The Evolution of Language

As this article on demonstrated, language is never static. It is constantly changing and evolving. But why? Why the English we speak is today different in so many ways from the English our grandparents spoke? Or the English Shakespeare spoke and wrote in?

Language evolves for a number of different reasons. One common reason is to accommodate new concepts or technology. For example, the word “Internet” didn’t exist a hundred years ago because there was no need for it. The word “touchscreen” didn’t exist until we figured out how to make computer and cell phone screens that could sense and respond to human touch.

Language also changes when the commonly understood meanings of words change over time. Sometimes, these changes happen when a new language “need” is created, but sometimes, people just abuse and twist the meaning of words until the “incorrect” word or meaning becomes the “correct” one.

The article referenced above gives several interesting examples. For example, take the word “empower.” Empower used to be strictly legal term, meaning “to give legal authority or power to.” However, over time, talk shows and self-help gurus have twisted the word so that it is commonly understood as “to make someone feel powerful.”

Another interesting example of this phenomenon is the word “literally.” Once upon a time, if you were to say something like “These guys are literally killing me,” you would mean that people were really, seriously trying to kill you-perhaps with a knife. Now, you might just mean that they are seriously giving you a hard time. When used this way, “literally” takes over the meaning of its antonym, “figuratively.” Confusing, isn’t it?

That’s why when you have material translated into another language, it is important to choose knowledgeable translators who are aware of both the “textbook meanings” of different words and the way those words are understood in common use.


Lost In Translation: French Panic On Plane

French passengers on board an Aer Lingus Dublin to Paris flight had a fright when the captain made a routine announcement earlier this week.

On the 4th August the A320 Airbus flight took off with around 70 people on board many of whom were French.

Twenty minutes into the flight after leaving Dublin, an English announcement was made that the plane was due to hit some turbulence and could all passengers return to their seats and belt up. Air Lingus Airlines then played a pre-recorded message for the French passengers.

Unfortunately the pre-recorded message told the French passengers that the plane was coming down and they should prepare to ditch!

One passenger is quoted in the Irish Examiner newspaper today saying that there was a French gentleman sitting next to him on the plane who was asleep. As soon as the announcement was made the man sat up looking very startled.

The announcement translated into English as ‘prepare for an emergency landing, note where the nearest emergency exit is and wait for further instructions from the captain.’

Scary stuff considering they were flying out over the Atlantic at the time. It’s reported that it took the cabin crew a few minutes to figure out what had happened. They immediately made an announcement via the PA system apologising for playing the wrong announcement in French.

Thankfully it wasn’t a real emergency but it would have been very scary for all the people involved.

Tensions Rise in Malaysia over How to Translate the Word “God”

People tend to perceive debates over translation as dry, scholarly affairs, but sometimes, disagreements about how to translate a word can aggravate existing tensions between groups, even escalating violence.  This was especially evident in the country of Malaysia last week, where a dispute about how to translate the word “God” has sparked protests and led to the firebombing of three Christian churches.

According to the New York Times, the problems started when a Malaysian court ruled that Roman Catholics could use the word “Allah” in a Malay-language newspaper as a translation for “God.” Allah is, in fact, a direct translation of the word “God” into Arabic-according to Wikipedia, it is the standard Arabic word for God and is commonly used by both Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.

However, in Malaysia, some Muslims believe that the word “Allah” should be exclusive to Muslims. The New York Times quotes a protestor as saying :

“Allah is only for us. The Christians can use any word; we don’t care, but please don’t use the word Allah.”

The government agrees, and has appealed the court ruling allowing Roman Catholics to use it. The New York Times says that:

“Muslims [in Malaysia] have argued that the use of the word by other religions could confuse believers and tempt them to convert from Islam.”

So far, the protests have been small, with only a few hundred people in each gathering. Nobody has been hurt in the fire bombings, and the churches involved have sustained only minor damage. Still, tolerance is necessary for any two groups to live next to each other in peace.  Hopefully, whatever the final court ruling turns out to be, the situation in Malaysia calms down soon.

Japanese signs in the Cotswolds

Signs Translated for Japanese Tourists

The Cotswolds are apparently quite the destination for Japanese tourists – so much so that the railway station at Moreton in Marsh has translated some of its signs into Japanese to help them get their bearings.

According to the Daily Mail, the Japanese signs are the brainchild of station manager Teresa Ceesay, who says that they have made Japanese tourists feel more welcome and made it easier for her small staff to take care of customers. She explained:

“We’ve had a very positive reaction from Japanese visitors with many saying thank you. The Cotswolds is so well promoted in Japan. It’s just to help tourists when they arrive. I’d noticed a lot coming here and they get off the train and look a bit puzzled. They’d ask in our ticket office but we only have one member of staff. It’s only a few signs but it means a lot to people.”

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Translation of Foreign Stores

New York City has long been a city of immigrants, the first stop for the “huddled masses” who got off the boat in Ellis Island. While modern-day Americans like to natter on about how those original huddled masses assimilated themselves immediately while today’s immigrants do not, the truth is that immigrants have long clustered together, creating neighbourhoods that reflect their cultures and remind them of home.

For example, the neighbourhood of Flushing in Queens is primarily Chinese and Korean, and it shows- especially in the Chinese- and Korean-language signs over the doors of shops and restaurants. As Peter Tu, the executive director of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, told the Washington Post :

“People must respect that this is a special area and please respect the Asian culture. They have their own life in this area. When you walk in the street, you don’t feel like you are in America.”

For some New Yorkers, that’s precisely the problem. While many residents embrace the city’s multi-ethnic character, others are annoyed and alienated. In response, the Washington Post reports that two City Councilmen, Dan Halloran and Peter Koo, are drafting legislation that would require translation of foreign-language store signs. Read more

Multilingual design and translation documents

Multilingual design

Working with a single language is relatively straightforward so long as you are familiar with its nuances & rules. When dealing with multiple languages though, great care and attention to detail must be employed to ensure that each language is given its due. Every Language has its own unique combination of factors in style, script or reading direction.

Whenever undertaking any kind of multilingual design, a clear understanding of what typesetting a foreign language involves is imperative. If you were to compare Chinese and German to English for example, you would see that German words appear much longer and the Chinese, much, much shorter.  Even at this basic level, text length alone can have a dramatic effect on a translated documents’ design.

Text length is just one basic aspect of many which has to be considered while designing a multilingual document. The next thing to take into account is the direction of which a language is read. In Latin based languages, sentences are read from left to right where as other languages like Arabic, Hebrew and Urdu are read from right to left. This variation has a significant impact on a documents layout, which generally needs to be completely flipped. For a multipage document, this can mean the back becomes the front and vice versa.

Another factor that designers need to be aware of is that not all languages use a standard font. For instance, Western European languages generally employ Latin or Roman script whereas Greek, Russian, Indian, Middle Eastern and Asian languages use completely different character sets.  These are just some of the fundamental differences designers need to consider when working with foreign languages…

  • Text length
  • Word order
  • Reading direction
  • Character sets

Aside from just the technical implications, designers also need to be sympathetic to several cultural concerns. Colours and images may have significantly different connotations when viewed in different regions, which can range from benign to severe depending on the target audience. Depending on the document, this can require a significant redesign to ensure any potential culture shock is avoided.


Helping you sell online, Translation Infographic

Translation Infographic: Helping you Sell On-line

Translation is typically one of the last things businesses think of when marketing their products. But what cannot be overstated is how gigantically important it is if you want to market and sell that same product abroad. Here’s a translation infographic containing a few facts and figures about international selling. They just might give you some ideas about how you can employ translation to boost your sales abroad.

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A brief history of translation during times of conflict

Translators at War

Translators are often the forgotten vital intelligence asset in wartime. Their role has developed considerably in the twentieth and early twenty-first century, becoming increasingly important in a globalised world that faces the challenges of terrorism and complex international relations. Today we need their skills more than ever, but the origins of translators in warfare go back further than most people imagine.

The Stone Age

The story of the human species is a story of war and conquest. From the very earliest movement of people from Africa, human beings have made war to establish new territory and gain social dominance. Since that time humans have made use of soldiers and sailors who spoke the language of their enemies, hoping to gain an insight into their opponents’ tactics and the lie of the land (or sea), and in the process gain the advantage in battle.

The Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs

One notable use of native translators in history was during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. It began in 1519 when conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico with Spanish forces. Faced with more than one local language to navigate, the clever Cortés decided to make use of the translation skills of a local woman, Malintzin, to help him make alliances with other groups hostile to the Aztecs. She quickly learned Spanish and translated between this, Chontal Maya, and Náhuatl. Malintzin also taught Cortés about Aztec culture and helped him defeat the Aztec forces. She even warned him of a planned assassination attempt. Eventually she became Cortés’s personal interpreter and mother of his son. Read more