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 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?



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 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 Uses Website Localization To Attract Shoppers Around the World

To start, let’s take a look at how’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

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

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