Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Les ascensions oubliées: another curious tale of triangulation

There is no town in Italy which commands so magnificent a panorama of the chain of Alps as Turin. The wide plain on which it stands, with its sea-like surface broken into undulations by ranges of low hills, crested with copses and sparkling villas, rolls many a league around, until it is suddenly interrupted by the mighty rampart which encircles it in a horseshoe curve 250 miles in length. Many noble peaks rise at intervals along the ridge; northwards of the dazzling snows of Monte Rosa and the Lyskamm, and in the S.W., where the great chain approaches nearer than elsewhere, it towers up into the rugged pinnacle of Monte Viso, one of the most precipitous and striking mountains in Europe. The streets in Turin are straight, and cross each other at right angles; stand where are you will, and look in any direction excepting eastward, and some portion of the Alps closes in the vista. In one of the quarters of the city half of the streets open out towards Monte Viso, so that it is almost constantly in view, and stands like a giant sentinel, sleepless, immortal, keeping guard over the kingdom at its feet.

For anyone standing on Monte dei Cappuccini today, a small hill overlooking the River Po in Turin, these words are no less true than they were when they were penned 155 years ago. On a clear day, the pyramidal outline of Monviso (Monte Viso in French) to the south-west of the city is unmistakeable and dominates the skyline in this quadrant.
The passage of text is taken from the opening paragraph of an account of the first recorded ascent of the 3,841-metre peak on 30 August 1861 by two British climbers, William Matthews and Frederick Jacomb, together with their French guides, Jean-Baptiste Croz and Michael Croz. Known attempts had been made on Monviso before, the first serious one of which had been made in 1834 by Domenico Ansaldi, a local surveyor, but because of insurmountable obstacles and dense mist, his group had to give up and turn back at a height of around 3,700 metres. In 1839, the British physicist and glaciologist, James David Forbes, reconnoitred the mountain and was the first to make a circular tour of the massif.
Matthews’ ascent took place during the golden age of mountaineering, a period between around 1854 and 1865 when most of the major peaks of the Alps were summitted for the first time. It was dominated by British alpinists and their Swiss and French guides and culminated rather poignantly in the fateful first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. For many alpinists at the time mountaineering was primarily a sport, but more often than not there was a scientific objective to the climbs and, as well as carrying a variety of instruments up the mountain with them, they also made detailed descriptions of their adventures. No surprise then that a full account (including the introductory passage above) appeared in Peaks, Passes and Glaciers, one of the leading journals of the time, which eventually became the Alpine Journal.

But now, astonishingly, new evidence has come to light which casts doubt on the record claimed by Matthews in 1861. The findings of this new research contend that there was a real possibility that Monviso was first ascended 110 years previously in 1751. French and Italian historians working in collaboration stumbled across early maps of the region which suggest that the mountains had been accurately surveyed by means of triangulation in the 18th century. In their research paper, Une autre histoire des Alpes. Les ascensions oubliées des officiers géographes et des habitants des Alpes du Sud (1750-1850), Oliver Joseph and Paul Billon-Grand (historians based in Vallouise, France), Eugenio Garoglio (researcher at the University of Turin) and Alexandre Nicolas (cartographer) argue that in order to achieve the accuracy of measurements to produce such detailed maps, using the principles of triangulation, engineers must have had access to the highest points in the district, including Monviso.

Despite being mountainous and largely inaccessible, in the 18th century the territory in the surroundings of the Cottian Alps, of which Monviso is the highest peak, was heavily contested by France and Savoy, so it was important for military strategists of the day to have detailed knowledge of the terrain. Between 1749 and 1754, Pierre-Joseph Bourcet (1700 – 1780), a French military engineer and cartographer, was commissioned to map the borders in this part of the Alps. By then, triangulation had become the most accurate method of mapping, already having a long history in France. The theory of triangulation, based on the principles of trigonometry, has been described elsewhere in these columns, but measurements in the field would have involved the accurate calculation of distances between the highest points in the vicinity, such as towers and hilltops, with the aid of surveying equipment. As visible poles would have had to be used, this would have meant accessing these points to obtain precise measurements.

The researchers have compared the observations on the old maps with modern cartography and discovered that the heights of mountains and the distances between summits differ by only a few metres, measured over distances of 15 to 20 kilometres. According to the researchers, this level of accuracy – around 1% out - could have only been possible if the highest points, including that of Monviso, had been climbed. Documents archived in the records office of the Hautes-Alpes département reveal that military surveyors officers would have been accompanied in these ascents by local villagers who would carry the equipment as well as act as guides. They would have been employed to place ranging rods (tree trunks) with flags on the summits which would have been visible for miles around. At this stage no one knows for sure whether Monviso was indeed scaled during this period, but maps made at the time include topographic icons pinpointing the exact locations used in the triangulation process (in much as the same way the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain use trig-point symbols on its maps today).

Of course, there are counterhypotheses too, which argue that given the known technology and mountaineering skills available in the 1750s, it would have been nigh impossible to reach the top of Monviso, In fact, the first documentary evidence of an attempt on Monviso by the surveyor Domenico Ansaldi in 1834 - by which time cartographic technology had advanced considerably - shows that his team of staff were beaten back fairly convincingly by the elements.

Whilst the researchers are confident about their initial findings, they concede that more documentary evidence will have to be uncovered before it is known whether the mapmakers beat the mountaineers to the top of one of the Alps’ most iconic peaks. Aficionados of epic tales of exploration and cartography like myself await their findings with interest, but it would not be the first time that mapmakers, rather than alpinists, made mountaineering history.


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

So, you translate into Dutch?

I must confess, I really can’t complain: when it comes to careers, life hasn’t dealt me a bad hand. My background and my range of skills have allowed me to make a decent living out of my chosen profession. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a self-employed translator working from Dutch into English. Because I work from home much of what I do is solitary, so my day-to-day regime remains largely hidden from view. Freelance translators like myself lead a ‘secluded’ existence, which means that our work is perceived to be cloaked in a shroud of mystery. Yet in many respects, the tasks my colleagues and I perform can be as humdrum (or as stimulating) as those in any other job: it is the invisibility of these activities that leads to fundamental misconceptions being made on the part of others. When translators do eventually venture outside the confines of their offices and communicate face-to-face with the outside world, it can result in some bewildering misunderstandings. The difference between what we do and what people think we do is often a world apart. 

Small talk - for example, at parties - invariably leads to conversations about work. So, over the years I have subconsciously developed a mental checklist of questions I’m likely to be asked every time I strike up a conversation with a stranger. Here are just a few of the those questions (with answers). If fact, there are plenty more, these are just for starters. 

So, you translate into Dutch? 
The short but very simple is: no, never. 
For some reason, perhaps because I’m good at Dutch, it’s assumed I translate into that language. Good translators however, follow a simple, but golden rule: we translate only into our native language! It’s not without reason we call it the ‘mother tongue’: the first words I heard and used were acquired while I was still being cradled in my mother’s arms. In later years, I would pick up the language from my older brothers, the kids next door and on the school playground. Then, in the classroom, I learned English in a more structured and complex way. Through constant exposure to the language and culture, often through trial and error, I came to understand its subtleties. 
By the time we were offered foreign languages at school - aged 12 - it was already too late to learn them though natural acquisition, unless perhaps English had disappeared from the face of the earth and I had suddenly been immersed in an alien culture. When I finally moved to the Netherlands at the age of 26, plunging myself headlong into Dutch culture and language learning, it soon became clear that I would never equal the ability of a native Dutch speaker: 30 years later, I may be a proficient speaker and user of this language, but I do not ‘possess’ it in the same way as my mother tongue, nor do I hold any pretensions of doing so. 
My contention is that anyone who claims that they can translate professionally into a language which is not their own is deluding themselves. Those who can do this faultlessly – perhaps only true bilinguals, brought up speaking two languages – are few and far between. Rarely in my 20 years as a full-time professional translator have I come across anyone who – even after decades of immersion - has acquired an ability to communicate flawlessly at all levels in a non-native language
So, no. I would be doing the translation industry a great disservice if I were to translate into Dutch, as well as damaging my professional reputation along the way. 

My daughter's unemployed. She speaks good English, do you think you could find her work in translation?
The great thing is about translation is that you don’t need any qualifications to start up professionally. But simply being able to read and write doesn’t mean any old Tom, Dick and Harry can translate. In the first place, you need a full command of your native language, and a proficiency, preferably C2, in your second, that is, the language you translate out of. Even then, that’s not enough: being word-perfect is all well and good, but you must also use a register and style that most closely reflects the specific subject matter of the source text, which may be legal, journalese or perhaps even one which contains obscene language or slang. And, at the back of your mind, you must always be aware of the subtle differences between your source and target cultures. So, linguistic adaptability and flexibility are essential requirements for success. 
A translation degree – on top of your language proficiencies – can help you learn these skills, many others – like myself – have a background working in industry as a copywriter or communicator which stands them in good stead. If you can find a job as a paid employee working in a translation agency, you will learn as you go. On-the-job training is a boon, but sooner or later most of us have taken the bold step of going self-employed, at which point you need a whole new gamut of skills. Don’t underestimate the paperwork that comes with being self-employed: you will have to send out invoices, file VAT returns, fill in annual accounts, take out various insurance policies and arrange a pension plan – at least if you want to make a career of it. And on top of that you will have to learn to deal with customers on a daily basis, either existing or new ones, with whom you will have to negotiate rates and deadlines. 
Oh, and I’ve not even mentioned the unsocial hours ... 
So, if you think your daughter’s up to it, tell her to give it a try. 

I imagine you translate a lot of literature? 
No, I do NOT translate books (by which most people tend to mean novels). The bulk of work in the translation industry is commercial in nature – for example, business correspondence, business plans and proposals, commercial literature, communication strategies, exhibition catalogues, legal contracts and documents, marketing plans, mission statements, and newsletters & magazine articles, to name but a few. However, there are several specialised genres which for one reason or another I steer clear of, including medical and overly technical translations. After all, I do not have a background in engineering or medicine.
Book translation accounts for a very small share of the translation market, especially in the language pair I work, Dutch to English. Literary translation is a niche-market, usually cornered by a specialised group of literary translators who do little else. 
Even if I were offered the chance to translate a book, there are several other good reasons why I would probably turn it down. There are exceptions, but if I were to quote my rates for commercial translation to a bog-standard publisher, they would probably trash my email without giving it a second look. Even if they were to accede, there are plenty of other grounds for not accepting the work, not least that taking on a large project where tight deadlines are involved would preclude me from handling the steady inflow of bread-and-butter work I get from my regular clients. Last but not least, literary translation is a genre in its own right requiring a painstaking, often monastic devotion to creative re-writing which only a few colleagues possess. 

To be continued ...