The musicians of language

Flute player“My cousin speaks this language, so he translated it for me. Could you just certify it?”

If I had a penny for every time I heard this or something similar, I would be rich. Alright, this might be an exaggeration, but I do hear this quite a lot.

People often underestimate translators and assume that everyone who speaks another language can also translate. Many don’t realise that being a translator requires hard work and dedication. Continue reading The musicians of language

Translation musings: Roman secrets

Althofen_Pfarrkirche_hl_Thomas_von_Canterbury_Grabara_Commodius_24062015_5227Last weekend I visited a friend of mine in Oxford. We had a great time with lots of laughter, good food and we also popped in to the Ashmolean Museum. (Actually, it was more than a short pop-in, we spent half a day in there.)

Among many wonders of the world in the museum, I also found an interesting section about ancient Roman tombstones. It might sound morbid but it was truly fascinating! Did you know that Romans wrote in some kind of code on tombstones to save some space? Just like modern day texting or tweeting! Continue reading Translation musings: Roman secrets

Translation musings: O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou… what?

William Shakespeare First FolioThis year is the 400th anniversary of the death of the “Bard of Avon”, William Shakespeare. Everyone knows the name of this prolific poet, playwright and actor and we can all quote some of his immortal lines. You probably met some of his plays or poems at school, even if you spent your school years outside the UK. And most likely you were able to enjoy his plays in your mother tongue as his works have been translated into more than 80 languages. (Including Klingon and Esperanto, by the way.)

Did you really enjoy reading them though? Continue reading Translation musings: O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou… what?

Translation musings: What’s with all the capital letters? – The mysterious case of the German noun

When you look at a German text, one of the first things you might notice is that some words are capitalised in a (seemingly) random fashion. If you don’t know any German, you might think that it is a mistake or some madman just went ahead and capitalised every third or fourth word.

Don’t worry, this is not the case at all. There are no crazies involved and there is actually reason behind this! Capitalisation is not at all random in German, on the other hand, it follows a simple rule: all nouns are to start with a capital letter.

While in English we tend to leave capitalisation to proper nouns, such as people’s names or countries, in German all nouns must start with a capital letter. This is a great help for language learners who can tell if they are dealing with a noun on their first day of learning the language. How handy!

Grimm brothers
The Grimms. (They might be discussing capitalisation.)

The rule is all logical, however, there is one crucial point that is not quite clear: why? Why is it that you have to write all German nouns with an initial capital letter? The answer to this is “no one knows”. The tendency of capitalising the first few letters of words in German started in the 13-14th century, however, at that point there weren’t clear-cut rules for it and not only nouns were capitalised. It was popular especially in religious texts where the word for God, i.e. Gott would begin with a capital letter. Capitalisation became more common in the beginning of the Baroque era, and became standard in the 17th century. Not everyone accepted the rule, for example Jacob Grimm wanted to have a spelling reform and write his nouns in lower case. (Interestingly enough, his brother, Wilhelm didn’t mind the capitals.)

German isn’t the only language that capitalises or had capitalised nouns at some point in the past. In Luxembourgish the same rules apply and until 1948, Danish also used nouns with capital letters. This is not surprising as the language has close connections with German. There was a short period in the 18th century when nouns were written this way even in English, although it wasn’t common practice. If you look at an early edition of Gulliver’s Travels, you can see this!

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Translation Musings: which language should I learn?

HELLO in eight different languagesAs a native English speaker looking to learn a second language, one of the hardest decisions to make is which one? Sometimes the decision is made for us – schools often only offer a handful and French is almost always the first we experience. But it is tricky – which is going to be most helpful to us? And which is easiest?

Well, the first question is difficult of course, and depends on why you’re learning. But the second one has, apparently, been answered! The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has put together a list of (approximately!) how long it could be expected to take an English speaker to reach ‘general professional proficiency in speaking and reading’ in the languages of the world.

Drum roll!

The “easiest” to learn are, unsurprisingly, those closest related to English – such as French, Spanish and Italian. You could reasonably expect to be proficient in any of these languages with around 600 hours of study. Slightly surprisingly, for me anyway, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Portuguese also fit into this category. But German would take you a bit longer – around 750 hours, with Swahili coming in at around 900 hours!

Then it starts to get really tricky… The fourth category contains those languages considered to have significant linguistic and/or cultural differences to English and would need around 1100 hours study. Languages falling into this category include Hungarian, Polish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Russian and Tagalog.

The final category is those languages which are considered exceptionally difficult for English speakers and often have a completely different set of characters and grammatical rules. Arabic, Cantonese and Mandarin, Japanese and Korean all fall into this group and will typically take around 2200 hours to master!

So now you know. But don’t let it put you off – you may just find you’re a natural at Pashto or Arabic, and it might just change your life!

For the full list, click here.

Translation Musings: Happy Thorsday!

Today, Thorsday, we’re looking at what the Vikings brought over… And I’m not talking about looting or pillaging , but the words they left behind. And they left us a lot!

Now, I don’t condone plagiarism in any form, but this was too good not to use. I do not claim it for own, but instead am quoting in full from its author, John-Erik Jordan, writing on a the rather marvelous, from which the inspiration and information for this blog came. Have a read of this:

Traust me, þó (though) it may seem oddi at first, we er still very líkligr to use the same words as the Vikings did in our everyday speech. Þeirra (their) language evolved into the modern-day Scandinavian languages, but þeir (they) also gave English the gift of hundreds of words.

As you can see, Old Norse is at the root of many of our everyday words, including, of course, that very important day of the week, Thursday!

They also loved a bit of war, did the Vikings, so it will come as no surprise that many of our war-ry words derive from these chaps too – such as club (klubba), slaughter (slatra – to butcher) and, my favourite, berserk. This is a good one – a Viking berserkr was a warrior who was so hard he would do battle in a frenzy with only an animal skin (bear-skin, see what they did there…) to protect him. Ooh, those Vikings…

Please go to Mr Jordan’s enlightening article for more Viking words which have found a permanent home on our shores!


Translation musings: the quirks of language

HELLO in eight different languagesWelcome to a new series of mini-blog posts looking at some of the rules and quirks of different languages. We’re taking a bite-size look at Korean today, thanks to the marvellous wisdom of translator Steven Bammel. You can find out loads more about Korean on his blog here.

One thing to watch out for when translating into Korean, says Steve, is the colour red. In particular, names in red. The only names to appear in red in Korean culture are those of the dead and it is therefore considered extremely unlucky for the names of the living. This is not a common issue, admittedly, but one to be aware of if you ever find yourself needing a Korean translation (as well as Japanese, Chinese and other languages from countries with a history of Chinese cultural influence).

I would love to hear your gems of wisdom or fun facts – especially all you translators out there! Please email me at

Translation musings: new words for old

ReferenceOur wonderful language is forever evolving, with new words and popular phrases going in and out of fashion all the time. And every year a group of eminents decide which words should be allowed into the dictionary. The first stage of acceptance for the word is online; they’ll make it to the paper copy if they hang around long enough! So which words have made it into the Oxford online dictionary this year?

Continue reading Translation musings: new words for old

Translation musings: the language of WW1

poppyI don’t know if you did, but my family sat in the dark last night with our one candle burning as a mark of respect and to commemorate the beginning of WW1. The letters and poems that were read out during the memorial service were moving and poignant and most of us still remember someone in our family who was involved in the Great War. I am looking forward to some of the coming events – although that seems an odd turn of phrase for the circumstances. And new phrases and slang are one of the many things that have remained as reminders of that tumultuous time.

Continue reading Translation musings: the language of WW1

Translation musings: the joys of English pronunciation

Oops!Popping into our in-boxes this week was a whole poem on the vagaries of English language pronunciation. It’s all good fun but makes you realise how difficult English is to learn – as your first language, let alone second, third etc.

Let’s just take two little letters – e and a – and put them together. How do you pronounce ea? Well, you could pronounce it ‘ee‘ as in ‘tea‘. Or ‘ai‘ as in ‘break‘. Or maybe ‘er‘ as in ‘hearse‘… Then again, it could be ‘ar‘ as in ‘heart‘. And don’t even get me started on ough

If you think your pronunciation is pretty good, have a go at reading this poem out loud!


image credit: michelini @