Friday, July 22, 2016

The Language of Pokémon

Pokémon has been dominating the news recently. Older readers probably remember the phenomenon surrounding the franchise in the late '90s with the TV show, trading card game, and first generation of video games that got tonnes of people obsessed with catching them all. Now, after years of steady global popularity, it looks like the franchise has struck gold with the "Pokémon GO" app.

Now I'd like to look at some of the interesting linguistic features of Pokémon. Firstly, the name:

Pokémon, portmanteau

For those not familiar with the franchise, it's Japanese. However, the name isn't really Japanese, it's a portmanteau of English words that Japanese borrowed. In Japanese, the franchise is called "Poketto Monsutā" from the English "Pocket Monster". The Japanese was then shortened and merged to make "Pokémon".

Taking Pokémon around the world

Aside from the stories, the battling, and trading, the fact that Pokémon went global gave rise to some very interesting translations. Today I'd like to look at some of the best Pokémon from the first generation (also featured in Pokémon GO), and some of the most interesting translations used.


Scyther is a bug/flying type Pokémon, and looks like a praying mantis with scythe-like blades for arms. In Japanese it was called strike, but the French name is awesome! It combines the French for insect (insecte) and the gardening tool pruning shears (sécateur), to make "Insecateur".


Alakazam has an amazing name, since it's the third of three evolutions, the first and second being "Abra" and "Kadabra"... get it? Abra, Kadabra, Alakazam.


Almost everywhere in the world, this Pokémon is a portmanteau of two monsters from Japanese monster movies, Gyaos and Rodan. However, for the French translation, they decided to go with Léviator, from Leviathan. Pretty cool, right?


The fire-type dog is a portmanteau of arcane and canine in English. However, in Japanese it is actually called Windie, due to its speed. Clearly that wouldn't have sounded right and needed to be changed.


The name of this ghost-type Pokémon in Japanese was taken from the German word doppelgänger. In most countries, it goes by Gengar. However, the French translation went above and beyond when they combined the words for ectoplasm and plasma to call it Ectoplasma.


The dragon-type Pokémon has a cool name in both French and German. In French, it combines the Latin word for "dragon" and the French for "colossal", giving the name Dracolosse. I reckon German wins this localisation battle with Dragoran, from the words for "dragon" and the verb "to riot", randalieren.


In English, this water-type Pokémon's name is a portmanteau of "blast" and "tortoise". Everywhere but France kept it the same, with France opting for a portmanteau of the French for "turtle" and "tank", to give Tortank.


The most popular of the original 150 Pokémon. This dragon-like fire/flying-type Pokémon is not only awesome in appearance, but its name in most localised languages is awesome. Of course, English is a combination of "char" and "lizard". In French it's Dracofeu, from "dragon" in Latin and "fire" in French. German wins this round with a combination of "ember", "dragon", and "rocket", giving us Glurak. Regardless, you probably want this Pokémon in your team.

Now get out there and catch them all!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Quick Guide to U.S. Political Terminology

While the upcoming U.S. presidential election has been covered by news outlets around the world for months now, it's likely to get quite a bit more attention over the next two weeks. This week, the focus will be on the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, where Donald Trump will officially be named the Republican Party's nominee. The following week in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Democratic National Convention will take place, and Hillary Clinton will officially be named the Democratic Party's nominee.

Given the U.S.'s status as a world leader, it's natural that the elections would be covered by foreign media. However, I've often found that people (both Americans and foreigners) aren't always clear on some of the country's most common political terminology, so today I'd like to cover a few key terms.

The first thing to know about the U.S. political system is that there are two main political parties. The oldest of the two is the Democratic Party. We'll avoid getting into the extremely complicated histories of the parties, but suffice it to say that currently, the Democratic Party is known as a left-wing or liberal party, since it advocates modern liberalism, which supports government spending on social programs and promotes social and economic equality.

Strangely enough, the other main political party, the Republican Party, is often is referred to as the Grand Old Party or GOP, despite actually being younger than its counterpart. It is known as a right-wing or conservative party, since it advocates for American conservatism, which focuses on fiscal conservatism (reduced government spending) and social conservatism (supporting so-called "traditional values", such as opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion), among other things.
"The Third-Term Panic", a political cartoon by Thomas Nast from an 1874 edition of
Harper's Weekly, which marks one of the first uses of the Republican elephant.
In this cartoon, the Democratic Party is represented by a fox.
Since the late 1800s, the Democratic Party's unofficial symbol has been a donkey, while the Republican Party's has been an elephant. The two parties are also closely associated with different colors. Since the 2000 presidential election, blue has been linked to the Democratic Party, and red has been linked to the Republican Party. When you hear about "blue states" or "red states", it's a reference to a state where the majority of voters align with that particular party.

That said, there are other political parties in the United States, but they've never gotten enough of the vote to be considered a major influence on U.S. politics. However, given the fact that both major candidates are quite polarizing and widely disliked this year, there is a chance that a third party candidate may get a more significant portion of the vote.

This year, the only third-party candidate who will be on the ballot in all 50 states is Gary Johnson, the candidate for the Libertarian Party. You could perhaps think of it as a mixture of the two main parties: it is socially liberal since it supports same-sex marriage rights and other issues, yet it is also fiscally conservative, since its primary goal is to reduce the size of the U.S. government.

We hope this helped you make more sense of the U.S. political system! If you feel we left out any other important terms, feel free to let us know in the comments below.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Albania

Last Monday we discussed the fascinating languages of Mongolia, which include Mongolian, Kazakh, and Uyghur. This week we'll be focusing on Albania, a small country in Southeast Europe.

The Official Language

Himara, a region of Albania located along the Ionian Sea.
You might have have guessed that the sole official language of Albania is Albanian. However, you might not be aware that Albanian is an independent branch of the Indo-European language family.

Over 98% of Albanians speak Albanian as a native language, although they are often divided into two different dialect groups: Tosk and Gheg. Standard Albanian is based on the Tosk dialect, which is spoken by over 1.5 million Albanians, primarily in the south. Gheg, on the other hand, is used by about 1.2 million Albanians, and is more common in the north. While there are distinctions between the two dialects, they are mutually intelligible.

Other Languages

The most spoken minority language in Albania is Greek, the official language of neighboring Greece. There are approximately 15,000 native Greek speakers in Albania, primarily in the southernmost areas of the country. However, instead of speaking Standard Modern Greek, most use a southern Greek dialect which retains archaic terms that are no longer used by most Greek speakers.

Ethnologue lists four other native languages that are spoken in Albania. Three of the four have about 4,000 native speakers: Macedonian, Vlax Romani, and Aromanian. Macedonian is a Slavic language that is so closely related to Bulgarian that it may even be a dialect. Vlax Romani, on the other hand, is the most spoken Romani language in the world, while Aromanian is a Romance language closely related to Romanian. Finally, there's Serbian, which is the native language of less than 100 Albanians.

It's also worth mentioning that Albania is well-known for being a polyglot nation, since most Albanians speak at least two languages! The three most popular foreign languages are Italian, Greek, and English. Italian is more widely used by older generations since Albania used to be an Italian protectorate, while English is becoming increasingly popular with younger generations.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Why Bad Translation Is Bad for Business

I was reading an article on the BBC today about how Iranian state media isn't happy about some English-language clothing and claims it to be offensive. If you're interested in the story, you can find the article here. This got me thinking about some of the awful English I've seen on clothes around the world.

Whenever I find myself outside of the UK or English-speaking countries, I can't help but giggle to myself when I see someone wearing clothing with terrible or poorly translated English on it. If you'd like to amuse yourself with nonsense English, a quick internet search will reveal plenty of brilliant nonsense that people unknowingly sport on their t-shirts as they leave the house. One of my personal favourites is "The pig is full of many many cats", whatever that's supposed to mean.

This phenomenon extends far beyond clothing, though. There are also examples of bad English tattoos, which are far more unfortunate than a dodgy translation on a t-shirt (and a lot more painful to get rid of). The internet is a also great resource for finding them, including (but not limited to): "I'm awsome", "beliefe in dreams", and "What didn't killed me, made me stronger".

These examples are unfortunate for some, but not really a problem. However, bad translation has become a problem in South Korea, where the government has had to set up a task force dealing with horrendous menu translations. Food experts and language experts are helping create better restaurant translations in English, Chinese, and Japanese. There's another good article from the BBC about it here.

If you're buying or making a cheap t-shirt, you probably don't care about hiring a professional to translate or proofread it before it goes into production. If you're getting a tattoo on a drunken night out, you're probably beyond the point of thinking twice about the spelling, grammar, and punctuation that's going to be put permanently on your body.

Good translations can sell good products.
What really gets me, when it comes to restaurants, hotels, and plenty of other businesses, is how little some seem to care about their translations. I've seen so many horrendous restaurant menus (in some very good restaurants, too) that could have been translated perfectly, but weren't.

Maybe it's to save some money. Maybe there's someone at your restaurant who's pretty good at a foreign language, so why don't you get them to translate your menu? That's a huge mistake! Restaurant menus, in terms of words, are generally quite short and simple for a professional translator.

These kinds of documents are a piece of cake for a qualified professional native translator, especially one who lives or has lived in your country, is familiar with the cuisine, and will create a better and tastier-sounding menu than Google Translate or a staff member who's okay when it comes to chatting to foreign customers.

The same goes for all documentation across all businesses. When someone visits your business, whether in person or online, you don't want a poor translation representing you. In a busy market, customers will stop at places where they know what they're getting, not places where they're confused as to what's on offer. Is it really worth running that risk with nonsensical translations?

I certainly don't think so, and I'm fairly certain our fellow language lovers will agree with me. To deliver a proper message in a foreign language, you need a real translator!

What are some of the worst translations you've ever seen? Did it put you off doing business with them? Tell us about your terrible or hilarious experiences in the comments below!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What's the Difference Between a Translator and an Interpreter?

One of the most misunderstood things about the translation industry is the fact that translators and interpreters do two very different things. Obviously the two are connected since they both involve converting information from one language to another, but the mechanics behind both are quite different.

When meeting new people, conversations often revolve around what people do for a living. One thing I've noticed about being a translator is the fact that I have to spend much more time explaining my job than other people do, because most people simply don't know what a translator does. However, they think they do, which always leads to interesting conversations.

Quite often when I mention that I'm a translator, the person I'm talking to will launch into an explanation of how their company hires "translators" for meetings with foreign clients, or how their school has a "translator" for communicating with students who don't speak English. Naturally, this puts me in the slightly awkward position of having to explain that those "translators" are actually interpreters, who do something quite different from what I do.

So what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter?

Translators are people who translate written content from one language to another. For example, clients send me things like blog posts, articles, and documents in Spanish. I then sit at my computer and work on converting the information they contain from Spanish into English. There's generally no rush, so I have plenty of time to consult dictionaries and other linguistic resources, as well as contemplate whether or not what I've written sounds natural. I can go back and change a word or phrase as many times as I like, or even rewrite entire sections upon uncovering new information that helps explain something I've already translated.

Interpreters, on the other hand, are people who interpret speech from one language to another. In most cases (unless they're providing their services over the phone), interpreters work wherever the multilingual conversation they're interpreting is being held. For example, you'll find medical interpreters working alongside doctors in hospitals, military interpreters working alongside military units in war zones, and court interpreters working alongside lawyers and judges in courtrooms.

While translators have plenty of time to sit and ponder their word choice, interpreters are expected to communicate ideas between languages almost immediately. If they're lucky, they'll receive some information regarding the topics of discussion in advance so that they can look up key terms that might come in handy. However, much of interpreting comes down to paraphrasing what is being said, since the key is to convey the message in a timely manner. On the other hand, since translation is written, much more emphasis is placed on how individual words and phrases are translated.

We love cats, in case you hadn't noticed.
As you can see, translators focus on written language, while interpreters focus on spoken language. Although both professions require good knowledge of at least two languages and share some techniques and resources, they also involve very different skills. There are undoubtedly some people out there who are both translators and interpreters, but they're quite rare.

For my part, I love translating, but found simultaneous interpreting to be completely overwhelming when I tried it out in a class session as part of my translation degree. Having to listen to speech in one language, convert it into English in my head, and then say it out loud, all at the same time, made me feel like my head was going to explode. I'm much happier sticking to the written word, just as I'm sure there are interpreters out there who are quite happy they never have to deal with written translations.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Mongolia

Last Wednesday we looked at the languages of Lithuania, a small country bordering the Baltic Sea. This week, we're focusing on Mongolia, a much larger country sandwiched between Russia and China.

The Official Language

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park in Mongolia.
You might have guessed that the sole official language of Mongolia is Mongolian, which is spoken by about 95% of the country's population. However, you might not be aware that Mongolian doesn't belong to widely known language families like the Sino-Tibetan, Turkic, or Slavic languages. Instead, it is the most widely used language in the Mongolic language family.

Mongolia's second and fourth most spoken languages also belong to the Mongolic family. Many linguists consider them to be distinct languages, but others disagree and state that they are dialects of Mongolian. In any case, over 150,000 Mongolians speak Oirat, primarily in the western areas of the country. Buryat, on the other hand, is spoken by about 45,000 people in northern Mongolia.

Other Languages

As you may have noticed, we skipped over Mongolia's third most spoken native language, which is Kazakh. While Mongolia doesn't border Kazakhstan, they're only separated by about 22 miles of land, so it makes sense that the Turkic language is spoken by over 100,000 Mongolians.

Mongolia is also home to about 35,000 native speakers of Mandarin Chinese, the world's most spoken native language. There are also about 27,000 native speakers of Tuvan, a fascinating Turkic language with influences from Mongolian, Tibetan and Russian, which happens to be the native language of about 4,000 Mongolians.

Last but not least, Mongolia is home to about 1,000 native speakers of Uyghur and Evenki. Uyghur is a Turkic language that is primarily spoken in northwest China, while Evenki is an endangered member of the little-known Tungusic language family.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Ashamed of an Accent: Linguistic Insecurity

Languages are as varied and interesting as the people who speak them. Every language has plenty of different accents, and depending on the culture or place where languages are spoken, some are considered more "correct" or "standard".

This must mean that some dialects, accents, and ways of speaking a language are considered to be inferior. The idea that a certain way of speaking is considered inferior can lead to something known as linguistic insecurity.

Linguistic insecurity is when a speaker adjusts the way they use their language due to feeling anxious (either consciously or subconsciously) about the way they use their language. This can manifest in a number of ways, depending on which elements of language are considered to be non-standard.

One way to alleviate this anxiety is to shift registers. Speakers with linguistic insecurity sometimes will speak in a higher register than they would normally, often by using a formal register. This can also lead to hypercorrection. This is when the speaker, in an attempt to correct their language, applies a "rule" where they don't really have to.

As a speaker of Geordie (the dialect of Northern English spoken around Tyneside), I have been guilty of hypercorrection. For example, in my dialect, I would usually pronounce the end of the word "master" like the letter "a" in "hat". However, when adopting a more standard dialect, I have found myself altering the pronunciation in the word "pizza" and correcting the "a" to the sound of "er" and pronouncing it like "pizzer".

So who does linguistic insecurity affect? As you can imagine, it tends to be those who speak a variant of the language which is considered to not be the standard. Studies have shown that those of lower socioeconomic classes also tend to be more susceptible to linguistic insecurity, but not the very lowest classes. The lower middle classes tend to exhibit high levels of linguistic insecurity.

Linguistic insecurity isn't an issue if you're toiling in the fields.
So why the lower middle classes? It is thought that since the lower middle classes are stuck between the lower and upper classes, they are exposed to the speech patterns of the lower classes, but also consider the attitudes and speech patterns of the upper classes to be correct. Studies tend to show that the second tier of socioeconomic classes (especially those who aspire to be a member of the top tier) show greater levels of linguistic insecurity.

Studies also show that linguistic insecurity affects more women than men. Of course, linguistic insecurity is a very personal thing, too. I personally love the varied nature of languages and can sometimes be very stubborn and refuse to bow to linguistic prescriptivism when it comes to how I talk. However, some days, like most people, I just want to fit in and find myself speaking in a way that would probably embarrass my friends back home!

Do you use a non-standard dialect of your language? Have you ever felt anxious about the way you speak? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!