Why we should learn German – by John le Carré

To help make the European debate decent and civilised, it is now more important than ever to value the skills of the linguist.

I began learning German at the age of 13, and I’m still trying to explain to myself why it was love at first sound. The answer must surely be: the excellence of my teacher. At an English public school not famed for its cultural generosity, Mr King was that rare thing: a kindly and intelligent man who, in the thick of the second world war, determinedly loved the Germany that he knew was still there somewhere.

Rather than join the chorus of anti-German propaganda, he preferred, doggedly, to inspire his little class with the beauty of the language, and of its literature and culture. One day, he used to say, the real Germany will come back. And he was right. Because now it has.

Why was it love at first sound for me? Well, in those days not many language teachers played gramophone records to their class, but Mr King did. They were old and very precious to him and us, and he kept them in brown paper bags in a satchel that he put in his bicycle basket when he rode to school.

What did they contain, these precious records? The voices of classical German actors, reading romantic German poetry. The records were a bit cracked, but that was part of their beauty. In my memory, they remain cracked to this day:

Du bist wie eine Blume – CRACK – So hold und schön und… – CRACK (Heinrich Heine)

Bei Nacht im Dorf der Wächter rief… – CRACK (Eduard Mörike’s Elfenlied)

And I loved them. I learned to imitate, then recite them, crack and all. And I discovered that the language fitted me. It fitted my tongue. It pleased my Nordic ear.

I also loved the idea that these poems and this language that I was learning were mine and no one else’s, because German wasn’t a popular subject and very few of my schoolmates knew a word of it beyond the Achtung! and Hände hoch! that they learned from propaganda war movies.

But thanks to Mr King, I knew better. And when I decided I couldn’t stand my English public school for one more day, it was the German language that provided me with my bolt-hole. The year was 1948. I couldn’t go to Germany, so I went to Switzerland and at 16 enrolled myself at Bern university.

And in Switzerland, instead of Mr King, I had another admirable teacher in Frau Karsten, a stern north German lady with grey hair in a ponytail, and she, like Mr King, rode a bicycle, sitting very upright with her grey hair bobbing along behind her.

So it’s no wonder that when later I went into the army for my national service, I was posted to Austria. Or that after the army I went on to study German at Oxford. And so to Eton, to teach it.

You can have a lot of fun with the German language, as we all know. You can tease it, play with it, send it up. You can invent huge words of your own – but real words all the same, just for the hell of it. Google gave me Donaudamp-fschiffsfahrtsgessellschaftskapitän.

You’ve probably heard the Mark Twain gag: “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” You can make up crazy adjectives like “my-recently-by-my-parents-thrown- out-of- the-window PlayStation”. And when you’re tired of floundering with nouns and participles strung together in a compound, you can turn for relief to the pristine poems of a Hölderlin, or a Goethe, or a Heine, and remind yourself that the German language can attain heights of simplicity and beauty that make it, for many of us, a language of the gods.

And for all its pretending, the German language loves the simple power of monosyllables.

The decision to learn a foreign language is to me an act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking. And the decision to teach a foreign language is an act of commitment, generosity and mediation.

It’s a promise to educate – yes – and to equip. But also to awaken; to kindle a flame that you hope will never go out; to guide your pupils towards insights, ideas and revelations that they would never have arrived at without your dedication, patience and skill.

To quote Charlemagne: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” He might have added that to teach another language is to implant a second soul.

Of course, the very business of reconciling these two souls at any serious level requires considerable mental agility. It compels us to be precise, to confront meaning, to think rationally and creatively and never to be satisfied until we’ve hit the equivalent word, or – which also happens – until we’ve recognised that there isn’t one, so hunt for a phrase or circumlocution that does the job.

No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy – of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating.

In the extraordinary period we are living through – may it be short-lived – it’s impossible not to marvel at every contradictory or unintelligible utterance issuing from across the Atlantic. And in marvelling, we come face-to-face with the uses and abuses of language itself.

Clear language – lucid, rational language – to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is the voice of the enemy. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language, there is no standard of truth.

And that’s what language means to a linguist. Those who teach language, those who cherish its accuracy and meaning and beauty, are the custodians of truth in a dangerous age.

And if they teach German – and teach it in this my beleaguered country – they are quite particularly to be prized, all the more so because they are an endangered species. Every time I hear a British politician utter the fatal words, “Let me be very clear”, these days I reach for my revolver.

By teaching German, by spreading understanding of German culture and life, today’s honorands and their colleagues will be helping to balance the European argument, to make it decent, to keep it civilised.

They will be speaking above all to this country’s most precious asset: its enlightened young, who – Brexit or no Brexit – see Europe as their natural home, Germany as their natural partner, and shared language as their natural bond.

After studying in Switzerland and national service, John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) was posted to the British Embassy in Bonn as a Second Secretary, and then went on to Hamburg as British Consul. This text was originally part of a speech given by le Carré at an award ceremony at the German Embassy for German teachers on 12 June.

Source: The Guardian

The beauty of translating chemical texts

As a translation agency originally specialized in EU affairs and politics, our core business used to be translating EU politics and related documents, reports and websites.

We first translated an SDS (Safety Data Sheet) in 2012, into 7 EU languages. Due to the complexity of the topic, we analysed the text and concluded that it was not a simple chemistry translation. We had to use the related EU regulations and guidelines in order to be able to translate the text properly. Because of our vast experience with EU related topics, we managed to combine this know-how and the technical knowledge of our chemical translators. Our first “SDS-client” was extremely happy with the result, and they immediately started to recommend us to other companies in the chemical industry.

In order to continuously ensure the highest quality, we have developed a method for translating regulatory and chemical documents in a way that basically makes it impossible for there to be errors in the translation. We are quite aware that even one mistranslated word can have serious consequences.  Therefore, we have a 2-step Quality Assurance process, which ensures that problems such as possible mistranslations or missing text are sorted out and solved before delivering final results to our clients.

We have built up translation memories (a TM, or translation memory, is a database of translated passages, documents, sections of text and specialised or proprietary terms maintained to ensure high quality translations) for each of our clients. This means that if a text has previously been translated, our software will realize it and will recommend the translation. This method ensures consistency and cost efficiency, as we also provide a 60% discount for all matches with our translation memory. Therefore, it`s worthwhile to translate with us on a regular basis, as the unit cost of the translation will be cheaper and cheaper, the more units our clients translate.

Our team of project managers have become experts at managing chemical translations. Since 2012, we have translated about 5 million words in this field, and today 37% of our turnover specifically arises from chemical texts. We can truly say that we are experts in the field.

If you have any chemical texts to translate, please do not hesitate to try us, we are happy to help.

Machines could soon be able to understand and summarize text for you

We humans are swamped with text. It’s not just news and other timely information: Regular people are drowning in legal documents. The problem is so bad we mostly ignore it. Every time a person uses a store’s loyalty rewards card or connects to an online service, his or her activities are governed by the equivalent of hundreds of pages of legalese. Most people pay no attention to these massive documents, often labeled “terms of service,” “user agreement” or “privacy policy.”

These are just part of a much wider societal problem of information overload. There is so much data stored – exabytes of it, as much stored as has ever been spoken by people in all of human history – that it’s humanly impossible to read and interpret everything. Often, we narrow down our pool of information by choosing particular topics or issues to pay attention to. But it’s important to actually know the meaning and contents of the legal documents that govern how our data is stored and who can see it.

As computer science researchers, we are working on ways artificial intelligence algorithms could digest these massive texts and extract their meaning, presenting it in terms regular people can understand.

Can computers understand text?

Computers store data as 0’s and 1’s – data that cannot be directly understood by humans. They interpret these data as instructions for displaying text, sound, images or videos that are meaningful to people. But can computers actually understand the language, not only presenting the words but also their meaning?

One way to find out is to ask computers to summarize their knowledge in ways that people can understand and find useful. It would be best if AI systems could process text quickly enough to help people make decisions as they are needed – for example, when you’re signing up for a new online service and are asked to agree with the site’s privacy policy.

What if a computerized assistant could digest all that legal jargon in a few seconds and highlight key points? Perhaps a user could even tell the automated assistant to pay particular attention to certain issues, like when an email address is shared, or whether search engines can index personal posts. Companies could use this capability, too, to analyze contracts or other lengthy documents.

To do this sort of work, we need to combine a range of AI technologies, including machine learning algorithms that take in large amounts of data and independently identify connections among them; knowledge representation techniques to express and interpret facts and rules about the world; speech recognition systems to convert spoken language to text; and human language comprehension programs that process the text and its context to determine what the user is telling the system to do.

Examining privacy policies

A modern internet-enabled life today more or less requires trusting for-profit companies with private information (like physical and email addresses, credit card numbers and bank account details) and personal data (photos and videos, email messages and location information).

These companies’ cloud-based systems typically keep multiple copies of users’ data as part of backup plans to prevent service outages. That means there are more potential targets – each data center must be securely protected both physically and electronically. Of course, internet companies recognize customers’ concerns and employ security teams to protect users’ data. But the specific and detailed legal obligations they undertake to do that are found in their impenetrable privacy policies. No regular human – and perhaps even no single attorney – can truly understand them.

In our study, we ask computers to summarize the terms and conditions regular users say they agree to when they click “Accept” or “Agree” buttons for online services. We downloaded the publicly available privacy policies of various internet companies, including Amazon AWS, Facebook, Google, HP, Oracle, PayPal, Salesforce, Snapchat, Twitter and WhatsApp.

Summarizing meaning

Our software examines the text and uses information extraction techniques to identify key information specifying the legal rights, obligations and prohibitions identified in the document. It also uses linguistic analysis to identify whether each rule applies to the service provider, the user or a third-party entity, such as advertisers and marketing companies. Then it presents that information in clear, direct, human-readable statements.

For example, our system identified one aspect of Amazon’s privacy policy as telling a user, “You can choose not to provide certain information, but then you might not be able to take advantage of many of our features.” Another aspect of that policy was described as “We may also collect technical information to help us identify your device for fraud prevention and diagnostic purposes.”

We also found, with the help of the summarizing system, that privacy policies often include rules for third parties – companies that aren’t the service provider or the user – that people might not even know are involved in data storage and retrieval.

The largest number of rules in privacy policies – 43 percent – apply to the company providing the service. Just under a quarter of the rules – 24 percent – create obligations for users and customers. The rest of the rules govern behavior by third-party services or corporate partners, or could not be categorized by our system.

The next time you click the “I Agree” button, be aware that you may be agreeing to share your data with other hidden companies who will be analyzing it.

We are continuing to improve our ability to succinctly and accurately summarize complex privacy policy documents in ways that people can understand and use to access the risks associated with using a service.

Source: World Economic Forum