I won’t write, or not yet, and in any case not exhaustively, about what kept me off the blogosphere for so long, or indeed entirely offline. But I’m recovering, I think. My apologies go to all e-mail correspondents whose notes I still have to fish out of the mess in my inbox, and to answer.

This blog’s first birthday is put off till when the road is a bit less bumpy.

What about the new poem in this entry’s title, you’re wondering? It is actually over 2600 years old: another one of Sappho’s works has been discovered. Just lucky that the Egyptians used poetry as mummy wrappers.

This is only the fourth of her poems that, to our knowledge, has survived the centuries reasonably complete. In the Times Literary Supplement, Martin West tells the story and publishes his translation. Enjoy its beauty:

[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts
[be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized;] my hair’s turned [white] instead of dark;

my heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world’s end,

handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife.

(The Reuters wire got the first line wrong and writes fragrant-bosomed instead of fragrant-blossomed.)

If I manage to get my hands on the original Greek, I’ll add it.

Since this blog is bilingual, there’s a problem now: I don’t have a French version (and will certainly not try to provide even an approximate one). Therefore, as a bonus, here is Renée Vivien’s poem Tu m’oublies, from her collection Sapho (1903):

L’eau trouble reflète, ainsi qu’un vain miroir,
Mes yeux sans lueurs, mes paupières pâlies.
J’écoute ton rire et ta voix dans le soir…
Atthis, tu m’oublies.

Tu n’as point connu la stupeur de l’amour
L’effroi du baiser et l’orgueil de la haine ;
Tu n’as désiré que les roses d’un jour,
Amante incertaine.

Want more? Go here or here.

Update: The original Greek text is here.

Via Language Hat, a Cajun French-English glossary for the students at Louisiana State University.

I only regret that they don’t use IPA for the phonetic transcription. The system they do use is, frankly, unusable (except maybe for speakers of a particular variety of American English, which they don’t further specify).

Locali(s|z)ation and internationali(s|z)ation

Quelques remarques au sujet de la localisation ou internationalisation linguistique, des outils et leurs failles, et du cas particulier des blogues.

  • 2005-01-22
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As wordlingo.com explains, localization (the US spelling seems to be dominant across varieties of English) is

[t]he process of adapting text and cultural content to specific target audiences in specific locations. The process of localization is much broader than just the linguistic process of translation. Cultural, content and technical issues must also be taken into account.

Since trying to give a hand making the WordPress blogging software useable for multilingual blogs, I have been running into the difficulties of this process.

Internationalising a blog is not the same as localizing software, though. I have written more on this on the palimpsest wiki.

A commonly used tool in the world of free software is gettext. Its approach — extract strings in the language the software was originally written for and substitute text in the target language(s) — sounds reasonable and straightforward. Until you try to use it, that is. Via LaugingMeme, I found a detailled account on the shorcomings of gettext by Sean M. Burke and Jordan Lachler: a “localization horror story” about the simple task of translating the program alerts “I scanned N directories” and “Your query matched N files in M directories” into Arabic, Italian, Chinese and Russian. Sounds easy? Not so fast …

The Chinese guy replies with the one phrase that [all variations of the second sentence] translate to in Chinese, and that phrase has two “%g”s in it, as it should — but there’s a problem. He translates it word-for-word back: “In %g directories contains %g files match your query.” The %g slots are in an order reverse to what they are in English. You wonder how you’ll get gettext to handle that.

But you put it aside for the moment, and optimistically hope that the other translators won’t have this problem, and that their languages will be better behaved — i.e., that they will be just like English.

But the Arabic translator is the next to write back. First off, your code for “I scanned %g directory.” or “I scanned %g directories.” assumes there’s only singular or plural. But, to use linguistic jargon again, Arabic has grammatical number, like English (but unlike Chinese), but it’s a three-term category: singular, dual, and plural. In other words, the way you say “directory” depends on whether there’s one directory, or two of them, or more than two of them. Your test of ($directory == 1) no longer does the job. And it means that where English’s grammatical category of number necessitates only the two permutations of the first sentence based on “directory [singular]” and “directories [plural]”, Arabic has three — and, worse, in the second sentence (”Your query matched %g file in %g directory.”), where English has four, Arabic has nine. You sense an unwelcome, exponential trend taking shape.

Your Italian translator emails you back and says that “I searched 0 directories” (a possible English output of your program) is stilted, and if you think that’s fine English, that’s your problem, but that just will not do in the language of Dante. He insists that where $directory_count is 0, your program should produce the Italian text for “I didn’t scan any directories.”. And ditto for “I didn’t match any files in any directories”, although he says the last part about “in any directories” should probably just be left off. […]

Then your Russian translator calls on the phone, to personally tell you the bad news about how really unpleasant your life is about to become:

Russian, like German or Latin, is an inflectional language; that is, nouns and adjectives have to take endings that depend on their case (i.e., nominative, accusative, genitive, etc…) — which is roughly a matter of what role they have in syntax of the sentence — as well as on the grammatical gender (i.e., masculine, feminine, neuter) and number (i.e., singular or plural) of the noun, as well as on the declension class of the noun. But unlike with most other inflected languages, putting a number-phrase (like “ten” or “forty-three”, or their Arabic numeral equivalents) in front of noun in Russian can change the case and number that noun is, and therefore the endings you have to put on it.

He elaborates: In “I scanned %g directories”, you’d expect “directories” to be in the accusative case (since it is the direct object in the sentence) and the plural number, except where $directory_count is 1, then you’d expect the singular, of course. Just like Latin or German. But! Where $directory_count %10 is 1 (”%” for modulo, remember), assuming $directory_count is an integer, and except where $directory_count %100 is 11, “directories” is forced to become grammatically singular, which means it gets the ending for the accusative singular… You begin to visualize the code it’d take to test for the problem so far, and still work for Chinese and Arabic and Italian, and how many gettext items that’d take, but he keeps going… But where $directory_count %10 is 2, 3, or 4 (except where $directory_count %100 is 12, 13, or 14), the word for “directories” is forced to be genitive singular — which means another ending…

This said, for translations of single words, or text without variables, esp. in a short script, gettext is perfectly adequate. But there’s another problem: blogs, while technically software (PHP scripts, in our case) face different problems from desktop utilities or the like. The text to be translated needs to be user-editable. Every blog is different, and bloggers will want the text — any bit of text — to appear just like they prefer it. Which, for the moment, is quite difficult to achieve, on a multilingual blog.

Which reminds me once again how regrettable it is that written communication better take place in one language at a time. Spoken communication is much more flexible in this regard. (One exception are discussions on IRC or other public chat channels: I’ve often found it useful to carry on two separate conversations with the same interlocutors in two different languages; it’s easier to keep the conversations apart this way.)

Are women human?

Une longue diatribe contre un ami qui a osé critiquer ma traduction anglaise d’une citation de Térence.

The other day, Dr Dave at unknowngenius passionately disputed something I had said earlier. My crime? Having suggested that in Terence’s line Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. the word homo should be translated as human being. I should, of course, know better than to reply to a post in which the term “PC” […]

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Minimalist Kitkat

Comment un slogan publicitaire anglais est «traduit» en français, loi Toubon oblige.

As you probably know, there is a law in France, called “loi Toubon” after the former minister of culture who sponsored it, that requires all product descriptions and adverts (“be they in spoken, written or audio-visual form”) to be in French. If several languages are present (read: if the slogan is in English) the French […]

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