere on the island.

Outrigger canoe with sail

Outrigger canoe with sail

The British held some influence in the country in the early 19th century, resulting in words for some religious terms such as pastaora for ‘Pastor’ and words like hotely, boky (‘book’) and banky. The island was a French colony from 1896-1960 and French left a linguistic legacy in words such as bisikileta for ‘bicycle’, and savony for ‘soap’. (Other influences to be found are Arabic, for example, in the days of the week, and Bantu-Swahili in the words for domestic animals, indicating that the early settlers, sensibly enough, did not bring animals with them in their outrigger canoes.) Eighteen major dialects are spoken, the two main ones being Merina, which is considered standard Malagasy, and Sakalava (Ethnologue considers these dialects to be separate languages – see below).

Malagasy is a language full of images and metaphors, and the art of oratory, kabary, as well as poetic histories and legends are an important part of the culture. Literal translations of Malagasy words and phrases are often very poetic. Dusk is Maizim-bava vilany: ‘darken the mouth of the cooking pot’; two or three in the morning is Misafo helika ny kary: ‘when the wild cat washes itself’.

Although an Arabico-Malagasy script was in use from the 15th century onwards, in 1823 King Radama 1 opted for an alphabetisation with Latin characters. The Malagasy alphabet is made up of 21 letters; C Q U W and X are omitted, thus A E I and O are the only vowel sounds. When a word ends in a vowel, this final syllable is pronounced so lightly it is often just a stressed last consonant. For instance the Sifaka lemur is pronounced – rudely but memorably – as ‘she-fuck’.

Sifaka Lemur

Sentence structure is verb + object + subject; however many objects there are, the subject is always at the end. This is quite a rare word order – only 10% of the world’s languages place the verb in initial position, and only a dozen languages are known to regularly place the subject in final position. An example: mivarotra akondro izy, literally ‘sell’ (present tense) + ‘banana’ + ‘he/she’ i.e. ‘he/she sells bananas’. There is no grammatical gender or plural form – the article ny is used (like ‘the’ in English). There is no verb “to be” in Malagasy, so adjectives imply the use of ‘to be’ indirectly.

Malagasy can seem challenging for a visitor as for example place names may be 14 or 15 characters long (because they usually have a literal meaning, such as Ambohibao ‘the new village’, or Ranomafana ‘hot water’). Surnames are also very long – up to 24 letters – again because each part has a literal meaning, and traditionally there used to be only one name – no separate first name and family names – although European influences are now changing this.

Outside of Madagascar Malagasy is only spoken by any great number in Mayotte and the Comoros Islands. There is however at least one Malagasy loan word in English that everyone knows: raffia.

Useful links:

Further reading:

  • To read about an appeal to fund the translation of Shakespeare’s works into Malagasy and put on the plays click here (link automatically downloads a Word document).
  • The September 2010 edition of National Geographic has a long article on Madagascar and on rosewood logging in particular. You can see the article and a slideshow of pictures here.
  • In August 2010 the Al Jazeera TV channel broadcast a documentary entitled ‘State of Denial’ about the continuing political crisis in Madagascar, the lack of press freedom and the illegal rosewood logging. You can see the programme by clicking here.
  • The episode of BBC Radio 4′s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ on 24th July 2010 featured the illegal trade in wildlife and logging of rosewood, and is available here; the item starts just under 18 minutes into the broadcast. The ‘Crossing Continents’ edition of 29th July 2010 described how Madagascar is coping with its current economic difficulties, and is available here.
  • My own travel articles about Madagascar: Nosy Be, Diving at Nosy Be, Tsingy of Bemaraha, and Ile Sainte Marie.