Friday, November 23, 2012

Translating demonstrative pronouns

Here's a paragraph translated from the Russian incorporating a phrasing used by almost all of my students:
In this context* (and one may also remember that the need for obtaining aid for modernization from developed nations was a recurrent theme in Medvedev's foreign policy statements) one can also explain Dmitry Medvedev's decision in March 2012 to abstain from voting in the UN Security Council on the question of military intervention in Libya. This contradicted the traditional position of Moscow, which had never, even in its period of maximal weakness and pro-westerness in the 1990s, so clearly supported intervention in anyone's domestic affairs. But if one considers that Russia has clearly defined goals and interests, then it is completely rational to refrain from participating in that which does not directly affect them.

* Russia as a local, rather than global, power.
The paragraph reads rather awkwardly, right? The sentences don't hang together well at all. And I cheerfully marked it wrong the first time I saw it, but the ninth? I was wondering if my interpretation was off, if I was missing a valid English ambiguity. Yes, the Russian original wasn't, but an ambiguous translation is a different kind of error than one with a referent that's simply wrong.

So I asked around among people who hadn't seen the original, and a bunch more who didn't even know Russian and were just judging the English as an original text: What does the "this" in "this contradicted the traditional position" refer back to?

There was some disagreement. A few people thought it meant the abstention and a few thought it was ambiguous between the abstention and the decision to abstain; most, however, were sure it mean the decision. And they all thought there was something wrong with the next sentence, that being so. So I was right.

Because in the Russian, it's very clearly the military intervention. (The paragraph in question is below.) I haven't discussed this in class yet, but I think I know what happened. They translated this linearly (they almost always do, they're at that level), and when they came to the Russian word это (ehto, this), they simply translated it like that, not noticing that while the Russian word goes to the nearest phrase, the English one goes to the noun in the main clause. That is, this can't be referring to something in a NP that's buried four-deep (decision to -> refrain from -> voting on -> question of -> military intervention). If this had been written in English, it would have needed a repetition of the noun ("This (or "such") intervention contradicted") for clarity.

Many times the errors my students make come from their habit of translating things a sentence at a time, and not paying attention to the cohesion between the sentences. But this one adds another dimension, I believe: they don't write much in English, so they don't realize when they've made an error like this. I'm always telling them they have to read a lot in English at ILR 3 if they want to have any hope of doing it in Russian. I think I'm going to have to start telling them they need to write, too.

Here's the original, from a review by Fyodor Luk'yanov of a foreign affairs paper written by Vladimir Putin, followed by a better translation (she said modestly):
В этом контексте (а можно вспомнить и то, что лейтмотивом внешнеполитических заявлений Медведева служила необходимость содействия модернизации со стороны развитых стран) объяснимо и решение Дмитрия Медведева в марте 2011 года воздержаться при голосовании в Совете Безопасности ООН по вопросу о военном вмешательстве в Ливию. Это противоречило традиционной позиции Москвы, которая никогда, даже в период максимальной слабости и прозападности в 1990-е годы, не поддерживала столь явно вмешательства в чьи-то внутренние дела. Но если считать, что у России есть четко ограниченные цели и интересы, то тогда вполне логично воздерживаться от участия в том, что напрямую их не касается.

This context (while remembering that the need for obtaining aid for modernization from developed nations was a recurrent theme in Medvedev's foreign policy statements) also explains Dmitry Medvedev's decision in March 2012 to abstain from voting in the UN Security Council on the question of military intervention in Libya. This intervention contradicted Moscow's traditional position, which even in the late 1990s, its period of maximal weakness and pro-western attitudes, was never so clearly supportive of intervention in anyone's domestic affairs. But if one considers that Russia has certain clearly defined goals and interests, then it is completely rational to refrain from participating in anything which does not directly affect them.

(The Russian original can be found here)

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7 Comments:

At 11:51 AM, November 24, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

I copied and pasted both translations into side-by-side columns for ready comparison, and was relieved to see that you approve of the same sort of liberties I occasionally feel compelled to take from linear translation, in the interests of making better sense, since I tend to feel a bit guilty whenever I change what the author wrote in the source language.

 
At 7:45 PM, November 24, 2012 Blogger Gregory Lee had this to say...

I'm not convinced of your diagnosis of the problem in using "this" to refer back to "military intervention":

"... Dmitry Medvedev's decision in March 2012 to abstain from voting in the UN Security Council on the question of military intervention in Libya. This contradicted the traditional position of Moscow ..."

The "this" is subject of a simple declarative verb, so it should refer to something that really exists or did exist. But "military intervention" is introduced in the scope of "the question of ...". That does not refer to an actual intervention, necessarily, but to a potential intervention, or perhaps to the possible legitimacy of an intervention.

The "this" is something like the "it" in "I don't eat any fish at all, and I can't even stand it with catsup."

You could fix the syntactic difficulty by using a modal: "This would contradict the traditional position of Moscow ..."

 
At 8:00 PM, November 24, 2012 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

The problem is that in the Russian original, the pronoun does unambiguously mean the intervention. the difficulty is how to represent that in English. The modal solution to me falters because there was a military intervention in Libya, one the Russians disapproved of although they did not (for whatever reason; this author is advancing a guess) veto in the UNSC.

At any rate, a straight translation of the sort offered by my students doesn't work at all.

 
At 8:01 PM, November 24, 2012 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

I should note that this article was written in 2012, so the Libyan intervention was very much in the factual past for the author, though not for the UNSC vote he's discussing.

 
At 8:22 PM, November 24, 2012 Blogger Gregory Lee had this to say...

"At any rate, a straight translation of the sort offered by my students doesn't work at all."

I agree that your interesting example makes this point very well.

 
At 12:26 PM, November 25, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

If there's one thing even worse than a poor human translation, it's one generated by computer (capable human translators are not in danger of being replaced any time soon). To wit, a sentence from an essay I'm currently translating -- the reader is likely to know from context that São Miguel is the largest, most populous island in Portugal's Azores:

ORIGINAL:
Quem quiser saborear o tradicional vinho-de-cheiro micaelense só o encontra na Nova Inglaterra, por na ilha estar proibido pela União Europeia.

GOOGLE TRANSLATE:
Anyone who wants to enjoy a traditional-wine smell São Miguel is the only New England, for the island is banned by the European Union.

MY DRAFT (subject to essayist's approval):
Anyone wishing to savor São Miguel’s traditional vinho-de-cheiro will find this fragrant wine only in New England, for on the island it is banned by the European Union.
(N.B. I've added the descriptive words "fragrant wine" in order to define "vinho-de-cheiro" without being clunky about it).

 
At 6:50 PM, November 25, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

English => Russian translating bloopers in:
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/11/steal-my-book/309105

 

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