Localization - Through The Language Glass

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| Published On: January 20, 2017 |

Reading time: 17 minutes

The twentieth century is in its infancy. An American writer has just published her first full length novel, a romance set in the late eighteenth-century Italy. It does well.

25,000 copies are sold within the first six months. Critics take note. A literary ascension is set in motion. This early momentum is stilled with a piece of advice she receives from a writer she greatly admires:

“Be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces [you] to a backyard in New York.”

These words influence her next book, and the work that follows.

In 1921, she receives a Pulitzer for her twelfth novel, a perfect observation of the virtues and the frailties, the splendid and the mundane, of the late nineteenth-century New York upper class. The Age of Innocence.

Henry James’s advice to Edith Wharton was to forgo writing about a world (Europe) she hadn’t lived in, and to focus on capturing a world she knew, a world she had “grown up in and had been formed by.”

It’s never as exacting as literature, but the thought of localization places one in a similar, particularly uncomfortable seat.

What does a translation stand for? What are the kinds of questions that one must ask about a foreign culture? How about sticking to “native pastures”?

International expansion remains, in most businesses, a thing that’s abandoned to the future. A thing that drifts into the “we’ll see” domain at ease.

When we wrote about localization last year, we held the lenses of psychology, anthropology, and Dieter Rams.

We learned that familiarity breeds trust. We learned that good design is honest. We learned how companies like Ikea and Pipedrive have attained mastery (our next blog series aims at documenting similar insights) at cracking global markets.

It’s clear that if one were to assign localization a Chief of Staff, it would be the understanding of language. Not just language as we know it, but the language of colors, of myths, of marvelous pastimes. The language of cultures.

Depending on this very understanding, our efforts are subjected either to the excitement that precedes an expedition, or to the muffled monologue that precedes an essential errand.

The best way to find our honorary Chief of Staff? Looking through the lens of literature, of course, and of people who sculpt it.

Because it can tell us things. The train has left the station.

Things about us. A hedgehog is reading The New Yorker.

Things about worlds and times. A man who never was, is planning a visit to Einstein’s favorite October.

Things about the magic of ordinary things. The moon is taking what it left for the night, the blue mountains are dreaming.

There’s someone who held this lens recently. His was made by heating the sands of sci-fi in the vessel of his mother’s voice. The result? A cinematic gift.

“My mother read to me when I was young, like mothers do. But instead of Dr. Seuss or Betsy Byars, it was Heinlein. Bradbury. Asimov. Stories of new worlds, new ideas, and possibilities for the future.” ~ Eric Heisserer, Screenwriter, Arrival

We’d like to leave you with a collection of hand-picked sentences from people who’ve dealt in written and spoken word, with the curious ways of life.

These words in particular concern language itself and its counterparts. Hopefully, they’ll help you stitch together the fabric of the goodie bag that you intend to carry into new worlds with your localization efforts.

Here goes.

On contemplating the origins of language

Where does it come from?

A one-lane road? Another galaxy? A persistent pear?

From: Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Guy Deutscher

“What is your first reaction when you hear the word “culture”? Shakespeare? String quartets? Curling the little finger on the teacup?

Naturally, the way you understand “culture” depends on which culture you come from, as a quick glance through three lexicographic lenses will reveal:

Culture: cultivation, the state of being cultivated, refinement, the result of cultivation, a type of civilization.

Chambers English Dictionary

Kultur: Gesamtheit der geistigen und künstlerischen Errungenschaften einer Gesellschaft.

(The totality of intellectual and artistic achievement of a society.)

Störig German Dictionary

Culture: Ensemble des moyens mis en reuvre par l’homme pour augmenter ses connaissances, developper et ameliorer les facultes de son esprit, notamment Ie jugement et Ie gout.

(The collection of means employed by man to increase his knowledge, develop and improve his mental faculties, notably judgment and taste.)”

“When anthropologists talk of “culture,” however they use the word in a rather different sense from all of the definitions above, and in a far broader meaning.

‘…Taken in its wide ethnographic sense, [culture] is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by a man as a member of society.’

The focus here will be on those everyday cultural traits that are impressed so deeply in our mind that we do not recognize them as such. In short, the aspects of culture that will be explored here are those where culture masquerades as human nature.

Is language one of these aspects? Is it an artifact of culture or a bequest of nature?”

From: Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

“There are no telegraphs on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message– describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other.

There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.

There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

From: Eragon, Christopher Paolini

“…It may please you to know that no Rider your age ever used magic the way you did yesterday with those two Urgals.”

Eragon smiled at the praise. “Thank you. Does this language have a name?”

Brom laughed. “Yes, but no one knows it. It would be a word of incredible power, something by which you could control the entire language and those who use it. People have long searched for it, but no one has ever found it.”

“I still don’t understand how this magic works,” said Eragon. “Exactly how do I use it?” Brom looked astonished. “I haven’t made that clear?” “No.”

Brom took a deep breath and said, “To work with magic, you must have a certain innate power, which is very rare among people nowadays. You also have to be able to summon this power at will.

Once it is called upon, you have to use it or let it fade away. Understood? Now, if you wish to employ the power, you must utter the word or phrase of the ancient language that describes your intent. For example, if you hadn’t said brisingr yesterday, nothing would have happened.”

“So I’m limited by my knowledge of this language?” “Exactly,” crowed Brom. “Also, while speaking it, it’s impossible to practice deceit.” Eragon shook his head. “That can’t be. People always lie. The sounds of the ancient words can’t stop them from doing that.”

Brom cocked an eyebrow and said, “Fethrblaka, eka weohnata néiat haina ono. Blaka eom iet lam.” A bird suddenly flitted from a branch and landed on his hand. It trilled lightly and looked at them with beady eyes.

After a moment he said, “Eitha,” and it fluttered away.

“How did you do that?” asked Eragon in wonder.

“I promised not to harm him. He may not have known exactly what I meant, but in the language of power, the meaning of my words was evident. The bird trusted me because he knows what all animals do, that those who speak in that tongue are bound by their word.”

On the true workings of translations

A call for faithful digging for anyone who’ll be tasked with translating beliefs as represented inside a web app, or a website, or a letter. A call to mend the bitten-off ends of humility. A call for gripping the unsaid, the non-written, “the pre-verbal.”

From: “Writing is an off-shoot of something deeper,” John Berger

“The conventional view of what this involves proposes that the translator or translators study the word on one page in one language and then render them into another language on another page.

This involves a so-called word-for-word translation, and then an adaptation to respect and incorporate the linguistic tradition and the rules of the second language, and finally another working over to recreate the equivalent of the voice of the original text.

Many - perhaps most - translations follow this procedure and the results are worthy, but second rate.

Why? Because true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written.

True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them.

One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless “thing” and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principle task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.”

From: The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

“In the ordinary jumble of my literary drawer, I sometimes find texts I wrote ten, fifteen, or even more years ago. And many of them seem to me written by a stranger: I simply do not recognize myself in them.

There was a person who wrote them, and it was I. I experienced them, but it was in another life, from which I just woke up, as if from someone else’s dream.”

From: How to Master an Accent, Sarah Jones

“Hopefully, your goal is to create something beautiful, not something perfect. And then, that will hopefully give you respect for the accent.

If I’m ever coming at an accent from a place of belittling it, thinking it’s less than my, you know, standard English, and let’s just have fun with this silly sounding thing. I’m also going to trip myself up.

…To befriend an accent at a deep enough level that it will come to you when you want it — so you’re coaxing it into you — first have an attitude of humility.”

From: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, Douglas Adams

“Shush!” said Ford. “Listen, it might be important.” “Im … important?” “It’s the Vogon captain making an announcement on the T’annoy.” “You mean that’s how the Vogons talk?” “Listen!” “But I can’t speak Vogon!” “You don’t need to. Just put that fish in your ear.”

“Ford,” he said. “Yeah?” “What’s this fish doing in my ear?” “It’s translating for you. It’s a Babel fish. Look it up in the book if you like.”

“The Babel fish,” said The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quietly, “is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy not from its carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with.

It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them.

The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

“The argument goes something like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’ “But,’ says Man, ‘The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’

‘Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanished in a puff of logic. `Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

“Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book Well That About Wraps It Up For God.

“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

On saying what we really have to say

We rummage through the cabinet of clichés as that’s the one that’s readily available, especially when dealing in a foreign tongue. What if we waited, and thought more about what we really had to say?

From: My Man Jeeves, P. G. Wodehouse

“What ho!” I said. “What ho!” said Motty. “What ho! What ho!” “What ho! What ho! What ho!” After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.”

From: How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton

“The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones.

The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or a moon, we will end up believing that this is the last rather than the first word to be said on the subject.”

From: Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit

“A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.”

From: Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

“Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream–making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams…”

On dealing with “what’s in the name?”

Cirrus is Cirrus. CircleCI is CircleCi. But a cat isn’t a cat?

From: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in defense of the use of Latin names for clouds

“[All cloud names] should be accepted in all languages; they should not be translated, because in that way the first intention of the inventor and founder of them is destroyed.”

From: The Old Man and The Sea, Ernest Hemingway

“He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman.

Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine.

They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.”

From: The Complete Essays, Michel de Montaigne,

“When we spread our name by scattering it into many mouths we call that ‘increasing our renown’; we wish our name to be favorably received there and that it may gain from such an increase.

That is what is most pardonable in such a design. But carried to excess this malady makes many seek to be on others’ lips, no matter how. Trogus Pompeius says of Herostratus, and Livy says of Manlius, that they were more desirous of a wide reputation than a good one. That is a common vice.

We are more concerned that men should talk of us than of how they talk of us; and we are far more concerned that our name should run from mouth to mouth than under what circumstances it should do so.”

On humor

The bits of yesterdays that have stuck to our memories, always hold the tales, the falls, the jokes, that are still capable of producing joy. These must transcend translations.

From: Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett

“I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself.

A sense of humor is high on my list of virtues, in interplay with humility and compassion and a capacity to change when that is the right thing to do. It’s one of those virtues that softens us for all the others.”

From: Bob Mankoff, Cartoon Editor, The New Yorker

“The interesting thing about humor is that it distracts us logically. It subverts our rational process. We’re open to accepting it because it’s done in a humorous way. That same argument, in a different context, would not be accepted. You would think of counter arguments. If I use a humorous format, your counter argument can only be a joke.”

On the connections between things

The uncrossed possibilities of a calendar. The wordless warmth of a Nightingale song. The struggle of Akaky Akakievich, the clerk from St. Petersburg, in Nikolai Gogol’s short story, The Overcoat. All that exists. In all of us. No matter where we come from.

From: Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, Mary Ruefle

“We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love—a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten.”

From: If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino

“The lives of individuals of the human race form a constant plot, in which every attempt to isolate one piece of living that has a meaning separate from the rest- for example, the meeting of two people, which will become decisive for both-must bear in mind that each of the two brings with himself a texture of events, environments, other people, and that from the meeting, in turn, other stories will be derived which will break off from their common story.”

Author of the post

Akash Sharma

Product Marketer at Chargebee. An Avid Reader, Seeking Cerebral Turbulence

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