New Languages Take Tweets in Another Direction

Twitter added four new language options to its translation repertoire last week: Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew and Urdu. Like the other languages that the popular online messaging service has been translated into, the task was crowdsourced to volunteers via Twitter’s translation center, allowing it to be completed in just a couple of months. Twitter described the process on its blog:

“We first added these four languages to the Twitter Translation Center on January 25. Thirteen thousand volunteers around the globe immediately got to work, translating and localizing into these languages in record time.”

Unlike English (and most of the other languages Twitter has been translated into thus far), these languages are all written and read from right-to-left. Therefore, bringing them to Twitter posed special challenges, requiring more involvement from Twitter engineers and making the short turnaround time even more impressive. As Twitter localization manager Laura Gomez explained to the Los Angeles Times:

“The anatomy of a Tweet by nature can be complex since it often contains a mix of text, links and hashtags. Adding RTL to the mix raises its own technical and design challenges. For this launch, we had to make a number of improvements to ensure Tweets look and behave correctly RTL.”

Twitter is now available in 28 languages, further cementing its role in connecting people both within and across cultures and countries. Several of the countries that use the languages included in this most recent batch of translations have banned Twitter for its role in coordinating protests against authoritarian governments. Some of the volunteers who translated the site had to navigate past government blocks of the service to do so.

However, as Annabelle Sreberny, professor of global media and communications at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told the BBC, Twitter is an important tool for protesters but it isn’t the only or even the most important one:

“It is just one among a range of tools and platforms that people use. I think the parallel would be the making available of tools to help people blog in Persian in 2002-3 by Hossein Derakshan. His manual on how to blog in the language helped trigger a huge boom in Persian voices on the internet.”

Image Credits: Attribution Some rights reserved by A l i ~ فـرز الـوغـى

It’s Irish Language Week!

There’s no doubt about it, March belongs to the Irish. It’s not just St. Patrick’s Day, either- right now, we are in the middle of Seachtain na Gaeilge. Though ” Seachtain na Gaeilge” is usually translated as “Irish Language Week,” the festival actually runs for two weeks each year.

The first Seachtain na Gaeilge was held in 1903, by the Irish language organization Conradh na Gaeilge.  Since then, it has evolved into an international celebration of Irish language and culture, according to the Seachtain na Gaeilge website:

“The festival has built up incredible momentum in recent years, becoming the largest celebration of our native language and culture held in Ireland every year and sweeping other countries up in the whirlwind along the way.   With events ranging from simple conversational evenings to street céilís; speed dating to wine tasting it gives everyone a chance to experiment with Irish whether fluent from youth or only dipping their toe in for the first time.   Organisations, local councils, schools, libraries, music, sporting & cultural bodies all register their Seachtain na Gaeilge events with us.”

So, what’s going on this year? Tomorrow in Dublin, there will be a performance of Irish ballads and other traditional music .Meanwhile, across the sea in America, Moya Brennan will be performing in Boston.  During the two week period, schools across Ireland are having traditional dances called céilithe. Libraries are hosting free Irish classes for people who’d like to learn. Irish karaoke nights, dances and bingo are also popular ways of celebrating  Seachtain na Gaeilge.

To celebrate, you might want to teach yourself a little bit of the language. If so,  check out our entry on Gaelic translators for some great online resources.



Sami People Travel To Israel To Revive Lost Languages

For thousands of years, the Sami people roamed across in the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland, as well as Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Semi-nomadic, they hunted, trapped, fished and herded reindeer, remaining culturally and linguistically distinct from the Europeans around them.

As Scandinavia was carved up into modern nation-states, the Sami came under the jurisdiction of the governments of those states, and their minority culture fell victim to those governments’ desire for cultural and linguistic homogeneity.

Only in recent decades have organized efforts been made to preserve the Sami culture and their native languages. Now, the Sami are getting help from a seemingly unlikely source: Israel, whose efforts to revive the Hebrew language have been wildly successful. As CBS recently reported, a Sami delegation recently visited the country in an effort to learn better ways of teaching the Sami languages to adults who grew up without them.

The Sami language family consists of 11 different languages. Of those 11, two are already extinct, one is moribund, one is dying, and the rest are somewhere along the spectrum from “endangered” to “seriously endangered.”

The odds may sound daunting, but Hebrew overcame even greater odds- extinct as a native language since the 4th century CE, it was revived after the state of Israel was established and now has 3 million native speakers.

While European regions like Wales have created successful programs to teach native languages to children, the Israelis are considered the experts in language revival among adults.

As Odd Willenfeldt, principal of Sami School for Mid-Norway, explained to the Associated Press, that’s exactly the kind of expertise the Sami people need now:

“We are trying different methods for 20, 30 years and we haven’t succeeded in increasing the number of fluent Sami speakers. So we are looking for methods that are good and have shown results to make people bilingual.”

Hebrew did have some advantages that the Sami languages do not. Scandinavian governments are now investing in efforts to revive the Sami languages, and they are official languages of traditionally Sami municipalities in Sweden, Finland and Norway. However, for the most part, Sami has ceased to be an essential part of daily life even in these regions. Israel was and is a nation of immigrants, all of whom needed a common tongue to be able to communicate with each other. Hebrew filled that role, and the practice of teaching it to new Israeli immigrants means that it will continue to do so.

Still, Lars Joar Halonen, another member of the delegation, told the AP that despite these disadvantages, he thinks the Sami people’s will to preserve their language and culture is strong enough that it will endure:

“Many of the people we’re talking about, the language of their hearts is Sami. … They call themselves Sami, they are Sami, they are proud to be Sami and they keep the language of their hearts. They probably know some phrases in Sami and some Christian songs in Sami. They have a belonging to the language.”

Hopefully, that’s enough.

CNN's Translation of Japanese Memo Contested

Has CNN found Toyota’s smoking gun, or is it just a case of incorrect translation?

From 2009 to 2011, the Japanese automaker issued a series of recalls prompted by reports of “sudden unintended acceleration,” in which cars seemed to accelerate of their own accord. Investigations by NASA and the National Highway Safety Association found that the problems were due to defects in the cars’ floor mats and accelerator pedals, but some consumers and consumer advocacy groups have accused Toyota of hiding a problem in the vehicle’s electrical systems.

Last week, CNN broadcast a special report that seemed to prove them right. The report was based on a confidential memo, originally written in 2006 in Japanese. When CNN had it translated, the translation appeared to imply that “Toyota engineers found an electronic software problem that caused “sudden unintended acceleration” in a test vehicle during pre-production trials.” The memo was not provided to the appropriate US government agencies during their investigation of Toyota.

Understandably, Toyota is less than pleased with CNN’s report, which they called “grossly inaccurate” in a press release. They claim that CNN’s translations (all three of them) are wrong and misleading. According to Toyota, the seemingly damning phrase “sudden unintended acceleration,” present in the second translation of the document, never appears in the original Japanese text:

“The translation of “勝手に,” which appears in the document, actually translates to “by itself” (as it does in the first translation by CNN) or “on its own”… and “ 発進” correctly translates to “starts out.” This phrase “starts out on its own” is used to refer to the fact that the adaptive cruise control (ACC) was preparing to resume its pre-set speed. This is not a reference to sudden unintended acceleration. In fact, notes from the translator hired by CNN explicitly acknowledge that: “I added these words based on my understanding of the context.”

Toyota also argues that the memo has been taken out of out context, saying that the test it described involved a situation that was completely unrelated to the vehicle recalls, and that the car in the test not only never accelerated, but never even moved forward at all.

Regardless of the truth, this situation highlights how important it is for translators to have as much context for their translations as possible. This is even more true when it comes to highly technical documents. In the second translation especially, you can see that the translator was at times quite unsure as to the intended meanings behind some of the Japanese characters.

Image CreditAttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Toyota Motor Europe

How to Talk Like a Southerner

The southern United States is one of the most famous and culturally distinctive regions of the country. Stereotypes and misconceptions abound- the American South of today doesn’t look much like “Gone with the Wind,” and thankfully, it doesn’t resemble “Deliverance,” either.  However, it does have a dialect all its own. Here are some of the things you might hear people say if you travel there:

Y’all: Short for “you all.”  Example: “Y’all come back now, you hear?”

Bless your little heart: Depending on the situation, this phrase can either be a heartfelt expression of sympathy or a particularly condescending insult.  Example: “Paula Deen has diabetes. Bless her little heart!” “Bless his little heart, he just can’t help it. You can’t fix stupid!”

Toboggan: Everywhere else (except parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio, a commenter has pointed out), a “toboggan” is a sled. In the southern United States, a sled is a sled and a toboggan is a knit cap worn in cold weather. This word is often abbreviated as “boggan.” Example: “Put on your ‘boggan before you go sledding, or you’re like to catch your death of cold!”

Aim to: Intend to or plan to. Example:  “I am to go into the city this weekend.”

Holler: A small, sheltered valley. Example: “My family lives in the holler.”

You might could:  Maybe you can.  Example: “You might could fix it with duct tape.”

No ‘count: Not worth anything. Example: “She married a no ‘count bastard. He just sits at home and drinks beer all day.”

Ain’t: Is not, are not, am not: Example: “We ain’t going out today. That ain’t gonna happen.”

Like to: Likely to, nearly or almost. Example: “I was so surprised I like to died of shock!”

Cat-head: A large, homemade, irregularly-shaped breakfast roll. The rest of the US calls these “biscuits.” Example: “Mama made a pan of cat-heads and gravy for breakfast.”

Coke: Originally short for “Coca-Cola,” this is used in the American South to refer to any carbonated beverage, regardless of brand or flavor. Example: “What kind of Coke would you like? We have regular coke, Sprite and Dr. Pepper.”

Reckon: Guess or suppose. Example: “I reckon we’ll be by about 10 o’clock.”

Do you know anyone from the American South? Share your favorite regional words and sayings in the comments!


Native American Girl Punished for Translation

Decades ago, the US government made a conscious effort to force Native American children to forget their tribal languages. In many regions, native children were taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools, where they were not only encouraged to speak English put actually punished for speaking their own languages.

So, when teachers in a small-town Catholic School took it upon themselves to reprimand a 12-year-old Menominee student for translating a few basic English phrases into the Menominee language, it’s only natural that a firestorm ensued.

Here’s the story, as reported in the Toronto Star. After the girl, Miranda Washinawatok, translated “hello,” “I love you” and “thank you” into Menominee for other students in the class, her teacher, Julie Gurta snapped at her in class. Ms. Gurta’s rationale was that since she couldn’t understand Menominee, the children could be using it to say something improper behind her back.

As if that overreaction wasn’t enough, the girl was singled out again in her next class by the teacher for “upsetting” Ms. Gurta. Then, she was benched at a basketball game for the same reason.

Miranda’s mother went to the local news station after the school refused to clarify the disciplinary actions taken against her daughter.

That got results, as the Catholic diocese that runs the school agreed to meet with Miranda’s mother and her great-uncle, anti-racism activist Richie Plass. Despite the obvious echo of the “bad old days,” Plass attributed the problem to cultural ignorance rather than malicious racism. He told the Toronto Star:

“What’s become apparent to a lot of people in the diocese and the decision-makers especially is how much their staff and people flat-out don’t know when it comes to our culture. With this issue — and we don’t know what happened before now — to me I don’t think it was racist. I think it was ignorance. It’s ignorance and a form of intolerance.”

Meanwhile, the diocese spokesperson acknowledged that “the whole situation was handled poorly by the school. It was a wake-up call for us. This brought a lot of issues, emotion and anger to the forefront. There’s a lot there we need to work on.”

They might start by working with Ms. Gurta, who sent a letter to the family explaining her actions in which she accused Miranda of “increas[ing] increase racial and cultural tensions.”

How does a school in a heavily Native American area manage to remain so ignorant of the history of language suppression that they faced? And shouldn’t they be encouraging students to take pride in their heritage and speak a language that considered “highly endangered,” with only 130 native speakers left?  More broadly, shouldn’t hearing someone speak another language (especially when they’re more than willing to translate for you) be treated as an opportunity to learn rather than a threat?

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