Words without borders

Issue: Volume 93, Number 14

Posted: 11 August 2014
Reference #: 1H9csq

Language expert Marco Sonzogni is behind the inaugural Moving Words competition, a celebration of the art of translation.

According to a New Zealand Herald article of December 2013, New Zealand is officially a ‘super-diverse’ country: we’ve got more ethnic groups making their home in Aotearoa than there are countries in the world. 213 distinct cultural identities, from 196 recognised nations, for those who need numbers.

Marco Sonzogni of the University of Victoria is part of this international diaspora. A native of Pavia, Italy (a university city near Milan), Marco has worked with languages all his professional life. Currently, he’s working on a project that involves the Urdu tongue, in collaboration with the Pakistan High Commission. He subtitles films, works as an interpreter and translator, and has specialised at postgraduate level in both English and Russian. He somehow also makes time to fulfil his duties as a senior lecturer in Italian.

Marco is now also the impetus behind the Moving Words competition, a celebration of communication across cultural and geographical boundaries open to secondary school-age students.

“It was an idea that came from a discussion I had with the New Zealand Book Council; I asked why we couldn’t have a competition to celebrate the art of translation and involve students. Thanks to a number of organisations and individuals, now we do.

“We have a number of things that we want to promote; firstly, New Zealand is a ‘super-diverse’ country in terms of ethnicity. Secondly, there are three official languages in New Zealand. We are an incredibly multi-ethnic, multilingual, multicultural society.”

Students will be asked to choose a text that’s been published in a language other than New Zealand’s official three – prose or verse – and translate it into one (two, or all three) of our ‘native’ tongues. Marco hopes also that the competition will inspire some interesting collaborations between students. Translations between the three New Zealand languages will also be accepted. Monetary prizes will be awarded to the top three entries.

Marco stresses that the competition isn’t specifically aimed at students who are studying the language they elect to translate out of or into; this is a celebration of diversity first and foremost.

“I have sent an information pack to every diplomatic representation in New Zealand and many other organisations; for example, I sent one to the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand. Some may ask why: it’s because they will be aware of secondary school students or home-schooled students whose origin or heritage could be Jewish, and they may be fluent in Hebrew or Yiddish. Similarly with Dutch, with Portuguese or Argentine Spanish, for example. We are trying to reach out to as many students as possible in order to encourage all ethnic groups in New Zealand to show us the beauty of their language, and their culture.”

Art and nuance

Those who don’t spend much time thinking about the intricacies of human interaction might say that a translation from one tongue to another is a bit like converting pounds to dollars: there can only be one correct outcome right? Where’s the ‘art’ in that?

You can de-bunk that particular myth for yourself right now. Ask a friend of international provenance to type a common (but reasonably complex; not ‘how are you’) phrase into Google Translate, then convert to English and see what happens. More often than not, the result is something you’re not likely to hear from the mouth of anyone with more than a passing knowledge of English. That’s why translation is an art form: computers remain utterly ignorant of the nuances of interpretation, the codification of human feeling and impression.

“Language doesn’t work like that. There are the technical aspects of a language, like knowledge of syntax, for example. But it’s also an art, in that there is an element of recognition of the meaning of the original text, the essence of a passage if you like. If the translator can capture the sort of impression that the original text would cause in his or her native audience, and the translation can create the same impression in another language, then it is a great translation.

“There are ethical issues, too: a translation needs to be respectful of the source culture, for example, safeguarding identity and traditions as well as meaning, which is particularly important for ethnic minorities.

“That’s why we’re not looking at transparency, fidelity, and fluency as the only criteria. A translation that reads perfectly fluidly in English, but once you examine it, it could obliterate some of the important elements that were embedded in the original passage.”

Judging those criteria, in collaboration with an army of language experts from across the cultural gamut, will be New Zealand’s most celebrated author of recent times, Eleanor Catton. She’ll be joined by Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Christopher Finlayson and Dame Susan Devoy, our Race Relations Commissioner.

Moving words: quick facts

Entrants must be:

  • Attending a secondary school or receiving home schooling at a secondary school level at the closing date for submissions to the competition.
  • Under 19 years of age as at the closing date.
  • New Zealand residents or citizens.

Entries must be:

  • The entrants’ own work. The competition will accept collaborative work between two or more students. All contributors to an entry must be named and prize money shared equally between them.
  • A previously unpublished translation into English, te reo Māori, or New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) of a piece of poetry or prose that was originally composed and published in a different language. Translations between English, NZSL, or te reo Māori will also be accepted (for example, a translation of Māori prose into NZSL).
  • The original piece of poetry or prose must not be longer than 400 words (or if entrants are translating from NZSL, the original piece must be no longer than 5 minutes in video form).

Entry forms are available online at Moving Words NZ(external link) and by request from movingwordsnz@bookcouncil.org.nz
Entries close Friday 26 September 2014.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 3:19 pm, 11 August 2014

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts