Tag Archives: translator

How do you say ‘shutdown’ in Spanish or Chinese? Crisis leaves translation contracts in limbo

Antonio Guerra, Cetra's Director of Interpreting Services, with his team of interpreters at the U.S. Pacific Command's 13th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference in Seoul, South Korea (Photo courtesy of Antonio Guerra)

Antonio Guerra, Cetra’s Director of Interpreting Services, with his team of interpreters at the U.S. Pacific Command’s 13th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference in Seoul, South Korea (Photo courtesy of Antonio Guerra)

Here’s a guest post from Philadelphia-based reporter Yowei Shaw

The US Pacific Command has canceled its 16th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference, scheduled for Oct. 21 to 24 in Honolulu — much to the chagrin of Cetra Language Solutions, a small foreign language services company that was contracted by the federal government to provide interpreters at the event.

“We are directly affected by the government shutdown,” says Cetra’s CEO and President Jiri Stejskal, who founded the Philadelphia-headquartered company in 1997 when he started getting so much work as a freelance translator, he couldn’t handle it by himself. He learned of the canceled conference last week, 13 days before the event was supposed to start.

“It was canceled last-minute,” Stejskal says. “The equipment has been shipped. We have about 25 interpreters who have flight tickets and everything. It’s just a total nightmare.”

The company is counting on the $141,000 federal contract, which is now a big question mark.

For the past several years, the language industry has been booming, due in large part to an uptick in federal contracts for defense and intelligence agencies after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Globalization and the federal government’s recognition of an increasingly multilingual US society have also contributed to this growth. A Common Sense Advisory report found that federal spending on language contracts skyrocketed from nearly $14.9 million in 1990 to more than $1 billion in 2009.

But the continuing government shutdown has put foreign language companies like Cetra in a hard place. “It’s been a little bit of a downer, to put it bluntly,” says Thaddeus Thaler, director of federal services at Cetra.

Thaler has been working hard on the situation at Cetra’s northern Virginia office, trying to get reimbursed by the federal government. He says, luckily, Cetra’s contract with Pacific Command included a 100 percent refund policy if the conference was canceled within 14 days of starting.

“And the reason why we have a 100 percent cancellation policy at that point is to make sure our interpreters are paid for those days regardless of the situation, because it’s so difficult for them to go out and find new work,” Thaler says. “Otherwise they’re going to be out several hundred dollars — if not more — for those number of days that they missed.”

But even with that policy, it’s not yetclear that Cetra will get all of its money back or that the federal government will cover the cost of the interpreters’ fees. The Defense Department notified Cetra that the conference was canceled due to the shutdown, much to the surprise of Antonio Guerra, Cetra’s director of interpreting services.

“I was very shocked to find out that this was considered nonessential military activity,” Guerra says. “It’s a very important event. It’s a very important conference and I’ve seen it year after year.”

This year would have been Guerra’s fourth time at the high-level conference, which brings together the chiefs of defense from 37 Asia Pacific countries on a yearly basis to promote cooperation and stability in the region. Guerra says that in the past, the conference has focused on issues like climate change, the economy and the political climate in certain countries, including terrorist factions in Indonesia, in addition to disasters like the Fukushima crisis.

In a somewhat cruel twist of irony, the very same day that Cetra got news of the canceled conference, an auditor from the General Services Administration came to the office to do a biannual audit, to ensure the company was reporting its sales properly.

“So he spent three or four hours in our office,” Stejskal says. “So that piece of government seems to be up and running happily.”

Jiri Stejskal (Photo: Yowei Shaw)

Jiri Stejskal (Photo: Yowei Shaw)

So far, the chiefs of defense conference is the only federal contract that has been canceled for Cetra. But the company is closely monitoring its other federal contracts. And even with the looming threat of a U.S. debt default, Cetra is in a better position than other foreign language companies that provide services only to the federal government. Federal contracts make up roughly a third of Cetra’s business, but Stejskal says he’s thinking of reducing that number in the future because of the shutdown — which was the last thing he expected to happen.

“We’ve been serving the federal government for close to 15 years now and even though it’s a difficult client, given all the bureaucracy and red tape, one of the reasons we’ve been doing it for the past 15 years is because we knew we would get paid,” Stejskal says. “And that’s changing now.”


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Africa’s Translation Gap

A new Translators Without Borders report says most African nations are in dire need of translation services. Report co-author Nataly Kelly talks about how that might happen, and how translation can save lives and foster democratic values.

For Hillary Clinton’s latest trip to Africa, she probably didn’t need to take along many translators or interpreters. Maybe just a French speaker. Of the nine countries on her itinerary, seven are considered Anglophone and two Francophone.

That, of course, does not tell the whole story—far from it. In one of those Anglophone countries, Nigeria, more than 500 languages are spoken.

It’s mainly the elite who speak these colonial languages. In Uganda, it’s English, in Senegal, French, in Mozambique, Portuguese. But most people—especially outside the big cities—don’t understand those languages.

That’s a huge problem for aid agencies trying to get the word out about disease prevention. The brochures, leaflets and posters they distribute tend to be written in those colonial languages.

Lori Thicke, who runs Translators Without Borders, told me that she’s visited villages in Africa where you can find a plentiful supply of brochures about AIDS prevention. Many contain technical and sensitive information: how to practise safe sex, how to use a condom. But because the brochures are in written in European languages, it’s often the case that that the not a single villager understands them.

Nataly Kelly

I also talked with Nataly Kelly of translation industry research group Common Sense Advisory. She co-authored a report for Translators Without Borders on the state of the translation industry in Africa. You can hear our conversation in the podcast. The bottom line is that, aside from South Africa, no sub-Saharan African nation has much of a translation industry.

There are signs of change. Some African nations are starting to promote their indigenous languages. There’s a debate in Ghana about replacing English as the official language, or augmenting it, with one or more of the more prominent local languages.

The problem is, none of those local languages is spoken across Ghana. They’re regional, and so adopting one of those as the official language would give the impression of favoring a single linguistic and ethnic group.

In South Africa, there are eleven official languages That’s helped with the status of some of the less widely spoken ones, like Ndebele and Venda. It means that some official documents must be published in those languages. That raises their status and has spawned a translation industry—something that barely exists around minority languages elsewhere in Africa.

Many Africans speak two or more languages. In Cameroon, it’s not uncommon to find people who speak four or five languages. That’s led some outsiders to assume that Africa doesn’t have a translation deficit. But it does. Speaking a second language doesn’t automatically make you a translator.

You need training to be able to translate. You also need tools: dictionaries and glossaries of technical terms. And you need to be online to access them.

Translators Without Borders has started a training program for translators in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. They’ve begun with Swahili. It’s the closest Africa has to its own link language, spoken now by an estimated 40 million people.

There’s also a Translators Without Borders project that connects volunteer translators with Wikipedia and local mobile phone operators. The idea is to translate Wikipedia articles on AIDS, malaria and the like into local languages, and then make them accessible on people’s phones.

But it’s slow-going: Translators Without Borders has only a handful of volunteers who know those African languages.



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Packing flashcards, Pandas and Polyglotty Olympics

So it’s another edition top five language stories of the past month, with The World’s cartoon queen and podstar Carol Hills.

5. The End of Bo.  As repeat readers and listeners know, I’m on the fence when it comes to recording the death of  languages.  No, it’s not that. It’s really that I can’t come up with a storyline that isn’t just a repeat (in a tediously predictible public radio way) of the last time a language died. You know the drill:  elderly speaker of said language passes on, leaving a the very last speaker without a linguistic buddy. Cue  scratchy audio of aforementioned last speaker reciting a poem or prayer. That’s certainly also the case with Bo. Boa Senior (pictured left) was about 85 when she died earlier this year. You can listen to the scratchy audio of Boa Senior here. The difference though, with Bo is that it’s far, far older than most languages. Some linguists claim it is among the world’s original languages, possibly 70,000 years old. That’s where in this case, the storyline differs. RIP Bo.

4. Canada’s polyglot Olympics. The Vancouver Olympics were broadcast all over the world in hundreds of languages. But even in Canada they were broadcast in more than twenty languages, including Cree and seven other native languages.  (That’s Cree in the picture, rendered in Canadian Aboriginal Syllabic characters). We hear from Cree commentator Abel Charles who must have had occasion to yell Kitahaskwew pitikwataw! (“He shoots! He scores!”) a few times on the way to Canada’s gold medals in both men’s and women’s hockey. Cree is not an economical language: pretty much everything takes longer to say in Cree than in English, so Charles has his work cut out for him.

3. Bilingual Pandas. So two giant pandas that have been on loan to the United States have been returned to China. They were actually born in the U.S. but had to be “returned” to China under an agreement between the two countries.  In the U.S. they learned a few words of English. But what good will that do them in China? More importantly perhaps, will the body language and gestures of their Chinese keepers confuse them? Will they feel comfortable enough in the new — and, species-wise, original — environs to think about mating? Pandas being pandas, maybe not.

2. Two disturbing lawsuits. Americans’ appetite for suing each other sometimes takes my breath away. But– I know —  there can be good reasons for litigation. Consider these linguistic lawsuits: #1: Nicholas George, an American studying Arabic at Pomona College, California has teamed up with the ACLU to sue the Transportation Security Administration over his detention at Philadelphia’s airport. TSA officers grew suspicious when they saw the student’s Arabic flashcards, which included the words bomb and terrorism. The suit contends that the officers asked George whether he was Muslim or “pro-Islamic.” Lawsuit#2: School secretary Ana Ligia Mateo, hired in part because she was bilingual, is suing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina.  A new principal at Mateo’s school had issued an English-only policy that banned Mateo from speaking Spanish, not just with students but with their parents. Mateo refused to comply with the new policy was “effectively terminated.”

1. Wartime translator. The Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, is working on that holy grail of handheld translators: a device that can recognize up to 20 languages and  translate them with 98% accuracy. Previous attempts have met with  mixed success. Remember the Phraselator? The new device will have to do better with dialects: Arabic, for example, has a ton of them.  And even though this is military research, its application will be greatly felt in the civilian world.

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Birds, urls and Glaswegians

For the latest newsy pod, Carol Hills and Clark Boyd from the Big Show help me pick our top five language-related stories from the past month:

White-crowned-Sparrow (Photo: Wolfgang Wander via Wikipedia)

White-crowned-Sparrow (Photo: Wolfgang Wander via Wikipedia)

5. Some birds develop  distinct dialects based on the decibel levels of their habitats. Dialect here is a term of art. It does not mean that birds living in say, North Carolina  chirp the avian version of  “y’all.” No, it means that over time, some bird species can change the frequency, pitch and volume of their song according to their sonic environment.  The latest study, of the white-crowned sparrow (pictured) shows that urban noise appears to have a profound impact on birdsong.

There is a BBC story from a few years ago suggesting  that cows pick up on regional human accents. But, alas, the story may have been largely bogus.

glasgow ad

4. A British translation firm is offering to provide local interpreters to companies doing business in Glasgow.  Proof that there are many, many variations of English, even on one medium-sized island. This service may be more useful at football match or a betting shop than in a boardroom: I can’t imagine that white-collar Glaswegians use terms like moroculous, laldy and maw during working hours. But it is true that Glasgow English is a massive challenge, especially for non-native English speakers. As is Newcastle, Liverpool and Swansea English.

3.The French President Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for reforms in how foreign languages are taught in schools.  Surpringly,  France lags behind many other developed countries when it comes to bilingualism and foreign language learning, as discussed in a couple of  earlier posts and podcasts. Now, doubtless spurred by The World in Words’ efforts to give this matter an airing, the French government is vowing to act. The proposed reforms  haven’t been decided upon yet, but they seem likely to favor oral skills over grammar.  Some European language-learning groups however,  are skeptical that the reforms will help much.

2. Chinese expats are doing battle over which script U.S. schools should use to teach Chinese. Schools have two options — traditional characters, favored in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or simplified characters, used in mainland China. Where there is a large expat Taiwanese community, as there is in certain parts of Los Angeles,  schools are more likely to use traditional characters. But that’s changing, as more Chinese communites outside of China (eg in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) switch to simplified characters. And all that trade that the U.S. does with mainland China means that it makes a lot of sense to learn the script in use there.  However, proponents of traditional characters aren’t giving up without a fight, sometimes perhaps to the detriment of the kids trying to learn the language.

1.  The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is going linguistically global.  This is the organization that oversees and sets certain rules for domain names. ICANN is now allowing non Latin script urls. It’s something Latin script-writers think of as a mere technicality. But if you’re not used to writing Latin script, it’s a major pain to have to. So this should make the internet accessible to even more people around the world. And who knows, the Georgian script on the banner of this blog may one day end up as part of  a domain name. (I took the photo. It’s of a billboard above a highway in central Georgia. The messages, courtesy of the government, are patriotic slogans.  Someone told me exactly what the words mean, but…sorry, I’ve forgotten.)

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