combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2007

Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage

Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.
Jonathan Swift ["A Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately entered into Holy Orders" (1721)]

Lost in Translation

Whatever the mandate, military personnel can expect and even look forward to travel. A person at loose ends might join the Navy to see the world, for seeing other countries is considered to be educational even though a World War I song worried about keeping a soldier down on the farm after seeing gay Par-ee. And many a young swain either mooned over the sweetheart left behind or sighed in relief when transferred to another assignment. Meanwhile, those who currently go abroad learn by visiting other cultures, seeing the similarities and differences in dress, behavior and linguistics, being sometimes bewildered, and then learning from them. This, despite the fact that English is rapidly becoming a worldwide second language.

Although communication is interactive, certain words, especially idioms can be either unclear or just plain untranslatable. For example, Americans use the metaphor black to describe negative circumstances as in black eye, blackball, or black magic. In Germany it is the color blue that is to be avoided, for being blue (blau) means being drunk. Blau machen (making blue) means not showing up for work or being AWOL, and blau bohnen (blue beans) refers to bullets. The Turk has a different meaning for beans, as in removing the broad bean from the mouth, which says someone let the cat out of the bag. As for other parts of the anatomy, the English jester might pull your leg while the German takes your arm (auf den arm nehmen). Metaphorically, the Englishman sleeps like a log or a top, a German like a woodchuck, and a Russian like a marmot.

Colorful language is not limited to modern times. The Bible refers to Jesus' family declaring he had lost his senses or literally been separated from his intellect. Americans would say someone had lost his marbles, a German indicate that some of the cups were missing from the cabinet, and the Turk be convinced that someone had eaten his intelligence with cheese bread.

Sometimes there are recognizable parallels. Our Americanism regarding the rotten apple spoiling the barrel is evident in the British birds of a feather flock together, which becomes the Italian sleep with dogs and get up with fleas, or live with wolves and you learn to howl in Spanish. The Latin proverb, deliberate often; decide once, translates into the American builder's code, measure twice; cut once. In English, you might be putty in someone's hands; in German, the manipulation would be in wax.

Advice regarding warfare had a number of realistic comments couched as dark humor. The French Foreign Legion's recommended wWhen in doubt, gallop! The Italians noted the best armor is to keep out of range. An Indian proverb urged that one call upon God, but row away from the rocks.

On occasion, there are embarrassing slips (perhaps apocryphal) from notables at the mercy of their speechwriters, such as when President John Kennedy spoke at the Berlin Wall and declared "Ich bin ein Berliner," not realizing that Berliner was another name for the jelly doughnut we call a Bismarck. President Jimmy Carter wondered at the audience snickering during a speech, not knowing his "desires for the future" was being translated as "lust" for the future. And Helmut Kohl almost choked on a red hot pepper while visiting an organic foods marketplace because an aide mistranslated it as an appropriate "gift" for an enemy, not knowing the German word gift meant poison.

On a more serious note, Nikita Khrushchev's cry at the United Nations of "we will bury you," was actually "we will attend your funeral," a statement intended to compare the economies of Capitalism and Communism rather than posing a threat. Yet the headlines continued, and in a small way helped prolong the Cold War. We also look upon Niccolo Machiavelli's thesis in The Prince as "the end justifies the means," when in actuality, he wrote the far milder, "the outcome is what counts." And who in America would not have taken offense, as did General Clay, when our three-hundred-million dollar gift of grain and corn to post-World War II Germany was looked upon as chicken-feed?

Still, the art of linguistics has come a long way and is becoming more sophisticated as technology offers speed and greater accuracy in bringing about translations. At the dawn of school-accessible computers, students often amused themselves by entering names into the spell check then giggling at the distortions they could produce. Adults had their own fun, typing in poetry or lofty prose for analysis, discovering that The Gettysburg Address had a seventh grade reading level, as did Newsweek magazine. Today's electronic devices are faster, cranking out analyses and translations at the click of a mouse. Yet words have connotations far beyond their original expression so it continues to be the work of the linguist to ferret out the subtleties of meaning.

Currently, an idiom can be electronically translated word for word, provided that the same idiom in the target language already exists or the individual words have a similar meaning. The composition of the phrase or saying can also be classified into groupings where the words cluster into similar or partially similar meanings. In these instances, a machine might to a reasonably good job of translation. It is when clusters have a special idiomatic meaning that problems occur. A system must be able to recognize the commonality as well as the special meaning, while at the same time being able to modify the words placement. To have a talk, or to take a picture, does not convey the same meaning when it is translated into to hold a talk, or to make a picture. When describing a card game, there's a difference between placing your cards on the table as opposed to laying them down.

Although there are many individual programs used for translation, today's newer devices might be classified into two basic electronic systems called translation memory and machine translations. The first is a data system that arranges sentence pairs between source and target language. When something is to be translated, it will match approximations or best fit. But since these are translations in full sentences, the editing process is almost as tedious as it was before computers and allows for only minor change. In contrast, a machine translation analyzes beforehand, reducing each word to its base, then searches the computer for grammatical clues that involve inflection and derivation as well. Both require an enormous amount of stored data and need frequent utilization that reflects how usage adapts to change. In addition, there are elements that can be tricky, such as the German umlaut, Spanish tilde, and the characters in Russian, Arabic and Chinese. A third system that focuses on business translation makes use of both forms. Sometimes a combination of all three becomes the system of choice.

Certainly, this is easier than that translating like the ancient scribes, but still less than perfect, since idioms rely on special meanings. Like slang, they adapt in response to current events. To address that, some linguists are working to develop databases that deal entirely with specialized phrases or single word recognition. But again, this requires enormous data. There, a lexicon entry might consist of the word, its translation equivalents, and its part-of-speech with corresponding information, such as noun gender. Many of the lexicon entries for nouns might need to give semantic clues such as abstract, concrete, human and place. Then the vocabulary divided into subject areas such as medicine, law, and so on.

Meanwhile, military personnel can only smile at their host country's struggle with Americanisms, as when the Scandinavian ad for vacuum cleaners was translated into "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux," or when Clarol's hair curler was hailed as a "mist" stick, which in German means manure. Even the enterprising t-shirt entrepreneur garnered a laugh with the message that was intended to read, "I saw the Pope" (el papa) but turned into "I saw the potato" (la papa). Then there are syntactic disasters like the sign "No smoothen the lion" in a Czech Republic zoo, and at the Majorcan shop entrance which stated, "English well talking; here speeching American."

Language junkies understand that poetry is extremely difficult to translate, given the metaphorical thrust of the genre. But idiom has its own translating challenge despite similarities of meaning. As Goethe said, "A lack of knowledge can be a dangerous thing." To pursue the thought, one might note that the acronym, MENSA, an organization of a quasi-genius (and proud) membership, is the Spanish word for stupid (female gender).

Still, the Italian proverb "A true friend is one that will take a bullet for you in the war" is universal. And travel is indeed broadening, that is, unless one is concerned about gaining weight.

"Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth."
Genesis 11;9

contributed by Beth Staas

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones