Monthly Archives: October 2009

Twitter freedom, a zeitgeisty Chinese word, and Lakota immersion

rusbridgerQuestion: what happens when a court gags a newspaper? Answer: The gag sags, 140 characters at a time. That’s what happened this month when microbloggers tweeted what The Guardian couldn’t report. Plus, they tweeted that The Guardian couldn’t report that it couldn’t report, thus making this a “super-injunction“. The case invovled multinational oil company Trafigura, which has been accused of dumping  toxic waste at various sites in Ivory Coast. Trafigura secured a ruling in a British court enjoining The Guardian from reporting on the issue in the event that it come up in parliament. The issue did come up, and The Guardian duly didn’t report on it. But editor Alan Rushbridger (pictured) did let the blogosphere know that it was being gagged from reporting on a parliamentary matter. That’s when human rights activist Richard Wilson got to work online. He and then thousands of others microblogged about this. And low and behold the gag order was broken, and then lifted. Which goes to show that in the age of the social networking,  it’s much tougher to suppress speech. Or put another way, if a government or judiciary wants to suppress speech, it has to suppress the internet.

In the days after the twitter-outing of Trafigura’s gag order, many members of the British parliament voiced outrage over this attempt to block public access to parliamentary speech. Now Gordon Brown’s government is  moving to put a stop to the most egregious super-injunctions.

cou huoNext in the podcast, a group of Beijing and expat artists discover a Chinese word that seems to convey the state of China today. The word is 凑合 or in pinyin, cou huo. It means…well, it’s difficult to translate. But it conveys construction on-the-go, assembling something through improvisation, making do. It has both positive and negative attributes, and the artists explore both.  The exhibit traveled around Beijing in an appropriately makeshift tent, as artistically rendered above.

Finally, two segments on endangered languages. First an interview with French linguist Claude Hagège who’s written a book about the death of languages. Then a report on the near-death of the native American Lakota language;  its potential rebirth comes with an assist from a German rock star.

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Bilingual metaphors, the passion of place name changes, and interpreting for the Dodgers

SWEDEN-NOBEL-LITTERATURE-MUELLERNobel literature prize winner Herta Mueller grew up in Romania. She spoke German at home, and Romanian at school. As a result her writing is infused with mixed metaphors. Not as in “he careened between lovers till his private life went completely off the rails.”  No, Mueller’s metaphors are linguistically mixed. She connects Romanian images and metaphors with German ones.  That’s what she did with the title of one of her novels: Hertztier (which literally means “heart animal”).  That’s an invented German word with roots in a piece of Romanian wordplay. The Romanian for heart is  inimă and for animal is animală — the words sound quite similar. In German, hertz and tier don’t sound at all  similar.  That suggests that in every language, thoughts and ideas cluster uniquely and somewhat randomly. Yet if, like Mueller, you’re bilingual, you’re more likely to transpose word clusters, punning and otherwise, from one language to the next . Of course, by the time an expression like  inimă-animală is translated into English (via German) it loses resonance and meaning. Which is why translator Michael Hoffman avoided it completely. He called the novel The Land of Green Plums.

tanganikaAlso, a conversation with Harry Campbell, the author of Whatever Happened to Tanganika? The Place Names that History Left Behind. This interview is long and full of infamous, and some less well-known, episodes from colonial history. Typically, colonists like to leave their mark in the form of a place or two, whether they were British imperial officers, unscrupulous Belgians or Soviet true believers. The names, of course, rarely stick. Local populations have a healthy disrespect for the monikers of their former masters. But this leaves some people nostalgic for the old names, and others wondering what those names, and their replacements, reveal. I’m struck by how important place names are to people, even in cases where people have never visited the name in question. Much of comes down to power and influence. And occasionally, money. A shorter version of the interview ran on The World’s regular broadcast; it generated a ton of posts and comments.  Post your own at this site or here.

Finally in this week’s podcast, a profile the Japanese interpreter for the Los Angeles DodgersKenji Nimura is actually trilingual — he speaks Spanish, as well as Japanese and English — which comes in handy in Major League Baseball, where those three languages are most used.

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Gaddafi’s translator, Swedish fury at UNESCO, and Nazi slogans in English

Here are the 5 stories  Carol Hills and I selected as our top five language-related stories for the past month or two:

gaddafi5. The sad tale of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s translator at the United Nations General Assembly. Gaddafi spoke for 94 minutes, 79 minutes longer than he was alloted. At 90 minutes, his translator appeared to collapse and was replaced by a UN translator.

Hunmin_jeong-eum4. The quixotic tale of the real estate mogul who is trying to export Korean Hangul script to Indonesia. Koreans are immensely proud of their 24-letter alphabet, which was established in the 15th century in a document caled the Hunmin Jeongeum — “The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People.” (See above: the  Hangul-only column is fourth from left.)

3. India’s burgeoning number of official languages. It currently has 22 official language, with 38 more under consideration. Where will it fit all those languages on its banknotes?

Scanian2. A declaration from UNESCO that a southern Swedish dialect is in fact a language under threat. The image above is a 13th century rendering Scanian and Church Law, which includes a comment in the margin called the “Skaaningestrof”: “Hauí that skanunga ærliki mææn toco vithar oræt aldrigh æn”  — “Let it be known that Scanians are honorable men who have never tolerated injustice.” Sweden recognizes five minority languages but Scanian is not among them — and it’s not likely to be designated as one any time soon.  Most Swedish linguists call it a dialect – a thick one that many Swedes poke fun at – but a dialect nonethless.

1. A German court’s decision to permit Nazi hate speech, so long as it’s not in German. The words in questions are Hitler Youth slogans; they clearly have greater potency in the original German.

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