Category Archives: Translation

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Christopher Columbus’s Catalan-Inflected Language

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Columbus monument in Barcelona, with helicopter bearing symbol of Catalonia (Photo by Carles Ribas, El País)

The violence surrounding the Catalan independence referendum on October 1 has put Spanish democracy under a microscope. Some scholars believe Monday’s holiday, which the United States calls Columbus Day and some localities celebrate as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead, has an implicit link to the Catalan independence struggle, one that casts some doubt on the national origins of Chris…

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Robots Gossiping in a Secret Language?

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I returned from Konstanz to find a whole slew of newspapers, websites, and news magazines had revived a language technology story from two months ago (Adrienne LaFrance discussed it in The Atlantic in June). Facebook, they reported, had been trying to get two chatbots (“Bob” and “Alice”) in an “adversarial network” to learn negotiation by reading a stash of transcribed negotiations between humans and imitating them. But as the chatbots purported to negotiate over the pricing of balls, hats, and…

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Hemingway’s Cuban English

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I can speak and read French but cannot write it; nor Italian, nor German. But can write Spanish. English sometimes too, maybe. –Ernest Hemingway, 1950

Here, in the house, we talk Spanish always. –Ernest Hemingway, 1950

“I have often wondered what I should do with the rest of my life,” wrote Ernest Hemingway aboard a steamship, just after leaving Paris and divorcing his first wife. “Now I know — I shall try and reach Cuba.” The writer, born 118 years ago Friday, would go on to spend ove…

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When Is a Proper Name a Proper Noun?

From “Baby Listens” by Esther Wilkin, illustrated by Eloise Wilkin (1960)

“Tum, tum, tum dee dum, Baby’s beating on his drum.” That’s a line I repeat at least three times a day at the moment — from Page 6 of the Little Golden Books classic Baby Listens. And usually, charmed as I am by the earworm chant, the glorious Eloise Wilkin illustration, and my daughter’s intense engagement with the material, when I read it, I think about work.

Specifically, about my job at the Technische Universität Mün…

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Of Cadillacs and Prairie Dogs

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On a summer evening years ago, I dined with a group of friends at a rural Midwest restaurant where the parking lot was a patch of rough ground without marked bays. We came out to find a Cadillac parked close in beside our car. Edging into the gap between the vehicles (the other side was also tight), we did our best to get the doors far enough open to slide in without dinging the Cadillac. Our close approach triggered the Cadillac’s motion-sensitive theft alarm. A loud synthesized voice told us:…

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Word-Processing Misery

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John Cleese

In a long-forgotten Monty Python sketch, John Cleese is driving a panel truck for the BBC. “I wanted to be in program planning,” he remarks acidly to a colleague, “But unfortunately I have a degree.”

I wanted to work in linguistics. But unfortunately personal computing was invented, and I ended up an amateur software engineer specializing in file format conversion and workarounds for word-processor bugs. I try to do a bit of linguistics in my spare time.

Left to my own devices, I wou…

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Data Mining for Personally Targeted Politics

Brexit vote mapRegular Lingua Franca readers may recall that I am a skeptic about both machine intelligence and the dangers of computers invading our privacy. But do not imagine that I am dismissive of all developments in the fields bracketed under the misnomer “artificial intelligence”: Some of the claims made about what computers can do are true, even a little scary.

I know I mocked the pathetic artificial stupidity exhibited by the devices that purport to communicate linguistically with us. I dissed 2013-vi…

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When Two Negatives Don’t Make a Positive

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Image via Wikipedia.org

Many English grammar advice sites on the web are so dire that it almost seems rude to link to them. I don’t want to fail in my duty to clarify things by deconstructing them; yet it seems cruel to humiliate the poor well-meaning people who wrote them. So let me just say that somewhere out there is a dreadful page of confused drivel on a website maintained by a world-famous dictionary publisher, and its author begins by confessing a…

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Why Did the Van Gogh Brothers Write in French?

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The Yellow House at Arles in letter 691, to Theo Van Gogh, September 1888. (Image courtesy of Christie’s and Wikimedia Commons.)

“The limits of my language signify the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” – Charlemagne

Zundert. Borinage. Paris. Arles. Auvers-sur-Oise. These names boom through art history like reports from a distant cannon. When it was too dark to paint in them, Vincent Van Gogh read prodigiously and compiled a tr…

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Decrying Dialects and Despising Speakers

TrayvonMartinHoodedA stranger I will call DL recently emailed me an odious screed pouring contempt and disgust on nonstandard dialects of English. “Speaking broken English is often a sign that the speaker is monolingual in broken English,” it said; and “Sadly, rather than seeking to help such people, some in the linguistics profession see them as savages as noble as those in the Amazon or New Guinea.”

The phrase “some in the linguistics profession” is one more anonymized reference to the possibly mythical creature…