Monthly Archives: May 2010

Translating disaster and disastrous translations

In this podcast, Carol Hills and I pick a few stories that had previously passed us by. We dust them off and turn them into out Top Five Language Stories of the month.

5.Translating Iceland’s economic collapse into English. Iceland isn’t exactly an opportunity-rich environment for job-seekers — unless you’re an Icelandic-English translator.  There are a handful Brits, Americans and Canadians who live in Iceland, often married to Icelanders. Some are now extremely busy translating complex financial documents,  most of which make depressing reading at least as far as the Icelandic economy is concerned. The translators find themselves translating back into English expressions that in some cases had only recently debuted in Icelandic:  collateralized debt  obligation  (skuldavafningur, also known as skuldabréfavafningur), payment mitigation (greiðsluaðlögun), winding up board (slitastjórn) and other linguistic markers of a nation’s meltdown.

4. Bad translations rule.  So, outside of Iceland at least,  translation remains hit and miss — mainly miss, thankfully. Mexican President Felipe Calderon recently visited President Obama in Washington, but their joint appearance before the world’s media turned into a translation amateur hour. Calderon’s translator, apparently a sub for the regular guy, rendered Calderon’s clear Spanish into murky English.

In Shanghai, that murky English known as Chinglish is in danger of vanishing. Local leaders hosting Expo 2010 don’t want their city to be the setting for mirthful photo-exchanges of all-too-literally translated expressions. Beijing tried cleaning up its Chinglish ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Good thing there are so many other cities in China, and so much more Chinglish.  One Chinglish expert — a German as it happens —  told the New York Times that beneath the flowery craziness of Chinglish lurk clues about Chinese language and culture.

Above is a picture I snapped at Beijing’s (old) airport in 2006. Without  the documentation, this fine example Chinglish might have become extinct.

Another great place to find bad translations is at the Eurovision Song Contest.  This is the über-cheesy music competition that many Europeans hate to love.  Songs from each of the competing nations go up against each other, and an international panel of judges decides the winner.  The podcast has done segments on the Eurovision here and here. This time round, we focus on the magnificently mangled English coined by the lyricists of Moldova’s 2010 entry, as described here.

3. A language for communication with extraterrestrials.  Not English, not Spanish, not even Globish. No, none of these languages is good enough for extraterrestials. The thinking, or my excessively simplified version of it, is that the aliens, when they come are likely to be brainy. I mean, they will have actually made it here. So, we may need to put our best linguistic foot forward. Hence, a language of  electronic beeps that would indicate — in a more scientifically precise way than, say, English does — just what we humans are capable of.  That was the proposal of National Security Agency cryptologist Lambros Callimahos 40 years ago. Stephen Hawking, meanwhile, thinks that if aliens do visit, they might not be too friendly.

2. Arizona moves against accented schoolteachers. The state of Arizona’s  Department of Education is requiring that all schoolteachers teaching English Language Learning speak grammatically and without too heavy an accent.  That’s yet another controversial move in a state that is being cast as the most anti-immigrant place in America.

1. People with animal names. Costa Rica’s new president Laura Chinchilla is one of millions of people worldwide who after named after animals. Interestingly, chincillas do not live anywhere near Costa Rica: they are Andean creatures.  (just as people called Lion or Lyon don’t all come from sub-Saharan Africa). Still chinchillas are super-cute, for rodents at least. So, the name might have done its bit to get Laura Chinchilla elected. And yes, there is a facebook group for people with animal last names.

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Translators working overtime, silverfin aka Asian carp, and counting in Chinese

Dead catfish washed up on the Gulf coast photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bgjohnson/4577801797/

Translators are proving their worth twice in this week’s podcast: in New York, where they’re helping elderly Russian speakers fill out forms from the  US Census Bureau; and in Louisiana and Mississippi where they’re interpreting for Vietnamese-American fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened by the big oil spill. The mind-sets of these non-English speakers are remarkably similar: they come from former communist countries where the government was a thing to be feared. Now they are confronted by a US government that is less invasive but, in its own way, just as confusing. Its announcements and forms are sometimes difficult even for native speakers to decipher. Bring on the translators, of whom — especially in the Gulf states —  there are not enough.  (See earlier blog post and podcast on Census Bureau efforts, mainly successful, to offer more outreach to non-English speakers.)

Which tastes better:  Kentucky tuna, silverfin or Asian carp? Well, they are one and the same fish. Attempts are underway to re-brand Asian carp, which has a nasty reputation as a bottom-feeding  invader of America’s waterways. In fact, Asian carp– or the variety that made it to the United States–  isn’t a bottom-feeder. It feeds on plankton; its meat, supposedly, is super-delicious. Worthy of a name like silverfin. The mouth waters. The price per pound rises. We’re all happy, right? Language is a beautiful thing.

And finally, a conversation about counting. Some languages are more numerate than others. If you’re a native English speaker, you may be in trouble. Words like eleven, fifteen, Thurday and August are not useful terms when it comes to mathematics. We might be better off with the less poetic-sounding ten-one, ten-five, weekday four and month eight. Mathematician-journalist Alex Bellos discusses this and other language differences in his book Here’s Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion through the Astonishing World of Math (UK edition: Alex’s Adventures in Numberland). Bellos also recites the numbers one to twenty in one of the UK’s medieval dialects.

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A language speed-dater gets serious, and a cross-dressing, cross-linguistic singer

A language-learning marathon is over, as the author of a blog called 37 Languages decides which language to learn for real. The first time I talked to Keith Brooks he’d speed-dated 13 languages: he read up on each one,  learned a few phrases, and posted a summary and a points-based evaluation on his blog. Of the original 37, six got a call back: Swedish, Albanian, Turkish, Norwegian, Portuguese and Croatian. On these second dates, Keith tried to immerse himself in the language for at least a week, again documenting his observations online.   Now, he’s chosen the language we wants to live with. I won’t spoil the surprise. It’s in the podcast, and by the time you read this, it may be on the 37 Languages site.

Next up is the story of a new film that documents a year in the life of an elementary school in Turkey. The kids speak only Kurdish, their teacher only Turkish. After a year, the teacher can speak three words of Kurdish. This is set against a backdrop of official supression of the Kurdish language, that the Turkish government is only now addressing. It has recently relaxed regulations so that it’s now possible to broadcast and publish in Kurdish. There’s huge opposition in Turkey to even these changes.

Finally, we profile one of Ukraine’s most beloved performers: the cross-dressing Verka Serduchka. Serduchka is the alter ego of Andriy Danylko. Serduchka is a bossy, Soviet-era train conductor turned trashy singer.  She represented Ukraine at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest, and ended up in second place.  Danylko uses Serduchka to satirize Ukrainian life– and especially Ukranian-Russian relations. As part of that Serduchka uses a dialect called Surzhyk that had been viewed as a uneducated hybrid of Russian and Ukraine. But Serduchka has re-popularized Surzhyk, so that young Ukrainians now use it in a knowing, ironic way.  To get a sense of Serduchka talking, singing and dancing with her creator Andriy Danylko, check out this video.



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Census-taking, volcano-pronouncing, and why Thais win at Scrabble

Robert Groves, Director, U.S. Census Bureau. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lccr

The U.S.Census Bureau is firing on all linguistic cylinders to ensure that non-English speakers are counted in this year’s census. It has been getting the word out via ads, PSAs and handbills translated into 28 different languages (compared to 17 in the 2000 census). Now Census workers are starting to knock on the doors of households, many of them non English-speaking,  that haven’t yet mailed in their forms.

Much of the linguistic outreach seems to be working, but not all of it: in Vietnamese, the word census was translated to something closer to investigation.  Among some Somalis, the very notion of being counted is taboo.  And then there are the southern border states, home to millions of Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants. Arizona’s recent anti-immigrant law has put them on edge: the last thing that many there would do is voluntarily offer up information about themselves to the government.

Next, a BBC news announcer gives us an Icelandic lesson. It’s a very specific lesson: how to pronounce Iceland’s most famous landmark, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. You may think, why bother now? The volcano is no longer  spitting ash into the air and planes are back in the sky. Well, volcanologists believe Eyjafjallajökull isn’t done belching yet.  More pronunciation tips here and here.

Another item recently in the news:  Scrabble. It turned out to be a faux story: as initially reported,  proper names were about to be permitted under new Scrabble rules. But that wasn’t the case. The proper name rule affected only a new spinoff game that won’t be sold in North America. But given how wrong the news media, including the BBC and NPR, were in their initial reporting, it’s no wonder Scrabble affionados reached for their botttles of Jack Daniels and other proper name beverages. All of which got me wondering what Scrabble obsession is all about  (I don’t play the game). After I heard a lively BBC discussion on the subject, I got it. I also came to understand why English Scrabble is so popular among so many non-English speakers, especially Thais.

Finally, five unique Japanese expressions. They are provided by kanji supremo (or perhaps suprema?), blogger and author Eve Kushner.  Here they are:

病床日誌 【びょうしょうにっし】  byōshō nisshi diary written while ill in bed:

日照権 【にっしょうけん】 nisshōken the right to sunshine

日向水 【ひなたみず】 hinata mizu water warmed in the sun

三日酔い 【みっかよい】mikkayoi hangover (that still lingers two days after drinking)

日猶同祖論 【にちゆうどうそろん】 nichiyū dōsoron hypothesis that Jews and Japanese are of common ancestry

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