Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Not all languages are equal

My last posting made me realize the importance and value of contemplating the role of English in the world and how it affects people's lives. I sometimes push to the back of my mind that I too once worked as a translator (I don't have space to tell the whole story here) - a book translator is quite different from an interpreter or Iraqi translator for American troops. I did not put my life on the line. However, the work did deeply affect my life and that of others. The worst thing was that it negatively impacted on a friend's life and seems to have cost me that friendship. The best thing was that the book was and is still being read ( link ), bringing attention to a close primate relative and an endangered species.

In brief, many years before becoming an ESL teacher, when I was a stay-at-home mom, I translated a Japanese monograph on pygmy chimpanzees (bonobos) for Stanford University Press. At that time, I had rather impulsively agreed to take on two related book translation projects - both were about the great apes that I had studied in Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo). One author, Dr. Suehisa Kuroda, had become a close friend after having spent nearly 6 months in Africa together when I was a graduate student in anthropology; the other was Dr. Takayoshi Kano, the Director of the Wamba fieldsite where we had conducted research on pygmy chimps. Unfortunately, for reasons beyond my control, Dr. Kano's book got published in English, and Dr. Kuroda's did not.

What I didn't grasp in working on these translation projects was that publishing a Japanese book in English meant that many, many more people would have access to these works. Duh! In other words, a Japanese author who was relatively unknown in the USA, for example, could quickly become very well recognized here if his/her book were published in English.

Dr. Kano was a shy, retiring man, and usually avoided public forums whenever possible, but after publication of his monograph in English, non-Japanese students and researchers began to aggressively seek him out at international conferences. At the same time, Dr. Kuroda, who had previously been viewed as a pioneer himself (indeed, he was, though junior to Kano) and who had been far more accessible to non-Japanese because of his gregarious nature and lack of inhibitions in speaking English, began to be seen as a secondary personage in his field.

There aren't many English translations in the field of primatology, and any book that talks about chimpanzees as our closest living relatives captures a rather large readership. Little did I know that publishing a monograph in English could or would change the status or image of the authors in an international context.

Language is power, and not all languages are equal.

For more information about translation for all languages, click on the following link.


Mickey said...

Very interesting account. Does this point to a more general opportunity for translations from Japanese (and other Asian languages) to English in areas (unlike Anime) where authors might be unfamiliar to westerners?

evelyn said...

That's a good question, Mickey. I think there are many opportunities for translators today. Even though English is being and has long been strongly promoted in public school systems throughout the world, science and medical translators, in particular, are probably limited in number. There is still a need for journal articles to be simultaneously published in their entirety in English. 

In science, in general, only the best English speakers in their respective fields are well-known outside their countries. They themselves publish a lot in English because they have the skill to do it themselves or attend international conferences, speaking in English. Despite our many efforts to make English the universal language, no one is giving up their non-English mother tongue, and there are many Englishes out there - some that require more 'interpretation' than others.