On anglo-imperialism

Alternatives are limited. My multicultural friends in Melbourne often resent ‘anglos’ and their sense of self-evident linguistic and cultural centrality. But forces of resistance are dispersed.

I like lists. One of my favourites is the yearly list of ‘Global Cities’, major nodes in the world system, ranked in order of importance. Although New York and London sit alone on the ‘alpha ++’ top tier, the twenty four ‘alpha’ cities of 2015 are reasonably spread across the globe. Superficially, we live in a globally diverse world.

A closer look tells a different story. Nine of these alpha-city were founded by the British, or became significant as part of the British Empire – London, New York, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Toronto, Sydney. Two more, Los Angeles and Chicago, are located in the US. Contrast with Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, Frankfurt, Madrid, Beijing, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels, Sao Paolo, Mexico, capitals of so many distinct historical entities. I’m not entirely sure where to place Shanghai.

I learnt one day that English historians mockingly label France ‘the eternal second’. Its empire did not quite match the British. They failed, only just, in claiming ownership of Australia. In the two World Wars, they were a lesser supporter of the great Anglo-American alliance.

Last night, I watched Mission Impossible. British and American spy networks play complex games of alliance to save the world. The French are nowhere to be seen, nor the Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Belgians, Russians, Germans, Spaniards, Brazilians, Italians or Mexicans. These nations are not playing the grand game.

Much of Australian discourse on multiculturalism hovers between a post-British aspiration to join a liberal, English-speaking community – and an aspiration to fully respect all cultures and languages equally. These may be two sides of the same coin. On top, post-imperial anglo-universalism; below, the mossy jungle of diversity. What would an alliance of second-tier powers look like, I wonder – or an alliance of their diasporas as a real-politik alternative to current all-inclusive, English-umbrella’ed conceptions of multiculturalism.

On translation – reflections on English imperialism

Last year, I taught a class on translation at La Trobe University. On the reading guide from the subject coordinator is an article by Tim Parks about underpaid and underrecognised translator. I liked one part of the piece – a recurring theme against the praize of individual genius in literature. I winced, however, at the following passage:

‘Some years ago Kazuo Ishiguro castigated fellow English writers for making their prose too difficult for easy translation. One reason he had developed such a lean style, he claimed, was to make sure his books could be reproduced all over the world.

What if Shakespeare had eased off the puns for his French readers? Or Dickens had worried about getting Micawber-speak into Japanese?’

Indeed, but isn’t it remarkable how a Japanese author is thinking of overseas readers – while London-based Tim Parks defends the genius of his co-native authors, who should never compromise their own capacity to use all the resources of the English language so that barbaric French or Japanese readers might access them. These are not our audience – and we shall not cater to them.

This short extract – and my reaction to it – reveals tension between two different ethics of literature. One whereby the great book is written by a great individual. One whereby the great book is that which can access a larger number of readers – including, because the writing is easy enough, or universal enough.

Take the case of Italian epic-writing collective Wu Ming – possibly the most remarkable literary experiment to come out of Europe in the last fifteen years. They create myths for contemporary reader, and work as a group. There is no genius writer. And their work has been reasonably well translated.

With collective writing, translation can occur without the odd obsession that translators have, what Tim Parks describes like this: “You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then he sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to his experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness.” Note the gender of the pronoun.

Translators can take pride in this extreme level of attention to details. It is a remarkable, and remarkably undervalued skills. Yet there can is an hybris to translation – the desire to recreate, and deny the difference of languages – and an hybris to literature, that of the author directly communing with the language, and neglecting all considerations of their readership.


On reading a poem about Melbourne, Unesco City of Literature

Two days ago, my partner sent me the link to a poem by Koraly Dimitriadis, Greek-Australian writer and performer, called ‘Open Letter to Melbourne Unesco City of Literature‘. The poem throws flame at Melbourne literary institutions – festivals, magazines – denouncing their whiteness in direct, explicit ways – and expresses the rage of the poet for having to stay outside the door.

Oddly, this piece resonated very strongly with me. I wouldn’t have expected it to. I’ve been trained in French formalism, the raw emotional style jars with my classical taste, and I find its direct name-throwing discourteous. Yet I was very moved.

I’ve been invited to many of the forums and events Koraly denounces, disproving their exclusive anglo-ness, or non-queer friendliness. I never felt I was in as a ‘token foreigner’, and witnessed real commitment to diversity from the organisers, many of them women. Maybe I’m just nice and naïve – or maybe there was, indeed, genuine desire for more diversity.

Yet in all these instances, I also felt a great solitude, as one of the very few migrants, foreigners, non-native English speakers, among panelists and audience. I never quite know what these figures mean, but I read that in Greater Melbourne, 25 to 30% of people speak a language other than English at home. This is certainly not the soundscape I encountered at any literary forum in Melbourne. But then, literary forums are not home. Except if English is your native tongue, it will certainly feel closer.

I do notice a gap between a discourse putting forward cultural and linguistic diversity – aspirations to be some international city of literature, even – or in other circles, a part of Asia – and the domination of anglo-american authors and references in our literary life. It’s embarrassing, at a literary event, when you never heard of such American author, and the person you’re talking with has never heard of such Italian collective you love, or some Shanghai-based blogger. But it’s happened to me so much now, that I sometimes avoid talking about literature altogether – or when I feel provocative, I just say: ‘I don’t really read English-language books much’. It’s a great conversation killer.

Still, it’s a tough game: it’s hard enough to lead a reasonable conversation within one’s own tradition – trying to bridge aesthetic and ethical gaps may be beyond what audience or readership can accept. I’m not sure rage is the most appropriate way to deal with this, but I believe we should be very aware of issues Koraly raises. If I wasn’t invited, maybe I would feel that same rage. And as a semi-white writer myself – for better or worse, I felt good after reading this piece.

Second-tier languages on the web.

I just finished reading the ‘Net Lang‘ UNESCO report on ‘the multilingual cyberspace’. I didn’t find the report overall earth shattering, but did note a few points of interest, which I’d like to share here.

The first thing I’d like to note is that nobody really seems to know what’s happening on the web, or be able to measure it. I posted charts from wikipedia in a previous post, and commented on the discrepancy between English language contents vs English speakers online. All authors agree that English content is disproportionately high. But the exact measure is unclear. In spite of various projects, there seems to be no clear figures about  language on the web. Given the abundance of contents, including huge quantities of dynamic contents (blogs, facebook pages, twitter…), it is, at present, impossible to give any clear calculations: lack of proportion does not help generate percentage points. This initial remark serves as a caveat for what follows.

The second point is something I already noted when reflecting on language policy within Australia: there is remarkably little talk of ‘second-tier’ languages, and how to strategically engage with them. In rough terms, the situation is as follows: there are about 6000 to 7000 languages spoken on the planet, but a small number of them dominate the offline world – and even more so the online world. Roughly speaking, on the internet, 1 language (English) accounts for about 50% of all contents, and about 60 to 70 account for over 90% of all contents. Many author defend ‘minority languages’ – those within the under-represented 10%. But no-one seems to really focus on the ‘second-tier’ dominant languages – Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Spanish, etc – which alternatively fall in with the rest of under-represented languages, or – more frequently – are bundled together with English among ‘privileged’ languages which do benefit from an established set of standards, and are recognised by multilingual browsers and translators.

These  ‘second-tier languages’ are precisely those I am most interested in. They represent about one third of all contents, and two thirds of all users. What will happen to that proportion in the close future? Are they going to challenge the dominance of English? Chinese, particularly, but also Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic… Is the web gearing towards an equal proportion of English and Chinese? Or is English going to remain the dominant form, a necessary koine for web communication?

While I prepare further reflections about machine-assisted language learning vs automatic translation, and scenarios for the future of digital multilingualism, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – and link to any material on that question!

First and second languages on the net

What language is the net written in? A wikipedia page on the question proposes the following charts. These charts are based on estimates as of May 2011, themselves not fully representative of the full net content – but let’s have a look at them all the same.

This one represents the languages used for the contents of the web:

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This one represents the language spoken by web users

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Did you notice the discrepancy? English accounts for 57% of all contents – but only 27% of users. And in parallel, Chinese (I suppose this is Mandarin) accounts for 25% of users, but only 5% of contents.

Traditionally, English has been the web’s lingua franca. But non-English contents has grown at a rate much higher than English contents. And it looks like the future of the web will be multilingual. Also, let’s not forget – if 55% of the web is written in English, 45% isn’t, and that 45% represents a considerable amount of contents.

I think the early days of the internet brought with them some utopian vision of a unified world – where everyone would communicate with everyone in the ‘global village’. For non-native speakers of English – like myself – this meant an added burden of study: the doors to the global village were opened only to fluent English speakers. Others remained at the margin.

Now, it looks like more diverse communities are blossoming. But how do these ‘web-linguistic-subcultures’ communicate? Are they equivalent in shape to the ‘global’ English-speaking community, simply different in size? Or is there a qualitative difference between them? Are they radically fragmented, provincial, each individually relating to the core ‘English’ web, but not to each other?

In particular, what is the situation for ‘second-tier’ web languages – German, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, Mandarin, French? Debates about multilingualism often seem to jump directly to forgotten rare dialects, omitting to think – more cynically perhaps – about these second tier languages big enough to not be just lumped in an ‘other’ cloud, but not yet big enough to compete with dominant English. Partly, the Marco Polo Project was born of a felt need to create bridges between the Chinese and English webs – the first two languages by users, if not contents. But is there such a need?

And finally, what does it mean that – still – a significant part of internet users are communicating in their second language – while others use their first? Does that create an implicit hierarchy – some sort of post-colonial position of dominance to native English speakers, who can put aside the burden of learning a foreign language, and still access the world? Or does it create a risk for ‘English’, which sees itself more and more invaded by non-native speakers, to the risk of possible depletion – reducing to some watered down ‘globish’?

At the start of this Education and Digital Culture MOOC, these are the questions I’m asking myself – and which I’d like to reflect on further over the next few weeks. I’ve just downloaded a big report by ‘Net.Lang: “Towards the multilingual Cyberspace“, and will post further reflections here. Meanwhile, all comments are very welcome!

Reflections on translation – an interview with James Friesen

Pasted here is the text of an interview that I did with James Friesen, student of translation at Taiwan National University and active translator on Marco Polo Project. James contacted me for an interview to discuss what the work of a translator can be like. This was a great opportunity for me to reflect on the Marco Polo model for collaborative translation, and what might have inspired him – and I had a great time chatting with James!

James Friesen

I read a news article this year on why women in China do not divorce their husbands, even in the face of infidelity and flagrant mistreatment. The piece, actually a vignette of sorts, was aptly written from the perspective of a divorced Chinese woman; the piece was written in translation. She argued that saving face and fear of losing economic status stave off divorce; there was no mention of love. This seemed to me a rare and fascinating insight into the mind of a character that Western readers are not often privy to. The link at the bottom of the page accredited the story to  ‘http://marcopoloproject.org’. Following the link lead to the source of the translation and a somewhat unpredictable resource – a vibrant online community of voluntary translators. On the Marco Polo Project one can find many other insightful articles on topics ranging from city life in China, Buddhism and homosexuality in Taiwan, and other short stories. I contacted the founder and CEO of the project, Julien Leyre, as I thought the website was a brilliant idea. I wanted to pick his brain on some issues relating to the project and translation in general. He was kind enough to respond to me, and our exchange eventually culminated in the interview you see below:

JF: For starters, can you briefly share your background, and how you came to the field of translation?

JL: Sure, I would say my background could be separated into two aspects: cultural and intellectual. I am Frenchman who grew up close to the German border; my family is Mediterranean with Italian ancestry. Living in a multicultural environment I developed an interest in language and cultural differences from a very young age and gained an understanding of multiple languages. In university I specialized in languages, majoring in English and Classics at Ecole Normale Superieure, my Masters is in linguistics, and I passed an exam to be a high school and University teacher. I have also been interested in writing from a very young age – things like short stories, poetry, collaborations with filmmakers; I also published a short novel in Paris and have been involved in various writing projects over the last ten years.

JF: Growing up in a linguistically rich environment, was doing translation an intentional decision or something you just fell into?

JL: I guess I fell into it speaking and reading seven languages to various levels; it is common for continental Europeans to speak three or four languages. One of the key things that drew me to translation was my training in classics. One of the things you do when you study classics is translate or re-translate texts from the Greek and Latin. The way I learned how to think in this regard was largely by close reading of Plato and Aristotle while doing a translation. Translation for me is conveying meaning from a certain language to those who cannot access this language. This involves closely reflecting on the way a meaning is constructed in a text – in a word it’s philology. Which is closely reading a text in order to understand what it actually means, and it often involves a process of translation as well.

JF: Can you share a little about the Marco Polo Project?

JL: It’s a website where users can read and translate contemporary writing from China. There are two aspects to it. It’s a collaborative online magazine that proposes Chinese writing in translation by crowd-sourcing the translation, delegating the translation process not through one specific person but to whoever comes and does it. The other way to look at it is a platform that encourages translators and advanced language learners to come and practice translation. It is something that we do anyway as a part of our learning so doing it in collaboration is a good motivation; it is more fun and gives meaning to what we do, essentially the more we do it the more and better we learn.

JF: What does the process of translation look like for you?

JL: It depends on what I translate. On the Marco Polo Project, I translate in layers. I start translating as I go, which is not what I was trained to do – I was told to closely read a text numerous times before starting. I start with a quick translation as I go, using google translate on the side, anything that is simple, to get an overall idea of what I’m translating. A rough patchy draft, let it rest, and come back to it to fill in the blanks, and improve what I had translated the first time, and finalize it, looking for consistency – also sometimes, consulting a native speaker to confirm doubtful passages of the meaning of idiomatic expressions.

JF: Does translation theory enter into the picture? For example, do you apply what you learned in your classics training?

JL: I would say it is in the background. What I mean is, because I spent time lecturing and doing research in linguistics in semantics, of which translation theory was a part, I completely absorbed it. It has become a part of the way that I think and not a conscious process anymore, almost like breathing. Secondly, it’s about how you relate as a mediator between the original text and the audience, which are two different worlds. You will position your translation in between these two worlds. The type of text determines the type of audience and how they relate to the text. In translating a vacuum cleaner manual you will not care so much about the way the original text is structured, rather you will care more about the meaning. Translating poetry however, you will stay much closer to the structure of the original. Texts on the Marco Polo Project are creative non-fiction, essays, blog posts, and so they sit somewhere in between.

JF: What draws you to a given piece? What makes you say, “I want to translate that”?

JL: The simple answer is gut feeling, but the gut feeling has something behind it. I look for a piece that is original and well structured. By originality I mean the content of the piece is something I have never read about before. Generally the more specific a piece is, the more likely I am to translate it. For example there is a piece called ‘The Tears of Animals’. I thought, wow, a Chinese person is speaking about how they relate to animals crying, I had never heard about that before, I want to translate that. I also choose pieces that are clearly articulated, ones that you can follow the construction. If you choose a piece based only on style, there is often a big distance between Chinese and English which makes translation very difficult, but a structured piece translates relatively well.

*Link to ‘The Tears of Animals’ (http://marcopoloproject.org/online/the-tears-of-animals/)

JF: What are some advantages/challenges of having a ‘living online community’ collectively translate something? 

JL: There are two main advantages to this type of platform, and I will start with the more cynical one. It makes translation cheap. The problem that we have is that there is a growing to demand to understand China; content written in Chinese is a good way to address this demand. But if you use the old model of sending a work to a professional translator with a high level of quality control etc. it’s really slow and there are not enough translators to meet the need. By crowd sourcing you can reduce cost. Translating collectively can help people to do better work and give them a sense of accomplishment through collaboration, for example if you translate a small part of a large piece. Translators can help other translators, it gives a sense of meaning and community. Are they actually good and accurate? To an extent I think people undervalue the quality of translations by people who are not professionals. As a language teacher, I thought the translation of my students were not too bad, however you do need to monitor that a little bit. The other challenge is keeping the good translators interested because a native English speaker who is also fluent in Chinese is hard to keep, there is lots of demand on their time, so it’s about finding ways to encourage people and keeping them engaged. A living online community requires moderation, giving feedback to people, providing new content, etc. so it takes a lot of work, it doesn’t do itself.

JF: Blog translation seems like it is becoming an independent genre, and beyond that, a mouthpiece for censor-dodging Chinese users. What implications does this have? 

JL: The question of censorship is something we’ve thought about from the start of the project. We want to bring across a diversity of voices from China, which may include some sensitive material, but we do not want to be blocked from China as that would defeat the purpose. We want the material to be available for Mainland Chinese; we want to stay out of trouble but at the same time avoid just replicating government speech, there’s no point in that. So we have to play it by ear, but we basically try to focus on some good non-sensitive material. Sensitive areas include Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, demonstrations against the government, some comparatively non-sensitive areas for example are gay rights, feminism, love relationships, and the way technology is affecting the life in big Chinese cities. Western media happens to be, in my perspective, obsessed with sensitive topics, Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng are all over the news. But there are other intellectuals who do an insiders view on China, for instance Li Yinhe, who studies gender issues, is not popular in Western media but also not censored in China. Topics like these are less covered and, quite possibly, more original and more interesting because of it.

JF: What are your goals for the future of Marco Polo Project?

JL: I would like the project to show up on the list of the top 20-25 major reference websites on China. I would like it to be on the radar of translation students and people doing research and analysis on China, in terms of language learning and practice, as well as reporting, media, etc. I would like to build a bigger and more active community than we have at the moment, and there are a couple ways of doing that. We are doing a campaign right now to pay for a few improvements on the interface, to make it more user-friendly. The other way is to build partnerships with institutions, especially language learning institutions, translation centers etc. We believe that if teachers recommend the platform to their students and possibly even integrate it into their curriculum, We will be trialing that at La Trobe University in Australia, so we can refine the idea of how to put it in a workshop etc. and hopefully in the future we can take that model elsewhere.

At the NGV

As a sequel to the Emerging Writers’ Festival, I will be part of the Future Bookshop exhibition at the NGV studio. During my residency there, I will explore the question of multilingual audiences in the digital space. I will be translating my blog on urban Australia, Australian Aesthetics, into French and Mandarin. This will be an opportunity to reflect on my own experience as a migrant to Australia, and a writer’s capacity to convey their own sense of place in their native and adopted languages.