Around the web – August 2014

Did you know that until 8 BCE the old name for the month of August was Sextilus, Latin for “sixth month”? And that when we describe something as ‘august‘, we are saying it is majestic and inspires reverence or admiration? An auguste is also a type of clown with a white muzzle and eyes and a red nose. Anyway here’s your ‘August’ round-up of interesting articles about translation and language.


Typical aspects of an Auguste clown: red nose, white muzzle and eyes

  • Here’s a list of international linguistics-related conferences taking place between now and the end of the year.
  • With translators and interpreters in mind, at the beginning of the month Inbox Translate launched a resource of 3000+ glossaries.
  • How are the terms off-piste, off the beaten track/path, off base used differently in the USA and UK?
  • In the UK there are still hundreds of court cases requiring an interpreter that were disrupted in the first quarter as Capita continued to fall short of its required performance target. Read more.


  • How do you fare on this fiendishly difficult vocabulary quiz from The Guardian?
  • Are you a vocabulary expert? How many English words do you actually know? Test yourself.
  • Joke: what happens when a translator and Google translate walk into a bar? Find out.


Casse-pieds (pain in the butt): Your neighbour is getting on your nerves. What a “feet-breaker”.

Literal translations: if someone is getting on your nerves they’re a “feet-breaker” (casse-pieds) in French.

  • Le directeur d’un hôtel en Bretagne a appelé un directeur de hypermarché hispanophone pour servir d’interprète au coach argentin de l’OM durant une conférence de presse. Incroyable !
  • France Inter a diffusé une émission intitulé A la recherche des langues en danger. Vous avez jusqu’au 2 mai 2017 pour l’écouter …

Related articles:

Why do we talk about ‘Dog days’?

At a recent visit to the local observatory I was interested to find out the origin of the French expression canicule, and consequently the English equivalent the ‘dog days of summer’.

In Greek and then Roman times Sirius, the dog star, was associated with the hottest days of summer, and also marked the flooding of the Nile in Ancient Egypt. The name ‘Sirius’ is derived from the Ancient Greek Σείριος (Seirios) which means “glowing” or “scorcher”. Sirius is called the dog star because it is the brightest star in the Canis Major (‘Large Dog’) constellation; canicula means ‘small dog’ and is the diminutive of the Latin canis. Canicule corresponded to the period of the year when Sirius and the sun rose at the same time, which for the Romans was between 23rd/24th July and 23rd/24th August, hence the association between Sirius and hot weather. The Romans sacrificed a red dog in April to appease the star’s rage, believing Sirius was the cause of the heatwaves (ancient astronomers saw Sirius as red; it’s now commonly perceived as white).

In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) wrote:

The Dog-star rises in the hottest time of the summer, when the sun is entering the first degree of Leo; this is fifteen days before the Calends of August. … The most powerful effects are felt on the earth from this star. When it rises, the seas are troubled, the wines in our cellars ferment, and stagnant waters are set in motion … There is no doubt that dogs, during the whole of this period, are peculiarly disposed to become rabid … Canine madness is fatal to man during the heat of Sirius, and, as we have already said, it proves so in consequence of those who are bitten having a deadly horror of water.

‘Dog’ is also referenced in the word for this sultry time of year in many other European languages (for example Hundstage in German, or Canícula in Spanish).

Just as the appearance of Sirius in the morning sky marked summer in the southern hemisphere, so it marked the chilly onset of winter here in the southern hemisphere. It was an important star for navigation around the Pacific Ocean, and the Maori called the star and the season Takurua.  Its culmination at the winter solstice was marked by celebration in Hawaii, where it was known as Ka’ulua, “Queen of Heaven”. Many other Polynesian names have been recorded, including Ta’urua-e-hiti-i-te-tara-te-feiai “Festivity who rises with prayers and religious ceremonies” in Tahiti.


Observatoire Astronomique des Makes, St Louis, Reunion Island

Further reading:

Around the web – July 2014

Whether or not you’ve been on holiday recently you may have missed some interesting articles this past month about translation and language – here’s your round-up for July.

  • This article has a brief history of the French language in Quebec.
  • Thinking of doing a PhD in Translation? Here are some study topic suggestions.

from ’10 More Hilariously Terrible Translation Mistakes’

  • As freelancers we all face rejection at some point. How do you deal with it? Read about some strategies in Inbox Translation’s blog post.
  • A round-up of some ‘ultimate tips’ for translators, by translators.

from ’10 More Hilariously Terrible Translation Mistakes’


from ’10 More Hilariously Terrible Translation Mistakes’

  • Nominations are currently being accepted (until August 16th) for’s 2014 Community Choice Awards. These awards are hosted annually by to provide a means for the community to publicly recognise language professionals who are active, influential or otherwise outstanding in various media throughout the industry in separate translation and interpreting categories.



from ’15 Best French Expressions for Making Love’


Related articles:

Around the web – June 2014

On June 12th I was delighted to learn that I came 4th in the 2014 Ba.bla Language Twitterers competition, and 5th overall across all Language Lovers categories. You can see the full list here. Here are some other interesting blog posts and articles about language and translation that have been published on the web this past month and that you may have not have had time to see:

‘Wisteria’ was one word better known by women (89%) than men (61%).

language change & evolve


In French:


Related articles:

Around the web – May 2014

May is the month that saw me type my e-mail address (‘smartranslate’) in a text message and have the autocorrect turn it into ‘slave translator’! Anyway here’s a round-up of interesting articles about translation and language that have been published on the web during May and that you may have not have had time to see:

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 15.57.29

  • The recent BP14 was colleague’s Rachel Ball’s first international conference on translation. In this blog post she tells us what she learnt from it. In another post Rachel wondered when is a translator ever like a doctor?
  • Would you push a stranger off a bridge? A new study reveals that our moral standing is affected by whether we are reasoning in our native tongue, or in a foreign language.
  • Here are 10 slang phrases that perfectly encapsulate the age in which they were coined.
Austin Powers

The word ‘groovy’ began life meaning ‘conservative’

Recent Dorothy Perkins ad

Recent Dorothy Perkins ad

Don’t forget you have until June 9th to vote for your favourite language Twitterers, Bloggers, Facebookers and Youtubers! I’ve been nominated in the Twitter category. Read more about the competition here.

Related articles:

Top Language Twitterers 2014

Every year since 2009 Blabla language portal has held its Top 100 Language Lovers competition. There are five categories:

The nominations received have been narrowed down to 100 for each of the five categories. I’ve once again had the pleasure of being nominated in the Language Twitter Account category for my Twitter account @Smart_Translate. Last year, the first year I’d been nominated, I was delighted to arrive 12th in the Twitter category, and 17th overall.

My Twitter Account

My Twitter Account

50% of the final score will be based on user votes. You can participate in voting here, or by clicking on the button to the right, until June 9th. Note that twitterers are listed alphabetically by name (e.g. Cath Cellier-Smart), not by Twitter handle. There’s no need to be on Twitter yourself to vote, as the link takes you to a web page where you just click on a link. You can also vote in the other categories by clicking on the links above.

Ranking and results will take place June 10th-12th, and results will be published on June 12th.

P.S. You can follow and/or tweet about the competition (all categories) on Twitter using the hashtag #tll14.

If you’d like to find about more about the competition see this article.


What’s In A (Fish) Name?

As a linguist and keen scuba-diver, when I first heard of a book about the etymology of fish names I could only but be interested! Given that one of the co-authors is Henriette Walter, whose book Honni Soit Qui Mal Y Pense is a favourite of mine, I was even more eager to read a copy of La Fabuleuse Histoire Du Nom Des Poissons. The book is written in French and mainly discusses French names, but the name of each fish is also given in English, German, Spanish and Italian along with an explanation of the etymology in each of these languages, which makes it even more interesting for a linguist. Here are some of the most intriguing facts I learnt:

  • Did you know the Baie Des Anges at Nice, in the South of France, takes it name from the angelshark? These sharks, known as ange de mer in French, once used to be common in the bay.
  • Rollmops are pickled herring fillets whose name comes from the German rollen (to roll) and mops (a pug). Apparently the rolled herring fillets look like the wrinkled dog’s head …
  • The name sardine comes from the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean, as does the word sardonic. Whereas the current meaning of ‘sardonic’ is an expression of derisive, cynical or sceptical humour, it originally meant a rictus caused by ingesting the sardonion plant from Sardinia.
  • The name Grouper (sometimes called ‘groper’ in Australia) doesn’t come from any gregarious tendencies of this fish to group, but from the Portuguese garoupa, which itself probably comes from an Amerindian word.
  • Wrasses take their name from the Cornish word wrach which means ‘old woman’ or ‘hag’, and originally ‘witch’. Most wrasses are beautifully patterned, however some species have spotty colouring rather like old, wrinkled skin, which might explain this etymology. One enormous species of wrasse I’ve been lucky enough to see while diving is the Napoleon (also known as Humphead wrasse) which doesn’t take its name from the French Emperor but from a New Caledonian farmer called Louis Napoléon who collected these fish as trophies.
  • Damselfish are so-called due their bright colours and eye-catching movements, and Surgeonfish have dangerously sharp scalpel-like spines on either side of the tail.
  • The Moorish idol is common, but is also one of the most unusually named fish I’ve come across when diving. I learnt that the etymology comes from African Moors, who believed the fish to be a bringer of happiness or luck. Moluccan fishermen were also superstitious about it, and if they caught one would throw it back into the water after bowing and showing signs of respect.
Moorish idols

3 Moorish idols, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013

  • I was fascinated to learn that Tilapia were known to the Ancient Egyptians (there’s even a tilapia hieroglyph). Their name comes from the Latinisation of the Tswana (Bantu) word for fish, thiape.
  • Here in Reunion swordfish are commonly fished and eaten, and predictably their name comes from their long, flat, sword-shaped bill. While in its original English version Hemingway‘s The Old Man and the Sea centres on the fisherman’s struggle with a giant marlin, the novel’s first French translator, Jean Dutourd, chose to translate ‘marlin’ as ‘swordfish’ (espadon in French), considering that the former was not well enough known in France at the time (1952).
  • Another common fish in the waters around Reunion, the marlin‘s name comes from ‘marlinspike‘, which is a sailor’s tool used in marine rope work. Marlins have a spear-like bill, and marlinspikes have a polished metal cone tapered to a point, hence the connection. ‘Marlinspike’ itself derives from from the practice of ‘marling’, that is winding small diameter twine called ‘marline’ around larger ropes to form protective whippings.
  • Did you think Lemon sole got its name from the citrus fruit? ‘Lemon’ is in fact a deformation of the French word limande (the same fish is called Limande in French) which itself comes from lime, meaning “[abrasive] file” referring to a former use of the fish’s skin.
  • I was once lucky enough to see a Mola Mola, the heaviest bony fish in the world, while diving in Bali. ‘Mola’ is latin for millstone, which the fish resembles because of its grey colour, rough texture, and rounded body. It is also called ‘sunfish’ in English due to it’s habit of ‘sunbathing’ at the surface of the water.  However most other European languages call it ‘moonfish’ in reference to its pale colour and rounded shape.
Mola Mola

Mola Mola

  • I’ve long been fascinated by coelacanths, rare fish occasionally found deep in the Mozambique Channel and Indonesia. Thought to be extinct until 1938, their name comes from the Greek words koilos ‘hollow’ and akantha ‘spine’ referring to the hollow caudal fin rays of the first fossil specimen described.
  • Not in the above-mentioned book but a beautiful etymology I learnt while diving in Madagascar last year is that of the whale shark (a filter-feeding shark, and the world’s largest fish species). In Malagasy it is called marokintana (‘many stars’) due to their spotted skin, which is unique to each individual.
Whale shark, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013

Whale shark, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013

Overall, the authors point out that composed fish names, e.g. goldfish, flying fish, clownfish, triggerfish etc., are much more common in the fish kingdom than in the mammal or bird world (they should know – the same authors also wrote similar books about bird and mammal names!).

With this post I have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating subject, but to finish I couldn’t resist listing some of the many English idioms we seem to have about fish:

  • a big fish in a small pond
  • a fine kettle of fish
  • like a fish out of water
  • fish for compliments
  • have bigger fish to fry
  • there are plenty more fish in the sea
  • shooting fish in a barrel
  • to be a cold fish
  • drink like a fish
  • something smells fishy
  • a queer fish
  • to be neither fish nor fowl


  • La fabuleuse histoire du nom des poissons – du tout petit poisson-clown au très grand requin blanc by Henriette Walter and Pierre Avenas, published by Robert Laffont, 2011, ISBN 978-2-221-11356-1
  • Coelacanth – the ‘fossil fish’ – a short blog post about this fascinating fish on my travel blog.
  • Fish Caught In Time – the Search for The Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg, published by Perennial, 2000, ISBN 978-0-06-093285-5
  • Swim with the giant sunfish – a TED Talk about mola mola by marine biologist Tierney Thys
  • Our swim with a whale shark, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013 (1’55” video)


Around the web – April 2014

Here’s April’s round-up of interesting articles about language and translation that have been published on the web this past month and that you may have not have had time to see:


For those that don’t speak French: here ‘mug’ in the sense “A drinking cup” is translated into French as if it were the verbal sense “to rob with threat of violence” (and ‘auto’ in the sense of “automobile” is translated as if it were “automatic”)!

Donner de la confiture aux cochons" translates literally as "to give the jam to the pigs" i.e. casting pearls before swine (photo Shutterstock)

The French idiom “donner de la confiture aux cochons” translates literally as “to give the jam to pigs”  i.e. to cast pearls before swine (photo Shutterstock)

  • Spanish and Portuguese translator Jethro Soutar talked about the concept of co-translation at Words Without Borders, where there was also an interesting article about writing and translating in Korea today.
  • Catherine Christaki, of LinguaGreca fame, was invited onto Alessandra Vita’s virtual ‘red carpet’ for an interview.
  • April saw a general election in India, the world’s largest democracy. This article in The Guardian‘s Mind Your Language Blog looked at the difficulties candidates faced appealing to voters who speak 447 mother tongues.
A boy wearing a mask of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi.

A boy wearing a mask of Indian Hindu nationalist election candidate Narendra Modi.


Related articles:

10 of my favourite books in translation

This week an article in The Guardian talked about readers’ favourite children’s books in translation. As a child I enjoyed Aesop’s Fables, Tintin and Asterix (although I never understood the latter’s wordplay e.g. Getafix until I was older!), but as an adult with an interest in international literature (see my blog post about that here) I also enjoy translated books.

A few statistics: out of 505 books that I’ve listed on Librarything, 335 were originally in English, 130 originally in French, and the 35 remaining* were in other languages which I don’t read, so were translations. I read 70% of all my listed books in English, and 30% in French.

Below are a few of my favourite books in translation:

Kleifarvatn, July 2012

  • L’Insoutenable Légèreté de l’être [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] by Milan Kundera, translated from Czech to French by François Kérel. This 1984 postmodern novel is about two women, two men, a dog and their lives in the Prague Spring period of Czechoslovak history in 1968.
  • Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong aka Lü Jiamin, translated from Chinese to English by Howard Goldblatt. This semi-autobiographical novel is about a young Beijing student who is sent to live among the nomadic herdsmen of Inner Mongolia. Caught between the advance of civilisation from the south and the wolves to the north, humans and animals, residents and invaders alike struggle to find their place in the world. Will be released as a film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 2015.

Teaser poster for the film ‘Wolf Totem’

  • Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende, translated from Spanish to English by Margaret Sayers Peden. Spanning four decades and set in the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue and the lavish parlours of New Orleans, this novel leaps between the social upheavals from the distant French Revolution to the Haitian slave rebellion, to a New Orleans fomenting with cultural change.
  • Woman At Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi translated from Arabic to English by Sherif Hetata (the writer’s husband). This novel is the first-person account of Firdaus, a murderess who has agreed to tell her life story before her execution.
  • Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, translated from Swedish to English by Reg Keeland aka Steven T. Murray. Is there any need to present this trilogy of crime novels?
  • The Swarm – a Novel of the Deep by Frank Schätzing, translated from German to English by Sally-Ann Spencer In this science-fiction novel full of twists, turns and cliffhangers, a team of scientists discovers a strange, intelligent life force that takes form in marine animals, using them to wreak havoc on humanity as revenge for our ecological abuses.
  • La vie rêvée des plantes [The Reverse Side of Life] by Seung-U Lee, translated from Korean to French by Mi-Kyung Choi and Jean-Noël Juttet. This highly acclaimed Korean novel reveals how the conflict of the secular and the divine manifests in the real world.
  • Who Ate Up All The Shinga? by Wan-Suh Park, translated from Korean to English by Young-Nan Yu and Stephen J. Epstein. In this ‘autobiographical novel’ Park, growing up in Korea, describes the characters and events that came to shape her life.
Shinga (Aconogonon alpinum)

Shinga (Aconogonon alpinum)

  • Night by Elie Wiesel, translated from the French by Marion Wiesel (the author’s wife). This work recounts the author’s experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945, at the height of the Holocaust and toward the end of the Second World War.

What about you? Please share your favourite translations in the comments.

* the total doesn’t equal 505 as a few books use two languages to a greater or lesser degree




Around the web – March 2014

Been busy this month? I’ve curated a number of interesting articles about translation and language that have been published on the internet this month and that you may have missed.

The thorny issue of dialects

The thorny issue of dialects

The Etiquettrix

The Etiquettrix


Related articles