Sunday, 19 May 2013

Through a Google Glass darkly

Google hails its 'Glass' - a wearable computer - as a breakthrough. One of its properties is the ability to tell the wearer when tapped what 'half a pound' is in Chinese - see

This set me thinking about the nature of translation. There have been phrasebooks for travellers for centuries. They result in (no doubt apocryphal) absurdities such as 'my postillion has been struck by lightning' or Gerald Hoffnung's 'There is a French widow in every bedroom'. Even Google Glass's example - of what 'half a pound' is in Chinese needs to be contextualised via a picture of a vegetable display that the presumed Glass wearer wants half a pound of.

Moffat Book Events website now carries a series of bi-lingual (English and Russian) tales of British life which we aim to expand. The idea is to introduce the reader to key cultural activities - so far the game of cricket and the local pub - which are essential to the understanding of each other. I watched the movie starring Michael Douglas 'Money Never Dies' on TV last night. In one scene, the young protagonist scores a hit with a Chinese business delegation by presenting the male leader with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, and the female leader with a package beautifully wrapped in red. The giving of appropriate gifts, the use of appropriate colour - these are as important as what words are used. Hence, 'translators' need not fear gadgetry such as Google Glass. Without profound study of the culture being 'translated', words are sometimes worse than useless.

Amongst the French
by Paul Zimmer

I do not have their words,
do not have their years or customs.
Passing them on the road,
shy as fog passing down
slopes into the valley,
I always give first utterance
or make an uncertain gesture.

My neighbors are kind,
knowing I am like rain,
that if they wait long enough,
in time I will go away.

It is the same for me in
all directions—under stars
swarming out of foothills,
on the gravel I churn
with my shoes—east, west,
north, or south—the same.
If I remained in
this friendly place forever,
I would always be a stranger.

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