Around the web – January 2023

Here’s your first round-up of 2023 with news, articles, and blog posts about translation and language during January.

10 tips for anyone working while travelling or wanting to enjoy other elements of life

The CV scam is becoming less and less profitable to scammers

  • There’s been a lot of coverage recently about ChatGPT. In this article the OpenAI chatbot talks about what could go wrong with GPT3 translations
  • Why do we all need subtitles now? Apparently it’s not us — the dialogue in TV and movies has become harder to hear

Why we all need subtitles now

A copy of a Greek inscription, made by laying wet paper or plaster over carved stone to create a mirror-image impression

The library’s archives include audio, text and video

The cries of camel herders mean nothing to the untrained ear, but animals respond instantly, gathering to walk together across the Saudi desert

Have you ever called a chicken parmigiana a ‘chicken in pyjamas’?

Further reading on the blog:

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.

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.

Too funny for public transport?

So goes the blurb for “Lost in Translation“, a 2006 book by ‘Charlie Croker’ (aka Mark Mason) about “misadventures in English abroad” which I’ve just finished reading. It demonstrates some of the very best and worst instances of ‘grammar-gargling’ from around the world. Sometimes you can guess what is meant (especially if you speak the language in question), but other times you’re left scratching your head. As the author cautions us however, we should never forget that although other nations’ mistakes with English are amusing to us, their English is generally much better than our Japanese, Vietnamese, Arabic etc (and the book includes some examples from English speaking nations).

I thought I’d share with you some of the examples I found most amusing, but don’t worry there’s still plenty more in the book (and in its sequel Still Lost in Translation)!

British Council ad, reportedly a sign from a hotel restaurant in Acapulco

Italy: This hotel is renowned for its peace and solitude. In fact crowds from all over the world flock here to enjoy its solitude.

Thailand (offering donkey rides): Would you like to ride on your own ass?

In a hotel in Tel Aviv: If you wish breakfast, lift the telephone and our waitress will arrive. This will be enough to bring up your food.

French hotel restaurant: Wondering what to wear? A sports jacket may be worn to dinner, but no trousers.

Madrid hotel restaurant: Our wine list leaves you nothing to hope for.

Finnish hotel fire procedure: If you cannot reach a fire exit, close the door and expose yourself at the window.

Nairobi restaurant: Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager.

Laon, France, English translation of a sign in French reading “En cas de feu – restez calme”: In case of fire do not lose your temper.

Restaurant menu: Sole Bonne Femme (Fish Landlady style).

French menu: Nut of Holy Jacques jumped, guinea fowl stinks to it and its farce with cheese-topped dish, almost cheese-dish of mould in spice on bed of spinach.

Roguefart – on a Japanese restaurant French cheese menu

China, describing a pancake dish: Waiter will roll in front of you.

Chelsea, London: Plat du jour, changed each day.

Japanese washing machine instructions: Push button. Foam coming plenty. Big noise. Finish.

Sign at a Philippines ferry terminal: Adults: 1 USD. Child: 50 cents. Cadavers: subject to negotiation.

A Japanese copy of a Meatloaf album includes the following tracks: ‘Sixty Six Per Cent Is All Right’ (for ‘Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad’) and ‘You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouse’.

In an Israeli butcher’s: I slaughter myself twice daily.

Shop in Amman: Visit our bargain basement – one flight up and in the same shop they sell: Pork Handbags.

Swedish furrier: Fur coats made for ladies from their own skin.

At a Hong Kong costume shop: This merchandise is to be used for turning a trick on Halloween.

On Japanese toothpaste: Gives you strong mouth and refreshing wind!

On a Japanese tea bag: Do not wet with water.

Malaysian road sign

Resort at Iguaco Falls: We offer you peace and seclusion. The paths to our resort are only passable by asses. Therefore, you will certainly feel at home here.

Chinese temple: Please take one step forward and crap twice.

Swimming pool sign, resort, Philippines: Drowning absolutely prohibited.

Sewage treatment plant, as marked on a Tokyo map: Dirty Water Punishment Place.

Newly appointed Danish minister: I am in the beginning of my period.

On a French pest-control firm’s website: Small animals nibble you the life. They give you the cockroach?

In an East Africa newspaper: A new swimming pool is rapidly taking shape since the contractors have thrown in the bulk of their workers.

Slogan on mugs produced by Warwickshire County Cricket Club, who wanted to bill their star bowler ‘King of Spin’: Ashley Giles – King of Spain.

cover, Lost in Translation

The book certainly brought a smile to my face and just goes to prove – you always need a translator!


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Useful web tools (part 3)

Here’s another round-up of some useful tools and websites I’ve come across recently which I’d like to share with you.

For Translation

  • Jost Zetzsche shared this link to Useful free or inexpensive tools for translators in one of his recent International Writers Toolkit newsletters. It’s a list of 23 useful tools to make a translator’s life easier.
  • I’m currently experimenting with Terra TMS which is a web-based translation management and invoicing system for language professionals. You can use it on any platform, and import your contacts from Excel or Outlook. There are different versions: Standard, Starter and Free. The free version lets you add up to 200 jobs and clients. I’ll write more about how I’m getting on with it in a future post. The same people have also developed a free Chrome extension called “Word Counter for Translators” to count the words (and characters) on a web page and calculate the number of standard lines.

Free Google Chrome extension

  • On his Translation Tribulations blog Kevin Lossner shared his Excel rate equivalence spreadsheet that allows you to express your source word rate as a cost per standard line or page of target text. The downloadable file is full of Kevin’s own calculations to show you how it works, but you can replace it with your own statistics.
  • Finally, CAT guru Dominique Pivard compares Terminotix Toolbar for Microsoft Word with the similar Intelliwebsearch in this video. Both are free; Terminotix is best suited for translators who work with French, English and perhaps Spanish and who translate directly in Word or use a Word-based translation tool, while IntelliWebSearch is more difficult to configure but is also more flexible and can be accessed from any Windows application. However as both are for PC computers only I haven’t been able to try them out myself – but I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has.


  • If, like me, you’re a non-native speaker of French you might occasionally get confused when you have to write out French numbers as words (do I need a hyphen? is it cent or cents?). With dCode you just enter the number as a figure and it gets converted to words.
des chiffres et des lettres

Des chiffres et des lettres

General internet

  • Collusion is an experimental add-on for Mozilla Firefox which allows you to see all the third parties that are tracking your movements across the Web. The result is quite … scary. Of course not all tracking is bad, but most of it happens without our knowledge and consent. So if you’re at all interested in internet transparency this is for you.
  • Still on the subject of  Mozilla, I’m a great fan of Ted Talks, and in this short talk Mozilla Foundation’s COO, Ryan Merkley, shares Popcorn Maker, a new web-based tool for easy video remixing.  It’s based on the principle  that videos on the internet should work like the web itself: dynamic, full of links, maps and information that can be updated and edited live. With it you can use your web browser to combine video and audio with content from the rest of the web — from text, links and maps to pictures and live feeds. Impressive!
  • ryan merkley

    Ryan Merkley at Ted talks

  • Gaelle Gagné of Trëma Translations recently mentioned IFTTT, a service that lets you create connections (it stands for If This Then That). The idea behind it is as follows: if  ‘This’ happens Then it triggers ‘That’ action. An example of This might be ‘I publish a blog post’ or ‘I’m tagged in a photo on Facebook’, and the action that you’ve defined might be ‘send me a text message’ or ‘publish on Twitter’. There are currently triggers and actions for more than 56 channels (LinkedIn, Foursquare, Flickr, Dropbox, etc).
  • Not long ago I was travelling for a month with my laptop, and of course checking my e-mails using my e-mail software (I prefer this to using webmail). When I returned home and was using my main computer I didn’t have access to my recent Gmail messages in my e-mail software because they’d already been downloaded onto my laptop. The solution is to go to your POP client settings and replace ‘’ with ‘’.  This downloads messages from the past month.
  • If you follow Marta Stelmaszak’s Wantwords blog you might have seen her three posts “Do We Use The Right words on Our Websites to Offer Translation Services?” which took a look at the texts agencies and freelance translators use on their websites. To do this she used the nifty tool which finds the most frequent words of web site content (or any arbitrary text). (The 5 most frequent words on the English version of my website are: to, smart, translate, a, of).



  • Small Demons is a literary search engine and self-proclaimed ‘storyverse’ that lets you explore the world of books. You can search for a person, place or thing and see which books they or it occur in. It only searches books in English, and to be honest I found it somewhat limited – a search for Madagascar as a place brought up no results, for example  – but I’m sure it will improve over time. But for the moment I think I prefer sticking to a tag search on Librarything (546 tags for Madagascar, by way of comparison!).

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Glossary of some useful words in Réunion Island

Here’s a (non-exhaustive!) list of some words and terms that will be helpful to you if you visit Réunion Island. Some are Reunion Creole words, others are French words with a different meaning from that in mainland France, and some are straightforward French but with a particularly local meaning.  Many of the Creole words in this list are widely used in Reunion even in spoken French. This little glossary has no intention of replacing a dictionary or phrase-book however  – there are other resources for that.
Note that Reunion Creole has no fixed spelling, so written variations are possible. (All further references to Creole here suppose Reunion Creole).

  • achard – picked vegetable salad, rather like a spicy coleslaw but without the mayonnaise.
  • alizétrade winds from the south-east.
  • baba figue/baba-fig – blossom of the banana tree, which is chopped with boucané (smoked pork) and made into a carri.
  • babouk – large brown huntsman spider that is found in and around houses.
  • bibasse/bibas – Loquat or Japanese medlar (Eriobotrya japonica) – a small yellow fruit which mainly grows in the highlands.
  • bichique/bishik – the fry of red-tailed goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus) or Cotylopus acutipinnis which, at certain times of the year, are captured at river mouths as they swim upstream. They are caught using traditional techniques such as trap nets known as vouves.  The bichique are then sold for about €45/kg to be made into a carri.
  • bonbon piment – small savoury treats made from finely ground lentils or lima beans mixed with spices (piment).

Bonbons piment

  • boug – man.
  • Bourbon – former name for Réunion Island 1649-1793 and 1810-1848; sometimes still used by companies as part of their trade name.
  • brède – the leafy greens of various vegetables (there are ≈30 varieties) that are cooked and served with rice and carri, or made into a broth.
  • cabri – an old French word for a kid; in Réunion the term covers all kinds of goats.
  • cafre/kaf – a black Creole (feminine: cafrine/kafrine).
  • cagnard – in the South of France this means a place where the sun beats down; in Réunion it means a thug or a delinquent.
  • camaron – large freshwater shrimps, eaten in a carri.
  • canal bichique – literally this is a channel of stones that’s been built to help fish bichique, but it now has a second meaning. When the Route du Littoral (coast road between St Denis and La Possession) has to be reduced to three lanes (instead of the normal four) after heavy rain, the resulting narrow roadway is unofficially known as the  canal bichique.
  • carri/cari – general name for Réunion’s national dish, normally consisting of  meat or fish cooked with onions, garlic, turmeric (safran), thyme, salt, pepper and sometimes tomatoes. Normally served with white rice, rougail, lentils and occasionally brèdes.
  • case/kaz – house.
  • Cilaos – this is one of Réunion’s cirques, but it has also given its name to a good brand of sparkling water, bottled in the cirque. If you want to order locally bottled still water ask for ‘Australine’ or ‘Edena’.
  • chouchou – a green, pear-shaped vegetable, known variously as christophine, chayote or choko in other parts of the world. Its green leaves can be used as brèdes.
  • combava – a small, round, dark green citrus fruit with a rough, bumpy skin, known as kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) in English. Its rind is used in Reunionese cuisine and has a very distinctive taste.
A batch of kaffir limes (Citrus × hystrix).

Kaffir limes (Photo: Wikipedia)

  • cyclone – ‘hurricanes’, ‘typhoons’ and ‘cyclones’ are all different words for the same thing. As Réunion is in the southern hemisphere the official cyclone season runs from November 15th-April 15th, although out-of-season cyclones are occasionally possible. Reunion has a Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre, one of only six in the world, which keeps a close eye on things. Cyclone names are given by Mauritius or Madagascar.
  • dalon – friend.
  • dodo – unofficial, but widely-used name for a popular locally-brewed beer.
  • faham – an orchid (jumellea fragans), increasingly rare and endemic to the Mascarene islands, that is used in rhum arrangé and some medicinal herbal teas (tisanes).
  • fanjan – literally a tree fern, but more often used to refer to the mass of entangled tree fern roots that can be cut and used as a natural plant pot.


  • fénoir – darkness, night. When the Pope came to Réunion in 1989 he said “sort dann fénoir” (‘Don’t stay in the darkness’).
  • fet kaf – abolition of slavery which is celebrated every year by a public holiday on December 20th (20 desamb).
  • filaocasuarina tree.
  • GabierGuichet Automatique de Banque = ATM.
  • gato – a sweet, confectionery. In Creole gato doesn’t have the wider French meaning of ‘cake’.
  • goyavier – strawberry guava (Psidium cattleyanum), much-appreciated small red fruit that are ripe in May-July, and which grow in the highlands up to 1200m altitude.


  • grains – the beans or lentils in sauce that traditionally accompany a carri.
  • gramoun – old person.
  • Grande IleMadagascar, the ‘Big Island’.
  • guetali – a small gazebo-like structure typical of 19th century Creole architecture which could be found at the corner of the garden walls of large houses. From it the women of the household could watch people passing in the street without being noticed by them. Guetali are covered by a roof, and were often decorated with lambrequin. The name comes from “guette a li“, which means “watch him” in Creole.

Guetali, Hellbourg, Salazie cirque

  • (les) hauts – the highlands of Réunion; places that are not on the coast.
  • Ile soeurMauritius (together with Rodrigues the three islands form the Mascarene Islands).
  • îlet– a hamlet, particularly in one of the three cirques. (The final ‘T’ is pronounced).
  • kabar – a more or less impromptu concert, with local music, dancing, singing and sometimes moringue.
  • la-di-la-fé – gossip; also the name given to the machine that moves the concrete barriers on the Route du Littoral to make it into a canal bichique.
  • lambrequin/lanbrokin – useful and ornamental patterned window and door borders made out of metal or wood. Design themes often reflect plant life. Originally a feature of naval architecture, they were used in Reunion to deflect and channel rain water at a time when gutters did not yet exist. Known in Creole as dantèl-lakaz – literally ‘house lace’ (see pictures here).


  • letchis & mangues – lychees and mangoes are a national obsession from November to January when they are ripe. Prices start high but quickly come down as more and more fruit becomes available.
  • lontan – in the past.
  • macatia – a small slightly sweet bun, typical of Réunion.
  • malbar – a Creole of Tamil origin.
  • maloya – a traditional musical genre of Reunion, which has its origins in slaves’ music. Songs are sometimes politically oriented, and themes are often slavery and poverty. The most well-known maloya artists are Danyel Waro, Ziskakan, Baster or Firmin Viry. In 2009 Maloya was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO for France
  • marmaille/marmay – children.
  • marron – a slave who escaped from their owner. By extension has come to refer to things that have gone wild or are illegal or ‘underground’.
  • massalé – an Indian spice mix commonly used in cooking (chili, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds).
  • métropolemainland France; the part of France in Europe. Don’t forget that in Réunion you are already in France!
  • moringue – a local, highly codified combat sport similar to Capoeira.
  • paille en queue/payankë – white-tailed tropicbird (Phaeton lepturus), a seabird easily identified by its long tail feathers.
  • papang – Reunion Harrier (Circus maillardi) is the last and only bird of prey on Réunion.
  • peï – anything that is local.
  • pistash – peanuts (not pistachios!).
  • radier – a masonry structure in a road, built over the low point of a river, enabling the waterway to be crossed except during a period of heavy rain. (Never ever cross a radier when there’s been heavy rain!).
  • rhum arrangé – literally means ‘arranged rum’ but is better translated by ‘macerated flavoured rum’.  One or several ingredients such as vanilla, bananas, cinnamon, geranium, lychees, ginger or faham are added to a bottle of white rum and left to macerate for several weeks or months (the actual length of time depends on the ingredient(s)). It’s mostly drunk as an after-dinner drink.

Shelf of ‘rhum arrangé’

  • rougail – two meanings: (1) a cooked, main dish similar to a carri, generally with sausages, smoked pork (boucané) or dried, salted codfish (morue); (2) a spicy condiment similar to a chutney which accompanies every main meal in Réunion, composed of diced or crushed raw ingredients: ginger, chilli peppers, salt, onions and a main ingredient – most often tomato, but can be lemon or green mango.
  • safran – not to be confused with saffron, this is the local name for turmeric, which is mainly grown at La Plaine des Grègues in the south of Réunion.
  • samousa – triangular-shaped and similar to Indian samosas, local samousa are generally small with a spicy meat, fish or vegetable filling.
  • séga  – a traditional music genre from the Mascarene islands, with an associated dance form. It originated among slave populations, and is danced without the feet ever leaving the ground.
  • St Expedit – a Roman soldier saint who is particularly venerated on Réunion. Red Saint Expeditus shrines are often found by roadsides.

St Expedit shrine, Entre-Deux

  • tang – tenrec (Tenrec ecaudatus), a mammal which looks rather like a hedgehog, with a long pointed snout. It can be hunted from February to April, and can be eaten in a carri.
  • ti’jaque – jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), a very large green fruit with an uneven skin. In Reunion it is finely chopped and cooked with smoked bacon to make the dish ti’jaque boucané.
  • vacoas – the pandanus or screwpine tree, which can be found on the coast (Pandanus utilis) or in the highlands (Pandanus montanus). It produces an edible fruit called a pinpin, and its leaves can be woven to make objects such as a bertèl, a flat bag worn on the back.
Pandanus montanus fruit (Réunion island)

Vacoa (Pandanus montanus) (Wikipedia)

  • varang – house verandah, typical of Creole architecture.
  • yab – a white Creole from the highlands.
  • zamal – local cannabis.
  • zarab – Muslim Creole of Indian origin (Gujarati region).
  • zoreil – person not from Réunion Island, in particular a European or someone from mainland France.
  • zourite – octopus, often eaten on Réunion in a civet (stew).

You might also like: 7 facts about Reunion Creole


I’ve just finished Boris Vian‘s J’irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes [I Spit On Your Graves], and while reading I was intrigued to learn that it was originally published as a pseudo-translation*, that is to say Boris Vian presented himself as being the translator, the original being written by a certain Vernon Sullivan, when in fact Vian wrote it himself and Sullivan is just a pseudonym.

Boris Vian was a writer, poet, jazz musician, translator, critic actor, inventor and engineer (yes, all that!). Early in the summer of 1946 he met a young publisher, Jean d’Halluin, who for a bet asked him to write a book like Henry Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer. Vian wrote J’irai cracher … in two weeks from August 5th-23rd, plagiarising the style of American romans noirs. Set in the U.S. South, it deals with heated racial and sexual conflict; Vian’s intention was to denounce the racism and precariousness that African-Americans suffered from. It went on to sell more than half a million copies, but its erotic content led to it being banned in 1949 for immorality. (In 1959 Vian, aged 39, died of cardiac arrest during the first projection of the film based on the novel – a version of which highly disapproved). This experience as a pseudo-translator led to Vian becoming the real translator of noir writers such as Chandler, Cheyney and Cain.


Boris Vian

But what is the point of a pseudo-translation? In his Brave New Words blog BJ Epstein has the following to say:

In his book Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond Gideon Toury defines pseudo-translations as “texts which have been presented as translation with no corresponding source texts in other languages ever having existed – hence no factual ‘transfer operations’ and translation relationships”. In other words, it is a fake translation. Mr. Toury suggests that this is a “a convenient way of introducing novelties into a culture” and is especially useful “in cultures reluctant to deviate from sanctioned models and norms.” He also mentions that there may be times when either translation itself or else a particular type of literature has prestige, so authors try to get in on the action, as it were, by creating pretend translations.

In Is That A Fish in Your Ear David Bellos mentions pseudo-translation in his discussion of the indistinction that can exist between original and translated texts. Some of the examples he mentions are: Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books (1762) by James McPherson, Horace Walpole‘s The Castle of Otranto (1764, regarded as the first gothic novel), Emmanuel Lifshitz’ twenty-three poems written as ‘James Clifford’, Andreï Makine‘s first three novels, and The Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1669) by Guilleragues, the latter not being unmasked as a hoax until 1954!

While Makine’s and McPherson’s pseudo-translations were purely aimed at getting their books printed, the reason for most pseudo-translations is to put distance between the real author and what they want(ed) to say. Many authors, especially in the 18th century, were criticising their governments in a disguised fashion; our more tolerant societies today might explain why pseudo-translations are less common now. Another advantage of a pseudo-translation is to make the language, and not the author, the most important element of a book.

Some other examples of pseudo-translations:

Frontispiece of Voltaire’s Candide (Wikipedia)

  • Clara Gazul plays (1825; ‘Spanish’ to French) and Guzla (1827; ‘Serbian’ to French) by Prosper Merimée
  • Le Livre de Jade (1867; ‘Chinese’ to French) by Judith Gautier
  • Les Chansons de Bilitis [The Songs of Bilitis] (1894; ‘Ancient Greek’ to French) by Pierre Louÿs
  • Di Koningin fan Skeba (1898; Afrikaans) by SJ Du Toit
  • Three novels written by Raymond Queneau as pseudo-translations of Sally Mara, an Irishwoman, translated from English by ‘Michel Presle’.
  • O Novo Gulliver (1961; possible pseudo-translation from Spanish to Portuguese) by ‘Tingusa Gelany’
  • White Poems (1965) and Dream Masters (1989) (poems; ‘Greek’ to English) by David Solway
  • The Beijing of Possibilities (2009; Chinese to English) by Jonathan Tel

Many more ‘translations’ probably exist that have never been unmasked as originals – and vice versa. All this goes to prove that in the absence of a giveaway, readers are generally unable to tell whether a text is an original or a translation. Makine only revealed the truth in order to be eligible to win the Goncourt Prize, and Walpole only when he would have had to produce the Italian original.

Do you know of any other pseudo-translations? Have you ever read one, before or after knowing it was a pseudo-translation?

*pseudo-translation – not to be confused with pseudo-localisation (sometimes called pseudo-translation) which is a software testing method that is used to test internationalization aspects of software. 

Suggested links:

Translation troubles

I got back a few days ago from a month-long trip to (mainland) France, the UK and Iceland (I’ll be blogging about the Icelandic language soon), and I wanted to share some surprising or humorous translation errors I came across while travelling.

First of all, when we dropped our hire car off at Edinburgh airport on our way to Iceland we came across this surprising sign:

The ‘keys’ have of course been translated into the other languages using the word for computer keys and not car keys. Thankfully the context and the illustration help you understand what is meant.

Also in Edinburgh we came across the following sign when leaving a car-park:

I don’t speak German, Italian or Spanish so can’t vouch for the other languages, but in French a new word, renez, has been created.

While we were in the UK the Korean flag scandal happened, and two days later a chain of British opticians capitalised on it with the following newspaper advertisement:

Although I lived for three years in South Korea my Korean isn’t fluent enough to be sure when there’s a mistake, however a Korean friend confirmed that while the Korean itself is correct, ‘Specsavers’ should be at the beginning and not the end of the sentence. Presumably the advertisers wanted the Korean to look like the equivalent English sentence (an advertising slogan which is well-known in the UK): “They should have gone to Specsavers”.

The day after my return to Reunion Island I went to a local restaurant with a friend who was passing through. This particular restaurant is one of the few in Saint Denis that’s taken the trouble to translate its menu into English, however they insist on using internet translation and unfortunately that gives the following results:

Drop in for dinner?

For those that don’t speak French the Crotin [sic] de Chèvre Chaud should be ‘Warm Goat’s Cheese’ in English and not ‘dung’! (This photo was featured in The Telegraph’s ‘Sign Language’ ‘Best of January 2014’ photo gallery)

Another example from the same menu:

Puts a ro-dent in your appetite?

Here Souris [d’agneau] (knuckle of lamb) has been translated literally as ‘mouse’. (This photo was also featured in The Telegraph’s ‘Sign Language’ photo gallery). Things have improved however, as a few years ago filet was translated thoughout as ‘net’ instead of ‘fillet’, and cabot de fond (a type of fish) was translated as ‘dog bottom’!

Have you seen any translations that have made you laugh out loud recently?

P.S. By the way, the level of English in Iceland was amazingly good – I virtually never saw (or even heard) any mistakes in English. 

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Novels with language professionals as characters

[Updated October 2021]

I love reading and I thought I’d share a few novels in English or French that have translators or interpreters as characters. Some I’ve already read, and some I’m looking forward to reading soon.

Books in French I have read

  • Je l’aimais by Anna Gavalda was published in 2002, and has been translated into English by Catherine Evans as Someone I Loved. Two men have an affair. One leaves his wife and children, the other stays. Which one was right? Gavalda explores this dilemma from the unusual point of view of a relationship between a father-in-law and a daughter-in-law. One of the mistresses, Mathilde, was an interpreter (annoyingly called a translator throughout the book), however she remains a secondary character and the story is never really explored from her point of view.
  • La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre, a lawyer. Published in 2017. Patience Portefeux is a sworn Arabic-French translator and interpreter in Paris who starts having criminal dealings. While this prize-winning novel shines a spotlight on those who work for the French justice system it doesn’t do so in a very flattering way; while Patience’s work is undoubtedly professional, her welfare situation isn’t (this is ultimately what makes her turn to crime), and the profession is portrayed as being peopled by those who don’t pay social security contributions. For more details about this see the SFT press release (in French). Made into a film in 2020.
  • Les amandes amères by Laurence Cossé, was published in September 2011. A translator and occasional interpreter, Edith, wants to teach her Moroccan home-help, Fadila, how to read and write. Edith realises how complicated and humiliating life is for somebody who is illiterate. But Fadila is not young and Edith is not trained to teach literacy. It turns out to be harder than Edith thought – what she thought Fadila had learnt is forgotten by the following week. This is a novel, but is based on the author’s real experience of trying to teach a Moroccan woman in her 60s to read and write. While the overall themes of immigration and illiteracy could have been interesting, I didn’t like the book very much as I found the multiple descriptions of teaching far too detailed and rather uninteresting. The faithful transcription of Fadila’s way of speaking is also rather difficult to read, and occasionally confusing. There are occasional references to Edith’s work, but they are few and far between. We only learn that Edith is a translator one-third of the way through the book.

  • Reparer les vivants by Maylis de Kerangal, was published in January 2014. When a 19-year-old is brain dead after an accident his parents consent to organ donation. His heart is given to Claire Méjan, a 51-year old translator suffering from myocarditis who, after three years of her condition gradually worsening, is in dire need of a heart transplant. An English translation was published in 2016 as Mend the Living in the UK and The Heart in the US, and there’s also a 2016 film.

Books in French I haven’t read yet

I haven’t had the chance to read any of these books yet. Let me know your opinion if you have!

  • Mensonges by Valérie Zenatti. Published May 2011. The translator of Aharon Appelfeld pretends to be him. A book where the fate of the writer and his translator are intertwined.

Aharon Appelfeld, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Assommons les pauvres ! by Shumona Sinha. Published August 2011. Sinha is an interpreter who worked for the OFPRA (French office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons). This (autobiographical?) novel is about an interpreter who works with asylum seekers. You can see a video on ARTE about it here.
  • La traduction est une histoire d’amour by Jacques Poulin. Published in 2006. Set in Quebec. Originally from Ireland, Marine is a translator working on a novel written by Jack Waterman. She ends up meeting him, they become friends, and he finds her somewhere to live: a chalet on l’Île d’Orléans. One day they discover a black cat, and together they start looking for the cat’s owner, who might need help.

Books I’ve read in English

  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. In an unnamed South American country a group of terrorists hold some VIPs hostage; one of the hostages, Gen, is the multilingual interpreter of the Japanese guest of honour. The book explores how the terrorists and hostages cope with living in a house together for several months. Bel Canto won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize in 2002, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named the Book Sense Book of the Year. It sold more than a million copies in the United States and has been translated into thirty languages. I enjoyed this book, although it was rather annoying that Gen was consistently referred to as a translator and not as an interpreter.
  • The Mission Song by John Le Carre. Interpreter Bruno Salvador is fluent in numerous African languages in London. Sent to a mysterious island in the North Sea to interpret during a secret conference between Central African warlords, Bruno thinks he is helping Britain bring peace to a bloody corner of the world. But then he hears something he should not have … . I read this in Mongolia two years ago, and while the story as a whole was interesting enough, from a professional point of view there were a number of inconsistencies concerning Bruno and his work. Conference interpreter Tiina wrote a good review covering these inconsistencies here.
  • House on Moon Lake by Francesca Duranti. An Italian translator becomes obsessed by a German novel he is translating. I read this a while back but it didn’t leave much of an impression.
  • The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones. Lucy Fly from Yorkshire is a Japanese to English technical translator who’s been living in Tokyo for ten years. She becomes the principal suspect in a murder case when her friend Lily is killed. During the novel you gradually discover how Lucy and Lily became friends, and whether or not Lucy is guilty. Talking about her work Lucy says: “[she] spent her days putting Japanese sentences into English, twisting the words so that the end went at the beginning, articles and plurals appeared, vagaries became specifics”. Lucy’s work, and the Japanese setting are merely backdrops in this mystery, but they add to the strong narrative. A good read.
  • The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster. New England professor and translator David Zimmer lost his family in a plane crash and spends his waking hours in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity.  One night his interest is piqued by a clip from a lost film by silent comedian Hector Mann, and he embarks on a journey around the world to research a book on Mann, who vanished in 1929 and has been presumed dead for sixty years. When the book is published the following year, a letter invites him to meet Hector … . Zimmer is the central character but his translation activity is not really an important part of the story. I read this book a few months ago for a book club and enjoyed it – it reconciled me with Auster as I’d read one of his books 15 years ago (The Music of Chance) and it hadn’t made me want to read any of his others.
Paul Auster

Paul Auster

  • The Woman in the Fifth by Douglas Kennedy. A romantic mistake at the American college where he used to teach has cost Harry Ricks his job and marriage, and he flees to Paris where he ends up having to work as a night guard to make ends meet. He meets beautiful and mysterious Margit, a Hungarian translator, but soon their passionate and intense relationship triggers a string of inexplicable events. Margit is not all she seems to be, and Harry finds himself in a nightmare from which there is no easy escape. This is an easy and compelling read, but you might have to suspend your belief in reality. By the way, it’s much better than the film.
  • Bad Girl: A Novel by Mario Vargas Llosa. Book originally in Spanish (Peru), translated by Edith Grossman. Young Peruvian Ricardo has only two ambitions in life: loving bad girls and living in Paris. He moves to the capital of France, where he becomes a translator and interpreter at UNESCO. His muse will come in the shape of the same woman who takes different forms: an amateur revolutionary in 1960s Paris and Havana, the wife of a British millionaire in 1970s London, and the lover of a Japanese mob boss. The book has several interesting reflections on the profession:
    • “So what were you Ricardito? Maybe … nothing but an interpreter, somebody, as my colleague Salomón Toledano liked to define us, who is only when he isn’t, a hominid who exists when he stops being what he is so that what other people think and say can pass through him more easily”.

    • “I had acquired the skill of the good interpreter, which consists in knowing the equivalents of words without necessarily understanding their contents (according to [my colleague], understanding them was a hindrance),”

    • [My colleague] never accepted a permanent position because as a freelancer he felt more liberated and earned more money. Not only was he the best interpreter I had met in all the years I earned a living practicing the “profession of phantoms”—that’s what he called it—but he was also the most original.”

    • [My colleague] asked, “If we suddenly felt ourselves dying and asked ourselves, “What trace of our passage through this dog’s life of drudgery will we leave behind?,’ the honest answer would be: ‘None, we haven’t done anything except speak for other people.’ Otherwise, what does it mean to have translated millions of words and not remember a single one of them, because not a single one deserved to be remembered?”

    • “I felt less ghostlike as a literary translator than I did as an interpreter.”
  • The Literary Conference by César Aira.  Book originally in Spanish (Argentina), translated by Katherine Silver. This somewhat surreal novella first published in 1997 follows the adventures of Aira as he attends a literary conference in Merida, Venezuela, while attempting to clone Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes. He has to contend with unintended consequences of his cloning experiment, which starts having disastrous results. The English translation was published in 2006.
  • Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors. A Danish book translated by Misha Hoekstra, short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, it tells the story of Sonja who translates Swedish crime fiction for a living. The first words are “Sonja is sitting in a car, and she’s brought her dictionary along.”
  • The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker. Book originally in Dutch, translated by David Colmer. Winner of the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The novel follows Emilie, a translation professor and Emily Dickinson scholar, who retreats from her life in the Netherlands to an isolated farmhouse in Wales following an affair with a student.

Gerbrand Bakker (left) and his translator David Colmer (right).

Books in English I haven’t read yet

  • The Missing Shade Of Blue by Jennie Erdal. Lonely Parisian-raised translator Edgar Logan arrives in Edinburgh to study the Enlightenment sage David Hume; once there his life becomes entangled with those of Harry and Carrie, a self-destructive philosopher and his artist wife.
  • The Past by Alan Pauls. Book originally in Spanish (Argentina), translated by Nick Caistor. This is about a translator who works on movie subtitles and as a conference interpreter. His 12-year relationship with his girlfriend comes to an end and, after some time and a few important events in his life, he starts to suffer from amnesia and language issues: he ends up forgetting the languages he used to work with, which is the nightmare of all translators. In 2007 it also became a film, starring Gael García Bernal, and directed by Hector Babenco.
  • Kornél Esti by Dezso Kosztolányi. Book originally in Hungarian, translated by Bernard Adams. In 1933, Kosztolányi released a series of short stories whose protagonist is his most famous character, Kornél Esti―sort of the author’s alter ego. Some of this stories gave shape to the “The Wondrous Voyage of Kornel Esti,” a celebrated Hungarian movie from the mid-1990s. Different editions of the book received different names, depending on the short story editors decided to highlight. In Brazil for example it became O tradutor cleptomaníaco (“The Kleptomaniac Translator”), based on the fact that the translator is stealing elements from the original text, such as jewelry, money, chandelier…. It’s a metaphor for the fact that there always seems to be something lost or “stolen” in translation―even though the vast majority of translators do not suffer from kleptomania.
  • The Translator: A Novel by Nina Schuyler. “When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, she suffers from an unusual but real condition — the loss of her native language. Speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life, she leaves for Japan. There, to Hanne’s shock, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work. Reeling, Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel — a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate, volatile relationship, Hanne is forced to reexamine how she has lived her life, including her estranged relationship with her daughter. In elegant and understated prose, Nina Schuyler offers a deeply moving and mesmerizing story about language, love, and the transcendence of family.
  • The Interpreter by Suzanne Glass. At the end of a demanding day of translating speeches at an international medical conference in Manhattan, Dominique Green accidentally overhears something she is bound by her interpreter’s contract never to reveal. But she can’t forget it.
  • The Interpreter by Suki Kim. Suzy Park is a twenty-nine-year-old Korean American interpreter for the New York City court system. Young, attractive, and achingly alone, she makes a startling and ominous discovery during one court case that forever alters her family’s history.
  • Pinball,1973 by Haruki Murakami, translated into English by Alfred Birnbaum. This novel published in 1980 is the second book of the author’s ‘Trilogy of the Rat’ series. The plot centres on the nameless first-person narrator’s brief but intense obsession with pinball, his life as a freelance translator, and his later efforts to reunite with the old pinball machine that he used to play.

Cover of the English translation of ‘Pinball, 1973’

Lists of books with linguists as characters

Happy reading! Let me know of any I may have missed in the comments!

Adventures on a Faraway Island

Last week I was invited by the Endless Possibilities Talks (EPT) team (Al NavasGerda Prato-Espejo and Esther Navarro-Hall) to talk about my personal journey, that is say the story of how I came to end up living and working as a translator on this small island in the Indian Ocean that is Reunion Island. We also talked about my three years spent living in South Korea, and some of my travels. You can see the video here or below.

If you’re a translator or interpreter you may already have heard of the EPT initiative. Esther, Gerda and Al reside in the US and all work as Spanish interpreters, mainly in the courts; Esther also speaks French and is an Adjunct Professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a trainer and consultant. At the beginning of this year they started a series of talks about the profession of Interpreting and Translating, using the Google Hangout on Air format. Talks are broadcast on average once a week (sometimes more), and generally include guests from the four corners of the globe. They can be watched live on Google+, or afterwards on You Tube. Previous talks have covered localisation, blogging, and technology options for interpreting, to name just a few subjects.

To find out more about EPT and their talks you can visit their Google+ page and/or their blog. You can also follow them on Twitter.

With warm thanks to Gerda, Esther and Al for allowing me this wonderful opportunity to be part of their fascinating EPT adventure, and here’s looking forward to many more talks!