Monthly Archives: June 2009

Iran and translation, a search engine is sick in Chinese, and a drug ring’s Arabic dialects

Once a month, Carol Hills and I sift through a huge pile of language-related stories – stories that we otherwise wouldn’t cover.  We select five to talk about.  Here they are:

5. Google Translate gets to work on the virtual streets of Teheran: Google released a tool that translates Persian blogs into English and vice versa.  Google was already working on this, but it rushed the release due to the turmoil inside Iran, and because of Google’s stated goal improving people’s access to information.  A few days earlier, Twitter delayed a planned upgrade that would have brought the microblogging website down in Iran.  That came after a call to Twitter from the State Department.  I’m sure the Iranian government viewed that as proof of American intervention in domestic Iranian affairs. But it’s a far cry from sending in spies, or the Air Force.

4.  A music festival in Quebec runs afoul of language sensitivities. A couple of acts that sing in English were nearly dropped from a bilingual festival in Montreal. One of the bands was heckled by Quebec sovereignists as it performed (in English). The band’s name is um, Lake of Stew.  It’s the latest iteration of Canada’s relentless language struggles.

3.  Microsoft’s choice of Bing as the name for its search engine to rival Google may not go down well in China. In Chinese, bing means many things, depending on how it’s pronounced. One of them is “sick.” Microsoft says Bing will be pronounced differently. But with their love of wordplay, many Chinese may yet make the sicko connection.

shanghai gay

2. Two articles in English-language newspapers in China suggest that authorities may be easing press restrictions. The articles are on sensitive topics, the Tiananmen Square protests and gay rights (that’s the organizers in the picture).  But the stories did not appear in Chinese-language papers.  So while the vast majority of Chinese citizens didn’t read about these issues, the Chinese government can nonetheless claim that it’s easing up on press censorship.

1. An alleged drug ring in Pennsylvania used Iraqi Arabic dialects in its communications. The police had to bring in a language expert to help solve the crime.

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Bilingual romance in Paris, “whatever” in Mexico, and the fog of Pentagon acronyms in Afghanistan

marsotIn this podcast I talk with novelist Vanina Marsot whose new book “Foreign Tongue” is about French, English, being bilingual, and most of all, translation. Marsot’s protagonist moves from Los Angeles to Paris, becomes a translator, at which point she starts living and breathing idioms. The novel includes more false cognates than you can hurl a dictionary at, a racy story within a story, and lots of French attitude.

After that  we take a quick detour to eat sideways in Mexico.  The Spanish expression we learn about is particular to Mexico.

Finally it’s to Afghanistan, where Pentagon acronyms are the lingua franca, which seemed to drive our correspondent there to distraction. Then he found out that it drives the GIs crazy too.  Some have been known to dream up their own acronyms, and even include them in official reports.

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Linguists trash English word count, speaking Uighur in Bermuda, and steady lah! The delights of Singlish

A nice linguistic fight to start with this week:  a Texas organization called The Global Language Monitor is claiming that the English language has just gained its millionth word. President and chief world analyst Paul J.J. Payack has dubbed this the Million Word March. This generated a lot of headlines (“English acquires its millionth word”) but beyond that, Payack could not have been happy with the response to his declaration.  Linguists and commentators called it among other thing, silly, misleading  a publicity stunt and “the biggest load of chicken droppings I’ve heard in a long time.” Nice.

singlish new

Next up is Singlish, a hybrid tongue that Singaporeans speak among themselves, much to the consternation of their famously fussy government. Singlish is a reflection of Singapore’s history of colonization and immigration: it mixes English with Malay, Hokkien Chinese and a smattering of Tamil.  It’s spoken in homes, restaurants and increasingly on TV.  Officials worry that Singaporeans’ English skills will slip. But the government’s efforts to curb Singlish have so far failed miserably. We have a Singlish double hit: first, a report from  Singapore, then a conversation with the editors of a recently updated Singlish dictionary.

Finally, as the US military releases some Chinese Uighurs from Guantanamo, we take a look at the Uighur language and culture.  Four Gitmo Uighurs have been resettled in Bermuda. More may be sent to Palau. In each case, they’ll probably be the first Uighur speakers to set foot on those islands.

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Obama dubbed, microblogging in China, bilingual politics in Belgium, and Bangla hip hop in NYC


This week, how President Obama’s big speech to the Muslim world was translated, officially by the State Department, and less officially by various news outlets. Obama’s carefully worded speech was broadcast live with simultaneous voiceover in dozens of countries. The State Department’s translators received copies of the speech nearly 24 hours in advance. Not so for news organizations: most of them only got the headsup a mere 10 minutes before the event. My colleague Katy Clark reported on this. She also got the BBC Arabic Service‘s translator (and voice of Obama) to give us his rendering of the end of the speech, when Obama quoted from the Talmud, the Bible and the Koran. Not the easiest sentences to translate.

Ahead of elections in Belgium, we hear from the leader of Belgium’s first and only bilingual political party. Belgium has been riven by rhetorical language wars for the past few years, and now a few people in Brussels are saying “Enough” (in at least two languages).

Then, Chinese microbloggers battle government censors.

Finally, New York-based Bangladeshi hip hoppers Stoic Bliss rediscover their native language, Bengali. There’s a nice moment in this story when one of the guys hears another’s mother play the tabla, a set of two drums with goatskin heads. It’s a popular instrument across the Indian subcontinent. He’s never heard this older woman play the tabla before, and he’s so blown away that he tries to get her to play on a Stoic Bliss recording. Blushingly (at least it sounds that way) she demurs.

This isn’t the last of Bengali language and culture you’ll hear on The World in Words. I grew up in London, home away from home for many of Europe’s Bengalis. I’ve also reported in Bengal, on both the Indian and Bangladeshi sides of the border. So, more to come.
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