Monthly Archives: March 2009

Obama en español, Sarkozy en français, and Wikipedia gone polyglot wild

On this week’s podcast, we begin with President Obama’s improving Spanish on display on Univision. Then we take a trip to a language school in Mexico to hear about changes in Spanish-language learning. Then it’s to France, where traditionalists are horrified at President Sarkozy’s gutter talk. Finally a conversation with author and wikipedian Andrew Lih on why foreign language wikipedias are so different from the English version.  For more conversation with Andrew Lih  check out Clark Boy’s technology podcast.  Listen to this podcast in iTunes or here.

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Yiyun’s Li’s original Chinese title for her English novel

You’ll hear in the latest podcast (#46) about Yiyun Li’s original idea for a title for her first novel, The Vagrants.  In Chinese it is
贪生怕死 or, in pinyin, tān shēng pà sĭ. It means, literally:  greedy for life, afraid of death. It suggests a craven, cowardly clinging to life. That’s a powerful thought but as a title it sounds more appropriate for a thrash metal band.  For a determinedly English language novel, The Vagrants was a fine choice.

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Words of comfort in discomforting times, a ban on jargon, and Yiyun Li’s exquisite English

In Britain, the economic crisis may be worse than in the United States. Brits, though, are just about keeping their upper lip stiff with the help of a revived World War Two slogan. Also in the UK, an association of local officials wants to ban government jargon; under threat, some of these phrases seem lyrical and worth keeping, not unlike brutalist architecture. Finally, Yiyun Li, a Chinese-born novelist who writes, beautifully, in English. Her first novel, “The Vagrants” has just been published. Listen to the podcast  in iTunes or here.

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podcast #45: Hillary’s Russian lesson, and don’t mess with Canadian spelling!

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been circling the globe, hitting the reset button on America’s foreign relations. But then someone at the State Department tried – and failed – to translate “reset” into Russian. Russians know all a synonym of reset,  thanks to the Matrix franchise.  Now the Kremlin is urging more Americans to learn Russian. Also,  middle class Pakistanis prefer English to Urdu. Plus, a new e-book on the historical roots and enduring appeal of spelling the Canadian English way. Now, just what is it about spelling that gets people so agitated? It’s only a matter of time till someone goes to war over this.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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podcast #44: Haruki Murakami’s fans, confessions of a kanji-holic, and kwassa kwassa

This week, we check out a claim that with the aid of a supercomputer, it’s possible to predict which words will become extinct in a few centuries.  The word “dirty” apparently doesn’t have much staying power.  Nor do “guts” and “throw”.  If the computer says so. Me, I’d prefer to see the back of “alcopop.”

southNext is a report on the extraordinarily devoted fans of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I was inspired to report this story a few years ago when I tried– and failed — to get into an auditorium at MIT where Murakami was appearing. After chatting with other people in the queue, I realized that Murakami commands a massive, and massively diverse fan-base. So, I waited until one of his next all-too-rare appearances, in Berkeley, CA, where he sold out a 2,000-seat hall. After recording a few interviews in the foyer, I was stripped of my recording gear and camera, and told that I could collect them at the end of the evening. (A student at the MIT event got into trouble he snapped a picture of the writer at the MIT event. ) I didn’t have a problem with any of  this – I’d got my interviews and anyway, my story was about Murakami’s followers, not the man himself. And – strange as it may sound coming from a US-based journalist — I respect his desire to control and limit his public image.

murakami1 foreign3Murakami writes in a non-literary Japanese style, as author of Japan-America Roland Kelts told me. He also throws in so many English words that some older Japanese have trouble understanding his prose.  It’s also rare that in a Murakami story you come across a situation or a person that you could characterize (or perhaps micharacterize) as quintessentially Japanese.  His stories speak to people all over the world, in more than 30 languages.

That’s followed by a conversion with blogger Eve Kushner. She’s a devoted fan of those Japanese characters known as kanji (and, as it happens, she’s also a devoted fan of Murakami).

Finally, Vampire Weekend‘s Ezra Koenig on his favorite phrase out of Africa: kwassa kwassa. It’s Africanized French.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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