Sunday, August 27, 2023

286: Adventures In Translation

 Audio Link

Welcome to Math Mutation, the podcast where we discuss fun, interesting, or weird corners of mathematics that you would not have heard in school.   Recording from our headquarters in the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host.  And now, on to the math.

You may recall that in several earlier podcasts, 252 and 125, I discussed the famous math writer Douglas Hofstadter’s surprising venture into translating poetry from French and Russian into English.   Hofstadter is best known for his popular books that explore the boundaries of math and cognitive science, such as “Godel Escher Bach” and “Metamagical Themas”.   I found his discussions of translation challenges fascinating:  you would think that translation should be a simple mathematical mapping, a 1-1 correspondence of words from one language into another, but it’s actually much more than that.   Aside from different typical structures and speech patterns between languages, every word sits in a cloud of miscellaneous connotations and relationships with other concepts, so you need to really think about the right way to convey the author’s original intentions.   This is why tools like Google Translate can give you the general idea of what a passage says, but very rarely create a translated sentence that sounds real and natural.    

After reading Hofstadter’s description of his translation work, I thought it might be interesting to translate something myself, though no obvious candidates came to mind,   But in the past few years, I became acquainted with a recently escaped Cuban dissident, Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand, who had just published a memoir in Spanish.   Curious to read this memoir, and with no English translation having been planned by the author, I volunteered to take this on myself.  Now I’ll be the first to admit I’m not fluent in Spanish, though I spent four years studying it in high school, but I had the advantage of direct access to the author to help clarify areas of confusion, as well as the vast general resources of the Internet.   This also was probably a much easier translation challenge than Hofstadter’s in general, since this memoir was in prose, so no need to worry about things like rhyme and meter.    I also had some decent knowledge of context, having read numerous memoirs by emigres from Communist countries in the past, as well as interviewing several including Nelson.  Thus, I went ahead and began translating.

Now, some of you might think this is trivially easy these days due to Google Translate, but as I mentioned before, that tool does not create very good text on its own.   You may recall the popular amusement when it first came out, where you translate a small passage across several languages and back to English, and chuckle at how ridiculous it ends up looking.     It is useful, however, as a first step:  as I approached each paragraph, I used that tool to create a “gloss”, an initial awkward translation to use as a starting point.   From there, I would try to understand the core concepts being expressed, and try to rewrite the sentences in more natural sounding English.   I would figure this out with a combination of reviewing the original Spanish text, researching some alternate word translations online, and consulting with Nelson in the harder cases.    The most entertaining challenges were the cases where the initial version simply didn’t make sense at all.

One simple example was a children’s cheer, “Fidel, Fidel, que tiene Fidel, que los imperialistas no pueden con él”, which Google literally translates as “Fidel, Fidel, that Fidel has, that the imperialists cannot with him”.   That doesn’t make much sense initially.   After consulting a few sources, I settled on the translation “Fidel, Fidel, what Fidel has, the imperialists cannot overcome”, which probably expresses the core intention a bit better.   It could also be a question, asking “Fidel, Fidel, what does Fidel have, that the imperialists cannot overcome?”  I toyed with the idea of taking more liberties and trying to make.a rhyming chant like the original Spanish, something like “Fidel, Fidel, what Fidel has, makes the imperialist look like an ass”, similar to some of the liberties Hofstadter describes in his poetry translation efforts.   But while that might make it a more effective chant, I was hesitant about making the translation’s tone a bit too lighthearted.

My favorite translation challenges were the ones that made me laugh out loud when first reading the Google translated version.   For example, when describing what he liked to do in the evenings as a child, Nelson wrote a phrase that Google translated as “watching the American dolls”.     Was life in Cuba really so boring that people enjoyed sitting and starting at dolls for hours?   This also conjured up images of those Chucky horror movies— maybe he was trying to make sure the Yankee imperialist dolls didn’t come to life and start chasing poor Communists with a knife?   Things in Cuba could be worse than I imagined.   As you would expect, with some help from the author, I eventually figured out what he was trying to say— he was talking about watching cartoons on TV.    

So, in the end, was my translation any good?   Nelson did a basic check by Google Translating each chapter back to Spanish after I delivered the draft— of course not very good Spanish, but at least sufficient to confirm that I got the general idea.   While I’m sure a professional Spanish-fluent translator would have done better, the most important goal was to make Nelson’s story available in English, and I’m confident we at least achieved that.   We were able to get the translation published, with some aid from a small foundation called the Liberty Sentinels Fund, and it is now available at Amazon and other online booksellers.    You can order it using the link in the show notes at or just search for it on Amazon, and judge my translation for yourself.      The book is called “The Revolution of Promises”, by Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand.   If you like it, a good review on Amazon would also be helpful.

And this has been your math mutation for today.