The politics of soft “g”

Soft or hard “g”? It’s been in the news lately in relation to the file format “gif,” which is currently enjoying a renaissance as a new generation discovers its usefulness in creating annoying animations. This week the “creator” of the Graphical Interchange Format weighed in that he’s always pronounced it with a soft “g.”

Arika Okrent gives some historical context on the sources of “g” words in English. Soft “g” is actually one of the world’s most controversial sounds, along with “sh”, “r” and “l,” and this is hardly the first pronunciation fight over it, as noticed by the singer Frank Black.

I heard them saying ‘Los Angeles’
In old black-and-white movies,
And if you think there’s nothing to this,
How come we say ‘Los Angeles’?

Black pronounces the first “Los Angeles” with a hard “g,” and the second with a soft “g.” There are vowel differences as well, but the “g” is the most salient difference. A friend of mine sent me this song back in 1994, and I happened to know the answer to Frank Black’s question because I had just read it in an obituary for the linguist Dwight Bolinger by his colleague Robert Stockwell. In 1952, as Chair of the Department of Spanish and Italian at the University of Southern California, Bolinger served on a mayoral “jury” appointed to decide the pronunciation of the name of the city. The jury was supposed to have an answer for the 171st anniversary of the founding of the city on September 4, but admitted they were deadlocked. On September 9 they announced that they had come to a decision, which Stockwell credited to Bolinger:

From a linguistic point of view, the real possibilities, no matter how they came to be represented in the press, were, of course, only these three: [losáŋxeles], [lasǽndʒələs], and [lasǽŋgələs]. The third version, with [g], was favored by the mayor and most Anglo natives of Southern California who expressed opinions in the polls (over a thousand of them, not counting columnists). Hispanics predictably preferred the first version because it is correct Spanish. Bolinger apparently persuaded the jury, contrary to the two opinions most favored in the polls, that ‘Loss-An-juh-less’ should be recommended, and there are headlines all over the newspapers of early September 1952 citing Bolinger as the one responsible for ‘the phonetic syllables’ and quoting him as saying that, ‘from a Spanish language standpoint, the pronunciation is not as much at variance with the true Spanish as that employing the hard “g”. (Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1952). What he had done was diplomatically persuade the jury to accept the pronunciation which is in accord with English orthographic traditions. It should be added that he was consistent: for his own name he preferred [báləndʒər] though his son prefers and has always insisted on [bóliŋər].

The current soft “g” pronunciation of “Los Angeles” was actually crafted by Bolinger as a compromise between the hard “g” preferred by Anglos and the jota used by Hispanics. It just happened that it fit with Bolinger’s own agenda. In 2011, the L.A. Times compiled more details from its reports at the time. Of course, in 1952 “the mayor prayed that civic pride would prevent its citizens from ever, ever referring to it as ‘L.A.’,” but really, that’s what they do today.

Stan Carey argues that “You can pronounce “GIF” any way you like,” and echoes another linguist’s pronouncement from the early 1950s, “Leave your language alone.” In this particular case I’m with Carey: I don’t really care how “gif” gets pronounced; I just want people to stop using them so much, especially those annyoing 4-up captioned screencaps. But as the “Los Angeles” case indicates, some pronunciation choices do have political consequences. To paraphrase Deborah Cameron and Joshua Fishman, we can’t leave our language alone because it’s not just ours. It’s community property, and if we don’t take care of it others will mess it up.

This week in category fights, May 19

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Photo: Taco Bell.

Dealbreaker’s Jon Shazar reassures us by excluding Green Cannabis from the category of “marijuana hedge fund,” contrary to its earlier inclusion by HedgeCo. It’s just a privately traded manufacturing company – of cookies and candy made with marijuana. But hedge funds might invest in it! It’s not clear where these would be sold.

ExtremeTech’s Sebastian Anthony wanted to include the World Press Photo of the Year in the category of “fake,” labeling it as a danger, and Foreign Policy’s Dana Stuster even wants to exclude it from the category of “photo,” on the grounds that it’s a bait-and-switch.

Ring of Fire Radio’s Joshua De Leon wants to transfer the Food and Drug Administration’s “510(k) expedited approval” from the category of “approval” into the category of “rubber stamp,” labeling it because it constitutes a bait-and-switch allowing dangerous products like Boston Scientific’s defective “Pinnacle Pelvic Floor Repair Kit” (ow) to be marketed without necessary oversight.

CBS DC’s Chris Lingebach reports that NFL analyst Jason La Canfora speculates – hypothetically! – that Washington Capitals hockey team captain Alex Ovechkin isn’t really a team captain. By excluding Ovechkin from the category of “team captain,” he accuses him of playing a bait-and-switch on his team.

Mexican food authenticity fetishism of the week: Gawker’s Caity Weaver wants to exclude Taco Bell’s Waffle Taco from the category of “taco” on a slippery slope argument, because hey, you could just put a marble in your hand and have a hand taco! Newser sums it up.

Making dreams and stuff

Yesterday Tyler Schnoebelen posted an important warning to anyone who thinks translation is simple, by going through various translations of the quote “the stuff that dreams are made of” from the movie the Maltese Falcon.  Unfortunately it’s even worse than he says, because the official French translation, at least, is not very good.

One spring evening when I was in college in Paris I went out to see Casablanca.  I had liked it in high school film class, and noticed all the references to it that pervade Anglo-American pop culture.  When I watched English-language movies in Paris I always checked the subtitles to pick up some good French expressions.  The lobby was full of French people excitedly chattering about how much they loved “Casa” too.

Well, if these French people loved “Casa,” it must’ve been for the visuals, or because they understood the English dialogue, because it sure wasn’t for the French subtitles.  I got to read one famous, poetic line after another rendered in dull clichés.  There were two that I remember most vividly.

There’s the line, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” that Rick says to Ilsa four times in the movie. I’ve never heard anyone say it when they weren’t referencing the movie.  It’s a toast, but it’s clearly a very affectionate toast, and Rick repeats it even when they’re not drinking, instead of something more direct, like “I love you,” as fits the conflicted nature of their relationship.  How did our subtitler render these complex nuances? With the most standard and formulaic French toast, “To your health!”

The other line that really struck me is the last one in the movie. [Um, SPOILER ALERT!] Police Captain Renault, who has demonstrated a lack of morals throughout the movie, has just allowed Ilsa to escape, shielded Rick from prosecution for killing a Nazi officer, and offered to flee to the Congo with him. As the two men walk off into the dark, Rick says, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

By hedging with “I think” and explicitly referencing “the beginning,” Rick emphasizes that this is a turning point for them, and that he has been impressed with Renault’s actions. How did this come out in the subtitles?

Maintenant, nous sommes amis!

They didn’t even translate the whole thing! It was just “Now we’re friends!” with that silly little exclamation point on the end. No thinking, no beginning, not even a friendship, just “friends!”

I’m not necessarily faulting the subtitler. I don’t know when it was translated, and how famous the movie was at the time. The people who pay for subtitles are often in a hurry, but don’t want to pay for quality, so they get what they pay for.

Casablanca deserves better, of course, and for the seventieth anniversary DVD they got it. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” is translated as “À vous, mon petit !” and then finally, “Bonne chance, mon petit.” The last line is rendered as, “Louis, je crois que ceci est le début d’une merveilleuse amitié !” which is very literal, but a lot better than the first version.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the original subtitles for the Maltese Falcon were just as bad as those for Casablanca, and if they haven’t been updated for a seventieth anniversary release, they may still be bad. “L’étoffe dont sont faits les rêves,” isn’t horrible, but as Tyler points out, étoffe is a very concrete noun, usually indicating some kind of fabric or stuffing. The noun matière (also feminine) is much closer to the sense of “substance” that I think the Maltese Falcon screenwriters were aiming for, and it is in fact frequently used to translate the original Shakespeare quote, as in this 1882 translation: “Nous sommes de la matière dont on fait les rêves.”

My overall point is that translation is hard. Even the best translators get stumped regularly, and mediocre translators can put out some real howlers. More importantly, translation is not a repetitive and precise task like statistical analysis where computers can improve on the job that humans do. It requires knowledge, subtlety and art, and if this is the best that people can do, computers aren’t going to get anywhere close.

Appreciating interpreters

My friend Dan Parvaz, who is a registered American Sign Language interpreter, posted yesterday on Facebook that it was Interpreter Appreciation Day. Further investigation reveals that this day is intended specifically for sign language interpreters, but spoken-language interpreters work hard and deserve appreciation too. Dan mentioned that September 30 is Saint Jerome’s day, the patron saint of translators, but as far as I know nobody mentions interpreters then. It’s as good a day as any other to appreciate the hard work that interpreters do in all languages.

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Medical interpreter Ted Xiong, right, translates Hmong to English for Blia Yang Moua, left, and his health care providers. Photo: Sanden Totten / Minnesota Public Radio.

I wanted to share a couple of radio stories that have made me appreciate professional interpreters even more – by their absence. In one case things seem to have turned out well despite the lack of interpreters, and in another they went very badly.

The first is a segment, “I Am Curious Yellow” in the “Tribes” episode of This American Life, which first aired on March 29. Debbie Lum, a Chinese-American filmmaker, produced a documentary Seeking Asian Female, which premiered at South by Southwest last year. She focuses on a white American man with a fetish for Asian women and his Chinese mail-order bride. She recounts how she intended to play the part of the neutral documentarian, but found herself being drawn into the story. She serves as an unpaid, amateur interpreter for Sandy and Steven, and even an informal relationship counselor, helping them both to understand each other and what they want from the relationship.

The second segment, “Yellow Rain,” was part of the Radiolab episode “The Fact of the Matter,” which first aired on September 24 of last year. During the bombing of Hmong villages by the Viet Cong in 1975, a suspicious “yellow rain” fell; some people believe it was poison, and others that it was “bee poop.” Host Robert Krulwich interviewed one of the survivors, Eng Yang, “translated by his niece,” writer Kao Kalia Yang. Krulwich later admitted that he “pressed too hard” in his quest to get evidence to condemn Ronald Reagan. At a certain point in the interview, Kao Kalia Yang, overcome with emotion, cut off both Krulwich and her uncle, yelled at Krulwich and then terminated the interview.

You can read Kao Kalia Yang’s side of the story here and here, and a brief statement from Eng Yang. Krulwich’s statement is here, and one from his co-host Jad Abumrad.

The only place that I have seen discussion of Kao Kalia Yang’s role as interpreter was a comment from “Diane from MN” on the “Yellow Rain” show page: “I speak Hmong and can hear Eng telling the interviewers repeatedly in the final cut he knows what bee pollen looks like. … Even Kao Kalia’s husband, who witnessed the interview, has said Eng was talking about his knowledge of bees and told the interviewers he is an experienced beekeeper. Did you hear any of this in the final cut? Not unless you understand Hmong!”

What Diane from MN is telling us is that Kao Kalia Yang, in her frustration, did her uncle and their cause a disservice. By stepping out of her role as interpreter, she left no one there to honor his voice. It is not even clear to me that he wanted to end the interview.  But even before that she did herself a disservice by agreeing to interpret in a situation where she would not be able to remain impartial.  In her reaction to the show she expresses frustration at being “reduced” to the role of niece in the show credits, when she is a published author.  But taking on the role of interpreter requires the humility to set aside your own agenda and qualifications, something she was not prepared to do.

Over the years I have watched Dan and my other interpreter friends work hard to convey meaning between Deaf and hearing people in as clear and neutral a way as possible.  Many of them are accomplished scientists of language and that may help them to interpret more clearly, but they set aside their research and their egos when they are interpreting.  Some of them will interpret for a friend or spouse in a casual setting, but in a formal situation where the stakes are high, Deaf people need to know that they are getting an unbiased translation of what’s being spoken, and that their own words are being translated fairly. It is the same for Hmong speakers in the United States – for anyone who needs to communicate with someone without a common language.

Ted Xiong, a Hmong interpreter at the Fairview Clinic of the University of Minnesota, told Minnesota Public Radio in 2008, “It’s being in the middle, between the patient and the provider. You cannot advocate for them, you can’t give them advice. It’s like… you are just a voice.” Xiong finds that frustrating, but the alternative is worse. Elizabeth Heibl, a doctor, added, “What you want is a two-way conversation between the clinician and the patient, with the interpreter there to help with communication.”

Unfortunately, children of immigrants like Kao Kalia Yang – the “1.5 generation” – and hearing children of Deaf adults are often thrust into the role of interpreter without any training or qualification. They find themselves interpreting for their parents with bureaucrats, teachers, shopkeepers and doctors, because nobody has hired Ted Xiong or Dan Parvaz or one of their colleagues – because interpreting services are expensive and many in government and business don’t know or care that people need this service. They find themselves forced to choose between conveying accurate information and being a full participant in the event. This is not fair to anyone.

There are some languages that have very small communities in the United States, and it can be very hard to find a trained, neutral interpreter. The Hmong languages are not like that. In a quick Google search I found three services offering professional Hmong translation. Eng Yang should have insisted on one; if so desired, Kao Kalia Yang could have participated as an advocate, free from the responsibilities of interpreting. But really, they shouldn’t have had to ask. WNYC can afford a Hmong interpreter for a two-hour interview session, and Pat Walters, the producer, should have simply provided one as a matter of course as soon as it was clear that Eng Yang’s English wasn’t fluent enough.

Walters and Krulwich set out to find the Truth. The Truth is a slippery thing. But you’re never going to get anywhere close to it without a reliable, neutral interpreter. And you’re probably going to mess things up.