Google Translate and Star Trek



I hope readers of this blog got a laugh out of the cartoons I posted. I hope they got a bigger laugh at my lame attempts to translate the captions under the cartoons.

I used Google Translate and Zoega’s Icelandic dictionary but I have no background in the Icelandic language. My great grandparents and my Icelandic grandparents spoke, read and wrote Icelandic. My English great grandfather, my Irish grandparents, did not speak Icelandic. This is the way of an immigrant, multi-cultural country like Canada.

When I was a boy in the 1940s, Icelandic was still spoken in homes, in stores, at social occasions. By the time my great aunts and uncles started dying in the 70s and 80s, Icelandic was mostly a kitchen language, spoken over coffee with relatives or other people with a strong Icelandic background. Today, a small group meets at Amma’s restaurant in Gimli for the opportunity to speak Icelandic.

Part of this was because, in an immigrant society, getting ahead, that is, getting a good job, making a good income, achieving some social status, requires integration and integration, inevitably results in assimilation. If our great grandparents didn’t know this then, certainly, our grandparents did. In places like Gimli, Riverton, Arborg, Lundar, there were holdouts, people who wanted to maintain an Icelandic community. These people were no different from those who, in other places, wanted a New Denmark, New Finland, New Sweden.

The two desires, to get ahead in business and socially, and to preserve an exclusive community were in a conflict.  The need to earn a living, particularly in urban areas, won. How could it be otherwise? It was in rural areas where the need to work with other ethnic groups was less pronounced that an ethnic identity could be best maintained.

The erosion of physical communities, even when they re-formed, in places like the West End of Winnipeg, or Victoria, BC, or Seattle, was inevitable. Public schools bring young people from all ethnic  communities together. It’s certain that there will be intermarriage and, with it, a need for a new identity. The immigrants were Icelandic, Danish, German, Norwegian, Dutch, English, Scots, Irish, Ukrainian, Polish, and others, plus the local native population.

The Canadian solution was to speak English. This was enforced in the schools. Children caught speaking languages other than English at school were often physically punished. You only need to be strapped once to realize that speaking your parents’ original language is a bad thing, to associate it with pain and punishment, not pleasure and knowledge. Languages other than English were seen as inferior. Accents betrayed people’s immigrant background and were to be discarded as quickly as possible. No wonder I can’t say Icelandic words properly.

The result was that ethnic languages were lost. The problem is that when a language is lost so is a culture.

Icelandic, with its complicated structure, its different alphabet, may give North Americans who are brought up speaking it, a sense of identity, a feeling of being exclusive, but the pool of the exclusive grows smaller every year. The vast majority of people, like me, are locked out of Icelandic history, culture, literature both in the present and the past.

One can go around saying, “Amma, we’re still Icelanders aren’t we?” Or “I’m proud of being Icelandic.” But with our history and culture locked away in books and documents that we cannot read, any pride, any identity has to be based on a lack of knowledge, not on knowledge. No identity means much of ethnic identity in Canada is based on is the fact that a person eats vinarterta or perogis or strudle.

People of Icelandic descent in North America are not suddenly all going to learn to read, write and speak Icelandic. Therefore, the solution is the regular translation of materials into English.

However, as my public examples show, Google Translate is a long way from Star Treck’s simultaneous translation of alien languages. Many times, the translation is gibberish. At best, one can try to sort it out with a dictionary or by making a best guess. However, one shouldn’t be guessing when it comes to translation. Look at where some of my guesses took me.

How eroded is our ability to read Icelandic? Logberg-Heimskringla is, in spite of its name, published in English. The literary magazine, The Icelandic Connection, is published in English. The speeches at Íslindingadgurinn are in English and Íslindingadagurinn is now called The Icelandic Festival.

However, the real example of the loss of culture through the loss of language has been evident many times on my doorstep. Because of my work with The Beck Trust over the years plus my writing, people have frequently left boxes of Icelandic books and magazines on my doorstep. Usually, there is note explaining that someone´s amma or afi has died, that this library was brought from Iceland in the late 1800s or the early 1900s but no one in the family reads Icelandic anymore. These books were so important that they were brought to Canada and preserved under the most difficult of circumstances.

Today, these books are irrelevant. A book that cannot be read is irrelevant. One might as well have books on one´s shelves that are in Chinese or Japanese. One might keep them on one´s shelves out of nostalgia but not out of a love of the words or the importance of the information.

If we want to preserve our Icelandic heritage, if we want to understand what it is, if we want to make sense of who we are and why we are the way we are, we have to organize and support the translation of documents central to our understanding our Icelandic history and culture.

We already have the Icelandic library and Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba. It would seem to be the easiest and best path to provide the department with a fund, the interest from which would pay for translation. This would provide income for graduate students and also attract visiting scholars. It could, over a period of years, provide translations of material that is central to our identity.

The great benefit of such a fund would be that no one would have to suffer with my rather sad attempted translations with Google and a dictionary, translations that mix up I and cat and cream jug. Translation disasters are good for a laugh but it is correct translations that open up our history and culture and can help us maintain our identity.