The Endangered Alphabets Project In Bangladesh

Almost a year ago, we had the honor of publishing a guest post from Vermont artist Tim Brookes, of the Endangered Alphabets project. The Endangered Alphabets project aims to bring attention to endangered alphabets through a series of beautiful wood carvings.

Now, Mr. Brookes is starting a new project, this time focused on the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. The Chittagong Hill Tracts are home to 13 different indigenous groups. Their languages have so far withstood military conflict and an influx of settlers, but they are now very much endangered, as children grow up speaking the national language, Bengali, instead.

To help preserve these languages and the alphabets they are written in, the Endangered Alphabets project has set up a Kickstarter project to fund the creation of a set of children’s textbooks in these languages. The books will be created by Maung Nyeu, a native of the area who is building a school for indigenous children where they can study in their own languages.

As he explained on the project’s Kickstarter page,

“I’m trying to create children books in our alphabets – Mro, Marma, Tripura, Chakma and others. This will help not only save our alphabets, but also preserve the knowledge and wisdom passed down through generations. For us, language is not only a tool for communications, it is a voice through which our ancestors speak with us.”

The scripts will also become part of the Endangered Alphabets exhibition. In each language, Mr. Brookes will make a copy of the following poem, written for the project:

“These are our words, shaped

By our hands, our tools,

Our history. Lose them

And we lose ourselves.”

Currently, the project has raised $6, 685 out of $10,000 needed, with 16 days to go before it closes.

The Huffington Post, Now in Italian

American news aggregation and blogging giant The Huffington Post expanded into Italy this week, with an Italian-language edition featuring custom content.

In a post on the main Huffington Post website, Arianna Huffington wrote that the company’s desire to expand into Italy came from a deep appreciation for Italian culture as well as a desire to chronicle the ongoing effects of the global financial crisis:

“Italy is still feeling the effects of the global economic meltdown, and L’HuffPost will be obsessively reporting the day-to-day human consequences of the crisis and putting flesh and blood on the data.”

“L’Huffington Post,” as the Italian edition will be called, will be utilizing a mix of bloggers, freelance journalists and experienced Italian journalists. The site will be overseen by Lucia Annunziata, formerly of Italian newspapers la Repubblica and Corriere della Sera.

The new site launched with an interview with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Interviews with opposing politicians were included as well, but most of the spotlight was, unsurprisingly, on Mr. Berlusconi’s attempt to brush off longstanding allegations of sexual impropriety as “disinformation and defamation.”

While Huffpo was no doubt ecstatic about scoring an interview with Berlusconi, communications Francesco Siliato of Milan Polytechnic University felt that the news site might have been better off resisting that particular temptation. He told the New York Times:

“It’s an interesting project, but it might be better if they invested more in young journalists rather than old politicians, The power of The Huffington Post in the United States was young people, not politicians.”

Of course, Huffington Post’s expansion into Italy is about more than good intentions and a love of la dolce vita. There’s also ad dollars at stake. As Massimo Ghedini, chief of ad sales at the Huffington Post’s Italian partner, the Expresso Group, explained to the New York Times:

“Italian advertisers are always looking for two things: results, in terms of a return on their investment, and positioning. The Huffington Post gives them both. It brings readers into the conversation, and the Italian edition will spread knowledge of Italian style around the world.”

Creating Braille Certificates

Been busy this week creating braille certificates for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). See image above.

Doesn’t matter how many we do it still blows me away how beautiful braille looks.

Need some Braille?

Order it here > Braille Service < Special low prices if you’re part of the UK Government.

Translating Fast Fashion

We recently developed a solution for a very large European retailer to help them to localise/translate all of their packaging for their dynamic range of clothing.

The challenge in this space is to provide translation that is ‘on trend’, error free and makes best use of all the previously translated material, which helps to dramatically lower the unit cost per word to translate. When we reviewed the existing translation solution we found that the translation was being stored on a shared excel sheet in head office.

The theory was great, if they’d translated something once then that translation could be re-used for future packaging at (virtually) zero cost. But in practice it meant that no one was responsible for the data and the spreadsheet had to be emailed around people outside of the ‘loop’. Comments and suggestions were not imported into the master list, the context of the translation was often wrong and the quality of the translation never really improved over time. Read more

Documentary Preserves a Dead Language

A while back, we wrote about the last two speakers of Mexico’s Ayapaneco language. Although the two elderly gentlemen, Manuel Segovia and Isidro Velazquez, share a native language, they haven’t spoken in decades.

Now, a new documentary, Lengua Muerta, will preserve the sounds of the language indefinitely.

Director Denisse Quintero told Fox News that at the moment, Ayapaneco, also called Ayapa Zoque, is the world’s most endangered language:

“We’re beginning to investigate and we’re discovering that it is the language that is vanishing most rapidly in Mexico and worldwide. It’s the one with the fewest speakers, just two, and they’re elderly. When they die, it will practically cease to exist.”

Producer Laura Berron admitted that saving the language is impossible at this point, but told Fox that she thought it was important to preserve a record of it anyway:

“It’s not a rescue, but rather it consists of creating an audiovisual registry, a memory, so that other generations can have access to it, given that it’s very difficult to rescue the language.”

The only tiny glimmer of hope for the language is Manuel Segovia’s 30-year-old son. Named after his father, he is also trying to carry on with the Ayapaneco language. However, he didn’t learn it as a child so it’s difficult now.

Social stigma was the main thing that drove Ayapaneco to its grave, Segovia’s son told the Latin American Herald Tribune:

“When this language is spoken many people make fun of it or give it nicknames, or they even tell you that only Indians speak that language, and here the word Indian for some people is an insult, a symbol of humiliation.”

The producers hope that Lengua Muerta can be shown as a sort of cautionary tale to indigenous communities facing similar challenges, to inspire them to value their own culture more highly before it becomes too late.

New Tool Compares Translations

Translation isn’t always black and white. There is usually more than one possible translation for a given phrase, and part of a translator’s job is to choose the best of these alternatives. The words chosen will subtly influence how the translated work is perceived by its intended audience, and they sometimes reveal as much about the translator as they do about the work itself.

Now, scientists at Swansea University have developed a tool that allows you to compare different translations of one scene from Shakespeare’s Othello to see how they differ.

The program compares 37 different German translations of the scene in which Othello describes how he wooed Desdemona with stories of his adventures, along with the original English version. Different views allow for line-by-comparisons, show which lines of the play have the greatest variation in translation, and highlight the translations that stand out from the crowd the most. You don’t have to speak German to use it, either. The translations are re-translated into English so you can see how different word choices subtly shaped the meaning of the text.

Project head Tom Cheesman, a linguist at Swansea, explained some of the insights scholars should be able to get from this tool to

“The aim is to document the history of the play and its translations. They are implicitly aligned with each other. Digital technology is great for exploring their connections and deviations. Do men translate differently from women? Do East German translations of Shakespeare differ from West German? How has the depiction of Othello as a black man changed through history, from the time of slavery, through the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm, to the Nazi dictatorship, and up to the present time of ‘political correctness’?”

In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Cheesman also stated that the tool could be useful for foreign language students studying translated texts, once more texts and translations are added.

Next up: The Merchant of Venice.

Shanghainese in Danger

How do you unite a country as diverse as China? A common spoken language certainly helps, but the government has often promoted Mandarin at the expense of, instead of in addition to, local dialects.

As a result, the survival of other Chinese languages is threatened. For example, even Shanghainese, the most famous branch of the ancient Wu dialect family, is under threat. Linguistics professor Qian Nairong of Shanghai University was quoted in the Telegraph as saying “Shanghainese will come to an end within a generation or two.”

The popularity of English as a second language is another obstacle for Shanghainese. Language activist Roman Xu told the reporters:

“I guess the younger generation is much more familiar with English than their mother tongue. I’ve read in history books about how a language gradually dies out. Hope my mother tongue won’t become one.”

However, English is really a secondary threat. As in so many other countries, the government’s promotion of a common language (“putonghua,” or standard Mandarin) has in the not-too-distant past taken the form of suppressing the local dialect in schools- even outside of class.

As Qian Narong explained to the Global Times, starting in the early 1990’s, “Teachers’ morality scores, which are related to their salary, were lowered if their students were discovered speaking the dialect.”

Cao Zhiyi, a student when the policy was implemented, explained that the school used a system of student informers to catch students who spoke in Shanghainese between and after classes:

“Students from other classes were dispatched to take records when we spoke Shanghainese after class. The class teacher would scold those who spoke it as damaging class honor.”

The news isn’t all bad, however. Efforts have been made to revive the language and to prevent schools from discouraging Shanghainese, though very few actually teach it. The local court system has also started training officers in Shanghainese. And for now, at least, speaking Shanghainese is still an advantage when it comes to doing business in Shanghai. Insurance saleswoman Xu Shudan is actually studying the dialect so that she can more easily make connections in the city. She told the Guardian,

“Mandarin is spoken nationwide. However in Shanghai, using words like “nonghao” -a local expression for hello – can immediately close the distance between business partners.”

That’s positive, but how long will it last? If young people don’t speak it, the language will certainly lose its prestige among businesspeople when they begin calling the shots.

It seems inevitable that “pure” Shanghainese will change as it takes on influences from Mandarin. In fact, Chinese linguists told the Global Times that this has already happened. Hopefully, though, the language will survive.


twitter changes French language

How Twitter is Changing French

We all know that technology is changing the English language, adding new words and bringing shorthand like LOL and WTF even into spoken conversations.

However, English isn’t the only language that’s being affected by the rise of new forms of communication like Twitter and Facebook.

If you’ve studied Spanish, French or a related language, you’ll remember having to learn two forms “you,” one used to address friends and family and another used to address strangers, older adults and people otherwise ranked higher than you in the social hierarchy.

As the BBC recently covered, however, on Twitter, the formal “you” is hardly ever used. After all, it’s somewhat difficult to determine social status based on an avatar.

As Anthony Besson, a young Frenchman and Twitter user interviewed for the article put it,

“In the philosophy of the internet, we are among peers, equal, without social distinction, whatever your age, gender, income or status in real life.”

Professor Antonio Casilli, who teaches Digital Humanities at Telecom ParisTech, told the BBC that using (or requiring someone else to use) “vous” on Twitter goes against this philosophy, making it “a major break in the code of communication… an attempt to reaffirm asymmetric social roles… a manifestation of distance that compromises social cohesion.”

But don’t consign “vous” to the trash heap of history just yet. At the moment, there’s a bit of a culture clash going on. Most people still see using “vous” as a way to show respect, and some see using “tu” uninvited as an insult.

For example, last year news magazine director Laurent Joffrin confronted a follower on Twitter for using “tu” without permission. While his follower probably didn’t mean to insult him with the informal address, Joffrin was showered with a flurry of deliberate online insults for his trouble.

Somewhat ironically, he accuses people who use “tu” on Twitter of trying to implement their own hierarchy. He told the BBC,

“It doesn’t bring people together, it heightens tensions. It’s an appalling culture. People on Twitter would never dare to go up to someone in the street and call them ‘tu’ because it’s a form of violence – you see drivers insulting each other using ‘tu’. In big cities especially, you need respect and courtesy. And on Twitter, there isn’t respect.”

As the online world and the offline world increasingly bleed into each other, it will be interesting to see how this trend shakes out.


McDonald’s Botches Hmong Billboard

McDonald’s ended up with Egg McMuffin on its face after it attempted to reach out to St. Paul, Minnesota’s Hmong community with two new billboards.

The billboards in question were meant to encourage local Hmong residents to patronize McDonald’s for breakfast, using the slogan “Coffee gets you up, breakfast gets you going.”

Unfortunately, whoever translated the slogan into Hmong didn’t do a particularly good job. The vocabulary is there, but local residents say the syntax is off and there aren’t spaces between the words.

As resident Bruce Thao, who speaks Hmong, explained to the Post Bulletin,

“It sounds weird in Hmong because we don’t really talk like that. Either way, there should definitely be spaces in between those words.”

Once the error was pointed out, Gregg Miskiel, marketing director of McDonald’s Midwest Region, released the following statement to the media:

“While it was our intention to create a special message for our Hmong population in Minnesota, we now realize that an error was made in the translation of ‘Coffee Gets You Up, Breakfast Gets You Going.’ It was not our intention to offend anyone and we apologize for the error. We are working with our local advertising agency to correct these billboards and will re-post next week.”

St. Paul is home to the largest Hmong community in the United States, so it’s no surprise that McDonald’s would want to reach out. However, when you reach out to a community that speaks another language, you need to make an effort to get it right by hiring a qualified translation company and perhaps recruiting members of that community to preview your advertising before it goes live.

There’s no telling how McDonald’s perky breakfast slogan got lost in translation, but some additional due diligence could have saved the company some embarrassment.

See Huffington

Deaf Child's Name Sign Called "Too Violent"

A young deaf boy in the United States found himself at the center of a controversy last week when his school district objected to the way he signed his name.

Hunter Spanjer is only three years old, and is currently in preschool at the Early Learning Center in Grand Island. His parents have chosen to educate him primarily using Signing Exact English (SEE), though they wouldn’t mind him learning American Sign Language (ASL) as well.

SEE is a system that allows deaf people to use their hands to visually represent English vocabulary and grammar.  It’s easier for hearing people who speak English to learn, and proponents believe it makes it easier for deaf children to learn how to read and write in English.

However, in SEE,  Hunter’s official name sign looks suspiciously like a gun, at least according to the school district.  His father, Brian Spanjer, told their local NBC affiliate what happened:

“About two weeks ago we had been in contact with his early intervention home visitor and she had asked us if we would change his name. They felt like his name was inappropriate or his name sign. I asked her if there is a school policy that we are in violation of. What I was referred to was, well, ‘technically it’s a violation of our weapons policy.’ I was floored.”

The school district, for its part, denies that’s the problem, instead framing the conflict as an ASL vs. SEE issue. They released a statement saying  “Grand Island Public Schools has not changed the sign language name of any student, nor is it requiring any current student with a hearing impairment to change his or her sign language name.”

Technically, that may be true…but Mr. Spanjer said that the school was still refusing to use the toddler’s name sign, resorting to finger-spelling it for him instead.

The National Association for the Deaf and the ACLU have both gotten involved, so the boy’s school will more than likely have to back down soon. According to the Journal Star, Mr. Spanjer has also requested a SEE interpreter for his son, though the district is using ASL exclusively at present.

What do you think? Should a deaf child be prohibited from using his namesign if it looks like a gun? Also, should the school provide a SEE interpreter, since that’s how the boy’s parents want him educated?

Photo CreditAttribution Some rights reserved by jontintinjordan

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