How to Solve the “English to English” Dilemma?

woman puzzledOne of the surprises we all encounter as we travel is the realization of how widespread English has becomeSometimes I have entertained myself walking through the markets and browsing the stalls that attempt to lure me in to shop. They are using what they consider to be convincing English:

  • the “Pet Chop” that was just down the street from my hotel in the Dominican Republic
  • the children’s t-shirt that said “Crap Your Hands” in a southeast Asian market
  • the newsletter from my local Spanish wine shop that offers “special prices to natural persons.”

It may make me laugh, but it also causes me to recognize something very important about doing business in English. English is evolving and spreading around the globe. The English I know and consider to be commonplace is no longer the only kind of English out there.


15 Things You Should Never Say To a Translator

(and which they unfortunately hear way too often)

Here are some of the comments I have heard firsthand from potential customers, over my many years working in the field of translation.  I think that all translators have heard these at some point …

Shooting translator

1 – You say you’re a translator and you can only speak three languages???

Or:  You’re a translator and you don’t know how to say “Best Regards” in Chinese?

2 – I have about 45 pages to get a rush translation on by tomorrow, can you give me a discount?


3 – The document I have enclosed is a PDF created with InDesign.  I absolutely need the formatting to be maintained.

4 – US$ 300,00  to translate 3000 words ? I am not prepared to pay that much. My nephew studied one month in France, he can handle this translation perfectly well for US$ 50,00 .


5 – You are a thief! I know a translator and he only gets a few cents per word, and you want US$ 400 to translate 5000 words !!!

6 – My secretary is bilingual and read your translation into Spanish. She thought it was absolutely terrible.

7 – Can you translate “Revenge is a dish best served cold” into one single Chinese character? It’s for a tattoo…


8 – I need my website translated. Part of it is Flash and the remaining part is dynamic content managed via a database. Please look at the website and send me a detailed quote.

9 – What does “XXX” mean (word taken out of context)? If you are a real translator, you should know!

10 – What did you study in order to become a translator? Literature?
Or: Translation isn’t a real job.
Or the ever popular: You spend your life sitting at home, working at your computer in your pajamas, and you earn your living doing that?

Translation is not a real job

11 – The document to be translated is confidential and I can’t send it to you, but I need to know how much you are going to charge for it to be translated!

12 – Why are you charging so much when there are free software programs that do machine translations?

13 – Why do you need dictionaries?  Aren’t you a professional translator?


14 – There’s no way that could take so long. This text is only about 20 pages long and that shouldn’t take you any more than two days to translate!

15 – Please provide me with a rush translation of this 10 page contract. My customer is waiting in my office to get the document in his language.


What Makes a Language Sound Beautiful or Ugly?

SAARA what makes a language beautifulWe’ve all heard (or said) it: “Italian sounds so romantic!” – “French is the most beautiful language in the world!” – “German sounds ugly” etc. Nobody summed it up quite as succinctly as Roman emperor Charles V when he declared: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

But why is it that certain languages sound poetic and melodious while others grate on our nerves?

At The Guardian, Matthew Jenkin explains that sociolinguistic have so far not been able to find any intrinsic reason that certain languages should be objectively “more beautiful” than others. Instead, a language’s attractiveness seems to depend entirely on our own background.

For instance, the attractiveness of a language depends on the perceived value of speaking it: Chinese is increasingly considered valuable because of that country’s economic rise. Our subjective impressions of a country or region also influences what we think of the language spoken there: if hearing Italian puts us in the mind of the canals of Venice or sunsets in Tuscany, the language will automatically seem more “beautiful” to us.

The closeness of a language’s sounds to one’s own mother tongue also influences their impression of it. Consonant clusters (as they are common in German) or the tonal distinctions used in Thai and Mandarin will sound unnatural and harsh to a native English speaker.

“There hasn’t been any research that has directly exploited the attractiveness of a language and didn’t eventually tie it back to the social evaluation of the speaking community,” Dr. Vineeta Chand of the University of Essex says in the Guardian. In other words: it’s all subjective.

And if you want an idea what your language sounds like to someone who doesn’t understand it, listen to this amazing video of a woman imitating a dozen languages without actually saying anything

The Global Round-Ball Game: Why Americans Call Soccer “Soccer”

world-cup-2014Now that the 2014 FIFA World Cup is underway, one persistent language question rears its ugly head yet again: what is the proper English word for that “global round-ball game” being played by teams from 32 countries in Brazil until July 13? Is it “football” or “soccer”?

The Atlantic reports that according to sports economist Stefan Syzmanski of the University of Michigan, the term “soccer” is not an American invention. Rather, it has its origin in England and was imported to the US.

According to Syzmanski, the history of the word begins in 1863, when young men met in an English pub to standardize the rules for the sport. Two divergent variants of the game were developed, one known as “Rugby Football” or “‘rugger”, the other as “Association Football”, or “‘soccer” for short.

By 1905, the word had made its way into American English, as a letter to the editor of the New York Times shows. “In the first place, there is no such word [as socker],” the angry letter from one Francis Tabor states, “and in the second place, it is an exceedingly ugly and undignified one.”

The curious thing: the more popular “soccer” became in the U.S., the less the English wanted to use it. As a map at The Atlantic shows, the word is now generally used in countries that have another sport called “football.”

We’ll leave you with John Cleese,  who explains it in the most basic terms: “It is a game played with a ball that is struck with the foot. Hence: foot-ball. Are you following this, America? The clue is in the title. It is not that difficult.”

Adult Language Learning Shown to Benefit Brain

The Brain1Children who grow up with two languages gain cognitive advantages beyond just being bilingual — that much has been known for some time. Now, Annals of Neurology, the journal of the American Neurological Association, has published findings that show that acquiring a second language, even as an adult, benefits the brain.

Using data from a group known as the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, the study shows that people who spoke two or more languages had “significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would be expected from their baseline.” The strongest effects were observed in overall intelligence and reading.




What Does a German Elephant Say? Translating Onomatopoeia

splashingThe proper term is “cross-linguistic onomatopoeia,” but James Chapman just calls them “sounds in other languages”: from the crying of a baby in Spanish (buá buá), the crowing of a rooster in French (cocorico),  the clicking of a camera in Russian (shchyolk) and the ringing of a telephone in Italian (drin drin), Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of words describing noises from around the world.

If an exhaustive list isn’t what you’re in the mood for, you can always hop over to James Chapman‘s site, where he posts cute illustrations of splash, plouf, zabun (that’s summertime splashing) every week. Our favorite is the International Guide to Shutting People Up.

Oh, and to answer the question — in Germany, the trumpeting of an elephant sounds like this: töröö!