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.

6 Useful Facts About Time in Different Languages and Cultures

This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats mountain down.
 ” – Gollum

Time should be easy to translate, right? Wrong! The passage of time is universal and inevitable, but the way different cultures experience it is not. And that can lead to confusion, especially when you’re traveling, or when you’re trying to socialize or do business with someone from a culture that treats time differently than your own.

With that in mind, here are  6 useful facts about time in different languages and cultures.

Most Western cultures are monochronic. Here’s what that means and why it matters.

Social scientists classify cultures are “monochronic” or “polychronic” based on how they view time.  Monochronic cultures see time as a limited resource, something that can be “saved,” “spent” or “wasted.” In a monochronic culture (like the US or the UK), it’s normal to schedule tasks and appointments to start and end at a certain time.

But in a polychronic culture, time is seen as flexible. And that means that appointments and deadlines may be more flexible as well. In polychronic cultures, it’s also more common to do many things at a once. Interruptions are regarded as normal instead of undesirable.

(One caveat: These are just generalizations. They aren’t universal. Japanese culture is generally regarded as polychronic, but the culture is also quite fast-paced and punctuality is important).

Time isn’t always a line

Monochronic cultures also tend to see time as a “line,” stretching forward into the future and backwards into the past.

But that’s not universal. In some cultures, particularly Asian cultures and some Native American cultures, it’s a wheel, moving in reoccuring cycles. On a practical level, that means they may need to carefully consider past events before making decisions for the future.

And of course, if you’re a Time Lord, it’s a big ball of wibbley-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff that you can travel through. Read more

ROI of Translation: 4 Ways Translation Makes Businesses More Competitive

Is translation just an expense to be minimized, or is it an investment? Of course, the answer depends in part on the situation. But considering how often potential customers ask our CEO why they can’t just use Google Translate instead of a professional translation company, it’s clear that some people are overlooking the value.

What’s the ROI of translation?  Here are 4 ways investing in translation can give your business an edge over the competition.

Get Found Online With Multilingual SEO

“If you build it, they will come.” That advice might have worked for Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams but it’s bunk when it comes to building websites.

It’s not enough to build a website, you also have to appease the search engine gods.  Then, and only then, will the customers come.

And as the rest of the world comes online, more and more people will be searching in languages other than English. If those people can’t find your site, they’re not likely to become your customers, now are they?

Keep in mind that search engines don’t like error-ridden, automatically generated translations, and users don’t like them either.

Attract New Customers By Catering to Unmet Needs

Whether it’s online or in person, customers almost always prefer to do business in their native language. Often, these language needs aren’t being met. And that gives savvy businesses an opportunity to differentiate themselves with multilingual content. Read more

Why Are There So Many Languages?

Why Are There So Many Languages? 

There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world today. But why? Why are there so many languages?

It’s an ancient question, almost as old as humanity itself.  Explanations for why people speak so many languages are common in myths from cultures around the world. The story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible is one well-known example, but there are many others.

The truth is, we don’t have an easy answer for why people speak so many languages. That’s probably because there isn’t one.  Instead, linguistic diversity is a response to a variety of different elements that we’re only beginning to understand.  We may not have an answer, but here are 6 factors that encourage new languages to form.

Language May Have Developed In More Than One Place

Did humans ever speak just one language? We don’t know. There are two schools of thought:

  • Monogenesis, which holds that all languages evolved from a single ancestral language as ancient humans migrated out of Africa.
  • Polygenesis, which holds that multiple ancestral languages developed independently, as did agriculture and the domestication of animals.

So there may have been quite a bit of language diversity right from the start. But even if there was a single common human language to start out, humans would still speak thousands of different languages. That’s because . . .

People Move, and Languages Change

The main reason why there are so many languages has to do with distance and time. Groups of people are always on the move, seeking new opportunities. And languages change over time, too. Even English. Do remember trying to read Chaucer for the first time?  English has changed so much over the centuries that it’s difficult for modern English speakers to “get” Chaucer without footnotes.

What happens when you combine these two factors? Groups of people who speak a common language get divided by distance, and over time their dialects evolve in different directions. After enough time passes, they end up speaking two separate, but related languages. Read more

8 Facts About Emoji Around the World for World Emoji Day

Monday was World Emoji Day. Over the past decade, these little icons have become essential to online communication. But how much do you know about them?

To celebrate, here are 8 facts you should know about emoji around the world.

Love emoji? Thank the Japanese.

Emoji were invented in Japan in 1999 by Japanese designer Shigetaka Kurita.

Why Japan? As Wired notes, linguistic and cultural factors may have played a role:

“Spoken, written, lived Japanese is rich with context, honorifics, and layers of meaning. Perhaps more than anybody speaking English or a European language could imagine, Japan needed some way to indicate the tone of a text.”

At first, emoji were confined to Japanese phones. But when Apple released the iPhone in Japan, the company soon discovered they needed to add emoji support to compete in the Japanese market. And when iOS 5 came out, emoji were suddenly easily available to iPhone users worldwide.

New emoji are approved by the Unicode Consortium.

How hard is it to come up with new emoji? Harder than you might think. In order for new emoji to be usable across different devices and platforms, they have to be approved by the Unicode Consortium.  The approval process can be difficult, and time-consuming, often taking a year or more.

69 new emoji were unveiled earlier this year, including a woman in a headscarf and 2 separate emoji of people in a sauna (one male, one female).  The people in a sauna represent Finland, of course, though the Finns would have preferred them to appear without the towel.  The “person with headscarf” emoji is the brainchild of a 15-year-old girl.  Read more

6 Ridiculously Bad Translations from Amazon Prime Day

If you’re an Amazon Prime junkie, I don’t need to tell you that Tuesday was Prime Day. Your bank balance is probably enough of a reminder. For everyone else, Prime Day is Amazon’s self-created sales holiday, with deals on just about everything.

Amazon itself excels at localization. And we’ve held them up as an example of a company that gets it right.

But that’s not always true of the third-party sellers that offer their products in the Amazon marketplace. Product descriptions are provided by the sellers, not by Amazon. All too often, the sellers lack either the will or the resources to make quality translations a priority.

And the results can be hilarious, as these 6 examples of bad Prime Day translations prove. Here are a few of our favorites:

That Amorous Feeling

I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to adorn their house with a “decorative fish net of strong Mediterranean Sea amorous feelings?” Read more

Translation Gone Wild: 5 Translation Mistakes from 2017

Over the past year, machine translation has made significant progress. Tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are building powerful Neural Machine Translation (NMT) systems modeled after the human brain.

NMT offers improved accuracy compared to older machine translation systems. To hear the headlines tell it, that means all of our translation problems are solved. Who needs a human translator when you’ve got artificial intelligence?

But if that were true, we wouldn’t have these amusing translation mistakes to share with you, would we?

Google Can’t Translate the South African Parliament


Voice-to-text translation sounds amazing, in theory. Just speak into a microphone, wait a few seconds, and “Voila!” The system automatically translates your words, and you don’t even have to lift a finger.

And it is amazing when it works. But therein lies the rub. Regional accents and dialects can throw these systems off.

For example, the video above shows what happens when Google tries to translate a South African Parliament session.

Read more

5 Ways Americans Have Ruined The English Language

July 4th is Independence Day in America. It’s been 241 years since that bunch of ungrateful colonists declared independence. You’d think we’d have learned to speak English properly by now.

Yeah, not so much. Here are 5 ways Americans are ruining the English language:

Incorrect Spellings

Americans have long been guilty of spelling abuse.  Thanks to 19th-century reformer Noah Webster,  we’ve dropped the original and proper “u” from words like “colour” and “favour.” And we’ve lost the “a” from words like “orthopaedics”.

But we’ll add these missing letters back at random, whenever we want to appear more sophisticated.

Come on, America, was it really that hard to write one extra letter?

Totesing

totesing

Get off my lawn!

Apparently, the answer to that last question is “yes.” Yes, it is.  Now, don’t get me wrong. Abbreviations have always been a part of how the English language evolves.  For example, consider words like “fab,” “babe” and “delish.”

But these kids today, man! They’ ve taken it to a new, and frankly ridiculous extreme. Or perhaps that should be “ridic.” Anyway, “words” like “obvi” (obviously) and “spesh” (special) appear to be taking over English, part of a trend some linguists have dubbed “totesing.”

This trend has spread to English-speaking millennials around the world, but at least one linguist who studies the phenomenon blames America for it. More specifically, California. Researcher Sravana Reddy told NRP that “It might have originated in that area and spread over because of Hollywood and TV.”

And as much as “obvi” makes me want to scream “Get off my lawn!”, apparently, the current wave of crazy-making abbreviations may have started with “hella.” Which means that younger me was part of the problem. Read more

New Chinese Translation Guidelines: Is This the End of Engrish?

Over the years, China has become famous around the world for culture, food, industry . . . and funny translation mistakes. “Engrish” may have been born in Japan, but China has been exporting memes of hilariously bad translations for years now.

Except that the Chinese government is officially over it. Last week, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine issued a new set of guidelines regarding the use of English in public places. Is this the end of “Engrish?”

To find out, let’s take a look at the history of English translation in China, and why the new Chinese translation guidelines are needed.

A Brief History of Translation in China

Translation in China has a long, respectable history that dates to the Zhou dynasty in 1100 BC. At that time, Chinese translators were government clerks. Their goal was to “to replace one written language with another without changing the meaning for mutual understanding.”

Centuries later, translators would bring Buddhist scriptures to China. In the 7th century CE, during the Tang Dynasty, the famous monk Xuan Zang translated 1335 volumes of Buddhist manuscripts.

Later on, during the Qing Dynasty, translator Yan Fu brought Western political classics like  Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to China. His criteria were “Faithfulness, Fluency, and Elegance.”

So, what happened? How did we get from there to today, where “roasted wheat gluten” often shows up on menus as “roasted husband.”

Why Do So Many Funny Translation Fails Come From China?

It’s nobody’s fault, really. Chinese and English are two very different languages. The number of English-speaking tourists in China has increased over the past two decades, and that gives small business owners a reason to cater to them.

However, these small businesses don’t always have the funds to have their signs, menus, and documents professionally translated. Machine translations are often inadequate. Mistakes will be made, and the results will be hilarious.  And meme-worthy.  Websites like Engrish.com showcase these translation mistakes. Pictures go viral. (It’s also worth noting that while most Western businesses have access to better resources, translation mistakes go both ways. ) Read more

Website Localization: How 3 Multinational Businesses Customize Their Websites for Global Appeal

Ready to localize your website? There’s more to it than just translating words from one language to another. To appeal to audiences around the world, your site must appeal to their preferences . . . and while we like to think good design is universal, there’s usually a cultural component as well.

To optimize your site for its intended audiences, you may need to change images, tweak the color scheme and even reimagine the content.  It’s challenging, to be sure. So how do multinational brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s pull it off?

Let’s find out, shall we? Here’s how 3 multinational companies use website localization to appeal to customers around the world:

How Amazon.com Uses Website Localization To Attract Shoppers Around the World


To start, let’s take a look at how Amazon.com’s home page is localized for different markets. The slideshow above compares Amazon’s US home page with that of Japan and India.

As you can see, the American site has a color scheme that uses a lot of white, gray, black and turquoise blue.  The product choices are targeted at Americans, obviously, and of course, the text is in English.

Amazon Japan

Now, take a look at the Japan page. Amazon uses the same standard layout for all of their sites – it was obviously designed to be flexible for different languages. At the same time, they’ve done much more than simply translate the words on the page. They’ve showcased different products, and the images have been changed to feature Japanese models and Japanese products. The color scheme is much lighter, with more white throughout the page.

And look at the differences between the banner ads for Amazon’s Prime Video service.  Both pages use a grid to showcase some of the popular movies and TV shows available on Prime. But in the US version, the grid fades to black about halfway across. In the Japanese version, the squares are smaller, and the grid stretches across the entire page, so more video options can be featured.

Amazon India

And now take a look at the Indian site. The Indian site is in English, with no local language options. But even so, the content has been localized to make the site appeal to Indian customers. And the color scheme has changed, too, with more red, saffron yellow, orange and green throughout.  For example, in the Prime banner on the US website, Amazon chose turquoise blue for the background. In the Indian version, it’s lime green. Read more

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

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