Around the web – April 2016

I spent a day this month participating in a training course for sworn translators. Have you done any CPD recently? Anyway, here’s your monthly round-up of the most popular articles about translation and language that appeared online in April.

The French greeting: Should it be 'tu' or 'vous'? (PHOTO: ISTOCK)

The French greeting: Should it be ‘tu’ or ‘vous’? (PHOTO: ISTOCK)

Map of the word 'tea' in European languages (source)

Map of the word ‘tea’ in European languages (source)


Related articles:

The Languages of Namibia

Namibia is a large country in south-west Africa that has been independent from its neighbour South Africa since 1990. Before that it was a German colony between 1884 and the First World War, and pre-colonially it was inhabited by Khoisan tribespeople, later joined by Bantu. With less than 2.5 million inhabitants in a country covering more than 800,000 km2, it’s also one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.

Himba woman, Namibia

Himba woman, Namibia

Ethnologue lists 27 individual languages for Namibia, all of which are classed as living, and 22 of which are indigenous. Almost half the population speak the Bantu language Oshiwambo, or one of the eight dialects thereof. Other Bantu languages spoken include Kavango, (Otij)Herero and Caprivian (aka Lozi, whose spoken form places strong emphasis on social status),  TswanaGcirikuFweKuhaneMbukushu, and Yeyi. Khoisan dialects spoken include Nama (aka Khoekhoe and formerly known derogatorily as ‘Hottentot’),  NaroKung-Ekoka, and ǂKxʼauǁʼein.


Map of language distribution in Namibia

Linguistically Namibia’s colonial heritage means that both German and especially Afrikaans are spoken and understood (especially by the white population), as they were the country’s official languages until 1990; Afrikaans is somewhat of a lingua franca. Portuguese is also spoken in the far north due to proximity with Angola. Although only 1% to 3% of the population speaks English as a mother tongue, at independence the ruling party decided to institute English as the sole official language in order to avoid tribal divisions and the colonial overtones which stigmatise German and Afrikaans. The idea was to harmonise the country and avoid “ethnolinguistic fragmentation”. English is widely used in the civil service, education and the broadcasting system and it helps with international relations, as English-language materials are the most easily available; it’s also the language of instruction in schools from secondary level onwards. However this monolingual policy has resulted in a high rate of school drop-outs and in individuals whose academic competence in any language is low.


Driving across Namibia

The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists Khwe (Kxoe) as a ‘definitely endangered’ language, with only 5,000 speakers in 2000, however Ethnologue considers it as ‘developing’ and lists Mashi, Mbalanhu and !Xóõ as threatened languages.

A pup at Cape Cross seal colony

A pup at Cape Cross seal colony

Incidentally Khoisan dialects feature clicking sounds (created by slapping the tongue against the teeth, palate or side of the mouth). In writing these are represented by ! ,/, //, or ‡. On my recent visit to Namibia I found it fascinating to listen to; here’s a short video of a San bushmen explaining how to capture a porcupine.

Further reading:

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My travel blog articles about Namibia can be found here.

Around the web – February 2016

This month I was very pleased to be back at the Career Fair of a local junior high school for the third year running, giving a morning of presentations about the translation and interpreting profession. As well as being the month of International Mother Language Day, of course February also sees Valentine’s Day, and it turns out that both women and men rank grammar as more important than confidence in a potential relationship! Anyway here’s a round-up of the most popular articles about translation and language that have appeared online this past month.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 20.57.35

 One of the many recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

One of the many recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Dutch word for whipped cream is 'slag room'...

The Dutch word for whipped cream is ‘slag room’…

In French:


Related articles:

Around the web – January 2016

Has 2016 got off to a good start for you? I was pleased to see the publication this month of one of my side projects: the Insight Guide to Mauritius, Reunion & Seychelles, for which I revised and updated the Reunion section. Anyway here’s a round-up of the most popular language and translation-related articles that have appeared online this past month.

The realities of speech are much more complicated than the words used to describe it. (David Gray / Reuters)

The realities of speech are much more complicated than the words used to describe it. (David Gray / Reuters)

  • Aside from the obvious spelling differences between theatre (UK) and theater (US), did you know there are also differences in meaning? Lynne Murphy tells all in her Separated by a Common Language blog.
  • Colleague Simon Berrill blogged about the trustworthiness (or not) of his personal accounting system. How many clients have you failed to invoice?
  • If you’re a French to English, German, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese translator you’ll find this list of France’s official Ministry & Minister title translations handy.
  • English to Italian translator Valentina Ambrogio blogged about her experience with translation scammers.
  • As a freelancer, where do you find is the most product place to work? Coffee shop? Co-working space? Home?
  • Ever get fed up with the question “so how many languages do you speak?” when you meet someone for the first time? Well here’s a way to strike back.
 A handy guide to atmospheric elevation of spoken communication

The linguists strike back…

  • Do you use ‘air punctuation’? Or get annoyed by people who do? Take a look at this tongue-in-cheek guide.
A handy guide to atmospheric elevation of spoken communication

(Part of) A handy guide to atmospheric elevation of spoken communication

In French: Il me court sur le haricot. What it means: He’s annoying me. (James Chapman / BuzzFeed)

In French: Il me court sur le haricot.
What it means: He’s annoying me.
(James Chapman / BuzzFeed)

  • Finally, if you don’t know Alexandra Hispafra’s blog, do take a look (in French). Amongst other posts she regularly interviews linguists, and I was delighted to be January’s guest translator.


Related articles:

Around the web – November 2015

I spent two very rewarding days at the end of November at a local Careers Fair talking to students who are thinking about a career in translating and interpreting. While some already knew that they were interested in the field, others just like languages and were still hesitating about choosing a profession.

Me, manning (or should that be 'womanning'?) my stand at Reunion's Career Fair.

Me, manning (or should that be ‘womanning’?) my stand at Reunion’s Career Fair.

Anyway here’s a round-up of translation and language-related articles that have appeared online this past month.


The Harry Potter series has been translated into 68 languages

This particular phrase became an internet sensation around the turn of the millennium.

This video game phrase became an internet sensation around the turn of the millennium.

Where does the phrase ‘in a nutshell’ come from?

Where does the phrase ‘in a nutshell’ come from?


Related articles:

The Languages of Oman

Although Arabic is the official language, you don’t need any language other than English to travel in Oman, a country I recently spent two weeks visiting. However as a linguist  I couldn’t help but take an interest in the country’s languages. Modern Standard Arabic is the country’s institutional language, but a number of distinct local Arabic dialects are spoken colloquially: Omani, Gulf, Shihhi (spoken in the Musandam peninsula), Bahrani and Dhofari. This being my first stay in an Arabic country I was interested to see that although the language is written from right to left, numerals are read from left to right.

Roadsign in Oman

Road sign in Oman

Additionally you will hear Baluchi, an Indo-Iranian language with eight vowels, also spoken in Pakistan, eastern Iran, and southern Afghanistan; and Swahili, due to the shared history of Oman and Zanzibar.


Endangered indigenous languages in Oman include five South Arabian Semitic languages: Jibbali (also known as Shehri), MehriBathari (nearly extinct), Harsusi (unwritten, and reportedly similar to Mehri but usually considered a separate, albeit moribund, language), and Hobyot (spoken near the border with Yemen by approx. 100 people); and two Indo-Iranian languages:  Kumzari (spoken in the Musandam peninsula), and Luwati, which has 37 consonants.

Language families in Oman (source: Ethnologue)

Language families in Oman (source: Ethnologue)

English is widely spoken, and is taught at school from an early age; virtually all signs throughout the country are bilingual in Arabic and English.


A significant number of residents also speak Urdu and various Indian dialects due to the influx of Pakistani and Indian migrants during the late 1980s and the 1990s. Oman also has its own sign language.


Further reading:


Around the web – October 2015

I was lucky enough to spend two weeks this past month in Oman, and I’ll soon be blogging about the diversity of languages that can be found in this peaceful Middle Eastern country. In the meantime here’s a round-up of language and translation-related articles that have appeared online in October.


In an age of marriage equality, the concept of ‘maiden name’ seems increasing outdated. (Photograph: Alamy)


An example of a food-related idiom in French

Finally, if you haven’t yet signed Red T‘s petition to Urge the UN to protect translators and interpreters worldwide please do so soon. They have 17,000 signatures, but still need at least 8,000 more.


Related articles:

Around the web – September 2015

I was delighted to attend my first ever translation conference at the beginning of this month: IAPTI‘s 3rd annual conference in Bordeaux. It was great to meet hitherto virtual colleagues as well new ones, attend some great presentations, and it was altogether very well organised. You can see tweets from the conference, and watch the closing video here.

Group photo of the attendees at the IAPTI 2015 Bordeaux

Group photo of the attendees at the IAPTI 2015 Bordeaux conference

Anyway here’s a round-up of translation- and language-related articles that have appeared online in September, with a few pieces from July and August thrown in for good measure.

  • Quebec needs English-speaking immigrants, but struggles to accept them. Find out more in this BBC video.
  • Colleague Steve Dyson listed some tips for translators, including the advice to stop trying to multitask.
  • What are the advantages of being self-disciplined, and how can we make a start?
  • The Guardian wondered if working at home in your pyjamas is bad for business.
 ‘If you wake up feeling grotty and put on clothes that reflect that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Feature

‘If you wake up feeling grotty and put on clothes that reflect that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Feature


Scots also have 369 words for marbles


This Gaelic signs says ‘Welcome to the doorway to the beauty of Penis Island’.

This Gaelic signs says ‘Welcome to the doorway to the beauty of Penis Island’.

Related articles:

Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europe

Why is Basque so baffling, and which language sounds like a machine gun when spoken? Which Iranian language is represented in Europe and where is Gagauz spoken? Why has Frisian been elevated the rank of official regional language and how come tiny Slovenia has so many regional linguistic varieties? Answers to all these questions and much more can be found in ‘Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europe‘ by Gaston Dorren, a book I discovered when I attended The World in Words, an event at Edinburgh Book Festival with the author and Ann Morgan. Gaston Dorren is a Dutch linguist with proficiency in fifteen languages. Originally published in Dutch as Taaltoerisme (‘Language tourism’) and translated into English by Alison Edwards, Lingo packs 60 chapters into less than 300 pages, divided into various themes such as languages and their families, history, grammar, politics, or vocabulary, as well as linguists who left their mark (mostly on stamps😉 it turns out). Almost every chapter ends with a word or two that English has loaned from the language under discussion, as well as a word from that language that doesn’t exist in English but perhaps should. Here are a few snippets from the book to whet your appetite:

'Lingo, a language spotter's guide to Europe' by Gaston Dorren

‘Lingo, a language spotter’s guide to Europe’ by Gaston Dorren

  • Life of PIE: Of all the world’s living languages, Lithuanian is the one that most closely resembles Proto Indo-European (PIE), the linguistic reconstruction of the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages.
  • Did you know that two centuries ago Danish was spoken on four continents in an area twelve times the size of Great Britain?
  • I had heard of Bokmål and Nynorsk, but didn’t know the difference. In the book I learnt that all Norwegians speak a regional dialect, and that the aforementioned are just two of the four existing versions.
  • Sweden’s well-known linguistic informality only dates from the 1960s when the incoming Director-General of the Public Health Board announced that he intended to address all employees by their first name and would like them to do the same for him.
  • ‘Moped’ is a portmanteau word of Swedish origin (from motor (engine) and pedaler (pedals).)
  • Iceland is the only country in Europe that has a language that’s unique to that country. No other European country has identical political and linguistic boundaries.
First words of a modern Icelandic Bible

First words of a modern Icelandic Bible

  • Modern Greek contains loan words such as farmakología and sti̱thoskópio that are actually foreign-built compounds created from Classical Greek.
  • Most Portuguese loanwords in English come from the colonies, such as ‘fetish’ or ‘caste’ (Portuguese words for colonial phenomena) and ‘banana’ or ‘dodo’ (local words).
  • While most languages translate the names of famous cities into their own tongue, Latvian has the unusual tendency to translate all names. Thus Charles de Gaulle becomes Sharrl de Goal and Miguel de Cervantes is Megell de Therbahntess.
  • Diminutives are found throughout Europe except for Scandinavia.
  • Breton has a vigesimal numeral system, based on sets on twenty. Thus 45 is ‘five-and-two-twenty’; 77 is ‘seventeen-and-three-twenty’. (The same number in Welsh is ‘two-on-fifteen-and-three-twenty’).
  • Basque has a useful, single word for the act of translating from one’s own language into a foreign one: erdaratze.
  • Irish has the second oldest literary tradition among living European languages, after Greek.
The Irish language on a sign in Connemara (with English defaced)

Irish language on a sign in Connemara (with English defaced)

  • Manx has no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’. (If someone asks a question, you have to answer with a verb in the correct tense).
  • Finnish has 15 cases, and ‘234’ written out in the sixth case becomes kahdestasadastakolmestakymmenestäneljästä because every individual component must receive its own case ending.
  • If you’re European, words from which Afro-Asiastic language are printed on your passport? Which is the only Semitic language to be written in the Latin script? Maltese.
  • Sign language family groupings are different from spoken languages groups: one group includes Sweden, Finland and Portugal, while another includes France, USA, Ireland, Netherlands. The British manual alphabet (used to spell out names or concepts for which the signer doesn’t have a sign at their immediate disposal) is two-handed, while most others are one-handed.
  • One fascinating chapter lists all the clues that can help you identify an unknown language. What diacritics or unfamiliar characters does it use? What frequent letter combinations or odd letter patterns rarely turn up in another language?

These are just a few excerpts from the book, which seems to have something fascinating to point out about every European language. I found the section on languages and their grammar slightly less interesting than the eight other sections, but that’s purely due to my English-native-speaker’s grammar prejudice rather than to any shortcoming of the author’s. And I although I no longer live in the UK, I was fascinated to learn so much about the languages of the British Isles about which I know so little: Anglo-Norman, Shelta, and Manx to name but a few. Now all we need are similar books about other continents’ languages!

P.S. In his Further Reading section the author lists David Bellos’ ‘Is That a Fish in Your Ear?‘ as “the only book on translation you ever need to read, unless you want to make it your job. Erudite, recalcitrant [sic] and fun”. You can read my blog post about that book here.

Further reading:

Related blog posts:

Edinburgh Book Festival 2015

Travel plans to see family have once again coincided with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Founded in 1983 the Book Festival was initially biannual, then started to be held yearly in 1997. It now welcomes more than 800 authors in over 700 events every year, and is billed as ‘the largest festival of its kind in the world’.


Two years ago I went to see a translation duel there, where it was mentioned that it was the first such event to be held at the festival. As 2015’s theme is ‘Around The World’, translation and language have played a more prominent role this year, with 32 events under the Talking Translation banner. I chose to attend six of them:

  1. Bestselling Books Abroad saw crime writer Peter May and children’s author Julia Donaldson look at how a writer’s work travels to other nations, and how authors keep ownership of their translations. We were even treated to a multilingual sketch of The Gruffalo! Interestingly Peter May, a Scot who lives in France, had been unable to find a publisher in the UK for his crime novel but a French publisher bought world rights, had the book translated into French, and only later did it become a bestseller in the UK, having first become successful in France. The talk was very smoothly chaired by historian and Italian to English translator Lucinda Byatt.
  2. Penguin Classics have embarked on a 7 year project to retranslate Georges Simenon’s work and the tagline of the Celebrating Simenon talk was ‘Retranslating a Literary Legend’. Despite being chaired by translator Daniel Hahn, it was more an exploration of Georges Simenon’s life, work and legacy with the late writer’s son, John, than a discussion about translation. It was nevertheless very interesting, and I came away with the desire to (re)read some of Simenon’s novels. However I’m having trouble picturing Rowan Atkinson playing the lead role in the new ITV Maigret series … (filming starts September 2015 in Budapest).
  3. The following day I attended my second-ever French Translation Duel. Chaired by Daniel Hahn, Ros Schwartz and Frank Wynne politely crossed verbal swords over the translation of a 400-word passage from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As was the case on the previous occasion, the time spent poring over the nuances of just a few sentences absolutely flew by, and I found it totally engrossing. On leaving the tent I heard other audience members remarking they hadn’t realised how complex a process translation could be.
  4. David Crystal‘s Accents Speak Louder Than Words looked at dialects and then accents. David is a well-known  British linguist, writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster. He’s also a lively and entertaining speaker (during the second half he was also joined by his actor son Ben), and there was some interaction with the audience when he asked us if we knew such Scots dialects words as ‘chirp’ (to emit a creaking sound), ‘fouter fouter’ (to walk in an effeminate way), ‘dabberlick’ (a mildly insulting way of talking about someone who is tall and skinny) and – my personal favourite – ‘mumple’ (to seem as if going to vomit).
David Crystal and his son Ben.

David Crystal and his son Ben.

5. The World in Words saw Gaston Dorren and Ann Morgan talk about the joys of languages and literature in other languages. I’ve blogged before (here and here) about Ann’s challenge to read a book from each of the world’s 196 nations, so I won’t go into too much detail in this post, but one thought-provoking moment for the audience was when she mentioned that if she looks at the shelf with 144 hardcopies of books she read she can only see one translator’s name on the spine. Gaston discussed and read excerpts from his book ‘Lingo’, an entertaining trip through Europe’s languages which includes anecdotes about everything from Esperanto to Limburgish. His enthusiasm convinced me to break my strict rules about luggage limits and buy his book; watch this space for a blog post about it soon.

6. The final talk I attended was Stories Without Borders with Ann Morgan and German to English translator Michael Hofmann. Chaired by Daniel Hahn, this event looked at whether it matters to readers where a story originates or in what language it was first written, and what is gained from knowing the linguistic identity of a book.

Michael Hofmann, Ann Morgan and Daniel Hahn

Michael Hofmann, Ann Morgan and Daniel Hahn

My attendance at the festival should normally have ended there, but circumstances meant I found myself back a few days later helping out at The Spectacular Translation Machine. This free, drop-in event involved translating an entire book from French into English in one day using a collaborative approach. Organised by award-winning translator Sarah Ardizzone, we helped members of the public create an English version of Bessora and Barroux’s graphic novel Alpha: Abidjan-Gare du Nord, about a man’s journey from the Ivory Coast to France in search of his family. It was great fun, and I really enjoyed seeing the translation take shape over the course of the day, as well as helping out the Edinburgh public.


During The Spectacular Translation Machine (Sarah Ardizzone and the illustrator Stéphane-Yves Barroux are standing at the back right of the photo)


During The Spectacular Translation Machine


Some translations


Some finished translations


The cover of ‘Alpha Abidjan-Gare du Nord’

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