Sunday, January 20, 2013

ITA Lectures: Zuckermann and Sela-Shapiro

Last week I attended a lecture event organized by the Israel Translators Association in Haifa, at the Mount Carmel Hotel.

The first lecture was by linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann. I had previously heard him speak about his somewhat controversial assertion that what we speak in Israel is in fact Israeli, not Hebrew, since the revived language includes influences from Yiddish and other modern Indo-European languages, and has not remained strictly a Semitic language like its ancestor. Thus far, his theory was quite convincing, but it turned out he also advocates a very "descriptive" rather than "prescriptive" ideology, which went a bit too far, in my opinion, in accepting the spoken language and rejecting the idea that there are rules people can learn and use.

This time, his lecture was on a rather different subject, Revival Linguistics. Zuckermann now teaches linguistics in Australia, and has been involved in reviving some of the Aboriginal languages. Some figures quoted: There are 250 Aboriginal languages in Australia, of which only 18 (17%) are still living. Of 7,000 world languages, we will lose 90% within the next century (unless action is taken). 96% of the world's population speak 4% of the world's languages, which means only 4% of the population speak the remaining 96% of languages, probably only a small population per language.

Much of the lecture was devoted to the reasons for reviving "sleeping" languages, which was the aspect I found most interesting. The Aboriginal languages became extinct through a deliberate policy of linguicide imposed by the colonialists. Loss of a language entails loss of cultural autonomy. These languages contained traditional stories and symbols and contributed to cultural diversity. Some languages contain unique concepts that do not exist in other languages. Learning a native language empowers individuals and groups and being bilingual improves other skills.

I found myself becoming convinced of the importance of reviving minority languages. While it would be easy to argue that in today's world it is most important to speak one of the major world languages, I now understand the ideology and idealism that wishes to teach people the traditional languages of their ancestors, even if these are spoken by relatively small groups. I find this particularly worthwhile if the children are brought up bilingual, as I was, and learn to move between two linguistic and cultural worlds from an early age.

After dinner, the second lecture was by translator Yael Sela-Shapiro. She discussed the problems of translating scientific and technical material into Hebrew, where there are vocabulary voids. After explaining the problem, the suggested solutions were as follows: where there is a familiar and accepted translation, it can be used, taking the target audience into account. Where there is an accepted but perhaps less familiar translation, the word can be used with the foreign word in parentheses the first time. Where there is a translation that is unfamiliar, or there are two translations, it is worth consulting the customer and also placing the foreign word in parentheses. Where there is no Hebrew equivalent, consult the customer, and discuss inventing a new word, with explanation, or transliterating the foreign word, or leaving the foreign word in the original, according to the target audience's preferences.

This lecture led to a lively discussion about word formation in Hebrew, and about how to estimate the expectations of the target audience. Towards the end she presented some words she and other translators had invented to translate into Hebrew words that were invented in English in SF books.

Both lecturers were knowledgeable, charismatic, and experienced speakers who engaged with the audience. I was pleased that about 50 people attended this lecture, a similar attendance to the ITA events held in Tel Aviv, and hope many more such events will be held in Haifa.

1 comment:

naomi yalin said...

Thanks so much I was unable to attend the meeting and your description was instructive