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A bunch of random, incoherent factoids about translations

I’m taking a short course these days on translating and interpreting and am finding it remarkably fascinating, more so than I expected. In fact my mind is virtually overflowing with chaotic factoids and random information on the topic, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to empty it so I can get on with the urgent business of getting a good night’s sleep. My apologies if you came here for something more coherent; regular programming shall resume very soon.

1. Icelandic society is absolutely and completely inundated with translations. Just about everything all around us is translated. All the foreign news in all of the media, almost all films we see at the cinema, almost all the television programmes. About 80 percent of the plays put on in the theatres, almost all of the books published, instructions and manuals for almost everything, from washing machines to medication. Legislation and regulations. Documentation and certificates. Just about everything. And yet translators as a group are virtually invisible in this society. Why?

2. The cost of translations is much higher in Iceland than it is in most other countries. That’s why reps from all those foreign translation agencies [that for some reason are contacting Icelandic translators with increasing frequency] just about pass out when they hear our rates. [And generally beat a hasty retreat.] Q: Could it be that all those invisible translators are invisible because they’re too busy raking in the dough? A: Pfft! I wish.

3. Before Iceland had a national TV station [i.e. pre-mid-1960s] none of the movies that were shown here had subtitles. The cinema owners claimed it was too expensive to translate everything. Instead they printed programmes with a synopsis of the movie plot so people could at least have an idea of what they were watching.

4. Germany translates more books into the vernacular than any other country. There’s been a rich tradition for translations in Germany since the 18th century [there was a really fascinating reason for it, too, and I wish I could remember it so I could tell you]. There is a huge market for translations in Germany, as opposed to in the English speaking world, where only 3 percent of all books sold are translations [in the UK at least, and therefore almost certainly in the US]. This is why Nicelandic authors scramble to get translated into German. Not only do the Germans love Niceland, they also buy translations.

5. Text that is not translated, dies. It cannot live for any length of time within its own geographical area, in its own language. That is why we translators are Very Important People.

6. If Iceland joins the European Union there will be an immediate and critical shortage of translators and interpreters. The situation is bad enough now but if we join the EU it will be catastrophic. Doomsday. The Apocolypse.

7. The Icelanders translate all new words that enter the language, meaning there’s a committee that reviews all new objects and concepts and finds new words for them. For example, when computers became ubiquitous, most countries just imported the English word ‘computer’, whereas the Icelandic word committee made up the word tölva, which is a hybrid of the words tala [number] and völva [prophetess]. However, some people now argue that Icelandic must start importing foreign words, because there are so many new concepts entering the language that Icelandic just doesn’t have enough stem words to cover them all.

8. The translations of all the EFTA legislation [European Free Trade Association, of which Iceland is a part] handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs apparently bears little resemblance to Icelandic, because it’s so standardized and bureaucratic. Many people feel that international cooperation is completely flattening out the Icelandic language.

9. Others argue that the best thing that could happen to the Icelandic language would be for Iceland to join the EU, because that way it would be guaranteed not to die out. If Iceland were part of the EU there would be people working full-time to develop the language so that people could carry out discourse on innumerable subjects in Icelandic. Whereas if this doesn’t happen, this language will slowly but slowly perish.

10. Almost all of the large companies in Iceland that have operations abroad have declared English as their official company language. Trouble is, hardly anybody has native speaker proficiency when writing text.

11. A brand new – and updated – translation of The Bible hit bookstores last week and it’s been nothing if not controversial. In fact, all hell has broken loose, with the Bible thumpers going at the liberals like rabid dogs. And now I’d better stop because I really Don’t Want To Go There.

IT SNOWED LAST NIGHT!
First snow of the season. We were at a dinner party and came out around midnight and there was ice all over the roads and people driving reeeeaaallllyyy sssllllloooowwwlllllyyy. [Thank goodness.] YT was pretty nervous, driving in icy conditions for the first time without tires that have nail studs in them, but we made it home in one piece. It’s been a frigid day but absolutely beautiful; right now temps are –2°C [28F] and the sun came up at 8.57 and set at 5.25 pm.

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  • sputnik November 15, 2008, 3:11 pm

    Fascinating stuff. Great site.

  • Bryan Bessette November 24, 2008, 6:46 pm

    What a great occupation, Alda! I’ve been thinking of something similar after actually learning Icelandic. haha, first things first. But anyway, I wish you luck.

    I notice that this post is a year old. Have you pursued translating? How is it going?

    I’ve been trying to learn Icelandic. It is difficult without the advantage of hearing natives speak. I’ve been trolling for pod-casts and such. =)