Interesting & varied language stories from all around the world, curated by our dedicated writer. From the topical to the absurd, the grand and the obscure, it’s all here for you to enjoy.

Covfefe, Bridget Jones in Japanese, and Brexit’s Silver Lining: 10 Language Stories to Read Today

Need something to get you over the hump this Wednesday? Get your language and translation water cooler fodder here! We’ve selected 10 stories from the past month that are interesting, thought-provoking or just plain funny. Enjoy!

Arab Women Writers, Lost in Translation

Translation is about so much more than words. Context matters, too. In this article, Pakistani writer Rafia Zakaria examines how the words of female Arabic writers often lose meaning in translation, as Western translators interpret them in the context of their own stereotypes.  Even the nickname of Arab poetess Al-Khansaa is usually mistranslated, according to Zakaria: It’s rendered as “pug-nosed” in English when it actually refers to a gazelle.

For more on the difficulties of literary translation, read: The Challenges of Translating Literature 

Need to Double-Check Google Translate? There’s an App for That

But does it work? Boomerang is an app that is supposed to help you avoid those ubiquitous Google Translate errors. Here’s how it works. First, you plug in the phrase you want to be translated. Then, Boomerang runs it through Google Translate. Finally, it translates the result back into your language.

Of course, back translation by human translators is a common quality control procedure. And back translation with machines could certainly catch some errors . . . but it’s unlikely to catch all of them. And it doesn’t tell you what to say instead. Read more

Translation at the UN

Translation at the UN: 5 Ways Translators and Interpreters Power the United Nations

Last month, the United Nations officially recognized our favorite holiday (and no, it’s not Christmas). In a new resolution on 24 May, the UN declared September 30th International Translation Day to recognize the important role translators and interpreters play in the organization.

And it’s hard to overstate how much the UN depends on these services. Here are 5 ways translation and interpretation keep the United Nations running.

Translation at the UN: Support for 6 Official Languages

The UN has 6 official languages:  Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. As an organization, it is committed to multilingualism. Naturally, almost everything the organization does is translated into each of these 6 languages.

As the UN website observes,

The correct interpretation and translation of these six languages, in both spoken and written form, is very important to the work of the Organization, because this enables clear and concise communication on issues of global importance.

Without the efforts of translators and interpreters, working in 6 different languages would be difficult, to say the least. But why not just choose one language for everyone to use? First of all, doing so would create a situation that favors native speakers of one official language over the other five. Most people are simply more comfortable communicating in their native language.

Secondly, in politics, appearances count. And favoring one official language over the others looks bad for an organization that’s supposed to fairly balance the interests of 193 different nations. Read more

multilingual content marketing strategies

4 Multilingual Content Marketing Strategies Worth Stealing

Experts agree: Multilingual content marketing is the future, and the future is now.

But content marketing can be hard to get right, even in one language.  Not just any content will do. You need content that attracts attention, provides useful information, builds relationships, and helps potential customers learn to trust you.

How do you do that in multiple languages? Here are 4 multilingual content marketing strategies worth stealing from brands that have been successful:

Unbounce’s Winning Multilingual Content Marketing Strategy: Hire a Local Marketing Ambassador

Unbounce is a landing page and conversion marketing platform that helps marketers build, test and optimize landing pages. The company relies heavily on content marketing to grow their English-language business. They have a popular blog, a robust social media presence and a treasure trove of resources for marketers.

In 2015, they began expanding into the German market. Naturally, there’s an excellent post on the Unbounce blog about the process they used. One key recommendation: Hire a local marketing ambassador. 

Unbounce’s Ben Harmanus uses his knowledge of the local area to select content to translate from English, position it appropriately, and build Unbounce’s German language community on social media.

As Unbounce’s  Stefanie Grieser put it, “The day a brand gets a local ambassador is the day they truly become a local player.” Read more

A Brief History of the Umlaut

Have you ever wondered why some letters in languages like German have those funny dots above them? Do they have a purpose? And if so, what is it?

Fear not, we’re here to help! Those little dots are called umlauts. Here’s a brief history to explain what they are, why they exist and what they mean.

What is an umlaut?

In linguistics, an umlaut is “a sound change in which a vowel is pronounced more like a following vowel or semivowel.” Languages change over time. And since people are inherently lazy, these changes are often motivated by a desire to reduce the amount of effort needed to create a given sound.  Hence, the umlaut.

In German, the umlaut punctuation mark is used to indicate this sound shift. In medieval times, scribes indicated umlauted vowels by placing a small letter “e” directly above them. Over time, the “e” evolved into 2 bars, and then finally into two dots.

German orthography includes ä, ö, ü as “special characters.” They aren’t considered part of the alphabet in their own right. But they’re still important.

So, what do they sound like? If the words “vowel fronting” don’t mean anything to you, this handy YouTube video should clear up the confusion:

Umlauts Are Kind of a Big Deal

Read more

apps for endangered languages

6 Apps For Endangered Languages

By the end of this century, linguists expect more than half of the languages in the world to die. It’s a bleak statistic, especially given how deeply language and cultural identity are bound together. But linguists, language activists and the people who speak endangered languages are fighting back.

Want to save an endangered language? There might be an app for that! There are apps to teach endangered languages to people who don’t speak them.  Alternately, some apps make it easy to record native speakers of any endangered language, translate what they’re saying, and share it with linguists and language preservationists.

If you’re interested in learning or preserving an endangered language, here are 6 apps for endangered languages that might interest you:

Ma! Iwaidja

Language: Iwaidja, an indigenous Australian language. There are only about 150 Iwaidja speakers left, although children are still learning it. This app serves two purposes:

  • It teaches the language, with a dictionary, a phrasebook and a “Wordmaker” that lets users experiment with phrases and sentences to see how different elements of Iwaidga grammar and syntax work together.
  • It allows anyone working with Iwaidja speakers to input new words, phrases, and translations.

Read more

Slang Around the World- Colorful Words and Phrases to Tickle Your Funny Bone

Your English teacher may not have approved of it. And the older generations may start muttering about kids and lawns when they hear it. But slang helps keep languages interesting and alive. And many of the words and expressions we use today started out as slang. Often playful and colorful, slang is like a laboratory for language.

Slang is everywhere, and most of it defies direct translation. Want to learn more about slang around the world? We’ve collected some of the funniest and most interesting slang words and phrases in different languages.

Funny Australian Slang: Who gave that lizard a beer?

Australia is known for its colorful way with the English language. Here’s one of the most puzzling Aussie phrases:

Flat out like a lizard drinking.

Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with drunk reptiles. Instead, it means you’re extremely busy.

Long Teeth and Spanish Cows: Funny French Slang

Avoir les dents longues. 

Translation: Long in the tooth.
Meaning: In English, of course, this expression means “old” or “elderly.” In French, though, it simply means “ambitious.”

Spanish cow is funny French slang.

Who are you calling a Spanish cow?

Parler comme une vache espagnole.

Translation: To talk like a Spanish cow.
Meaning:  To speak poorly.

Arrête de te la péter.

Translation: Stop snapping your suspender against your chest. But “péter” also means “to fart.”
Meaning:  Stop bragging. Read more

US “Alt-Right” Gets Lost in Translation

The “alt-right” was a notable force in last year’s election for US president. The loosely organized collective of right-wing trolls spread memes and “fake news,” helping to influence public opinion against Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump. They certainly weren’t the only factor, but they had an impact.

But when they tried to duplicate their success in the French election, they failed. And while their failure inspired sighs of relief from people around the world, it’s also an informative case study on the importance of localization. Here are 3 lessons we can learn from it.

Assess The Market

Before selling your product in a new territory,  you need to research the market. How will your product fit in? What are your target customers like? How do they get their information? That rule holds even if your “product” is a loathsome ideology.

According to the New York Times,  “alt-right” trolls from a particularly vile corner of 4chan issued a “call to arms” after the announcement of a runoff election between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. The results:

Within days, the online thread — and similar discussions across the internet — was flooded with hundreds of users in the United States offering to help the digital campaign.

But the American tactics have not translated overseas.

It’s not just that their candidate lost. The New York Times commissioned a social media analysis to see how well the “digital campaign” penetrated the French market. Apparently, not very well:

The analysis . . .  showed that more than one-third of posts linked to certain political hashtags originated from the United States, although few went viral in France.

So, despite the global nature of the Internet, US-based social media chatter about the French election tended to stay in the United States.

Different Countries, Different Cultures, Different Marketing

Read more

Star Wars Translations, Emoji, Talking Dolphins and More: 9 Language and Translation Stories Worth Reading

Waiting impatiently for the weekend to start? We’ve handpicked 9 interesting stories from the world of language and translation to keep you informed (and amused):

French Translation of Last Jedi Trailer Prompts Questions

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve probably seen the Last Jedi trailer already. If you’ve missed it, you can watch it below. Go ahead, we’ll wait:

So, it’s time for the Jedi to end, is it? That line, from the presumed Last Jedi himself, Luke Skywalker, naturally prompted a flurry of online commentary and questions. And then, the French version of the trailer came out, prompting even more questions.

 According to Mashable:

“[T]he dubbed trailer ends with the line “le temps est venu pour les Jedi d’en finir,” which translates to “the time has come for the Jedi to put an end to it . . . Disney France is aware of the difference in meaning — but decided to keep it that way regardless.”

Read more

How to Celebrate May Day Around the World

Yesterday was May Day, and that means it’s time for a party. Or a protest. Maybe both.  Why are May Day celebrations around the world so different? To find out, let’s take a look at the history of the holiday and the places where it’s celebrated.

Traditional May Day Celebrations Around the World

In the northern hemisphere, May Day celebrates the coming of spring (or of summer, depending on where you are).  Many May Day traditions have roots that go back to before the arrival of Christianity.

For example, the ancient Romans celebrated the end of April with a six-day-long festival in honor of the goddess Flora. The festival featured games, performances, “lustful” animals like hares and goats running rampant, flowers and a sacrifice to Flora at the end.

Meanwhile, Celtic cultures traditionally observed Beltane on the first of May, with bonfires, flowers, decorating a May Bush, and offerings to the fairies to keep them from making mischief at the expense of the villagers’ herds.

Traces of these ancient rites remain in traditional May Day celebrations around the world, often mixed in with Christian beliefs.

May Day Around the World: United Kingdom

For example, in parts of the UK, May Day celebrations include dancing around a maypole, crowning a May Queen and traditional morris dancing. Some towns have also brought back Jack in the Green, a drunken ruffian character clothed in foliage. Jack in the Green was once a common sight at May Day festivals until Victorian morals did away with him.

Meanwhile, Cornwall hosts unique May Day celebrations, including the ‘Obby ‘Oss festival in Padstow and Flower Boat parades in Kingsand, Cawsand, and Millbrook. For the  ‘Obby ‘Oss festival, villagers decorate the town with a maypole, flowers, and greenery.  Teams of dancers parade through the town. One of them carries a model hobby horse with jaws that snap shut and tries to snatch young women as they pass by. Read more

Icelandic language

The Future of the Icelandic Language 

The Icelandic language is as close as you can get today to the language of the Vikings. Brought to the Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th century, it is the closest living language to Old Norse.  But is the modern digital age threatening to wipe out Icelandic?

It depends on who you ask.

If the latest headlines are to believed, Icelandic is on its last legs. Here’s a sampling:

Icelandic Language At Risk Of Extinction As Robots And Computers Struggle To Understand It – IFLScience.com
Computers don’t even understand it: Icelandic people worrying their language is facing extinction- Associated Press
Low Wages And Digital Death: Icelandic In Crisis

Is the future really all that bleak? Let’s find out.

Is the Icelandic Language in Danger?

At this point, Icelandic is not endangered.  It’s not even classified as vulnerable or threatened. It’s the official language of Iceland. It has 331,000 native speakers. That may not seem like a lot compared to English. But it’s well over the “magic number” of 35,000 that economist David Clingingsmith recently identified as the number of speakers need to keep a language safe (assuming he’s correct).

And most importantly, Icelanders are still teaching the language to their children.

So why all the alarmist headlines?

Icelandic and the Rise of the Machines (That Speak English)

Over the past decade, Icelanders have become increasingly concerned about the cultural presence of the English language.  Knowledge of English is widespread in Iceland.  Because English is so prevalent on the Internet, Icelandic people (especially Millenials) have more reason to use it than ever before.

Then, there’s the rise of the machines: Siri, Google  Now, Alexa, GPS systems . . . it’s now possible to speak to so many of your gadgets and have them talk back . . . in English. Read more

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