Lost in translation…

On receiving some Korean text recently I decided to put it through a well-known free online translation programme. I was shocked to read that not only did we offer a professional translation service but we were also, apparently, offering a rather more intimate service… Here’s how it worked:

English phrase: “We will take the worry out of your translation needs.”
Machine back-translation: “Translation issues to worry about I’ll wash you naked.”

Ooh er.

But, thankfully, the translation error was with the machine back-translation, not our well-qualified and well-respected human translator. The Korean phrase provided was entirley correct – an idiom broadly meaning “‘your worries will be washed away”.

Thank goodness! Where the naked bit came from, we still don’t know!

Moral of the story: don’t rely on a machine to do your translation for you – you never know what you might end up promising!



Hands up if you’re on a diet…

I am! The usual post-Christmas January misery of bad weather and not enough food has begun. In fact, the whole of First Edition are working together to eat healthier and do a bit more exercise.  And there are so many diets to choose from! Do you go low fat, high protein, GI, mediterranean?

The Mediterranean diet is always a good one – who knows food better than the Italians?! Just try to think of all the Italian words you know – how many of them are food related? Quite a few, I expect – pasta, lasagne, spaghetti, cappucchino, pizza…

Oh dear, I’m hungry now.

Click here to find out just how indebted we are to the Italians not just for our food but our language as well.



To quote or not to quote…

Misquoting famous lines is easy enough to do – some misquotes have become more well used than the original phrase. A recent survey has revealed the most common – many of them Shakespearean. How about ‘damp squid’ instead of ‘damp squib’? Or ‘Lead on Macduff’ – should be ‘Lay on…’.

These examples are harmless enough and, well, you know what they mean! But sometimes misquoting can cause great offense, particularly when taken out of context. Take for example a quotation inscribed on the side of the newly dedicated Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, which reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”


The speech this quote is taken from, delivered by Dr. King in 1968, is actually about the evils of self promotion. What he originally said was “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”  The first few words of the paragraph are absolutely vital and the somewhat brutal editing of a whole section of the speech has completely changed the context and meaning of the quote.

This unintentional, but devastating, mistake highlights the issue of editing, which must be done sympathetically and with a clear understanding of the original context and meaning. Poor editing can be just as dangerous as poor translation and for that reason editing and translation should always be carried out by an experienced professional.

I was glad to hear that instructions have now been given to change the inscription, and the memorial dedication ceremony took place on Sunday. You can read more about this story in the Washington Post here.





Madame ou Mademoiselle

I am a married woman who has kept her maiden name. So, the dilemma – what should my title be? I’m married so not Miss, but if I put a Mrs in front of my maiden name, I become my mum! Personally I am happy just to be Bridget but sometimes a title is needed, so I choose Ms.

A town in Western France has gone a step further and banned the word “mademoiselle” – the French equivalent of “miss”. The Germans got rid of their “Fraulein” in 1972 and in Sweden they have no honorifics at all (except the King!)

Are the days of women being addressed according to their age or maritial status coming to an end?

You can read more about Cesson-Sevigne here.




The joys of the English language

Tongue tiedOne of my favourite organisations on Facebook is What’s your English and they recently posted a tongue-tyingly wonderful challenge. According to them (and The Poke), if you can pronounce correctly every word in the following poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world.

Apparently, a Frenchman trying the verses said he’d prefer six months of hard labour to reading six lines aloud. Here are the first ten:

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)


How’d you do? Click here to read the rest.




Seasonal untranslatables!

Continuing in our series of untranslatable words, we have found a few seasonable types… A wonderful word the Danes use is Hygge, describing a lovely calm, comfortable time with good friends or loved-ones – often involving food, drink, perhaps candlelight. Perfect for Christmas time!

The well-used Dutch word gezellig conveys a similar concept; something that makes you feel good – relaxed, warm and inclusive. In German, Gemütlichkeit is used in the same way. The nearest English equivilant is probably ‘cosy’ but this just doesn’t really get close to the full emotional meaning.

Another good word for the season comes from just over the border in Wales, and is a favourite with our own Daniela – cwtch is cuddling, snuggling, loving, and protecting all in the one word. It even sounds like a cuddle!

What’s your favourite Christmas word?

Masculine, feminine or neutral?

There was a great question on Simon Mayo’s ‘Homework Sucks’ feature on his Radio 2 Drivetime show last night. The caller was wondering how the gender of items in, for example, French, German, Spanish etc, was decided. And what about new words – is there a committee somewhere deciding that an mp3 player should be male and a laptop female?

There were a number of theories – that it depended on the ending of the word, that all ‘borrowed’ or ‘stolen’ words are masculine, even that the pagan gods had a hand in it!

The expert opinion came from renowned linguist David Crystal who confirmed that it is all of the above (although I’m not sure he mentioned pagan gods…). He explained that, although at the beginning of language the words often had a natural distinction – for example, animate and inanimate – language has moved on and in many directions. There is no committee and, although there are often patterns, there are also lots of exceptions. So, no easy answer; the gender frequently varies across language and there is often no relationship between the grammatical and natural gender of a word. For example, you might naturally expect the word for ‘girl’ to be feminine, but ‘Mädchen’, in German, is actually neutral gender because of the -chen.

So there you go, just another twist in the marvel of language.

How Shakespearean are you?

Having read a fascinating article from the Oxford University Press, I put a bit of my previous blog post into their handy ‘Shakespearometer’ (my word – sorry OUP!) to see how it stood up to the grammar and spelling of the Bard. I was very pleased to see that my English was “83% Shakespearean” and told “The waters of the Avon almost lap at your feet.” Chuffed.

Try it yourself.

Image: Matt Banks / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

European Day of Languages

Ten years ago, the Council of Europe declared the 26 September to be European Day of Languages. As well as celebrating the 6000+ languages spoken across the world, and the rich, diverse culture that lies behind them, the aim is also to show people across Europe the importance and fun of learning a new language.

In the FE office, as you might imagine, we cover a wide variety of languages, including Brazilian Portuguese, German, Spanish, Italian, French, Chinese, Hungarian and Arabic. And you might not be aware of the number of celebrities that speak more than one language. Did you know, for example, that actor Christopher Lee is able to charm with his  deep and sonorous voice in French, German, Greek, Italian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish? Or that native German speaker Pope Benedict XVI also speaks English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Latin, as well as reading Ancient Greek and biblical Hebrew.

Footballers are often lampooned for their lack of intelligence, but many speak at least two languages. Player and pundit Gary Linekar added speaking Spanish and Japanese to his talents while playing abroad and is a great ambassador for learning new languages: “I’ve really enjoyed learning Spanish and Japanese. Getting to grips with a new language can be great fun, and you learn so much about other people and what makes them tick.”

Sadly, most of our European neighbours put our own linguistic skills to shame. It is easy as a native English speaker to rely only on our own language but so much more rewarding to learn another. Why not give it a try?

Find out more about the European Day of Languages and the many advantages of learning a new language at CILT – the National Centre for Languages.