What makes a language sound beautiful or ugly?

We’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.”

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


Translation Fails: Funny examples of totally avoidable translation errors

wrong translation

Have you ever used Google Translate? Sometimes you get what you’re looking for, if it’s one word or a simple sentence. For more complex sentences, though, you end up with something completely wrong. In many instances, these translation fails aren’t just erroneous — they’re hilarious.

Auto-translation software treats language as if it’s an algorithm to deduce and put back together. No software is advanced enough to capture the nuance and true structure of language as a concept.

While translation programs understand a language at its most basic level, they are not good in a business context. For business translation, accuracy and fluid communication are paramount.

It’s not all serious, though. Sometimes, business translation fails aren’t necessarily offensive or insulting… they’re just plain funny! Translation fails are something of a hit on social media. Below are a few big mistakes from 2016 that had the world in stitches.

Google Translate Turns Russia into “Mordor”

Google Translate Turns Russia into “Mordor”Many people don’t know that Google Translate isn’t just a pre-programmed Internet translation tool. Like other Google tools, the service picks up on evolving language patterns as it goes. This is in an effort to constantly perfect its translation systems.

However, with new speech patterns, Google Translate can’t tell jokes and slang from real words. The evolving Ukrainian language is one example.

Ukrainian commentators continuously spoke ill of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2016. They often referred to the country as “Mordor,” the fictional home of the evil Sauron found in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Google Translate didn’t recognize this as a joke. Thus, its servers began translating the word “Russia” as “Mordor”.

Nike’s Foot-In-Mouth Shoe Disaster

Nike’s Foot-In-Mouth Shoe DisasterIn early 2016, Nike released a new shoe design known as Special Edition Air Force 1. The shoe was meant to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Each of the shoes could be customized to show off two Chinese characters. On one shoe is the character ‘fa’, and the other shoe the character ‘fu.’ When combined, these characters are supposed to be positive, meaning prosperity and luck. However, when the characters are separated, a different message is shown: “get fat.”

While not necessarily the fault of an auto-translation program, it goes to show that translation requires real insight and understanding of the applications and uses of language. Looks like no one at Nike knew that separating Chinese characters gives them a new meaning.

Political Sign Fails

Trump Political Sign FailsDuring the 2016 campaign for president of the United States, Republican nominee Donald Trump went on record saying some very controversial things about Hispanics and Mexicans. As a result, his favorability fell drastically within the Latino community. Thus, he had to work hard in an effort to gain that approval rating back.

However, social media turned against Trump when he released a political support sign reading “HISPANICS PARA TRUMP.”

Spanish-speaking social media users were quick to point out two problems. One, the non-translation of the word “Hispanics” (which should be “Hispanos” in Spanish). Second, the misuse of the word “para.” While the word does mean “for,” the context in which it was used was inappropriate. “Por” would be the correct form of the word.

This is an obvious example of Google-Translate-style translating. While no one is sure why “Hispanics” went untranslated, auto-translating programs don’t always catch the context in which a word should be used. Thus, “por” and “para” can be interchangeable to a computer, while we know better as humans.

Translation fails can mar a business’ image, even though many people find them to be comical. If you want to avoid embarrassment caused by a silly translation error, don’t just run to Google Translate. Use a professional, human translation service.


Why computers suck at translation

Tom Scott and Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic produced a very entertaining video that does an excellent job at explaining some of the challenges of machine translation — and why human translators are so incredibly difficult to replace.

In just 5 minutes, Tom gives some vivid examples on how language can trip up computers, including context, concepts that don’t match between languages or don’t translate at all, and shared expectations — and you’ll also learn why there is no way to translate the meaning of “oppan Gangnam style” into a single English sentence. (more…)

What does a German elephant say? Translating onomatopoeia

The 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) to the ringing of a telephone in Italian (drin drin). On Wikipedia you can find an exhaustive list of words describing noises from around the world. (more…)