The brains of the trainee interpreters had changed […] but not in the way you might expect

November 26th, 2014

In other words: inside the lives and minds of real-time translators

Looking down over the delegates at the IMO, I was reminded of the view from a captain's bridge, or the gallery of a television studio. I had a feeling of control, a perverse reaction given that control is one thing interpreters lack. The words they utter and the speed at which they talk are determined by others. And even though [on-duty translators] Pinkney and Soliño had copies of some of the speeches that had been prepared for that morning, they had to be alive to humorous asides. Puns, sarcasm, irony and culture-specific jokes are an interpreter's nightmare. As one interpreter has noted in an academic article, "Puns based on a single word with multiple meanings in the source language should generally not be attempted by interpreters, as the result will probably not be funny." Quite.

Go for the amusing anecdotes about mistranslations, stay for a fascinating look at how the hell the human brain copes with listening to one language and speaking another in real time.

[Via MetaFilter]

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Watch the ray cats

May 14th, 2014

This week's 99% Invisible podcast discussed recent efforts to figure out how to warn our great-to-the-Nth grandchildren about the risks of nuclear waste being stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, given the distinct possibility that language will have drifted over the course of 10,000 years to the point where a sign saying 'DANGER: Radioactive waste!' may not be understood.

The most hands-down 99pi favorite solution, though, didn't come from the WIPP brainstorm – rather, it came out of the Human Interference Task Force, a similar panel that was pulled together in 1981 for the now-defunct Yucca Mountain project. It was proposed by two philosophers, Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri.

Bastide and Fabbri came to the conclusion that the most durable thing that humanity has ever made is culture: religion, folklore, belief systems. They may morph over time, but an essential message can get pulled through over millennia. They proposed that we genetically engineer a species of cat that changes color in the presence of radiation, which would be released into the wild to serve as living Geiger counters. Then, we would create folklore and write songs and tell stories about these "ray cats," the moral being that when you see these cats change colors, run far, far away.

Makes you wonder if there's some bit of puzzling animal behaviour going on all around us right now about which the folklore has failed to be passed down or got distorted. Instead of pointing and laughing at all those Animals Sucking at Jumping as it becomes clear what terrible, long-forgotten threat they were trying to warn us about?

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The Matchbox

November 5th, 2013

Letters of Note features a letter by novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner, writing probably the best Thank-You letter ever:


Dearest Alyse,

Usually one begins a thank-letter by some graceless comparison, by saying, I have never been given such a very scarlet muffler, or, This is the largest horse I have ever been sent for Christmas. But your matchbox is a nonpareil, for never in my life have I been given a matchbox. Stamps, yes, drawing-pins, yes, balls of string, yes, yes, menacingly too often; but never a matchbox. Now that it has happened I ask myself why it has never happened before. They are such charming things, neat as wrens, and what a deal of ingenuity and human artfulness has gone into their construction; for if they were like the ordinary box with a lid they would not be one half so convenient. This one though is especially neat, charming, and ingenious, and the tray slides in and out as though Chippendale had made it.

But what I like best of all about my matchbox is that it is an empty one. […]

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'If somebody writes in with a new fact, I start off by disbelieving it.'

October 28th, 2013

John Simpson, soon to retire from the post of chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph:

The OED's uniqueness, says Simpson, lies in rediscovering lost information about core words and putting it back in the public eye. He cites the verb "coalise" (to form a coalition), which the first edition traced back to 1794. The richness of today's lexical material has produced a 1697 use of the word, in the letters of an English pharmacist, John Houghton. Such triumphs are a lexicographer's orgasmatron (spanking new entry dating from Woody Allen's 1973 film Sleeper).

[Via Pop Loser]

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I don't believe it!

May 8th, 2013

I'm never going to be able to unhear this:

[From a MetaFilter discussion of the use of different regional accents used by actors in Game of Thrones]

For everyone complaining about Dinklage's accent, and its terribleness/variability, I think it might be worth watching a couple of clips of Scottish actor Richard Wilson in One Foot In The Grave, because Dinklage's accent is – consciously or not – an almost exact replica. It has that clipped, haughty tone; it's different enough from a standard English RP accent to sound odd to someone not used to the accent; when he raises his voice, it takes on a kind of exaggerated, exasperated character that can sound oddly Transatlantic. And it's completely genuine: it's the accent of a working class, west coast Scot who has had the more guttural elements of his voice trained out of him by RADA, but who still retains strong vestiges of his background. And it's been put to use for the past four decades playing upper (or at least soi-disant upper) class Scots. That's the accent I hear when I watch Dinklage in Game Of Thrones. It may be capital A Acting, but it's not, in and of itself, a dodgy accent. […]

posted by Len at 11:37 PM on May 7

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I'll leave a pint for you, for your patience.

March 17th, 2013

Daniel Menaker on The Talk of the Irish:

Having recently written a book about conversation, and having survived, at least for the time being, a serious illness that involved a huge number of grave discussions, discussions largely bereft of ornament and humor, and having lived seventy years' worth of a life of words – surely too many of them, when weighed against actions – I found myself at the end of last summer yearning to go back to Ireland, especially to the West, to hear the Irish talk.

I had been there nearly forty years earlier, and the trip had confirmed the generally held high opinion of Irish verbal agility, wit, and garrulousness. "Are you American, then?" a butcher had asked me when I was buying a steak from him, in Schull, in the spectacular Southwest. "Yes," I said. "Then of course I'll be charging you twice as much," he said. When I confessed to a little girl on a dirt road that the cows she was herding home made me, a city boy, a little nervous, she waited a bit until they were up the road and then pointed behind me and said, "Look out! The cows are comin' for yeh." […]

[Via The Browser]

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Elton John!

August 13th, 2012

How English sounds to non-English speakers:

[Via A Cup of Jo, via swissmiss]

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Inglish iz issenshali a langwidje dhat, wen rittun fonetkli, iz ilejibul tu netiv spikerz.

July 19th, 2012

Essentialist Explanations:

This page comprises a list of 1009 "essentialist explanations" of the form "Language X is essentially language Y under conditions Z". […]

Monolingual people should not be authorized to peruse this list. They would not understand anyway.

–Ivan C. Amaya


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25 Words

May 23rd, 2012

25 Handy Words That Simply Don't Exist In English:

2 Arigata-meiwaku (Japanese): An act someone does for you that you didn't want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude


8 Gigil (pronounced Gheegle; Filipino): The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute

[Via LinkMachineGo!]

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I don't mind this winning, just as long as he doesn't

December 13th, 2011

Nancy Friedman's Words of the Year 2011 post introduced me to this doozy:

Nontraditional start. How Mrs. Newt Gingrich's best friend, Karen Olson, diplomatically labeled the adulterous affair that led to GOP presidential candidate Mr. Newt Gingrich's third wedding: "'They're a great couple,' she said, 'that had a nontraditional start.'" The phrase joins "hiking the Appalachian Trail" in the lexicon of creative euphemisms for adultery. My nominee for "Most Euphemistic Word."

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