Tag Archives: Culture

Signing with a Philly accent

Nina P. put together this episode.

Cheesesteaks, Peanut Chews, Tastykakes, oh yeah, the Liberty Bell — there’s so much to love about Philadelphia, but one of the best things about the city of Brotherly Love is the accent. We’re not talking about spoken English — we’re talking about American Sign Language. This week on the podcast we learn about the Philadelphia accent in ASL.

What is an accent in ASL? ASL speaker and researcher Jami Fisher explains it all. Fisher, along with University of Pennsylvania linguistic professor Meredith Tamminga, is working on a study to document and explain this “weird,” as Fisher calls it, way of signing. (For the hearing impaired or those who cannot access audio immediately, there’s a full transcript here.)

Also on the podcast, we hear from the actors of the Broadway musical, “Spring Awakening.” This production features eight deaf actors. John Hockenberry from our friends at The Takeaway got the chance to interview some of the actors.

PODCAST CONTENTS:

0:00 Sean Monahan doing the Philly accent. He does a series of PhillyTawk videos on YouTube.

1:18 Murph (Nick Kroll) of Pawnsylvania

1:39 Meet Jami Fisher, ASL Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania. She is studying the Philadelphia ASL accent

2:54 What is an accent in ASL?

3:56 Why does Philadelphia have an accent in ASL?

4:29 Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet found the first deaf school in Hartford, CT in 1817

5:35 Pennsylvania School for the deaf is founded in 1820

6:27 Theory about the Philadelphia signs

7:54 Theories as to why the ASL Philly accent may be disappearing

9:31 Jami Fisher recruited her father to help interview deaf participants in the study

10:31 What are some similar sign language accent studies around the world?

11:07 Growing up “CODA” (child of deaf adults)

12:16 The story of Jami’s parents learned to sign

13:55 Broadway actor Daniel Durant on speaking American Sign Language

15:37 John Hockenberry, the host of The Takeaway interviews some of the cast members of the current ASL Broadway production of “Spring Awakening”

Music heard in this episode:

“Peas Corps” and “Bad Scene” by Podington Bear

Music from the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening

Please write a review of The World in Words on iTunes or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks!

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Minnesota’s Umlautgate

The post comes from my Big Show pal David Leveille.

The Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton issued a quirky executive order on Wednesday concerning the spelling of the name of the small Minnesota city of Lindström (population, 4,442).

Somehow, it seems when highway crews last updated the road signs leading into town, they removed those little twin dots that hover over the O. Lindström became Lindstrom. The transportation department defended the decision, citing federal policy that highway signs include only letters in a standard alphabet.

The omission wasn’t much noticed, though, until a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter spotted it. Soon enough, many of the town’s Swedish American residents were up in arms. They wanted the dots restored to reflect their heritage.

Keep in mind that the city of Lindström is nicknamed America’s Little Sweden. Many locals speak Swedish when buying Scandanavian donuts at the local Swedish bakery. A sign near the city center reads “Välkommen till Lindström.”

So on Wednesday, the governor predictably set things right by ordering the umlaut to be put back on the green highway signs that welcome tourists. “Nonsensical rules like this are exactly why people get frustrated with government,” Dayton said. “Even if I have to drive to Lindström, and paint the umlauts on the city limit signs myself, I’ll do it.”

“Underbar, and that means wonderful!” said local historian and tour guide Sally Barott reacting to the governor’s order. “We are ecstatic he’s making the umlauts come back.”

Barott says the dots affect the pronunciation and, more importantly, express the region’s cultural history and link to Swedish immigrants. “It’s important,” she says. “We have the old and the new. The blend is happening all over America, but I believe being able to retain our history and cultural ways, and to recognize and be traditional, honors the way we were taught and the way it was meant to me.”

Barott regularly escorts tourists around the city that was founded by Swedish immigrants back around 1850. One of her favorite stops is the Lindstrom Bakery where she orders Swedish glazed donuts and Swedish gingersnaps, called pepparkakor.

The Lindstrom Bakery does not use  an ö in its name. Go figure. (Photo courtesy of Lindstrom Bakery)

The Lindstrom Bakery does not use an ö in its name. Go figure. (Photo courtesy of Lindstrom Bakery)


Those gingersnaps have likely just come out of the oven, thanks to baker Bernie Coulombe, the woman behind the counter.

“This is a Swedish town. It has always been known for the Swedish settlers who first came here. So it is important to our customers and people who live here,” she explains. She says the town proudly shows off its heritage to tourists with a statue of Karl Oskar (a character in Vilhelm Moberg’s novels about Swedish emigration to the United States) that honors the early Swedish immigrants. There’s also an old water tower that’s in the shape of a coffee pot and a small Lutheran church that’s “strictly Swedish.”

But Lindstrom isn’t just hanging onto the past. “This is the way we were brought up, this is our Swedish inheritance, and you’ve got to keep your inheritance going,” says Coulombe.

This case of what might be called Lindstrom’s “umlautgate” is on the radar of The World’s language editor Patrick Cox. “Generally speaking English is thought of as the language where diacritics go to die.” All of the accents and the dots usually disappear, he says.

“America is the place where when you come to America, you sort of drop your clothes from the Old World and you embrace the New World. Names, surnames get changed, also the names of towns and cities get changed, and generally speaking the accents go.” But keep in mind, he says, “there are no rules in the English language right? I mean nobody’s going to stop the governor of Minnesota from saying ‘throw in some Cyrillic letters if you want to do that.’ He has every right to issue a decree like this.”

Strictly speaking, the Swedish ö does not use an umlaut. It is considered a separative letter in the Swedish alphabet. The umlauted o is a German thing.

But if you want to learn more about the linguistic difference between Lindstrom and Lindström, or the distinction between an umlaut (which has its origin in German) versus the happy twin dots that show up in Swedish words, and hear why rock bands ranging from Blue Öyster Cult to a Ukrainian band named Flëur like to play with umlauts, then you really must listen to Patrick’s podcast, The World in Wörds.


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Utah’s language gamble

A second-grader leads her class in a Chinese exercise at Santa Clara Elementary School. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

A second-grader leads her class in a Chinese exercise at Santa Clara Elementary School. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Better yet, listen to the podcast above.

Several years ago, Utah decided to start teaching foreign languages in public schools — beginning in the first grade.

Utah probably isn’t the first place you’d think would be at the forefront of language education in the United States. When it comes to per-student spending in public schools, Utah comes in dead last among all 50 states. What’s more, Utah passed an “English Only” law 15 years ago, declaring English to be the state’s sole official language.

A Chinese classroom at Santa Clara Elementary school in Santa Clara, Utah. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

A Chinese classroom at Santa Clara Elementary school in Santa Clara, Utah. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

So what accounts for this language push? One man: Republican State Senator Howard Stephenson.

Stephenson has served in the Utah legislature for more than 22 years. He calls himself a “government watchdog” and idolizes Ronald Reagan. He’s even got a page dedicated to the past president on his website. Safe to say, the senator is wary of the government messing in his business.

But during a 2008 trip to China, where the government messes in everyone’s business, Stephenson had what he describes as an “epiphany.” He met many Chinese students who spoke with him in fluent English. They were bright, eager and articulate.

“On the plane ride home, I was worried about America’s future,” Stephenson says. “I was excited for the Chinese and their rising nation, but I wondered what could I do as a policymaker to assist in helping the United States connect to these rising nations?”

Stephenson promptly introduced a bill to fund the teaching of critical languages, like Mandarin, in Utah’s public schools.

His fellow policy makers weren’t exactly on board at first.

“Some legislators were saying you can’t expect children to learn such a complicated language as Chinese,” he remembers. “And I reminded them that there are hundreds are millions of children in China who are learning it quite well. They do well, why can’t our children? Are our children’s brains wired differently than a Chinese person’s brain? I don’t think so.”

Stephenson also argued that a multilingual Utah would be good for the state’s economic future: A state full of fluent Chinese speakers is a state open for business.

His bill passed.

It was signed into law by then-Governor Jon Huntsman, who speaks Mandarin and later served as the American ambassador to China. Now, seven years after Stephenson’s airborne epiphany, there are intensive language programs at 118 schools in Utah, and not just in Mandarin. The program also teaches Spanish, Portuguese, French and German, and the state intends to keep growing the list.

Second grader, Tiari Puriri is in the English portion of her day at school. The Utah immersion model is a 50/50 model in which students learn half the day in the target language and half of the day in English. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Second grader, Tiari Puriri is in the English portion of her day at school. The Utah immersion model is a 50/50 model in which students learn half the day in the target language and half of the day in English. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Tiari Puriri is one of the young Utahans learning Mandarin. Now a second-grader, she started learning the language in first grade at her school in Santa Clara. It’s a small town in southern Utah more than two hours away from Las Vegas, the closest big city. Think arid, desert landscape, red rock formations and not too many Chinese speakers.

“This is what she brought home yesterday,” says her mom, Kristina, who shows off her daughter’s math homework. There’s not a word of English on the page, just Chinese characters and some numerals. “If she hadn’t put that there, and there weren’t pluses and equals, I don’t think that I would know that this is math.”

Kristina Puriri enrolled her daughter Tiari in the Chinese immersion program at Santa Clara Elementary starting in the first grade. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Kristina Puriri enrolled her daughter Tiari in the Chinese immersion program at Santa Clara Elementary starting in the first grade. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Learning math in Chinese is a part of Utah’s 50/50 dual language immersion model. Yes, it’s a horrible, jargon-y sounding phrase, but it basically means that half the school day and half the subjects, like math, are taught in the target foreign language and the other half in English.

When Kristina and I went to pick up Tiari from school, she was a bit shy about speaking Chinese on tape. But she readily sang a “clean-up” song in Chinese.

She and her class learned it from Xiao Fung, Tiari’s second-grade Chinese teacher. She came to this tiny Utah town from Chongqing, a city of 29 million people, thanks to a teaching exchange program funded by the Chinese government. That’s part of the way Utah can afford this program.

Mandarin teacher Xiao Fung had never been to the states before coming to teach in Utah. Though she can speak English, she is careful to only speak Mandarin in school in front of the kids. If the students ask her a question in English, she'll reply in Mandarin. This is a strict part of the Utah teaching model. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Mandarin teacher Xiao Fung had never been to the states before coming to teach in Utah. Though she can speak English, she is careful to only speak Mandarin in school in front of the kids. If the students ask her a question in English, she’ll reply in Mandarin. This is a strict part of the Utah teaching model. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

But not all of the parents at Santa Clara Elementary were thrilled when they heard a teacher from China was coming to the school — or that Chinese was going to be taught at all.

“My initial thoughts were like ‘Oh my gosh, there’s already so much our kids have to do,'” says Summer Lang, who has two kids at the school. “I push hard on my kids. I expect a lot, but I just think there’s a fine line. There’s a fine line of pushing. Too much, too hard, too young.”

Lang and several other parents started a petition against the program. She wasn’t alone in questioning the importance of learning another language in a world in which so many people speak English.

“A lot of countries are fluent in English too, but that’s because everybody comes here,” Lang argues. “How are we to pick one place where we’re going to become fluent as a second language? English is kind of the universal. Everybody speaks it.”

She’s also one of Kristina Puriri’s very best friends, but things got a little tense between them. “It kind of got ugly there for a while,” Lang admits.

Ultimately, things cooled down. The principal reassured parents that Chinese immersion was optional, and Lang chose not to enroll her children. Still, it’s a source of sensitivity.

“I went to Santa Clara Elementary, and we’ve chosen to stay here and raise our family here because of the tradition,” Lang says. “Change is hard whether it’s positive [or] negative.”

Change is hard, but Utah just might be in a unique position to pilot this kind of program. Language learning isn’t such a wild notion in this very Mormon state: For generations, Mormon missionaries have fanned out across the world, and stop in Utah first to learn the language of the place where they’ll serve.

Kristina’s husband, Michael, actually jokes about the “Mormon question.” “You told her why we’re doing this, for the church?” Michael Puriri asks his wife.

The Puriris are both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In fact, Kristina learned Portuguese on her own mission in Portugal.

“There [are] 88,000 missionaries out in the world today, but if we open up China with all those people, we’re going to need, like, another million missionaries,” Michael chides his wife. “So we figure with all these kids here learning Chinese…”

“But that’s not why we’re doing it,” Kristina says. Most Mormons don’t think this way, Kristina tells me over and over. And she says she’s most excited about the little ways in which learning Chinese will allow her daughter to connect with others right here in the US.

“I’m excited for the future when we can go to a Chinese restaurant or see a Chinese tour bus at Disneyland and she can go back and forth and back and forth,” she says.

Or maybe she’ll one day lead that Chinese tour bus through the national parks of Utah. That’s what State Senator Stephenson likes to envision: connecting his landlocked state of Utah to the rest of the world.

“Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century,” he says. “As many nations are rearing children with bi- and trilingual abilities, we need to step it up because we’re in a world competitive arena.”

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Spanglish is older than you think

Hugo Reid at Rancho Santa Anita, as imagined in a 1885 sketch  (Wikimedia Commons)

Hugo Reid at Rancho Santa Anita, as imagined in a 1885 sketch (Wikimedia Commons)

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

To truly explore the early roots of Spanglish, we have to go back to the dawn of the Dons.

Picture California in the early-19th century, when Los Angeles was known simply as the little “pueblo” and “Alta California” as the region was then called, was still a part of Mexico.

And living in the a rancho just north of the pueblo was a young Scottish adventurer named Hugh Reid. In the 1830s he left the old world for the new — Mexico. And in his adopted home he was rechristened with an additional Spanish name, Perfecto Hugo Reid. Reid would eventually settle down on a ranch in southern California near the San Gabriel mission in what’s now Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, where he married a local woman, Doña Victoria.

Robert Train has been obsessed with Hugo Reid’s backstory for the last few years. Train is a professor of Spanish at Sonoma State University. We met recently at the Huntington Library archives in Pasadena, to read Reid’s extremely yellowed letters.

Reid wrote to a man named Abel Stearns, another gringo — yes, that was a term, Train says, that was used around that time — living in Alta California. Stearns had emigrated from Massachusetts and, like Reid, he had also become a Mexican citizen. Reid’s letters to Stearns detail daily life in early California.

In one letter, Reid tells Stearns about his recent trip around other parts of Mexico. It’s a fairly ordinary letter at first, except woven into the mostly English letter are phrases in Spanish. Often sentences will start in one language and shift to fluidly to the other language. Neither Spanish nor English, this is pure Spanglish.

Letter from Hugh Reid to Abel Stearns (Nina Porzucki)

Letter from Hugh Reid to Abel Stearns (Nina Porzucki)

Hugo Reid wrote letter after letter to Abel Stearns in Spanglish. That’s not to say he couldn’t write in strictly Spanish or strictly English. He could. And he did — Train has plenty of examples of those — but often the Scotsman chose to use both at once doing what Train calls code-switching.

“It’s not about not knowing one language or the other. That’s a sort of myth that some people seem to think — that code-switching is all about not knowing one language, not being able to find the word. But that’s not typically the case. He knew how to say “take a little rest,” says Train.

Reid could’ve easily communicated to his English-speaking-mate in English. But instead he chose Spanglish.

Both Reid and Stearns married native Spanish speakers. Historians don’t know for sure but assume they spoke Spanish inside their homes. And Reid’s correspondence reflects a sort of back and forth between worlds. The Spanish words often key into domestic affairs, like requests from Reid to buy cloth from Abel Stearns store. Stearns was a merchant. He is credited with helping to start the port in San Pedro.

In another letter, Hugo Reid writes, “… the old woman requires for the house a piece of percale and best in manta blanca. Si no hay percala send her pura manta blanca. I remain yours truly, Perfecto Hugo Reid.”

“Percala” is a type of cloth called percale in English and “manta blanca” is coarse cotton, but the most curious part of the exchange is not Hugo Reid ordering fabric for his wife in Spanish but what he calls his wife in English: “the old woman.” It’s a direct translation, says Train, of how men in Alta California might’ve referred to their wives in Spanish.

“La Vieja, which I guess is the standard use of this time for ‘the old lady,’” Train says.

So what’s the big deal? A few native English speakers spoke Spanglish to each other way back when. What’s this have to do with anything today? Simple, says Train. Hugo Reid’s letters are reminders that California was, is and has always been a multilingual place.

In fact, when California became a state in 1850, the new constitution was written in both English and Spanish. For many years, California laws were written in both languages. But somewhere along the way, English usurped Spanish. And Spanish became, well, a foreign language.

When I learned Spanish in southern California public schools, I learned it as my foreign language prerequisite.

Reading the signs as you drive down Third Street in East LA, Spanish is far from a foreign language. But the real lingua franca is Spanglish. The sign for the East LA institution, King Taco is a great example. “King Taco. The Best Food in Town. Burritos y Tacos Al Pastor. Y Carne Asada. Park here.”

King Taco is an East LA institution. (Nina Porzucki)

King Taco is an East LA institution. (Nina Porzucki)

Robert Train and I did park and eat and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the women sitting at the table next to us. Two young mothers, Desiree Gardenas and Brenda Padilla, and their toddlers are speaking Spanish and English and, yes, Spanglish.

Do you ever mix the languages together, I asked them. Yes, of course they said. It’s normal.

Post lunch, around the corner from King Taco, Train and I made one final stop at the Calvary Cemetery.

It’s a beautiful, old cemetery on a hill. Thousands of stone monuments commemorate the early residents of the pueblo of Los Angeles. And the modern city, with her tall skyscrapers and her smoggy skies, can be seen in the distance. This is where Hugo Reid and Abel Stearns — these early Spanglish speakers — are buried mere miles from where Spanglish continues to thrive.

“I read this part of a whole immigrant story, part of an unexpected one really,” Train says.

Hugo Reid died at the age of 42, just two years after Mexican Alta California became the 31st United State. Incidentally, in his final days he became obsessed with saving another language, the language of the Gabrieleño Indians, the ancestral language of his wife Doña Victoria. Sadly, that language has not survived.

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A bilingual seal of approval for high school graduates

Peter Kuskie and Maria Regalado are students at Hillsboro High in Oregon and are on track to receive a new bilingual seal on their diplomas. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Peter Kuskie and Maria Regalado are students at Hillsboro High in Oregon and are on track to receive a new bilingual seal on their diplomas. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Read this post from Monica Campbell. Or listen to the podcast above.

Let’s take a trip back to September 1995, when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was talking about education on the campaign trail. “If we want to ensure that all of our children had the same opportunities — yours, mine, everyone’s — in America, alternative language education should stop,” he said.

“Alternative education” was a code for bilingual education, and Dole was speaking at a time when states like California banned bilingual programs. The idea was that learning foreign languages was fine, but not to the detriment of being fully literate in English.

A 2012 graduate of the Santa Ana Unified School District wears a medal honoring her bilingualism and holds her diploma with California's bilingual seal. (Photo courtesy of Shelly Spiegel-Coleman)

A 2012 graduate of the Santa Ana Unified School District wears a medal honoring her bilingualism and holds her diploma with California’s bilingual seal. (Photo courtesy of Shelly Spiegel-Coleman)

But those days are fading — and fast. Just head to Hillsboro High School, near Portland, Oregon, and step into the Algebra 2 class. The concepts — open intervals, integers, logarithm rules — are already challenging for most students. Now learn them in Spanish.

From start to finish, teacher Moises Curiel instructs in that language, and the students plug away, asking questions and working through problems in groups.

Learning in another language isn’t a problem, because the students have two things in common: They all know English, and they’ve studied in Spanish for years. Many of the students here either grew up speaking Spanish with their families, or want to speak Spanish themsevles, like Peter Kuskie. He’s a sophomore who grew up speaking only English.

Yet Kuskie’s Spanish is good — really good — because he spends most of his school days moving between classes instructed in both languages.

And while dual-language learning been around for years in the US, what’s new is what Kuskie and many of his classmates will get on their diplomas when they graduate: an embossed seal honoring their bilingualism.

The effort started in California, spearheaded by a statewide coalition called Californians Together, and is now spreading to states like Illinois, New York and Florida. Along with Spanish, there are bilingual diploma seals offered for Mandarin, Vietnamese and other languages

“What we … have been about, really, was to try and change people’s perspectives as well as their feelings about bilingualism,” says Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together.

Arturo Lomeli, Hillsboro High’s principal, hopes the seal will have more than symbolic value. “It’s so demanding, it’s so rigorous,” Lomeli says. “They’re walking in and they’re processing English, Spanish and math and inputting in Spanish what they’re hearing — processing in English, outputting in Spanish.”

Lomeli also points to how some — but not all — studies show that bilingualism slows the brain from aging. Students learning another language are also less distracted, and even earn higher salaries over time.

Hillsboro High teacher Moises Curiel teaches Algebra 2 in Spanish. To honor the students' bilingualism, the school will offer qualifying students a bilingual seal on their diploma. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Hillsboro High teacher Moises Curiel teaches Algebra 2 in Spanish. To honor the students’ bilingualism, the school will offer qualifying students a bilingual seal on their diploma. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Spiegel-Coleman says the United States faces real risks if it continues to be a monolingual culture.

“There are issues of national security,” she says. “You’ve heard from the Department of Defense over and over again that they are lacking professionals who can deal and communicate and negotiate in countries across the world in the language of that country. Going through an interpreter, you lose something.”

But while bilingualism is strengthening in some parts of the US, foreign language instruction is dropping nationwide. One reason is that the federal “No Child Left Behind” law, enacted 12 years ago, stressed traditional subjects.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in some parts of the country also doesn’t help. SEALS_language

Principal Lomeli says he can’t control the political rhetoric, but insists “we need to catch up with the rest of the world. We need to prepare students for a global society, and we haven’t been doing that.”

Some students aren’t worried about issues that are quite that big. For them, mastering another language is a personal matter. Maria Regalado, a junior whose parents are Mexican says, “I’ve had Spanish since I was born. So, I just get to keep it and not let it go, you know?”

She says now she can visit Mexico and “really talk” with her family, and she thinks her improved Spanish will also help her career. She wants to study criminal justice and become a police officer, and she knows some Latino families in the area can’t speak English and can feel distanced from law enforcement. She’s looking forward to bridging that gap.

Kuskie, her classmate, says it was his mom who convinced him to try and become bilingual. She was turned down for a job at a job at health clinic in Hillsboro, an area flush with new immigrants.

“She knows the people there and then they said, ‘Well, you need to learn to speak Spanish.’ So that’s why she couldn’t do that. So she’s been trying to learn Spanish, too,” he says.

Not everyone at the school is on the bilingual track. Kuskie says his friends who aren’t in the program ask him why he takes classes like Algebra 2 in Spanish, and he does acknowledge that it is “a little bit” harder.

But he’s up for the challenge, he say. And for students like Kuskie and Regalado, whose goal is real bilingualism, they’ll have a seal on their diploma to prove that come graduation day.


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Do we still need professional translators to subtitle foreign language movies?

Photo: froussecarton/Creative Commons

Photo: froussecarton/Creative Commons

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

In the beginning there was light, a little music and subtitles, technically called intertitles. I’m talking the beginning of the 20th century, during the silent era of moviemaking, when an image really spoke a thousand words and intertitles were used sparingly to explain action, and dialogue, and exposition.

And then the talkies came. But while Al Jolson’s voice in ‘The Jazz Singer‘ did away with the need for the intertitle to do all that explaining, The Jazz Singer became the first film to need translating. In fact, it was the first film to officially use foreign language subtitles when it opened in Paris in 1929.

In the 80-plus-years since, subtitling has gone from a necessity to an art.

“People aren’t supposed to notice subtitles, if we’re doing our job properly. The ideal situation is when they aren’t even aware they’re reading subtitles,” says John Miller. Miller makes a living as a subtitler in Paris, where he went to school to learn the art of subtitling. And he’s been at it for 20 years translating French films into English.

“The French call ‘subtitlers’ ‘adapters.’ You do have to adapt it, you can’t just take a literal translation of the screenplay and throw it up on the screen. You would spend the whole time reading it and you wouldn’t be able to watch the film,” Miller says.

People can read an average of 12 characters a second, Miller says. A subtitler has about two seconds to relay everything being said to the audience and within those 24 characters, the subtitler not only has to translate what’s said, but all the complexities of everyday speech: puns, jokes, word play.

Sometimes you get lucky and expressions will easily translate from one language to another. But sometimes, says Miller, an expression gets lost in translation or, worse yet, doesn’t translate into American English at all. This happens all the time. In a recent film that Miller had to work on he had to translate the French expression “tu la boucle”

“Tu la boucle, which means shut-up, also means put your seatbelt on. So I [translated] the British English [expression], what I thought was American English too. ‘Belt up!’ which fits perfectly for both meanings, but it apparently [doesn’t mean the same thing] in American English. So I had to lose the double reference and just end up with “Buckle up!”

While subititling may be an art and a profession, increasingly this art is undergoing another evolution. Just like when sound came and turned moviemaking upsidedown, the digitization of film and TV has upended the subtitling industry. Digital media has allowed people around the world to access more content, more quickly. And more content means more subtitles, right?

Enter VIKI, just one of several online crowd-sourced subtitling platforms. The name VIKI is a mash-up of “video” and “wiki,” as in Wikipedia. And the service acts much like Wikipedia: Subtitlers submit translations for peer review, the crowd evaluates the translations, voting things up and down.

VIKI CEO Razmig Hovaghimian began to appreciate subtitles as a kid. He grew up in Egypt but spent his summers in Lebanon — watching Bollywood movies with his dad.

“Neither one of us speaks Hindi, but we just loved it. I remember the Amitab Bachchan movies,” he recalls.

VIKI licenses TV shows and movies from around the world — from Korean dramas, to Latin American soaps to Japanese Anime — and then puts them online so fans from around the world can subtitle them.

“[Some] 200 languages with over 700 million words translated by fans — for free,” Hovaghimian says.

Just who are these fan subbers doing the work for free? They’re teachers, doctors, lawyers, grandmothers, people like you and me, says Hovaghimian. Including retiree Patricia Pon from San Francisco.

Pon is a Cantonese speaker and the translator of more than 200,000 subtitles. What motivates Pon to do this in their spare time for no money? Simple, she says. She got fed up with bad translations. Bad, as in what she considers racy language. Like, for example, she says she was offended by a subtitle from a recent episode of the Korean Drama, Empress Ki. In the soap, the emperor’s concubine gets pregnant and the subtitle was written in a rather colloquial fashion.

“The tramp got knocked up”

“I don’t think so,” Pon says. She would’ve translated the line as “The consort was pregnant.”

Consort, tramp, concubine — subtitling risks a certain subjectivity. Would a retiree translate a Hong Kong gangster flick the same as a teenager? Does it matter? No, according to Razmig, that’s the beauty of the crowd. Subtitles are vetted and edited by many. And then the content can quickly be consumed by many more. And these rapid translations have led to the globalization of film and TV at hyper-speed in rather unexpected places.

“We had Egyptian movies that were doing great in Dutch. We have Korean movies that are doing phenomenal in Saudi Arabia. It’s actually our number one country for it. And it’s in Arabic subtitles,” Hovaghimian says.

VIKI is just one service in an ever-expanding world of crowd-sourced subtitles. While professional subtitler John Miller isn’t worried about being “crowded out” of his profession, he and fellow English-language subtitlers in Paris have felt the squeeze.

“It is a professional job. You wouldn’t necessarily want to have crowd-sourced surgeons or crowd-sourced mechanics. So, while what we do isn’t life or death, it is to the detriment of the films if they’re being done by people who, well, they’re certainly not professionals,” Miller says.

Certainly, Pon and her subbing pals aren’t claiming to be professionals. And the subtitles you’ll be reading at your local art house theatre aren’t the crowdsourced kind — at least not yet.


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Remembrance of the Man who Translated Proust

Photo: louveciennes/Flickr Creative Commons

Photo: louveciennes/Flickr Creative Commons

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

It’s not often that a translator has a story as good as the author himself. But C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s was wild enough to seem like fiction.

Moncrieff was the first person to translate Marcel Proust’s seven-volume epic, “Remembrance of Things Past” into English. He was also a poet, a soldier during World War I and a spy in Mussolini’s Italy.

But Moncrieff’s own life was mostly hidden, according to his great great-niece Jean Findlay. She recently published the book “Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator.”

“All I really knew about him is that he had translated Proust,” Findlay says. “His life story was really kept hidden from me. Nobody had investigated it very much — mainly because they were ashamed of the fact that he was a homosexual.”
Findlay’s own interest in her great great-uncle began after her mother handed Findlay a suitcase full of his poetry.

“He had a book of poems that he’d kept since adolescence, which were mainly written in pencil,” she says. “A lot of them were first dedicated to a girl, and then dedicated to a boy. A lot of them were erotic and a lot of them were poems which had multi-layers and hidden meanings, and I realized that this was a very complex and exciting person.”

Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff was born at the start of the 20th century. “He was a bit of genius: He learned French when three from a Belgian nanny, and then he was a brilliant translator of Latin and Greek at the age of 11,” Findlay says.

He was a voracious reader, going through the entire library at his boarding school. He also began writing and publishing his poems at age 16.

He started working as a translator after returning home from World War I, and even his first translations weren’t anything to scoff at. He translated “La Chanson de Roland,” or “The Song of Roland,” from medieval French, and then went on to translate Beowulf from Old English.

In 1922, he tackled “Swann’s Way” — the first volume of Proust’s epic, “Remembrance of Things Past.”

The translation proved to be a challenge, not the least because of the dense and complicated prose — one page could often be one whole sentence. But, according to Findlay, the manuscript itself was a mess as well.

“The version he was given was a very complicated version, because it had been published during the first World War, when there weren’t very many typesetters,” Findlay explains. “They mixed up a lot of the objects and subjects of the sentences. So very often it was a work on interpretation and guess work.”

Even Moncrieff’s translation of the title, “Remembrance of Things Past,” was also called into question. It’s a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

“He thought that that line from Shakespeare contained enough references to cover the ambiguities in the French [“À la recherche du temps perdu”], which is about in search of lost time and wasted time,” Findlay says.

Proust himselt didn’t like Moncrieff’s title: He wanted the translator to put a “To” at the beginning: “To Remembrance of Lost Time.”

“And then [Proust] said, ‘Well my English isn’t that good, so that might not be a good idea,’” Findlay says.

Moncrieff’s translation of Proust went on to be the authoritative version for many years. A new translation wasn’t even published until 2002. That attempt took seven translators and seven years to write. Moncrieff also took seven years to complete the work — in between spying for the British in Mussolini’s Italy as well as translating other authors, like Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello.

Moncrieff’s version went on to influence authors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. “In fact, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that she was reading Scott Moncrieff’s Proust, and it was so exciting it was almost like a sexual experience,” Findlay says.

She re-read her great great-uncle’s translation while she was working on his biography. “I think he’s better and better the more you read him,” she says.

“You can actually open Proust anywhere in the enormous novel and find something which is utterly poetic and meaning and will take you back into yourself,” Findlay says. “It’s a bit like meditation: It takes time apart. It can make one second an entire chapter.”


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