Bloomberg’s Warnings Lost in Translation

New York City has had one heck of a week. First, a mild earthquake shook the city. Then, just a few days later, Hurricane Irene blew in from the Caribbean. Luckily, the city dodged a bullet when the storm weakened before it struck land.

As New York breathed a sigh of relief and began to clean up Irene’s mess, one way people coped with the ensuing aggravation was through humor – and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was a prime target.

You see, New York is a diverse city, and the two most commonly spoken languages are English and Spanish. To make sure the Spanish-speaking inhabitants were kept informed of the safety measures the city was taking, Mayor Bloomberg summarized them in Spanish. That’s definitely a nice gesture, but as you can see from the video below, young Mr. Bloomberg probably wasn’t the teacher’s pet in Spanish class:

Note the person laughing in the background and the decidedly uncomfortable expressions on the faces of the men behind him in the video.

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Cuts Threaten Italian Academy‎

Across the globe, government services are being slashed in the name of austerity. In many countries, language services are not exempt from the chopping block– and in Italy, the damage may go so far as to include the Italian language academy itself, the Accademia della Crusca.

The academy was established in either 1582 or 1583. It published the first Italian dictionary ever released in 1612. Ever since, it has focused on training linguists and researchers who study Italian, working with the Italian government and other international governments to promote respect for all of Europe’s languages and working with schools and other organizations to keep the Italian language alive and vibrant by sharing “historical knowledge of the Italian language and awareness of its present evolution.” Read more

Chinese Opera Program

Music may be the “universal language,” but that didn’t make learning to sing opera in Chinese any easier for the 20 American singers who joined China’s “I Sing Beijing” program this summer. The Associated Press chronicled the vocalists’ struggles in a recent article.

You probably remember learning to sing “Frère Jacques” and “Feliz Navidad” in school as a child. Unfortunately for the vocalists, learning to sing opera well in Mandarin is decidedly more challenging. For example, vocal coach Katherine Chu told the AP:

“Singers are already sensitive to pitch, which is a big advantage in learning Mandarin. But certain words, like ‘zi’ and ‘zhi,’ aren’t singer-friendly. These words can tighten the jaw so we have to teach them how to carry the tones.”

And there’s more…Mandarin includes sounds that aren’t even found in English as well as different intonation patterns, making it quite difficult to master. Read more

Majority Support for Gaelic in Scotland

In order for a language to survive, people need to want to speak it. Fortunately for the future of Gaelic, a new survey shows that the majority of Scottish citizens support efforts to promote the language.

The survey, “Public Attitudes Towards the Gaelic Language,” was conducted by the Scottish government. It found that 70 percent of respondents believed that more opportunities to learn Gaelic should be made available to the public. 53 percent of respondents would like to see the language make its way into everyday life more frequently. 80 percent of those surveyed were aware that Gaelic is still spoken in Scotland today. Read more

Urinal Drink translation

Translation Higher Priority‎

You’re familiar with the phrase “The customer is always right,” right? Unfortunately, when it comes to translation,newresearchfromTransPerfect shows that businesses aren’t taking that advice to heart.

The survey examined attitudes towards translation among consumers and executives from across the globe. Clear, quality translation was a priority among the respondents who completed TransPerfect’s survey, with 63 percent of the respondents stating that they would be more likely to buy products from websites that have been properly translated into their native languages. When presented with a website with no translation options, consumers were forced to either “make do” with automatic tools like Google translate or to simply give up on the purchase.

The sample size of 200 respondents may seem small, but the results dovetail quite nicely with a survey published by Eurobarometer earlier this summer, which found that 42% of consumers wouldn’t buy a product online if the website was in another language. Really, can you blame them? Not being able to understand the terms and conditions of the website you are buying from is a recipe for poor customer experiences and dissatisfaction. Read more

How Far Would You Go?‎

As babies grow up and develop language skills, they lose the ability to hear and produce sounds that aren’t used in their native language. This typically happens between 8 and 10 months, and it’s one of the things that makes it so difficult to learn a new language as an adult. However, with practice, most people can re-learn how to make these sounds as part of their language lessons.

Unfortunately, for British teenager Rhiannon Brooksbank-Jones, perfection remained elusive even after years of practice in Korean. The problem? She was quite literally “tongue tied.” Rhiannon had a condition called “ankyloglossia,” in which the frenulum that attaches the tongue to the bottom of the mouth is too short and/or too thick. There aren’t many statistics available on how common it is, but a study done at Southhampton General Hospital found that about 10% of babies born at that hospital were affected. The condition sometimes resolves by itself in early childhood, but at Rhiannon’s age, the only option was surgery. Read more

iPhone App Helps Troops

When it comes to Afghanistan, winning the all-important “battle of hearts of minds” has proven to be quite difficult…especially when soldiers don’t speak the language. Now, a new, free iPhone app is available to help soldiers learn Dari, one of the local languages. The app, TripLingoDari, was recently profiled on

Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, is spoken by about half of the country’s inhabitants. Being able to speak it, even with a limited vocabulary, is a huge advantage for NATO soldiers. Lt. David Duffus of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland told CNN that the app has been a big help: “It helps break the ice with the locals… I can talk directly to the soldiers without needing an interpreter and when we are under fire that can save lives — ours and theirs.” Read more

Tunica Language Is Resurrected

Before Europeans began to explore what is now the United States, the Tunica people lived in the Mississippi River Valley. They grew maize for food, traded in salt, and built mounds to bury their dead.

However, by 1800’s, they were down to less than 100 members living in Marksville, Louisiana. They merged with a few friendly tribes, including the Biloxi, the Ofo and the Avoyel. These tribes all spoke languages from completely different families, so the Tunica communicated with their new brethren in French. The last fluent Tunica speaker died in the 1940’s.

Fast forward to 2010, when tribe member Brenda Lintinger contacted Judith Maxwell, a linguistics professor at Tulane University, in an effort to help revive the language of her ancestors. It was not an easy job. The last living speaker, Sesostrie Youchigant, worked with linguist Mary Haas to make a record of Tunica before he died. Still, it had been decades since anyone had spoken it, and the only recording available were old and of poor quality.

Professor Maxwell told the AssociatedPress…

“We would meet in group sessions and hash it out. I would say we still don’t have grasp on much of it.”

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Twitter: the New Haiku?‎

Twitter, the microblogging social network that limits users to “tweets” of 140 characters or less, is growing across the globe. However, communicating with the world in 140-character bursts has really taken off in Japan, especially after the earthquake and its accompanying tsunami earlier this year.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Twitter’s Japanese membership increased by one third in just the first week after the earthquake. Of course, with other forms of communication cut off during the disaster, it’s not surprising that more people would jump on the Twitter bandwagon in an attempt to stay in touch with the outside world. Read more

Ancient Greek Translation

In 1896, students from Oxford University on backpacking trip stumbled upon a rubbish dump in the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. To modern archaeologists, the contents were about as far from rubbish as you can possibly get: thousands of pieces of Greek papyri, dating back to the period after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt.

The students collected the papyrus fragments and brought them back to Oxford, but due to the sheer number of fragments, translation has been slow going. As Dr. Chris Lintott of Oxford told the Daily Mail :

“after 100 years we’ve gone through about two per cent, so we thought it was time we called in some help.”

So, who are they calling in for the cavalry? A crack team of linguists? Actually, no- they’re crowdsourcing the translating, allowing everyday people like you and me to help analyse the papyri. Working with a company called Zooniverse, which previously crowdsourced the classification of up to 60 million galaxies, the university has set up a website where anybody with some spare time can help decode the ancient texts. Read more

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