(Due to untranslatableness of some words, rest of this entry be in Dutch.)

Om de een of andere reden associeer ik creatieve, kindvriendelijke scheldwoorden zo zeer met Hergé’s Kapitein Haddock, dat toen ik dergelijke scheldwoorden tegenkwam in een boek uit 1869, de bijzonderheid daarvan me niet eens opviel. Tegenwoordig kun je iedereen een koektrommel of wafelijzer noemen zonder dat het tot noemenswaardig trekken van wenkbrauwen leidt.

Het boek is Ontboezemingen van Gabriël (pseudoniem van Carel van Nievelt), en in een toneelspel slaan twee vrienden elkaar speels met hun hoeden; de een probeert een “serieuze” monoloog te houden, de ander onderbreekt hem daarbij met scheldwoorden: boekworm! … kinderkanibaal! … hutspotverknoeier! … mottige foliant! … vogelverschrikker!

Distributed translation experiment, conclusions

A couple of lessons I learned from my distributed translation experiment:

1. Don’t worry about volunteers showing up. Initially nobody seemed to be interested in participating, but after a while somewhere from ten to twenty people turned up, which was more than enough for my purposes. I had advertised my experiment in four places: this blog, the Dutch forum at Distributed Proofreaders, a chatty general purpose Usenet group, and a mailing list for (non-literary) professional translators. OK, so do worry, a lot. :) Thing is, if you’ve made something interesting, people will come and take a peek.

2. Don’t just dabble. I set up the site as minimally as possible using the very simple Usemod wiki. Usemod is great because it so small; you can easily modify it if you have simple needs. Unfortunately, spammers found out about the site rather quickly and began hitting it heavily. If I had used better developed software, such as the Mediawiki, I could probably have turned on all kinds of anti-spam measures that were now not available to me, and that would have been too much work to develop. Even then I could probably have switched to Mediawiki, but that seemed too much work to me for a simple experiment. In hind-sight that would have allowed me to keep the experiment running, so it’s a pity I chose not to take that path.

3. Don’t underestimate your volunteers. I had assumed that the level of quality would be fairly high, but perhaps a little too consistent; and in order to remedy this I had planned to add a few bad translations myself (remember, the experiment was to measure differences in consistency). Not necessary, it turned out. The quality of submitted translations was both high and varied.

4. Let your volunteers find things out for themselves. I had planned a translation dictionary, but nobody used the pages I set up for that. No need to provide your volunteers with things you think they would need, only provide them with what they actually need.

Looking at other translation projects:

5. There are more ways to skin a cat. My experiment was set up to find out what happens when different volunteers tackle one paragraph at a time. That idea was borrowed from Distributed Proofreaders, where volunteers work at one page at a time. My fear was that you cannot slowly build a literary translation when every translated paragraph ends up with a different style (Wikipedia syndrome). My hope was that you could solve this problem by having post-processors try to smooth out the differences.

Harry auf Deutsch worked this way; volunteers would each get assigned a small bunch of pages; then chapter managers would iron out the differences chapter-wide, and a book manager would do something similar for an entire book.

I have since seen another distributed translation project that takes a radically different approach. Although volunteers there are still free to tackle a work one paragraph at a time, in practice they work on much more, sometimes even on entire novels at a time. The difference is that they limit themselves in the quality levels they try to achieve. The first volunteer or set of volunteers uses software to generate a machine translation. The second volunteer for a work tries to produce a rough translation from the machine translation. The third tries to clean up that rough translation a bit.

Buffer states are just anvil states

“Buffer States are just anvil States.”

H.G. Wells in his essay “Holland’s Future”, in Current History, A Monthly Magazine: The European War, March 1915.

Dutch e-books from Project Gutenberg, DBNL and Project Laurens Jz Coster

About a month a go I promised I would blog a bit about the difference between the major Dutch projects for public domain e-books.

I’m talking about:

  • books
  • in electronic format
  • with the copyrights expired
  • in Dutch
  • available for free
  • over the internet
  • in a format that allows mix, rip and burn.

That’s a pretty narrow subset of all literature ever created, but it works for me, because I’m Dutch, I can read, I have an internet connection, and I don’t like others to dictate what I should and should not do with that which I download. Also I don’t mind reading off a screen as long as that screen is attached to a pocket-sized lightweight hand-held device.

The major distinctions between Project Gutenberg, Project Laurens Jz. Coster (henceforth: Project Coster) and the Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL) in terms of literary content are:

  • Project Gutenberg also produces non-fiction, magazines, and translations of foreign classics,
  • Project Coster seems to have most of the Dutch classics
  • Project DBNL has in-copyright works

All three projects carry some of the major public domain classics, and all three projects carry obscure novels.

There are some differences in process that may or may not matter to you, depending on your needs. The DBNL claims copyrights on all of its works, regardless of whether they are really in the public domain or not. I tend to regard copyright notices on public domain works as declarations of intent to bite, and will stay away from them.

Project Coster seems to be “dead”. I e-mailed with its head honcho Marc van Oostendorp a couple of years ago, and he as good as confirmed that nothing was happening at Project Coster. Perhaps that has changed in the meantime; at least someone is still taking care of the hosting. On the other hand the broken image on its homepage may be a gentle reminder that you need not look for new versions of old books there.

Project Gutenberg takes all of its works from volunteers, and most of them from a volunteer organisation called Distributed Proofreaders. What’s that to you? Well, if you have scans of public domain books, you might try and run them through Distributed Proofreaders. They’ll do a large part of the error correction and formatting, leaving the stitching together of the pages to you.

Although the DBNL and Project Coster do not release data on the size of their catalog, sampling of their database leads me to believe that their catalogues are bigger than the one of Project Gutenberg, which does release such data.

At the time of writing Project Gutenberg is about to hit 300 etext numbers for Dutch works, which equates approximately to 300 unique works (there are a few bundled works there that are also available separately).

This just in: when checking the DBNL link, I noticed they now prominently feature a rich linguistics section on their front page.

Distributed translation experiment, two years later

Summary: two years ago, I asked people on the internet to help me create a public domain translation of a public domain source text, Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart. The goal was to help establish whether it was possible for a disparate group of translators to create a literary translation. You will find both a description of the experiment and the results below.

Read the rest of this entry »

Joep’s wonderlijke avonturen

Joep’s wonderlijke avonturen

When I first read Herman Heijermans’ “Joeps wonderlijke avonturen” (Jack’s Wondrous Adventures) I was pleasantly surprised for two reasons. The first was that it was by far not as bad as I had expected based on what little I knew from Heijermans, third hand knowledge I had about his play “Op hoop van zegen” (translated in English in 1928 as The Good Hope). You see, in the days I first read Joep’s, a film had been made of the play; and though I had not read the play, nor watched the play or watched the movie, the latter was talked about so much that it was hard not to escape the idea that “Op hoop van zegen” was melodramatic trash.

The second was that for a large part, Joep’s is a sort of Dutch Frankenstein. Although there apparently were some late 19th / early 20th century Dutch authors that had dabbled in the fantastic (I am thinking of Carel van Nievelt), back then I had yet to come across one.

Joep’s tells the story of a man who has lost sight in both eyes. An eccentric professor tells Joep that he can cure him by transplanting animal eyes. Having little to lose, Joep agrees to the procedure. Unfortunately, he manages to damage his new eyes on several occasions and has to get new ones.

Shelley’s story about Frankenstein’s monster is typically pessimistic in tone; it questions what makes us human, and whether this ‘what’ can be transplanted into non-human beings. And when does a human being lose his humanity? Joep’s does something similar; when the protagonist gets a different animal’s eyes, his character changes too.

This character growth is for the long term though, and so the story nicely segues into its second half. Where Joep starts out as a major misanthropist, his regained eyesight also forces him to see not just his surroundings through new eyes, but also himself.

Upon second reading, the book has lost some of its sparkle to me. Authors could be very wordy in those days, and from what I have read by Heijermans, he particularly seemed to like the sound of his own written voice. The “what I’ve read by” includes fragments of Diamantstad, which ends on a very moralistic note, as does Joep’s. Something I could have done without, especially since Heijermans proves himself to be a talented author otherwise. Critics of his time claimed that his lack of quality was the result of his prolific output. In 1908, the year he published Joep’s, he published four other works. Speaking in his defense though, Heijermans has a knack of realistically shielding the protagonist from seeing other characters the way the reader sees them, which can produce nice foreboding, if the author can pull it off.

I had hoped to send this book to Project Gutenberg, but unfortunately my copy is from 1934, whereas PG for copyright reasons only takes works printed before 1923.

My rating: 3.0 stars

Knowing things from afar

Here’s a scene from Heijermans’ Diamantstad (Diamond City).

It’s winter and Eli has promised his family food. Having exhausted all possibilities of getting a job for the day, he decides to go and catch fish. On his way to the Amstel river he meets a kid he knows, who asks him what he’s up to.

“I’m looking for a hole in the ice for dead fish.”

“What do you want with dead fish,” the shrill voice of the boy asked.

“Eat!” Eleazar said.

“Damn! What is dead fish good for? I would not eat that…”

“If it is cooked well,” Eleazar said to convince him, “you would fight for a bone!”…

“Dead fish—that stinks.—If you think you can fool me, say, you’d better think again!”

Again Eleazar laughed, shaking the brat that was talking like an old man by his neck.

“Dead fish, stewed with a bit of Vinegar, Jan—you would love that, if it were standing warm in front of you on the table.”

Together they walked on, the man and the limping boy, speaking like friends.

“Have you got a net then?” Jan asked, interested.

“When they come floating to the top you just have to grab them.”

“Float to the top? Float to the top? Damn—they get stuck under the ice!”

“If there’s a hole in the ice they look for air—a fish that cannot breathe will suffocate, just like us…”

“Hee!” the kid screamed, laughing brightly in the morning air. “Hee—a fish suffocating in water, ha ha!”

“You don’t believe it?”

“If you believe it,” the little fellow reasoned, limping heavily in the snow, “they have conned you man—and that’s stupid for such a grown-up guy.”

“Thank you dearly,” Eleazar laughed, brightened by the fresh sounds beside him: “but I think there may be one or two in things in life you and I do not know yet. When a fish does like this”—stopping, he mimicked the movement of gills with his jaws: “when a fish lies flapping on the ground, it tries to breathe—get it?”

Jan thought for a second. Then he orated: “Jeez—they would have a life, out of the water. Do you see they tricked you? When you pull them in on a rod they croak like that—well?—well? How is that possible? The air contains more air than water, right?, in which there is not air at all.”

“In water there’s also air,” Eleazar started to explain, but Jan was instantly on his case.

“…Hee! Hee! Air in water! You’d see bubbles come up all the time. If you blow through an old pipe stem in the water, it almost comes out as quickly as it goes in! You’re just full of it. If I were to shove your head under water, you’d drown. And you wouldn’t drown if there was air down there.”

“Thanks for the lesson,” Eleazar said, cornered, yet trying once again: “and still there’s air in the water, and even if there wasn’t air in it, you find all the same things in water as you find in air—really, Jan…”

“Well I’ll be!” the boy blared out: “if water is air, and air is water, then fish would fly and birds would swim!—Man, they can make you believe anything! You should just let them talk!”

“So why will they float up in the winter?” Eleazar laughed again, though with less vigour this time, because my my, if you knew the world from afar, the first street kid to come along would crush you in debate. “Why do fish die by the thousands when the water is closed?”

“Because,” the kid replied immediately, “because they’re dying from cold, just like the granddad from the bottlemaker from across, whom they found frozen in the cellar.”

“No,” Eleazar said: “down in the water it’s warmer when it’s freezing, just like under the ground.”

“You can say so much!”

“Ask teacher at school.”

“We’re not allowed to ask anything at school, only to put up our hands when you need to piss.”

“Well Jan—it’s true just the way I told you.”

“Boy!” the kid mocked: “Boy! They really pulled the wool over your eyes, I am telling you! If it’s not possible, it’s not possible! If I were a fish I would die of cold too, now…”

(This book—in Dutch—is currently being prepared for Project Gutenberg.)

A hymen does not a virgin make

Aletta Jacobs (1854 – 1929) was the first Dutch woman to complete a university education. She had to jump through a number of hoops to get where she got. First she had to get permission to attend classes at a polytechnic. Next she had to get the state’s permission to attend med-school lectures at the university of Groningen, and finally she had to get state permission to take her exams.

After she had finished her education, she became an MD in Amsterdam, where she introduced the diaphragm for birth-control. Contrary to doctors of her time who apparently were prescription engines, she believed in informed patients. Part of getting people to know their own bodies was a well illustrated book she wrote, and that Project Gutenberg recently re-published, called De Vrouw, haar bouw en haar inwendige organen (The woman; her construction and her internal organs). She published it in 1999 so that women could get to know their own bodies better. She felt this was necessary; as she wrote in her introduction:

De schromelijke onbekendheid van velen, zelfs van ontwikkelden, met het kunstig samenstel van hun eigen lichaam heeft mij meermalen getroffen.

Vooral van vrouwen was ik dikwerf getuige van de gebrekkige kennis van het lichaam in het algemeen en van den bouw, de ligging en de verrichting harer geslachtsorganen in het bijzonder.

(I have noted on several occasions that even educated people sometimes don’t know how their own bodies work. Especially women know little about their bodies in general, and little about the way their reproductive organs work.)

As I am wont to do with such books I leafed through this one in the expectation that I would find a heavily self-censored work. I have seen sex-ed texts much younger that would basically boil down to “girls can sleep in, boys need to wake up early so that mother can change their sheets,” and illustrated anatomy books in which the areas that house our reproductive organs were pictured just as blank as central Africa on 19th century maps. But Jacobs, albeit sometimes a bit clinical in tone, did not shy away from discussing sex and reproduction candidly. Her style is looser than you might expect from a 19th-centurier, which makes the book readable even now.

These things alone would have been insufficient for me to spend time discussing this work here if it hadn’t been for a news item I caught on the radio a couple of weeks ago. A hospital in Utrecht had started handing out pills to young muslim women that would help them to simulate bleeding of the hymen on their wedding nights. Apparently there are young men that still believe* that a woman is property, and that an undamaged hymen is a fool proof indicator of virginity. Little do these men know that they themselves are the fools.

But the thing is, no matter how ignorant the argument, you start to make room for it in your mind. You figure that if even today young muslims still think the hymen is an indicator of virginity*, then perhaps our enlightened ideas about female sexuality are relatively new, and they just haven’t reached everybody yet.

Except of course that what we know about the hymen is not so new at all. Jacobs wrote in 1899:

Bij geslachtsgemeenschap of anders bij de eerste baring wordt het hymen vernietigd. Doch ook op andere wijze kan het verloren gaan, zoodat het gemis volstrekt niet aan eerstgenoemde oorzaak behoeft te worden toegeschreven, evenmin als de aanwezigheid een volstrekt bewijs is, dat geen geslachtsgemeenschap plaats greep.

(During sex or otherwise during the first time a woman gives birth the hymen is destroyed. It can however also be lost in other ways, so that a lack of hymen need not be attributed to sex, just like the presence of a hymen is not proof that a women has not had sex.)

*) There is a trap I fell into when I first wrote this, which is that I assumed that the need for such a pill indicates that this is how some young Dutch muslims think. Apparently though it is a tradition in some cultures that the man shows the bloody bed sheet of his wedding night to his parents. The bride may merely be thinking of helping her husband; if the sheet is blood stained, he won’t have to lie to his parents.

Opperlandse taal- & letterkunde online, for free

There are three major e-book projects that make electronic books available for free to the general public in accessible formats (usually HTML, sometimes “plain text”). One is Project Gutenberg, an American project that does not limit itself to English. I am a volunteer there. The second is Project Laurens Jz Coster, named after the Dutchman who stole Gutenberg’s ideas for movable type in order to claim he had invented movable type himself. The third is the Digitale Bibliotheek Nederlandse Letteren.

The latter claims a copyright on texts that are clearly in the public domain: a wholly despicable practice that is morally equivalent to fraud. If I could avoid linking to them, I would. Unfortunately they are jealousy inducingly active, and also have managed to convince many authors and estates to let them publish books that are indeed still in copyright.

One of these books is Battus’ Opperlandse taal- & letterkunde, the definitive book for playfully documenting the many quirks of the Dutch language. Battus is the pseudonym for Hugo Brandt Corstius, a computer linguist who knows how to write. The DBNL publishes the 2nd edition of 1981.

I’ll explain the differences between the three projects in greater detail in a future post, because all three projects have their own distinctive strengths, which it helps to know when you are looking for a certain Dutch classic.

Via Eamelje.net.

Today’s youth, eh?

van alle menschen, die oom verachtte en wantrouwde, waren er geen, voor wie die verachting en dat wantrouwen grooter was, dan voor de winderige, laffe, beginsellooze jongelieden van de negentiende eeuw

From “Joachim Polsbroekerwoud” by Vlerk, pseudonym of Bernardus Gewin (1812-1873).

Translation: “because of all the people that uncle hated and mistrusted there were none for whom that distrust and hatred was greater than for the windy, cowardly, principleless youths of the nineteenth century.” And the girls merely wanted to go play with their friends…