Archive: Jul 2016




    JUL 13, 2016

    By Ofer Tirosh
    Code talkers – how Native Americans helped to win two world wars

    Language, code and codebreaking have played an important part in many conflicts and none more so that the two world wars. 100 years on from World War I, we look at the role that code talkers played in helping the Allied Powers to defeat the Central powers and how code talking developed by the time of World War II.


    Code talkers were individuals during the 20th century who used lesser-spoken languages to communicate during wartime. By using obscure languages, the code talkers sought to ensure that any intercepted communications could not be understood and that battle plans and military tactics could therefore be kept secret.

    One of the most large-scale examples was the use of Native American languages by US soldiers during the two world wars. The US Marine Corps employed between 400 and 500 Native Americans to assist with code talking, using their native tongues to transmit secret messages conveying intelligence and tactics without fear that their communiques would fall into the wrong hands.


    Cherokee and Choctaw code talkers were particularly influential in World War I. Captain Lawrence first had the idea of using Native American languages for code when he overheard two of his men, Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb, talking in the Choctaw language. He rounded up the Choctaw speakers in his battalion (there were eight in total, and 14 spread across the division), training them to use their native language as code for tactical communications.

    The Choctaw speakers helped to win a number of key battles in France towards the end of World War I. Perhaps their most famous influence was during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the final last push by Germany. Within 72 hours of the Choctaw code talkers joining the effort, German troops were retreating and the Allies were able to push on towards victory.

    Cherokee code talkers also played an important role. They served alongside the British during the Second Battle of the Somme and became the first Native Americans to send coded messages while under fire during the war.


    By the time of World War II, the use of obscure language to code messages had evolved, with bilingual Navajo code talkers recruited to their Pacific Theater communications units by the US Marines. Verbal messages transmitted by telephone and radio were encrypted as a result, with formally developed codes helping to speed up the decoding for those on the receiving end.

    A variety of Native American languages were used during World War II, as well as the Basque (or Euskara language) in some regions. Conscious of the effective use of code talkers during World War I, Hitler attempted to gain knowledge of Native American languages as part of his tactics, sending 30 anthropologists to the US before war was declared. The variety of languages and dialects in use by Native Americans left the anthropologists stumped, but their efforts to learn were noted by the Allies, who avoided the large-scale use of code talkers in the European Theater of the war as a result.

    Comanche code talkers were used in the Invasion of Normandy though and their written records reveal something of the substitution method that was used in their transmissions. The Comanche word for ‘turtle’ meant tank, while a ‘sewing machine’ was a machine gun. Bombers were known as ‘pregnant airplanes,’ while Hitler himself was appropriately referred to in Comanche as ‘crazy white man.’


    Code talkers were an essential part of both World War I and World War II. They helped the allied forces to maintain secrecy around their communications, saving the lives of countless soldiers and ultimately helping them to victory. There are few instances in history where languages have been quite so influential in terms of their impact on the future of the world.

    How else has language been used in times of war throughout history and what lessons can we learn from it? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

  2. Translation project expands reach of Taiwan literature

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    Translation project expands reach of Taiwan literature

    “Sixteen books by Taiwan authors have been translated into English, French, Japanese, Korean and Swedish as part of efforts by the National Museum of Taiwan Literature in southern Taiwan’s Tainan City to expand the international reach of local literature.”

    Novelist Li Ang explains the importance of expanding international readership of local authors at National Museum of Taiwan Literature June 7 in Tainan City, southern Taiwan. (Courtesy of NMTL)

    “These translations enable Taiwan’s national treasures to be enjoyed by our foreign friends,” NMTL Director Chen Yi-yuan said earlier this month at a museum-staged event announcing publication of the newly translated books.

    Since 2011, the NMTL’s translation project has seen 101 volumes rendered into nine languages. One of the most impressive works was in Swedish by Göran Malmqvist, a Sinologist and member of the Swedish Academy that decides the annual Nobel Prize in literature. He translated an autobiographical novel set in Beijing by the late Lin Hai-yin before she moved to Taipei City in the late 1940s.

    Prominent novelist Li Ang thanked the NMTL for producing the English version of “The Lost Garden,” one of the feminist writer’s major works presenting a Taiwan family saga exploring local history and the heroine’s sexuality. Published by Columbia University Press in New York, the fictional piece was co-translated by Howard Goldblatt, an acclaimed translator of Mandarin-language works such as the novels of Mo Yan, a 2012 Nobel Prize in literature winner from mainland China.

    Li attaches great importance to systematic translation efforts playing a central role in putting Taiwan authors on the global stage. “Similar efforts have been promoted and backed with large-scale funding in such countries as South Korea,” she said.

    Other local female authors are enjoying the spotlight as a result of the NMTL project, which includes English versions of works by three female playwrights. In addition, two Taiwan literary history titles were translated into Japanese and Korean, respectively.

    Chen Yi-jun, an official from the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Humanities and Publications, said the MOC will continue cooperating with NMTL on subsidizing translations of local literary works so as to “help them shine internationally.” (KTJ-E)

    Write to Taiwan Today at

  3. Roald Dahl’s BFG becomes Guid and Freendly in Scots translation

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    Roald Dahl’s BFG becomes Guid and Freendly in Scots translation

    Marking the much loved author’s centenary, new version reconstructs the classic children’s character, ‘fower times as lang as the langest human’

    He eats “foosty feechcumbers” rather than snozzcumbers and drinks fuzzleglog rather than frobscottle, but he is still just as big and friendly as ever: meet the Scottish version of one of Roald Dahl’s best-loved characters, who has made his appearance as part of the celebrations of the late author’s centenary.

    Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant becomes, in Scots, the Guid Freendly Giant; the book’s title, The BFG, thus becomes The GFG. Publisher Black and White Publishing, which is releasing the new translation this week, said it was intended to celebrate the centenary of Dahl’s birth on 13 September, and predicted the book would be hugely popular, particularly with Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the children’s novel also out this summer.

    The story, which has been translated by Dr Susan Rennie from Glasgow University, opens, says the publisher, “ae nicht, as the ither bairns sleep”, and “Sophie is wheeched fae her bed in the orphanage by the muckle haund o a giant”.

    The GFG by Roald Dahl’s cover

    “Lucky for her, it belangs tae the Guid Freendly Giant,” explains the publicher. “The GFG disna eat wee lassies. He jist eats foosty feechcumbers and drinks fuzzleglog. But there are ither giants that are no sae freendly and that snashter up slaversome human beans for their tea.”

    Rather than keep Dahl’s original names for his more bloodthirsty giants, Rennie has renamed the likes of the Fleshlumpeater, Bonecruncher, Manhugger and Childchewer as the Girslegorbler, Banecrumper, Mucklecleeker and Bairnchawer.

    “In order to make that language, Dahl has based it on English words, pulled them apart and recombined them. These are words invented for children to enjoy reading. They can relate them to English words or onomatopoeic sounds,”Rennie told the National in Scotland. “If I hadn’t translated them, they would still have looked like English words.”

    In Rennie’s version, the “witching hour” becomes the “witching oor”, and Sophie, now Sophy, “couldna sleep” after seeing “something awfu lang and awfu black an awfu thin” on the street outside.

    “It wisna a human. It couldna be. It was fower times as lang as the langest human. It wis that lang its heid wis abune the upstairs windaes o the hooses. Sophy opened her mooth tae skelloch, but nae soond cam oot. Her thrapple, like her hail body, wis frozen wi fricht,” runs Rennie’s translation. She is a lecturer in English and Scots language at Glasgow and author of several books in Scots for children, as well as the first Scots translation of Tintin, The Derk Isle.

    She told the National that there was “no reason why The GFG can’t stand on its own to somebody coming to it for the first time”. “I have loved this project, I am delighted with how it has come out,” she said.

    Dahl’s novels have been translated into 58 languages, from Afrikaans to Vietnamese. A number already appear in Scots, with The Twits translated as The Eejits, the couple now “honkin, maukit, bowfin and clarty”, George’s Marvellous Medicine becoming Geordie’s Mingin Medicine, and Fantastic Mr Fox The Sleekit Mr Tod.

  4. “Death by a Thousand Cuts”

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    “Death by a Thousand Cuts”
    By Juan Lizama

    It is not the complex syntax, long sentences or technical passages that dash the hopes of most candidates seeking to pass the American Translators Association (ATA) certification exam.

    According to ATA exam graders Holly Mikkelson and Paul Coltrin, it is the many one- and two-point errors throughout the exam that add up to a failing grade.

    “One of my colleagues calls it ‘death by a thousand cuts’,” Mikkelson said.

    Mikkelson and Coltrin recently agreed to review translations into English and Spanish of past ATA exams done by a group of Oregon Society of Translators and Interpreters members studying for the exam. The group of about a dozen members meets online on a weekly basis to discuss translation assignments, different resources and strategies for translation. They also correct each other’s work using the ATA list of mistakes and the ATA grading scale. Mikkelson reviewed the Spanish to English translations and their corresponding peer reviews, and Coltrin reviewed the English to Spanish ones. Each of them presented their findings to the group in separate online sessions.

    The ATA currently offers exams in 29 language pairs. According to the recent March-April issue of the ATA Chronicle magazine, the overall passing rate for foreign languages into English was 15.81% between 2004 and 2014.  Meanwhile, the overall passing rate for English into foreign languages was 14.11% for the same period.

    The vast majority of translations that are out there in the real world, which in some cases are mediocre, fall short in the sense that they are “a word by word rendering of the source text, slavish of the patterns of the source text,” Coltrin said.

    “People often say that [a document] ‘smells like a translation’,” Coltrin said in Spanish, quickly switching to English. “And that’s not a compliment when they say that. If it has a strong feel of a translation, it’s probably not a good translation.”

    “It’s perfectly fine for the translator to take freedoms in a translation as long as it preserves the meaning and flows nicely,” Coltrin said.

    “It’s not just desirable to make the translation smooth and functional,” he said. “It is our obligation.”

    Mikkelson echoed Coltrin’s comments, adding that not using common sense and not reading the whole passage before starting the translation has led exam takers to mistranslate parts of the source text.

    “They can be prepositions, grammatical mistakes, misspellings that in and of themselves are not serious, but they add up,” Mikkelson said. “Those [errors] may be from carelessness, failure to proofread. They have a ‘yes’ instead of a ‘no’, ‘black’ instead of ‘white’.”

    ATA graders use guidelines in the form of a flowchart with a scale of zero to 16 points per error. A score of 17 and under is a passing grade. The mechanical errors, those having to do with the misuse of the target language have a maximum of four points per error. On the second column are errors that can impact content, language use and understanding of a sentence, paragraph, and even the entire text. These errors can be zero to sixteen points.

    “I’ve never seen a sixteen-point error,” Mikkelson said. “Even eight-point errors are rare.”

    One of the many concrete examples Mikkelson highlighted from the group’s Spanish to English translations was the use of “earth” in a passage about agriculture, instead of using “land” or “soil”. This type of error distorts the meaning because the reader might think the sentence is referring to the planet as a whole.

    “This would be a two-point error because it would cause confusion,” she said. “But it doesn’t take out a whole paragraph and the text is still useful.”

    Mikkelson advised the group to be careful with the little quirks of English in adverbs such as either…or and neither…nor. Using them with “without” or “not” would make them a double negative. There’s also a reversal of the subject and the verb with the use of these adverbs.

    “So you say, ‘neither did he do this’, instead of, ‘neither he did this’; or, ‘only then did I realize, rather than, ‘only then I did realize’,” she said.

    Coltrin warned about falling for the traps within the passages, such as punctuation marks. He referred specifically to how the use of the dash in English is so different from its use in Spanish.

    “Make no mistake,” he said, “when we choose passages, we like putting that type of challenge in there because it definitely helps us to differentiate between people that really have a strong awareness of Spanish writing conventions and how they are different from English and test takers who don’t have that awareness.”

    Coltrin advises to take advantage of the practice tests ATA offers for a fee.

    “Sometimes, people waltz in to take the exam, unprepared, and then they are surprised that they didn’t pass,” he said. “Later, they ask for a review of the exam, which is much more expensive.”

    They could have gotten that feedback beforehand with the much less expensive practice test, which can be a good tool to prepare.

    Coltrin commended the OSTI study group for their approach to preparing not only for taking the exam, but also as a way to become better translators. Mikkelson said that translation is also a great way for interpreters to improve their delivery in the target language.

    And the response to the burning question from group of whether they have a chance of passing the exam—which only one member dared to ask Mikkelson—was:

    “I did see some good translations there,” she said. “There were definitely some passing translations among the batch. Good luck to everybody.”

    About the Author:
    Juan Lizama is a native of El Salvador and currently works as a full-time interpreter and translator at OHSU Hospital in Portland, Oregon. He is a participant of the OSTI study group preparing to take the ATA certification exam.