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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?

Online Social Site Offers Machine Translation

One of the earliest Utopian promises of the Internet was that it would connect the world and give different cultures a greater understanding of each other. Imagine if you could sit at a coffee shop and talk to people from across the world, and hear what they have to say. In theory, at least, everyone would emerge from the coffee shop with a better understanding of and a deeper appreciation for each other’s views.

Of course, even though the Internet allows people to communicate across continents, there’s still one problem: the language barrier. Now, an online social networking site called Meedan aims to break down the language barrier between Arabic, Hebrew and English speakers. The site uses translating software to translate members’ comments and messages to one another. Unfortunately, translation software is never perfect, and Meedan’s is no exception, as the New York Times reports.

Programmers face a number of obstacles in writing translation software aimed at translating Arabic to English (and vice versa). For one thing, currently all translation programs work by having computers review copies of human-translated documents. By giving the computer a copy of the same text in each language, it can compare the two texts and “learn” which words correspond to each other.. The more translated text the computer sees, the more accurately it can translate. However, there is less common material available between English and Arabic than there is between English and many other languages.

Also, syntax is more fluid in Arabic than in English. Arabic speakers use content and meaning (basically, common sense) to determine the meaning of a particular sentence. Computers, unfortunately, lack common sense.

According to the New York Times’ article, Meedan’s software is “surprisingly good ,“ even for some abstract phrases and figurative language. However, human translators have no need to worry about being replaced by computers anytime soon-Meedan also produced this little gem:

“The mother your visit in Israel is a sleep to the favour or to the bed your mind on the conflict are Israeli Palestinian and on relational Israel Holland.”

As the New York Times’ astutely points out, given how fraught with tension the semantics of the conflicts in the Middle East are, it remains to be seen how well Meedan will be able to build to a bridge between here and there.

Learning Hebrew from Graffiti

Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is also more than one way to learn a language. In Israel, a man named Guy Sharett has stumbled upon a particularly creative method: translating the street art and graffiti that adorns his Tel Aviv neighborhood.

Why graffiti? In an article in the New York Times, Mr. Sharett explained his logic:

“It’s not only to teach language, it’s also to teach the culture. Someone took a line from a song we all know and changed one word; it’s very hard to understand that if you don’t have someone local to explain, ‘That’s a take on…’ ”

Roaming the city streets with Mr. Sharett, the students, mostly recent immigrants, get a hefty dose of politics along with Israeli pop culture. This helps to not only learn the language, but also to learn the ins and outs of Israeli society. The class works with Mr. Sharett to break down the linguistic rules behind the translations, so they learn the structure of the language as well.

The classes seem to work out well for most of the students. One of them, creative writing professor Marcela Sulak, told the New York Times that understanding graffiti and street signs requires

“[A] cultural knowledge that you don’t necessarily have. He teaches you the tools so you can figure it out on your own. You’re learning the Hebrew you need every single day by looking at the neighborhood.”

Another student, Xiaoyun Wu, from China, said that she liked the classes because

“You get more contextualized memory. The good thing is I can come back to review any time.”

So, the next time you’re visiting a foreign country and trying to learn the language, why not find someone local to help you learn how to read the writing on the wall? If nothing else, you’re bound to come away with better understanding of the culture, and isn’t that one of the main reasons for traveling in the first place?

Facebook introduces two new languages

The internet giant Facebook has dramatically increased its target market by introducing Arabic and Hebrew. Many people will now find this social networking website much easier to use.

They conquered many problems during the production of the site into these languages including changing the sites layout so that it reads right to left and producing new software which recognises whether the user is male or female and adjusting the translation accordingly.

The addition of Arabic and Hebrew brings Facebook’s language total to 40 and there are over 60 more in development.

Movie Title Translations, Israeli Edition

Need something fun to kick off your weekend? Here’s a list of Israeli translations of American movie titles. Can you guess what the original movies were? Scroll down below the fold for the answers!

  1. “The Date That Screwed Me”
  2. “The Gun Died Laughing”
  3. “Crazy About the Moon” and the sequel, “Crazy About the Minions”
  4. “Breaking the Ice”
  5. “It’s Raining Falafel”
  6. “Agitated Women”
  7. “American Dream”
  8. “Woman of Valor”
  9. “Dancing with Pilots” and its sequel, “Dancing with Fighters”
  10. “Lost in Tokyo”
  11. “The 8th Passenger, 3”
  12. “Before the Wedding We Stop in Vegas”
  13. “Some Kind of Police Woman”

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