Travelling Translators

I was excited to be asked by colleague Natali Lekka of World of Words to be the first interviewee in her series of articles about travelling translators. In Natali’s own words:

“A column featuring a series of interviews with translators who left their rainy western countries for a better quality of life in an exotic paradise. They are professional linguists, like you and me, working with clients from around the world, but they have ditched the big city life for a lifestyle in the tropics. Besides, it doesn’t really matter where you are based to be a translator. All you need is some sense of adventure!!!”

The interview has just been published and you can read it here. Amongst other questions, we addressed the advantages and disadvantages of living in Reunion Island and how they affect my life and translation business (yes, there are drawbacks to living and working on a tropical island!).

If you have a similar story to share you can contact Natali at if you’d like to be featured on her blog.

“SAfrican” English

Did you know South Africa is the country with the most official languages in the world?* With 11 official languages that cover over 98% of native tongues spoken in the country it’s very linguistically diverse. In order of prevalence these languages are: Zulu (22.7%), Xhosa (16%), Afrikaans (13.5%), English (9.6%), Northern Sotho (9.1%), Tswana (8%), Southern Sotho (7.6%), Xitsonga (4.5%), Swati (2.5%), Tshivenda (2.4%), and Ndebele (2.1%) (note that English only arrives in 4th position; the percentages refer to speakers of the main language at home). I was in South Africa and Swaziland for a great holiday at the beginning of this month and I noticed that not everything is translated into all official languages – forms, brochures and timetables are normally only in English and Afrikaans, while for road signs it seems to vary according to location.

Afrikaans developed from the dialect spoken by Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in the 16th century, and was considered a Dutch dialect (called ‘Cape Dutch’) until the 19th century. In 1925 it became one of the country’s official languages, and today is spoken by 6 million people.

English is spoken as a mother tongue by about 5 million people, and is the dominant language in government and media. It has undergone some changes in South Africa: new words have been appropriated from Afrikaans or indigenous African languages, while other words have changed meaning. Grammar, spelling and vocabulary tend to be more British than American. Below are some South African English words I came across during my trip; for more complete lists see the links at the bottom of the post.

  • bakkie  – a pick-up truck, a utility truck/ute.
  • biltong – dried and salted meat, similar to beef jerky, although it can be made from ostrich, kudu or any other red meat.

Male kudu, Kruger Park

  • bioscope – a cinema or movie theatre, originally a defunct English word that survived longer in South Africa because of the influence of the Afrikaans word, bioskoop, but is now dated.
  • boma – a livestock enclosure, a stockade or kind of fort, or a district government office.
  • braai – an outdoor barbecue, where meat such as steak, chicken and boerewors (traditional Afrikaaner spicy sausage) are cooked, served with pap (porridge made from maize meal) and bredie (stew).
  • Howzit? – How are you?
  • Ja – commonly used for ‘yes’.
  • Jozi – the city of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, also known as Jo’burg.

Orlando Towers, Soweto, Johannesburg

  • laaitie – one’s own child, or used to refer to a young person as a lightweight or inexperienced in something particular.
  • lekker – nice, (very) good, great, cool, enjoyable, delicious or tasty.
  • naartjie – the South African word for tangerine, Citrus reticulata.
  • robots – traffic lights.
  • rondavel – literally “round hovel”, a round free-standing building with a thatched roof.
  • shebeen – an unlicensed drinking establishment (originally illegal) in black townships (large, planned settlements of blacks and coloureds, a legacy of the apartheid era and often lacking infrastructure).
  • taxi – can be a taxicab, but generally means a shared minibus used to transport a large number of people.
  • tekkies/takkies – sneakers, trainers, running shoes.

Some Afrikaans words have also entered the English language:

  • aardvark – literally means “earth pig”.
  • apartheid – literally “apart-ness” in Afrikaans, apartheid was the policy of racial separation, and the resulting oppression of the black majority, implemented by the National Party from 1948 to 1990.
  • Boer – literally “farmer”, shortened from Trekboer; Boers were the first Dutch who trekked into the interior of the country.
  • meerkat – literally means “lake cat“.
  • rooibos – literally Afrikaans for red bush, this popular South African tea made from the Cyclopia genistoides bush.
  • spoor – is anything that shows signs of an animal, and literally means “tracks” or “footprints”.
  • springbok – literally “jumping antelope”.
  • veld – a generic term for certain wide open spaces, it comes from the Cape Dutch word veldt.
  • wildebeest – derived from Cape Dutch, literally “wild cattle”.

Wildebeest, Kruger Park

Are you South African, or have you lived in or visited South Africa? What’s your favourite word or expression? Please share in the comments below!

Further reading:

In June 2010 the Macmillan Dictionary Blog posted a series of articles as part of South African English month. You can find these articles here.

* according to the Guinness Book of Records – see here.

Top Language Twitterers 2013

Every year Blabla holds its Top 100 Language Lovers competition. There are four categories:

This year 1024 nominations were received, which were narrowed down to 100 for each of the four categories. I’ve had the pleasure of being nominated in the Language Twitter Account category for my Twitter account @Smart_Translate.

My Twitter page

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. 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 the competition (all categories) on Twitter with the hashtag #tll13.

Too funny for public transport?

So goes the blurb for “Lost in Translation“, a 2006 book by ‘Charlie Croker’ (aka Mark Mason) about “misadventures in English abroad” which I’ve just finished reading. It demonstrates some of the very best and worst instances of ‘grammar-gargling’ from around the world. Sometimes you can guess what is meant (especially if you speak the language in question), but other times you’re left scratching your head. As the author cautions us however, we should never forget that although other nations’ mistakes with English are amusing to us, their English is generally much better than our Japanese, Vietnamese, Arabic etc (and the book includes some examples from English speaking nations).

I thought I’d share with you some of the examples I found most amusing, but don’t worry there’s still plenty more in the book (and in its sequel Still Lost in Translation)!

British Council ad, reportedly a sign from a hotel restaurant in Acapulco

Italy: This hotel is renowned for its peace and solitude. In fact crowds from all over the world flock here to enjoy its solitude.

Thailand (offering donkey rides): Would you like to ride on your own ass?

In a hotel in Tel Aviv: If you wish breakfast, lift the telephone and our waitress will arrive. This will be enough to bring up your food.

French hotel restaurant: Wondering what to wear? A sports jacket may be worn to dinner, but no trousers.

Madrid hotel restaurant: Our wine list leaves you nothing to hope for.

Finnish hotel fire procedure: If you cannot reach a fire exit, close the door and expose yourself at the window.

Nairobi restaurant: Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager.

Laon, France, English translation of a sign in French reading “En cas de feu – restez calme”: In case of fire do not lose your temper.

Restaurant menu: Sole Bonne Femme (Fish Landlady style).

French menu: Nut of Holy Jacques jumped, guinea fowl stinks to it and its farce with cheese-topped dish, almost cheese-dish of mould in spice on bed of spinach.

Roguefart – on a Japanese restaurant French cheese menu

China, describing a pancake dish: Waiter will roll in front of you.

Chelsea, London: Plat du jour, changed each day.

Japanese washing machine instructions: Push button. Foam coming plenty. Big noise. Finish.

Sign at a Philippines ferry terminal: Adults: 1 USD. Child: 50 cents. Cadavers: subject to negotiation.

A Japanese copy of a Meatloaf album includes the following tracks: ‘Sixty Six Per Cent Is All Right’ (for ‘Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad’) and ‘You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouse’.

In an Israeli butcher’s: I slaughter myself twice daily.

Shop in Amman: Visit our bargain basement – one flight up and in the same shop they sell: Pork Handbags.

Swedish furrier: Fur coats made for ladies from their own skin.

At a Hong Kong costume shop: This merchandise is to be used for turning a trick on Halloween.

On Japanese toothpaste: Gives you strong mouth and refreshing wind!

On a Japanese tea bag: Do not wet with water.

Malaysian road sign

Resort at Iguaco Falls: We offer you peace and seclusion. The paths to our resort are only passable by asses. Therefore, you will certainly feel at home here.

Chinese temple: Please take one step forward and crap twice.

Swimming pool sign, resort, Philippines: Drowning absolutely prohibited.

Sewage treatment plant, as marked on a Tokyo map: Dirty Water Punishment Place.

Newly appointed Danish minister: I am in the beginning of my period.

On a French pest-control firm’s website: Small animals nibble you the life. They give you the cockroach?

In an East Africa newspaper: A new swimming pool is rapidly taking shape since the contractors have thrown in the bulk of their workers.

Slogan on mugs produced by Warwickshire County Cricket Club, who wanted to bill their star bowler ‘King of Spin’: Ashley Giles – King of Spain.

cover, Lost in Translation

The book certainly brought a smile to my face and just goes to prove – you always need a translator!


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