Saturday, September 29, 2012

e-Book Purgatory

The dominant theme of this irregular blog is that the so-called digital divide is more so-called than actual divide. For me the seminal example of that was the moment while do-gooders in the developed world were bemoaning the digital divide, in the developing world the realization took place that it was cheaper and easier to build out cellular networks than it was to lay copper everywhere, and soon the developing world was ahead with some actual profitable uses of cellular phones that were often more sophisticated than spoiled consumers in the developed world did. Farmers and fisherman in the developing world were using cellphones  to create economic value while the developed world was busy listening to i-Tunes.

Today we are in the world of iPhone-5 and various Android phones, taking just 40 or 50 cents of current per year to be charged. Now these phones are still in the toy stage, for the batteries do not last, and of course the network that support them require extensive investment, and are far from omnipresent, but feature phones are getting ever cheaper too, and with text plus voice amazing things are already possible.

Something else is happening too. The ecosystem that supports these technologies can be located anywhere, and already there is an interesting development of locating data centers in ways that leverage renewable energy opportunities, so the Internet experience of presence at a global concept also works in reverse.

The best university courses are becoming available online, and Amazon sells more e-books than print books since some time already. But it goes further than that, the e-book phenomenon is making books omnipresent too. Being of the immigrant variety myself, I realize that where in the past the shipping cost of a Dutch book from Holland to New York, might make it prohibitive to buy Dutch books, unless I happened to be visiting, now I'll be able to read Dutch books anywhere. But hold on to your hat. Publishers have not found out yet that there are readers for their books beyond shipping reach of print books. Often times Dutch books are available within Holland but not out side, which means publishers are missing out on a market that is twice the size of Holland itself. And undoubtedly the same is going on in other countries. Think Greece. There probably are more Greeks living outside of Greece than within it. Israel, same story. China anyone? There are some Chinese populations outside of China...

In short, the digital divide once again is a joke on the developed world, not the developing world. With newer e-readers now offering as much as 8-week battery-life, they are becoming viable for use almost anywhere, and the potential for spread of the printed word is tremendously increased, and being multi-lingual is hence becoming easier. This along with the fact that even educators are finally catching up to the fact the rest of us already knew, namely that a multi-lingual education does not handicap a child, but rather improves its learning. Most likely the the correlation that is observed here is simply based on the fact that being multi-lingual would tend to develop abstract thinking much earlier.

So, as happens so often the technology is racing ahead of people still stuck in the old paradigm, and publishers and book distributors need to catch up and address themselves to new, global realities. Interestingly, I spoke with one US-based small publisher recently, who are very conscious of this situation, and came to the conclusion that they need to focus on EPUB e-books, because the global demand they see favors that format, as the MOBI format (Amazon Kindle) is mostly still a US-only phenomenon, so Sony, Barnes & Noble (nook), Kobo and others are taking the lead there - something which is not yet understood in the US press.

Now, if publishers and book distributors can also start to join the ditigal era, then they would soon find out that the markets for their books are double or more their native markets where print books can economically be distributed. In short, let's wait and see how the developed world solves this particular digital divide, which is caused entirely by them being stuck in the old paradigm of print books.

As a word of caution, we might add the note that e-books in the end are not a replacement of print books entirely. There are a lot of enduring features of print books that will truly make them viable in the long run, except my feeling is that the cheap one-read books will disappear, and books will become more of a specialty item. Publishers will have to be re-educated to produce quality books, and that means sewn in signatures, and glued, and sometimes actually bound. Durability will be a key value, both in the physical sense, but also in the sense that a book is something you actually own, and you can will it to your kids, etc. whereas an e-book is a generally non-transferable license to a single user, it is non-durable by definition, as well as in fact. Family Bibles will not be e-books.

Another place where the digital divide makes itself felt is in e-book production. I experienced this myself with my own publisher, who converted one of my books into e-books, even while I had already prepared a new edition that was suitable for the e-book format. The problem was a table which through automated conversion became an image, and unreadable, while I had already converted the table to a text format, which would have been usable in an e-reader format. Then in a recent e-book project we worked with a production company that insisted that justified text on a Sony e-reader was handled by the device and not at the file level. Which was promptly disproven by the nineteen year old son of the publisher who produced justified text on the Sony device by simply forcing justified text through the style sheet. And the last mystery we encountered was that cover pages behave differently on EPUB vs MOBI, and our production company did not know how to do it on EPUB, which is annoying, to say the least, particularly if people are touting their expertise in supporting multiple formats. To make us all feel better, the newest book by J.K. Rowling seemed to have even worse problems with its original e-book edition. So again it will take some time for this particular digital divide to close, and publishers, editors, and production companies to truly know how to produce quality e-books. As always, you cannot make it up on volume. For publishers to have relevance in the future they will have to provide superior editorial, marketing and production skills, otherwise they will become obsolete, and fall right into the digital divide.

Copyright © 2012 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 10, 2012

CAT Boondoggle

Once more I made a foray into computer assisted translation, and once more I was appalled. I keep looking off and on for better tools. They probably exist, but the right ones have not come along for me yet.

Computer-based or computer-assisted translation is generally caught in a bind, because they operate with a set of assumptions that are faulty.

True enough Champollion decoded hieroglyphics by means of comparing three sets of script to one another and basing his work on the notion that the three text on the Rosetta stone were relating the same thing in different languages, which gave him the keys to the Egyptian language. He was able to decipher hieroglyphics.

But ever since linguistic scholarship is getting increasingly bogged down in mistaking the symbols for the thing they represent, and generally confusing form and content. This leads to the whole absurdity of computer translation, and even computer assisted translation falls into the same trap.

With a very Platonic twist, A Course in Miracles says: "Let us not forget, however, that words are but symbols of symbols. They are thus twice removed from reality." (ACIM:M-21.1:9-10) In other words, the words give form to a symbol in the mind, behind which is a reality which is being approximated by those symbols. The same meaning could be symbolized differently in a different medium, but it should be evident that there is no direct transformation possible of one set of symbols into another, unless we first step back to the meaning behind those symbols.

My favorite example of criticism along these lines is the Dutch author Jan Willem Kaiser in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, where he describes the failings of most all Bible translations exactly because they talk about only the manifest story, without ever grasping the content. What the Bible translators don't get is Jesus' word that it all comes to us in symbols, and the business of biblical translation continually attempts to transpose the symbols without recourse to the latent meaning. Kaiser makes the obvious point that unless the translators are actively serious students of Jesus' teachings, there is little chance of a good outcome.

Unfortunately, most translators labored under Paul's misinterpretation of Jesus, and his fundamentalist, literal distortions in which he almost consistently confuses content and form, perhaps indicated best by his belabored conclusion that Jesus was talking about the resurrection of the body, not the mind.
Those of us who study ACIM today often end up re-discovering the deeper meaning behind the symbols, and suddenly seeing through the parables of the Bible, which would lead to very different translations. Examples are plentiful, such as Jesus' term metanoia in Greek, which actually means change of mind, and it is rendered most often under the influence of Pauline theology as repentance, which was not what Jesus was talking about. He was teaching in parables of the possibility of changing our mind. An example such as the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 becomes much clearer when you connect it with the teaching of special relationships in the Course. Indeed she was not 'married' and even her current 'husband' was not her 'husband' -- the whole episode was an account in parables of Jesus' teaching of special relationships, which our mind/soul engages in on the level of the body, and which can never be relationships because they are premised on separation and reinforce separation, the one and only real relationship is what the Course calls the Holy Relationship, which is the healing of the illusory separation that keeps our mind engaged seeking outside itself, and the restoration of the true communication through our true self. Pity the poor translators who thought Jesus was talking about 'husbands,' when he was really talking in parables of relationships, just like he was not speaking of 'breads' in Mark, but of spiritual nourishment. Nor did he speak of daily bread in the Lord's prayer. On and on.

The same is true about translation, and the two lines preceding the above quote actually clarify this, and I'll quote the para:
Strictly speaking, words play no part at all in healing. 2 The motivating factor is prayer, or asking. 3 What you ask for you receive. 4 But this refers to the prayer of the heart, not to the words you use in praying. 5 Sometimes the words and the prayer are contradictory; sometimes they agree. 6 It does not matter. 7 God does not understand words, for they were made by separated minds to keep them in the illusion of separation. 8 Words can be helpful, particularly for the beginner, in helping concentration and facilitating the exclusion, or at least the control, of extraneous thoughts. 9 Let us not forget, however, that words are but symbols of symbols. 10 They are thus twice removed from reality. (ACIM:M-21.1)
The only reason why Ken Wapnick, Ph.D., as a clinical psychologist and not a linguist, has been effective in overseeing the translation of ACIM in all the languages in which it now appears, is because he has focused on content with the translators, not on form. And of course the translators need to master their respective languages, but the effectiveness of their translations hinges only on their comprehension of the content. Once that is in place they can express that understanding in their respective tongues. The accounts of Chiao Lin Cabanne with her Chinese translations of the Course speak volumes. She did the first translation into classical Chinese based on her linguistic knowledge, and then started learning the Course, and tranlated it into today's simplified Chinese, only to discover that as she learned the teachings of the Course, she had to do her first translation over, so she did, and her new translation in classical Chinese now reflects her own growth with the material.  The Course is an extreme example in some ways, but the experience with its translation is a demonstration of why today's notions of translation are completely delusional, because they remain stuck in the notion of transforming sets of symbols into one another, and exclude the intervening step of comprehension in the process.

This week I used one of today's most popular CAT tools, Wordfast Anywhere, which interestingly was originally developed by one Yves Champollion, who is a descendant of the other Champollion. Evidently it is a powerful tool, if it is used right, but the question is if there are any 'right' uses of these tools. To illustrate that question: yesterday I found out that in Holland there is a TV quiz-program which is based on quotes from user manuals of appliances, and the contestants are supposed to guess what the appliance is, and they almost never can. That is probably a testimony to the state of computer-based and computer-assisted translation.

While we see people who can't spell stumble with spellcheckers because of homophones, translation memory, and CAT cause worse problems when they are misused, and it is harder to use them right than to misuse them. I have related my experience with a translation agency a few years ago. In that case it was a very prosaic project - a quote for the electrical installation in the residence of the American ambassador in The Hague. The first translator supposedly had been a professor of linguistics who taught Dutch at some college in NY, and according to the agency she had high proficiency with CAT. My guess was that the translator was Turkish, and had learned Dutch and English from a correspondence course. Almost all the terms of the trade were absurdly wrong, such as a ground fault interrupt circuit, which became something like and 'earth leak switch' in a literal translation from the Dutch. Those are exactly the things where a TM is supposed to help you, but again, absent an understanding of the topic, total nonsense will result. I ended up redoing the translation entirely, and correctly, and in record time, such that the agency asked me how I could do it so fast, and I told them that it was because I was not using the CAT tools which they had initially demanded I use.

Still, I continue to hold out hope for better tool sets for serious translation, the first requirement of which would be the complete elimination of any attempt at computer translation, and an understanding that this is not how the process works. Any meaningful assistance must come from better access to more and better dictionaries, grammars and so on, to support translators who are actually capable of thinking in both languages. And then if they also have some mastery of their subject matter, perhaps there is hope. In the meantime I raised my translation rates to 2-3 times higher with CAT tools than without.

Copyright © 2012 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.