This American Life is Broadcast

I try to stick to translation and language as much as possible, but sometimes I will veer.

It was with great sadness that we learned this week that Trish Keenan, singer from the pop group Broadcast, died from complications with pneumonia.

Given this, it was with joy that while cooking some spag bol for dinner (and a house mate returning from an interstate business trip) I was listening to this week’s This American Life podcast and noticed that they had included as the first musical interlude, with subtlety, Broadcast’s The Book Lovers. Admittedly, I initially mistook it for Message from Home, but it goes to show – a band can really own a sound.

For those that don’t know This American Life, it’s a wonderful podcast that has a simple structure (one we see a lot of in podcasts, now that I think about it): each weekly episode has a theme, and they do stories around that theme. In their own words, “That doesn’t sound like something we’d want to listen to on the radio, and it’s our show…so…we do these stories that are like movies for radio.” The show has won most if not all awards that are available to it, and for good reason – I highly recommend it.

No Peanuts!

I’d completely forgotten about No Peanuts, the site that “provides support and resources to professional translators and interpreters in demanding and receiving a living wage for their work.” There seems to be significantly more content since I initially visited.

I like the Humour section, because I’m genuinely into funny. I like the general idea – a union of workers with a beef – as an anarchist, I highly approve. The problem I have is that translators tend to come off as snobbish spoilt brats. The reactionary backlash against technology that is so commonly married to these complaints is ignorant and embarrassing.

To reiterate and clarify: I can understand the complaints against the boss, the big business, the callousness. But I don’t understand the complaints against the tech because they are largely misinformed, conservative and unrelated to the problem. It also shows a distinct lack of imagination in how translation will fit into the future.

Translators should be paid. This may require a greater understanding on the part of businesses that require translations. But you are not winning friends over here by disparaging the way that I make a living.

    The difficulties of Localisation…

    The title of this post is a little misleading, but I thought I would leave it in place anyway, as it’s not entirely incorrect.

    Cory posted On the maddening subtleties of localizing software last week, and being my line of work, I followed the link and read the article by Sean M. Burke and Jordan Lachler. The first thing that struck me was that the article was incredibly code-heavy given that it was about L10n. Turns out it’s more about i18n, but that may just be me splitting hairs. The next thing I noticed was that it was really only the first section that was of passing interest to translators (…who really want to know how hard computer programming can be) – I would posit that the main audience would be linguists and those that design computer languages and/or architectures.

    And the quote CD chose was a good one for his headline:

    So, you email your various translators (the boss decides that the languages du jour are Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and Italian, so you have one translator for each), asking for translations for “I scanned %g directory.” and “I scanned %g directories.”. When they reply, you’ll put that in the lexicons for gettext to use when it localizes your software, so that when the user is running under the “zh” (Chinese) locale, gettext(“I scanned %g directory.”) will return the appropriate Chinese text, with a “%g” in there where printf can then interpolate $dir_scan.

    Your Chinese translator emails right back — he says both of these phrases translate to the same thing in Chinese, because, in linguistic jargon, Chinese “doesn’t have number as a grammatical category” — whereas English does. That is, English has grammatical rules that refer to “number”, i.e., whether something is grammatically singular or plural; and one of these rules is the one that forces nouns to take a plural suffix (generally “s”) when in a plural context, as they are when they follow a number other than “one” (including, oddly enough, “zero”). Chinese has no such rules, and so has just the one phrase where English has two. But, no problem, you can have this one Chinese phrase appear as the translation for the two English phrases in the “zh” gettext lexicon for your program.

    Emboldened by this, you dive into the second phrase that your software needs to output: “Your query matched 10 files in 4 directories.”. You notice that if you want to treat phrases as indivisible, as the gettext manual wisely advises, you need four cases now, instead of two, to cover the permutations of singular and plural on the two items, $dir_count and $file_count.

    But the main thrust of the article, apart from the self-stated “A phrase is a function; a phrasebook is a bunch of functions“, is a new way of envisaging i18n and provides something that has been missing from the area – competition and challenge to the ubiquitous gettext:

    Consider that sentences in a tourist phrasebook are of two types: ones like “How do I get to the marketplace?” that don’t have any blanks to fill in, and ones like “How much do these ___ cost?”, where there’s one or more blanks to fill in (and these are usually linked to a list of words that you can put in that blank: “fish”, “potatoes”, “tomatoes”, etc.) The ones with no blanks are no problem, but the fill-in-the-blank ones may not be really straightforward. If it’s a Swahili phrasebook, for example, the authors probably didn’t bother to tell you the complicated ways that the verb “cost” changes its inflectional prefix depending on the noun you’re putting in the blank. The trader in the marketplace will still understand what you’re saying if you say “how much do these potatoes cost?” with the wrong inflectional prefix on “cost”. After all, you can’t speak proper Swahili, you’re just a tourist. But while tourists can be stupid, computers are supposed to be smart; the computer should be able to fill in the blank, and still have the results be grammatical.

    The reason that using gettext runs into walls (as in the above second-person horror story) is that you’re trying to use a string (or worse, a choice among a bunch of strings) to do what you really need a function for — which is futile. Preforming (s)printf interpolation on the strings which you get back from gettext does allow you to do some common things passably well… sometimes… sort of; but, to paraphrase what some people say about csh script programming, “it fools you into thinking you can use it for real things, but you can’t, and you don’t discover this until you’ve already spent too much time trying, and by then it’s too late.”

    And the solution presented is one called Maketext, which seems to have, unfortunately, gone the same route as Lojban and Esperanto – interesting as a curio, but never to take off in the way the creators wanted. Having said that, Maketext has some interesting ideas – listed as buzzwords – in particular, inheritance. For example if en_US were the base for English, en_GB would only contain the changes, or differences, rather than being an almost identical copy. Russian and Ukrainian could share grammatical functions as necessary in the same manner.

    Finally, the last thing I noticed was that this wasn’t a new article – it was written in 1998, published in 1999 and edited in 2001, which explains the use (or glorification, worship) of Perl. People just don’t feel that way about Perl any more I don’t think.

    It’s an interesting read if you dig that sort of thing, and has made me think more on how I would do it differently – since I’ve little interest in learning Perl and realise that Maketext relies heavily upon previously written Perl modules. I think it also serves translators well – I often feel that they sometimes look down their noses at programmers for all the reasons listed in the first section of the article – here they can see that computer scientists think hard about this problem and it’s not an easy one to solve.

    Locale::Maketext::TPJ13 — article about software localization

    Localisation of Django now on Transifex

    Today the Django development team have announced that all future localisation will be done through Transifex, the collaborative translation site.

    What does this mean? It means simultaneously making localisation *significantly* easier for both interested parties (Translators and Developers). Most importantly, translators/localisers no longer require an understanding of revision control systems or the issue trackers – two pieces of software used extensively by nerds that tend to place more value on function than form and that the rest of society have little need for.

    This is not only an important step for Django, the bar for localisation has been lowered to “can you register an account and can you translate English->L2”, but also for Transifex who will benefit from the extra exposure.

    This is the model of “business as usual” in the future when it comes to translations –

    Translate Django here.


    I thought the Transifex site looked quite Django-y, and low, it is!

    Stephen Fry on Language

    Just over two years ago, renowned, brilliant, English dandy Stephen Fry released a podcast of an essay he’d written about the English language. It is brimming with ideas and pronouncements and history, and more importantly, celebrates a mutable language:

    The worst of this sorry bunch of semi-educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs. How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be? If you don’t like nouns becoming verbs, then for heaven’s sake avoid Shakespeare who made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got. He TABLED the motion and CHAIRED the meeting in which nouns were made verbs. New examples from our time might take some getting used to: ‘He actioned it that day’ for instance might strike some as a verbing too far, but we have been sanctioning, envisioning, propositioning and stationing for a long time, so why not ‘action’? ‘Because it’s ugly,’ whinge the pedants. It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it. Ugly in the way Picasso, Stravinsky and Eliot were once thought ugly and before them Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire. Pedants will also claim, with what I am sure is eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness, that their fight is only for ‘clarity’. This is all very well, but there is no doubt what ‘Five items or less’ means, just as only a dolt can’t tell from the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether ‘disinterested’ is used in the ‘proper’ sense of non-partisan, or in the ‘improper’ sense of uninterested. No, the claim to be defending language for the sake of clarity almost never, ever holds water. Nor does the idea that following grammatical rules in language demonstrates clarity of thought and intelligence of mind. Having said this, I admit that if you want to communicate well for the sake of passing an exam or job interview, then it is obvious that wildly original and excessively heterodox language could land you in the soup. I think what offends examiners and employers when confronted with extremely informal, unpunctuated and haywire language is the implication of not caring that underlies it. You slip into a suit for an interview and you dress your language up too. You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances – it’s only considerate. But that is an issue of fitness, of suitability, it has nothing to do with correctness. There no right language or wrong language any more than are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention and circumstance are all.

    Of course, it wasn’t the first time he’s visited the topic – here he is with Hugh Laurie many moons ago in their show A bit of Fry and Laurie, and it’s pleasing to note that he’s willing to admit that he thinks differently on the subject compared to his younger self. He also has a show on BBC Radio 4 called Fry’s English Delight, which I’ve not heard but am looking forward to downloading.

    The essay and podcast produced such a flurry of excitement that someone eventually took the three main paragraphs – the finest six minutes of the original 33 – and made a video using kinetic typography.

    One of the beauties of twitter is that we can know things so much more readily than we used to. Fry uses twitter extensively and it is by following him that I can excitedly report that he is doing a five part documentary on Language for the BBC. I called him a dandy above because he uses a most beautiful version of British English that can be seen in his tweets (Larky, hoot, tiredy-poo, etc). The documentary, from what I can tell, includes comedians on swearing, racism and comedyPortuguese students on euphemism, Brian Blessed on yodelling over breakfast, London cabbies on rhyming slang, cuneiform at the British Museum, MRI scans, David Tennant on Hamlet and Shakespere, in N Kenya amongst the Turkana people, near Lokichoggio.

    I’ve only just started noticing these tweets over the break, so there may be many other topics I’ve missed – and from other tweets I’ve extrapolated that there are still a number of months of filming, so don’t expect it on your screen too soon. Given his deep intelligence and witty delivery, I’m looking forward to this very, very much.

    Real time translation by Google Translate on Android

    A year after initial release, Google Translate for Android has a new release. And this one has potentially the first real time translation service – on a portable device. We are witnessing the future being developed in front of us, and people everywhere are using it:

    As Android devices have spread across the globe, we’ve seen Translate for Android used all over. The majority of our usage now comes from outside the United States, and we’ve seen daily usage from more than 150 countries, from Malaysia to Mexico to Mozambique. It’s really rewarding for us to see how this new platform is helping us break down language barriers the world over.

    Unfortunately, although understandable given what it portends for the developers, it only works when translating between English and Spanish for the moment.

    Videos and map of (North American) Dialects

    My friend Malloreigh (nsfw) posted a video link of herself pronouncing several words and phrases as part of the regional dialect video meme – you can hear her Canadian accent here (sfw). Afaict, it’s only happening in English, and largely from a Northern American perspective, but is interesting none the less. Previously such work recording dialects would have been the role of linguistic archivers I presume – another case of the internet making traditional roles easier/defunct. And of course, here is the map of North American Dialects, based on pronunciation patterns (via reddit).

    Short Cuts

    Another round of recent language and translation shorts:

    • French slang word of the day: “Yaourt”:

      [‘Yaourt’ (“Yoghurt”)] is the word used to describe the practice of singing along to tracks in English, usually with an unconvincing American accent, when you have absolutely no idea of the words.

    • From the same blog there is also 20 obsolete English words that should make a comback.

      (via acb)

    • Again, from my language (obsessed, it would seem) workmate, I learn about the linguistic concept of
      False friends:

      (Frenchfaux amis) are pairs of words or phrases in two languages or dialects (or letters in two alphabets) that look or sound similar, but differ in meaning.
      Comedy sometimes includes puns on false friends, which are considered particularly amusing if one of the two words is obscene; when an obscene meaning is produced in these circumstances, it is called cacemphatonGreek for “ill-sounding”.

      (for example) “Egregious” means “outstandingly bad” in English whereas in Spanish “egregio” means “outstanding in a positive way”. The original word simply meant “outstanding from the group” (related to “gregarious”) but the meaning was narrowed down in both languages with opposite meanings.

    • I studied three years of mathematics at University and have always enjoyed and had a head for numbers. I’ve previously posted about the way that Maths, Logic, language and computing are intertwined more than most would realise – Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid makes the interesting link to art as a further example of the interconnection (networked-ness?) of the disciplines. I ended up on the Futility Closet blog recently chasing down this fascinating, perfect magic square – and the blog turns out to be quite wonderful! There is an excellent Language section with word play, word of the day and other tricks and turns, including lots of number play. My favourite so far?

      adj. one who gives opinions and advice on topics beyond his knowledge

    • Ignacio Garcia, editor of the international journal Translation and Interpreting has just told me about a Professional development course being run by The Institute of Localisation Professionals – the information can be found here and the course content can be found here.
    • There is a word in the English language, callipygous, that means “shapely, beautiful buttocks”.