Friday, January 27, 2012

English-Dutch translation challenges

Ablynx ceoOne of my Cambridge professors sent out an intriguing question last week.  Shares in a biotech firm, Ablynx, had dropped 20% after an English-language interview with their CEO, Dr. Edwin Moses (left), was published in Dutch by the Belgian newspaper De Tijd.  Ablynx claims that the translation misrepresented Moses’ remarks, posting their original English and the newspaper’s Dutch versions of the interview on their web site.  De Tijd stands by their translation.

Dr. Bains’ question: ‘Was the translation accurate?”  A close Dutch friend took a look for us, and her opinion was

The translation is indeed more negative and apologizing then the original. The Dutch choice of words and answers seem like an apology, while in the English document the words are more an explanation. There are no real "false" translations, but the English article gives opportunity, the Dutch gives more ideas of possible failure.

BoekenWords matter.  But an upcoming Cambridge seminar, Translation and Figurative Meaning, argues that a correct interpretation depends on more: both the words and context must be right.

Following on from an example by Geach, I gave Google Translate a statement about a local tavern: The Duke of Cambridge sells beer.  It’s Dutch equivalent is “De hertog van Cambridge verkoopt bier.”: Cambridge is a place where the Duke sells beer.

Context also matters.

Occasionally, Dutch friends ask me to review translated texts to assure that they are in “proper English”.  (Let’s set aside the question of whether Americans speak proper English at all).  Often, I find myself wrestling with similar questions of language, context, and intent.

Here’s a real example: the original text is

The degree to which an individual succeeds in developing his personal quality depends on motivation and will power on the one hand, and the opportunities provided by the environment on the other. Willing is thus not the same as being able, but with a bit of good will, much can be achieved, as long as there is a setting in which this is really possible.

My first attempt at a rewrite was

The degree to which an individual succeeds in developing his talents depends on intrinsic motivation and will power, and on opportunities provided by the environment. Being willing to develop is, unfortunately, not the same as being able. But those who are willing can achieve when placed into a setting that enables their talent to develop.

What’s wrong with this rewrite?  I was trying to think too deeply about the author’s meaning, not just about the correctness of his language.  So I ended up rewriting to the extent that I injected my own beliefs and understandings, obscuring the author’s original intent.

I literally started over with a blank page:

The degree to which an individual succeeds in developing his talent depends on their motivation and will power on the one hand, and on the opportunities provided in their environment on the other. Being willing to change is thus not the same as being able: setting combines with motivation to create a context in which development is really possible.

Maybe better?  I didn’t get any feedback.  But it made me think hard about how I do my markups.  And, on reflection, this sort of editing operates on three levels of personal agreement that are also relevant to translation.

1) Correctness: Fixing errors in spelling and syntax. So, his personal quality becomes his personal qualities.

2) Clarity: Resolving ambiguous words to solidify the meaning of a sentence.  So his personal qualities becomes his talents.

3) Agreement: I disagree that talent development depends only on motivation, will power (the same thing as motivation), and environment.  What about ability, educations, social and economic status…

It took a real effort for me to set aside the third and focus just on the first two, and even in just trying to clarify I needed to keep asking myself if I understood the author’s viewpoint.

I don’t think that De Tijd deliberately tried to inject bias into their translation of the interview.  But it’s apparent that their word choices altered the color of the text, changing the reader’s perceptions even as they attempted to preserve the author’s.  It’s a very tricky thing to get right.

As Google Translate reminds me daily (yes, this is real).

Men are Med

Thursday, January 26, 2012

It must be 2012 when…Thor arrives

2012 doomsday

Another busy week – patent filings underway, IRB submissions going in, pitch-training ahead of investor evenings. 

And on those occasions that I look to see what’s cooking on my Twitter-feed from Dutch Daily News, it’s looking bad:

Over 9.5 thousand Dutch bankruptcy filings in 2011

Ready, set, hike in Dutch property taxes

The Netherlands lost 12 thousand millionaires in 2011

Dutch household wealth down 12% in 1 year

And the Netherlands is one of the bright spots in Europe just now. 

A colleague of mine who specializes in creating computer models of complex systems released a new analysis of the world economy this week. He forecasts that the EU will break up in Q3 2013, while the US economy, “its structure weak and unable to absorb any increase in uncertainty or inefficiency”, will hold on only until 2018.


Similarly this week, a writer for the Times Higher Education magazine echoed the concern, suggesting that western economies are  facing a fundamental realignment:

All mighty historical upheavals are crises of belief and ideas. The present splitting open of neoliberal capitalism is no exception. What happens when an economic system and its political order reach their terminus is that governments will try anything, at whatever human cost, to retain the old system, fighting to the end and at other people's expense to retrieve a familiar world.

I’m afraid that I’m still in the optimist’s camp, though.

I see growing technology and knowledge as the fuel for vigorous innovation, enabling products and enterprises to emerge from vision, hard work, and execution, There are scores of talented people who can be fit together to staff projects; opportunities for any entrepreneur to win big through through insight, luck, and persistence.

Even in 2012.

ThorI attended a talk given by Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson at the MIT Enterprise Forum in London this week.  Thor, a billionaire investor who was leading two of Iceland’s leading banks during the run-up to their 2008 collapse, spoke on Entrepreneurship in Challenging Times, and he was similarly optimistic.  You spot opportunities, take risks, build companies, exit, move on.  Sometimes you lose, but then you dust off and, again, push on to the next opportunity.  Overall, listen to your intuition and not to believe your own hype.

Good, but not enough, I was thinking between the lines of his talk.

He assumed that success in one area (his self-professed love of building factories) translated directly to another (banking).  But skills don’t leverage laterally, across domains, only radially within them.  In his case, both charismatic and successful, wealth brought hubris.  He did not have, and still does not have, and sense of his limits.

His immense wealth enabled him to gain immediate control of companies without any understanding of their business.  “Banks made money; banks were safe.  How could I go wrong?”  He admitted to feeling like it was all moving too fast, but “the smart people seemed to know what they were doing.”  He forgot that these are also people who want to please him, and perhaps catch crumbs from his table.

We’re in the middle of fundraising for CamStent now, and a big part of the process is engagement with investors.  They are rightly critical, challenging our assumptions, analyzing risks, and finding flaws in people and projections.  The tempering has made our processes stronger, and it’s a step that I think Thor, self-financed, never had to take.

What if large acquisitions could be vetted just like large mergers already are.  Maybe there should be oversight able to ask the basics: Can the buyer run the company competently; Do their plans make sense; Are there risks that extend beyond the company; Will their actions threaten customers or employees.

Perhaps buyers should be allowed only provisional control until they demonstrate their abilities; maybe they need to carry insurance or hold assets against unanticipated costs imposed on customers and employees.

‘Back to creating pitch slides…

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Key Lime Pie


Its turned a bit wintry in the Village, no snow, but spitting rain and biting wind.  A good opportunity to pull out a summer recipe and imagine the warm times to come.

I decided to make a Key Lime Pie, pretty straightforward but impressive for the neighbors who don’t get many American desserts (I do try to explain that this isn’t a “pudding”, but they insist).

I thumbed through a bunch of recipes before settling on one from the Joy of Baking, with accompanying video.


The base is a graham-cracker crumb crust.  Problem 1: no graham crackers in the UK.  Digestive biscuits are an okay alternative; add a bit of sugar.  So, process a package of biscuits, mix with about 200g butter and a little salt and sugar until the mixture holds shape in your hand.  Press into the pie tin and back at 170C for 10 minutes to harden.


The filling is made with 3 egg yolks (beat 5 minutes), a can of sweetened condensed milk (beat together 3 minutes), and a half cup fresh lime juice (beat together 10 minutes).  The video advises getting 20 small limes to make 1/2 cup juice.  I seriously mis-overestimated “small”, it took six limes to get the juice and zest.  I now have enough limes for a winter of gin-and-tonic.


The resulting batter is yellowish, not green, with flecks of zest scattered like peppercorns throughout.  Mine didn’t taste quite tart enough, so I think the next round I might do a touch less milk (or use unsweetened and add the sugar myself) and a touch more lime juice.  Fill the crust, bake for 10 minutes at 170C and refrigerate for a couple of hours.

I wanted a meringue topping instead of a heavy cream one, so used a different recipe from Lifetips.  Meringues come in three types: a Swiss one is really creamy and thick and gives a nice layer, it also browns well under a broiler.  I mixed the 3/4 cup sugar, three egg whites, and a pinch of cream of tartar together, then lightly warmed it over simmering water, stirring, to dissolve the sugar.  Then whip it to death until it forms stiff peaks.  Spread it over the firmed filling and brown quickly under a broiler.

I garnished with a few lime slices (still 20 limes to go) and it looked great.  It came out of the fluted tart tin more easily than I thought it might and the crust and filling have stayed set at room temperature.

I’m tempted to use ramekins next time: the tart pan just isn’t deep enough to hold more than an inch of filling which makes the pie thin by US standards.  But it’s easy and worked the first time and (with a few gin and tonics) is, indeed, evocative of the tropics in winter.

And, of course, tweet your success (in Dutch): Ik heeft een Key Lime Pie gemaakt - een taartje met linde vulsel en schuimpje sierlaagje. Niet makkelijk, maar erg lekker (ik hoop...)