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.

Paul is Dead, the End is Nigh, and Mr. Squidward is Supreme Leader: 10 Language Stories to Read This Week

Looking for some new reading material? Wondering what’s been going on in the language and translation world? We’ve collected 10 language-related stories from the past month. They’re guaranteed to make you laugh, make you cry and give you plenty of office conversation material.

So, sit down, fill up your coffee cup, and let’s dig in.

How Translation Wages Affect the Popularity of Foreign Classics in China

Earlier this month, we posted a story about how literary translators are the unsung heroes of the literary world -and how they are frequently underpaid. This story from The Sixth Tone shows why low wages are a problem – it affects quality in a big way:

“[B]oth translators and editors are forced to work for paltry wages, and under such unfair working conditions, it is difficult to improve the quality of translations. This in turn gives translations of foreign literary works a bad name among Chinese readers, perpetuating a vicious cycle.

What Language Should Algeria Speak?

Next, let’s take a look at how Algeria is currently struggling to balance the country’s four major languages: French, Standard Arabic, Berber, and Darija. It’s quite a challenge to juggle the different languages used at home, on the streets, in the schools, and in courts.

New Imaging Techniques Reveal Secrets Hidden In Ancient Parchments

New imaging techniques have allowed scholars to read the “undertext” of ancient manuscripts. Hundreds of years ago, parchment was valuable.  In an old-school example of recycling, scholars would erase words from old manuscripts so they could be used again.  Some of these manuscripts landed in St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, where scientists have been able to uncover the lost writing, including long-forgotten languages like Caucasian Albanian and Christian Palestinian Aramaic. Read more

11 Foreign Phrases to Stop Using Right Now

Some English speakers love peppering their speech with foreign phrases. We think it sounds sophisticated. But here are 11 foreign words and phrases that don’t go over quite as well in their home languages. Let’s all agree to stop using them now.

Phrases to Avoid in French

Bon Appétit! 

According to the Daily Mail, [you can’t really trust this poor excuse for a paper] language learning app Babbel has identified this innocuous-sounding phrase as one of the most common gaffes made by Brits abroad: “It literally invites diners to ‘a good digestion’, suggesting that they are so hungry that they are willing to jump at any food offered.”

There is, however, some controversy about this. A 2007 New York Times article, for example, quotes a French etiquette teacher who says,  “In France, ‘Bon appétit’ is not proper.” But an article in the Guardian a year later found that most Parisian locals had no problem with “Bon Appetit.” Ironically, the few people who did think it rude were English speakers.

So, perhaps the key here is to know your audience. [Our in house French natives say there’s nothing with it]

Garçon for Waiter 

Did you know garçon actually means boy? You might think you sound suave when you address your French waiter this way. But really, you sound like a jerk. Don’t be a jerk. Use “monsieur” instead.

Sacrebleu!

If you’re visiting France, don’t expect the French to express dismay by exclaiming “Sacrebleu!” Unless, of course, you have a Tardis and you’ve time-traveled back to the 19th century.  And if you use it, expect to get some odd looks at best.

Entrée

Watch out for this one if you’re American.  While we tend to use it as a fancy word for “main dish” or “main course”, in France it means an appetizer.

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?

Yeah, yeah, it’s the French-language chorus of a famous sexy pop song. But it’s not likely to win you any friends in France, and it almost certainly won’t win you any bedmates.  It might win you a slap across the face, though . . .   Read more

The Multilingual Response to Tropical Storm Harvey

A few weeks ago, Jonny wrote a post about translation’s role in times of crisis. And now, unfortunately, there’s another example to add to the list: Tropical Storm Harvey.

This storm has dumped unprecedented amounts of water on the US city of Houston, Texas. It’s turned freeways into rivers and low-lying residential areas into lakes. So far,  at least 38 people have died. And at least 30,000 have had to abandon their homes for shelters due to rising flood waters.

Relief and rebuilding efforts are going to take years . . .  and since Houston is such a diverse city, they’ll have to be multilingual. Here’s how translation has been and will be needed to help Houston recover from the impacts of this devastating storm. Read more

Spanish Around the World: The Different Types of Spanish and Where They’re Spoken  

With 405 million native speakers,  Spanish is the second-most commonly spoken language in the world.  But while all of those 405 million people might speak the same language, they don’t all speak it the same way.

So, let’s take a look at the different types of Spanish, where they’re spoken, and what that means for organizations doing business in Spanish-speaking countries.

How different are the different types of Spanish?different types of Spanish

There’s not as much variation between the various Spanish dialects as there is between dialects in other languages. Most Spanish speakers, no matter where they’re from,  can understand each other simply by speaking more slowly, listening carefully and using context clues for unfamiliar vocabulary.

That said, here are some key facts and statistics about where Spanish spoken and how it differs from place to place:

Spanish in Spain

Number of Speakers: 46.6 million
Where it’s spoken:  Spain

Spain is the motherland of the Spanish language, of course. But these days, Spanish speakers from Spain are greatly outnumbered by Spanish speakers from other places.

Latin American Spanish

Number of Speakers:  More than 418  million 
Where it’s spoken: The United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America 

90% of Spanish speakers are Latin American, though indigenous languages are also spoken throughout Mexico, Central, and South America. In the Latin American market, the largest Spanish-speaking countries are:

  • Mexico.
  • Colombia.
  • Argentina.
  • The United States.

Read more

8 Important Facts About Pidgin Languages and Creoles 

The BBC  just announced that it will now be broadcasting in Pidgin for the West and Central African markets. But wait, what’s Pidgin? Is that even a language?

In fact, pidgin languages and creole languages can be found all over the world. Most them have historically been treated as the bastard children of European languages – denied recognition and looked down upon. But just as in Game of Thrones, it would be foolish to write off pidgins and creoles because of their parentage.

With that in mind, here are 8 things you need to understand about pidgins and creoles.

Isn’t Pidgin English just English with a heavy accent?

Nope. Pidgin languages are makeshift languages that arise whenever multi lingual groups have to communicate on a regular basis without a common language. This can happen because of trade, or as a result of slavery or colonization.

What’s the difference between pidgin languages and creoles?

Pidgin languages are generally simplified and flexible, with a limited vocabulary. Nobody speaks a pidgin language as a first language. But, over time, that can change. If a pidgin language becomes widely used, its vocabulary may grow and additional grammar rules may develop. Children may begin to grow up speaking it from birth. At that point, it’s considered a creole.

And just to make things confusing, since creole languages evolve from pidgins, many languages with “pidgin” in the name have actually evolved into creoles, like Tok Pisin, one of the official languages of New Guinea. Read more

Solar Eclipse Myths From Around the World

Today, the United States will experience a total solar eclipse. It’s a once-in-lifetime astronomical event, and people are going crazy with excitement. But it wasn’t always this way. Historically, eclipses have fueled myths and superstitions in many different cultures, and some of them are quite terrifying. So, in honor of the 2017 eclipse, here are 8 solar eclipse myths and superstitions from around the world.

Solar eclipse myths from China

As Griffith Observatory director E.C. Krupp told National Geographic,  “the earliest word for eclipse in Chinese, shih, means “to eat.” The ancient Chinese believed that solar eclipses were caused by a giant dragon eating the sun, and they sometimes tried to scare the dragon away by beating pots and pans.

Eclipses were a bad omen for emperors, but they were an even worse omen for the emperor’s astrologers. In 2134 BC, two astrologers lost their heads as punishment for failing to predict a solar eclipse.

Solar eclipse myths from Scandinavia

In Viking mythology, eclipses are caused by a wolf named Sköll, which is Old Norse for “treachery.” Sköll chases the sun through the sky. When Ragnarök comes, he will catch the sun and consume her completely. So, each solar eclipse is like a preview of the apocalypse. Comforting, no?  Read more

8 Facts Businesses Need to Know About Languages in India

Earlier this week, on the 15th of August, India celebrated its Independence Day.  In the 70 years since it was founded, India has made itself into one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies. To celebrate, let’s take a look at 8 things businesses need to know about languages in India.

English is an official language in India . . .  but that doesn’t mean your organization can get away without translation services.

English and Hindi are the two main languages used by the Central Government. But even when you include people who speak English as a second language, only 12% of India’s population speaks it. So, if you want to reach more than just a small percentage of the people there, you’ll need to translate into some local languages, too.

Hindi is the most commonly spoken language in India.

With as many as 551 million total speakers, Hindi is the most common language in India. It’s also the 4th most common language in the world in terms of native speakers. Even so, translating your content into Hindi will only make it accessible to 53% of the population.

That’s because . . .

India has 122 major languages and up to 1599 other languages.

India is a vast country, and it contains multitudes, of both people and languages. According to the 2001 Indian Census, there are 122 “major languages” spoken by more than 10,000 people.

That said, some of these languages are more commonly spoken than others.

India has 22 “scheduled” languages.

Obviously, different languages predominate in different regions. So, while Hindi and English are the languages used by the central government, the states also have the power to set their own official languages.

The Indian Constitution recognizes 22 of these languages as “scheduled languages”. These languages are used by state and local governments. Additionally, the Indian government is required to protect them and encourage their development.

The 22 scheduled languages are: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. Read more

9 Books to Read for Women in Translation Month

Did you know that August is Women in Translation Month? If you’re wondering what that means, let me explain.  Women in Translation Month is a month to highlight translated works by female writers. In the world of literary translation, women are seriously underrepresented.

How underrepresented? You’re probably familiar with the statistic that only about 3% of published works in the US and the UK are translated from other languages. Well, of that 3%,  only about 30% of new translations into English are books by women writers.  Books by female authors are translated at a lower rate around the world, even in Europe.

With that in mind, here are 9 books to read for women in translation month. Read the ones that pique your interest and you’ll soon start to wonder what else you’re missing out on!

Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was


Author: Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula LeGuin

In a 2016 interview, Meytal Radzinski, the scholar behind Women in Translation Month, called this book her “go-to first choice for just about any type of favorite book these days! It’s such a special book, gorgeously written and so utterly magical.”

Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was is the history of an imaginary nameless empire, as told by multiple storytellers.  Translator Ursula Le Guin is an acclaimed fantasy author in her own right.  So it’s not surprising that publisher Small Beer Press boasts that “Rarely have author and translator been such an effortless pairing.” Read more

Google Translate Vs. Sir Mix-a-lot, RuPaul Gets Lost in Translation, and More: 10 Language Stories to Read Right Now

Happy Monday! Looking for something to read while you readjust to the working world? Here are 10 interesting, funny or thought-provoking stories from the language and translation world to make you seem like the most interesting person in the room:

ET, Phone Home 

If extraterrestrials ever make contact, how in the world would we speak to them? According to Carl DeVito, a math professor at the University of Arizona, mathematics might be the key to communicating with ET. And he’s developed a math-based language that could, in theory, allow us to discuss physics with an alien race.

Japanese Prisoners Get a Translation Upgrade

Even prisoners deserve help in their own language. But deploying interpreters efficiently can be difficult. Japan is addressing the issue by providing prisoners access to translation services using video phones and tablets. This will also make it easier for families of non-Japanese inmates to visit their loved ones since they are not allowed in without an interpreter to help prison officials monitor their conversation.

Baby Got What? Google Translate Mixes Up Sir Mix-A-Lot On the Tonight Show


What happens when Google Translate gets hold of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s classic “Baby Got Back?” Somehow, “I love big butts and I cannot lie” becomes “I love large saplings that is the truth . . .”

And that’s just the beginning. Watch the video to see Jimmy Fallon and Idris Elba sing Google Translated versions of songs by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Britney Spears, and Boyz II Men. Read more

Literary Translators: Unsung Heroes of the Literary World

Today, let’s take a moment to highlight some of the unsung heroes of the publishing world: Literary translators.

Literary translators do not have an easy job. Books, short stories, and poems can be quite challenging to translate.  For example, word play, slang, and humor often lose meaning if they’re translated word-for-word. They have to be carefully rewritten to create the same effect in the target language as they do in the original.

So literary translation is difficult, but it’s also extremely valuable.

Why is Literary Translation Important?

Literary translation is important for a number of reasons. Translation introduces authors to new audiences and readers to new worlds. It promotes understanding and empathy between cultures.  It preserves ideas and knowledge and helps transmit those ideas across time and space.

Literary Translators: Unsung, Outshined, and Underpaid

But literary translators are clearly not in it for the glory.  As Tim Parks noted last year in the New York Review of Books, “Glory, for the translator, is borrowed glory. There is no way around this. Translators are celebrated when they translate celebrated books.”

If they are successful, the author gets the credit. Of course, the author deserves most of the credit. But literary translation is an art, too. Read more

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