Tuesday, September 30, 2014

International Translation Day

Today is the feast day of St. Jerome and as he’s the patron saint of translators, that means today is International Translation Day. There are lots of events going on around the UK (and elsewhere, of course). How will you celebrate?

Let’s all find a way of honouring translators and translations today!

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Round-Up of Articles

Here are a few articles on language that might be of interest.

This article discusses how learning languages is good for your brain.

If that’s the case, then what language should you study?

Why is studying grammar or, rather, understanding language, important?

And what grammar rules can you break?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Historical Linguistics by Lyle Campbell

Like many of you translators, I’m a language nerd, and I like learning more about languages – both specific tongues and also languages and linguistics in general. So I enjoyed Historical Linguistics by Lyle Campbell; it’s a textbook, really, and you wouldn’t want to read it before bed, but it is a fun and interesting book to dip into.

Campbell writes on the first page: ”A number of historical linguistics textbooks exist, but this one is different. Most others talk about historical linguistics; they may illustrate concepts and describe methods, and perhaps discuss theoretical issues, but they do not focus on how to do historical linguistics.” (p. xv) In other words, the book is quite practical and it’s an introduction to historical linguistics. It has more than 500 pages about topics including sound change, linguistic reconstruction, lexical change, language contact, quantitative approaches (for example, “glottochronology”), and more, with examples from loads of different languages, including some I’d never heard of before, such as Mednyj Aleut, Karuk, Cholti, and Uto-aztecan.

If you are interested in how language changes and develops over time, you know that sound change is a big part of this. Campbell talks about different ways for this to happen, such as syncope (“The loss (deletion) of a vowel from the interior of a word”, p. 28), or anaptyxis (“a kind of epenethsis in which an extra vowel is inserted between two consonants”, p. 30), or haplology (“in which a repeated sequence of sounds is simplified to a single occurrence,” such as how some people pronounce “library” as “libry”, p. 34). Campbell then shows how we can see which changes have taken place and when. “In the history of Swedish, the change of umlaut took place before syncope...From Proto-Germanic to Modern Swedish: *gasti-z > Proto-Scandinavian *gastiz > gestir > Old Norse gestr > Modern Swedish gäst...We can be reasonably certain that these changes took place in this chronological order, since if syncope had taken place first (gastir > gastr), then there would have been no remaining i to condition the umlaut and the form would have come out as the non-existent X gast.” (p. 39)

In another chapter, he discusses different models, such as family trees (“the traditional model of language diversification” which ”attempts to show how languages diversify and how language families are classified”, p. 187) and dialectology (which “deals with regional variation in a language”, p. 190), or sociolinguistics (which “deals with systematic co-variation of linguistic structure with social structure, especially with the variation in language which is conditioned by social differences”, p. 193). In still other chapters, he discusses Pidgins and Creoles, endangered languages, how children speak (“mamma” or “baba”, p. 354), and writing. Campbell claims that you can reconstruct a language that doesn’t have a written form (p. 396), but, as he puts it, it is often “a matter of luck, a matter of what happens to show up in the sources” and sometimes you have to make guesses (p. 398). But obviously spelling and pronunciation can help in reconstructing the history of a tongue. For example, in English, there are words such as “marcy/mercy ‘mercy’, sarten/certein ‘certain’, parson/persoun ‘person’, and so on..that /er/ changed to /ar/ in the pronunciation of the writer of these forms. (This change was fairly general, though sociolinguistically conditioned, and it was ultimately reversed, but left such doublets in English as clerk/clark, person/parson, vermin/varmint, and university/varsity.)” (p. 398)

Every chapter also has exercises, in case you want to try your hand at what you’re learning.

This isn’t an easy-to-read book, but it is a good one for learning a little (or a lot!) more about linguistics.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Not long ago, a journalist phoned me. She was writing an article about translated literature and she wanted some quotes from me. So far, no problem.

She brought up the infamous 2% number – i.e., only 2% of the books published each year in English are translations. Yes, I agreed, we aren’t great at publishing translated literature and we should try to learn from other countries/cultures. However, I also pointed out that that figure does seem to be going up, and I mentioned some of the publishers, literary magazines, and other organizations (such as the British Centre for Literary Translation) that are working hard to get translations out in English. The journalist muttered a bit, then cut me off.

A few days later, I saw the final article. I wasn’t quoted, which was fine, but what was irritating and frustrating was that she ignored all the positive things I told her. Instead, she wrote that just 1% of the books published each year in English are translations! She didn’t refer to any of the new translation-centered publishers or anything else. Instead she just lamented how sad this state of affairs is.

Sad, yes, but not for the reasons she claimed!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Illustrated Guide to Becoming a Translator

I really liked this illustrated guide to becoming a translator. It’s fun and simple, and it has lots of good tips for people starting out.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Monday, September 01, 2014


Idioms/proverbs/clichés can be one of the hardest bits of a language to learn, and they can also be really challenging to translate.

If a Swedish text says, “Don’t sell the bearskin before you’ve shot the bear,” should the translator keep that phrase as is (to retain the Swedishness of the text) or replace it with, say, “Don’t sell your chickens before they’ve hatched” (to make the text fit the English language better)? Or is there another, better solution (a footnote, for instance)? Interestingly, when I go to schools to talk to young people about translation, they are always evenly divided on this topic, with half the people wanting to keep the Swedish phrase and half wanting to replace it with an English equivalent.

When someone recently sent me a link with a list of Swedish idioms, I found it very interesting.

I then found a bunch of similar sites for English-language idioms, and I quite liked this one.

Perhaps you can add additional links for other languages in the comments.