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!!”


8541413374_577b6922bdWhen 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 Renens. These things can bite off your arm!

Then a second, younger, turtle was found. Judging from its shell, the expert said it had probably been released quite recently into the pond.

In a sidebar entitled “l’Italie colonisée”, we learn that snapping turtles are endemic to the Everglades, and that large established populations have been found in Alaska and in Italy. They can walk up to 40 km looking for food, weigh up to 40 kilos, and will eat anything that they come across. Birds, fish, rats, children…

Thursday, a third turtle, the same size as number two, was fished from the pond. They could be sisters, said the expert.

“C’est la carapace de trop,” read the article. One shell too many. Notices have gone up around the pond, and the village authorities are draining it to see if there are any more vicious reptiles lurking evilly in the depths.

The expert confirms that un certain psychose s’est installée dans la population. In other words, people are freaking out.

Someone might have bought it for their child, ten years ago, not realizing that these turtles can live for 80 years or more, said the expert. Who buys a snapping turtle as a pet? What, are they crazy? He estimates that maybe 1,000 of these things are living in aquariums around Switzerland.

Happy birthday, junior! Here’s a nasty limb-snapping turtle that will live longer than you will! Of course I love you, why do you ask?

The expert estimates that it will cost him 10,000 Swiss francs to shelter the three turtles. I’m guessing that means they’ll be served pinot noir with their rodent-based diet.

These aren’t the only castaways washing up on the Vivarium’s doorstep. Three caimans, (two of which are more than three meters long!), iguanas, dozens of frogs and snakes have all come crawling out of the woodwork in the month of June alone.

Who knew our orderly city contained so much reptilian restlessness? If this is happening in calm, quiet Lausanne, what’s going on in, say, New York? I have to admit I’ve never spared a lot of thought for the world of abandoned reptiles. My horizons have now been broadened.

The turtles aren’t the only things making their way up from Italy.  A hunter reportedly saw a bear in Eastern Switzerland in the vicinity of the Italian border. It’s accused of killing and wounding sheep. Do bears attack sheep? In my experience, they usually go after garbage. Maybe Switzerland is too clean? They should head over to Naples, where there’s garbage galore.

Photo Credit: EverExplore via Compfight cc


2234031789_0d3d49b696_mArt is what you can get away with. –

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.

The picture on the front page of Thursday’s local paper caught my attention: a man in a suit, wearing a “scream” Halloween mask, climbing the steps to the Lausanne courthouse.  “The colorful theories of a gang of forgers,” the headline blared.

I wanted to wear a DSK mask, said Christian*, but they asked me not to be provocative…

Leonard*, aka Johnny, wasn’t as circumspect as he posed for the photographers: It’d be a shame for me to hide this handsome mug.

Christian, Leonard and five others are accused of running a forgery ring, selling at least 120 forged paintings over a five-year period, for more than 400,000 Swiss francs.

It took a Lausanne detective specializing in art theft five years to unravel the mystery.

It all hung on a nail.

Christian, who is an art dealer and expert on the painter Bosshard, and Johnny, a more lowlife character, both claim to have tried for several years to convince an elderly Lausanne woman to sell the Giacometti hanging on her living room wall. She balked.

Christian had a hard-of-hearing painter friend make a copy from a Polaroid (I told him not to work too hard on it, and it’s a terrible copy), in the hope of offering it to the woman so that she would agree to sell the original. With the copy, he argued, her wall wouldn’t be bare. Fail. She still won’t sell.

So they move to plan B. A young blonde woman rings at the door, claiming that her budgie has escaped. Perhaps it has flown into the woman’s home? The woman lets her in.  She manages to get another accomplice, Bernard* (un Jenisch fauché, which translates roughly into “a thieving gypsy”), in as well, distracting the woman while Bernard exchanges the original for the copy.

But when he tries to hang the copy on the wall, the nail comes out. Yeah, that was a bummer. So he leaves it propped up against the wall and makes his getaway.

Bernard claims he sold the Giacometti to Christian for 40,000 francs. Christian, in turn, allegedly sells it through a middleman to a Zurich gallery owner for three times that amount, in cash, the transaction taking place in the back of a car.

Meanwhile, the elderly woman isn’t totally clueless, and notices the painting is on the floor and that it is a pathetic excuse for the original. She calls the police. And everything starts to unravel.

More gems from yesterday’s paper, as the case continues to unfold:

The group’s modus operandi is to scour flea markets and salvation army-type stores, buying paintings, adding authentic-looking signatures to them, and then selling them to galleries in Lausanne and Geneva. Christian’s painter friend made forgeries of existing paintings, as well, passing them off as originals.

The court expresses astonishment that the gallery owners could be so credulous.

A Braque for 4,000 francs? Don’t you find that just a tad bizarre? Then a second, and a third, and then a Fernand Léger 6225275802_41157ea0abor a Van Dongen? Next week, it’ll be, what, the Mona Lisa for ten francs?

Christian, the art expert, testified that an original Braque would sell for 70,000 to 400,000 francs. Are the gallery owners in on the scam? Sorry, but these gallery owners are “pigeons” (suckers). Are they igoramuses? I don’t know. But they should have gotten appraisals before buying these “croutes” (crusty pieces of crap). I’m not in the best position to say this, but it strikes me as dishonest and unethical on their part. 

The detective agrees. They should have known it was a racket. The prices were too low. Some of them resold the “croutes” for a tidy profit. Perhaps they should also be on trial?

On the third day, the members of the ring hurl insults at one another as the court tries to figure out who has done what, and who is the brains behind the operation.

The blonde admits only to having come up with the idea of the missing budgie.

Bernard, the “Jenisch fauché” only did it for the money, but said Christian told him where the painting was hanging.

Christian says it was Johnny who sold him the painting after it had been stolen, and he was completely unaware of the theft. During our discussion about the sale of the painting, I could tell something wasn’t quite right. 

You had a fake Buchet, too. You wanted me to sell it for you.

Leonard, aka Johnny, aka the “Jenisch sanguin” (irascible gypsy), turns out to be the ex-husband of the blonde, and keeps yelling at everyone. At Christian: One day I’m going to kick your ass. You’re a (expletive). At the deaf artist who painted the forgeries: You’re not just deaf, you’re a stupid jerk, too. 

The paper promises more to come as the trial continues on Monday.

I never read anything this colorful in the papers in the US. Real-life drama, unfolding before my very eyes! Maybe the journalists have more freedom to report on what happens in the courtroom here. Whatever the case, it makes for great reading. I’ve learned a whole slew of new words in French, too. Jenisch. Pigeon. Croute. Faussaire.

This is life! I wonder if Christian trafficked in Munch, too. The mask could be a clue…

*not their real names (I think).

Photo Credit (nail): kevin dooley via Compfight cc

Photo Credit (Mona Lisa): -RejiK via Compfight cc

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…)

Crowdsourcing, Part III

Saturday I wrote a post about how I wasn’t aware of what was going on in my body, and how unsettling that felt. So unsettling, in fact, that I wasn’t able to write the post I had been planning for several days, and had to gaze intensely at my navel for a whole weekend instead.

That was probably a good thing, because it gave me some new insight into this post. Navel gazing isn’t all bad. Turns out there’s some pretty interesting stuff in there.

Last fall I translated an article by Daniel Saraga for Reflex Magazine about the gazillions of bacteria we have living on and in our bodies. The title (in English) was “Me, Myself and I – and a million other germs.” It should actually have been “Me, Myself and I  – and 100 trillion other germs.”

That’s right. A human body has about 10 trillion cells in it. And that very same human body (yours, for example), is also home to 100 trillion bacteria. Your mouth, your nose, your armpits, your navel, your skin and especially your gut are teeming with thousands of different species of bacteria. If you could separate out all those bacteria from the rest of you, they’d weigh 2 kilos. (Before you start swigging Lysol, be warned that without them, you’d be dead. They secrete enzymes that are critical for digesting food.)

The science geeks among you have probably already read about this in the news.  For the rest of you, Ed Yong has written a really great overview in his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science.

We’re not so much organisms as we are ecosystems. Each of us is like a whole planet to the bacteria that have colonized us. We have deserts (skin), tropical rain forests (mouths, noses, butt cracks), deep oceans (intestines). Each of these zones harbors particular species of bacteria. And my armpit bacteria are different from your armpit bacteria, but mine and yours both stay remarkably stable throughout our lives. Babies get their very first bacterial colonies at birth, on their way out of the vaginal canal. Eureka! A new host! (If they’re born by C-section, the bacteria that set up shop in their tiny guts are totally different.)

Recent research (a.k.a fun and games analyzing s%#t samples) reveals that human gut communities fall into three basic types, that hold across all continents and all nations. The New York Times report on the discovery compared it with the identification of human blood types: “Blood type, meet bug type.” (What a great headline! Carl Zimmer, you are my hero.)

It’s totally unlike the human genome, which is highly geographical. Genetically, people in Japan are more like other people in Japan than they are like people in Finland. But gut bacteria don’t follow those rules; a Japanese can, and does, have the same basic gut community as a Finn. The author of the study indicated that people with a certain disease all had the same bug type. (But he wouldn’t reveal what the disease was.)

This is shocking news. Could it be that we’ve been taken for a huge ride here? We thought we were the top guns on this planet! We thought it was all about us! We thought our bodies were vehicles for our splendiferous brains!

No, silly. We are being maintained. We exist simply as biomes for colonies of established bacteria. Our brains probably just evolved as the best way for our bacteria to ensure that they will continue to have thriving hosts, generation after generation.

Think about it. Thanks to our outsized cortexes we are better fed than ever before. We live longer. We have figured out how to fight off nasty invading bacteria and viruses that threaten our interior colonies. It saves them the job! We thought disease was about us, about our genes. It could very well involve a batch of rogue bacteria. Guerilla germs, hiding out in the hills of our small intestine.

Ed Yong explains how our gut bacteria could even be manipulating us to their own ends, sending out signals that make us hungrier and encourage us to eat more and store up fat. What’s to say that all our behavior doesn’t have at its ultimate source some bizarre bacterial need? Or some complicated internal competition? A sort of bacterial Olympics, taking place in our nostrils?

I’m afraid the crowdsourcing thing wasn’t our idea after all. Yes, it seems we are being crowdsourced by three bacterial fiefdoms, and have been for millenia. They’ve farmed out all their needs to humans the world over, and we had absolutely no idea. And it will likely continue no matter what we end up doing to the planet. I’m sure they’re rooting hard for the space program, so they can make sure we move to Mars and they don’t lose these precious ecosystems they have worked so hard to develop. They’re probably holding summit meetings as we speak, on bathroom floors at NASA.

Come to think of it, I wonder if Al Gore and W. have different bug types? Gore’s gut is going “We’ve gotta stay on this planet, guys, it’s been great so far!” and W.’s is saying “No, dudes, let’s scrap it and try another. Innovate or die!” Who’s progressive in that scenario?

And the worst thing is that there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. Without our bacterial bosses, we’re just defenseless shells.

It’s enough to make my blood pressure spike.