Friday, October 31, 2008

Rise of Machines: Fun, Fact & the Future

This little rant is from a recent conversation with a language engineer here on Ibadan campus - by recent, I mean two hours ago, today - about the future of machine translation technology and African languages. What brought the discussion was a suggestion by the humble blogger that humans are not ever going to be dispensable in this coming technological future. My interlocutor believed otherwise, quoting from empirical and research progresses that suggest that although not "yet uhuru" for machine translations, in about ten years or less, we'd get to a position where humans would be totally dispensible in language tranlation. In short, if the language technicians and scientists ask the right questions, we'd soon get to a place where machines would actually be able to translate nuanced and culture-contexted texts from African languages into English. He said: "the question is not whether/or, it is how soon, and what are we doing to make it come to pass". TA being his quintissential self, I let his arguements pass. He's one such linguists at the fore-front of African technology initiatives in language. And as surely as there are so many advantages of language technology, the human angle (yea I said it out loud) should not be overlooked. i.e the future of men when/if it ever happens that machines take over their work and capabilities.

Looking back, as much as I agree with the eventuality that many human translators will be out of business soon, I decided to retain the right to laugh at the future instances of machine foibles and flops (like that of inserted photo, culled from blogamundo). And rather than sweat to hasten the coming apocalypse for human translators, I can also poke fun from the safety of my still nuanced African linguo.

I am a trained linguist, yes, but I am also many other things besides. My choice for this discipline is somewhat of a "rebellious" association which equips me with tools and privilege with which to poke fun at my own foibles and that of my environment. In short, I can now consider myself a cunning linguist. (no pun, please).

More in my recent post at Instablogs

Monday, October 20, 2008

African Languages (Technology): Call For Papers

Language Technologies for African Languages
March 30 or 31 (to be determined), 2009
Athens, Greece
A Workshop at the annual meeting of the European Association forComputational Linguistics

In multilingual situations, language technologies are crucial for providing access to information and opportunities for economic development. With somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 different languages, Africa is a multilingual continent par excellence and presents acute challenges for those seeking to promote and use African languages in the areas of business
development, education, research, and relief aid. In recent times a number of African researchers and institutions have come forward that share the common goal of developing capabilities in language technologies. This workshop provides a forum to meet and share the latest developments in this field. It also seeks to include linguists who specialize in African
languages and would like to leverage the tools and approaches of computational linguistics, as well as computational linguists who are interested in learning about the particular linguistic challenges posed by African languages.

Limited funding available for participants from Africa

The reviewing will be blind and the paper should therefore not include the authors' names and affiliations. Submission will be electronic. Papers must be submitted no later than December 19, 2008 using the submission webpage that will be available soon. Submissions will be reviewed by 3 members of the Program Committee. Authors of accepted papers will receive guidelines on how to produce camera-ready versions of their papers for inclusion in the EACL workshop proceedings. Notification of receipt will be emailed to the contact author.

More Information at and

Friday, October 17, 2008

On Translation

Well, the Nobel fever of last week did achieve one thing: highlighted the importance of literary translation, which, by the way, is not an exclusive preserve of linguists.

What are my challenges as a linguist/translator in Africa? Besides the dearth of works by African writers in indigenous languages. I know that I do not make a new point when I comment that most of the literatures of indigenous Africa that need/mandate translation are not written but oral. Thus, it would seem that any serious work in that area by a willing linguist has to necessarily include lots of fieldwork and gathering of indigenous narrations that make for good textual literature.

I am discovering a few more blogs that explore the experience of living as a translator, and its challenges.

Monday, October 13, 2008

...And Some Flak for American Literature

In a related news, the American literary world has received flak from Mr. Engdahl of the Nobel Academy for being "shallow". The comment according to NY Times "provoked a wave of indignation when he criticized American writers as “too isolated, too insular” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” Europe, he declared, is “the center of the literary world.”

No American has won the Nobel literature prize since Toni Morrison did in 1993.

Well, no Nigerian has won the Nobel Literature Prize since Wole Soyinka did in... wait for it... 1986. If American literature, with the likes of Roth, Angelou, Ashbery et al is considered too insular, what does that say of Nigerian literature? Food for thought? Any thought for new Nigerian literatures that do not make the Military regime, civil wars, hunger and ritual sacrifices all that define us as a people? Any thought for the new literatures that acknowledge outside influence and mutations. Any new ideas from us to the world. Or are we finally done, finally culturally unravelled as not to have anything more to add to the world. If so, might that perhaps not be a new reality to be explored in new literatures?. Well, all tongue-in-cheek comments aside, it has been acknowledged that the Nobel exercise is as political as it is literary so there, such comments should not be taken as the final word on literature!

A Nobel Week

Many interesting things happened in the gone week. One was most remarkable.

The Nobel Prize for literature was given to a Frenchman whose works interestingly have not been accessible to the many people of Africa, and even of Europe where he resides. Jean-Marie Gustav le Clezio was given the prize for being the "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization"

His book Onitsha (after the Eastern Nigerian city) details his experience of living in colonial Nigeria - one of such accounts by a foreigner would make a good read, if only for its unique perspective. There is of course a mild irony that Chinua Acbebe an annual member of the speculative shortlist of the prize is from that same region of Nigeria, though born a decade before this year's prize winner.

The New York Times writes in this recent article that "Mr. Le Cl├ęzio is not well known in the United States, where few of his books are available in translation, but he is considered a major figure in European literature and has long been mentioned as a possible laureate. "
His not being known here, and in the United States might be due to a lack of adequate translations of his work. But you have to know a writer's/story's prospects before venturing into translating them. What have the French-English literary translators been doing all these while? No doubt the writer has now become a hot cake and will now be made more accessible now that his name has joined the greats. This year's award thus throws a light on a branch of literature often neglected at great risk to the sustenance of literary culture: translation. Not many people in Africa and America will know what Le Clezio has written in his native French language until and unless his works are translated. And we can't force him to write in English!

This week also tasked my opinion and knowledge on the language questions in (African) literature. It is a wide debate: which language should the African write in? These recent events have only vindicated the opinions of great voices like Chinua Achebe who insists on writing in whatever language, as long as he passes his message across. That language of course happened to be English, although the question remains whether he would have been so globally recognised if he had written Things Fall Apart totally in his Igbo language. Ngugi wa Thiong'o now writes in his native Gikuyu language, and later translates them himself into English. In all, literature exists in different cultures and only translation can make them more accessible either from a dominant language into teh minority ones, or vice versa.
Needless to say, that book, Onitsha has now joined my reading wishlist. Sadly, one may have to wait until Nigerian publishers secure publishing/translation rights for those works of the writer before we get them to buy here in Nigeria. Any other suggestions?

Here is a phone interview with Le Clezio. And an old interview. Finally, here is a link to a short story by the writer, translated.