Archive for the ‘Musings in Translation’ Category

Arabic – The Newest Hot Language

Now that the U.S. government has Osama bin Laden’s computers and thumb drives securely in hand and stored at the FBI’s facilities in Langley, Virginia (to make sure they’re in the right chain of command in case the evidence they produce will be uncontestable if used in court), the race is on to decipher what they say.  Word is that Arabic translators are in hot demand to scour the data to discover what new, nepharious plots and individuals we aren’t aware of should be followed up or hunted down. 

If I were an Arabic translator with government clearance right now, I’d be jumping on the government’s doorstep to get a piece of the action.  Not only would it be guaranteed work, it would be national-defense-quality important work.  Can you imagine the responsibility for getting the translation precisely right on that job?  You certainly don’t want to mess up that baby!

It’s good to see that foreign languages are still making headlines–even though it took ten years and a scumbag like Osama bin Laden to make the need for Arabic translation the next big thing.

2010 Census

I was looking at the recent publicity on the 2010 census and struck by how it relates to the Hispanic population of the U.S. 

According to the most newly released information, one in six Americans is now Hispanic.  Hispanics account for more than half the nation’s growth between 2000 and 2010, jumping to over 50 million people.  They are all over the continental U.S.  While before they were mostly concentrated on the coasts in the larger cities, now they live in the most unlikely places, including small towns, of the U.S. heartland and elsewhere.  Seven states would have lost population were it not for the Hispanic community in this last decade.

What this means is that this country, which up to very recent years was primarily a black-white nation, is now heavily populated by growing ethnic communities, such as Hispanic and Asian, for example, everywhere, which cannot be ignored.

Americans have long felt alienated from the rest of the world, separated as we are by two oceans from Europe and Asia, and with one of our two adjoining nations speaking English like us, we’ve felt pretty smug about not having to deal with the “foreign influence” and gotten pretty upset when told that we had to accomodate to other languages and cultures. 

That world of isolation is dead.

Nowadays, if a business or government entity wants to make contact with all the members of its community, it can no longer ignore the fact that a vast majority of the faces out there are not necessarily native English speakers or members of the good old boy membership.  When the census says that barely three decades from now non-Hispanic whites will be a minority, any company worth its salt had better sit up and take notice.  Foreign languages are going to have to become part of the focus in outreach, advertising and public relations of any organization planning to stay in front of the public market. To think otherwise is to ignore the onrushing future, bury one’s head in the sand and nail one’s feet to the floor. 

We’re here to help you get on board the language train.  Don’t get left behind and become a statistic.

How Low Can You Go?

It’s insulting.  I just received a call from an agency that has called me several times over the years to serve as a medical interpreter for some of their Workmen’s Comp clients in the Indianapolis area.  My rates are reasonable by most standards.  We agreed on them originally, and they paid them without any fuss.  They also paid me for mileage, although they wouldn’t even match the Federal rate, but I tolerated it. 

This afternoon I heard from this company for the first time since last fall.  They say they have a new system, a “Five-Star Rating System”, and they want to “negotiate” my rates so I can be “competitive” with the other providers in my area.  (Red flag!)

First the caller started with my certifications.  She needs proof, she said, that I have a company certification.  (I certainly do–I’m a Certified Woman’s Business Enterprise with the State of Indiana AND the City of Indianapolis, as well as a trained Spanish-English medical interpreter. What do they do with independent providers who aren’t a company??) Okay, so no problem there.

Then we got into the rates.  “I see you charge $XX with a 2-hour minimum,” she said.  I concurred.  “In order to be a competitively ranked Five-Star provider, we’d like to negotiate a payment with you of $YY.”  I was stunned.  She was offering me less than two-thirds of my current rate, which is already more than fair for this area.  I said no dice.  I could see this was going downhill.

Next she brought up the mileage.  As it was, they had only been paying $0.45/mile despite the Federal rate being $0.51/mile and gas now pushing $4.00/gallon.  This lady then had the nerve to ask me to “negotiate” a gas rate of  just $0.30/mile.  That was  unbelievable. I said an emphatic no to that one, too. 

Finally, she told me they now pay a flat rate for No Shows that is basically just a one-hour rate (nowhere near enough to compensate for the expended (read, wasted) time to drive there, cool your heels until you find out no one came and go back to the office) and NO mileage rate to compensate for your gas.  I politely declined again.  We were three for three.

Where is it written that it’s okay to devalue medical interpreting to the point that rates are “negotiated” down to nothing while when pocketing the difference the agency greedily fattens its bottom line?  It’s disgraceful and unprofessional, especially with that old canard “cheap pay will make you a Five-Star competitive provider”.  Baloney!  Do you tell a doctor to drop his rates to be  a “five-star competitor”?

Professional work deserves professional pay.  Foreign language provision deserves the respect of any other highly skilled talent.  Don’t show up on this doorstep to wheedle down the pay rates in order to make us think it’s “competitive”!  Quality is worth the price, and you get what you pay for.

That company should be ashamed of itself.  And as for all those “Five-Star providers” it’s ostensibly sending out?   I feel sorry for their patients.

Would a Rose By Any Other Name Smell As Sweet?

Having just completed the reading of a provocative article echoing the on-air story broadcast by National Public Radio on January 16, I am left with a feeling of some concern and sadness.  According to this piece, entitled “Google’s Artifical Intelligence Translates Poetry” , , researchers are tackling a daunting task–successfully translating poetry.

Poetry is such a nuanced, linguistically sensitive subject.  The words, meter and rhyme are chosen by the poet only after deep and lengthy ponderance of the myriad choices available in the writer’s language.  Words create worlds.  The choice of a word, with its flow of vowels and consonants, sounds soft or strong, rhythms graceful or powerful, contribute totally to the overall effect of the finished line, stanza, work.  A finely crafted poem creates a world in which the reader momentarily lives.  Blessings to the poet who makes something out of nothing through the sensitive use of language.

It saddens me to think that someone believes a machine can equal this richness.  Approximate it, maybe.  Equal it, I don’t think so.  We humans have such hubris.  In our headlong rush to prove we can reinvent life, we fail to see that some things are simply beautiful in the simplicity of their being.  Poetry, whether you love it, like it or ignore it, is one of human beings’ loveliest creations.  Why must we tinker with the human capability to produce beauty by giving it to a machine? 

I’m sorry.  Call me old fashioned.  Call me sentimental.  I think that giving the translation of poetry to a machine and thinking it can spit out an equivalent to the original piece of art is a disappointing, misguided idea.

Gotta Love It

Read the greatest little article today.  It’s by a guy named Nicholas D. Kristof.  You can find it here:  He starts off with a quiz:  If a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, and one who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, what is someone called who speaks no foreign languages at all?    Answer: an American.

 Ugh–how pathetic!   Unfortunately, it’s mostly true (what an insular bunch this country is), but take heart, oh souls, there may be some change afoot.  At least, if he has anything to say about it, there could be.

His article is about how Mandarin Chinese is the cool language to teach American kids these days and how many of this country’s citizens are rushing headlong into trying to learn it.  Yes, Kristof says, Chinese is really the language to know for the future, and China will be a force to be reckoned with, but if Americans want to learn a foreign language that is immediate and practical, they’d better learn Spanish.  Hooray!  I love Spanish!

 Kristof argues that the Hispanic population of the U.S. is growing exponentially and within forty years will become nearly 1/3 of the residents here.  That combined with the interesting speculation that as Americans vacation and retire, more and more of them will be enticed to go to Latin America (think, Costa Rica, not just Mexico) where the healthcare, climate and living are easy–and cheaper–and that business opportunities will inevitably involve our neighbors to the south.  All this leads him to say that all America’s kids should learn Spanish–beginning in elementary school–period. 

He notes that anyway, Chinese takes four times as long to learn as Spanish does (it’s not just character driven but is grammatically remote from anything Western Europe has even dreamed of) and tonal based, to boot, so it makes sense to get us all on the Span-wagon before we jump off into the China sea.

Not coincidentally, guess which two languages have been in the most demand at Eloquence lately?  Yup, you got ’em–those two.

Any time anybody is gung-ho about teaching Americans a foreign language, man, am I on that team.  As his article title says, “Primero hay que aprender [el] español.  Ranhou Zai Xue Zhongwen.” — First  learn Spanish.  Then study Chinese.  


Lost and Gone Forever

Linguists estimate that a language dies every 14 days.  Nearly 7,000 languages are spoken on this earth, and between 60% and 80% of them are still undocumented. 

When a language dies, a culture dies with it.  Think of the richness of a language of the Inuit in Alaska or the indigenous tribes of the Amazon.  Their experiences of survival in the harshest climates of the planet are key to their continued survival and have been passed down from generation to generation in spoken language.  But larger civilization inevitably encroaches and the offspring speak that language less and less. And then one day, the language vanishes and the culture with it. 

They are lost forever.

Every continent on earth save for Antarctica has vanishing languages.  K. David Harrison and his team traveled around the globe to interview the few remaining speakers of dying languages from Siberia to Bolivia.  He documents this extraordinary adventure in his book, “The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages.”  This book is published by National Geographic and has become available this year at

As a linguist I feel like a tapestry holding the humanity of the world whose threads are the languages that interweave in a complex and fascinating pattern is slowly developing holes that over time grow larger and unravel until only the skeletal fragments of the tapestry will be left–those being the big, major languages of the world–while the small, rich, unnoticed, lesser language fall by the wayside, victims of modernity and progress, taking their unique rich lustre with them.

I wish K. David Harrison and his team Godspeed and good luck.  They have a lot of work ahead of them. And they are running out of time.

Foreign Accent Syndrome?

Talk about strange.  Apparently there is a peculiar malady called “Foreign Accent Syndrome”.  According to, people hit their heads and develop accents from places they’ve never even visited.  Example:  Woman in Fairfax County, VA, falls and hits her head in a stairwell at a 4-H youth conference and suddenly starts speaking English with a foreign accent.  She’s now suing the National 4-H Council for $1 million.  Even more peculiar, a women in England suffered a migraine last spring and began speaking with a Chinese accent.  Or how about this?  In April a 13-year-old girl from Croatia woke up one morning speaking only German.  She’d been studying it in school and entirely lost her native language ability.  This is from a condition called “bilingual aphasia”.

Click here for the article

Think of all the people who thought they had no foreign language aptitude.  Who knew it would just take a knock on the head?!

Lost in Translation II, or Through the Looking Glass

One of the most fascinating articles I’ve read in years about how language shapes how we see the world appeared today in an article by Lera Boroditsky entitled, “Lost in Translation” (found here: )

She describes how humans, through their 7,000-some-odd world languages, have created a structure that engages different cognitive parts of our brain.  For example, she describes how English is an agent-centered language, even if an accident is involved (“John broke the vase”), while Spanish or Japanese report the same accidental event by saying “the vase broke itself”. 

Look at how this plays out.  This fundamental view of the world around us substantially influences people’s view of life in the respective cultures.  Because English is agent oriented, it abhores use of the passive voice (“the vase broke itself”, equivalent to “the vase was broken”), always preferring to state the subject and then the action that subject took, in that order. This action-driven view of the world through our language profoundly influences our legal system and the way we comprehend what we see as proper and fair action to take in the case (punishment of the agent rather than restitution to the victim).

Studying another language is a unique study of the human brain.  Language and culture are as intricately entwined as a strand of DNA.  They are inescapable mates and provide a chicken/egg conundrum:  which came first, or at least, which one influences which?  I believe that they both continually reinforce one another. 

In order to really internalize and understand another culture, it is imperative to study its language.  Business people, government officials and public servants in contact with the myriad of nationalities in these United States would benefit immeasurably from learning a second language–not just to be able to communicate, but to experience a new sense of empathy with the foreign language speaker who behaves in a way that is culturally appropriate for his own upbringing and but strange to ours.

Short of pleading, “My language made me do it!”, communication and comprehension of any other-language-based culture truly begin at the fundamental level of word.


What a hoot!  And no, this isn’t about Egypt and the discovery of the latest King Tut tomb.

The Wall Street Journal just ran an article about a Colorado woman named Letha Sanders who has started a business called Shorthand Translation Services.   She accepts documents written in Gregg shorthand from people who can’t figure out what the “heiroglyphics” say and translates them (transcribes, them, actually), much as a foreign language translator would do.  Here is the link to the article, where you can see examples of the shorthand  she translates.

Do you wonder that people stop and gawk?  When you stop to think about it, Gregg shorthand IS a foreign language to the average person.

I was so excited about this that I wrote to Ms. Sanders.  I wanted to tell her how much I admired her.  I studied shorthand in high school and used it during the summers to help pay my way through college.  I still use it, in fact, when I take personal notes.  (Trust me, you wouldn’t be able to read them. You’d have to call Ms. Sanders to decode them for you.)  I love the system.  It’s an elegant, brilliant way to capture the spoken word in just a matter of a few graceful penstrokes. To think that somebody is making money deciphering this stuff is so cool to me it’s totally off the wall.  More power to ya, Letha!

This makes me want to go find my Gregg shorthand book and review my brief forms!  (That’s not underwear.  It’s abbreviated phrases.)  

I guess it just goes to prove that a translator is a translator in any language–even when the subject is the English language coded in inscrutible squiggles.  You think that fifty years from now someone will be deciphering abbreviations for texting?   CUL8R!

Speaking of Speaking…

There is a lovely short video at this link of a dedicated linguist in New York City named Daniel Kaufman.  He has founded the Urban Fieldstation for Linguistic Research in New York City.  Kaufman made the fascinating discovery that New York City is home to speakers from some of the most rare and endangered languages in the world, and he set out to capture, document and study them.  It is a wonderful act of preservation for languages so far flung, remote or endangered that within 20 or 30 years these, along with the richness of the cultures that created them, may vanish in a blink.  Human culture lives through language.  When the language goes away, an irreplaceable part of human history goes with it.  Hooray for people like Daniel Kaufman!  Save the Whales or Save the Languages–it’s all to the benefit of our planet and humankind.

Contact Us

3555 Inverness Blvd
Carmel, IN 46032-9381 U.S.A

317.446.0951 (Main) 559.751.2878 (eFax)

Send us a note