The waters of translation


Today’s Penn Humanities Forum seminar discussion centered on Kimberley Thomas’ study of failed water management efforts in Bangladesh.  Her “hydro-social” framework reminds us of the difficulties of determining boundaries and “ownership” of fluid cultural artifacts. Because of this fluidity, we face difficulties when we approach a source text thinking we already know what it means.  The source might make no effort to be either complex or coy, yet because the translator approaches it with partial or tainted knowledge, the translation ends up misleading and no one understands (at least initially) that the communication misfired. When we embrace the fluid nature of the source text, then identifying these misfires in a translation allows us then to return to the source text to see how we might have also been victims of partial or tainted knowledge.

Global Chaucer and Digital Humanities: Whither and Why?

On 2 and 3 February 2017, Global Chaucers’ ambassadors, Jonathan Hsy and Candace Barrington, traveled to the University of Virginia in order to speak to the Scholars’ Lab and the Medieval/Renaissance Colloquium about “Digital Hospitality” on Thursday afternoon, and to lead a roundtable on “Linguistic and Cultural Hospitality” with the Medieval/Renaissance Colloquium on Friday morning. In addition to the two events’ lively Q&As, we enjoyed ample opportunities to enjoy rich conversations with UVa faculty and graduate students before and after the scheduled sessions. Their probing questions and thoughtful suggestions helped us think about some of the next steps available to Global Chaucers.  All in all, the two days became less about what we shared with our UVa colleagues and more about the unusual luxury of measuring Global Chaucers’ development thus far and assessing the directions it could take in the future.

When we started this blog in September 2012, we didn’t really know what direction our fledgling project would take.  We were uncertain about what sort of global Chaucers were out there—and we certainly didn’t know how we could respond to what we did find. And though we had a website with a list of the translations and appropriations we had tracked down, it wasn’t entirely clear to us that we had a Digital Humanities project.

While we still aren’t certain the directions Global Chaucers will take, we now realize we have a viable DH project. Beyond the ongoing blog reports and the initial catalog of print texts, our website takes advantage of its ability to provide links to graphic novels, poetic performances, translators’ readings, spoken word and standup, and non-spoken languages (such as ASL). Our principles of digital hospitality and openness require, however, that along with embracing the inherent advantages of a digital archive we must also acknowledge and address the unanticipated challenges figured by two curious examples we’ve encountered.

In April 2015, we were pleased to discover a tweet by Sarah Bickley with her exciting, playful, and brilliant emoji translation of the first 20 lines of the General Prologue. We reached out to her, asking her permission to post on the site and added this screenshot with the link. This act of emoji translation—which went viral on twitter over the next week or so—invites such fascinating questions as “are these lines legible to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the GP?” In any case, our archiving of this tweet through a blog post demonstrates one downside to digital communication: its transience. Since the posting of this link, Sarah has since closed her twitter account, and the snapshot that now remains on the blog is a ghost of its former viral life.

On the first Whan That Aprille Day in 2014 (encouraged by the Chaucer Tweeter, LeVostreC), we posted the opening lines in twelve different languages. Some of the non-Roman scripts did not display well, so we took screenshots and posted them online. What we have discovered, though, is that the pleasure of encountering the text in an array of unfamiliar scripts and tongues is not accessible to all. One of our collaborators is blind, and she uses a screen reader to access online material; that device cannot read non-English texts or scripts. Moreover, image files without alt-text are completely inaccessible (there might as well be nothing there). The screen-grabbed emoji poem is likewise completely inaccessible for her at present. Likewise, any audiovisual materials hosted on our site are currently inaccessible to Deaf or hard of hearing visitors unless we embed captions. What might seem like digital openness to many can end up excluding some.

Just as the principle of digital hospitality requires us to rethink our digital presence, the principles of linguistic and cultural hospitality also require us to reconsider how we imagine Global Chaucers and its collaborators.  We began thinking that we would be creating an archive of data and texts that we would then analyze and disseminate.  Although we remain the project’s primary ambassadors, the active interest and participation of other scholars, translators, and enthusiasts means that we shouldn’t resist participants ready to take Global Chaucers in new directions. Not only does information want to be free, so do the voices and data assembled under the Global Chaucers rubric. We hope that the project becomes multi-faceted, with some of its aspect thriving without our direct involvement.

So what are some of the new directions that our UVa conversations helped reveal?

  • It’s time to rethink our initial parameters of “post-1945 translations and appropriations of The Canterbury Tales.” Our catalog now includes translations of and engagements with Troilus and Criseyde, The Parlement of Fowles, and Chaucerian lyrics; and the catalog spans works from as early as the sixteenth century.
  • Our catalog is diverse enough to justify bringing in colleagues with coding expertise, so that we can creating a database coding our collected information about the various translations—languages, translators, tales, dates, and source texts, for instance. That database will then be used to do more outwardly visible work, such as classroom-friendly mapping projects.
  • We need to determine the best way to archive the various forms of graphic, visual, and audiovisual media, including the possibility of a new infrastructure for such material. If Global Chaucers is to encourage an inclusive dialogue about Chaucer as well as more to provide more routes of access that allow us to discuss problematic aspects of his verse, then we need better ways to archive and present information.
  • We need to consider if its desirable to switch the Global Chaucers site into a maker space rather than a user space. If we decide to move in that direction, then we will need help to make the change.

Although we are not certain about the shape Global Chaucers will take, we are confident it will adhere to its initial values of digital, linguistic, and cultural hospitality despite the challenges those values might pose.  For these reasons, we were gratified to learn that our UVa colleagues shared not only our enthusiasm for Chaucer’s global reception but also our commitment to creating a global community.

Thank you Justin Greenlee, DeVan Ard, Zach Stone, Bruce Holsinger, Elizabeth Fowler, Anna Brickhouse, and the Scholars’ Lab staff for your gracious hospitality and for the opportunities to share our work and to learn from you.



The False Quest: Eradicating Informational Entropy

georgetownexperiment1954In her 8 November presentation “Crypto-Monolingualism: Machine Translation and the Poetics of Automation,” Avery Slater challenges us to consider the ways machine translation has relied on efforts to locate, nay create, a singular language that eradicates impediments to communication caused by linguistic diversity. In pursuit of this goal, proponents of machine translation ignore the fact that linguistic messiness starts with individual languages. Although that messiness complicates translation, it is not caused by translation.

In its earliest iterations, machine translation sought a way to account for, reign in, and even take advantage of the paradoxes of informational entropy.  On the one hand, an unambiguous event can be easily conveyed because it contains a limited amount of information. On the other hand, an ambiguous event, while more difficult to convey because it contains more information, can also be a compact and efficient vehicle for conveying that load of information, a realization which poets have long relied.

In order to circumvent and circumscribe informational entropy, machine translation initially sought a mono-language identified as a “new Tower of Anti-Babel,” whose desideratum seems closer to an Ante-Babel, that mythical period before linguistic plurality.  Reaching this desired mono-language meant more than a simple unified linguistic experience; it also promised to eliminate equivocation and ambiguity. This natural generative language (NLG) becomes the code into which all languages can be re-encrypted.  Moreover, each utterance in this language would point to a single, predictive meaning.

By integrating statistical models into their algorithms, more recent forms of machine translation would seem to have abandoned the formulaic substitutions based on dictionary definitions and syntactic rule books. And yet, as I discovered when I typed in, word-by-word, Catullus’s Poem 101, I initially received a predictably awkward rendition of the poem’s lines. Halfway through, however, those lines disappeared and were replaced by a crafted translation of the lines.  I haven’t yet found their source—a 100% match did not appear when I googled the translated lines—but they are not the same as the one provided by the initial algorithm. Instead, they reach into the internet, filching how others (most likely humans) have translated those lines.  What I was given felt closer to the results that would have been provided by the person hidden inside Benjamin’s deceptive chess-playing machine.

The quest for reliable machine translation seems partially propelled by fear of the fallible, “wrongly” biased translator.  As Slater discusses, however, even the most mechanized translation devises embed the biases of their designers.  And the latest translation software that relies on human translators cannot escape the preferences of certain powerful groups of translators.

Of course, these “failures” are not really failures, for all they do highlight what makes language such a fascinating and endless source of study: its essential aleatory nature that allows it to convey information both compactly and expansively, efficiently and gloriously inefficiently.

For these reasons, I’m enthralled by the parlour game of translation tag that retranslates translations through google translator.  Here, I begin with a Modern English translation of the first four lines and then retranslate it into Afrikaans, Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, and Armenian. For Afrikaans, I provide only the translator’s rendition into Afrikaans and then back translated into ModEnglish. For the other four, I first provide the translation from ModEnglish into the receiving language and then the back translation into (just as I did with Afrikaans).  Beneath that is the translation from the language just above it and its back translation into ModEnglish.  Thus, the third entry under Albanian is the translation from Afrikaans (rather than from ModEnglish), and the fourth entry is the back translation into ModEnglish.


When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout through every vein with liquid of such power.


Wanneer sagte reën April se die droogte van Maart reg deurboor om die wortel en gebaai elke spruit deur elke aar met vloeibare van so ‘n mag.

When pierced soft rain, April’s drought from March right around the root and bathed every stream through each ear with liquid of such power.


Kur shirat e butë të prillit kanë shpuar thatësirë e marsit të drejte në rrënjë, dhe bathed çdo dal nëpër çdo mënyrë me të lëngshme e fuqi të tillë.

When soft April rains have drilled the March drought right at the root, and bathed every pack in any way with such force liquid.

Kur shpuar shi të butë, thatësira prillit nga mars djathtë rreth rrënjës dhe i larë çdo rrjedhë nëpërmjet çdo vesh me lëng e fuqi të tillë.

When perforated soft rain, drought from March to April, right around the roots and wash each flow through each ear with such force juice.


ሚያዝያ የአምላክ የዋሆች ዝናብ ሥር ወደ መጋቢት መብት ድርቅ የወጉትም ያዩታል, እና ከመታጠብ ጊዜ እያንዳንዱ እንዲህ ያለ ኃይል ፈሳሽ ጋር ሁሉ የደም ሥር በኩል ያበቅላል.

April’s rain under mild drought pierced right into March, and bathed each such power to grow through every vein with fluid.

ቀኝ ሥሮች ዙሪያ, ሚያዝያ ከማርች እስከ ለስለስ ያለ ዝናብ, ድርቅ ቀዶ እንዲህ ኃይል ጭማቂ ጋር በእያንዳንዱ ጆሮ በኩል እያንዳንዱ ፍሰት ታጠብ.

Right around the roots, from March to April, soft rain, drought surgery to power wash with juice in each ear through each flow.


عندما الأمطار لطيف في ابريل نيسان قد اخترقت الجفاف من حق مارس إلى الجذر، واستحم كل برعم من خلال كل عرق مع السائل من هذه السلطة

When the rain really nice in April, has penetrated the drought of March to the right of the root, and bathed each bud through every race with the liquid from this authority

الحق حول جذور، في الفترة من مارس إلى أبريل المطر الناعمة، جراحة الجفاف لغسل السلطة مع عصير في كل أذن من خلال كل التدفق.

 Right around the roots, in the period from March to April of soft rain, drought surgery to wash power with juice in each ear through the whole flow.


Երբ ապրիլյան Նուրբ անձրեւները պիրսինգով երաշտի մարտի իրավունքի արմատի, եւ bathed յուրաքանչյուրը բողբոջել միջոցով ամեն երակային հեղուկ նման իշխանության.

When drought root March April Gentle rains pierced right through every vein and bathed each sprout like fluid power.

Ճիշտ է շուրջ արմատներին, ի մարտից մինչեւ ապրիլ փափուկ անձրեւի, երաշտը վիրահատություն է լվանում իշխանությունը հյութի յուրաքանչյուր ականջին ամբողջ հոսքը:

Right around the roots, from March to April in the soft rain, drought surgery to power wash the entire flow of juice in each ear.

I’m not certain why Amharic, the ancient Ethiopian language, would be the one to introduce such modern notions as surgery and power washing, but am certain that the insights gained through such a game are limited.  Obtaining the insights revealed by translation requires a deeper knowledge of language than currently available via machine translation.


Chaucer’s Chinese Names

An assortment of Chaucerian materials in Chinese.

Earlier this year, we began a delightful correspondence with Lian Zhang, a graduate student of Dr. Minghan Xiao, professor of English and American literature in Hunan Normal University. Lian’s extensive research on Chaucer’s Chinese reception has opened up many exciting new avenues of interpretation, but for now Lian has agreed to share a tantalizing tidbit: the myriad choices (and dilemmas) facing a translator needing to render Chaucer’s name in Chinese.

We think you will enjoy this small yet fascinating window into the complexities of translating Chaucer’s Middle English text into Chinese.

Confucius says: “If terminology is not corrected, then what is said cannot be followed. If what is said cannot be followed, then work cannot be accomplished” (名不正,则言不顺;言不顺,则事不成). Chinese people attach great importance to their names. A Chinese name suggests both family inheritance and good wishes for the person. The surname is put first to show respect for ancestors, and the given name is after the surname and generally indicates family’s expectations. Take Bai Juyi (白居易) (772-846 AD), a great poet in the Tang Dynasty, for example. “Bai” is his surname, and “Juyi” means living an easy and comfortable life, a simple and sincere hope from his family. What is different from the western tradition is that Chinese rarely name their children after their ancestors or relatives. The given names of the ancestors would always be taboo words for the descendents. Du Fu (杜甫) (712-770 AD), the Poet Sage (诗圣) in the Tang Dynasty, for instance, wrote poetry for over thirty years and never used the word “xian” (闲), meaning free and casual, a very poetic word in Chinese, simply because it is his father’s given name. Du has also been reputed as never mentioning Chinese flowering crabapple (海棠), a plant often praised in classical Chinese poems, as it relates to his mother’s maiden name. In addition to a surname and a given name, Du also had a style name “zi mei” (字“子美”), and an assumed name “Shaoling Farmer” (号“少陵野老”). While a style name is usually given by the family when the person is young and generally indicates family’s good wishes, an assumed name is more often decided by the person himself.

With such a rich history of naming culture behind, Chinese scholars would take translations of Chaucer’s name seriously. The name “Chaucer” has been translated into many versions, either a Chinese full name (with both a Chinese surname and a given name) or just a given name or an assumed name with all good meanings. Chaucer was named as “shao sou” (邵叟), “que sou” (却叟), “chuo sai” (绰塞), “qiao sai” (乔塞), “sao sai” (骚塞), “chao sai” (巢塞), etc, and all of these translations just deal with his surname “Chaucer”. One version including his full name is very auspicious as “qiao sai ji fu lai” (乔塞·极福来), which sounds close to the full name “Geoffrey Chaucer” and means “supreme blessing for Chaucer”. Yet a mistake occurs here, as the given name and the surname are put in the opposite order in the translation. The most commonly used translation for his full name to this day is “jie fu li qiao sou” (杰弗里·乔叟). The above mentioned name “sao sai” (骚塞) is also interesting, as “sao” refers to poets or literary men in classical Chinese, and likely originates from Li Sao (离骚) by Qu Yuan (屈原) (340-278 BC), one of the greatest patriotic poets in ancient China. Thus this name not only has a similar pronunciation but also suggests Chaucer’s literary achievements in history.

In 1913, Sun Yuxiu first introduced Chaucer into China, and translated his name as “xiao su” (孝素), two Chinese words with very good meanings. “Xiao” means filial piety, which is regarded as the most important of all virtues in traditional Chinese culture. “Su” suggests simple, plainness, and quietness. The two Chinese words combined sounds like the surname “Chaucer” in pronunciation, but this combination is more like a Chinese given name, or a style name.

From 1916 to 1925, Lin Shu and Chen Jialin published translations of nine of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales. In the translation for the Wife of Bath’s tale, Chaucer’s name was introduced as “cao xi er” (曹西尔). “Cao” sounds like “Chau-” in Chinese, and is a typical Chinese surname. This surname dates back to the days of the legendary Huangdi Emperor in the third millennium BC, and even today millions of Chinese people still bear this surname. “Xi” means west, an emphasis on Chaucer’s origin, and “er” could be taken as a mood auxiliary word in classical Chinese. Thus Chaucer got a full Chinese name here, with a Chinese surname and a given name indicating the poet’s origin.

Chaucer’s name was more commonly recognized in China as “qiao sou” (乔叟). “Qiao”, a Chinese surname, sounds like “Chau-” in pronunciation, whileas “sou” sounds like “-cer” and means an old and wise man in Chinese, an image close to Chaucer’s portrait we have nowadays. This name is like an assumed name of the poet, as it suggests his profession or social status. It is through Fang Zhong’s influential translation of Chaucer’s works that this name has been made widely known in China. It is also the commonly used name by Taiwanese scholars.

Another Chinese name for Chaucer worth noting is “zhao sou” (赵叟), used by a couple of contemporary Chinese scholars. “Zhao”, or “Chiu” in Hong Kong, “Chao” or “Chau” in Taiwanese phonetics, sounds like “Chau-” in Chinese, and “sou” seconds what the word in “qiao sou” means. Moreover, “zhao” was the surname of the emperors of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) in China, thus the so-called surname of the state, and the most respectable surname for this period. Even today, “zhao” is among one of the most borne surnames in China. The Chinese emperors in ancient time would grant his loyal servants or brave soldiers the surname of the state, and the one who received this huge and rare honor would abandon his original surname. Chaucer, who also lived in the medieval world, would have found it a wonderful experience if he knew he was granted with the Song emperors’ surname.

Chaucer’s life stretched over sixty years, from the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD) to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) in Chinese history. While the Yuan Dynasty was ruled by Mongolia Chinese and it is a little bit difficult to match their long Mongolian surname with Chaucer, I find the Ming emperors’ Han Chinese surname, “Zhu” (朱), or “Chu” in both Hong Kong and Taiwanese phonetics, a more suitable match, and we could only imagine how glad Chaucer would be as he is granted with an emperor’s surname of his living days.



Sociologies of Translation

This week’s Penn Humanities seminar stepped away from the usual format (a presentation by a forum fellow followed by a response from another fellow) networkand paused for a bit to consider two important texts for translation theory: Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” and Bruno Latour’s “How to Resume the Task of Tracing Associations.”  Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the ways the Global Chaucers project realizes some of the claims of Benjamin’s essay, the most important being the way a translation “must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.”[1]  Extending this concept (without necessarily buying into his transcendental inclinations), we can see how multiple translations might provide more fragments of the vessel, and we can expect that studying these multiple translations together will provide a more complex sense of the original than could the study of a single translation.

Latour, too, is interested in making connections among fragments. The associations he looks for would initially seem to be based on similarities; however, as his extensive citations of Gabriel Tarde suggest, the more significant associations are marked by differences.[2] From a sociological perspective, this difference means that in order to make those associations we must translate. Translation, in one form or another, therefore saturates our interactions and structures our relationships.  When we begin to examine multiple translations of The Canterbury Tales, a likely place to start will be at moments of difference, those places where translators found different solutions to a linguistic dilemma.  These points of apparent incommensurability guide us to places where meaning (in both Chaucer’s text and in the translation) threatens (or perhaps even does) fall apart; the translation, then shows us one possible way to re-associate the terms and thereby create meaning. When the translations are separated by significant temporal lengths or geographical spaces, the results can be an especially rich set of associations allowing us also to observe how meanings shift across time and space.

Latour also reassures that there is no urgency, no need to bring all the translations together in one grand Chaucerian vessel.  Instead, the sociologist’s networks of association allow us to consider the numerous combinations and unexpected hybrids, thereby allowing us to trace connections that make visible what is otherwise hidden to the monolingual reader.

My brief reflections touch only tangentially today’s fascinating conversation that explored the associations animating these two essays.


[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, vol 1, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Harvard University Press, 1997), 260.

[2] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford University Press, 2005), 14-16.

Pitfalls of Unidirectional Translation

How are we to understand a project whose primary objective is “to forge in common a memory, an imaginary, a common view of the world that surrounds us”? What does it mean when that same project attempts to create a common culture by simultaneously artebroadcasting television programing to German and French audiences, especially when that broadcasting is developed from a German or French perspective and then (mis)translated into the other language with insufficient concern for the lost context? These transcultural questions were two of many issues raised by Damien Stankiewicz’s “Is Europe Lost in Translation?: Lessons from the Micro-Politics of Meaning at the French-German Television Channel ARTE.” Though ostensibly a series of vignettes drawn from Stankiewicz’s fieldwork at the Strasbourg television channel, the paper becomes a study of the politics of translation when well-meaning cosmopolitanism becomes straitjacketed by nationalism, when polylingual discourse becomes “serial monolingualism” (a term I borrow from Bethan Wiggin). Via Stankiewicz’s dispiriting experiences at ARTE, we watch an admirable (it seems) effort flounder when it focuses too much on telling and too little on listening.  Consequently, the channel’s unidirectional linguistic and cultural translations frequently miss their mark.

For me, ARTE’s efforts and frustrations provide a potent reminder to the pitfalls of a transnational cultural project. It’s good to be reminded that political agendas (whether or not they are self-recognized) can thwart the highest-minded efforts.

When we launched Global Chaucers in 2012, our purposes were limited and certainly felt apolitical to us.  Within months we realized that even our most minimal goals could not be reached without collaborators outside our immediate contacts.  At this point, Global Chaucers became politically inflected. Although the direction of Global Chaucers continued to be primarily determined by our goals and interests, our collaborators’ local concerns also shaped the project.  Global Chaucers couldn’t be about telling members of the scholarly collective how they should appropriate, understand, or interpret Chaucer.  Instead, it had to became a listening campaign, an effort to learn how Chaucer’s non-Anglophone readers understood his work and how they translated that understanding to other non-Anglophone readers.  I think it’s this insistence on listening that has helped us expand our network, bringing in new voices and new perspectives, united not by a common understanding of a single text but by a common delight.

Translating Basic Word Lists


In her lucid exploration of language data collection in the field once known as “lexio-statistic glottochronology,” Judy Kaplan’s “From Lexiostatistics to Lexomics: Basic Vocabulary and the Study of Language Prehistory” traces the persistent hold “Basic Word Lists.” Though the data behind those word lists have gone from being recorded and shared on note cards to being stored and processed on the cloud, they have continued to be presented as the scientific basis for big data theories regarding the prehistory of language.  As new data is brought into linguistic models, she suggests, it is made to fit the models’ theoretical conclusions rather than the new data requiring any adjustments to the model.

I was particularly interested in her discussion of the Basic Word Lists,* ranging from 15-215 items, comprising a basic vocabulary defined by its stability across time and cultures.  Identified as commensurate across all language systems, this stable lexicon includes terms like all, louse, seed, blood, claw, belly, bite, know, sun, yellow, night, new, and round. An essential (and somewhat dubious) premise behind the Basic Word List is the commensurability of these lexemes across languages (and across time).  With these word lists, mid-twentieth-century linguists created absolute chronologies of language development.  Most recently, archaeogeneticists and evolutionists have used this Basic Word List to push back the limits of language prehistory, albeit in less absolute terms.

One aspect of my study of Canterbury Tales translations also works with word lists. Unlike the linguists of Kaplan’s study, however, I’m interested in intense moments of incommensurability, those points when the receiving language exceeds the confines established by the source text’s language.  By and large, my terms have been cultural; for instance, I’ve examined the various ways translators express the idea of pilgrimage and salvation.  Additionally, some examples seem so natural that we are surprised when the translations betray their cultural situatedness.  In this category are terms associated with emotions, such as anger and joy.  What if we extend this investigation to include those supposedly stable terms? Would the literary context of multiple translations support my intuition that these terms are not nearly as stable as supposed?

*Thanks to Roger Bilosoly for sharing this fascinating link.  Be prepared to spend many hours tracing linguistic cognates.