Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mea Culpa: 'language brokering'

This post is intended mainly for people doing research on Natural Translation.

Technical terms should be used with care and precision. As Michel Paradis warns us:
“Too many controversies over the past quarter century have been caused by a failure to stipulate what researchers meant by a word, and sometimes this was a word that referred to the very object of their research.”
It pains me, therefore, to have to do a mea culpa and confess to flagrant and repeated misuse of the term language brokering. Most recently in the post of 6 August about the interpreting done by athlete Elizabeth Seitz, which bore the title Olympic Language Brokering but wasn't.

So what is language brokering (LB)?

Let's go back to the beginning. The earliest use of LB that appears in my Bibliography of Natural Translation is in a 1995 article by Lucy Tse of the University of Southern California. She defined it as follows:
“Language brokering refers to interpretation and translation between linguistically and culturally different parties. Unlike formal interpreters and translators, however, language brokers influence the messages they convey and may act as a decision maker for one or both parties.
Thus the defining characteristics are that "brokers influence the messages they convey and may act as decision makers." Hence the use of brokering, as in to broker (i.e., to negotiate) an agreement. It follows that LB shouldn't be used as a synonym for mere interpreting, even if the interpreting is done between members of linguistically and culturally different communities and renders them a service. But that's what I've done.

Let's call Lucy's definition the 'strict sense'. A classic example of LB in that sense was reported in 'Translating as an innate skill' long before the term came into use. It concerned 'BS', the young daughter of an Italian immigrant to Canada:
"Hard bargaining is one of the 'games people play' in Italy. An admissible tactic in it there is to call one's adversary a fool. Not so in Canada. BS's father would use her to liaison interpret for him at bargaining sessions with non-Italians. Father would get worked up in the Italian style and become angry and upset. BS would attenuate his outbursts in her interpretations, even at the risk of drawing some of her father's anger on herself. It led to exchanges like this one:
     Father to BS: 'Digli que é un imbecille!' (Tell him he's a nitwit.)
     BS to 3rd party: 'My father won't accept your offer.'
     Father angrily in Italian: 'Why didn't you tell him what I told you?'"
However, Elisabeth Seitz didn't influence the messages so far as we know and didn't make any decisions for the parties.

My impression is that the requirements for influencing and decision making haven't been strictly adhered to subsequently; but that on the other hand two other characteristics have been added and were already implicit in Lucy's paper:
1. The brokering is typically done by a member of an immigrant community on behalf of family or friends who have to deal with the dominant community of the country.

2. The brokering is done on a regular basis. Whereas Elisabeth's press conference interpreting was a one-off event.
So what should we call the kind of Natural Interpreting that Elisabeth did?

Let's consider its characteristics:

  • It's done by Natural or Native (i.e., untrained) Translators.
  • It's done altruistically to help someone out on a particular occasion.
  • It's an unforeseen, unpremeditated reaction to the need, which may itself be unforeseen. The interpreter isn't prepared for it.
  • The interpreter and the people interpreted for don't necessarily know one another.
  • It's done in short consecutive mode (a sentence or two at a time) and is bi-directional (from one language to another and vice versa).
 Various possible terms for it have crossed my mind. Ad hoc interpreting, for instance? That captures the feature on a particular occasion, but it's is already in use as an old-fashioned synonym for liaison interpreting. Volunteer interpreting? It agrees with altruistically but it suggests something more organised, like interpreting for NGOs. Spontaneous interpreting? not quite, because it's a reaction to a need. Impromptu interpreting? It agrees with unforeseen, unprepared, and we could add natural to it to get impromptu natural interpreting. It doesn't capture all the characteristics listed, but words don't usually cover all the aspects of their referents. I'll settle for impromptu natural interpreting for the moment, but suggestions welcome.

Lucy Tse (University of Southern California). Language brokering among Latino adolescents: prevalence, attitudes, and school performance. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, vol. 17 (1995), no. 2, pp.180-193. Abstract and full text available here.
Michel Paradis. A Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins, 2004. Abstract available here.
Brian Harris. An Annotated Chronological Bibliography of Natural Translation Studies with Native Translation and Language Brokering, 1913-2011. 45 p. Available free from
Brian Harris and Bianca Sherwood. Translating as an innate skill. In D. Gerver and W. H. Sinaiko, eds., Language Interpretation and Communication, Oxford and New York, Plenum, 1978, pp. 155-170. Available free from

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Comments on Positive Marking and on Fansubbers

To those of you who have commented on the post about positive marking...

I ought to have acknowledged that even before I heard about propositional analysis from David Gerver, I'd learnt about positive marking from Daniel Gouadec, a well-known French translation teacher who came to teach for a couple of years at the University of Ottawa in the late seventies (see References). He was working at the time on a marking system for the Canadian government Translation Bureau's quality assessment section, but I don't know whether they ever used it.

I'm glad of course that Julie found the post helpful. Let's see how it works out.

In reply to SEO Translator: the deductive method is usually applied to short texts, say 300-500 words. For purposes of comparison, texts of about the same length as one another are used; and also, obviously, of the same level of difficulty. The 'pass mark' varies according to the expectations of the markers or examiners, taking account of the purpose of the exercise (professional examination, translation school assignment, etc.), the institution, the difficulty of the text, the level of the examinees, and so on. I've seen pass marks of 60% to 90%. Logically, tests for Expert Translators should have a high pass mark.

In the CILISAT tests, using positive scoring, we actually had two pass marks: one for 'ready to work' and a lower one for 'shows promise but needs training'. As I recall, they were 80 and 60 respectively, but that was after combining with the separate assessment for quality of target language. I haven't thought about automating these or other scorings. Possibly.

It's true that in certain cases, translation mistakes could kill people. One thinks of instructions for pharmaceuticals, aircraft maintenance manuals, and so on. For texts where that might result, only Expert Translators should be used.

And on fansubbing...

To n: Good point that the fansubbers too are constrained by demands and have to work fast. Thank you. And I like your blogs.

To Anonymous: Good point also that it's the industry rather than the translators who need to innovate.

Speed is an important factor in all translation quality. This is something many, perhaps most, users fail to appreciate. Recently a client offered me more money to get an important translation of his done faster. I replied, "It's not a question of money, it's a question of quality. I need time to revise." But often users will tolerate a drop in quality, even a big drop, if they can get it done faster. It's a trade-off. My client found another translator.

Daniel Gouadec. Comprendre et Traduire. Bordas, Paris 1974, 160 p. This is the book that led me to invite him to Ottawa. Like his other publications, it can be downloaded from here.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What Native Translators can Teach the Experts

Under its able editor, Miranda Moore, the bi-monthly magazine The Linguist is always full of lively and informative articles for the Professional and Expert translators, language teachers and other linguists who form its readership. As a by-product, it occasionally has content too that concerns non-professional Native or Natural Translation and hence this blog. One such is the article The right way to sub? by Adriana Tortoriello in the current issue.

Sub here – in case you don't know – is short for subtitling. Adriana is herself a professional subtitler and also a lecturer in audiovisual translation at Imperial College, London, one of the numerous universities that offer courses in the speciality these days. Part of the article is an update on technological advances in the industry. There is also some advice on how to get into it.

The rest of the article – the part that concerns us – is about fansubbing.

Fansubbing has featured in several posts on this blog; in fact in one of the very earliest, back in February 2009:
"A fansub is a fan-produced, translated, subtitled version of a video programme. Fansubs are a tradition that began with the creation of the first Japanese anime clubs back in the 1980s. With the advent of cheap computer software and the availability on Internet of free subbing equipment, they really took off in the mid 1990s.
"It would be no exaggeration to state that fansubs are nowadays the most important manifestation of fan translation, having turned into a mass social phenomenon on Internet, as proved by the vast virtual community."
To find the posts, enter fansubbing in the Search box on the right.

There was a whole session at the Forli conference (see References) on Non-professional Translation on Screen, and it included fansubbers .

What is strikingly new, though, about Adriana's article is her suggestion that, whereas the usual progression is for Native Translators to learn from the Experts, in this case professional subtitlers may have something to learn from fansubbers.
"Fansubs differ from traditional subtitles in a number of ways – most, if not all, resulting from the fact that, not being constrained by the demands of the industry, fansubbers are more free to experiment with content and format.
"Considering the number of years commercial subtitling has been around, innovations are conspicuous by their absence.
"Traditionally, subtitles were meant to be discreet... Fansubbers are bold, and happy to do away with the invisibility of subtitles. They flaunt their identity.
"They place subtitles all over the screen and use a variety of orthotypographic means to convey additional features [and] allow them to incorporate paralinguistic features. And last but, in my view, definitely not least, their use of glosses to explain cultural references allows them to produce subtitles that are more foreignising than traditional ones, giving greater access to the culture of the original programme."
She concludes,
" I believe that the innovations brought about by technology and by fansubbing might come together in contributing to the creation of a new subtitling modality."
The lessons of all this are that
  1. Native Translators (and a fortiori Natural Translators) may be less aware or less respectful of the norms followed by Expert, and especially Professional Expert, Translators.
  2. Consequently they may be more creative and innovative.
  3. The impact of their innovations may end up in the Natives influencing the Experts rather than vice versa.
 Adriana Tortoriello. The right way to sub? The Linguist, vol. 51, no. 4, August-September 2012, pp. 8-9. The online edition of The Linguist can be accessed here through the website of its publisher, The Chartered Institute of Linguists. This issue will be available online from 17 August.
Jorge Díaz Cintas and Pablo Muñoz Sánchez, Fansubs: audiovisual translation in an amateur environment’, Journal of Specialised Translation, no. 6, July 2006.

 Delia Chiaro (chair). Non-professional translation on screen. Book of Abstracts, 1st International Conference on Non-Professional Interpretation and Translation, Forli, May 2012, p. 16 and following. The document is here.

A fansub. Source: Fansub Review, accessible here.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Olympic Language Brokering

"The teamwork continues even after the German gymnasts leave the floor.

"Several English-speaking reporters wanted to talk to Oksana Chusovitina, who is competing in her sixth Olympics at 37 – unheard of for a female gymnast. There was just one problem, Chusovitina, who is originally from Uzbekistan, doesn't speak English, and there were no [official] translators available.

"A TV researcher who speaks Russian initially offered to help, only to realise he was needed for something else on the other side of the room. Elisabeth Seitz, her 18-year-old German team-mate, then leaned over and said, 'If you need translating, I can try to help.' She did better than that, translating about five minutes of questions for Chusovitina."

This is a clear example of Adult Language Brokering. The two gymnasts belong to the same community of athletes. But how did Chusovitina know German?

"She moved to Germany in 2002, so her son, Alisher, could be treated there for leukaemia and has lived there ever since."

Gymnast almost lost in translation. Irish Independent, 27 July 2012. The original article is here.

Oxana Chusovitna. Minkus Images.
Elisabeth Seitz. Joern Pollex/Bongarts/Getty Images.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Marking Positively: How to Score Natural Translations

This post is addressed particularly to researchers, but it's relevant too for teachers of translation. Note that Natural Translation (NT) is used here as a cover term for both Natural Translation and Native Translation.

At the Forli conference in May (enter forli in the Search box), I noticed that some people are still using the old subtractive scoring method to rate NT.

What is the subtractive method? It means starting from 100 points and knocking off a point, or several points, for each mistake of any kind; typically a point or two for minor errors of content or expression and up to five points for major ones. The 'pass mark' is usually expressed as a positive percentage, but it's really a 'failure score'. That's how students' written translations are marked, and likewise the examinations of the professional associations like the Canadian one to which I belong. It can also be used for interpretations, especially if they're transcribed.

Two objections can be raised. The first is a didactic one: that the approach is negative and therefore discouraging. True, mathematically speaking, -30% of mistakes is equivalent to +70% correct, but the psychological effect is different. Anyway, it's not so important as the second objection, which is that the approach reinforces 'nit-picking' by the markers, because small details are allowed to affect the score significantly. I still squirm at a sequence in an old film about an interpretation exercise for European Commission interpreters (see References) in which a student is berated in front of the other students for his translation of a single word.

When evaluating NT, we need to take the opposite approach. Although mistakes are of great interest insofar as they reveal the limitations and the 'pathology' of NT, in NT research our primary interest should be in what subjects can translate and not in what they can't. A score of only 40% because of numerous distortions and omissions would probably entail failure for an Expert or Professional translator or a translation school student; but for a Natural Translator it represents a non-negligible translating ability and we should focus on it and analyse what that 40% consists of.

How can we build a positive scoring method?

In the 1990s I became involved in the design of tests for candidates who wanted to work as community interpreters for public services in Ontario, Canada. These became known as the CILISAT tests and are still in use. The Government of Ontario funded the necessary research. The candidates were almost always Native Interpreters, because the pay was too low to attract Professional Experts and because the languages were not taught in Canada. We decided we needed a test instrument that would be better suited to Native, i.e. untrained, Interpreters than those used by the translation schools and in the profession. So we turned to a method called propositional analysis. It's used by psychologists among others, and in fact I'd been introduced to it by the late David Gerver, who was one of the pioneer researchers on interpreters and was also a clinical psychologist. The form of it we used it can be described this way:
"To analyze the text, propositional analysis – a description of the text in terms of its semantic content – is used. The units of analysis are propositions, or units of meaning containing one verbal element plus one or more nouns. The corresponding units are then selected on the basis of meaning rather than structure."
In practice this meant that we broke down the scripts for the interpretation tests into simple, single-clause sentences representing propositions and then awarded points according to whether the meaning of each proposition as a whole was conveyed in translation: zero points for an omission or a meaning contrary to that of the proposition; 1 point for a meaning conveyed but not clearly or not completely; 2 points for a complete and true rendering. There was a weighting that distinguished between important and unimportant propositions. This scale was solely for meaning. Other factors, for example correct language, were scored separately and globally, not proposition by proposition.

For example, the statement, "At around 6 o'clock I saw a blue sports car waiting on the other side of the road," might be broken down into:
The time was approximately 6 pm

I saw a car.

The car was blue.

The car was a sports car.

The car was waiting.

The car was on the other side of the road.
A paraphrase like, "I seed a sport car stopping at the kerb of our street before supper" would score 7 points for informational meaning before being weighted for importance. (Work it out! 1+2+0+2+1+1.)  The maximum possible points varied with each script. Small language mistakes like "seed" were relegated to a separate evaluation.

Guadalupe Barrera Valdes and Manuel Rosalinda Cardenas. Constructing matching tests in two languages: the application of propositional analysis. NABE: The Journal for the National Association for Bilingual Education, vol. 9 no. 1, pp. 3-19. 1984. There’s an abstract here.

Roda P. Roberts. Interpreter assessment tools for different settings. In R. P. Roberts et al. (eds.), The Critical Link 2: Interpreters in the Community, Amsterdam, Benjamins, 1999. Most of it is here.

David Gerver. A psychological approach to simultaneous interpretation'. Meta, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 119-128, 1975. "A slightly altered version of a paper presented at the 18th International Congress of Applied Psychology in Montreal in July 1974". The text is here.

André Delvaux (director). Les Interprètes. Brussels: Commission of the European Communities. c1975. 16 mm film. c15 mins.

"The Government of Ontario funded the necessary research."