Opinion & features
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I’m here with Dame Wendy Hall, Kluge Chair in Technology and Society, Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton and early pioneer in web protocols; with Alexandre Loktionov, AHRC Fellow at the Kluge Center and an expert on hieroglyphic and cuneiform legal texts; and with Jessica Lingel, Kluge Fellow, assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on social media.
We ventured into talking about emoji and social media during a hallway conversation and thought it would be fun to pursue this further via blog.
The text of our Google Docs conversation was edited for length and clarity.
DT: There is much to explore, but it began with emoji, so let’s start there: elevated art form or corruption of language?
AL: For me, they’re essentially hieroglyphs and so a perfectly legitimate extension of language. They’re signs which, without having a phonetic value of their own, can ‘color’ the meaning of the preceding word or phrase. In Egyptology, these are called ‘determinatives’ — as they determine how written words should be understood. The concept has been around for 5,000 years, and it’s remarkably versatile because of its efficiency. You can cut down your character count if you supplement words with pictures — and that’s useful both to Twitter users today and to Ancient Egyptians laboriously carving signs into a rock stela.
DT: How does everyone feel about using emoji to write literature? The Library of Congress acquired an emoji version of none other than “Moby Dick” just a few years ago.
AL: I think you can definitely write literature with emoji — the question is, who will be able to read it? Do we have enough standardization in sign deployment? I think a full emoji dictionary/sign list would be necessary, unless, of course, we want to create a literature with multiple strands of interpretation (in a literal sense — where people see the same signs but interpret them in different ways).
JFL: I think part of it is about a fascination with how technology may be reshaping cultural production. I’m thinking of games around Twitter and literature, for example; the Guardian ran a challenge asking authors to write a story in 140 characters or less. (There’s a long and wonderful history of literature produced through challenges/games like these; I’m thinking of Shelley and Hemingway.) At the root, I think, is an anxiety around what it means to make art and how technology is making art better or worse.
DT: I’m optimistic because I see technological innovations opening up the range of what is possible artistically — Gutenberg, and so forth. On the other hand, certain technological turns have been very specific in their application. Think of Morse code: incredibly useful in certain contexts, but unlikely that we will ever write a novel in Morse.
AL: I think that gets to the heart of it — we have to think of the purpose of the means of communication, and in the case of emoji, we as a culture need to decide what they are: do we want them to be a bona fide script with full capability, or are they just a tool reserved for very specific purposes (alongside conventional means of writing)?
JFL: I don’t know about Morse code novels, but Morse code poetry is definitely a thing.
AL: It’s also worth thinking about canonicity — can emoji become canonical, in a way in which originally purely utilitarian hieroglyphs could after several millennia? Are we in this for the long run?
DT: Right, will there ever be an emoji dictionary? Perhaps there is already?
WH: There is a crowd-sourced emoji dictionary. It’s not very helpful at the moment, but then, neither was Wikipedia initially.
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The ProZ.com moderator class of 2016-2017 is coming to an end, but before this happens, ProZ.com would like to thank all of those members who have given of their time to help maintain a positive, results-oriented atmosphere on the site. Each person in the class has made valuable contributions to ProZ.com, and some of them even beyond the moderator program.
ProZ.com moderators are volunteer members who have benefited from ProZ.com and have chosen to give something back by playing their part, in turn, in a system put in place to ensure fair play. Their role is to foster and protect the positive, results-oriented atmosphere that makes ProZ.com possible, by:
- Greeting and guiding new participants, and helping them to properly use and benefit from what is available to them at ProZ.com.
- Enforcing site rules in a consistent and structured manner to maintain a constructive environment.
The moderator class of 2016-2017 is certainly a very good example of the role. Thank you mods!
Now, the moderator class of 2017-2018 is scheduled to begin in September. So, if you are a ProZ.com member and would like to volunteer for a one-year term as site moderator, please visit http://www.proz.com/moderators or contact site staff through the support center.
[UPDATE 1530 CET 2017/05/15: The report in question has now been published by Adzuna (link) ]
CRACOW, Poland, May 15 —England’s Daily Mail apparently has an exclusive on the end of the Translation & Localization Industry as we know it. If the British ‘tabloid’ is to be believed, the end is not merely nigh, it’s already here: according to an admittedly ungooglable “study from jobs search engine Adzuna” of “79 million job adverts placed in Britain in the previous two years,” robots are already taking human translators’ jobs on a “grand scale,” and with blame/credit belonging primarily to “Google … among those to have designed automated translation software, which is making human translators increasingly redundant.”
The news also made it around the Commonwealth, being picked up this morning by the Australian, who also failed to link to or otherwise properly reference the ephemeral report. Nevertheless, it ominously quotes UK job site Adzuna co-founder Doug Monro as predicting, “Automation is already replacing jobs and could be set to replace some roles, like translators and travel agents, entirely.”
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In the past few months free online translators have suddenly got much better. This may come as a surprise to those who have tried to make use of them in the past. But in November Google unveiled a new version of Translate. The old version, called “phrase-based” machine translation, worked on hunks of a sentence separately, with an output that was usually choppy and often inaccurate.
The new system still makes mistakes, but these are now relatively rare, where once they were ubiquitous. It uses an artificial neural network, linking digital “neurons” in several layers, each one feeding its output to the next layer, in an approach that is loosely modeled on the human brain. Neural-translation systems, like the phrase-based systems before them, are first “trained” by huge volumes of text translated by humans. But the neural version takes each word, and uses the surrounding context to turn it into a kind of abstract digital representation. It then tries to find the closest matching representation in the target language, based on what it has learned before. Neural translation handles long sentences much better than previous versions did.
The new Google Translate began by translating eight languages to and from English, most of them European. It is much easier for machines (and humans) to translate between closely related languages. But Google has also extended its neural engine to languages like Chinese (included in the first batch) and, more recently, to Arabic, Hebrew, Russian and Vietnamese, an exciting leap forward for these languages that are both important and difficult. On April 25th Google extended neural translation to nine Indian languages. Microsoft also has a neural system for several hard languages.
Google Translate does still occasionally garble sentences. The introduction to a Haaretz story in Hebrew had text that Google translated as: “According to the results of the truth in the first round of the presidential elections, Macaron and Le Pen went to the second round on May 7. In third place are Francois Peyon of the Right and Jean-Luc of Lanschon on the far left.” If you don’t know what this is about, it is nigh on useless. But if you know that it is about the French election, you can see that the engine has badly translated “samples of the official results” as “results of the truth”. It has also given odd transliterations for (Emmanuel) Macron and (François) Fillon (P and F can be the same letter in Hebrew). And it has done something particularly funny with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s surname. “Me-” can mean “of” in Hebrew. The system is “dumb”, having no way of knowing that Mr Mélenchon is a French politician. It has merely been trained on lots of text previously translated from Hebrew to English.
Such fairly predictable errors should gradually be winnowed out as the programmers improve the system. But some “mistakes” from neural-translation systems can seem mysterious. Users have found that typing in random characters in languages such as Thai, for example, results in Google producing oddly surreal “translations” like: “There are six sparks in the sky, each with six spheres. The sphere of the sphere is the sphere of the sphere.”
Although this might put a few postmodern poets out of work, neural-translation systems aren’t ready to replace humans any time soon. Literature requires far too supple an understanding of the author’s intentions and culture for machines to do the job. And for critical work—technical, financial or legal, say—small mistakes (of which even the best systems still produce plenty) are unacceptable; a human will at the very least have to be at the wheel to vet and edit the output of automatic systems.
Online translating is of great benefit to the globally curious. Many people long to see what other cultures are reading and talking about, but have no time to learn the languages. Though still finding its feet, the new generation of translation software dangles the promise of being able to do just that.
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What do a vice-presidential debate, the discovery of Richard III’s bones or the 9/11 attacks have in common? According to Peter Sokolowski, editor for Merriam-Webster, these can be considered ‘vocabulary events’ that make readers run to their dictionaries.
In 1996 the company that had published the largest and most popular college dictionary decided to make available some of their content online. Since then, Merriam-Webster Inc. has been monitoring what words readers search for and discovered that there was an increase in the searches for specific words during major news events.
This started after the death of Princess Diana. According to Sokolowski, “the royal tragedy triggered searches on the Merriam-Webster website for ‘paparazzi’ and ‘cortege’”. Another example is the word ‘admonish’, which became the most looked-up word after the White House said it would ‘admonish’ Representative Joe Wilson for interrupting a speech by President Obama.
Certainly none of this tracking would be possible without the transition from print to digital era. Some of the leading publishers such as Macmillan Education have already announced that they will no longer make printed dictionaries and others are looking for partnerships with Amazon or Apple. This means that, whether you are using your computer, e-book, tablet or smartphone, any dictionary is just a click away.
And what is the purpose of monitoring dictionary searches?
Every time you look up a word in the Merriam-Webster website you give valuable information to lexicographers about terms that could be added or that need to be updated in their dictionary. The most looked-up word also provides data about the public’s strongest interest. This approach can also be found in other online dictionaries that are open to receive suggestions on new words or new usages of old words, the same way as James Murray and his team did with the first Oxford English Dictionary in the 19th century.
In other words it is ‘crowdsourcing’ applied to lexicography.
Even though there are many advantages in using online dictionaries, some will still miss the feeling of searching through the pages of a printed version or finding a random word. However, the digital era gives us the possibility to update information progressively as needed. A similar attitude is found in proactive terminology, which encourages terminologists to identify the topics that are likely to come up so they can provide translators with the terminology that will be needed.
So, the answer is yes! Somehow our dictionaries are reading us.
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Language is the original network technology. When someone learns a language I speak, I benefit because of expanded possibilities for interaction. The long-distance communications revolutions since the 19th century increase the strength of the network effect. These days an English speaker can travel the globe, either in person or from the comfort of a web browser, and interact with others who speak English, either as their mother tongue (372 million) or as a second language (612 million) (Ethnologue).
The globalised Anglosphere we are all familiar with stands in stark contrast to the tremendous diversity of mother tongues spoken around the world. There are more than 6,500 distinct languages in use today. We measure the size of a language by counting the number of people who speak it as a mother tongue. There is enormous variation in the size of languages. While the sixteen largest account for half of the human population, there are more than three thousand small languages spoken by fewer than 10,000 people.
The network effect, reinforced by modern communications technologies, would seem to favour the consolidation of human beings on to a much smaller set of spoken languages, posing a threat to the continued survival of the vast majority of the 6,500 languages in use. But is that actually what is happening? In work recently published in The Economic Journal, I bring two data sources to bear on the question of whether the world’s languages are consolidating. These sources allow me to address the question from different angles, and both provide the same answer. Language consolidation does appear to be underway, but only for those languages with fewer than 35,000 speakers. That means that around 1,900 languages are large enough to be under no threat at all. I conduct simulations using the relationship between language size and growth that suggest about 1,600 languages will become extinct in the next 100 years.
There are two ways to look at these results. On the one hand, the extinction of a quarter of the world’s extent languages would represent a significant loss of human cultural diversity. From that perspective, language consolidation appears as a significant problem. On the other hand, it is striking just how small the minimum viable size for a language remains in a world with such cheap and easy long-distance communication. A settlement of 35,000 people would be considered small almost anywhere in the modern world. That such a small group could maintain its own language in a globalised world is remarkable.
Given the power of these technologies, why are people not abandoning languages that connect them with only 50,000 or 100,000 other people? The answer to this question is less certain, though there are three likely explanations. The first is that much linguistic communication is face-to-face and thus very localised. Above all else, one must be able to speak with others in one’s family, those one works with, and members of their local community. For the vast majority of human beings, those interactions happen within just a few miles of where they live. Second, many goods that can be produced far away, such as clothing and food, do not require knowledge of another language to consume. Third, bilingualism in a second, more widely spoken language need not lead to displacement of a small-sized mother tongue over time. Indeed, a small cadre of bilinguals can serve many of the external communication needs of a small language community.
The data I use primarily reflects conditions at the end of the 20th century. It therefore does not reflect changes that may have come or will come with the wider diffusion of the internet. Only 178 languages, a mere three per cent of the total, have any content at all on the internet. Only 11 per cent of the world’s internet users come from English-majority countries, more than half of all web pages are in English (W3Techs and WDI). While it is possible that the internet may increase the minimum viable size for a language, my suspicion is that the main result will be to promote more bilingualism. Consider the case of the Netherlands, where knowledge of Dutch is under no threat despite more than 90 per cent of the population being able to speak English.
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If you use WordPress for your web site, you may be interested in this explanation of multilingual plugins and ranking of the 19 best multilingual plugins for 2017:
19 Best WordPress Multilingual Translation Plugins for 2017
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“Mansplain” made its way into the Urban Dictionary in 2009. In 2010, “mansplainer” was a New York Times Word of the Year. In 2014, Salon declared the word dead (the true sign of making it); the Oxford Dictionaries added “mansplain” as an entry; and the Macquarie Dictionary named it Word of the Year.
At its most basic, “mansplaining” refers to — as a 2015 Merriam-Webster “Words We’re Watching” column put it — “what occurs when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he’s talking to does.”
Although the term “mansplaining” originated in the United States, the practice may very well be universal — and in fact, the term has already moved abroad. In 2015, the Swedish Language Council welcomed “mansplaining” to its list of new Swedish words. Iceland made its own variant (“hrútskýring,” or “ramsplaining”) the 2016 Word of the Year — and named a beer after it. In Greek, Japanese, Portuguese, Swedish, and many other languages, the English “mansplaining” just gets dropped into the conversation, and folks nod.
This list was crowdsourced among friends, writers, and scholars, who reached out to their own friends and families around the world to collect the words on everybody’s lips — and even to coin a few. Like the original term, new words for “mansplaining” get invented on the fly, sometimes in a single, offhand tweet. From that point of origin, they go viral on social media, or get adopted by a national tourist board, and finally make their way into lexicons.
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An interesting reflection from Tim Parks on the expendability of translators (from a commercial point of view) and the contentious issue of what a book’s translator deserves to be paid. Though everyone might agree that translators should be better paid, do we think of translation as its own intellectual property, and therefore translators deserving of a book’s royalties, like an author is? Or would it be better to be paid based on the difficulty of a translation, which likely has nothing to do with how commercially successful a book is (but everything to do with how long the translation takes)? Or will certain literary translation always be a labour of love? ( I was interested find out that 0.10 euros a word is a going rate for top-quality literary translation …)
From the article:
“Krieger eventually won her case and the money she was owed, but the sequence of events suggests the essential difference between translators and authors: [the publisher] Piper could never have tried to deprive [the author] Baricco of his royalties, since without him there would have been no books and no sales. He was not replaceable. But however fine Krieger’s translations, the publisher felt that the same commercial result could be achieved with another translator. It’s not that translation work is ever easy; on the contrary. Simply that it rarely requires a unique talent. Krieger wasn’t essential. She could be replaced.”
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Translation took to the big screen this year in the Academy Award-winning film, Arrival. Indeed, when an ominously oblong spacecraft touches down on Earth, translation proves to be humanity’s only hope. As the world descends into utter chaos, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is sent to the frontlines to attempt to communicate with the mysterious “Heptapods”—to find out what they want and why they’ve come.
We asked three top translators to watch Arrival and to give us their two cents (via email) on the linguacentric feature: Hillary Gulley, translator from the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, and instructor at CUNY—Queens College; Esther Allen, translator from the Spanish, French, and Portuguese and associate professor at CUNY Graduate Center and Baruch College; and Will Evans, translator from the Russian, president at Cinestate, founder of Deep Vellum Publishing, and cofounder of Deep Vellum Books.
Esther Allen, Will Evans, and Hillary Gulley.
Here’s what they had to say:
Words Without Borders (WWB): What did Arrival get so right about being a translator?
Esther Allen: In “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, on which Arrival is based, the words associated with Dr. Banks are “linguist” and “linguistics”; the word “translate” never appears in the story. Part of what Arrival’s cinematic translation of the Chiang story does is introduce translation. And Arrival is an incredible translation, which takes a short story written in 2000 and adapts, expands, and reinvents it to make a statement that is profoundly and presciently about where we are now in 2017. Reading the story provides an interesting perspective on the film’s origins, but the story’s intellectual and political ambitions are far more limited.
What Arrival gets—far better than the Chiang story does—is that translation is about context. When Banks translates one of the alien symbols as “offer weapon,” the world goes into a panic. But she argues that in context the term could have a number of meanings, “weapon” being only one. This is exactly how a translator deals with the ambiguity that is inherent in every word and particularly challenging when moving between languages. Any given term in one language has the potential to become, legitimately, a range of other terms in translation, depending on context, intention, and a host of other factors.
Hillary Gulley: I like that Arrival so vividly illustrates that what a translator communicates and receives in language has at least as much to do with the subconscious element of language as it does with the information that we receive and reconcile consciously.
Will Evans: The importance of translating the whole experience of language—beyond words, combining the phrase or statement or entire text, adding in context, nuance, phrasing—rather than to think of translation as a direct word-for-word transfer of meaning.
WWB: What did Arrival get horribly wrong about being a translator?
Hillary Gulley: The movie confounds the skill sets of a linguist and a translator, for one thing, and then the separate skill sets of a live interpreter and an ESL teacher on top of that. I couldn’t figure out why Dr. Banks was expected to be all four. Maybe because she is a woman? Women tend to be great at making seventeen disparate jobs look as though they belong to one seamless role. Look at the rest of the characters in the movie, who are all men, each with a single mission—or maybe two: their assigned task, involving either fighting or science, and their seemingly self-assigned duty to second-guess the only woman there, who also happens to be the only one of them equipped to save humanity. At some point I said, this screenplay was definitely written by a man. (I was right—and the same applies to the short story that inspired the screenplay.)
In any case, there is this assumption—in the movie and in life—that a linguist and anyone else who speaks multiple languages is automatically a translator, which isn’t the case at all: some of the best linguists and most fluent speakers of a second language I’ve known are not great translators, and vice versa.
The film also propagates the common misconception that translators are walking thesauruses. Maybe this bugs me because I am the worst thinker on my feet, and prone to blanking on all names and the simplest terms. At home I handle this by using a series of sound effects—there’s a favorite clicking sound I usually resort to—so I can move quickly through a sentence without getting stuck on a word. In the film, whenever someone asked Dr. Banks for a term, I wanted her to pass them a copy of Roget’s instead of obliging herself to answer as if it were part of her job description.
Esther Allen: I winced when it’s revealed, in one of the many flash forward scenes, that the book Banks has published about the Heptapod language is titled The Universal Language. That indicates a return to the Chomskyan linguistic model which scorned the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. But Sapir-Whorf—the hypothesis that your experience of the world and particularly of time is conditioned by the language you speak—is the central underlying premise of both movie and short story. And it’s only Sapir-Whorf that has something to tell us about translation. Translators don’t deal in universals, they deal in particulars, in contexts. But that has more to do with the history of linguistics than with the practice of translation.
Will Evans: I don’t know too many translators who live in modernist masterpiece houses on lakefront property, but I like the idea of a linguist approaching translation as a series of problems to be solved without losing the empathy so necessary to make translation successful. It’s super valuable to keep the fields of linguistics and literary translation in dialogue with one another to continue to expand our understanding of the full range of possibilities that language contains.
Read the full interview >>
Related: Interview with the linguist behind the film Arrival
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Two years ago, the marketing research division of Florida-based TR Cutler Inc. interviewed CEOs of privately held manufacturing operations in North America and reported that their top fear was a lack of communication with employees due to the inability to motivate or inspire the workforce. That research was recently replicated, and while communication breakdowns are still the No. 1 fear, the reasons and importance are quite different: It’s about communicating with a multicultural workforce.
In 2015, 20 percent of these CEOs identified communication challenges as being generated by multiculturalism, but by early 2017 that percent doubled to 40 percent. CEOs indicated that the communication problem was about creating a culture of quality in an increasingly multilingual workforce.
Figure 1: Reasons for communication breakdowns by privately held manufacturing CEOs (© 2017 TR Cutler, Inc.)
“Advancements in technology are often met with resistance, especially when the workforce fears displacement,” says Ignacio Isusi, a multicultural industrial communication expert who drives best-practice leadership. “The rise of automation is often associated with the threat that companies will outsource labor to machines. It is up to executive leadership in the C suite to ensure that the employees feel valued, respected, and perceive their critical role to the future success of the company.”
Isusi, who operates the leading cross-cultural executive coaching firm ISUMAS Coaching, says “Spanish-speaking executives being fully understood by English-speaking employees, and English-speaking executives being understood by Spanish-speaking employees must be a top requirement to maintain a quality-centric work environment.”
This is not merely a matter of translation or dual-language workplaces. Industrial leaders must capture the communication needed to honestly empower and engage employees. The foresight of devising impactful and effective employee engagement, and supporting safety and quality initiatives is essential.
A cultural communication context to ensure quality and safety includes training a multilingual workforce. It is an urgent challenge for many industry sectors, particularly in all aspects of manufacturing. In food and pharma manufacturing, as well as automotive and aerospace, a misunderstood assembly or hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) is literally the proximate cause of an employee or customer death. These dangers are not hyperbole, but rather a daily occurrence. Isusi insists, “Industrial leaders must properly accommodate the linguistic needs and preferences of employees in order to increase retention rates and satisfaction, ensure safety, and achieve success.”
Failure to completely understand training materials leads to inferior employee performance, negatively affects morale, and underutilizes workers. In the manufacturing sector, this translates to poor throughput and deficient productivity. Most seriously, lack of comprehension of safety and regulatory training may lead to injury or death.
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Localization in the gaming industry is no easy game to play. Diverse brand loyalties, distinct player preferences, cultural differences, hard-to-spot subtleties, and a host of other issues make it essential to approach gaming localization as strategically—and accurately—as possible.
But what makes the difference between a good supplier of gaming localization and one that is mediocre at best? How do gaming companies select the right localization partner? And where do some translators and LSPs fall short?
These are just a few of the questions discussed in the latest Globally Speaking podcast—an episode that focuses entirely on the specific needs of the gaming industry.
Hosts Renato Beninatto and Michael Stevens interview Andy Johnson, who is the Principal Program Manager at NSI, Inc. and has worked in the field of gaming localization since 1991. And a lot of what he has to say might surprise you.
Among the most important issues discussed are:
- How games and the gaming industry itself have both changed in recent years
- How gaming companies determine what languages will or will not be profitable for localization purposes
- Why localizing content across the board isn’t the right solution in many games
- How do gaming companies use big data to drive localization decisions?
Listen to the podcast >>
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Which is better, working for translation agencies or finding your own clients directly? Every translator has an opinion on this, and the debate sometimes gets contentious. But there are pros and cons to each kind of working arrangement.
Working for direct clients can be very lucrative, although you do have to take into account the extra work involved. Unlike with work acquired via a translation agency, you have no project manager to handle communication with the client, so you will be the one sending all those emails, marketing yourself, finding outsourcers and doing a million other administrative tasks that can distract from your true passion: translating. By the time you add up the hours spent on these ‘unpaid’ tasks, you might find your total hourly rate doesn’t look so lucrative after all. Nonetheless, working for companies directly is a great way of feeling plugged in to your industry of choice, and allows you to hunt down the work you find most interesting.
Plenty of translators love agency work however, because it’s much more simple and straightforward. Your only concern is the quality of your work, meeting deadlines and billing on time, because the project manager takes care of everything else. Many translators find that they form strong working relationships with agency staff that can last for many years, and enjoy opportunities for professional development that they might not otherwise have heard about. Agency work is often very varied as well. If you only like one form of translation you might find this dull, but many people love the variety and say it makes every day interesting.
Of course there’s nothing to say you have to choose one or the other, and plenty of people are happy with a mix of both. In your ideal world, which working style suits you better?
This is the summary of an article published in the translation blog of Translators Family, under the title Is it better to work with agencies or direct clients?, by Oleg Semerikov and Translators Family.
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Airbnb now has a Chinese name, and everyone in China is mocking it.
The American room-rental startup last week revealed its new brand name to be used in China — a three-character moniker, 爱彼迎, “Aibiying”. Each character individually translated means “love,” “mutual” and “welcome.”
Airbnb said in Chinese on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, that the name means “let love meet each other.” The company further explained that more and more Chinese travelers are getting to know each other through Airbnb, and that the name represents their value and mission bringing together tens of millions of neighborhood communities around the world with love.
However, the company totally failed to impress Chinese people with this moniker. Rather, the Chinese name gave Chinese netizens some cheap entertainment, laughing at the expense of Airbnb.
Why? First, the pronunciation of this name is like some sort of difficult language test. Even for a native Chinese, this name is really hard to pronounce. There’s a high chance that Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky might have a hard time just spitting out the words.
Second, the name just sounds wrong in many ways. With the new moniker “Aibiying” quickly taking social media by storm, Airbnb has received an overwhelming amount of nasty comments.
Some said it’s corny; some said it sounds like a name for a sex toy shop, especially with the pink-colored background accompanying the logo. Some said that it sounds like a copycat porn company (because the second character “bi” sounds similar to a crude slang for female genitalia). Many said that the company should just drop the Chinese name altogether.
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Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, returns to discuss how dictionaries are making themselves relevant again through social media and other digital tools. Merriam Webster has recently experienced a surge in popularity on social media in response to their tweets about politics and “alternative facts.” As Jesse Sheidlower said in a recent The New York Times article, “In times of stress, people will go to things that will provide answers. The Bible, the dictionary or alcohol.”
Hear the interview on the Leonard Lopate Show >>
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How much energy and brain power do we devote to learning how to spell? Language evolves over time, and with it the way we spell — is it worth it to spend so much time memorizing rules that are filled with endless exceptions? Literary scholar Karina Galperin suggests that it may be time for an update in the way we think about and record language.
View the TED talk (in Spanish with English subtitles) >>
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Poet and scholar Esther Schor joins us to discuss her book, Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, which details the history of a constructed language called Esperanto. She tells the story of Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, a Polish Jew, who in 1887 had the utopian dream of creating a universal language that would end political and ethnic conflict, and enable everyone to communicate.
Listen to the interview on the Leonard Lopate Show >>
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Alon Lavie, who heads up the Amazon Machine Translation Research and Development Group, said in a recent Globally Speaking podcast, that neural machine translation “makes very, very strange types of mistakes … because it’s not a direct matching between the source language and the target language in terms of the words and the sequences of words…” Thing is, the strangeness can get masked by the smoothness.
Recently I found myself feeding this line of text through Google Translate.
|For these products, please use 視覚化 not 可視化 based on the definition at the following URL:
It was aimed at linguists, instructing them to use the term shikakuka instead of kashika depending on context. Both words mean “visualization” but have slightly different nuances. And the results were so humorous I thought it would be a shame not to share them.
The neural cogs went whizzing and immediately gave me this:
You might expect that the two Japanese terms 視覚化 and 可視化 in the source would make it through to the target text. After all, there’s no need to translate them. But no. Instead, it produced 視覚障害, a big red flag. Just hit the reverse translate button (always a good idea to do that) to see what it means…
Okay, is this even close to what I wanted to say? Avoid visual impairment? Did I want to discriminate against someone? Of course not. Problem is, the Japanese text is so fluent that it reads like I really mean to be really mean.
Alon was absolutely right. Very strange. What is going on inside those neural networks of theirs? Can I pre-edit the source to help the MT to produce a better output? Maybe that unnatural colon at the end of the sentence is wreaking some sort of unexpected havoc? Let’s change it to a period.
Nope. It’s still giving us that problematic 視覚障害 but followed by some different wording.
Uh, yeah. So changing two dots ( : ) to one ( . ) takes us from “avoid visual impairment” to “confirm that there is no visual impairment”. Help!
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While some argue that the infiltration of American English is constantly speeding up, Lynne Murphy, an American linguist living in the UK and a reader in linguistics at the University of Sussex, says that in fact the great era of American English as the language of the world was the 20th century, and it’s over.
“American culture (and words) could easily spread in the 20th century because it was hard to produce and distribute recorded entertainment, but the US had the capacity and the economy and the marketing savvy to do so,” Murphy wrote in a recent blog. What’s changed in the 21st century, she suggests, is that the internet has re-formed our relationship with media, making audiences less purely receptive, and more able to seek out the content that interests them. Ultimately, she argues, there’s more “exchange of words between people, rather than just reception of words from the media.”
“[P]opular songs are less universally popular, because people have more access to more different kinds of music on download,” she writes. “Instead of two or three or four choices on television, there are hundreds. And if you don’t like what you’re seeing you can go on YouTube or SoundCloud…and find all sorts of people doing all sorts of things.”
Geopolitics is also involved. During the last century, two world wars and the Cold War saw Americans posted all over the world, “using their slang in the presence of young recruits from other countries,” she writes. American manufactured goods were widely exported and advertised. With the election of Donald Trump as US president, however, the country’s rhetoric has become decidedly more isolationist. Murphy asks both whether its words and its culture will flow so freely abroad as before, and whether the rest of the world will be as receptive to them.
Not everyone agrees. Matthew Engel, author of forthcoming book That’s the Way it Crumbles—The Americanization of British English, argues that America’s cultural and technological strength globally make it hard for other languages—including French, German, and Italian as well as British English— not to metamorphose under its weight.
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Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri discusses her translation of Ties, a new novel by bestselling Italian novelist and screenwriter Domenico Starnone, winner of Italy’s most prestigious literary award, The Strega. “Ties” tells the story of Vanda and Aldo’s strained marriage, when Aldo decides to leave Vanda and their children for a younger woman.
Listen to the conversation on The Leonard Lopate Show here >>
Jhumpa writes about the path to translating Ties in this Literary Hub article.
Jhumpa writes about teaching herself Italian in this New Yorker article.
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