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. 

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