I like Michael Rosen’s
work for children (I use The Sad Book in my children’s literature course at the
university) and I’m always interested in what he has to say about language and
lit. So I was excited to read his book, Alphabetical.
What a fun,
interesting book! You can dip in and out and you can return to it, as there’s
so much to learn from it. Sometimes it’s a bit random, as though you’re getting
access to what’s going on in Rosen’s brain at any given moment. As he writes
about the alphabet, topics range over the Rosetta Stone, nonsense, jokes, umlauts
(he jokes about “adlauts”: umlauts used unnecessarily, especially in company
names), fonts, and much more.
Here’s a typical
example of how he gives history about each letter: “‘A’ starts its life in
around 1800 BCE. Turn our modern ‘A’ upside down and you can see something of
its original shape. Can you see an ox’s head with its horns sticking up in the
air? If so, you can see the remains of this letter’s original name, ‘ox’, or
‘aleph’ on the ancient Semitic languages. By the time the Phoenicians are using
it in around 1000 BCE it is lying on its side and looks more like a ‘K’.
Speed-writing seems to have taken the diagonals through the upright, making it
more like a horizontal form of our modern ‘A’ with the point on the left-hand
side.” (p. 2)
But often the chapters
go beyond the letter themselves. For example, K is for Korean and Rosen
discusses the singer of the popular song ‘Gangnam Style’ as a way into looking
at the Korean tongue. Korean is the “earliest known successful example of a
sudden, conscious, total transformation
of a country’s writing.” (p. 163) In 1446, the king of Korea created a
new alphabet (rather than using Chinese characters) because he was “saddened”
that the people of his country couldn’t make themselves understood in writing.
Rosen notes “I cannot think of anything in the world of alphabets more humane
than that.” (p. 164)
Of course I was
particularly interested in references to anything Scandinavian. Rosen mentions
how a runestone from 1362 was found in the US in 1898, which seemed to prove
that the Vikings had been in America. (p. 337) And he gives a list of some
English words from Old Norse, which entered the English language when the
Vikings came: “Anger, bag, bask, birth…rotten, rugged, run, skid…window, wing,
wrong.” (p. 341)
Basically, this is a
book can you return to many times. There’s so much information in it and it’s
This online translation agency is large, seems to pay fairly, and has received quite a bit of recognition. I have never worked with them, but they might be a useful company for people who are looking for freelance translation work.
This comedy sketch may be old news to some of you, but I only recently was introduced to it and it made me laugh. It’s about how difficult Danish can be to understand, even for Danes. I lived 20 minutes from Denmark for years, and I still would rather speak English to a Dane!
A couple of months ago, Swedish TV4 caused a bit of a scandal when they said their subtitles were done by machine. They then backtracked on that, but given some of the mistakes they make, it’s hard to know what to think. Here’s an article about it.
This episode of the Shelf Life program from the American Museum of Natural History is all about languages and it looks really interesting. Here is the information I received:
“At the American Museum of Natural History, we have tons of content that visitors don’t get to see, including the research our scientists do. So, we have been releasing new videos each month about our collections, each packed with exciting behind-the-scenes content, and we are reaching out to science bloggers like you, who we know love science as much as we do, to help show off our amazing collections.
This month is all about languages, and how an anthropologist and a computational biologist come together to study ancient languages in the 7th episode of the Shelf Life series, The Language Detectives.”
Since becoming a
parent, I’ve gotten even more interested in children, their language
acquisition, and their development, so I recently read The Scientist in the
Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff and Patricia K. Kuhl.
The book is about how
children learn about the world and what we adults can learn from studying
children, especially babies. There’s a chapter particularly about how children
learn language. But what is actually involved in learning a tongue? “First, you
have to break up the continuous stream of sounds into separate pieces and
identify each sound accurately...Then you have to string the sounds together
into words...Then you need to understand all the nuances of meaning each word
can have...And, finally, you have to figure out something about the larger
intent of the sentence.” (p. 92-3) Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl call it
“code-breaking” and say how challenging it is, but “most complicated of all,
people speaking different languages hear sounds totally differently.” (p. 96)
But what does language
do for us anyway? Well, ”the most obvious advantage of language is that it lets
us communicate and coordinate our actions with other people in our group…The
fact that we speak different languages also lets us differentiate between
ourselves and others…And the development of language is probably linked to the
development of our equally distinctive ability to learn about people and
things. It allows us to take advantage of all the things that people before us
have discovered about the world.” (p. 100)
Here’s how it works: “Babies
master the sounds of their language first, and that makes the words easier to
learn….Babies seem to learn some general rules about the words in their
particular language before they learn the words themselves.” (p. 109) As
parents, we need to talk to our babies often, especially in a slow and slightly
exaggerated way, so they can hear the sounds and then start understanding the
If, like me, you hope
your child will learn a language from a young age, when should you start? The
earlier the better. “Children who learn a second language when they are very
young, between three and seven years of age, perform like native speakers on
various tests…If you learn a second language after puberty, there is no longer
any correlation between your age and your linguistic skill…Early in development
we are open to learn the prototypes of many different languages. But by the
time we reach puberty, these mental representations of sounds are well formed
and become more fixed, and that makes it more difficult to perceive the
distinctions of a foreign language.” (p. 192-3)
The Scientist in the
Crib is an interesting, if somewhat repetitive, book, and I recommend it to
parents in particular.
Brave New Reads is a great summer reading program run by Writers’ Centre Norwich. It encourages people to take a chance on books that they wouldn’t necessarily ordinarily read. Although the activities (including reader workshops that I run) are solely in the East Anglia region, the book suggestions are for anyone. I especially appreciate how at least one book each year is a translation!
I discovered Bilingual By Music recently and love the idea. It’s a CD set with two CDs. Each CD has children’s songs on it, but sung in two languages, English and Swedish. It’s a great way for children (and adults) to learn or improve their language skills. I’ve been listening to the Swedish CD with my daughter a lot and we both love it. I believe Bilingual By Music also has a Danish version, and I hope they produce some other languages as well, because music is an excellent entry into a language.
As I’ve mentioned before, many people seem confused about the difference between translation and interpretation. So any articles that can help illuminate this for folks (especially clients) are welcome. Check this piece out.
“How many translations are published in English and how accurate is the often quoted figure of 3%? Which are the most translated languages and which literatures are we missing out on? A new report from Literature Across Frontiers (LAF), Publishing translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland: 1990 – 2012, finally answers many questions surrounding translation statistics. The report, prepared by Alexandra Büchler and Giulia Trentacosti, is a welcome addition to the translation reports and surveys published on LAF’s website and will be launched in electronic format on Monday 13th April, on the occasion of the London International Book Fair 2015.
The key findings presented by the report are based on analysis of two distinct data sets: raw data extracted from the British National Bibliography for the period 1990 – 2012 and processed data for the period 2000 – 2012. The raw data make it possible to produce statistics comparable to those published by other book markets, while the manually processed data provide an annual list of literary translations comprising fiction, poetry, drama, children’s books and creative non-fiction, so far for the period 2000 - 2012. The processed data sets have been further analysed with respect to genre and source language.
LAF director Alexandra Büchler said: “The report brings us, for the first time, reliable data and statistics on the publishing of translations in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Our analysis shows that the often quoted 3% estimate indeed corresponds to the established average of all translations recorded in the British National Bibliography over the past two decades. This is embarrassingly low, compared to the percentages recorded in other European countries, including large book markets with healthy domestic book production such as Germany, France, Italy or Poland. Literary translations represent a slightly higher share, consistently exceeding 4% with a peak of 5.23% in 2011. The statistics show a steady growth of literary translations over the past two decades in absolute numbers and this is very encouraging. General translations grew by 53% between 1990 and 2012 and literary translations by 66%. This is of course reflected in only marginal percentage growth due to the growth in the overall publishing output. Also encouraging is the diversity of source languages with small European languages like Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch among the top ten translated languages alongside two non-European languages, Arabic and Japanese. On the other hand, most Eastern European languages are seriously underrepresented and we are clearly missing out on entire swaths of literary landscapes in our immediate neighbourhood.”
The next step LAF plans to take will be to publish the long awaited database of literary translations for the period 2000 – 2012 and to conduct further analysis which will tell us more about the trends and patterns of publishing translations beyond the basic quantitative information brought by the present report. Another task will be to process the raw data for the earlier period and subject them to a similar analysis.”
In the last post, I
discussed Michael Erard’s book Babel No More. In the book, he offers some
resources for learning more about hyperpolyglots and about learning languages
in general. I haven’t yet been able to get any of these books/websites, but I
hope to. Here’s a selection:
Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language
Earl Stevick: Success
with Foreign Languages
Lessons from Good Language Learners
Erik Gunnemark: Art
and Science of Learning Languages
What is a
hyperpolyglot? Someone who knows many languages. But how many? Six? Eight or
more? Eleven? Or even 30? And what does “know” mean? Being able to speak,
write, read and listen like a native speaker? Being able to talk about daily
matters? Having a basic conversation? Just saying a few words? Or…?
In Babel No More by
Michael Erard, Erard travels around the world to explore what it really means
to learn a language, how the brain deals with language, and how you can learn
many tongues. He meets researchers, neuroscientists, people who know many
languages, and others, and he visits multilingual groups, such as in India.
He shows how our view
of language in general and multilingualism in particular has changed over time.
Erard writes, “Go back to prehistory, a time of linguistic wildness, when we
can imagine that each roving band of humans grunted its own dialect, and
uncountable versions of half-congealed speech codes could be overheard at every
cave and watering hole. Any one of these codes had a range, not a center nor an
edge; not until bands clashed, merged or partnered and settled into villages
did they acquire a physical place, a homeland. Over thousands of years, these
became city-building empires that swept many languages away. On borders and in
cities, people spoke several languages…so did everyone in geographically isolated
places where trading and navigating required knowing the languages of one’s
equally isolated neighbors. All this was endangered, thousands of years later,
in the era of the nation…monolingualism became the standard model in most
places, because the boundaries of the nation were drawn to include all the
people who spoke alike. This unity was threatened by multilingualism and its
taint of barbarity, impurity and unnatural mixing.” (p. 90)
And now, he adds, many
counties just want one national tongue. I live in England, where there are
people from all over the world, but English is the only language most people
know. Young people might study other languages, but not seriously. “Politicians
lectured Britons on learning languages so they could get jobs in the European
Union, while universities removed foreign-language requirements and shut down
language departments when enrollments dropped. Further, the government was
constantly exporting English teachers, textbooks, courses, and programs,
helping the country to earn £1.3 billion a year. In other words, learning
language was for citizens of other countries-who would then compete with
Britons for jobs. The irony was underscored by the fact that by 2005,
immigrants had transformed London into a place where at least 307 languages are
spoken, making the capital of one of the most monolingual countries in the
European Union the most multilingual city on the planet.” (p. 71)
In other countries
that Erard visits, such as Germany, a number of people want to learn multiple
languages. But why? Some because it’s fun or a challenge, while others need to
for work. Still others want to understand how language works, so they see
learning languages as a sort of course in linguistics. Others learn many
languages in order to have many selves. Erard interviews some people who
dedicate their whole lives to learning languages, sometimes even to the detriment
of their jobs or families.
But how many languages
can you really know? Erard suggests we have too high expectations for our language
skills. You’ll never speak another language like a native. “If you want to be
better at languages, you should use native speakers as a metric of progress,
though not as a goal…Embrace your linguistic outsiderness-it’s the way of the
world…A language isn’t reserved for the perfectly calibrated native speaker.
Words have currency even if they’re not perfectly wrought.” (p. 261)
He also offers advice
from hyperpolyglots: “Some studies of successful language learners have
suggested that they’re more “open to new experiences” than the rest of us…we
have a self that’s bound up in our native language, a “language ego”, which
needs to be loose and more permeable to learn a new language. Those with more
fluid ego boundaries…are more willing to sound not like themselves, which means
they have better accents in the new language.” (p. 238)
So have the courage to
continue with your language studies and to dare to speak other tongues, even if
you think you’re not that good at it!
Most of us will never
know 15 or 30 languages. But it’s fun to read about them and to learn from them
in Babel No More.
The sign language interpreter for Melodifestivalen (the Swedish run-up to Eurovision), Tommy Krångh, has rightfully made the news recently. His interpretations of pop songs in the contest are fantastic; they’re moving and theatrical. I’m so glad we all can have a chance to see them and learn from them, and I’m also glad that they are bringing new awareness to sign language interpretation. Check out some of his work here and read about him in this article.
A few weeks ago, I referred to one language app, and now I’ve been told about another, the “Vocabulary Trainer”. It’s a “a mobile app to learn the most frequent words, travel phrases and slang (in total over 10,000 words and phrases) in over 30 languages.” It sounds intriguing, but I’m not sure if I think apps are the best way to learn languages. They can help in the moment, but I wonder if the material actually stays with you. What do you think?
I read a couple of interesting articles recently on bilingualism. It’s such a shame that in English-speaking countries, we generally don’t start teaching children another language until they’re on the older side. And yet we know very well from research that the earlier we start the better. When will we learn?
The first article talks about how bilingualism changes children’s beliefs. “Most young children are essentialists: They believe that human and animal characteristics are innate. That kind of reasoning can lead them to think that traits like native language and clothing preference are intrinsic rather than acquired. But a new study suggests that certain bilingual kids are more likely to understand that it's what one learns, rather than what one is born with, that makes up a person's psychological attributes.”
The second piece looks at bilingualism from an older person’s perspective to explore what advantages speaking more than one language has on our brains as we age.
I really like this visual guide to translations that will be published in English in 2015, but one thing I noticed is that very few of the books list the translator’s name on the cover, or otherwise give any indication that that these books are translations. So while it’s pleasing to see the increased numbers of translations coming out in English, it’s all still rather frustrating. Why can’t we honor the translators and promote the fact that these books are translations?
As a translator, I’m often suspicious of computer programmes or apps that purport to do what we do, and to do it as well as we do. But there are some instances when an app would be helpful, such as when travelling.
So I was intrigued to learn about this vegetarian translation app. It seems as though it would be very helpful; I haven’t eaten meat in over 15 years and I’ve often had trouble while on trips. The app includes 50 languages, including Chinese; China was probably the hardest country for me to visit as a vegetarian. I kept being told that supposedly vegetarian dishes had pork in them and that I shouldn’t worry as “pork isn’t meat”! If only I’d had this app then!
Do you know of other translation apps that are actually useful and accurate?
I receive a lot of emails from people
looking to get into translation and many of the questions I’m asked are common.
So occasionally I try to answer them here.
One that I get asked is how long the hours
are. This is one of the hardest questions to answer, because it depends. How
many hours you work depends on how much work you get asked to do, how much work
you want to do, what type of projects you take on, and how much time and energy
each assignment requires.
You could take on one short translation job
each month or you could work more than full-time as a translator.
Personally, I’ve been at both extremes, and
it’s depended on my circumstances (i.e. how dependent I am on the income from
translation and what other jobs I have). You can fairly easily build up a
career as a freelance non-fiction translator, but to work full-time as a
literary translator is generally harder.
I was recently told
about the Little
Red Schoolhouse writing method and form of writing instruction, which
was started at the University of Chicago in the 1980s. I was surprised I hadn’t
heard of it before.
“LRS is an approach to
writing instruction that proceeds from several core principles:
• Readers come to any
text with a fairly predictable set of questions and expectations. (These
expectations vary somewhat according to the community or discipline: literary
critics v. behavioral psychologists v. political scientists.)
• Effective writing
anticipates and responds to these predictable questions and expectations.
• In order to produce
effective writing, good writers employ a fairly predictable set of routines in
order to plan, draft, revise, and edit.
• Students who come to
understand readerly expectations and writerly routines produce more persuasive
arguments more efficiently.
• Most students
already have good intuitions about what readers want and what writers do: our
job is to help them articulate and define those intuitions, so that they can
more consciously control their writing.
• Our teaching begins
with intuition then proceeds to the principle.
• Students learn
routines best by "over-learning" them; that is, by practicing until
the routines are internalized and students can produce them with minimal
effort. Because reading and writing are complicated tasks, it's best to break
them down into manageable pieces, or sub-routines, for students.
• Once students are
comfortable with the routine, they can learn and practice techniques for
manipulating their writing to produce a range of effects.”
It sounds quite basic
and sensible, and worth looking into for anyone who writes and/or teaches
Many people have told me that children are essentially conservative readers and that they don’t want to read about people from other countries. That definitely hasn’t been my experience. In fact, I think children are curious and interested in the world beyond their homes and their countries.
Here’s a family reading children’s lit from around the world in 2015. It will be fun to see what they read and to follow their progress.
What world lit would you recommend for young readers?
sponsoring are major trends these days. They seem to be ways of avoiding big
companies, or minimizing stress, or trying out more unusual or avant-garde projects,
or to help pay for things that otherwise wouldn’t get paid for. I’ve helped
sponsor a book, for example, and I’ve heard of crowdfunding for clothing lines,
films, performance art, and even funerals.
I was recently told
about sponsoring translations. What do you think of that idea?
Here’s the information
I was given about this particular project:
“Haute Culture Books,
publisher of limited edition volumes is about to begin its first Book Angel
project with the first ever English translation of 'Truth & Justice' by
Anton Hansen Tammsaare.
With the support of
the Tammsaare Museum, National Library of Estonia, Tartu University Library and
Stanford University Library the project allows Book Angels to sponsor the
publication of this classic piece of Estonian culture opening it up to the
English-speaking world after a 70 year wait.
By sponsoring a
hardback print version of the book, Book Angels support the distribution of
free e-books of the text allowing a global audience to discover literary treasures
seldom seen in the English language.
More information can
be found at www.hauteculturebooks.com and www.hauteculturepress.com and if you
have any further questions don't hesitate to contact me.”
Originally from Chicago, I lived in southern Sweden for nearly 5.5 years, and moved to southern Wales in September 2006. I completed a Ph.D. translation studies in June 2009 at Swansea University, with a dissertation on the translation of children's literature.
Now I live in Norwich, England, where I am a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, and I also work as a translator, writer, and editor.
Contact me at bravenewwords (AT) gmail (DOT) com.