Correcting a native speaker

Recently, I played a short narrative in the language I describe for my PhD to a non-linguist. The person asked what I do with such recordings. I told them I get a translation by a native speaker and then work on them myself, including changing the original translation wherever I feel it to be necessary. Right there, they asked me how I justify correcting a native speaker. I don’t think I did a good job at explaining it back then, so let me try once more in writing.

Native speakers who have not trained as linguists or translators often re-narrate what the speaker said. One of the consequences is that sometimes they simplify what they heard, i.e. they will leave out information and structures that they don’t consider relevant. A person might say that they bought bananas, oranges and mangos but the translator will say they bought fruits. In another instance, somebody might think aloud “I arrived on Friday … was it really Friday? … hmmm, yes”, and all that the translation will contain is that the person arrived on Friday.

At the same time, these translators will add material at other places. If a person does not conclude a sentence but the translator feels certain how it would have ended, they may add their ending to the translation. Also, they may add information that they consider useful for the linguist. E.g., if the speaker said they saw Jola, the translation might be about the nurse Jola. Of course, in the original you won’t find the word “nurse”.

Also, they may mess up the order of whatever was said. I noticed this especially with one native speaker who always listened to long chunks of recording before providing a translation. Hence, there always was a lot of information to remember and apart from leaving out and adding bits, the translator sometimes got the sequence of events wrong.

As I stated in the beginning, untrained native speakers usually re-narrate what the speaker said. Hence, in their version the perspective often changes. So, when a person says “I washed my hands today”, the translator is likely to say “he washed his hands that day”. This phenomenon is quite well known among language documenters. We probably all know the situation where we try to elicit verb paradigms like “I slept, you slept …”, noticing that the language consultant turns it into “you slept, I slept …”.

Sometimes, translators change the meaning of an utterance because there is no exact equivalent in English or because that equivalent is uncommon. An example for this is “egbon”, which in Yoruba means “older sibling (of either gender)”. As “sibling” is a quite technical term and people would rather refer to their sibling as “my sister” or “my brother”, the translator is likely to use “sister” or “brother”, even though it adds gender information that is not included in the original.

Then, there is the issue of Nigerian (Pidgin) English. The translations I sometimes get are not correct or mean something else in British English, the variety I happen to use for writing my thesis. An example is the use of “again”. In Nigeria, this word is used instead of “anymore”. So, when I see a translation like “he doesn’t love her again”, I change it to “he doesn’t love her anymore”.

Finally, native speakers are mere humans. Sometimes, they are unconcentrated or not feeling well. Also, they are not working full time on my project, which means they only look at each utterance for a short time, provide a translation and then move on to the next utterance. I on the other hand sometimes go back to an old utterance and compare it with lexical entries and the alleged meaning of comparable utterances. This means I think about each utterance longer, consult more material and can make sure that I do so at a time when I am able to give the task the full of my abilities.

How do I spot items in a translation that might need change? Usually, I notice a contradiction with something another or the same speaker told me at a different time. E.g. when I have already learned the words “I” and “he”, I will note when the translation doesn’t match the original. Or I suspect that a translation could be improved because I know a lexical item or structure used in related languages. At other times, the translator is very hesitant, which suggests they themselves doubt their own translation.

Once I spot a potential mistake, there are basically three options. Either I simply correct the mistake, I discuss the issue with the original translator or I ask another native speaker for a second opinion. If I speak to the person who translated the piece in the first place or with a second translator, the person sometimes agrees with my own translation (in the end). At times, they even state that I help them to understand their language better. But just as often they convince me of their own version and then I have learned something from them again.

I am grateful to the native speakers who helped me by answering my questions “how do you say this” and “how do you say that”, by telling me stories in their language and by translating them into English for me. There is a reason why we call them language consultants. It’s because they are the experts and owners of their language. It would make me very happy if one of them stepped forward one day to learn the tools of my profession. I’m sure they would do a much better job at analysing and especially at promoting the language than I ever could. Also, I wish to thank the person who raised the question that initiated this post. You made me think, and that’s a good thing.

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Interview with Loomnie on doing a doctorate in Germany

Studying abroad is a great opportunity to get to know a different culture and sometimes another language as well. If you are considering a stay abroad, you should read the following interview. My friend @loomnie from Nigeria shared his experience on doing a doctorate in Germany in a twitter interview. You can learn a lot from his account!

Bolanja: Dear @loomnie, thanks for allowing me to ask you questions on your experience as a doctoral student in Germany. :)
loomnie: bring it on!
Bolanja: It should be useful to other Nigerians who would like to study or research in Germany.
loomnie: sure.
Bolanja: First of all how did you get the idea to study in Germany? Had you seen an advert for a doctorate? Or was it something else?
loomnie: i actually just googled regional integration and anthropology and the name of the max planck institute came up. so i wasnt thinking particularly about germany when i started out looking for phd opportunities.
Bolanja: That’s probably a very common way to start. I guess you then sent an email to one of their profs. How did s/he respond?
loomnie: yes. i sent an email to the research coordinator of the institute, who replied that there were some research positions that i could apply to. what i had to do was write a research plan and apply with it. i spent the next one month working on the plan.
Bolanja: What happened then? Were you invited for an interview?
loomnie: yes. a few weeks after that i got an email that i was invited for an interview for the position. the interview was mainly to find out whether i could do what is said i wanted to do, and in the time frame i would have to do it.
Bolanja: You must have been very excited! :)
loomnie: oh yea i was super excited. so excited that i didnt sleep the night before the interview and cant remember 3/4th of the questions!
Bolanja: What about financing? I mean for the interview – did you have to travel to Germany for that? – and later the PhD. Did you have any info on that back then?
loomnie: yes, i traveled to germany for the interview. it was all paid for by the institute. the policy is that everybody who makes it to the shortlist is invited for an interview. and the phd was fully funded, including the ethnographic fieldwork
Bolanja: This is great! Though I must warn that travel costs for an interview are not always reimbursed, speaking from personal experience.
loomnie: well they sent me the ticket and put me up at a guest house.
Bolanja: As for the position, was that a position as a “wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter” (research assistant)?
loomnie: it was a position as a PhD researcher. since it is not a university they dont have “WiMi”
Bolanja: I see that you know more about the German academic system than I do! :) My colleagues who are “WiMi”s have to teach in addition to their PhD research. Was that the case for you as well and, if so, did you have to do that in German?
loomnie: oh yea, i know. i was pretty lucky. that is the sweet thing about max planck institutes, no teaching, only research. I taught after I handed in my PhD, but in English, although i let the students ask questions in German.
Bolanja: What about attending conference and publications? How did the institute support you in this regard?
loomnie: that is also supported. the institute picks tabs for conferences. and there are book series that you could publish in. but the max planck institutes are not a typical example of doing a phd in germany – just like the fraunhofer institutes.
Bolanja: Thanks for the info so far! I’m learning a lot. :)
Bolanja: Was there anything else about your time at the Max Planck Institute that you would like to mention?
loomnie: you’re welcome! nothing really. it was very intense – 3 years for a phd, which included a year of fieldwork. but it was a nice time, and the research support is really, really good. excellent, actually.
Bolanja: At the end you had to submit a thesis. You said after three years, was that a deadline? Were there any other conditions like word length, publication of the thesis or language?
loomnie: well, funding would run out at the end of year 3, so there is pressure to finish in 3 years. i got two months extra. there really is no word length, but you are expected to write it in english, since that is the working language of the institute.
Bolanja: But I guess at least for everyday conversations you had to learn German! Was it very difficult?
loomnie: yes i had to learn german. and it was difficult. still is, by the way. it is your language so you know. ;)
Bolanja: No, that’s why I don’t know. I suckled my own German in with the mothermilk. ;-)
loomnie: :D yes, it is hard. but i’ve grown to actually love it.
Bolanja: After completing the PhD how were you job perspectives in Germany/elsewhere?When u applied for jobs did u got offers or rejections?
loomnie: there are not that many academic jobs in germany, and not being able to teach in german is a big minus. germany has to do a lot more to be inclusive, and try to retain some of the really smart people they train in their own system. that is one area the german academic system has to work on.
Bolanja: Do you have any suggestions on how we could open up the German academic system for people from abroad?
loomnie: I actually can’t think of anything at the moment. There are scholarship opportunities, and applicants stand a chance of getting in. What often scares people is the language thing, but there’s nothing Germany can do about that. My advice to any potential applicant is to give it a shot. And learning a new language is always a great thing.
Bolanja: Thanks so much for your insights! I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to answer my questions. :)
loomnie: thanks! Glad to answer them.
Bolanja: And good luck to anyone who wishes to come to Germany to study or do research here!

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