Friday, October 21, 2005

Weekly BlogScan: Lost in Translation

I began my BlogScans nearly a year ago, with the chance discovery that many blog-posts centered on a "wandering" theme. I feel as if I've come full circle to discover that many more contain a complaint that someone or some idea is "lost in translation."

This was triggered, perhaps, by a reasonably clever Blogcritics post examining how The Simpsons might survive translation to suit the Arab world. (They don't.) And Homer's translation to a sober, wise patriach in a series bereft of beer, bacon, Bart's backtalk, and Lisa's self-conscious feminism is a paradigm for other such losses in international and trans-Web communication.

For a 180-degree twist on this concept, I read John "Vampire Slayer" Blyler's complaint on JB's Circuit that his studies of vampire bloggers and dead kittens had been taken out of context. I never knew that dead kittens were a trick to trace vampire bloggers (parasitic denizens of the cyberworld that suck original ideas out of the blogs of others). But The Bay Area Is Talking had the rest of the story. Just Google the phrase "Bloggers kill kittens" and you'll find ample evidence of the propagation of an absurd idea through the Web.

But that isn't so much lost in translation as stolen. For a look at an absurd idea both lost in translation and propagated freely, check out respectful of otters, where they repair a fractured news item purported to be from ZDF News (a highly-respected Dutch news program). Did President Bush visit a specially-built food-supply depot in New Orleans after Katrina, only to have it torn down after he left? No, the bloggers conclude; the initial translator missed a segue from the story about the Presidential visit to one city with news about different day's visit to a completely different state.

Arabic and Jurdish text on a blackboard, Image Hosted by

Saddam called Yehzidi faith Satanism

According to Michael Yon: Online Magazine, the Yehzidi, a little-known, reclusive Kurdish tribe, had their religious beliefs mistranslated as devil worship by Saddam Hussein.
Some believe Yezidism is over 5,000 years old... Some tenets of Yezidism are readily understandable to westerners: Yezidis worship one God... They recognize and respect both Jesus and Mohammed, but as men of faith, not prophets. Where the doctrine starts to become hazy is when the angels appear... [W]hen this seventh Angel, most beloved of God, fell from grace, he was the most powerful angel in Heaven and on Earth. He rose as the Archangel Malak Ta'us... [T]he name, Malak Ta'us, literally means, "King of Peacocks."

Saddam Hussein's hatred for Yezidis and Kurds was matched only by his desire to eradicate every last one of them from Iraq. Even though most Kurds are actually Sunni Muslims, as is the now imprisoned dictator, his hatred for them remained unabated, and was relentless. Hussein knew that a collision of religious beliefs carved fault lines between the Yezidis and the Kurds who surround them. He used his common point of reference with the Kurds to sharpen their divide from the Yezidis, by calling them "Devil Worshippers." But just because the Yezidis don't have a Satan figure in their holy book, doesn't mean they can't spot a devil when they see one. Together with the Kurds, they resisted Hussein's will. Today, while the real peacock sits in jail, the unvanquished Yezidis are rebuilding their homeland.

On Always On, Bernard Moon writes about a blogosphere lost in translation. Is the Web's lightning-fast transmission of ideas actually barred by lousy translation software? His thoughts range from French outrage over Google making libraries available online, to the real need to communicate with people who speak from another cultural and linguistic stance.
That, in turn, led me to think about other topics and issues from around the globe that people not only want but need to read about from the perspectives of the people who are on the ground experiencing them. What are Iraqis saying about the situation in their country? What would the people of Rwanda have written to make us understand the horrors that took place there? ... Other than what people like Mohammed and Omar from the Iraq the Model blog—who are writing in English—have to say, we're missing out on these voices because we don't understand their language.

Sometimes, losing something in translation is worthwhile, says Hack A Day [beta]. He recommends using the lossy translator of Babelfish, for example, to make it easier to create texts for steganography. The quote is as it appears on the blog.
There are a couple disadvantages to this method of steg: the low bitrate and the fact that you have to transmit the source and the translated text. There are also some attacks to expose this method. If the same sentence appears twice in a text and is translated two different ways it would set off a red flag. Also if the machine mistakes are inconsistent: using the word "foots" in one place and "feets" in the other. If someone developed a large statistical model of all MT systems it would be easy to see that the steg doesn’t fit the mold, but the steg could also use this model to make sure it fits (an arms race).

The blogger at is another who wants to work the system to bring sense back out of what has been lost in translation in trans-cultural business deals. "A good agreement cannot fix a bad relationship, but a good relationship can fix a bad agreement... So relax and do what Asian and European dealmakers have been doing for centuries: wine, dine, and (then) sign... then wine and dine some more."

Riding Sun points out that dead-tree media also seem willing to use translation losses to provide deniability while making a point. He cites a Japanese headline on a Newsweek cover in February that proclaims "America Is Dead." Neither this article, nor its cover illustration, an American flag tossed into a garbage can, made it into the issue published in the US. That featured Hilary Swank, Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio instead, under the title, "Oscar Confidential."
It's one thing for Newsweek to actively promote the notion that America is a "dead", "rotting" country overseas. But it's quite another thing indeed to hide those efforts from its American readers. If Newsweek really thinks America is dead, and our flag belongs in the trash, why won't it tell us? ... If I were to offer Newsweek a suggestion, it would be this: Any story or cover you're ashamed to run in America probably shouldn't be used in other countries, either.

Finally, lost in translation celebrates the sheer joy of losing it. Check out the Babelizer, which guarantees jabberwocky for your efforts. I plugged in "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?" with "Include Chinese, Japanese, and Korean" turned on—and out came:
And you have gone old hour these feet more retimber the English

Extreme calm of it! (Babelized version of "That's so cool!")

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Blogger samraat said...

4/03/2010 11:12 PM  

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