Babel Tower: Of Phanariots, Googlebots, and Infidelity

Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire's dragomen, whose work as translators of the "infidels" language gave birth to the word "infidelity."
Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire’s dragomen, whose work as translators of the “infidels” language gave birth to the word “infidelity.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s superb article “Is Translation a Language or Math Problem?” has many things to recommend it, most particularly this aside on the roots of the word “infidelity”:

Translation promises unity but entails betrayal. In his wonderful survey of the history and practice of translation, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” the translator David Bellos explains that the very idea of “infidelity” has roots in the Ottoman Empire. The sultans and the members of their court refused to learn the languages of the infidels, so the task of expediting communication with Europe devolved upon a hereditary caste of translators, the Phanariots. They were Greeks with Venetian citizenship residing in Istanbul. European diplomats never liked working with them, because their loyalty was not to the intent of the foreign original but to the sultan’s preference. (Ottoman Turkish apparently had no idiom about not killing the messenger, so their work was a matter of life or death.) We retain this lingering association of translation with treachery.

Later in the piece, Lewis-Kraus limns what happens when engineers obsessed with using brute-force computation for online translation tools run up against the vagaries of literary nuance:

One computational linguist said, with a knowing leer, that there is a reason we have more than 20 translations in English of “Don Quixote.” It must be because nobody ever gets it right. If the translators can’t even make up their own minds about what it means to be “faithful” or “accurate,” what’s the point of worrying too much about it? Let’s just get rid of the whole antiquated fidelity concept. All the Sancho Panzas, all the human translators and all the computational linguists are in the same leaky boat, but the machinists are bailing out the water while the humans embroider monograms on the sails.

Nothing wrong with Google Translate, of course. But let’s hope that translating literature is left in the hands of people who, well, like literature and acknowledge the importance of linguistic subtlety. You wouldn’t hire a Ph.D in comparative lit to beta-test your server network, now would you?

Readers’ Corner: Cervantes Found

cervantes1It looks as though the grave of the Western world’s first true novelist might have been found at a 17th century convent in downtown Madrid. According to NewsHour:

Cervantes died the same week as William Shakespeare in 1616. He had requested to be buried at the convent where he was found. Luis Avial, the georadar expert on the team, said at a news conference on Tuesday that Cervantes’ remains will be reburied at the same convent, after a tomb has been built…

Cervantes didn’t just create the modern novel with the satirical mock-epic (and bestseller) Don Quixote—Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu is normally credited with penning the first novel, The Tale of Genji, in the 11th century—he also lived a life that most novelists could only dream of.

One of the more notable episodes came when the larger-than-life writer’s years of incarceration by Moorish pirates was put to an end in part by a ransom paid by the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, the order of nuns whose convent ultimately became his resting place.