May 2009

I prick my ears up every time I hear words like “open” and “translation” and “project” used together in a sentence in case it’s something that might be interesting to the Welsh language community. So when I saw that TED, the insanely expensive Technology, Entertainment, Design conference, was providing English language transcripts of its often amazing talks, I thought that was a great opportunity for the Welsh community to create the Welsh language subtitles.

It might seem a bit stupid for people who basically all speak English to translate an English transcription into Welsh so that other people who basically all speak English could listen to it in English and watch it in Welsh. In fact, such a thing would be a great boon to learners as it would allow us to hear in English but read in Welsh and start to join up the dots inbetween. (The next step on from that would be to have more material in Welsh with English subtitles.) Personally, I would like to see much more bilingual stuff online because it helps learners develop not just their vocab but also their sense of grammar, mutation and idiom.

Many of the TED lectures are both short – about 20 minutes – and fascinating. Great material for translation because they’re interesting in their own right and just the sort of thing that people love to watch. I believe you learn much more when you’re engaged, so such a resource would be very valuable.

But the Open Translation Project turns out not to be very open at all. Once you’ve registered, you have to request a transcript to translate, which will supposedly be sent to you within 1 – 2 business days. You can’t just download one that you fancy and get on with it, it has to be sent to you by someone from TED. And you have just 30 days to complete it – what happens if you don’t is not specified. I have so far seen no sign or mention of any online translation or collaborative working tools, so it looks like if you want to work with others you have to figure that out yourself. (I haven’t been accepted into the programme yet, so maybe that’s just stuff I am unable to see.)

Beyond that, as a new member of the translation project, I just received this email:

Dear Suw,

Thanks so much for registering to be a TED translator and requesting your first talk. We’re eager to get you started! But we have a few questions for you first. As you know, TED doesn’t require translators to have formal language or translation skills. We do however, ask that you be fluently bilingual. It’s so important that your language skills gives you the ability to faithfully translate the words of speakers, capturing not only the vocabulary, but also the tone, style and personality. TED speakers are at the edge of their fields, and therefore the edge of language. Being current, as well as fluent, is key.

So the following questions are for you, as much as us. They provide us a way to gauge your experience, knowledge and fluidity with both English and the language into which you’re translating. We require these answers for translators in languages that are new to TED, and for which we have neither in-house knowledge nor a stable of volunteer translators.

1) What language do you want to translate into?

2) Is this your native language? If not, how and where did you learn it?

4) How often do you speak this language? Do you use it professionally, personally, or both?

5) How often do you read in this language? Do you read news? Novels? Personal correspondence?

6) How often do you write in this language?

7) If English is not your first language, how and where did you learn it? How often do you speak, write and/or read English?

8.) Do you have other colleagues, family or friends who can assist you on the translation of tricky or culturally-specific words and phrases?

9) What is your profession?

10) Why do you want to translate for TED?

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, and for volunteering for the TED Open Translation Project!

The TED Team

That doesn’t seem very open to me. That seems very much like I’m going to be judged on my ability to speak and write Welsh, and that my acceptance into the project is going to depend on my capabilities rather than, say, my ability to gather a kick-ass team of Welsh speakers to collaboratively – and openly – translate. Furthermore, what does my profession have to do with my ability to translate? What does my motivation matter? And what happens if the TED Team don’t like my answers? Do I get summarily booted out?

I feel rather insulted by these questions, not just because they are intrusive, but because they see the translation process through an outdated and judgemental lense. As a learner of 10 years, I’m not too bad at Welsh, although I write it better than I speak it. I probably could not create a perfect translation of any but the simplest texts. But what I can do is create a flawed translation that others, whether more experienced learners or native speakers, can then polish up. This idea that making a start so that others can help finish up is a well established way of working collaboratively, and it can produce great results. It’s what Wikipedia relies upon, it’s what Pledgebank encourages. By showing the community that I have committed to an action, I’m more likely to find people willing to help me finish it.

TED’s approach to translation has been disappointing to say the least. They have used the word ‘open’ as a buzzword, a way to put a gloss on what is an old-school project that is snobbish, closed, and controlling. I know that someone is bound to leave a comment saying “but that is the only way to get high quality translations”, but that’s just not true. Communities of passionate people are capable of great things, and there are many passionate Welsh speakers online who could come together to do flawless work.

Question is, will TED let us?

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Who’s the hero?

by Suw on May 15, 2009

I haven’t worked much on The Revenge of the Books of Hay lately, mainly because I’ve been insanely busy with moving house, travel and work. It’s nice to be busy with paying work after the crappy year last year was, but it hasn’t left me with much mental space to think about, well, anything much.

It’s also been because I hit a bit of an impasse when I realised I had more backstory than story, and wasn’t entirely sure what to do about it. I haven’t felt particularly compelled to flesh out the story of the people of Hay and couldn’t really see why that would be interesting. It was only when I was talking to Kev over dinner the other night that I realised something I had, stupidly, failed to see.

The story’s main protagonists are a book and a cat. (Yes, yes, humour me.) I knew that, but I hadn’t really clocked that the most important character in the story is the cat, not the book as I had previously thought. It is he who is called to action, he who must fight the forces of evil, and he who must prevail in the final showdown in order to win… well, I won’t say what. If you’ve ready Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, you might recognise those as key stages of the hero’s journey.

When I wrote Tag, my one and hopefully only ever script, I followed the hero’s journey without even knowing it. It was only later, reading Hero with a Thousand Faces that I realised how cleanly my story fit the ‘monomyth’. It was, at the time, rather satisfying to realise that I had absorbed the archetypal mythical structure so well that I was reproducing it without thinking.

Looking now at Books of Hay and thinking that it’s already starting to fit the hero’s journey (in the way that an elephant fits in a Mini) is both comforting and depressing. On the one hand, if I wanted to follow the formula, it would be easy. I already have a call to adventure, a fragment of the road of trials, and a boon, and it would be a relatively simple thing to map out the rest of the formula and fill in the blanks.

On the other hand, it’s depressing to think of a story reduced to a formula, no matter how timeless that formula is. I don’t want to end up writing something that’s drab and predictable, but rejecting the formula and deliberately trying to write something that doesn’t fit is just as fraught with problems. Remember the last book you read or film you watched that tried too hard to be different? Annoying, wasn’t it?

Part of me wishes I’d never read Hero with a Thousand Faces. Then I’d be able to just write the story that is in my head and not have to worry about following/not following a predetermined plot. Although it’s handy to realise that I need to focus more on my ginger tom’s story, it’s going to be a bugger to not slip into predictable patterns.

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How are civil society organisations using social media? Which tools do they favour, and what do they hope to achieve by using them? These are some of the questions I hope to answer in my survey, Civil society associations and their application of social & new media, and I need your help to spread the word and find lots of respondents.

Who should fill in the survey?
The questions are aimed at people who have responsibility either for your organisation’s website, or its PR, media, communications or marketing strategy. Your organisation doesn’t actually have to have a website in order for your responses to the survey to be valuable – indeed I have a whole bunch of questions aimed at organisations without a website at all. But if you have a website, and you’re not the person responsible for it, I’d be grateful if you could send a link to this blog post or the survey itself to the right person.

What sort of organisations are you looking for?
The phrases used by those in the know are “third sector” and “civil society associations”, but if you’re not sure if that means you, here are a few examples to help clarify:

  • Registered charities, like Help the Aged
  • Non-profit organisations, like the Open Rights groups
  • Credit unions or mutuals, like the Mid-Cornwall Credit Union
  • Co-operatives, like the Abbey Road Housing Co-operative Limited
  • Trade unions, like the NUJ
  • Faith-based organisations, like the Islamic Foundation
  • Business or professional associations, like the Design Business Association
  • Political parties, like the Green Party
  • NGOs, like NESTA
  • Community groups, like Guerilla Gardeners
  • any other organisation, regardless of governance structure, that is focused on civil issues.

If you still aren’t sure if that means you, please fill the survey in anyway – you can define you own identity in the “other” field. And whilst we are focused on the UK, if you’re from outside of the UK and are doing really fab things with social tools, please do fill the survey in too.

The survey takes about 10 – 15 minutes to complete, and if something doesn’t make sense, you can always email me.

Please help spread the word
I don’t have much time to get the initial results from this survey, so I’d really appreciate it if you could forward links on to people in your network whom you think might be able to help.

Any questions? Let me know in the comments!

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Tim Minchin

by Suw on May 2, 2009

I just discovered, through the wonders of Twitter, the fabulousness that is Tim Minchin, a London-based Australian poet and musician. He does the funniest stuff I’ve seen since I first encountered Eddie Izzard, although I don’t remember the last time I saw a comedian combine music, poetry and a Goldacre-esque skewering of homeopathy and woolly thinking quite like this:

And this one too is brilliant (no visuals):

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