Eddie Izzard, in Translation

Conventional wisdom says it’s difficult to translate a joke. British comedian Eddie Izzard disagrees.  With his Force Majeure tour, he has been performing his stand-up comedy routine in English, French and German and he plans to add Spanish, Russian, and Arabic to the mix before it’s all said and done.

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Izzard explained:

“Humor is human. It’s universal,” Izzard says. “I believe there’s no American sense of humor, there’s not a British sense of humor. There’s not a Russian sense of humor, in a national way… I typically slam together images that are quite surreal. That’s my gut instinct as to where comedy lies, comedy that I like. I believe there’s a mainstream sense of humor in every country, and a more ‘alternative’ sense of humor in every country. So, ‘The Simpsons’ can be watched around the world when translated. But they won’t get all the references. In England, we might not get someone (referenced) from American television that we don’t know. The references are national, but the type of humor is either mainstream or alternative.”

According to the Boston Globe, Izzard’s brother Mike is a linguist who has been helping with the translations. Since the comedian is not fluent in these languages, his show has to be scripted with little room for ad-libbing or going off script.

At least one joke did not translate well into German- one in which Izzard compares an aging body to “two weasels, covered in gravy, nailed to the back of a tractor.”  It doesn’t make a lot of sense in English, but in German the rhythm was all wrong, too. Izzard tried alternate translations like “a washing machine filled with rodents” and ” two washing machines filled with frogs that have been sat on by elephants,” but he told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review he never quite got it right.

Still, having his act translated has opened up a lot of opportunities to perform for people around the world in their own languages. He told the Boston Globe he intends to visit 25 different countries:

“I will be touring Germany and the German-speaking countries, and France in French. And I think I can go to some parts of the Caribbean and play in French. And I could definitely play Beirut in French. I think that would work. So I’ve got all these options there. It’s fun. A great adventure.”

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by ericskiff

What is the Hardest Foreign Language to Learn?

No matter what, learning a foreign language takes some effort. But some languages are easier than others. Which languages are the hardest for English speakers to get a grip on?

This infographic, based on information provided by the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State, might have the answer.  It shows how much class time it generally takes to become proficient at speaking one of 23 major languages.

European languages like French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are classified as “easy,” generally taking 24 weeks and 600 class hours to attain proficiency in.

Meanwhile, in the “Medium” category, we have Hindi, Russian, Vietnamese, Turkish, Polish, Thai, Serbian, Greek, Finnish and Hebrew. To become proficient in one of these languages, it usually takes 44 weeks of study or 1,110 classroom hours.

Finally, the “Big Four.” According to the US Department of State, the four most difficult languages to learn are Arabic, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. To become conversational in one of these languages, you’ll probably need 1.69 years, spending 2,200 hours in class!

What makes these languages so hard to learn? For Arabic, one problem is simply that there aren’t many cognates to help give English speakers a head start on vocabulary.  Then, there’s the fact that written Arabic tends to drop vowels. One reporter trying to learn Arabic described the resulting confusion in Slate here:

Maktab, or “office,” is just written mktb. Vowels are included as little marks above and below in beginning textbooks, but you soon have to get used to doing without them. Whn y knw th lngg wll ths s nt tht hrd. But when you’re struggling with comprehension to begin with, it’s pretty formidable.

Other factors mentioned in Slate include unfamiliar sounds and a “ferociously unfamiliar grammar.”

What about the other languages? Chinese has two strikes against it. First of all, it’s a tonal language, which means that the tone you say a particular word in changes the meaning of the word. Secondly, there are literally thousands of characters to learn.

A complex writing system is also listed as a mark against Japanese, though some Japanese enthusiasts argue that the FSI is giving the language an undeserved bad rap.

English speakers trying to learn Korean face difficulties with syntax, sentence structure and conjugating verbs, plus written Korean uses some of those pesky Chinese characters, too. Again, there are dissenters. For example, translator and ESL teacher Donovan Nagel says,

“Languages like Korean, Mandarin and Arabic tend to draw this kind of negativity from people and it usually comes from bitter people who gave up at some point early on.”

Whether learning a particular language comes easy or not depends on a bunch of different factors, including your native language and whether or not you are already bilingual.

The complete infographic is below- do you agree with how the different languages are ranked?

Via: Voxy Blog

Skype: Universal Translator

Skype: The Universal Translator

Microsoft  & Skype intend to launch a real time language translator service this year according to an article by the BBC. Satya Nadella, Skype’s chief executive plans to introduce a test version for Windows 8 in the run up to 2015.

Due to increasing competition in the the VOIP market from the likes of google & co, these companies have been forced to pursue & develop more varied product offerings. Should this technology prove effective, it could spell trouble for the interpreting sector in a similar way that machine translation (MT) has impacted the language industry.

Skype claims the service is the result of more than a decade of detailed work with speech recognition systems and believes it could have dramatic concequenceses for the entire communication industry, with Mr Nadella adding

“It is going to make sure you can communicate with anybody without language barriers,”

While Skype’s vice president, Gurdeep Pall, accepts the technology is still very much in its early stages, he believes the prospect of the fabled universal translator is not as far away as it once was

“We’ve invested in speech recognition, automatic translation and machine learning technologies for more than a decade, and now they’re emerging as important components in this more personal computing era,”

“It is early days for this technology, but the Star Trek vision for a Universal Translator isn’t a galaxy away, and its potential is every bit as exciting as those Star Trek examples.”


There is still a clear divide between the current abilities of machines vs. humans in regards to quality of translation, as we have covered in previous articles. However, few would deny that gap is narrowing year on year. It has taken MT a while but with the growth in popularity of services like Google translate, a point has been reached where it has undoubtedly begun to muddy the waters of some client perception towards language service providers.

Let us know what you think in the comments, is it an exciting prospect or a worrying development?

Korean Food, Lost in Translation

Awkward English translations are exceedingly common in Korea.  So common, in fact, that there is even a word to describe them: Konglish. “Konglish” translations of Korean restaurant menus are often especially heinous.
Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, has collected a list of them for the Korea Herald:

Preposterous English food translations include “lacquer poison chicken broth with ginseng (hanbang samgye tang).” Customers will surely be intimidated by this poisoned chicken dish that may threaten their lives. In fact, this dish, which should be translated to “boiled chicken with ginseng” or “chicken stew with ginseng,” is not dangerous at all, but very good for your stamina… Examples of embarrassing translations could seemingly go on forever.

Other highlights:

  • mountain not yet the pebble pot boiled rice with assorted mixtures (sanchae dolsot bibimbab, a vegetable hot pot)
  • mother hand tasty director of a bureau (omma son mat cheong guk jang, a soybean stew)
  • green pea jelly vegetable nothing needle (cheongpo mook yachae moochim, a green pea jelly salad)

Most of these botched translations are the result of attempting to translate word to word from Korean to English. As you can see from the results, it’s not always that simple and for accuracy’s sake it’s important to have someone with a working knowledge of both languages.

In an attempt to make Korean food sound more palatable, South Korea’s national language institute just released its first batch of official translations for restaurants. With verified English translations for 200 common South Korean dishes, officials hope this will make eating out in Korea easier for tourists.

According to the Wall Street Journal, however, the new translations come with problems of their own:

Many of the descriptions appear too brief. Take kal-guksu, a popular wheat-flour pasta soup with fish stock base. The new list calls it noodle soup, but that doesn’t reveal the type of noodle used in the dish. In Korean cuisine, there are many types of noodle dishes, in variable thickness, served chilled or in hot soup with different condiments and spices.

Meat dishes could also use some embellishment beyond listed definitions such as short rib soup, pork backbone stew, beef bone soup, ox bone soup and ox knee soup.

Still, that’s better than leaving tourists wondering if they’re being poisoned, or whether or not government officials taste like chicken!

What’s oddest menu translation you’ve ever seen? Share it in the comments!


I really don’t know what this video is, it has nothing to do with translation but I found it when I was researching this post. This guy’s laugh is hilarious.

Rescued Deaf Pit Bull Learns Sign Language

Rosie the pit bull had a rough start in life. First of all, she was born deaf. She was also born a pit bull, a breed of dog that all too often gets poor treatment and a bad rap in the United States. At three years old, she ended up homeless at the Central Nebraska Humane Society.

That’s where Rosie’s luck started to change for the better.  Shelter volunteer Tracie Pfeifle realized that Rosie could not hear, and that her disability was limiting her ability to interact with her human caretakers. So, she began teaching her a few simple signs in American sign language.

Pfeifle told local news station KCTV:

“We started using treats and putting the treat up to your face and saying ‘good girl’ with your thumb up and then she figured out how, that we were communicating with her…It was just amazing to watch her just blossom into a dog, I don’t think she knew how to be a dog.”

Even better, after three months in the shelter, Rosie went home with a new owner. Cindy Koch, who is also deaf, adopted her. Koch plans to teach Rosie more sign language, she told KCTV:

“Because I’m deaf and we want to relate to her, and understand how she feels – want to communicate with her through signing, teach her signing…I’m going to teach her my sign language, how deaf people communicate, she’s a smart dog, she can pick up fast,” Koch said.

Dogs with special needs often have a more difficult time finding homes. If there isn’t a no-kill shelter or rescue program available, that means they are more likely to be put down. Fortunately, there are organizations in the both US and the UK who focus on finding homes for deaf dogs.

In the US:

Deaf Dogs Rock

In the UK:

Deaf Dog Network

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Matthew Almon Roth

A New York Woman’s Quest to Preserve Quechua

Quechua is the most widely spoken group of indigenous languages in South America. However, in a world where Spanish predominates, it is extremely vulnerable.

Quechua is a group of closely related languages and dialects spoken by 8 to 10 million people in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. It was the language of the old Incan Empire. 8 to 10 million people may seem like a lot, but that’s for all languages in the family, and a glance at UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger shows that even the healthiest Quechua languages are “vulnerable,”  and several are already extinct.

Quechua’s prestige began to decline during the late 18th century, when the Spanish banned it from public use after an indigenous rebellion led by Tupac Amaru II.  Although Quechua is now an official language in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru,  it never really recovered. Bruce Mannheim, an anthropology professor  at the University of Michigan, described its current status to the Wall Street Journal:

“Quechua speakers in urban areas make sure their children speak Spanish,” he said. “And their grandchildren only speak Spanish.…Among the different languages, there are a number of them that are threatened with extinction within this generation.”

However, an initiative to preserve the language is coming from an unlikely place: the kitchen table of a 73-year old Brooklyn grandmother.

Elva Ambía grew up speaking Quechua during her childhood in Peru. In 2012, she founded the New York Quechua Initiative to promote the language through musical and cultural events, educational programs and Quechua classes held in Ms. Ambia’s home.  The group has also donated a collection of books about Quechua to the Brooklyn library.

Ms. Ambia told the Wall Street Journal she is confident the language will survive:

“I do not believe Quechua is dying. I cannot accept that. If I am alive, I am going to make it alive.”

Photo Credit:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Cédric Liénart

Chinese Sign Sparks Controversy in Canada

Sometimes, even the most seemingly innocent translations can end up causing controversy.

For example, in Richmond, British Columbia,  a Crest ad targeted at Chinese-speaking residents caused a minor uproar last month.

The ad features a Chinese bride posed on a mouthwash-blue background next to a selection of Crest “3-D White” products. The accompanying text is all in Chinese, and translates to “In a nutshell, it’s a good thing this bride used Crest because now her teeth are shiny white.”

Why use a Chinese translation for a billboard in Canada? The area where the ad is located is heavily populated by Chinese immigrants. According to CTVNews, almost half of Richmond’s population speaks Chinese (Cantonese, to be precise.)

With such a large Chinese-speaking population, it just makes sense to target them with advertising. However, the campaign has left some English-speaking residents feeling left out.  For instance, one local resident told the Richmond Review that she would be boycotting Proctor and Gamble products, and some have pushed for legislation requiring all signs to be in one of Canada’s official languages.

One woman asked CTVNews, “How can I understand what they’re talking about or what they’re marketing?”  though it seems like this particular ad is fairly self-explanatory whether you can read Chinese or not.

Meanwhile, Richmond Councilor Chak Au told the Richmond Review:

“I think it reflects a certain level of insensitive on the part of the company or the advertising agency. That’s very unfortunate. I don’t think this is the right thing, but on the other hand I think this is understandable in terms of a marketing strategy…In a free society like Canada, where we treasure freedom of expression, I think it’s very difficult to use any legislation to forbid this kind of targeted marketing. Actually, if we do that, it may even create more problems.”

In a statement to  CTVNews, a Crest Canada spokeswoman said

“We deeply value the rich diversity of Canadians and continuously strive to connect with all consumers in relevant ways. “While the vast majority of our advertising remains in one or both of Canada’s official languages, this unique ad was created to reach a new audience of diverse consumers.”

What do you think? Should advertisements target local language minorities without including those who speak the country’s official language?

London’s First Deaf Church to Close

It’s the end of an era as London’s first church built specifically for deaf worshipers will be closing soon, the BBC reports.

St Saviour’s Church opened for services on Oxford street in 1873. 50 years later, it relocated to Acton. According to the London Deaf Church website,  the place where the original church once stood is now a Selfridge’s.

The old building was specially designed to make it as easy as possible for deaf worshipers to get the most out of services, with a layout that allowed everyone in the room to watch the preacher sign.  Historian Mike Gulliver explained the details of the design to the BBC:

“There was no rood screen, or choir, or organ,” says Gulliver. “It was built more in the style of a non-Anglican, non-conformist church.” There were also twin pulpits, one for a signing preacher and one to accommodate an interpreter for hearing visitors.

While most hearing Anglican churches face east, St Saviour’s Oxford Street faced north. This was for light reasons, says Gulliver. It was thought that a steady stream of light throughout the day was better for deaf people’s communication.

The downstairs level of the original church was a social club, a gathering place for the deaf community. It was decorated with artwork made by church members.

Now, however, many of the older parishioners are gone and the younger generation have chosen other places to worship, either renting space for sign language services at other churches or by using a BSL interpreter. Services for the deaf are only held at St Saviour’s once a month;  the old church is now up for sale.

According to Bristol University’s Dr. William John Lyons, St Saviour’s Church represented a tremendous victory for the London Deaf community:

“With the right to worship effectively standing for other rights—to education, to work, to citizenship and membership of society—St Saviour’s stood for nearly fifty years as a symbolic hub for the recognition of the London Deaf community. “

On one hand, it’ll be sad to see it go. On the other hand, it seems like it’s served its purpose as deaf people now have more options — and that’s probably a good thing.

“Zero Translation” Causes a Row in China

Slowly but surely, bits of English are creeping into Chinese, Roman alphabet and all. English words and acronyms like Wifi, GDP and NBA now appear untranslated in all sorts of contexts, from spoken conversations to emails to news stories.

But not everyone is pleased with this trend, which is known as “zero translation.” The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, recently weighed in with an editorial attacking the use of untranslated English words.

According to the BBC, the editorial, which bore the headline “Why is zero translation so prevalent?,” claimed that

“[S]uch practices damage the integrity and harmony of the Chinese language, dilute the richness of the Chinese culture and hamper comprehension. “How many people can understand these words?” they ask.”

According to the New York Times, the editorial went on to say that “It’s become so serious that the foreign words are even showing up in regular publications and formal documents, giving rise to resentment among the public.”

But is the public really resentful of these English loanwords?  Surely some are. But not everyone, or the government would have an easier time promoting its list of “official translations.” As it stands now, some translations for commonly used English terms take off quickly. Other zero translation words, like NBA, are much more firmly entrenched. The government has been trying to get people to stop saying “NBA” in reference to American basketball for the past four years, with no success.

That’s not to say that the English words being used in China now will be used forever.  Sometimes, “zero translation” is just a temporary stage. For example, according to the New York Times, “email” was once used in China, but now two separate Chinese words have evolved to take its place:” 电邮 (dianyou), literally “electronic mail,” and 邮件 (youjian), which simply means ‘mail.'”

The People’s Daily editorial has generated a lot of attention and commentary online. Many people feel that trying to preserve the “purity” of Mandarin Chinese is a lost cause. For example, “My brothers name is Ruprecht” commented on the BBC website:

“Having worked in and visited China for 24 years, I can honestly say the people really don’t care how Western culture affects their language or anything else. They are very comfortable with it. Maybe in 20 years time the Chinese Govt will catch up with their own people.”

Meanwhile, DGR in Ithaca told the New York Times that while some of the editorial’s concerns were valid, others were misplaced:

“I fully share the concern about loanwords that are transliterated into a meaningless string of Chinese characters, for example the popular 巴士 ‘bashi’ for “bus”, with a literal meaning of handle/knight — i.e. gibberish. The evolution of the e-mail from this to a native combination is correct. Using a foreign-derived word or name in Latin script at least preserves the meaning of Chinese characters. I have no problem with “NBA”.”

It’s probably impossible to stem the tide of English loanwords into Chinese, but that doesn’t make translation any less important for companies looking to expand into the Chinese market. The cachet of “zero translation” may fade over time.   A well-translated brand will endure.

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