Politics vs Linguistics in Translation: Which Wins?
Thread poster: hetongzhi

hetongzhi  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:39
Member (2008)
Finnish to English
+ ...
May 1, 2009

I was wondering how often translators run up against translation issues that are political in origin, and how do you determine which wins over the other. Take the example of Republika Srpska, the Serb entity created at the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. As a concession to the Serbs, the Serbian name of their entity was written into the Agreement, even though there are perfectly good alternatives in English (Bosnian Serb Republic). The Serbs also translate their entity into "Republic of Srpska," which to me is a linguistic abomination. I told our translator in Bosnia not to use the term, as we didn't need the Serbs to tell us how to say something in English.

I also note that years ago the UN agreed to change the name of Ivory Coast to Cote d'Ivoire in English as well, even though Ivory Coast is perfectly acceptable in English.

I was wondering whether other translators have run into this kind of dilemma of politically motivated language that is a poor linguistic fit, and if so, how do you deal with it?


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Ivan Petryshyn
English to Italian
+ ...
re May 1, 2009

the self-determination of the nation is important and should be recognized by the World Community, as a translator/interpreter, you are to keep to the officially recognized by the UNO terminology of the time: you reflect the realities, not the sentiments, unless there's a specific reason to do otherwise, provided the special instructions given by the Party who hires you. Translation/interpretation is not politics but serves to reflect it.
Ivan Petryshyn USA


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Lesley Clarke  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 13:39
Spanish to English
Mmmm May 3, 2009

If you choose not to call a country or place by its official name, surely you are making a strong political statement of your own and I wonder if a translation is the place to do it. Surely we are supposed to make a faithful rendition of what has been said in one language into another, not to use our customers' work to express our own opinion on international politics.

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hetongzhi  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:39
Member (2008)
Finnish to English
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TOPIC STARTER
You Are Making My Point May 3, 2009

This is precisely what I am saying: we should try to accurately render a name in the target language and not simply pass through the same name from the source language. Luckily, this doesn't often pose a problem, although we are all aware that in conflict situations terminology can be very much twisted to suit one's own political goals.

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Daniel García
English to Spanish
+ ...
Whatever you choose, you are making a political statement May 3, 2009

hetongzhi wrote:

This is precisely what I am saying: we should try to accurately render a name in the target language and not simply pass through the same name from the source language. Luckily, this doesn't often pose a problem, although we are all aware that in conflict situations terminology can be very much twisted to suit one's own political goals.


If you use the official name, as decided by the country's authorities, you are making a political statement.

If you choose not to use the countries official name but whatever name you prefer, you are making a political statement.

It's just a matter of into which direction your political statement should go.

Would you say "former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" or "Republic of Macedonia"?

Either way, you'll be making a statement, won't you?

Daniel


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Harro
Local time: 19:39
German to English
Agreed May 3, 2009

Lesley Clarke wrote:

If you choose not to call a country or place by its official name, surely you are making a strong political statement of your own and I wonder if a translation is the place to do it. Surely we are supposed to make a faithful rendition of what has been said in one language into another, not to use our customers' work to express our own opinion on international politics.

Absolutely!! Countries which insist on a particular name do so out of national pride and I do not see what this has to do with translators. If I choose to say that I live in Scotland (I don't, by the way), am I to be told that I am wrong and I should say that I live in the United Kingdom?

Of course, I actually do both.

Harro


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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 20:39
Italian to English
The asymmetry of English May 3, 2009

English is rather different from other languages in that it is the de facto global medium of communication as well as the native language of a fair proportion of the world's population. As a global language, it is subject to pressures from non-English speaking nations and other political units that wish - quite legitimately - to assert themselves on the world stage, pressures from which other languages are exempt.

Recently, for example, major political players like China, India and the EU have respectively insisted on "Beijing" not "Peking", "Mumbai" not "Bombay" and the unnatural plural "euro" in English, despite the fact that native speakers using the language for cultural rather than political purposes may, as is their right, choose to ignore these injunctions in the appropriate circumstances. This means that when translating into English, it is particularly important to consider the mode of communication (global, international, local; culture-bound, culture-neutral; politically weighted or not) as well as the author and intended audience.

After all, it is perfectly reasonable to fly to Beijing to enjoy some genuine Peking Duck but not many gourmets would visit Peking for a plate of Beijing Duck

FWIW

Giles

[Edited at 2009-05-03 21:15 GMT]


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hetongzhi  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:39
Member (2008)
Finnish to English
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To Daniel May 4, 2009

I think translations should be politically neutral; in the case of Macedonia I would simply be governed by the formulation in the original language. The case I quoted is especially problematic because Republika Srpska is the term given recognition in the Dayton Peace Agreement while "Republic of Srpska" doesn't make linguistic sense.

Beijing is of course much more accurate for transliteration purposes than Peking because it more closely approximates the original Chinese sound (just like Jinmen instead of Kinmen or Taibei instead of Taipei).


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 20:39
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Official languages of South Africa May 4, 2009

hetongzhi wrote:
The Serbs also translate their entity into "Republic of Srpska," which to me is a linguistic abomination. I told our translator in Bosnia not to use the term, as we didn't need the Serbs to tell us how to say something in English. ... I also note that years ago the UN agreed to change the name of Ivory Coast to Cote d'Ivoire in English as well, even though Ivory Coast is perfectly acceptable in English.


I don't think there is one right or wrong answer. At the newspaper where I used to work, we would do what the Birmese government wanted us to do, but we would not do what South Africa's own Constitution wanted us to do. So there is no logic.

The English version of the South African Constitution reads: "The official languages of the Republic are Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu.", but nine of these names are not English names. In normal English, one would say Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Swazi, Venda, Tsonga, Ndebele, Xhosa and Zulu.

Now it is as illogical to say "I speak isiXhosa" as it is to say "I speak Deutsch", but some newspapers do tow the government's line. And if you submit a tender to government and you want it not rejected outright, you'd use "isiXhosa" and not "Xhosa". So politics do influence the translation.

The problem with this is that it could easily result in hurt feelings. I know many White Russians who would agree (no, just kidding). And some people can be rather dogmatic about it. My approach is that pragma should triumph over dogma. People who prefer a "more correct" version can often back up their choice with fancy sounding arguments, but I think the only good reason to use a "more correct" version is whether it communicates the right message to the right reader.


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foghorn
English to Turkish
+ ...
a case for linguistics May 5, 2009

it’s rather hard to keep up with the arguments presented here. i would possibly agree with almost all of them but there are other linguistic issues that have a direct political connation but free from any political statement.

Imagine having roast turkey at a diplomatic reception! How would you feel if you were the Turkish ambassador?

The point is there are at least some unlucky coincidences which cannot be avoided without using non-English names (to save intentionality and neutrality of English).


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 20:39
English to Croatian
+ ...
Serb Republic May 5, 2009

I live in the Serb Republic, Bosnia. My native language is Bosnian, the SR version.

Anyway, I've always found it very strange that they translated the name as " Republic of Srpska" or similar syntagms in English, which sounds very ungrammatical and semantically incorrect.

They even adopted " Republic (of) Srpska" as an official translation, which is totally wrong.

Personally, I always translate it as " Serb Republic" ...

Just like we translate USA as "SAD" ( Sjedinjene Američke Države), I see Serb Republic as an appropriate English version of the name.

But you are right, keeping "Srpska" in the English name may be politically colored, trying to retain the name that will be broadly recognizable and easily identifiable. Never mind there mustn't be room for any Serbian adjective, such as " srpska", in an English phrase ( as if politicians ever studied the English or Serbian morphology).

We have the Serbian version/ translation of Cote d'Ivoire, namely " Obala Slonovače".


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hetongzhi  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:39
Member (2008)
Finnish to English
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TOPIC STARTER
Translating Serb Republic May 5, 2009

Република Србија is the official name of the Republic of Serbia, which is why to differentiate it from the RS, some papers use Bosnian Serb Republic.

RFE/RL uses Serb Republic for the RS:

The Serb Republic, which is an entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has paid for billboards in downtown Brussels that show a road from Europe leading to the Serb Republic.

If you check the Wikipedia reference for Ivory Coast, under uses in English, you will find a wide variation in usages.


the United States Department of State which uses "Côte d'Ivoire" in formal documents, but uses "Ivory Coast" in many general references, speeches and briefing documents,[13]

Many other courties, such as in Scandinavia, simply translate Ivory Coast into their respective languages.


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