and welcome to Translation in Action, the brand new Magazine
published by Alpha.
Our aim with this online publication is to educate, enthral and
entertain with all things translation, localization and language
without the ties of commercial and industrial gain. We have a huge
team of linguists, experts and friends, all eager to share their
knowledge and passion on any subject related to language, from
complex courtroom vocab to the names of international foods and how
they came about.
In this age, especially considering the recent global events, it’s
important we understand the significance of language. Not just in
business - advertising products all over the world or encouraging
international trade ventures - but in the world in general. The
COVID-19 pandemic that changed the entire globe has taught us just
how key communication is; how the digital age has grown into
something not just used every day, but something essential for
Here, we are celebrating language, literally Translation in Action:
how it features in the everyday lives of different people. We want
to champion the use of language responsibly, give a voice to all
those areas it is taken for granted but where it is truly important.
In this non-commercial publication, we are excited to welcome
people from all sides of modern life, including doctors and human
rights lawyers, and experts in publishing, politics, science and
more across the world.
as we all know, is multifaceted; differing not just by country but
by county, city, culture. We aim to get into the ‘meat’ of how and
why language is important for human beings, and what incredible
things can and do come from it.
Though TiA is powered by Alpha, we want to stress that any
opinions, values and beliefs expressed in this magazine do not
necessarily reflect those of Alpha as a company. They are the
opinions, values and beliefs of the individual authors only, and
may have nothing to do with the business and services Alpha
performs. We wish to highlight and discuss the complexities of
language here, with people who know it best of all, and to give
anyone, people from all walks of life, the opportunity and
platform to write about something they, themselves, are passionate
about, regardless of profession and/or employ.
We will be producing this magazine every two months, bringing you
unique content from original perspectives with courage, conviction
and clarity. In this global age, and these uncertain times, we want
to bring people together just as translation does, bridging the
gaps between language and culture.
Please enjoy this very first edition of Translation in Action, and
if you would like to contribute, or to discuss a contribution
you’re considering, please click here to contact the
Editor-in-Chief, Daisy Walker.
An interview on the power of language with
human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith.
Stafford Smith OBE is an international human rights lawyer who has
worked to overturn death sentences for convicts in the US, and
represented more than 100 of the detainees held as “enemy
combatants” by the US Army at Guantánamo Bay.
He talked to Translation in Action about the complex role of
language in the judicial system and the myriad challenges of
translation in the field of human rights.
Translation in Action: You’ve represented many prisoners at
Guantánamo Bay – do you have any examples where translation has
gone badly wrong?
Stafford Smith: There are so many. So I’ll this
choose one, about a confusion between different dialects of Arabic,
as an example.
In the early days of the “War on Terror”, which Borat called the
“War of Terror”, the US was very short of Arabic translators. So,
they would use anyone who said they spoke Arabic, without having
the slightest idea of the nuances between the different types of
the language. They were interrogating a 14-year-old kid [...] from
Saudi Arabia, who had just been sold to the US as a bounty.
The US interrogators were asking him questions through a
translator, who spoke Yemeni Arabic, while [the boy] spoke Saudi
Arabic. The word “zalat” in Saudi Arabic means “salad” or
“tomatoes”, and the word “zalat” in Yemeni Arabic means “money”.
The interrogators were asking [him], when he went from Saudi Arabia
to Karachi, about how much “zalat” he had with him. And he thought
they were talking about tomatoes.
He was a bit surprised and replied: “I didn’t have any ‘zalat’ with
me”. And the interrogators got really angry with him and said: “You
had to have ‘zalat’ with you, you couldn’t cope without ‘zalat’”.
He thought they were mad. And he said: “No, no, I could get ‘zalat’
anywhere I needed it in Pakistan”.
At this point, the interrogators got terribly excited because they
thought he was talking about money. They immediately leapt to the
conclusion that this kid, who was 14 and had gone to Karachi to
learn English, had to be an al-Qaeda financier, maybe in his
mid-20s, because he said he could get money anywhere he wanted.
So they started asking him: “Where could you get ‘zalat’ in
Karachi?” And, naturally, he listed a series of vegetable stalls
that he had frequented. And they wrote this stuff down and they
deemed him an al-Qaeda financier.
In this case, it’s so ridiculous it sounds funny. But this stuff
happens all the time. If you look at Guantánamo Bay, the quality of
translation is dreadful because they can’t even find a translator
who speaks the right dialect. It illustrates everything that goes
through Guantánamo Bay [...].
TiA: In the world of professional translation,
you almost always have a quality assurance stage where the
translation is checked for accuracy. Obviously, there are very
rarely two interpreters involved in any aspect of the judicial
process, so the quality of translation can never be assured. Do you
see any solution?
You’re right, we can’t assure accuracy in such circumstances. And
the cases are legion where people get it wrong. One of the
interesting aspects of Guantánamo Bay has been that these poor
guys, who have been locked up there now for 18 years, have
gradually come to learn English. So, they speak English OK and they
now recognize when the translators are making mistakes. And it’s
all the time.
TiA: If you need to use a translator, does it
impact how you interact with your clients?
Massively. The problem with translation is not just that nuances of
meaning can change, but that it’s very difficult to establish a
relationship with the person if you rely on a translator. When I go
to Guantánamo Bay, I only speak English, or French, or incredibly
bad Italian. So, if we need to use a translator, it has an immense
impact on how your discussion or questioning of a person goes.
For example, I would be visiting a prisoner in Guantánamo Bay and
I’d ask an anodyne question like: “How are you doing?”. The
translator and the client would go on for about five minutes and
the translator would then turn around and say: “Yes, I’m well”.
It’s ridiculous – you don’t know what has happened.
TiA: Tell us about the impact of having to use
a translator in the courtroom.
Well, it helps to think about what actually happens in the
courtroom. When you’re questioning a witness, for example, an awful
lot of what goes on in the courtroom is a psychological to-and-fro.
When you’re dealing with someone who is lying, part of the strategy
is to out-think that person into getting them to admit the lie.
One of the ways you do this is by asking your witness questions
where you have them on record saying something in the past. If they
lie, you can confront them with a piece of paper that shows they’re
lying. But, once you’ve done this, you can confront them in another
area where you think they might lie and ask a question while waving
a piece of paper around. Actually, the piece of paper contains no
relevant information, but they think it does – and they’ll be less
likely to lie as a result.
So cross-examination is very much a psychological contest. It is a
really important process in trying to get to the truth. And it’s
very difficult to use these kinds of techniques when you need to use
TiA: So, how do you personally deal with the
situation of having to use a translator?
If possible, I try not to use one. I try to limit
myself to representing people who speak English or French so I can
speak to them in these languages directly. Sometimes you can’t, and
I make mistakes like anyone else – I’ll give you an example.
I speak really bad Italian. But I needed to use it to speak to a
Tunisian prisoner – actually I was telling them the story of Br’er
Rabbit and Tar Baby. The reason for this is it is the key to
dealing with the US. [In this case,] the US is represented by the
big bully, the stupid Fox, and our client must be the small,
clever, slightly arrogant Rabbit. When you are stuck to a Tar Baby
(a prison cell), you need to come up with a good way out of your
predicament, which rarely involves charging at the guns like the Light
I represented a lot of prisoners down there, and I told this story
to all these different people. When it came to my bad Italian, I
could not remember the word for rabbit until much later (corniglio)
so the story was probably fairly incoherent. But, inevitably, the
tale made its way back into the prison camps and circulated among
all the many prisoners who were trying to work out what the hell I
meant by this, a task made more difficult as the process of
“Chinese Whispers” muddled it further.
Then, this fairly innocent story started to take on a life of its
own. A couple of years later, it came round that the CIA and the
intelligence agencies in Guantánamo Bay thought that there was a
big plot going on codenamed “Rabbit” that was designed to do something
dreadful. Those things are just funny because it’s just the fact
that people have totally got the wrong end of the stick. But it
goes to show: things can escalate through a bad translation.
TiA: Do you have any more thoughts on the role
of translation in the area of human rights?
It’s part of a bigger picture, and we’ve got a long
way to go in terms of human rights in general. I think it’s very
important that we try to learn from other languages and other
cultures in this field. In the Anglo-American world, we tend to
think that we somehow own all of the language of human rights. We
don’t and we shouldn’t. There are lots of things that other people
think that, perhaps, we don’t see. Language is obviously a big part
TiA: Finally, do you have any advice to
linguists thinking of going into the field of courtroom
My advice to them is that they should call me up
and volunteer to help me out! Of course, that’s purely
self-interested advice because we always need help in terms of
people from different linguistic backgrounds.
Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve, a non-profit
organization that uses the law to fight extreme human rights abuses
like the death penalty.
How does ideology shape translation?
Ideology is a feature of language, and translation is no less free
of ideology than any social activity. Ideology’s workings in
translation relate to the transfer of linguistic items from
language to language, where meanings, beliefs and values are negotiated.
From women taking matters into their own hands, to translators
being violently targeted, ideology can be a volatile subject but
remains very important all over the word.
Ideology, quite an elusive concept in the social sciences, has as
many definitions as there are scholars of ideology. The term
“ideology” was coined in 1796 by the French philosopher, Antoine
Destutt de Tracy, in the hope of establishing a science of ideas.
Hopes of this were dashed by Napoleon Bonaparte, who gave the term
a political twist and, as a result, it was often associated with
manipulation and deceit.
This negative meaning was later popularised by Karl Marx, who spoke
of ideology as a distorted view of the world, indissolubly
connected with the ruling class’s ideas. It was only in the 1960s
that the influence of this meaning seemed to grow less present,
with Louis Althusser’s inclusive definition of ideology as a
structural field wherein people make sense of their lives, and
where “there is no practice except by and in ideology”.
 For further details, see Cap. 1, ‘Twisted
Preliminaries: The ‘Idéologistes’ and Napoleon in Jan Rehmann’s Theories
of Ideology (2013).
constraints imposed on people by ideology are so strong that
sometimes they appear as something “obvious”. For example, if you
go to the supermarket for grocery shopping, you never think that
the food might be poisoned: the “fact” that it won’t be is obvious
to you. There is an established trust between the consumer and
producer, a taken-for-granted assumption that produce is regulated
by a broader consumerist ideology.
So, how does our understanding of ideological assumptions and what
is “obvious” (and often unnoticed) apply to translation? Let’s take
the concept of fluency, for example. Some translation reviewers
praise fluency in translation (a smooth reading experience), only
imperfectly aware of how fluency as a style operates as a literary
market-driven ideological strategy in large parts of the Western
This is often referred to as a “domestication” strategy, which
strips the text of its original nature. The use of this strategy
can lead to a distorted image of the cultural discourse from which
the source text originated in the eyes of Western readership.
ideology of translation style has a great impact on how we perceive
the translated work and, indeed, the source culture. A recent study
on the translation of Portuguese academic discourse describes how a
linear plain-prose academic style in English has replaced the
neo-romantic nonlinear style that can be found in the source
material. This type of translation seems to have annihilated a
whole system of thought, as though the Portuguese academic
discourse could all be swept away by the dominant English scientific
What’s the role of translators in all this? As translation is
the product of sociocultural settings, it is also conditioned by
the agency of the translators involved. Questions like how
translators, positioned within networks of power, are useful in
forming a coherent idea about contexts and purposes.
Translators use several strategies to challenge power relations
within their reach. For example, some feminist translators denounce
the dictatorship of patriarchy, demanding an immediate conclusion
of patriarchal language, and advocate the freedom of women from the
linguistic shackles of tradition. In doing so, they may go against
the grain, challenge assumptions and endanger their professional
and personal lives. For instance, some feminist translators revised
the translations of key cultural texts, such as the Bible.
Handwritten draft of chapter II of The
Woman's Bible (1895)
translations, as shown in many studies, generally reinforced
believers’ misogynist attitudes over time, interpreting texts to
define women as the root of evil, deficient and incapable, and
consistently casting the male in God’s image. An early example of
rebellion against this norm is The Women’s Bible,
1895, produced by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the most outspoken
contemporary critics of Bible translations, and a committee of
women. This work was intended to question the sexist traditions of
existing Bible translations, striving to raise awareness of the
ideologies that had informed them.
Sometimes translators may end up in the firing line, however. Some
translators have even been violently targeted for their work,
particularly while dealing with derisive religious subject matters.
Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic
Verses, a novel widely
criticised in ultraconservative circles of the Islamic faith for
blasphemy, portraying elements of the Prophet Mohammed’s life and
implying the Qur’an was the work of the devil, resulted in several
attacks, bombings and the book being banned. The Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini of Iran even issued a fatwa calling for
the death of Rushdie, though the successive Iranian governments no
longer support the order.
Italian translator of the novel, Ettore Capriolo, survived a knife
assault; the Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was stabbed to
death; and the Turkish translation’s commissioner, Aziz Nesin,
mysteriously escaped a bomb attack which killed 37 people and
injured many more. These assaults are not necessarily directly
related to their translations per se, but more to the fact that
they even tried to translate Rushdie’s text, bringing
the controversial material to other cultures.
Despite the danger that Rushdie’s translators faced, very few of us
working in industry-led translation companies face similar threats
for symptoms of resistance. However, literary and ideological power
relations are all around us and will continue to influence who gets
promoted, who gets the next job, and who gets dismissed. How some
literary, political, and nationalist ideas gain currency cannot be
separated from the way we perceive the world – it’s all in
Formosa is a Catalan poet, translator, playwright, essayist, actor
and theatre director. He has translated and adapted many works from
German by authors including Bertolt Brecht, Georg Trakl, Heinrich
Heine, Thomas Mann, Joseph Roth, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Frank
His poetic career, which began with Albes breus a les mans
(Brief Dawns in Hand) and Llibre de meditacions (1973)
(Book of Meditations), is brought together in the volume entitled Darrere
el vidre. Poesia 1972-2002 (2004) (Behind the Glass.
Poetry 1972-2002). He has been awarded many prizes for his poetry,
translation and theatre, noteworthy among which are the National
Translation Prize from the Spanish Ministry of Culture (1994), the
Spanish National Culture Prize for Theatre (2002), and more
recently, the Premi d’Honor de les Lletres Catalanes (2005).
As Feliu Formosa writes about his poetry: “When I began to publish
poetry, I was soon seen as an outsider and I still consider that I
am that. I believe that my poetry has become increasingly stark and
spare (clear, but not simple or facile, I hope). Someone has spoken
of ‘intensive realism’. Someone else has mentioned ‘expressionism’.
I have no choice but to move between Trakl’s daydreams and Brecht’s
Tot allò que diem by
Tot allò que diem
ha estat dit per un altre.
Ho sabíem de sempre.
A cada pas que fem,
se'ns oblida l'ofici
i cada vers ens sobta,
tot i tenir-lo dintre.
El secret és saber-ho,
talment com quan sentim
des de llocs oposats
el galop dels cavalls
per les rieres seques.
Aleshores cal prémer
(dins la vall plena d'ecos)
el llibre ben obert
contra la pana: un llamp
es clavà al cor cremat
del vidre ..., confirmem.
Translation by Paul
Everything we say
has been said by
This, we’ve known forever
But with every step we take,
we forget the craft,
and so every verse surprises us,
Even though it’s held within.
The secret is to know it deep,
just like when we hear
from opposite places
the gallop of the horses
by dry streams.
Then you have to open
(in the valley full of echoes)
the book wide open
against the fabric: a flash of lightning
is bolted to the burnt heart
of glass. This we confirm.
every industry sector, the impact of the global pandemic has been
sudden, profound and intensely disruptive. Translation in Action
asked a range of businesses working with Language Service Providers
about the role of language (and translation) in a crisis, what they
hope to learn from the current situation, and their hopes for the
How have you responded to the new almost
exclusively digital environment?
“It’s a case of ramping up existing digital strategy.”
“It really depends. You ramp up the digital solution mainly because
you don’t have another choice. If you don’t do it, others will.”
Do you think it is more important now to
localize these digital channels for different markets than it was
“Yes. People will choose local brands once this is over. Local was
already in our future, but corona speeds that process in such a way
it’s not in our future anymore, but it’s in our present way of
doing things. We need translations to reach those customers.”
“For us, there was a push to localize some of our marketing
materials since we were seeing an uptick in downloads and app store
visits. Our app is already fully localized but we did include some
additional messaging for all languages.”
“Yes. The main communication channel became digital – the ROI is
much higher than before.”
Can the way you communicate with
customers/employees help the situation?
“You have to calm people down, and you do that by using your voice.
As long as you communicate calmly, you can lead people through the
most difficult of times – even remotely. My colleagues know they
can reach me if they need my help. I know I can do the same thing
with them. That communication brings peace to us all, and the
knowledge that no matter what we need, there is always a listening
ear, creates a team.”
Are there any lessons your business can
learn from this difficult situation?
“That there are different ways to reach the same goal. That we can
change what we do and find new paths and new ways to do what we
need to do.”
Finally, what gives you hope –
professionally and/or personally – during this challenging time?
“It is going to pass eventually and important capabilities are
developing now, rapidly, which can serve us and improve our
business in the future.”
“Professionally, I’m in a very impactful industry that many people
rely on for peace of mind. It’s been great to connect more deeply
with customers during this time. Their messages of gratitude have
been quite motivating. Personally, I see a lot of good shining through
during this time which helps me view it as ‘glass half full’. The
work I’m doing makes a positive impact – so I’m motivated to keep
“From a professional point of view, I’ve always said that working
from home is the future. That future came very fast and very
thoroughly. We work at home and I discover there are some issues
there – especially making sure you maintain a good work–life
balance. Either way, in general I discover that I have more time to
work and more free time, which is good.
“From a personal level, my first fiction book will appear in a
couple of months. It’s published by a traditional indie publisher
in the US, which thrills me since this is one of my dreams I’ve
always tried to make come true.”