Friday, March 15, 2019

2019 ITA Conference

On 13 March 2019, I attended the ITA's annual conference. This year it was a one-day event on a smaller scale than in previous years, and was named the I-Tea-A Party Seminar Day. While the organizers were reluctant to call it a conference, that's what it was, and a very enjoyable one at that.

The event was held at Kfar Maccabiah hotel, in their conference building. There were plenary sessions at the beginning and end of the day, with two parallel lecture tracks in between.

The first plenary speaker was Dr. Gabriel Birnbaum of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. He gave a survey of the Academy's Historical Dictionary of Hebrew project. Work on this dictionary started in 1959, and was one of the first dictionaries in the world to use computers. There are two stages to making the dictionary: first, creating the corpus of all the words in the Hebrew language, based on historical texts; and second, editing a dictionary with definitions and examples. The process of inputting the corpus of Hebrew started with work on all the words in the Mishnah, with all their roots and grammatical forms. Other ancient and medieval Hebrew texts were gradually added, and each time the best available manuscript was chosen. From 1964, they started adding modern Hebrew texts starting from about 1750, but in this case they sampled words rather than inputting all of them. Today they have reached some of the Hebrew authors of the early twentieth century, though with some of them issues of copyright complicate things. The public can search this database online and find all the examples of a word's appearances in the corpus. The actual dictionary, which began in 2004 and is available online, starts from the last letter in Hebrew, Tav, because so many dictionaries start at the beginning and are never completed, so this time they decided to start from the end and work backwards. So far, they have added about 600 entries of words starting with Tav, with word meanings, how frequent the word is in the corpus, when it was first documented in Hebrew, as well as examples from various sources within the corpus. This was a fascinating talk about an important project.

The next lecture was by Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, about cross-cultural translation. The examples she used were from the English subtitles of the documentary film "Hidden Face". This documentary tells the story of an Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi, and the subtitles had to be understandable by an audience who might know very little about Judaism. In this case, a balance had to be found between reflecting what was said and expressing the meaning in a way an audience could understand without prior knowledge.

Dr. Michal Fram-Cohen told the story of two nineteenth century Hebrew translations of the novel Vale of Cedars by Grace Aguilar, which came out in the same year. The first translation was quite close to the original story, while the second "translation" completely changed the story and one of the main characters, for ideological or educational reasons. Of course, modern translators would never do such a thing, and it was interesting to see what used to be acceptable.

Yael Valier described the difficult process of translating rhyming children's stories from Hebrew to English. Since word for word translation won't work for rhymes, the strategies include trying to recreate the sounds, reproducing the meter, turning it into a prose story to keep the meaning, or writing free verse that is still beautiful but without the formal poetic structures. It was interesting to realize that rhyming is very easy in Hebrew, which has grammatical endings that are easy to match, while the rhythm and meter tend to be less important. The translator has to find out the publisher or author's goal and target audience and choose a strategy that will suit this goal.

Tzivia MacLeod from the Society for Children's Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) gave a talk about helping Israeli authors of children's books get their work translated and marketed abroad. This involves defining the goals for the book, finding an agent (which is not required in Israeli publishing) or self-publishing, and adapting the book for an international audience while maintaining its specific cultural setting because publishers are seeking diversity.

After lunch, Stephen Rifkind discussed how to find translating work from abroad. Translators of Hebrew have an advantage, because it's a rare and "exotic" language. Of course, it's important to specialize. He recommended quoting an overall price rather than using a per-word or per-hour rate, and aiming to find a price level suitable for forming a long-term relationship with a customer. Cultural sensitivity is also necessary, for example: knowing which cultures like to negotiate terms and how to be polite.

Batia Buchnik-Epstein from Q-Lingua translation agency described the ISO 17100 standard for translations. This involves documenting the credentials of all professionals involved. They use teams of translator plus reviewer / reviser / proof-reader. This standard is useful in fields requiring great accuracy, such as life sciences, defense, automotive, and electronics. They use CAT (computer-assisted translation) rather than MT (machine translation). This gave me an interesting insight into a different type of work.

Finally, the last plenary session was given by Dory Manor, a poet and translator of French poetry into Hebrew. He discussed various aspects of translating poetry. He considers this very different to translating prose, and the translator of poetry basically has to be a poet and create poetry in the target language. One of the interesting aspects he brought up is that almost all the canonical Hebrew poets up to the middle-late twentieth century were writing in a language that was not their mother tongue, and in many cases not even their second or third language. This seems to be extremely rare in the world of poetry. He brought examples from his translations of Baudelaire into Hebrew, showing how he sometimes used alliteration or introduced concepts that would echo with Hebrew-speakers. In some cases, his translations drifted from the original in terms of meaning, in an attempt to convey similar associations in the target language.

I would like to thank the organizers and speakers. The lectures in this conference were all interesting, although not necessarily relevant to my own practice. I really enjoyed this event, and found it disappointing that it was attended by fewer translators than past conferences. I hope the coming years will see increased participation so that these annual events can grow and reach a larger audience. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Guest post on ITA Blog

I was asked to contribute a guest post on the ITA Blog.

I wrote about how translators can help authors get their books published, beyond just translation.

You can read it here.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

UK Pink Floyd Experience and Echoes

On Sunday we went to a Pink Floyd tribute concert by the British band UK Pink Floyd Experience and the Israeli band Echoes. The show at the Haifa Convention Center was the third and last in this tour of Israel, after Beersheba and Tel Aviv. The audience seemed to be mostly my age or older. I like Pink Floyd's music, both in itself and in its pervasive influence over so much of the progressive and alternative music I enjoy. However, I'm not enough of a fan to be familiar with their entire repertoire and the solo careers of each member.

I had mixed feelings about the idea of tribute bands. As a creative, I greatly value originality. I expect that many fans of any artist would consider the idea of listening to another band "imitate" their favourites anything from bizarre to offensive. But the model whereby music is played exclusively by its authors was not established until relatively recently. Classical composers were aware that their work would be played and conducted by other performers beyond their control. Perhaps they considered their role more like that of a playwright. In recent years, the talent shows that have become popular on television have featured many cover versions of well-known songs each week, and perhaps this has led the public to be more accepting of the idea of tribute bands. There are successful stage musicals and biopic films based on the music of various stars. I can also see the attraction to performers of recreating the songs they admire. Many musicians learn to play by practicing their favourite music, and imitation is a stage in learning. Not every good musician has to be a composer of great original music. Ultimately, I put my misgivings aside and enjoyed an evening of good music.

The show was originally planned to be by UK Pink Floyd Experience, and they added Echoes, apparently after seeing them on YouTube, for reasons discussed below. The combination of the two bands worked well. They played some pieces together on stage. In some songs, members of one band performed with the other band. And they performed many works separately. Each band had a different emphasis, at least in this show. UK Pink Floyd Experience focused on some less well-known material, including songs by Syd Barrett and David Gilmour, while Echoes performed many of the more popular Pink Floyd hits, focusing on the albums The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The performance of both bands was impressive, with some improvised parts that showed their skills beyond mere imitation.

Because "we can't have nice things", the reasons for including Echoes in the concert and for the way the playlist was divided between the bands were largely political rather than artistic. It didn't come as a surprise to anyone that the Israel-hater Roger Waters tried to get UK Pink Floyd Experience to cancel their shows in Israel. As a compromise, they decided not to play the songs associated with Waters themselves and to delegate that task to Echoes. I think the Israeli audience appreciated their decision to appear in Israel despite the pressure, and the compromise allowed the show to be satisfying, with a combination of familiar and less familiar works. It was also a great opportunity for Echoes, and I'm sure they have benefitted from the cooperation and from the exposure to a wider audience.

I have written before about BDS and why I believe boycotting Israel is immoral and counterproductive. It seems ridiculous that there are artists who believe they can change the world not through their art itself but through depriving certain groups of people of access to their art! I see art, like love, as something that illuminates the world and should be shared as widely as possible. People who spread darkness, division, and hatred, especially those who feel so righteous about it, are misguided and actually contribute to the spread of evil in the world instead of uniting the whole human race by finding things everyone can enjoy in common, such as music and art.

I enjoyed the concert and was gratified that they found a way to make it happen despite attempts to prevent it. Let music and love win!

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe - Novella et al.

Stephen Novella, with Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein. The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How To Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of FakeHodder & Stoughton, 2018.

I have been listening to the weekly podcast, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, for the past 12 years, so I was happy to hear that the presenters were publishing a book. 

The book starts with a detailed elaboration of core concepts in critical thinking. It discusses the way human beings think, how we know things, and various cognitive biases that make our thinking inaccurate. This is an important section, and the book is worth buying even if you only read this part. Readers will learn how and when to doubt, how to evaluate information, and how to apply this knowledge first and foremost to themselves. The point of being a skeptic is not to find certainty in your own opinions and attack those who hold different opinions, but to be comfortable with uncertainty and subtlety, to be aware that scientific knowledge is provisional, and to approach knowledge with humility. 

The next section features stories of the contributors' adventures in skepticism, each choosing a different aspect. Then the book discusses the media and how and why it misrepresents science and enables the promotion of fake and even dangerous opinions. Naturally following from this section are some examples of how pseudoscience can be fatal, not just "harmless" beliefs. 

The book concludes with a section on changing yourself and influencing others to be better critical thinkers. Once again, the purpose isn't to win arguments or feel superior, but to approach knowledge and opinions with an open but informed mind, with humility and a willingness to change and admit our mistakes when proven wrong. The podcast and book encourage a gentle attitude to trying to change others, and I agree with this approach.

This is an important book that should become essential reading for any enlightened person, whether interested in science or just in the way we think. It should be translated into other languages. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Trip to Jordan 2018

My mother, sister, and I went on a short trip to Jordan. The trip was planned and organized by Wandering Sands, and our private guide was Abu Yazam of Zeta 4 Tourism.

Israel has had a peace treaty with Jordan since 1994. I haven't been able to find out how many Israelis visit Jordan each year, or how many Israelis take connecting flights through Amman Airport. According to our guide, it can be difficult for Jordanians to visit Israel, as applying for a Visa can take two months.

We crossed into Jordan at the Jordan River border crossing near Beit She'an. This was my first experience of crossing an international land border. After the security check and passport control, a shuttle bus took us across the border. Our guide, Abu Yazam, met us there and facilitated our passport control on the Jordanian side, which included a retinal scan. Our trip took us from north to south. We drove toward our first destination, Jerash. The landscape and agriculture in the region was reminiscent of parts of Greece, and we were told that many of the agricultural workers were Syrian refugees.

Jerash is the site of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa. The modern city completely surrounds the archaeological site. Only about 20% of the ancient city's area has been excavated, and the rest is unlikely to become available unless the residents are relocated. But even this fraction of the ancient city provides an impressively large and well-preserved section of the ancient city. A few highlights of our visit: Hadrian's Arch, the Forum, the Theatre (which was full of school children), the Cardo, the Temple of Artemis (goddess of hunting and patron deity of Gerasa), and the Nymphaeum.

Hadrian's Arch



Cardo (modern city in background)

Temple of Artemis


As we were leaving the site, it started raining heavily, and we ran to the car. We had lunch at the Green Valley Restaurant. Jordanian food is familiar to us, and everything was fresh. I can confirm that the hummus is good. After lunch we drove, sometimes through the rain, to Amman. We had to cross a few deep puddles, and the city streets were full of children playing in puddles.

In Amman, we first visited the Citadel. This site afforded us impressive views of the city, and also ancient sites of various periods, and a small archaeological museum. We noticed the Raghadan Flagpole, one of the world's largest flagpoles, but the enormous flag wasn't flying that day due to the strong wind and rain.

Ummayad water cistern

Ummayad Palace

View of Amman with the Raghadan Flagpole

Sunbeams over Amman



Glass vessels

Giant hand of Hercules (from a 12 meter tall statue destroyed in an earthquake)

Temple of Hercules

After the citadel, we visited the Roman theatre, with 6,000 seats. It was built into the hillside and is now surrounded by the modern city. There was a small folklore museum here, containing some mosaics and costumes.

Amman Roman Theatre

Capital at Amman Roman Theatre

Mosaic at the Folklore Museum

Mosaic at the Folklore Museum

Desert fighter costume, still worn by the desert branch of the Jordanian army

Traditional Bedouin costumes
About this point, our guide Abu Yazam received a phone call from the Ministry of Tourism. There had been flash floods at Ma'in hot springs near the Dead Sea, where we supposed to go the next day, and about 20 people were missing, mostly school children. We followed this tragedy over the next days, hearing that the Israeli army sent rescue teams and helicopters to help in the search. This meant that we didn't visit the hot springs, and we were very relieved that this hadn't happened to us, though sad that anyone had died.

From Amman we drove south to Madaba and stayed at the Grand Hotel. While we were having dinner, a group of Christian tourists from India were praying and singing hymns in the lobby, which was rather unexpected. This showed the wide appeal of the ancient Christian sites of Jordan to Christians and other tourists from all over the world.

After a cloudy and sometimes rainy first day, the next day was clearer. We started with a visit to Mount Nebo, with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, the Dead Sea, and across it toward Jericho. Visibility wasn't quite good enough to see Jerusalem. Seeing the spectacular mountains made a profound impression on me, and I think I feel about mountains the way some people feel about the sea. We saw the impressive mosaics in the Moses Memorial.

View toward the Dead Sea, with a glimpse of Jericho beyond


From there, we returned to Madaba to visit St. George's Church, home of the Madaba Map. This is a Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land. This was of particular interest to my mother, whose M.A. thesis and book were about Byzantine Gaza. Among other things, in her research, she found mention of a Byzantine clock in Gaza, and managed to locate its depiction on the Madaba Map. The church also contained a painting of the Virgin Mary with three hands, one of them blue, which is her miracle healing hand.

St. George's Church, Madaba

Madaba Map

Madaba Map

Madaba Map

Madaba Map: Jerusalem

Madaba Map: Gaza
Three-handed Virgin Mary, St. George's Church, Madaba

Next our guide took us to the Byzantine Church of the Apostles, which is apparently less well-known, as we were the first tourists to visit that week. The remains of the ancient church are housed in an impressive modern building. The attendant let us view the mosaics from close up and sprayed them with a special spray to make them clearer to see. The mosaics include a Personification of the Sea and various human figures and animals.

Church of the Apostles, Madaba

Personification of the Sea

From Madaba, we drove south toward Petra. We stopped at the Petra Tourism Centre for lunch and to buy some souvenirs. The landscape gradually changed from mountains to desert. We visited Shawbak (Montreal) Crusader Castle, built by King Baldwin of Jerusalem and later occupied by Saladin. While we didn't get to visit Kerak, Jordan's most famous crusader castle, this site was interesting in its own right.

View of the desert

Apparently, one arch was a church and when Saladin conquered the site he added a mosque in the other arch
We reached Petra and stayed in the Petra Palace Hotel, located conveniently close to the entry to the site.

The next day was devoted entirely to walking around Petra. From the site entrance, our guide took us down the Siq, a gorge in the natural rock formation that serves as a narrow entrance to the ancient city. The rocks themselves are astonishingly beautiful, and it was a profound experience to see the result of millions of years of geology and thousands of years of weather that went into forming the landscape. Add to this the ancient carvings that must have taken years and decades of dedicated human work. We reached the so-called Treasury (actually a mausoleum like most of the impressive engraved facades), a site familiar from many films and photos, around mid-morning when the light is at its best. Knowing what to expect didn't prepare me for the sense of awe I experienced seeing this work of art. There was a strange contrast between the hustle and bustle of tourists and local people offering camel rides and selling postcards and what I was feeling. Neither words nor pictures can express the sense of wonder. I feel privileged to have visited this place.

From the Treasury, we continued walking down through the ancient city. We saw the Winged Lions Temple, the Cardo, and the Theatre, along with various tomb facades.

We had lunch in a restaurant called The Basin, and spent a while resting in the shade. The weather was perfect for our visit, but it wasn't an easy walk. At this point, Abu Yazam left us, having explained the various routes we could take back. We decided that the climbs to the High Place and to the Monastery would be too much for us, and instead we chose the path that took us to the Byzantine Church, with its mosaics, and past the Tombs of the Kings.

We made our way back to the Treasury, where we sat drinking Bedouin tea for a while. Then we slowly retraced our steps through the Siq and returned to the hotel.

One thing that bothered me was the use of animals at the site. You can ride in a horse-drawn cart along the Siq, and in other parts of the site you can ride a camel, horse, or donkey. While I have read that the authorities are trying to improve the working conditions of these animals and prevent abuse, we saw them being whipped with electrical cables, and we heard the unhappy cries of donkeys echoing through the canyons. I couldn't help remembering the donkey sanctuary we visited in England, and we naturally decided to refuse all offers of rides so we wouldn't be contributing to animal abuse. Visiting this site does require a lot of walking, but it's not impossible even for less fit individuals.

Our final day in Jordan included a visit to Wadi Rum, a beautiful desert area that was used in filming Lawrence of Arabia, Prometheus, The Martian, and we were told that another film is being made there at present. The scenery was breathtaking. We rode on the back of a jeep driven by a local guide. We saw the rock formation called the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and my sister climbed a sand dune, barefoot at the guide's recommendation. There were ancient rock carvings and some more recent rock carvings showing Lawrence of Arabia, King Abdallah I, and the first Bedouin to live in the area. Some people camp in the area over night, and there are some interesting new geodesic domes in some of the camps. We had a wonderful lunch at the Bedouin camp, and I also bought some of the local herbal tea.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a rock formation where local tribes gathered to settle disputes

Sand dune

Ancient rock carvings

Lawrence of Arabia

King Abdallah I

First local Bedouin

Our trip ended with a drive to Aqaba, where we crossed back into Israel at the Rabin border crossing, drove to Eilat, and got a flight back to Tel Aviv.

For those interested in visiting, unless you know Arabic, I recommend going in a group tour or with a private guide. The best times of year are spring and autumn. Drink only bottled water, as the tap water is considered unsafe, at least for visitors. It's worth having a hat with a neck strap or wearing a headscarf, as the wind often threatened to take my sunhat. We encountered no hostility even when we said we were from Israel.

I really enjoyed this short trip to our fascinating neighbouring country. It exceeded my expectations. This visit made me think about the connection between Israel and the surrounding area. We are all part of the same geography and the same history, with great diversity of ethnic and religious groups, and I hope that the people living in the region today can gain a wider perspective and strive for peace and co-existence as part of the continuing story of this part of the world.