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Rosetta Stone

Unlocking the Meaning of an Ancient Hieroglyphic Script

Translating ancient scripts is difficult, especially when the civilization they belonged to is long gone.

We lucked out with the ancient Egyptians when we found the Rosetta Stone, which had the same passage translated into three different scripts: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic Egyptian and classical Greek. Since linguists could read classical Greek, they were able to use this knowledge to understand the hieroglyphic script on the stone.

However, there is no similar artefact available for ancient scripts such as the hieroglyphics used by the Indus Valley civilization. These people lived approximately 4,000 years ago, along what it now the Indian-Pakistani border. They were very technologically advanced for that time, living in cities equipped with the first known urban sanitation systems in the world.

They were also excellent traders who developed an extremely accurate, standardized system of weights and measures. But could they write? Many of their artefacts are decorated with symbols, but nobody knows what these symbols mean. In fact, some researchers doubt that they even represent a written language at all.

So, researchers at the University of Washington have teamed up with researchers from India to try to translate the script using computers. The computer program looks at existing examples of the script and tries to perceive patterns in the order of the symbols.

Using a statistical method called the Markov model; the program has been able to demonstrate that the placement of symbols follows a logical pattern, supporting the theory that they represent a language. As one of the researchers noted in the article referenced above, “The finding that the Indus script may have been versatile enough to represent different subject matter in West Asia is provocative. This finding is hard to reconcile with the claim that the script merely represents religious or political symbols.”

Scottish Siri Issues

Siri Doesn’t Understand Scottish Accents

At its last conference, Apple introduced Siri, a robotic virtual system that comes embedded in the new iPhone 4S.  Right after it was introduced, Apple caught a lot of flack for Siri’s name, which sounds vulgar in both Japanese and Georgian.

Now that the product has been released to the general public, Apple is getting a different type of negative translation-related feedback. Though Siri is supposed to work with all US, UK and Australian accents, it’s apparently giving some Scottish users fits as it doesn’t always understand their commands.

Some Scottish users seem to have more trouble than others. It almost feels wrong to laugh at this poor bastard, for example, as he tries over and over again to get Siri to “create a reminder.”  This gentleman had a little bit better luck, but still had some problems setting appointments and sending messages. Read more

Hit West End Show Pioneers Translation Device

The hit West End show Hairspray, currently showing at the Shaftesbury Theatre has introduced a pioneering system which translates the show into 8 languages according to the BBC.

With one third of theatre audiences in London being tourists AirScript developers, Cambridge Consultants, hope the handsets will attract more tourists to London’s theatres.

The translation is received via WIFI and scrolls down throughout the performance. The handset has LED backlighting and the screen has a black background and orange text to minimise glare. It could be quite annoying for other theatre users if the device was too bright. It costs just £6 to hire the device.

The translated subtitles are delivered manually to make sure the line hits the screen at the same time as it is delivered on stage.

It could be quite distracting to look at a device for the whole show rather than getting lost in what’s happening on stage, but it is a great tool for tourists and can only get better as the technology advances.

You Can Haz Spanish!

Last month, we wrote about the potentially dire consequences of the UK’s foreign language shortage for our economy. How do we get more people to learn another language? As it turns out, the common housecat  may hold the key.

Say what? According to research performed by a company called Memrise, people retain information better when it is presented in the form of cute cat pictures. As Memrise COO Ben Whately explained to the BBC:

“We wanted to know what kinds of visual mnemonics were most effective at helping people to learn fast. The pattern began to emerge that pictures of cats always featured disproportionately among the most effective.”

Now, you can channel your obsession with funny cat memes into something productive: learning another language. Read more

Noto: One Font to Rule Them All?

The amount of non-English-language web content has been growing dramatically over the past few years.  However, there are still some significant challenges when it comes to making content available in other languages. One of the biggest issues is how to represent languages that don’t use the Latin script.

Soon, that may not be a problem. Google, in collaboration with partners including companies like Adobe, is working on a rather ambitious project: Noto Fonts, a font family that “aims to support all the world’s languages” and “achieve visual harmonization across languages.” 

At the moment, Noto Fonts features 100 scripts and 100,000 characters, and is capable of representing 600 written languages. That’s a great start, but there’s still a ways to go. According to Ethnologue, of the currently listed 7,105 living languages, 3,570 have a developed writing system.”  Plus, there are around 3,000 languages that may or not have writing systems of their own- we simply don’t know. 

 As Tanvi Misrah notes on NPR’s Codeswitch blog, with Noto, Google is building on the previous work of the Unicode project.

Unicode currently features 100 scripts and more than 110,000 characters. However, the project has faced allegations of cultural insensitivity in the past, particularly when the time came to code Asian fonts. Between Chinese, Japanese and Korean, they ran out of code. Their solution was something called “Han unification.” As Finn Brunton, a professor at New York University explained to NPR: 

“So they were like, ‘Hey, you know, Chinese, Japanese, Korean — they’re pretty close. Can we just mash big chunks of them together?'” explains Brunton.

Obviously, people who actually use these scripts were less than pleased with the compromise.  To Brunton, the dust-up over Han unification indicates a larger problem with these sorts of projects:

“There’s all these different, sort of, approaches, which are fundamentally, obviously reflecting cultural models — cultural biases. But when they get substantiated into software, they turn into exclusionary systems.”

To its credit, Noto has preserved the variations in script between the different languages. As its partner Adobe notes on its blog, “While the variations may be subtle, especially to the Western eye, they are very important to the users of each language.”

However, other languages have fared less well, according to NPR.  Urdu and Persian, for example, must be written in the Arabic naskh script, another case of subtle-yet-important distinctions being erased in the name of simplicity:

“The naskh script of the Arabic alphabet is more angular, linear — and incidentally, easier to code — than the nastaliq script. So that’s what is currently present in Noto for the Urdu language, even though Persian and Urdu language communities say nastaliq is a more accurate representation.”

That said, according to Google this only a temporary situation as they work to develop a  nastaliq script.

The NPR article has inspired a lively debate amongst commenters, with some accusing Noto’s critics of making the perfect the enemy of the good.

For example, Brad Zimmmerman says

I am the last person that will defend Google, but – in my opinion – it is unreasonable to criticise a project that already has good support for a huge number of languages and is *still in development*. It’s even a bit more unreasonable considering that Google’s efforts – the fonts themselves – are free *and* released under the Apache License, a very generous and easy-to-get-along-with license.”

What do you think of Noto? Is Google doing enough to address the concerns of minority language communities?

Amazon's Kindle Now Speaks French

French speakers now have a new option for consuming ebooks and other digital media that speaks their language: Amazon’s Kindle, which was just released in French last week. The French version of the device, which costs 99€ on Amazon.fr, is Wifi only and comes with neither a touchscreen nor a keyboard. Still, Amazon is touting the device as “the smallest, lightest and most affordable Kindle ever,” and even a basic Kindle is surely better than no Kindle at all.

In a press release, Greg Greeley, vice president, Amazon European Retail,  had this to say:

“French customers are passionate about books and reading, and just as we’ve seen in the US, UK and Germany, we believe they will love reading on Kindle. We are excited to bring our first French-language Kindle and our new Kindle store to millions of Amazon.fr customers. Kindle is already the best-selling e-reader in the world. We kept everything readers love about Kindle-the electronic ink display that reads like real paper, with no glare, even in bright daylight, the convenience of downloading books in less than 60 seconds and Kindle’s ability to disappear in your hands so you can get lost in the author’s words-and made it lighter, smaller, faster, and more affordable than ever.” Read more

Cloud Computing, C'est Quoi En Français ?

Cloud Computing, C’est Quoi En Français ?

It is becoming increasingly difficult for the French language to keep up with the pace of technology, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal. New buzzwords like “cloud computing,” “social media” and “web 2.0” are introduced frequently, and since new French translations for English words have to be created by a committee and approved by France’s General Commission of Terminology and Neology and other regulatory bodies, the French language often lags behind.

For example, the Wall Street Journal notes that it took a committee that specialises in coming up with French equivalents for English computing technology terms 18 months to come up with a translation for cloud computing. The result, “informatique en nuage,” which literally means “computing on a cloud,” was deemed unsatisfactory.

So, until the committee comes up with a new translation, the French language is left without a standard term to describe what Wikipedia defines as “a style of computing in which dynamically scalable and often virtualised resources are provided as a service over the Internet.”

In the Wall Street Journal article, Xavier North, the head of the General Delegation, defends the approval process, saying, “Rigor cannot be compromised.” However, at this rate, by the time they get a translation approved, “cloud computing” will be old news instead of the “next big thing.”

Each year, about 300 new French terms make it through the approval process to become part of the French language. Creating French alternatives to imported English phrases is an important part of keeping the French language healthy and relevant, but it seems like the process needs to move a little bit faster to keep up with the increased pace of technological change.

To ensure you get the best quality from your language project choose a trusted provider. Our French translation services are relied on by governments and businesses worldwide, contact us today to find out more

 

LinkedIn, Now In Chinese

Last week, social networking juggernaut LinkedIn announced the release of their newest localised website in Simplified Chinese.  This is by no means the first attempt at translation for LinkedIn- the service is now available in a total of 22 different languages. However, moving into the Chinese market presents potential pitfalls not found in most other countries.

For one thing, expanding into China means that LinkedIn is obliged to cater to the Chinese government, censoring posts and collecting data on members in that country. Gary King,  the director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, told Time that around 13 percent of all Chinese social media posts are censored. Issues related to censorship have caused both Google and Twitter to give up similar attempts to court Chinese consumers. Read more

Losing Language

“Poetry is just the evidence of life.  If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash”.

This is a quotation of the artist Leonard Cohen which points out the necessity of poetry. It is the same for language. Humans need to talk and share between us but for this, reading literature is very useful. Aristotle said:

“Man is by nature a political animal”.

This means that Humans want to live in society and to develop social relationships with other citizens.

Language, in the strict sense of the term, allows us to communicate but literature and poetry allow us to embellish it. Classical language is losing its value and giving way to the modern. This is represented by mobiles and Internet language, for example “LOL” or “OMG” (oh my God).

Two main reasons can explain losing a language. The first fundamental reason is Time Acceleration: we live more quickly than before and we have less and less time to live. That is why we use abbreviations languages and news means of communication (SMS, SKYPE, FACEBOOK, TWITTER etc.). Paradoxically, people lives much more quickly but spend more time behind the TV! Time Acceleration can also cause other reasons such as Modern Technology and News means of communication. As I said above, Internet and Mobile phones caused the weakening of language even if we need it to work and to communicate .It would be difficult to do without it… Read more

3 Ways Technology Leaves Some Languages Behind

When it comes to preserving language diversity, technology is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the Internet makes it easier than ever before to preserve dying languages and to allow people to learn them. On the other hand, technological advances often favor certain languages over others.

Here are some of the ways technology geared toward English speakers is leaving some languages behind, along with the people who speak them.

Lack of Online Content

In the beginning, most Internet content was in English. This has steadily declined over time, and the latest numbers show only 52% of languages are written in English.

That’s good news for people who don’t speak English . . . but only if they speak one of the select few other languages with a significant online presence. As Katherine Schwab noted in the Atlantic, only 5% of the world’s languages are even represented online.

Even national languages like Hindi, with the third-highest number of total speakers in the world, are woefully under-represented, used on a mere .01 percent of the 10 million most popular websites.

And what good is Internet access if you can’t understand the content? Read more