Friday, August 28, 2015

Why Translation is a Fascinating Career

If you're not a translator, you might think that translation would be a really boring career - after all, a translator's primary task is to take someone else's writing and convert it into a different language (which should be their native language, if you want the translation to sound natural). On the surface, it doesn't sound like a particularly fun or creative job. However, I'm here to tell you that if you think translation is boring, you're completely wrong!

Since I completed my master's degree in translation, I have translated all kinds of texts, and each one has taught me new things and required the use of different skills. When I translated a tourism brochure for a Spanish town on the Mediterranean coast, I spent the week learning about different types of fish that they use in all kinds of delicious recipes, many of which I had never heard of before. If you had told me a couple of years ago that I would be researching fish species for work, I would have told you that you were crazy.

Unsurprisingly, the Spanish tourism brochure also focused
heavily on beaches, like this gorgeous one in Andalucía.
A few weeks later, I translated an entire e-book on agile web development. I certainly wasn't an expert on the topic when I started (I didn't even know what "agile" referred to), but through extensive research while translating, I became at least somewhat knowledgeable about the subject. Soon after, the topic randomly came up in conversation with friends, and I was excited to be able to apply that new knowledge.

I spent an entire week on a translation related to industrial lubricants used in machinery. Sure, it was boring, but there was still the occasional amusing moment when I would use Google to verify certain terminology and end up getting results related to other types of lubricants. I've translated marketing materials for furniture sales, cover letters for people applying to jobs, magazine articles about famous artists, and each one has allowed me to dive into new topics and learn new things, as well as increase my Spanish vocabulary (and occasionally my English vocabulary too!).

One of the most fun projects was translating a short story about a dystopian society that is struggling to survive after a cataclysmic event. While most translation projects do have an element of creativity simply because there are always linguistic choices for you to make ("Should I use terrific or fantastic here?"), literary projects are often brimming with opportunities to be creative. As I translated the story, I had to imagine the world the writer had invented, consider how to translate the names of items they'd created that don't exist in reality, and think about how the characters' dialogue should be written, all so that the eventual reader would get just as lost in the story as I had been.

Throughout my degree program, we were told that the best way to be a successful translator is to choose a specialization, and many translators do this. There are people who only translate official documents like CVs, those who stick to legal documents, and people who build an entire business around translating financial reports.

I can certainly see the benefit of doing this, since specializing in one type of translation means you can focus on learning the specific terminology related to it. For example, a legal translator would (hopefully) quickly become an expert in legal terminology and the format of legal texts, and therefore be able to complete translations more quickly, and most likely to a higher quality.

The problem is, I love the variety that being a translator can provide. They say that "variety is the spice of life", and I wholeheartedly agree. I love that one day I can be translating a dry academic paper, and the next day I can be working on a literary translation filled with metaphors. I never know what I'm going to learn about next, which I find exhilarating. I know that I'm new to this business, and perhaps in a year or two I'll decide that I'd rather zero in on one specific topic in order to make my life a bit more routine and the translations more predictable. For now though, I'm just going to enjoy going where the translations take me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How Useful are Conlangs?

Conlangs (constructed languages) are incredibly fascinating things. While most languages are the result of hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people talking to one another over thousands of years, conlangs are usually the creation of a single person or small group of people over a short period of time (in terms of human history, at least).

For those not familiar with conlangs, they are languages whose structure and vocabulary have been consciously devised by humans, rather than developing "naturally" over many years as other languages do. However, while I do find them very fascinating, the question of how useful they are keeps creeping into my mind.

What are conlangs for?

There are many reasons why conlangs are created. Some create them just for fun, while others create them in an attempt to create a universal language for all of the world's people to speak. Esperanto, for example, was created with this goal in mind.

In popular culture, science fiction probably makes more use of conlangs than other genre. This is because a fictional universe will always feel more convincing if an eight-eyed extraterrestrial speaks an alien language rather than plain old English.

But how useful are conlangs? Can they or will they replace natural languages? I'd like to try to answer a few of the most common questions surrounding these captivating creations.

How can you judge a conlang's utility?

First, let me say that you can only judge how useful something is if you know what you're trying to use it for. As I said, there are several reasons why you would create a conlang, and this will dictate how you create your language. If you are creating a conlang to be used in a handful of scenes in a film or a few pages in a book, you probably won't attempt to create a vast vocabulary where every word has hundreds of synonyms. However, if you are wanting you conlang to be used as a lingua franca, like Latin across the Roman Empire or English today, you might consider plenty of business and trade terms.

I believe the best way to judge a conlang's utility is by how well it accomplishes the goal of its creation.

What can they tell us about natural languages?

On an individual level, there are few things that will show you just how nuanced and complex languages are as trying to create your own. A lot of things you rarely think about when you speak a natural language will quickly come to the fore when you have to consider phonology, a writing system, creating a vocabulary and then putting a grammar system together.

Will a universal language ever build up a head of steam?
Will there ever be a universal language?

If a conlang such as Esperanto is designed to be everyone's second language, we have to first consider whether or not there is any trend towards there being a universal lingua franca, and if so, why would we pick one that has just been created, over one already spoken by millions or billions of people?

This is the main challenge for any conlang setting out with this goal. While there are conlangs that have thriving communities of speakers, none have ever come remotely close to achieving a widespread global status. Is this due to the languages themselves, or is there just too little demand for such a thing?

While languages are dying out at an alarming rate, this trend doesn't appear to be heading towards a singularity just yet. In fact, a number of minority languages have seen a revival in recent years and even extinct languages have come back from the dead (Manx, for example).

In fact, as long as people consider languages to be a part of their identity, the language which forms that identity will survive as long as that identity does. As long as the community and history that is home to a language still exists, people will continue to speak the languages that embody the shared history and culture.

This is why its almost impossible for a universal conlang to gain a footing on a global level. While there will always be those pragmatic people amongst us who wish to see an entire world communicating with one language, there will also always be those who don't.

So are they useful?

As I said, defining utility for conlangs is based on why they were created. For those created for fun, if you enjoy creating them and using them, then they serve their purpose. If you're trying to get the whole world to sing to the tune of just one conlang, you may be barking up the wrong arbo...

Agree or disagree? Tell us your thoughts on the utility on conlangs in the comments below!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Greece

If you've been paying attention to the news lately, then you've undoubtedly been hearing a lot about Greece, its economic crisis, and the refugee crisis that is occurring at its borders. Instead of focusing on all of this disheartening news, today we're going to focus on the linguistic diversity of the land is generally considered to be the cradle of Western civilization.

The Official Language

The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, Greece.
Unsurprisingly, Greek is the sole official language of Greece. In fact, the Greek language is spoken by over 99% of the country's nearly 11 million inhabitants, almost always as a native language.

While most Greeks speak the linguistic variety known as Modern Greek, there are several other dialects that are used throughout the country. Many of these dialects, including Cappadocian Greek and Yevanic Greek, which was used by Romaniote Jews, are extinct or nearly extinct.

However, there are about 400,000 native speakers of Pontic Greek, which is primarily spoken in northern Greece. Since Pontic Greek is not mutually intelligible with Modern Greek, it is considered to be a separate language instead of a dialect.

Minority Languages

Despite the linguistic dominance of the Greek language, the Ethnologue lists over a dozen other living languages in Greece. Most of these languages are minority languages spoken by the large numbers of immigrants that have come to the country over the years.

The most prominent minority language in Greece is Albanian, which is the native language of nearly 500,000 people living in Greece. As of the country's last census, over 4% of the Greek population consisted of Albanian citizens.

Another important minority language is Turkish, which boasts over 120,000 native speakers in Greece. Most of the country's Turkish speakers live in the northeastern region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace.

Finally, there are under 100,000 speakers of several other European languages, namely Bulgarian, Romanian, and the various Romani languages. In terms of foreign languages, Greeks tend to learn the ever popular EFIGS languages: English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Sorry State of Languages at GCSE

Here in the UK, yesterday marked the day that children in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland received their GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) grades. The results for the Standard Grades, the equivalent in Scotland, were published earlier in the month.

For those not familiar with the UK education system, the GCSEs are the qualifications generally taken by students over their final two years of compulsory education (between 14 and 16 years old). This is the time of year when regardless of the results, people will complain.

If the trend is that grades are getting worse, then it is assumed that kids today are not as smart as those who studied before them. If the results are better, then the exams must be getting easier. I don't subscribe to either of those opinions because it's almost impossible to standardise the exams each year and the percentages for each grade given are fairly arbitrary.

Over a decade has passed since foreign languages were removed as compulsory subjects at GCSE, and the trends for foreign language education in the UK are not looking good. It seems every year the number of students taking a foreign language at GCSE decreases, and this year is no exception.

Declining Numbers

Perhaps one day all of these new Portuguese students
will be able to understand a performance at the
Municipal Theatre of São Paulo in Brazil!
In 2013, around 332,000 students were taking foreign language GCSEs. This figure dropped in 2014 to 321,000 students. This year it dropped yet again by an even greater amount to just over 300,000 students. It goes without saying that as a language lover, this doesn't feel great.

Those who do choose to study a modern foreign language at GCSE are also moving away from languages traditionally taught in the UK, such as French and German. Spanish has dipped in popularity this year, but this does follow nearly a decade of increasing popularity. Mandarin is doing well, with the number of students studying the subject increasing by nearly a fifth. More students have also been choosing to study Portuguese, Polish, and Arabic.

Some figures have suggested that foreign languages are being squeezed out by what I would call "modern" subjects, such as ICT (information and communications technology) and computing. It's hardly surprising that students are opting for these subjects given the world we live in and the increasing use of computers.

However, I don't think these two types of subjects are in competition. In fact, I believe the spread of telecommunications is the reason that languages are more important than ever. As the world becomes more and more connected, we've seen a rise in the demand for both communication technologies and foreign language abilities; it's just that the latter seems to have gone unnoticed by a number of students taking their GCSEs.

Easy "A"s (or "A*"s)

There are also stories going around that an increased number of migrants are taking the foreign language GCSE of their mother tongue. There have been suggestions that students are being encouraged to do this to either boost their school's performance or their own. While I suppose this isn't really in the "spirit" of taking a foreign language qualification, it would balance out having to take a number of other GCSEs in your second language.

The beautiful countryside and mountains of Crete, Greece.
This trend has also been said to be the reason for the increase in some of the less-common languages, such as Polish, Urdu, Turkish, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Farsi, Modern Greek, and Modern Hebrew.

The Reaction

Obviously, few are calling any of this a good thing. Negative adjectives are being thrown around as they seem to be every year. The UK is miles behind so many countries across Europe and the world in terms of foreign language education, and it's not going to close the gap if things continue as they are.

I find this all pretty abhorrent because it's certainly not caused by the teachers who are constantly given more bureaucratic hoops to jump through, more work to do, less pay, and yet still attempt to impart their knowledge upon the teenagers of this country.

What I find even worse is that although several groups with a bigger voice than me have spoken out about these disappointing trends, little seems to be changing.

What are your thoughts on the decline of foreign languages at GCSE? Any ideas on how to improve the matter? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why the Hardest (or Easiest) Language in the World Doesn't Exist

There are plenty of lists around the internet of the hardest and easiest languages to learn. While these lists can be interesting and helpful if you're trying to decide upon a new language to learn, they're inherently flawed due to the idea that such languages actually exist.

Hold on! I'm not saying languages don't exist; that'd be completely absurd. Of course they do! What I'm saying is that it's pretty much impossible to classify languages as difficult or easy to learn. However, I have seen a number of clever criteria for attempting to create these classifications, so I'd like to look at a few of them today.

Hong Kong, the home of both Chinese and English!
Similarity to your Native Language

One of the first ways many people classify language difficulty comes down to similarity to the learner's native language. While I agree that I've seen plenty of evidence to support this statement, this does mean that the world's hardest or easiest language differs depending on your native language. Does this mean it could also be affected by which dialect of your native language you speak? I'd love to see some studies about that...


The complexity of a language is said to influence how easily somebody can learn it. However, "how complex is a language?" is as difficult to answer as "how difficult is a language to learn?". If one language uses more phonemes in speech, is it more difficult than one that uses more characters in its alphabet? How do we assign value to each component part? We couldn't possibly all come to an agreement on which elements complicate a language the most and which parts the least.

Time Spent Studying

Time is a fairly scientific way of measuring progress. The less time taken to become proficient in a language, the easier the language must be. However, at what point is a speaker "proficient"?

I don't find language learning to be a journey from A to B with a definite endpoint, but rather an ongoing adventure. I definitely couldn't pinpoint an exact moment when I became proficient in any of the languages I speak.

If proficiency is judged by passing a test, then the tests would have to be standardised across the entire world. I'm sure they're not...

All roads lead to Rome, but do all Romance languages lead to
a simple language learning experience?
Easy Languages

When it comes to English speakers, most lists put the Romance languages in the easy category. French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese tend to feature regularly as easy languages to learn because of their similarity to English.

Difficult Languages

The languages that generally get lumped together as the most difficult languages tend be geographically and linguistically distant from English (at least if you consider the language to be from the UK, as I tend to do). Languages from Europe don't tend to be included in this list.

Many of these languages make use of a different writing system to English, such as Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese. However, I'm sure Mandarin speakers wouldn't struggle as much with the Japanese writing systems as someone more familiar with the Latin alphabet would.

With all that said, I tend to find that similarities can also make something more difficult to learn instead of simpler. For example, I know how to walk and I know how to drive. If you make me walk on ice, I struggle, and if you put me in a car that I'm not familiar with, I have to spend a while working out where everything is. However, I can still walk to the car and start driving and start walking when I get out the car, despite the two being completely different activities. Differences can make something more memorable!

While these are all fair ways to measure how difficult a language might be, they all ignore a number of factors. I'm not disparaging those who have tried to measure something that's seemingly immeasurable, I'm just saying that you can comfortably ignore a lot of these lists. If you want to learn Tagalog before you learn French, then go for it!

Everyone has their own experiences while learning a language. In fact, in a recent post I complained about the subjunctive tense and a few of the reasons that English speakers may find it difficult. That said, I know plenty of people who comfortably master it without even breaking a sweat!

What I'm trying to say is that when learning a language, there will always be things you find easy and things you find difficult. You'll never get to find out which is which if you don't start!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of South Sudan

This week we're back with yet another African country profile following our recent posts on the languages of Zimbabwe, Chad, and Zambia. However, today we're looking at the linguistic landscape of one of the world's newest countries, South Sudan. It gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 after a referendum in which over 98% of voters supported independence.

The Official Language

The sole official language of South Sudan is English, which is co-official with the Arabic language in Sudan. As usual, English was first introduced during the colonial era. Between 1899 and 1956, the area that is now South Sudan was part of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, which was basically a British colony. In any case, while the English language is used by the government and in other important areas, there are almost no native English speakers in South Sudan.

Other Languages

A family of bongos, an antelope species found in South Sudan.
So if most South Sudanese people don't speak English as their first language, what do they speak? According to the Ethnologue there are 68 living languages in South Sudan, most of which belong to the Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo language families. However, most language statistics for South Sudan date back to the 1980s, so there aren't very good estimates for how many speakers most of these languages have.

That said, we do know a bit about the most spoken indigenous languages in South Sudan, which include Arabic, Bari, Zande, Dinka, and Nuer. Two closely related varieties of Arabic, an important lingua franca, are used in South Sudan: Sudanese Arabic and Juba Arabic, which is either a pidgin or a creole of Sudanese Arabic, depending on who you ask.

In terms of Nilo-Saharan languages, one of the most important is undoubtedly Dinka, the language of the country's largest ethnic group. Several different varieties of the Dinka language are used in South Sudan, which are thought to make up a total of over 1 million native speakers. Other prominent Nilo-Saharan languages include Nuer, which is also spoken in Ethiopia, and Bari, the language of the Bari people.

Finally, there's Zande, the country's most important Niger-Congo language. The exact number of speakers is unknown, but we do know that it is also spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has also been mentioned in the news that Swahili might be introduced as a new lingua franca in South Sudan as well, but we'll just have to wait and see what happens with that in the future!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Translation and Copyright

I watched a fascinating web series on intellectual property (IP) the other day, which got me to thinking about how copyright, which is absolutely everywhere nowadays, affects translators. Rather that getting bogged down with the ins and outs of the law, since it differs from country to country, I'm going to look at the general concepts of IP while focusing on copyright and how it affects translators.

The symbol for copyright-free, like all
the images we use on The Lingua File.
Intellectual property is a concept whose goal is to promote the advancement of the human race and encourage people to make more, create more, and design more. Since there are few things more encouraging than money, it manages to do this by giving those who create things a temporary monopoly so that they can make money on their ideas.


What kind of thing you create dictates what kind of IP protection you can get. If you invent something, your invention can be protected as a patent. Of course, you can't patent things that already exist. Generally, patents are defined as new, non-obvious inventions with an industrial applications.


A trademark designates a brand rather than a product. The brand indicates the product's origin and can be a powerful thing. Brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Microsoft, for example, exist so that consumers know that the products they buy and use come from one of those manufacturers and not from competitors such as Pepsi, Burger King, and Apple.


This is the area of IP that should be of interest to those who, like me, are translators. Copyright generally covers what we would consider artistic creations, as it does not cover ideas or concepts, but rather how they are expressed. Everywhere is a bit different, but things covered by copyright include:

Written works, books, poems, plays, motion pictures, films, television shows, music and recordings, paintings, sculptures, and photos. While this list isn't exhaustive, you start to get the idea. Most of a translator's workload will include copyrighted materials.

I'll admit, sometimes when I translate I get a bit of an ego. When I reconstruct a sentence in a marvellously clever way, I genuinely believe that the translation is my baby, my creation. However, under most copyright law, particularly here in the UK and in the US, my creativity can sometimes be considered the copyright of the original author.

Derivative Works

This is when translations are deemed to be derivative works, and why wouldn't they be? I did use the source text as the "inspiration" for my work. Derivative works often include translations and cinematic adaptations. You could even argue that cinematic adaptations of literary works are actually translations, since they use a source material to create a target material.

The only way you would get to keep the copyright would be if you could prove that your work has a certain level of originality. This is almost impossible as a translator if you are trying to be faithful to a source text. However, if you have been given a certain level of freedom, you could argue that your own creative inputs have provided the necessary originality. As long as your translation isn't part of a work for hire...

Work for Hire

A number of legal jurisdictions include the concept of "Work for Hire" (WFH) as part of copyright law. This means that no matter how original you've been, you cannot claim copyright over your translation when the work was done as part of your salaried work, rather than in the freelance sense.

So how do you get copyright for your translations? Ask nicely, I suppose...