English

The Jelly Donut and the Sword

By Adriana Adarve & Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations

Jelly Donut
Ich bin ein Berliner!

Sometimes the art of translation can get caught up in international politics. Inexact translations can cause diplomatic crises. Occasionally, they can cause merriment, as when President John F. Kennedy gave a speech near the Berlin Wall and proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” People from the town of Frankfurt are indeed Franfurters but to most of the world a frankfurter is a hotdog. Similarly, to most Europeans, ein Berliner is not a person from the town of Berlin, it is a pastry. JFK proudly and forcefully announced to the world and to his Cold War opponents that he was a jelly donut.

President Kennedy’s translators and speech writers did not make an incorrect translation, but they did fail to provide him with the full cultural context of what a Berliner is. Poor translations and/or faulty comprehension of correct translations can cause people or groups to lose face and credibility, sometimes on an international scale.

While we do not shirk from addressing controversial, “hot button” topics on these pages, we do not take political or moral positions. We only concern ourselves with trying to further understanding between linguistic groups and among different cultures. Sometimes, however, the implications do extend into political and moral dimensions.

William Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” in 1600. In Act II, Scene II, there is the line, “Many wearing a rapier are afraid of goose quills.” In 1839, Edward Bulwer Lytton wrote, in his play “Richelieu, or The Conspiracy” (curiously enough, also in Act II, Scene II) a more modern version of the same line: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Last year, in Pakistan, Taliban operatives stopped a school bus full of teenaged female students. They shot several girls. Their main target was a girl called Malala who, even at the young age of 15, was an outspoken advocate for female education. The Taliban shot her in the head and left her for dead. She survived. She was taken to England for specialist treatment. She continued her campaign for female education from her hospital bed.

Malala recovered completely and recently gave a speech at the United Nations in New York in which she continued her call for female education the world over. She received a standing ovation; her name has been mentioned as a possible nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Quill Mightier Than The Sword
“Many wearing a rapier are afraid of goose quills.” – William Shakespeare

What does Malala’s story have to do with translation? In her UN speech, she used the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The Taliban lost a massive amount of respect and support by its cowardly act of shooting a school girl in the head. Malala has gained enormous support—and a great deal of funding for the education of women and girls in her homeland and elsewhere—by her steadfast commitment to female education; that is, by her belief in the power of the pen over the sword, a power she is certain should be extended to everyone, male and female, young and old.

In a recent letter addressed to Malala, the Taliban claimed it hadn’t targeted her because of her stance on female education. They claimed that they targeted her because of her “smear campaign” against them. A smear campaign perpetrated by an obscure 15 year-old school girl against a large, well-funded, professionally armed and trained and highly dedicated group of religious fanatics. The Taliban’s letter went on to say that they hadn’t tried to assassinate Malala for her use of her pen, but for her use of her sword.

The Taliban had a full and correct translation of Malala’s speech to the UN. They failed utterly to comprehend the import of her words: that when one has a pen—an education, knowledge of other languages, cultures and value systems—one has no need of a sword, that one eschews violence and coercion in favor of promoting understanding and reconciliation.

The Taliban’s world view is so permeated by, is so defined by, the use of the sword that they were unable to conceive of a warrior who has no use for a sword, a warrior whose only weapon is a pen. The Taliban’s translators weren’t up to the job of conveying the full and correct context of Malala’s words. Their violent cultural orientation prevented them from recognizing the true meaning of what Malala had said. What sword?

Sadly, the Taliban aren’t the only ones who resist cultural and linguistic change, they aren’t the only ones who understand the words while missing entirely the meaning of translated words. The vast majority of Americans do not have passports and have never traveled abroad. The vast majority of Americans do not speak a second language. The more Americans—the more people the world over—who have passports, who travel, who learn multiple languages, the greater the understanding between diverse groups will be.

The pen is not only mightier than the sword. In the long run, the pen is better than the sword. The best translators all have a counter-intuitive idea, an idea that amounts to professional suicide. They would love it if everyone was able to understand everybody else, and feel that the world would be a much better place if we could all understand one another’s language, cultural and historical imperatives and have no further need of their middle-man services.

Many people mistakenly believe that translators only change words in one language to words in another. Translators do indeed provide that service, but that’s only part of the job. They must also be able to understand and communicate the complicated underlying cultural, historical and linguistic context of the words they translate.

Until the day comes when we can all understand one another face to face without the need for a go-between, we really do need the services of those intermediaries who can guide us through the linguistic, cultural, diplomatic and every-day pit-falls and prat-falls of the conundrums that confront us when we step outside our cultural and linguistic comfort zones.

About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as multi-cultural. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums.

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