Archive for January, 2013


January 28, 2013

  oubilette 3

  Translating something from one language to another, it is impossible to convey the depth and richness of meaning of the original.  The essence with any luck, but not the full flavor.  Surprisingly perhaps, a good way to demonstrate this is by first examining a random passage in English.  The last page of, say, of the Economist, which is usually an obituary.

  Indeed, the last page of the January 19, 2013 issue of the magazine is the obituary of computer programmer and activist Aaron Swartz.  In it will be found the following sentence: “He already had access to the library network; no need to hack into the system.”  Fairly simple and straightforward, right?  Well not so much as it might seem.  The word “hack” proves to be problematic.  In my pocket French/English dictionary there is no ‘hack’, but the translation of ‘hacker’ is given as “pirate informatique”.  “Pirate” is basically the same in both languages.  So “hacker” translates into French as “computer technology pirate”.

  Gets the point across, but not the etymological provenance and thus much is lost.    Look up “hack” in an American dictionary and you get: “To cut or chop with repeated and irregular blows; To break up the surface; To cut or mutilate as if by hacking; taxi driver”.  Only in new dictionaries do the final possible definitions refer to computers.  Thus with “technology pirate” one would not understand what we here do innately, that “to hack” is the infinitive form of a verb  adapted by Americans to describe the process of unauthorized entry into or usage of an information system through actions analogous to the cutting and chopping in days of yore. 

   This all came to mind while attempting to translate an article* from French to English about lessons for the French from the sexual harassment case of Dominque Strauss Kahn in New York City some months ago.  L’Affaire DSK caused quite a bit of discussion about “harcelement sexuel” in France where it has had a much lower profile and different tone than on this side of the Atlantic.  Hard for us to imagine, but a former French minister essentially said about the DSK incident: “what’s the big deal, it wasn’t a murder”. 

  As opposed to in the USA, the rare person accused and convicted of workplace sexual harassment in France may suffer minor punishment, but not the employer.  Thus, there is not in place a system of sensitivity training, reporting responsibility, and serious adjudication with the potential for severe penalties.  There has even been some snickering about American prudishness.

  The article concludes with the following: “… le subject ne risqué pas de tomber aux oubliettes”.  First part is easy: “the subject doesn’t risk falling into…”  The last word is the problem.  A quick glance at my dictionary has the whole phrase “tomber aux oubliettes” and translates it as “sink into oblivion”.  The word alone translates as jail cell.  So, now, in France, due to  all the publicity surrounding the affair DSK, a reexamination of sexual harassment doesn’t risk falling into oblivion. 

   Good thing certainly, but as above, richness of meaning is lost.  Knowing that the infinitive “oublier” means “to forget”, I was curious and got a bigger dictionary where I found that an “oubliette” is a particularly awful sort of medieval dungeon down into which prisoners were lowered through the only opening.  Native French speakers would have understood the emotion attendant to the use of that word and that all hope would have been lost for the occupant of the oubillette as well as any relatives, friends, and sympathizers.    

*Les lecons de l’affaire DSK, interview of Abigail Saguy by Anne Senges, France – Amerique, September 2011

Can It Be That Ducks Are Safer?

January 5, 2013


  The official NRA reaction to school shootings in general and Sandy Hook in particular, announced on December 21, was that there should be an armed guard in every school.  Apparently noting that this proposal was made on the last day of the Mayan calendar, sports team owner Mark Cuban tweeted that the NRA recommendation was what the Mayans had in mind when they predicted the world would come to an end on that day.

  A bit oblique, but I wish I’d thought to say that.  Why just public schools?  How about private schools, day care facilities, uh, movie theaters, churches, malls, factories, businesses, and oh ya post offices? Everyone should have at least a sidearm, no, a brace.

  Really, more guns are the answer?  According to Tom Diaz of the Violence Policy Center (and a former NRA member) more Americans die every year from gunshot injury (acts of will, emotion, accidents, and self infliction) than have from incidents of terrorism – in total – that have ever been recorded.  Every year.

  Furthermore, more Americans die from gunshot wounds every year than do citizens of the whole rest of the planet from acts of terrorism.  Yet nothing has been done to even attempt attenuation of all this carnage while, since 9/11, the search and seizure and self incrimination protections provided by the Fourth and Fifth Amendments have been reduced to a degree legal scholars would have previously thought not possible.

  It is important to acknowledge that there is no short term solution, but helpful to understand the origin and nature of the problem.  There would be no gun violence without guns, obviously.  Hunting weapons are involved in a small portion of these incidents while handguns comprise the largest.  And the industry is on record as having appealed to our “inner soldiers” by making available to the public high capacity semiautomatic pistols and ammunition originally procured by the military.

  I have hunted, own a shotgun, and have many friends for whom hunting is an important part of their lives.  Tellingly however, “there has been and continues to be a decline in hunting.  “Young people are much more interested in electronic games…”  Thus, sales of traditional sporting weapons have also been on a decline.  The arms industry has rejuvenated their markets by “heavily marketing not just semiautomatic, but military derived semiautomatic guns”.  Sales to governments are advertising and loss leaders.       

  Incredibly, there is abundant data available about what types of guns are used in what types of crimes, but both the ATF and CDC have been precluded from distributing it by acts of Congress which were initiated by the NRA.  “The data is in the files of the ATF, but it cannot release it.  [They are] forbidden by law from releasing it…. There was … peer-reviewed research about gun death and injury… but there was a funding restriction which essentially says that the CDC cannot do any research related to gun control”.

  Like I said, there is no short term solution, but that’s no excuse for not getting started.  The magnitude and complexity of issues related to the eradication of smallpox were overcome.  No reasonable person will suggest we suspend a similar effort aimed at polio because of the murder of three clinicians in Pakistan by a few misguided backward fanatics.

  The Second Amendment was written when a musket was the most lethal firearm of the day and there was in the land taxation without representation.   Even Justice Scalia says that there is room for federal gun control regulation, that: “We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons”

  If I looked out the window of my home to see a bad guy approaching with a ‘modern sport rifle’, would I wish I was armed?  Sure, but is that an answer to the right question?  How could it not be a good thing if, a generation from now, there had been a significant decrease in the number of those weapons designed specifically to kill people and lots of them? 

  In most states it is illegal for duck hunters to use a gun with a magazine holding more than three rounds.  Let’s give ourselves a sporting chance.  Write your congressman.

*Some of the material above was paraphrased and/or purloined from an interview by Terry Gross of Tom Diaz on the December 20th edition of NPR’s Fresh Air

*Men and Guns?  cf October 9, 2009