Thursday, June 17, 2010

Overseas Programs: Some Observations Before You Go

This is the time of year when high school and especially college students begin to go abroad to study a foreign language for a few weeks, possibly a couple of months or more, in an immersion environment. Let's break that statement down and see what it means.

First, let's look at what it means when we refer to the foreign-language learning experience of US students. By the time a study-abroad decision is made, most of them have been studying their language of choice for at least a half a year, usually a year, before they decide to take the plunge and go abroad. That means a lot of textbook learning in books that, while they discuss "culture" what they really offer are vignettes of (usually) quaint customs, holidays, foods, art and music. But, what they have and haven't learned about their target language, its social culture (and the particular place they are going to be immersed) matters much more than what most textbooks have the courage or the space to impart. Often, teachers are timid about telling the "whole truth" for fear of offending their students, their colleagues, parents and administrators -- of course, the degree of reticence depends on the age group and many other factors. Conventional wisdom works well here, as long as one knows what it entails: The stronger the foundation, the more the student will get out of the experience in every way. That said, there are many students for whom the experience will not pay off linguistically because there is too much they have not learned and most of their time will be spent learning a lot of simple discourse strategies they should have been at least exposed to while in their home country.

In general terms, this means how to engage in verbal give-and-take in culturally appropriate ways in the target culture. They also should learn about taboos -- and a readiness to learn that what is taboo in one culture may not be in another. Students faced with this steep uphill climb often suffer the most from culture shock and will often seek out their fellow Americans, and thus dilute the experience for the group. One solution is to impose a "no English" rule for the group, but this is often hard to enforce, especially under cultural stress.

Successful foreign-language students, of any age, are the bold ones, not necessarily the ones with a 4.0 in every subject.

Next, let's examine how long the student will be overseas and assess its linguistic return on investment (time, money, effort, risk and so forth). The learning curve varies from person to person. The student with a weak foundation will spend his or her time cobbling it together -- such students should probably be discouraged from going on a study abroad program, unless they are eager beavers, very social and have a strong desire to invest a lot of effort. Yet the short duration of study abroad programs should make everyone step back and ask whether student A or student B is ready to benefit from the stay. The best programs are those that involve a serious semester at a foreign university. No, make that a year abroad as a foreign student taking classes with native speakers of their target language.

Finally, what do most people understand when they encounter the word "immersion"? It has a ring to it, like a talisman that will somehow solve a student's previous difficulties. As if one could devise a pill. The one phrase that should disturb foreign-language educators is "I'm going to [pick a country] to pick up [language]." As if one picks up a language like one picks up a cold.

I'm going to say what needs to be said: Immersion is more psychological than geographic. It is quite possible to immerse onself in many language communities right here in the US -- certainly in most large cities. True, there are some languages that don't have large enough communities of speakers for this to work. But remember, if you're going abroad, you need to go all the way. It takes discipline to stay away from friends and make new ones. It is tough when you want to say something and can't find the words to do it, but keep at it and it will pay off.

Stay engaged in the moment. Open up all your channels for absorbing information and communication and you will succeed.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mexican Immigration: Historical Perspective

This blog is about Language Learning and Translation. What some readers may not realize is that neither of these endeavors happen in a political, religious, cultural or historical void. Since the subject of "Illegal Immigration" from Mexico is a hot topic, let's examine a few historical realities that make the case that Mexico is unique among Spanish-speaking country in terms of its historical relationships with the United States.

At the outset, keep in mind that this is a whirlwind tour. It is meant to be. Take it as a primer to locate the issue of Mexican immigration in its historical and political moorings, setting forth a few facts that are not commonly taught in US schools. But they are well known to Mexicans, even to most who are not educated.

"Pobre México, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca a los Estados Unidos," declared Benito Juárez, president of Mexico at the same time Lincoln was president of the Union. "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States." Why would he say that?

In the interest of time, I will not recap the history of the Spanish conquest, subjugation and "Christianization" of Mexico. Most people are sufficiently aware that Mexico is a nation that resulted from the mixing of the two groups, usually not willingly. Although Mexicans as a group are too polite to say it out loud, they often share Pancho Villa's view of the Spanish, and hence of much that was European. Pancho Villa was illiterate, but he is recorded to have said: "¿Quién los invitó a mezclar su sangre con la nuestra?" -- "Who invited them to mix their blood with ours?"

So, Mexico is Amerindian. Its population is composed of mostly native people. Statistically, the average Mexican is 85% native American. Here is another detail that is a part of the consciousness of most Mexicans: One important founding legend, known as the Popol Vuh, is strikingly similar to Genesis and Exodus in many details, relating the story of the Creation and stories about the first tribes. Another legend relates to the founding of Mexico City by the Aztecs, who proceeded from a place known as Aztlán. Tradition has it that this land was the southwest of the US, according to best guesses from the description of their wanderings that eventually led them to found Tenochtitlán, or modern Mexico City.

Next, let's fast forward to the 1830s when the Southern states in the US were working to gain a majority in the US Congress. Recall their efforts in "Bloody Kansas" and in Missouri to secure this majority. Southerners moved from the deep south to Texas. Texas had long been a politically organized state of "Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos" ("The United States of Mexico"). They brought their slaves with them, of course, to work in the vast cotton fields. By this time, Mexico had outlawed slavery (at least of the type that existed still in the South, in Brazil and in Cuba). Wealthy Mexican landholders were wary of these newcomers, but generally tolerant since the Anglos were minority and, truth be told, their plantations promised to bring revenue. Little did the Mexicans know what a Trojan Horse they had allowed within their borders.

Most people know the phrase "Remember the Alamo" as a battle cry to urge troops to defeat Mexico in the Mexican American War (1847-1848), but most people in the US do not know that the Anglos had been angling to declare Texas independent from Mexico -- so they could eventually join the Union and add two more Senators and several representatives of "southern persuation" in Washington, DC.

History shows that they did just that. After the Republic of Texas came statehood. In other words, the Anglos in Texas were instigators of an armed insurrection against Mexico with a not-so-long-term agenda of joining the Union as a Southern state. With Texas joining the Union in 1845, the stage was set for the further westward expansion of the US, "from sea to shining sea," so to speak. This expansion was driven by many motives, many different groups, by opportunism certainly. But never far behind was the racist assumption of white superiority, shored up by the "doctrine" of "Manifest Destiny" -- clearly of Calvinist  inspiration, albeit turned to justify greed.

Recent graduates of West Point, both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were young lieutenants in the Mexican American War (1847-1848). In their diaries, both of these distinguished gentlemen reported that they had never been ashamed to wear their uniform -- except when they were involved in that conflict. For instance, the atrocities committed on nuns drove the Irish soldiers to defect. To this day in northern Mexico in particular, one finds a lot of Mexicans with names such as Patricio O'Brian González. Now you know why.

With her defeat in the Mexican American War, Mexico lost one-third of her territory and thus the potential economic development tht the US has reaped from this territory: California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Remember the California Gold Rush in 1849?

The Congressional Record of the pre-war period reveals that the debates in Congress involved examining options about what to do with Mexico. Some advocated for conquest and incorporation into the Union. The argument against this was that Mexico was a nation of "half breeds" -- and would have to be "schooled in democracy" for a long time before they would be "ready" for the advantages of "civilization." In other words, these debates more than suggest that the War was planned in advance. 

There is more evidence of deliberate planning. The surrender document, known as the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo is interesting. The language it contains had been written before the war began! How can we say this? A ship set sail from the East Coast during the war, en route to Los Angeles, carrying a surrender document for the Mexican mayor of what was then a Mexican port city. Remember, there was no Panama Canal yet, so the tall ship had to round the Horn. Yet, "somehow" in the age before telegraph, the phrasing of this document is nearly the same as the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo which ended the War.

After the war, Mexicans who had been living in their own country suddenly found themselves on the "wrong" side of a new border. They became second-class citizens. The wealthy landowners lost their land. It became illegal for more than three Mexicans to stand together in the street and speak Spanish -- it was viewed as a possible conspiracy against the new landlords. This sort of prohibition and prejudice against speaking Spanish continued into the 1960s in Texas. How do I know? Because I was in first grade there and told by my mother not to speak Spanish at school or I might be punished. 

As anyone considers what is the right course of action to take with regard to Mexican immigration, it is important to remember that Mexico is our neighbor from whom we have carved one-third of her territory. Mexicans are native peoples. In that sense, they have a doubly strong moral claim to be in what is now "our" territory.

That said, I hasten to add that we cannot simply "give it back" without committing further injustices and damaging our own people. The drug traffic complicates the picture, too.

But here's thought that's been thought before but not followed up:

Former president George Bush, who had previously been governor of Texas, proposed a temporary worker program. It makes sense. If we "legalize" Mexican workers by issuing one- or two-year, renewable work visas, we would also be able to tax them. What a thought! Much needed revenue for social security, health care, roads, schools... in short, they would be paying their way while they are here, providing services most US-born people will not take. 

Furthermore, no matter what we decide to do, Mexicans will, no doubt, keep coming across illegally. But a temporary worker program would allow them to enter the US, work here and not live in fear. In addition, the temptation to become involved in drug trafficking would be greatly reduced if there were a safe and legal alternative involving honest work. After all, most people would rather make an honest living and provide for their loved ones than run the risk of prison or violent death by getting mixed up with drug cartels. Such a program would also make for better relations with Mexico. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Harmonizing" -- A Waste of Translators' Talents But Clients Pay

This item was sent to me by a professional translator who specializes in medical documents. She and several other translators needed to grapple with less than a dozen questions in a survey. Her experience sheds light on some common myths about translation. One is that you should hire only a "native speaker" to translate into their native language. See what you think after you read this brief item!

Recently, a large pharmaceutical company, seeking to expand sales internationally, contracted a dozen translators, all residing in the same city, to translate a patient survey consisting of less than ten questions. The original survey had been written in US English.

After each translator had completed his or her work, the agency asked them to attend a session called a harmonization meeting. The goal: to be sure that each translator had rendered the English questions accurately into his or her native language. The first question that should be occurring to anyone familiar with translation or anyone with common sense should be: How can each translator possibly help the others if they are all working into different, mutually incomprehensible languages? The only common language around the table will be English.
 What became clear was that the translators had been a bit confused by the English, to varying degrees and depending on the passages. Since none of them were native speakers of English, except for the monolingual moderator and me (native bilingual of English and Tagalog), I next had to wonder what reliable insights into English these non-natives of English were going to be able to give to each other.

Everyone was very friendly, had a great time meeting each other and talking about the questionnaire. In a few cases, the feedback revealed that the composers of the original had used a bit more slang than they probably should have, but for a translator who really knows American English, this did not present a problem, since it was meaning, not style, that needed to be conveyed to the readers in the target languages. But nothing happened around the table that would enable one translator to suggest the wording of the other translator’s target text.

In order to ensure the proper translation of a text and perform quality control, there are three things a company must bear in mind: First, select a translator who can comprehend the source text. Just because a person is a “native speaker of language X” does not mean that he or she will be able to translate a text from your language into the other. The more technical the topic, the more the translator needs to have a track record of translation in the given industry. Next, the company needs to trust the translator and be accessible to answer questions about the content, preferably with the writer of the original. This can create a very healthy symbiotic relationship. In some cases, the third thing a company might do is have a quality control expert (QC) who is a native speaker of the target language look at the translation – and communicate with the translator.

Some may wonder why this QC expert shouldn’t do the translation to begin with. The reason has often been demonstrated. A doctor whose native language is, say Spanish, may have great difficulty translating a document about his or her field of expertise, but can easily judge its medical accuracy when presented with a document.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Study Spanish This Summer

The school year is drawing to a close for everyone in K-college. If you've been studying Spanish and want to make progress over the summer, instead of letting everything you've (probably almost) learned wash away with the summer fun, this blog posting will give you some ideas.

My suggestions are organized according to two main rubrics: age group and language proficiency level. I do not take into direct consideration the students who are unmotivated and yet are forced by their parents or other circumstances to get a tutor or work on their Spanish in some other way. 

However, to address that common situation parents face, particularly with teens, the most positive advice I can give to parents who are thinking of how to encourage a child of any age to improve their Spanish is to find a program that involves some other activity that your child likes a lot but which is conducted in Spanish. In other words, create the motivation to communicate rather than push directly on the need to learn the language, or worse, to improve a grade.

As for the motivated, let's start with youngsters, K-6. Regardless of where they are with their study of a second language, this is the age group that most benefits from an unstructured immersion environment. Throw them all together with adult native speakers of both languages (not necessarily bilingual themselves) and their young brains will soak up quite a bit. 

Depending on your community, you are likely nowadays to find day camps, church groups and even community centers where there are sufficient Spanish-speaking children to encourage bilingual day camps -- for the benefit of the English- and Spanish-speaking children.

Things get trickier in every way at adolescence. But let's still assume that the young person is motivated. Something about Spanish is fun. Find out what that "fun" was. Then create a way to continue that "fun" through the summer. However, in order to be pedagogically effective, there has to be increasingly more purposeful and deliberate analysis of the language as they get older. This means that an experienced teacher needs to be found to give some direction to the study of the language. It is easy, too easy in fact, to push vocabulary, so be sure that they are forced to use the vocabulary. With Spanish, as with most languages, this means learning verbs and how to use them. This ought not to be dry. Games can be played to make even conjugation fun, but don't stop there! They need to then have activities that "force" them to use the vocabulary in meaningful and communicative ways with each other. Language is about community. No one would or could learn any language if they grew up alone in a cave. 

College students and adults face advantages and disadvantages. Their greatest advantage, if they will harness it, is that they can analyze structures and discern patterns, use models and so forth. Their greatest disadvantage is that they no longer can soak up a language's grammar just by being exposed to it in natural speech for a few hours a day. But consider these two facts: While it takes us all about seven years to learn our first language in this unstructured way, the adult, capable of deliberate, organized and sustained effort, can learn a second language well enough to be socially functional in a couple of years, depending on the language and the effort.

For example, the closer two languages are to each other, the easier the other is to learn. For an English speaker to learn Chinese is much harder than for him or her to learn French, Spanish, German or Norwegian. Much, much harder. Even though Chinese grammar is not difficult (it's much more skeletal than English), it is painfully difficult to learn to pronounce (because of the tonal system) and read (because of the thousands of characters).

Suggestions for college students over the summer: instead of thinking of earning credits, how about spend some "unstructured" time abroad? That doesn't mean not studying grammar, it means taking charge of your language study. Take good books that focus on what you need to master. My three books (soon four) about the subjunctive, past tenses and pronouns are excellent and inexpensive tools to take, along with a paperback bilingual dictionary. Avoid English speakers when you go abroad to study. Remember: immersion is 90% psychological and only 10% geographical!

¡Buen viaje!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Reflections on Teaching Translation

In the early 1980s, I had the honor of beginning my study of translation under Margaret Sayers Peden -- one of the most prolific literary translators of the twentieth century.

To give you an idea of what sort of intellectual acumen she brought to the table, in 1988 alone, while she was the second reader of my doctoral thesis on Baroque Spanish drama, she published twelve novels she had translated from Spanish to English. If you have read the novels of Isabel Allende after House of the Spirits, you have read her marvellous creative work. I believe Eva Luna was the first of Allende's novels she translated but by the time she began that she had an impressive trail of titles by names as famous as Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. I had the joy of helping her do her edits of her translation of Paz's work, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz or the Traps of Faith -- a monumental work that is at once a primer and an encyclopedia for anyone studying Baroque literature and culture. 

Dr. Peden, or "Petch" as her family and friends know her, designed her classes as a hybrid. On the one hand, to satisfy the bean counters of the accreditation world, she included an academic exploration of the subject, but her strong inclination was to say that for her, translation was something to do, not talk about. To satisfy the academic content, we read and reported on chapters from books by translators about translation, one of which was George Steiner's weighty After Babel.

However, most of the class time was spent as a workshop in which students, divided into a blue team and a red team, would bring passages from their projects to get advice about problem words, phrases and so forth. The blue team and red team alternated class days to critique and to ask questions. The discussions which grew out of these questions and contributed to the academic side varied organically -- they simply depended on what popped up. In my translation classes, I follow her model, and have added a few other books to read, such as If This Be Treason -- the memoires of Gregory Rabassa.

In the thirty years since I studied with her, I can only claim the translation of one literary work: The Complete Poetry of St. Teresa de Avila (1996, soon to go through a second edition). On the other hand, I have spent years as a professional, certified technical translator, a field in which I have earned a living for at least three full years outside of academia. I've translated on subjects as arcane as Polynesian archeoastronomy on Rapa Nui or as scientifically useful as medical material, military applications of telecommunications technology and so forth.

I mention this variety of topics in technical work because Peden often said that if a person knows two languages -- and she meant really, really knows them -- translation in any particular technical area chiefly presents the challenge of learning specialized vocabularies and shop talk (also not easily acquired in many cases). Technical translation is less demanding grammatically than literary projects and makes fewer demands on stylistic or artistic intuition. On the other hand, it makes tremendous demands on terminology, which is why computer assisted or machine-assisted translation (MAT/CAT) is so often employed as a tool, despite its weaknesses with syntax.

On the other hand, she observed that literary translation is the area that requires intellect and deep stylistic sensibilities, which result from reading far, wide and deeply. MAT/CAT is useless for literature. Just as a good chef must eat, a translator must read. Another caveat: Literary translation does not pay the bills. After all, it didn't pay hers (at least when I knew her) -- she was a professor!

While many professional, accredited translators are college professors, many, if not most professors who teach foreign language have not employed that skill in some way other than to teach it in the artificial, contrived environment of a classroom or in overseas programs where the problems of the traditional classroom usually remain, but are masked by the marketing allure of the illusion of immersion.

Few college professors of foreign language have run a business in that language, managed an office or run a newspaper that publishes in that language. In general, university professors of foreign language come in two flavors: They either specialize in literature or linguistics. Because they like teaching their specialities and they are aware of their lack of experience outside academia, professors of foreign language usually are not interested in teaching a skill they have not deliberately developed and  used.

A lot of students think they can become translators after majoring in a foreign language in college. Fortunately, whether they have real world experience or not, professors know quite well that translation is tough. It requires more than bilingualism. It is a special skill. Think of it this way: Just because you speak English doesn't mean you can instantly be a technical writer for a manufacturer. So, when professors advise students, they dissuade all but their most thoroughly bilingual students from even entertaining the notion of becoming either translators (written texts) or interpreters (oral, usually live, media).

In fact, in the interest of public safety (and to keep them from embarrassing themselves) I put a disclaimer in my translation syllabus to the effect that taking the class and even getting an "A" does not constitute a qualification as a translator. For that, there is a guild, The American Translators Association, that administers a very rigorous and long exam to would-be translators. 

So, if you are contemplating becoming a translator or teaching translation, visit the ATA website in the link above. They offer practice exams, advice about how to improve your skills and much more. In either case, credentialize yourself, read their literature and become active as a translator. Build up a professional translation CV.

Learn the business side of the profession. Become familiar with the tools and issues of the trade. If you're hoping to make a career of it, don't quit your day job since it takes sustained effort to build up a steady stream of clients and contacts.

If your goal is to add a credential and the experience that qualifies you to teach, after a couple of years on the inside, you'll be in a ideal position to make an informed proposal to teach a class in translation -- one that will be of real value to your students and one that you can feel confident about teaching.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha

Don Quijote is one of the most important literary works of all time and the character for whom it is named is one of the four universally great literary figures, along with Faust, Hamlet and Don Juan. It is noteworthy that two of the four great literary characters are from Spain: Don Quijote and Don Juan. In my opinion, the liveliest English translation is by Walter Starkie, available via the link to Amazon to the left of this block of text.

What makes Don Quijote so great? Fair question. The novel's premise is that a certain gentleman, whose name is never quite clear, took up reading books of chivalry -- knights, damsels in distress, giants, dragons, magic potions -- you name it, all the fantasies and characters that inhabit that make-believe world. He would neglect all his duties just to read from sunset to sunrise, sell property just to buy the latest book of chivalry. The lack of sleep and the constant reading took a toll on his sanity. He ended up believing they were true and, more importantly, that he should take upon himself the duty of becoming a knight errant (a wandering knight), to right the wrongs of the world and gain for himself honor and glory.

But there's a big problem. Don Quijote's world doesn't operate by the rules of the books of chivalry. It's far more base, vile and corrupt -- a world in which a man's word is not his bond. A world like ours. A world that has unfortunately, always been. The character Don Quijote is the epitome of an idealist.

Parallels? Sure. Image if someone were to read Louis L'Amour novels about the American West and decide that what the USA needs is for a man to ride a horse into the city and right all the wrongs he sees, according to the "code" of the Old West! He wouldn't last an hour. The police would probably gun him down.

So, the novel is a satire. Cervantes explicitly states that he wrote it to combat the insanity of the constant flow of sequel upon sequel of the books of chivalry that were popular in the 1500s, beginning with Amadís de Gaula.

Don Quijote lasts for a thousand pages or more, depending on your edition's format. In it, you will also encounter parodies of pastoral novels, one of which is a defense of a woman's right to be... left alone to chose her own destiny. You will also be treated to scenes of life on the streets, as it were, imitations of that very Spanish sub-genre the picaresque. Don Quijote is worth every penny you'll spend to buy it and every moment you will savor in reading it. His adventures bring you to the delicate edge where what should be encounters what is and you wonder, with Don Quijote, "why should it not be as he sees?" Why indeed.

Is he crazy? Good question -- it's kept scholars busy for a long time. Is he a crazy man with moments of lucidity or a sane man with moments of insanity? What is the value of freedom? Virtue? What is worth fighting -- and dying -- for? What is patriotism? What is true piety? Why are people as they are? What kinds of people are there out there in the vast world? All these questions are encountered, seldom answered, but enacted in words of seldom encountered eloquence.

The novel Don Quijote is an encyclopedia of Humanism and an endless treasure that always seems to yield more with every reading.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Learn Spanish Online -- If It Sounds Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is

If you Google for sites to learn Spanish online, you'll be overwhelmed by the number of sites that make all sorts of promises. Some guarantee that you'll be speaking Spanish "like a native" in ten days. Others assure you that you'll be saying real Spanish sentences within minutes. Others give away a lot of free resources, good stuff to be sure, only to keep leading you through lots and lots of sales pitch text until you discover that they want you to buy their CD program. Still others will say they have discovered the way to learn and developed -- surprise! -- just the software or online program to help you learn.

Even the most reputable program, Berlitz, makes most of its profit from beginners who usually study in groups large enough that the profit margin is good (especially since they pay the teachers so little).  The class sizes at Berlitz, just like in universities, goes down rather quickly after the first couple of levels. They offer options about class size preference (something universities can't do), and they can deliver. Adults who work diligently with Berlitz for about two years can acheive respectable levels of proficiency, depending on their language background and the affinity of the target language with respect to their own.

Other sites offer overseas intensive, total immersion opportunities. These are great, and appeal to conventional wisdom but this route is not the best for total newbies. The culture and linguistic shock will be the first things on their minds and coping mechanisms will take precedent over conscious cognitive efforts to learn the language.

What is the solution? Realism. Adults learn a second language best in a one-on-one setting, where the teacher is explaining, guiding and focusing explicitly on the nuts and bolts: the writing system, pronunciation, basic grammar and vocabulary.

Let me set the record straight. Learning any language means committing yourself to hard work. Software programs, such as Rosetta Stone are good for beginners, but their utility drops off quickly. At some point, real human interaction is necessary.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Need Spanish Help Now?

Need help with Spanish? The school year is nearly two-thirds over. If your grades in Spanish are lagging, you will do better on Spanish quizzes and tests if you read the many free, short and easy-to-follow lessons and articles found by clicking on the "Articles" tab in this link.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Two Great Texts for Civilization Classes

If you're a Spanish professor in a college or university, you may have heard of the two texts I'm about to recommend without reservation. If you're a student, an adult independent learner of Spanish or just an "culture" buff, these two books are ideal. They are written entirely in Spanish, not watered down for English speakers, so they are ideal for individuals or college programs that take language and cultural studies seriously and recognize that they are inseparable if each are to be genuine.

First, I start with one that focuses entirely on peninsular Spain, I recommend Vicente Cantarino's Civilización y cultura de España. It has 16 chapters, making it quite viable for either semester or quarter academic calendars. It also has useful footnotes throughout, a glossary and a thorough index. Each chapter goes into sufficient depth to make an attentive learner quite conversant about Spanish history, art, politics, literature and much more. It is as ideologically neutral as it is possible to be, given Spain's long and often dark history as a religious, expansionist and conquering empire. Let's just say that Dr. Cantarino is frank about the past without getting on any soapbox. It is an enjoyable and highly informative read.

The other focuses on Latin America, which presents the challenge of presenting so many countries, but which is managed very well by Carlos A. Loprete in his Iberoamérica: Historia de su civilización y cultura. This book also follows a rigorously scholarly format of including footnotes, glossary and thorough coverage of our hemisphere's histories and cultures from pre-Columbian times to the present. I have often recommended it for students interested in doing an independent study course. It too is written entirely in Spanish and includes many questions at the end of each chapter which, when answered correctly and in writing, make handsome assignments that greatly facilitate the teaching and learning of both the content and the medium of the Spanish language.

Monday, February 15, 2010

An Essential American English Reference Work for Translators

As I was working on my fourth Spanish grammar book for intermediate students, I had need to clarify a comparison I was making between the simple future tense in Spanish and the use of will and shall in English. An English professor and colleague of mine told me it was a very sticky issue and handed me a copy of Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. I had read Fowler's famous Modern English Usage, and read it with pleasure for its now quaint English veneer, as well as the American work by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum, A Concise Grammar of Contemporary English and appreciate still its academic thoroughness. However, Garner's book is one of those reference works you can spend hours with as if it were a story. And in a way, it is the story of American English, something to be read while keeping John Ciardi's A Browser's Dictionary by your side.

Since so many translators and interpreters working in the USA are not native speakers of English, they would profit by spending some time with these books, in particular Garner's. 

I recommend them all with gusto.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Important Books for Translators and Language Lovers

Whether you are a translator, a language professor or simply a lover of words, I have six books to recommend.

The first is for lovers of the English language. Have you ever wondered how English evolved or what influences from various languages have made it what it is? If you have ever studied the history of English, you've probably heard about how English came under the influence of French after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and how the English of Chaucer underwent a great vowel shift -- explaining in part why Shakespeare's English is so familiar to us but Chaucer's is difficult. Well, that's just the beginning of the story.

Get John McWhorter's book: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and hold on for an exciting ride through time. The English language has a very complex -- and surprising history.

McWhorter is a writer who really engages the reader by challenging many conventional views of history and backing them up with strong evidence. According to native speakers I know of Twi, a language of Ghana and Tagalog, a language of the Philippines, he makes a couple of minor errors in his brief citations, but overall, his arguments are sound and well organized.

The second book I recommend highly is Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World.

In a nutshell, this book treats languages as if they were living things and explores the big question of why some languages survive, becoming major world languages and others die or become marginal players. Ostler examines what happens when languages come into contact with each other and fine-tunes the simplistic notion or conventional wisdom that says that languages spread by conquest and commerce. An overarching question in the book is the question of what will happen to English. It is a book that language lovers will not be able to put down. It is written at just the right level for educated non-specialists to understand and enjoy and reads like an adventure.

The third book is for people who wonder what the life of a famous literary translator is like. Let me be clear: it is not about the interpreters you sometimes see with earphones at the UN or the voices you hear, interpreting a foreign head of state on the evening news. This book: If This Be Treason, is the personal memoires of one of the most famous literary translators of the 2oth century, Gregory Rabassa.

Rabassa is perhaps best known as the translator of Gabriel García Márquez's Nobel Prize winning Cien años de soledad, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. (If you're interested in a short review of that novel, see my previous blog postings.)

This book tells of his childhood in New York City, being raised in a bilingual home, his years in Italy in WWII and beyond. He writes with passion, flair and lively Latino humor. To the delight of translators, he takes a few stabs at the "industry" where many monolinguals sit in judgement of, or suppose themselves worthy of judging translators' work.

For very serious scholars, the fourth book I recommend is After Babel, by George Steiner.

This is no book for the impatient. Steiner's erudition is nearly boundless as he takes up the perennial questions of the origin of language and why there are so many, challenging along the way the Chomskian notion of a universal deep structure. Steiner holds a more mystic or poetic view, without being "religious" about it. He resoundingly refutes the notion that there are "theories" of translation. It is a dense book that requires serious time and effort to extract its treasures, but it is well worth it.

Finally, on the practical side, I recommend The Translator's Handbook, by Morry Sofer and A Practical Guide for Translators, by Geoffrey Samuelsson-Brown. Both of these books are gold mines for translators who want to make a living translating mostly non-literary texts. Translators who make money do not generally translate literature. Rare exceptions like Gregory Rabassa exist, but they are just that -- rare exceptions. 

These two books are what they say they are: reference works for the business of translation. So if you plan to make translation your home-based business, they are musts for your library and will help you avoid a lot of mistakes in your business start up and daily operations as a freelance technical translator.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Reviews of Two Great Latin American Novels

As a professor of literature, I spend a lot of my time reading. Some authors never seem to miss. One such is Gabriel García Márquez, who is sure to become to Latin American literature what Cervantes is to Spain's. People who like Márquez find his work appealing because of the way in which he can make the marvelous and magical seem matter-of-fact, woven into the fabric of everyday life. This is one short and certainly imperfect definitions of Magical Realism.

The fictional world of Márquez's works is pervasively Caribbean in flavor, often inspired by or even set in colonial times, such as Del amor y otros demonios (Of Love and Other Demons), a novel that takes place in 1749, beginning its action on Sunday, Dec. 7. By locating the action in a particular place at a particular time and with his well-drawn characters and journalistic veneer, this novel brings into focus the confrontation between faith and science in ways that dry academic expositions cannot. "Does the little girl have rabies or is she possessed?" "Who has control over her "treatment"?" "Why is the world she lives in as it is?" "Does that world still live in Latin America?" These are great questions to ask as you read.

Of course, his masterpiece, Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) remains his most famous and most widely read and translated work, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1982. I have read it every year since 1981. When I teach it, I begin by saying that it consists of a spiritual testiment of Latin American history, religion, folk beliefs, superstition, politics, economics, culture, war and family life -- all through the microcosm of one family over the course of several generations, ending in the 1960s.

His short stories and other writings are mutually illuminating. If you plan to work or have any extended contact with Latin America, you will be more aware of reality by having read his works. They are truly mirrors of life and the customs of men -- and women.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Three Spanish Books for a Great Start in 2010

Whether you're a high school or a college student, if you are studying Spanish, there are three books you need in order to get an in-depth, yet simply explained treatment of three aspects of Spanish that are always tough for English speakers: Pronouns, Past Tenses and the Subjunctive.

Spanish, like English, doesn't have a lot of pronouns, but there are some pronouns in Spanish that do multiple functions -- and where they go in a sentence is quite different from English.

Unlike English, the Spanish verb system is much more complex. It takes serious study, analysis and a lot of practice to begin to master them. Many students have a jumbled up notion of the tenses, moods, endings. That is a problem that can be solved!

Finally, the subjunctive usually is what ends many English-speakers' study of Spanish. It need not be so. The reason is not because the subjunctive is difficult or that we barely even have any notion of it left in modern English. The subjunctive causes students trouble because textbooks don't teach it correctly. Most have the right information, but it is presented hastily and in a disorganized fashion. That problem too has been solved. You can master the subjunctive with the right book, patience and attention to some details.