Book review – The Martian

You probably went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens this winter. Did you happen to notice how everyone can breathe just fine on just about any planet or asteroid? With no space suits or visible means of  life support? Come on. It’s a reasonably good story —lots of action, romance, family drama, plenty of cute wookie and robot scenes —but the lack of attention to scientific detail drives me insane.

Last year I translated a book about space written by Swiss author Philippe Barraud. It was a fun project. I learned an enormous amount — the unfathomable enormity of the universe, the practical challenges inherent to interplanetary travel, the unlikelihood of survival as a species off our own planet, and most of all the mind-boggling absurdity of our conviction that humans are the most advanced lifeform in the universe. We are stunning in our stubborn tendency to put ourselves at the center of everything.

During our months of work, Philippe mentioned The Martian, saying it was a fantastic book. I’m not a sci-fi fan, so I filed it away and then forgot about it. I didn’t have a hankering to go see the movie when it came out, even though Matt Damon.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Whistler, waiting for Brendan and his friend Cassandra to weary of skiing in the rain. Due to bad planning on my part, I had no reading material. No journal. The free Whistler paper takes about five minutes to read. Front and center in the Whistler Village bookstore: The Martian. Thank you Fate. Continue reading

Huh? Say What?

There are so many things that don’t translate between languages. I could list reams of French one-word concepts that cannot be captured quite right in English. Every time I see one of them in a text I’m supposed to be translating I cringe. Vulgarisation. Valorisation. Territoire.

And then there are the turns of phrase. I understood that péter un plomb or péter un cable meant to be really pissed off, but for the longest time I had a really hard time visualizing someone farting out a bit of lead shot or wiring. In French yoga, downward facing dog is chien tête en bas. But I heard chat a tomba. The cat fell. Indeed.

So my interest was piqued when I received EPFL’s weekly Science question for translation last Sunday. There is, apparently, a word – or rather, one syllable – that has the same meaning in every language in the world. Continue reading

Showing up

yoga matI have a favorite website, called Brainpickings, whose curator, Maria Popova, assembles interesting, thought-provoking and inspiring things from all walks of art and literature. I can’t count the times I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of the site and emerged, hours later, thoughts spinning in new directions. You should definitely check it out.

She often posts about writers’ daily routines, and what inspires them. There are so many things that can get in the way of creativity.  All these artists seem to agree on one thing, though. You can’t create if you don’t sit down and just do something.  I think photorealist Chuck Close said it best:

Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Continue reading


It takes a long time for this old bear to learn her lessons. For the past few months I’ve tried to feed this blog and translate and run and work on my novel and keep everything going smoothly in our household and keep up with interesting things on the internet. And everything is going fine except for the novel. Somehow, all those other things are just so much more immediate. So much easier to tick off the list over the course of a day. But when the day ends and I’ve not put in the time on my writing project, I’m somehow unsatisfied. Continue reading

Open up

A couple of years ago, a co-founder of an EPFL start-up came to me for help. Their html5 video player had just gotten fantastic reviews on gizmodo, and they wanted to make sure the English on their website was good. I suggested a few corrections, he asked me how much they owed me, and I said it was on the house. I thought their product was great, their enthusiasm was palpable, and I knew they probably didn’t have much money. He was very appreciative.

A few weeks ago, I translated an EPFL press release about another start-up. I visited the company’s website to check some details, and noticed that it had some serious problems. I wrote the two young co-founders an e-mail, telling them that I would be willing to help them polish the English on their website. I didn’t mention money explicitly, but I hinted that I was prepared to spend a couple of hours working for free, like I had with Jilion.

No response. Not even a No, thank you.
Continue reading

Translation and transition

There it was this morning, on the front page.

Un jury unanime plébiscite le nouveau stade de Lausanne.

Lausanne is going to get a new stadium with an Olympic-size swimming pool. I’m happy about this, because I like to swim laps. I love doing flip-turns at the end of the lane, stretching out for that long glide off the wall. I love the baby-blue of pool water and the crisscrossing, wavy lines of light that form on the bottom. I love doing breast stroke and watching the bubbles form at the tips of my fingers as I carve out the water in front of me.

But I digress. What really caught my attention was the word plébiscite. No matter how many times I see it, I still do a double-take. Is it just me, or is there something icky about this word?


Usually when I read in French I have a good sense of what a word probably means. But this word? Undermine, infiltrate, infect? It almost sounds like someone blowing their nose loudly into a handkerchief.

Continue reading

Linguistic commutivity

I got the e-mail on Thursday. A translation for a client, due Monday. It was short and non-scientific, which can sometimes be a nice break. It’s good to diversify! I had a bunch of other stuff to finish up on Friday, but I said I’d do it over the weekend.

Saturday at 7:15 am, I’m in the car with Luc, headed to his school for the PSAT.  We had discussed equipment the evening before.  Two pencils, an eraser. A calculator, just in case. A pencil sharpener.

Fifteen minutes into the drive, I think to double check. “Do you have your pencils?” check. “Eraser? Pencil sharpener? ID?” check. check. Check. “Calculator?” Umm. Oops.

What is it with my offspring and standardized testing? I utter a few choice expletives at high volume. At least this time, there’s no one else around to hear it. “I told you LAST NIGHT to get all this stuff ready!”

I pull off the freeway, looking at the clock. There isn’t time to go home, get the calculator, and get to the test on time. And now I’ve wasted even more time pulling off the freeway! More words exit my mouth. Luckily I have my phone, and he calls a friend and solves his own problem. All that excitement for nothing.

I’m also in a hurry because I have to hightail it home and take Brendan to the train station. He and two of Marc’s students are heading off to Africa to dig holes way the hell out in some godforsaken village in the bush, studying erosion. Marc isn’t joining them until a week later. I’m just a little anxious about all those malaria-carrying mosquitoes that want to feast on my firstborn’s innocent, unsuspecting eighteen-year-old flesh. I make sure we double-check: passport, Yellow Fever vaccination certification, mosquito net, insect repellent, headlamp. (No electricity.) “Remember to only drink bottled water,” I remind him for the five-thousandth time.

Sunday rolls around and I open the file. It’s two short interviews, one with an Irishman and one with a Brit, along with a short introduction. The title for each piece is a quote taken from the interview.

Now we translators may not be the brightest bulbs on the tree, but I know that these interviews were not conducted in French.

They were done in English, translated into French, and now I’m being asked to translate them back into English.

Here’s the thing: The commutative law of arithmetic doesn’t apply to language. You can’t assume A+B-B=A, where A= a bunch of words in English and B=those words translated into French.

I’m stymied. What, is this some sort of quality control test? Are they trying to see how close I come to the original English to see if I’m any good as a translator? 

I fire off an e-mail, asking for a copy of the original interviews. But it’s Sunday in Switzerland, which is sacred. Only Americans like me who don’t have any extended family in the vicinity can get away with working on Sunday. And since tomorrow first thing I’m heading to Zurich to hang out with my visitor Susan and my Dutch friend Mieke, it has to get done now. So I bite back my compunctions, translate the French back into English, and send it off.

Monday evening, in Zurich, I check my e-mail on Mieke’s computer. I have a message, with the original English interviews attached. “But please base your translation on the French translation,” it says.

Okay, I understand, we need to make sure the sentences are grammar-error-free and the whole thing hangs together logically. I’ve conducted plenty of interviews myself, and I know about cleaning things up. Talking is different than writing, and adjustments sometimes have to be made.

This said, I still feel very strongly about staying true to the words that come out of someone’s mouth.  People who translate or write for a living know that there are many ways to spin a story. In an interview, the person who was talking spun the story in a particular way, choosing a particular set of words. When I pulled off the freeway Saturday morning, I used specific words. I didn’t say, “Gosh darn shucks, Luc, that wasn’t too bright!”  It just doesn’t ring true, now, does it?

You see, doing a re-translation-of-a-translation violates the whole interview ethic. When you’re quoting someone, you’re sharing the words they used. Period. When I translate back from the French translation, I run the risk of using slightly different words, because English is a wonderfully rich language, chock full of synonyms. And if the French translation was less than optimal, that risk skyrockets. Without the original, I have no way of knowing how good the French translation was.

So, obviously, I was very relieved to get the original interviews.

I fixed them up and sent off the new version. In fact, the French translation had been good, and so my translation of the translation had been pretty close to the mark. I had warm fuzzies on two counts – number one, I wasn’t going to be involved in misquoting anyone, and number two, I don’t completely suck as a translator.

Back home Tuesday night, I opened my e-mail to a message saying that I had accidentally left a double sentence in one of the interview answers. I’d pasted from the original, but neglected to cut out my original translation. A mistake!!

“I’d appreciate it if you would pay closer attention in the future 😉 ”  he wrote (in French, “Merci de faire bien attention pour la suite 😉.”

That was it. No “Thanks for fixing it up at short notice!” or “Great translation!” But that’s okay, I knew it was a good translation. I don’t absolutely need positive feedback. Of course, a good word would have made the likelihood of my taking the next little job from this source about 100% greater…

Still, there was a wink there, and so in the spirit of the thing, I lobbed it back (in English):

“Sorry! Next time, please send the original English interview as well, so we can avoid the whole issue!!”


When the first snapping turtle surfaced, village authorities were surprised. It got its picture in the paper, and an expert from the Lausanne Vivarium came and hauled it off, saying the turtle had probably been living there for ages, unnoticed. Great trepidation in the hamlet of Renens. These things can bite off your arm! Continue reading


Art is what you can get away with. — Andy Warhol

Sometimes, instead of imitating life, art imitates art. This is more commonly known as forgery. If you can get away with it, I suppose you’re an artist of sorts.

Here’s a real-life story of some forgers that didn’t. Continue reading

Crowdsourcing Babel

5277404580_1cd8923c02_mIn my second post on crowdsourcing, my brother Dave made this comment (spelling mistakes corrected): “You could become wealthy if you could figure out how to use crowdsourcing for translation.”

Well, it’s happening! I just found out today that a group led by CAPTCHA inventor and Carnegie Mellon prof Luis von Ahn is crowdsourcing people to translate stuff under the guise of an online language course called Duolingo. (After this I’ll stop posting on crowdsourcing. For a little while. I did say it was a big iceberg, didn’t I?)

Here’s how it will work. Say there’s a website in English that they want to translate into Spanish. They take the text from the website, break it down into sentences, and use these sentences as exercises in a free online English course for Spanish speakers.  A person taking the English course would read the sentence, and then enter what she thinks it means (in Spanish) on her computer. That’s effectively an English-to-Spanish translation. (I’m not sure it’s the best way to learn a language — but then that’s not their goal, is it?) If you get enough people to “translate” that same sentence, you can do either a statistical analysis to find the most common translation, or get people to vote on the best translation.

I hope they’re not planning to do translations the other way around — let the Spanish person do translations into English. One of the cardinal rules of translating is that you always translate into your mother tongue. You should never attempt to translate into a language you’re not totally fluent in. There are too many expressions, turns of phrase, and words that just don’t “go” together.

That brings up another potential hurdle; unlike the reCAPTCHA crowdsourcing (those squiggly words in boxes that prove you are a person and not a spam-monster), this one requires people to string words together into sentences. Just like gut bacteria, writing ability varies wildly from person to person. Just understanding separate words doesn’t mean you have a clue as to how they should go together.

So that means the clincher is going to be getting enough people involved to even out all the failed attempts. The language course will be free, which is a start. If on top of that it’s not fun and cute and motivating, it’ll tank for sure.

I have signed up for the Beta version. Initially, they will only be offering English, German and Spanish, the languages the developers know personally. (They’re not franco-phobic as far as I know.) I’ll be signing up for Spanish. I tried to learn German in order to help Luc get through 9th grade and my head almost exploded.

That brings up another question: why are there always beta versions? Why is it that we never get to sign up for an alpha version? Or is the alpha version the one that exists inside the inventor’s head?

And another question — how will they choose the texts to translate? To generate income, I can imagine they’d set up a translating business and then use this language course to do the work. But the texts might not all be that practical for the language learner. Tips for preventing Cholera. Machine tool specifications. The LL Bean catalog. Never mind. It’ll all come in handy sometime. You never know when you might be in need of a barn jacket. I’m not sure Dave was right, that you could get rich doing this, but I hope they do.

I hope I’ll be able to rack up points or something. That’s not quite as motivating as money or jelly bellies, but would be a better use of my time than trying to beat my high score in Scramble on Facebook. I might actually learn something in the process >Here’s a video of von Ahm talking about CAPTCHA and Duolingo at a TEDx conference at CMU:


Photo Credit: Alice Hutchinson via Compfight cc

(I think this cat has the right attitude…)