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


Last week, while I was writing about the word that is the same in every language, (huh?), Marc was traveling back to Switzerland to confer with his PhD students and check in on our first-born. When he landed, he sent me an e-mail: “In Geneva waiting for the train for Morges…..all the usual emotions of coming back somehow…”

I asked him on skype later if he felt homesick. A little, he admitted. Well, we had lived in Switzerland for almost ten years, three years longer than any other place we’d lived before. I think I made a sympathetic noise. But I can’t really relate, because I’m not really homesick for Switzerland. I’m still enjoying shopping on Sunday and all these yoga classes. 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

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…)


I’ve been asked to translate the introduction to a Nordic walking book. Initially, I was very excited – this could be my big breakthrough into book translating! – but those hopes were dashed when the author explained that the translated text would be sent by her Swiss publisher to an agent in North America, and if it was accepted, it would be farmed out to a translator there.

Well, never mind, a job’s a job, so I get started. I don’t Nordic Walk, so I’m confident I’ll at least learn something new in the process.

One word keeps popping up, jarring my translating flow: bien-être. This is roughly translated into English as “wellbeing.” Nordic Walking, it turns out, is not only a total body workout (it uses 90% of your muscles!), but it also makes you feel good about yourself. But every time I type “wellbeing,” it feels stilted and awkward. I realize it’s not a word that Americans use much. We love talking about exercise, weight loss, cardiovascular health, muscle tone — did I mention weight loss? Lose Weight! Get a Total Body Workout! I guess the implication is that if you’ve got all those bases covered, it’s obvious that you’re going to feel good about yourself. If your body is buff, what more do you need? Wouldn’t saying that you’ll have a sense of wellbeing be redundant?

More to the point, isn’t it totally subjective? How can you compare something as vague as “wellbeing” with numbers of calories per mile or target heart rate or the percentage of your muscles you’re using? What has a higher bien-être index: an hour of Nordic Walking outdoors with your friends or a sweaty session on a Stairmaster? Can’t we measure brain waves or something? Please?

I often pass groups of Nordic Walking ladies, marching along with their poles and chatting away, as I run along the lake. They look happy. But then maybe they’d be happy anyway, even without the poles. The depressed ones are curled up on the couch at home, watching reruns of Friends. But that’s the thing: bien-être is more than just happiness. It’s a deeper concept, a state of being. It has to do with tranquility, a sense of peace, of all being right with your world.

Why would the word describing this concept be used more in Europe (well, at least in the French-speaking countries, I can’t vouch for the others) than across the pond? Sure, Europe has had a lot more serious angst to deal with in the last couple of centuries than the US has. A couple of world wars, the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Maybe that has something to do with it. But then, look at the crazy yoga boom in the US. Even though it often masquerades as a total body workout, yoga also has a non-negligible karma component. All the marketing gimmicks aside (Yoga clothing? Yoga magazines?), I’m convinced there’s some big cultural thing going on here. Maybe we’re entering a kind of national existential crisis. Maybe Americans are finally starting to see that wellbeing isn’t something you can buy or something you can attain by working really hard, but something more elusive that has to be nurtured from within.

I read an article in an actual paper copy of the Sunday New York Times (thank you Matt at BooksBooksBooks) not too long ago about Jack LaLanne and his role  in turning physical fitness into a moral issue in the US. This is key, I’m almost sure of it. In the US, you exercise because it’s a virtuous thing to do. If you don’t, you’re a worthless slothlike sack of flab. Working out thus gives you the heady feeling of — an absence of guilt. That’s a far cry from wellbeing in my book. Nobody cares about wellbeing. We just want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror without an overwhelming surge of self-loathing.

There’s certainly some of this exercise-as-higher-virtue going on in Europe, too (thank you, globalization) but I don’t think it’s as pervasive. The Swiss are certainly into extreme sports, but it’s more a question of how crazy they can be than how buff they are. So when my Nordic Walking enthusiast counts bien-être as one of the benefits of her sport, I’m sure she means it. I just wish I knew how to translate it.