languages, Translation & Interpreting

When Translators (and Language Students) Meet the Rest of the World

  • MYTH: Translation/language students and translators/interpreters are living dictionaries.
  • REALITY: Yes, we speak more than one language. No, we don’t know all the words in a given language. It’s impossible to know EVERY. SINGLE. WORD, even in your mother tongue. Vocabulary is important, but we are no living dictionaries and us humans can’t know everything.

I find situations like these annoying:

PERSON I’M TALKING TO: “How do you say *insert word here* in *insert language here*?”

I usually ask them to tell me the context (and think “Ah, if only they realized that a word has different meanings in different contexts…”), a sentence in which they would use that word. Staying on topic, here’s a joke:

  • How many translators does it take to change a light bulb?
  • It depends on the context.

So, for translation/interpreting professionals and students, context is extremely important. We can’t read your mind, and guessing possible meanings might lead to making mistakes.

Next conversation:

  • PERSON I’M TALKING TO: “Wow, you study languages! How many do you speak?”
  • ME: “Four: Italian, English, French and some German.”
  • PERSON I’M TALKING TO: “You know only those?” or “Why don’t/didn’t you study Arabic/Chinese/etc?”

You usually study two to three languages at university. It takes a lot of time to learn a language well, let alone two or three. In my opinion, it’s better to know two or three languages at an advanced level than five or six at an elementary level. In this case, quality matters more than quantity but, if you manage to speak five to six languages at an advanced level… well, congratulations! 🙂 I chose to study English and French because I like(d) them and I’ve studied them since I started middle school. I can speak them fluently and I’m looking forward to improving more and more. I chose English in particular because it is “my passion, my obsession, my life” (as I wrote on some social networking site). Why should I study languages I’m not interested in learning? It also takes many years and stays abroad to learn languages like Arabic and Chinese well.

If you’re on Twitter, maybe in the last few days you read some tweets on “Tips to date a translator” (or an interpreter). I had tons of fun reading them, and I couldn’t have enough of them, haha. Two words: compulsive reading. You can find all the tweets here.

My favourite ones:

  • Do not take us too literally and always be faithful. @judittur
  • And for God’s sake, spell check your written correspondence. Nothing turns translators off more. @jackiedeal
  • Suggesting Google Translate will replace human translators will lead to you making love *without* human translators. @miguelllorens
  • Resign yourself to this: The woman loudly criticizing the subtitles in the midst of an action movie is your girlfriend. @miguelllorens
  • Don’t brag about your knowledge of a foreign language UNLESS you are really fluent! @avinc1
  • Distract the waiter while your translator friend takes photos of the ill translated menu. @petra_s_ger 
  • We love puns. We LOVE them. If you play on words smartly, you’ll get 100 extra points. 😉 @toolupwithwords
  • Don’t be surprised if you buy them chocolates and the 1st thing they do is read the ingredients in all the languages! @Silvia_MediaLoc 
  • Be ready to put up with pointless arguments about grammar and etymology when fellow translators are around. @carlosckw
  • If you ask the translation of a word and she doesn’t know it don’t reply “what kind of translator r u?@Laura_Solana
  • Pour son anniversaire, un bon dictionnaire fera toujours l’affaire. @juliettelemerle

Some blog posts on the same topic:

languages, There's more to life than translation

How George Orwell Liked His Tea


I really enjoyed reading (and translating) this article for the English Language and Translation course I’m attending. It was first published on the Evening Standard on January 12, 1946.

George Orwell – A Nice Cup of Tea

If you look up “tea” in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.
This is curious, not only because tea is one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.
When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:
First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays—it is economical, and one can drink it without milk—but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who uses that comforting phrase “a nice cup of tea” invariably means Indian tea. Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities—that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britannia-ware pots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse: though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad. Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water. Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing this is not an idea that can be realised on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than 20 weak ones. All true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes—a fact which is recognised in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners. Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly. Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about.
The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that this makes any difference. Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle. Eighthly, one should drink out of a breakfast cup—that is the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it. Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste. Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.
Lastly, tea—unless one is drinking it in the Russian style—should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.
Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.
These are not the only controversial points that arise in connection with tea-drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilised the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tea-leaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.


When Foreign Tourists Are Lost in Translation

Thanks to a Facebook friend, I’ve just read a very interesting article. When it comes to giving pieces of information in English, Italian call center operators either have a hard time speaking in English or even hang up right after hearing “Hello”. Callers may have to wait for a long time, and sometimes pay a lot of money if they call a pay number. Of course there are exceptions, but they’re hard to find. In some cases, there’s the same number for asking information in both Italian and English, but you can’t always hear instructions in English (e.g. “If you’d like to talk to an English speaking operator, press 1”) and the people who answer calls are the same.

The article is in Italian, but there are videos with audio in both Italian and English. called call centers of businesses that tourists might be interested in contacting (e.g. bike/car sharing services) based in Rome, Venice, Turin, Milan, Catania, Naples, Florence and Bologna.

I’m surprised that in Rome, caput mundi, “the world’s capital” according to a famous saying, very few call center operators contacted can speak English.

You can listen to all the conversations here.


When with the English tongue we speak…

When the English tongue we speak
Why is break not rhymed with weak?
Won’t you tell me why it’s true
We say sew, but also few?
And the maker of a verse
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard,
Cord is different from word,
Cow is cow, low is low,
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose and dose and lose,
And think of goose and yet of choose,
Think of comb and tomb and bomb,
Doll and roll and home and some.
And since pay is rhymed with say,
Why not paid with said, I pray?
Think of blood and food and good;
Mould is not pronounced like could.
Why is done, but gone and lone
Is there any reason known?
To sum it up, it seems to me
That sounds and letters don’t agree.

Found here.

languages, My Translations, Translation & Interpreting

The Melody of Languages

In un post del suo blog Transtextuel, C. P., traduttrice dall’italiano al francese, ha parlato del fascino che possono suscitare parole di una lingua alle orecchie di coloro che non la parlano come lingua madre (e che ne sono appassionati). Lei narra un episodio in cui le è capitato di ascoltare alcuni parlanti di madrelingua italiana e le sensazioni che ha provato. Questo episodio le ha fornito uno spunto per una riflessione sulle lingue, che affascinano chi decide di impararle sin dal primo momento. Trovo questo suo articolo interessante perché, a parte il fatto che si parla dell’italiano dal punto di vista di un parlante straniero, non posso far altro che concordare ciò che C. P. ha scritto solo che io, essendo di madrelingua italiana, provo le stesse identiche cose con le lingue che studio, specialmente con l’inglese.

Ecco la mia traduzione del post che C. P. ha scritto: “Rêverie d’une traducteuse : la mélodie des langues“.

Fantasticherie di una traduttora: la melodia delle lingue

Alcuni mesi fa mi trovavo in presenza di italiani che conversavano tranquillamente tra loro mentre ero in pausa. Raccoglievo alcuni spezzoni della conversazione. Una ragazza stava raccontando un aneddoto qualunque, quando il mio interesse si spostò dal suo discorso al suo timbro di voce caldo, vibrante, acuto.

Da un secondo all’altro, non so come, mi sono staccata dalle mie conoscenze linguistiche, estasiata dall’ascolto di questa lingua che amo tanto per la sua musica, il suo ritmo, la sua estensione, attraverso quella voce deliziosa. Così, mi sono lasciata cullare dal canto dell’italiano senza afferrarne le parole, esultando per essere tornata a quel piacere fondamentale: il suono della lingua, spogliata dai significati. Ero stupita.

Imparando di più e facendo più pratica, questo si verifica più raramente. Potrei distaccarmi dall’inglese fino a dimenticarne il senso? Non so come il francese risuoni alle orecchie degli stranieri, probabilmente non lo saprò mai, questa mia curiosità resterà insoddisfatta. A volte questo piccolo rammarico s’insinua nella mia mente, quando le risorse multimediali, le chiacchiere con dei conoscenti o le voci che sento per strada danno questa gioia ai miei timpani: il fascino che risiede nella melodia delle parole incomprese.

Anche altri traduttori hanno queste fantasie?


Questo, invece, il mio commento al suo post (tradotto in italiano):

“Sono talmente abituata al suono della mia lingua madre che sono molto contenta quando ho l’occasione di sentire qualcuno parlare una lingua diversa dalla mia (e alla TV o alla radio non è la stessa cosa)! Talvolta sono tentata a partecipare alla conversazione, ma non lo faccio spesso… dipende dalla situazione.

Quando ho cominciato a studiare l’inglese, pensavo che le parole inglesi avessero un certo fascino. Avevo voglia di imparare più parole possibile e amavo leggere i dialoghi che erano sul mio libro! Ero talmente curiosa che tentavo di leggere anche i dialoghi che non avevo ancora studiato”.

A Student's Life, languages, Translation & Interpreting

Some random language-related facts about me

  1. I speak two languages (Italian and English) fluently, and would like to become more fluent in French (it is more of a “passive” language to me… if you study interpreting, you know what I mean).
  2. I wanted to learn Japanese when I was in high school.
  3. I actually started learning foreign languages (English and French) when I started middle school, but I already knew how to count from 1 to 10 and some words and phrases in English (my Dad taught me). I have a short film of mine when I was 4, in which I translate cartoon character names, some words and phrases (like “How old are you?” and “What time is it?”) from Italian into English! 🙂
  4. I attended a high school mostly based on languages (“Liceo linguistico” in Italian), in which I have studied English, French (both for five years) and German (for three years) language and literature. There were also Italian and Latin language and literature, besides other subjects such as maths, physics, biology, physical education, religious education, history, philosophy, chemistry and earth science.
  5. For some reason, sometimes, while talking to other people in Italian, a word might first come to my mind in English, rather than in Italian!!
  6. I would like to learn Spanish. Two years ago I bought a DVD course that came out every week with a newspaper, “Il Sole 24 Ore”. I haven’t watched all the DVDs yet, only the beginner level ones (there are also intermediate and advanced level ones), but I don’t remember much… if only I had more time on my hands, I would start watching them again.
  7. I studied Translation and Liaison Interpreting (“Mediazione linguistica” in Italian) at university. I chose that course over a Foreign Languages and Literatures one because I’ve always liked translating and studying languages with a more practice-oriented approach even if, before attending university, I wanted to become an English teacher.
  8. When I started studying Interpreting during my sophomore year at university (there was only Translation in the first year), I immediately became a fan of the subject! During the first lecture I was wondering: “How do (simultaneous) interpreters manage to speak and listen at the same time?”. I studied mostly Liaison Interpreting, but there were some lectures on Conference Interpreting as well (even if I only did consecutive interpreting and no simultaneous, because it is usually taught in MA courses).
  9. I tend to speak English with an American accent but, when it comes to writing, I try to use British spelling as much as possible (even if sometimes, for example, I happen to use the simple past instead of the present perfect, like in “I just had lunch” instead of “I’ve just had lunch”).
  10. If I have a dictionary (I mean, any type of dictionary) on my hands, I usually close it only after a while! I like monolingual dictionaries the most, and printed versions more than online or CD-ROM ones.