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.

Israel to Remove Languages Other Than Hebrew From Road Signs

In a move that may cause confusion among travellers and will surely cause discomfort among some of its Arab citizens, Israel’s minister of transport, Yisrael Katz, has declared that the country will get new road signs-in Hebrew only. Right now, road signs are trilingual, with the names of cities, airports and other destinations spelled in Hebrew, English and Arabic.

Why change the signs? Well, the official answer given by the minister of transport is that having three different languages on each road sign confuses people. Of course, there’s probably a little bit more to it than that…the language used on street signs is often about declaring ownership or establishing  cultural dominance.

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Jerrod Kessel and Pierre Klochendler state that “the political motive is ill-concealed.” They quote Mr. Katz as follows: “Some Palestinian maps still refer to Israeli towns and villages by their pre-1948 [pre-Israel] names: Beisan instead of our Beit-Shean. They want to turn the clock back. Not on my signs! We won’t allow anyone to turn Yerushalayim into al-Quds.”

According to the Jewish Daily Forward, there’s also been a bit of a tussle in Jerusalem itself over the trilingual street signs, with vandals painting over the Arabic portions of the signs.  A more moderate group of Jewish “vigilantes” has taken matters into their own hands, placing stickers printed with the appropriate Arabic street names on top of the vandalized signs.

Seen in this context, it’s easy to see why the minister of transport’s actions could make Israel’s Arabic citizens feel unwelcome. According to the New York Times op-ed, one in 5 Israeli citizens is Arabic, and Arabic is one of the country’s national languages.

The rest of the New York Times editorial gets a little nonsensical in its argument, as the writers claim that since “Israel” is spelled “Yisrael” in Hebrew, Katz’ changes “will be literally wiping Israel off the map.”

Adding a “Y” to the name of a country hardly qualifies as “wiping it off the map,” and as far as English-speaking travelers are concerned, well, when you travel to a foreign country you should make an effort to learn how city/street names are spelled in the local tongue. The real concern is that the move will likely increase Israeli Arabs’ sense of disenfranchisement in their own country. It could also have practical consequences for Israeli citizens. For example, the Jewish Daily Forward article quotes cabdriver Muhammed Dabash saying “When I need to take a passenger somewhere, I read the Arabic on the street signs.”  What will he do once the new street signs are up?

Talking Business: How to Avoid a Translation Fail

Some phrases just don’t translate-especially when you are relying on a computer to do the heavy lifting. The International Trade website has published a list of English business phrases that don’t translate well, and it illustrates this point beautifully.

Take, for example, the common English expression “give me a ballpark figure.” Translated into Russian literally, as a computer would do it, you get “Give to me the diagram of the baseball stadium.” Unless you’re in the baseball stadium construction business, that simply won’t do. In Spanish, “We’ll hit the ground running” turns into a phrase that brings to mind an action movie: “We will strike the earth operation.” The best of the bunch is probably the literal Chinese translation of the phrase “We need to get our ducks in a row.” Once translated, it becomes “We need to obtain our duck continuously.” What?!?!

So, how do you avoid sounding like an idiot when you deal with foreign clients? The best course of action is to avoid machine translation if at all possible-it simply isn’t reliable enough yet. If you do need to use machine translation for a business project, write in simple language, avoiding metaphors, figurative language, jargon and colloquial expressions.

Richard Brooks, General Manager of UK based translation firm K International, has the following advice for UK businesses:

“Idioms are common place in workplaces across Britain and its fine (within reason) to use them in your local marketing activities. The tricky part comes in when you need to translate that message for use in another region.

Computers (at the moment) simply cannot understand the real meaning behind these idioms. For copy, that when translated is intended to convert potentially interested parties into sales revenue then a real human being must be used in the translation process.

For the best results recreating your message for use in another country a service such as transcreation should be used which includes incountry testing and cultural focus groups.

Get it right and you’ll have a winning marketing campaign that will spread like wildfire (excuse the idiom) in the blogs and social media networks, get it wrong and people will think you’re an idiot”

Assuming you have a competent interpreter, human-powered translation is always superior because human interpreters recognize expressions like these and know how to translate them appropriately to convey the correct meaning.

NYC French Language Bookstore Set to Close

Librarie de France bookstore in New York City which specialises in French Language books looks set to close after being in business for 74 years. Librarie de France has said it is being forced to close because of the high rental costs that threatened to triple to $1 million a year. According to store owner Emanuel Molho the shop lease ends on the 30th September 2009.

Molho is quoted as saying: “New York is becoming impossible for retail”.

Librarie de France is world famous and is the only bookstore of its kind in the United States. Each member of staff who works in the bookstore can speak at least two languages. The business was started by Molho’s father, Isaac in 1928. In 1935, the shop moved to its current location, the La Maison Francaise building near the Rockefeller Centre skating rink.

It’s a shame that such a specialist language bookstore will go out of business due to the extortionate rents being imposed on New York’s retail businesses.

Nine Year Old Girl Achieves Sign Language Qualification

Tayla Reynold’s mum is hearing impaired and it can be difficult for her to keep up with her girls. 9 year old Tayla has taken it upon herself to improve their communication by doing a sign language qualification.Tayla is now officially the youngest person in Britain to complete the Level 1 British Sign Language test. To pass the test Tayla had to learn 600 gestures in British Sign Language

The British newspaper the Telegraph reports that the little girl took the lessons with 14 adults during a 23 week course. Watching her mum practising in the mirror inspired the youngster to sign up for the course.  Tayla’s younger sister Natasha whose eight years old is due to start the course this week.

Tayla is a very special little girl she has already appeared on ‘This Morning’, voiced a character in ITV animated show ‘Creature Comforts’ and she finished in sixth place in the international Linguist of the Year competition.

Tayla will start the level 2 course next month and if she continues to level 4 she could become a BSL interpreter.

Her mother, who operates the School of Sign Language in Blackburn, is quoted in the telegraph as saying:

“I’m extremely proud of my daughter and it’s wonderful to see her saying ‘I love you’ in sign language. When I was a young girl I was hard of hearing but there was no way that I would admit or except it. I didn’t want to be different so I would try to cover it up.Now with every person who passes the tests, we get closer to getting rid of the horrible label I had to live with, growing up deaf and dumb.”

A spokesman for society the British Deaf Association said:

“We would like to congratulate Tayla on achieving her BSL level 1 at such a young age.”

British Sign Language, used by the majority of Britain’s deaf population, has between seventy thousand and a quarter of a million speakers.

Will Facebook Own Crowdsourced Translation?

On Tuesday, the Baltimore Sun noted that Facebook has applied for a patent for its crowdsourced translation application. The app, which has been in use since early last year, has helped Facebook quickly and efficiently translate its pages into different languages. Here’s how it works: the application presents text that needs to be translated to users who are able to translate it. Different users’ translations of the same text are then put up against each other, and other members vote on which one of the translations is the most accurate.

TechCrunch’s Jason Kincaid has some concerns about Facebook’s patent application. Many other sites also use crowdsourced translations, and those sites could be in jeopardy if Facebook’s patent is approved. As Kincaid explains,

“Now it’s up to the patent office to decide if the techniques employed by these other sites will represent prior art that would nullify Facebook’s patent. And you can be sure that’s what many people are hoping for — it would be highly frustrating for social networks down the line if they can’t leverage their own communities the way Facebook has.”

Of course, crowdsourced translations may be quick and efficient, but as some bilingual commenters on TechCrunch noted, the quality of the translations is often inconsistent. For example, commenter Viclava wrote that it took about a year before the Spanish version of Facebook was “readable” and relatively free of grammatical errors.

Hopefully, Facebook doesn’t end up owning the patent on crowdsourced translations for social networks. Crowdsourced translations can be a powerful tool to quickly and cheaply translate content into another language, and this is definitely valuable. However, in many cases it’s important that the content be translated flawlessly the first time. If your brand or image depends on a perfect translation, it’s best to go ahead and spring for a professional translation company.

Check out K International on Facebook and become a fan

Cash Machines in London go all Cockney

According to the BBC five cash machines in east London will be talking in cockney for the next three months. The cash machines belong to Bank Machine’s ATM’s. Customers will be able to choose Cockney as a language option.

They can expect to see phrases such as ‘please enter you huckleberry Finn’ rather than ‘pin’ and they will have to select how much ‘sausage and mash’ (cash) they want.

Ron Delnevo, the managing director of Bank Machine is quoted as saying, “We wanted to introduce something fun and of local interest to our London machines.”

It’s certainly a novelty and it will be of interest not only to tourists but to residence as well. You can be sure they will have a butcher’s (look) when they are taking out a speckled hen (£10), any trouble and they will have to contact their rattle and tank (bank).

President Obama

President Obama in Controversy over Healthcare Translation Policy

Accoring to various news reports there is controversy in the USA this week over ‘ObamaCare’ policies which state proposed healthcare reform plans which include providing on site interpreters for patients who have limited English. The healthcare reform legislation is currently pending in Congress.

English language advocates are up in arms as this could add a significant increase to the cost of healthcare in the USA and they believe it will discourage foreign immigrants from learning English. Surely, in today’s multicultural society the provision of translation services to medical institutions is essential.

America needs to look at itself and its history to see that America was made what it is today by foreign settlers who didn’t all speak English and certainly not American English!

Have some respect for your history and accept the fact that not everyone speaks English. The Spanish for example were one of the first European settlers in the US in 1513. Surely they have a right to speak Spanish if they wish to do so. America is meant to be the ‘Land of the Free’ after all.

Yes it seems logical that if you move to an English speaking country you should learn the lingo but even if you do, when your child is dying in A&E (sorry America suppose that’s ER to you) you may not be able to express what is wrong in your second language. To be sure the patient or their guardian fully understands what is happening it is essential that adequate language translation services are provided.

Confusion over Nazi Slogan Translations

The federal court of justice has overturned the conviction of a man who was fined 4,200 euros for possessing and transporting 100 t-shirts which were to be sold with the words ‘Blood and Honour’ printed on the front.

‘Blood and Honour’ is a translation of the German ‘Blut und Ehre’ which was a Hitler Youth slogan.

The Hitler Youth was a paramilitary organisation of the Nazi party, which existed from 1922 until 1945. Young boys were recruited both voluntarily and under duress and trained to be soldiers and ‘true believers’. By the Second World War the Hitler Youth had over eight million members.

In the latter years of the Second World War the Hitler Youth held a large recruitment drive calling up boys as young as ten years old which meant that most young males in Germany became members. As part of their uniform the young boys aged 10 – 18 wore daggers which had the swastika symbol on the handle and early examples had the words ‘Blut und Ehre’ inscribed on the blade. ‘Blut und Ehre’ or in English ‘Blood and Honour had become their motto.

Today the display of Nazi symbols or slogans is forbidden in Germany, but the court ruled that the ban only applied to slogans or text written in German. The court said the context of the original phrase had been sufficiently distorted to render its usage legal. It also said, “By translating it into another language, the Nazi slogan, which is characterized not just by its meaning but also by the German language, is fundamentally transformed.”

The defendant however has not been released. He may now be charged with supplying goods with Nazi imagery on and there is a possibility he could still be convicted of using the English phrase “Blood & Honour” because it was also the name of a far-right organization that is banned in Germany, the original verdict had not taken this into account. The man has not been named at this time.

Surely that is the slogan no matter what language it is in. It has been printed for maximum effect, to offend and upset others.

Facial Expressions Don't Always Translate

Facial expressions and body language are often thought of as a universal language. However, researchers from The University of Glasgow have now discovered that the way people perceive facial expressions varies across different cultures. The research focused on the ways that natives of East Asia and Europe read emotion from facial expressions and found some surprising differences.

In the study, 13 European subjects and 13 East Asian subjects were shown slides of people displaying different emotions. They were asked to place the faces into different categories based on the emotion depicted in each slide. While the test subjects classified the pictures, researchers observed their eye movements to see what parts of the face they spent the most time looking at.

The European group did significantly better at choosing the correct emotion for each facial expression because they observed both the eyes and the mouths of the people in the pictures. The East Asian group looked primarily at the eyes. According to the researchers, this is because Asian cultures tend to use the eyes to express emotion more than the mouth.

In a press release, here’s how the researchers summed up their findings:

“In sum,” the researchers wrote:

“our data demonstrates genuine perceptual differences between Western Caucasian and East Asian observers and show that FACS-coded facial expressions are not universal signals of human emotion. From here on, examining how the different facets of cultural ideologies and concepts have diversified these basic social skills will elevate knowledge of human emotion processing from a reductionist to a more authentic representation. Otherwise, when it comes to communicating emotions across cultures, Easterners and Westerners will find themselves lost in translation.”

As an interesting footnote, the press release also notes that Asian emoticons focus on the eyes. For example, Westerners indicate happiness by typing :). Asians type ^.^.

This study underscores the importance of learning at least a little bit of the local language when you travel. You can’t expect people to understand English everywhere. Depending on where you travel, you might have some difficulties communicating without words, as well.

Google adds Hawaiian Language

Web giant Google have added a Hawaiian language version of its search engine.

It was done by Keola Donaghy of the Ka Haka Ula Oke’elikolani college of Hawaiian Language. Keola Donaghy campaigned for 3 years to get Google to produce a Hawaiian version of its search engine. He estimates that it took him 100 hours to complete the translation…. Perhaps he should have used a professional translation company.

The Hawaiian version provides instructions in Hawaiian on Google’s search engine, although you will still find that the results still come back in English.

In order to complete the translation Keola Donaghy provided translations of 2,500 strings, words, sentences and paragraphs used by the search engine.

It’s great to see Google expanding its language options and it’s important they don’t ignore other important languages (such as Welsh).

The Hawaiian version of Google’s search engine is now available on Apples safari browser; it can be accessed by selecting Olelo Hawaii or Hawaiian language inside the system preferences on Apple.

It should be available on all other browsers next week.

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