Category Archives: Culture Studies


Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” in French Translation

by Peter Corless

Now, more than 90 years since it was first written, and 70 years since the death of Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf has entered the public domain. The publication and translation of his works has created ethical dilemmas on multiple levels since it first appeared in print to the present day.

The Conversation is an academic and research journalism project has an aim to “rebuild trust in journalism.” It makes an ideal platform to weigh in on the sobering, controversial topic of Hitler’s blueprint for conquest. As Americans enjoyed commemorating their liberation through their July 4th Independence Day celebration, Manu Braganca, Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, published a historical perspective on the 90-year-old book that would lead to the subjugation and decimation of tens of millions and war that spanned the globe.

The article bears reading in full. Because it isn’t about the contents of the book itself, but the context around how Mein Kampf was translated into French, both before and after the Second World War. First, how it was used by an opportunistic French publisher as a tool of profit, which was then suppressed by Hitler himself until he retooled and re-released it for Nazi propaganda purposes.

International translations have long been a source of misappropriated intellectual property and misconstrued meanings. Here, the misappropriation was committed by the original translation: an unauthorized, though rather faithful-to-the-source edition released in 1934 by Nouvelles Éditions Latines. The 1938 re-release, published by Fayard, was a purposeful misconstrual: expurgated and bowdlerized under Hitler’s direction specifically to keep the French from being alarmed by the original fiery and bellicose German. Even the title was changed to Ma Doctrine (My Doctrine) to sound less threatening. Produced just a year before the dawn of the Second World War, the same year as the fateful Munich Agreement, it was a purposeful attempt to sow misunderstanding and allay suspicions for political ends.

Braganca details the fate of the book after the Second World War on to the present day, and presents multiple sides of the debate. Should the book be blacklisted and banned outright? Published with additional front matter and addendum to provide historical context? In a modern world that is increasingly polarized and radicalized, and in a world wide web where historical texts can be found online for free, such controversy has been highly charged. One thing is for certain: debate over the book in France and elsewhere will not end any time soon.

What are your thoughts? Let us know at


University of Hawai’i at Mānoa dives into language, history & science via online newspaper archives

by Peter Corless

Image of two fishermen with outrigger canoes, Waikiki beach, Oahu Island, c. 1922. Source: Wikimedia.

The Institute of Hawaiian Language Research and Translation (Ke Keʻena Noiʻi A Unuhi ʻŌlelo) at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa has launched a new research program, working with the archives of Hawaiian-language newspapers.

The program, entitled Ka Wā Ma Mua, Ka Wā Ma Hope (Using the Past to Inform the Future: English Translation of Hawaiian Language Newspaper Accounts of Unusual Weather Events), part of the Hawaiian Language Newspaper Translation Project, was funded in 2015 through UH Sea Grant via the NOAA Preserve America Initiative program.

As reported by Hawaiian Public Radio, “The largest source comes from more than 100 different Hawaiian language newspapers published until the late 1940s. Of those, only a small portion have been translated into English, and remain an untapped source of information into Hawai’i’s past.” The last Hawaiian-language newspaper, Ka Hoku o Hawaii, was shuttered in 1948, as noted in a paper by UH Mānoa’s Richard Keao Nesmith.

Hawaiian stands at a crossroads. As noted on Ethnologue, “Young speakers are being trained in immersion courses and also very old speakers exist, but relatively few adult and middle-aged speakers, which results in lack of communication situations for active use.” This younger population is comprised of tens of thousands schooled in Hawaiian studies that date back to 1980, and immersion programs begun in 1986. The number of traditional native speakers has dwindled with time, to just a few thousand, with many now being in their 70s or 80s.

In his paper, Nesmith dubbed the former community the Neo Hawaiian Community, (NEO), and the latter the Traditional (TRAD) community. The differences aren’t just in the vocabulary, or the grammar or dialect. They have to do with the corpus of culture. Nesmith observed, “While most Hawaiians of my grandparents’ generation were fluent native speakers who could recall accounts of Hawaiian heroes, genealogies, chants, and old songs, most of my mother’s generation know virtually nothing of these things, and thus cannot pass them on to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, even if they want to.”

UH’s collection of newspapers will not restore such collective mythology, but it does bridge the gap between earlier generations and the current ones.

Such native-language news sources are fixed in the crossroads of time. The first Hawaiian-language newspapers were published in 1834 in what was then the independent Kingdom of Hawai’i by missionaries working with the local population. Local literacy and linguistic study of Hawaiian flourished thereafter to the end of the 19th Century.

However, education in Hawaiian was formally banned after the overthrow of the Kingdom, by the 1896 Laws of the Republic of Hawai’i, in a section of law known as Act 57. Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, until the shuttering of the last Hawai’ian newspaper in 1948, literacy in Hawai’ian receded like a wave, stigmatized by the successive dominant English-language American-culture governments of the archipelago.

These newspapers thus represent a major corpus of culture prior to the modern era, before Hawaiian studies were legally and formally resumed. The NOAA grant is specifically geared to using these primary sources to understand historical perspectives on the Hawaiian environment and fishing practices, both local/indigenous, as well as those introduced to the Hawaiian community. The website displays the original article side-by-side with an English-language translation.

Weather events can be searched based on keyword categories, such as “storm,” “calm,” “lightning” or “thunder,” “cold” or “hot.” There are also ways to search articles related to geology, celestial events, and, also of primary interest to the NOAA, fishing.

For example, an article from 28 April 1838, entitled Na Nai Ma Kahana is translated as “The Dolphins at Kahana.” Its 29 typeset lines, which originally appeared in the newspaper Ke Kuma Hawaii, describe how the villagers of Makaua, from the strongest man to the weakest child, paddled canoes out into the ocean at Kahana Bay off the island of Oahu one afternoon to hunt dolphins. The catch of hundreds of the creatures fed the people, as well as their pigs and dogs, and also provided copious amounts of oil for lamps. The reporter signed their eyewitness account simply, “By me, NAILI.”

From such eyewitness accounts, researchers of different disciplines can identify a variety of information. Not least of which would be anecdotal evidence for marine biologists of sea life depletion over time. For perspective, in 1838, the villagers of Makaua killed over 200 dolphins in one afternoon alone. Today, there are three types of dolphins that inhabit the Hawaiian Islands. Of those, there exist only approximately 3,350 spinner dolphins, 3,200 bottlenose dolphins, and 10,260 spotted dolphins, for a total estimated population of 16,810. That afternoon’s catch, if it were held today, would represent more than 1% of the remaining dolphin population of the islands.

Have you ever had a translation project that was more than what it seemed at first? One that expanded profoundly beyond pure linguistics to cultural, scientific, historical, even political dimensions? Maybe you even have one facing you right now. We’d love to hear more! Send us your thoughts, feedback, and current objectives to



Indian Literary Translation Project Stalls

by Peter Corless

Many teams around the world have been doing some stellar jobs translating various works of late. We recently wrote about the academic translation of the Talmud in Italy and the global translation and commercial publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

Yet not every translation project is a stellar success story. Recently, an article surfaced at about the Indian Literature Abroad (ILA) project, titled, Why did India’s ambitious global translations project die prematurely?

Perhaps it is not entirely fair to say the project died completely, though it may be on life support. The Ministry of Culture still officially has a page dedicated to the project, but the graphic on it (pictured above) shows a catalogue cover only as recent as from 2011-2012. The project did produce three translations. The first was the Swedish translation of Train to Pakistan. This novel was originally written in 1956 and published in English (though a 1998 film based on it was produced in Hindi). The second was the German translation of the short 1993 novel (and later 2005 movie) Herbert, by the Bengali writer Nabarun Bhattacharya. (The book is also available in English in a 2011 translation under the title Harbart.) The third was the French translation of A Forest, A Deer, by the Tamil feminist writer Ambai. (The book is also available in English from Oxford University Press.)

As the Ministry of Culture page states, the mission, set forth five years ago, was to bring the great works of India’s more than 24 natively-spoken languages to a global audience of major global languages recognized by UNESCO. As of today, even with the transfer of the project to the literary Satiya Akademi (see its page for the ILA project) the momentum that had been established at its outset seems to have dissipated.

A recent published letter in The Hindu expresses the lament of Mini Krishnan on the lack of progress of the project. The lack of funding did more than just halt work; it also wasted the efforts and goodwill of its contributors. The question stands as to whether the produced translations occurred due to the efforts of the Ministry of Culture, or in spite of its indifference.

The key takeaway from this tale is to ensure executive sponsors truly have the budget, authority, and conviction to commit to execution of your translation projects. It is all good to get the right linguists and writers in the room to create magnificent works of prose. But without the right sponsor behind the project, these idealistic plans can drag out for years and eventually come to naught. Work on translations may even occur with the hope of funding eventually appearing, but disappointingly never see the light of day in publication. It is like buying a car, but never putting oil in it. Eventually, inevitably, your engine of creativity is going to burn out.

What is your perspective? Have you ever had a sponsor leave a translation project high-and-dry? Or, on the other hand, do you have the best sponsors in the world? We’d love to hear your stories! Email us at, and let us know your experiences.


Babylonian Talmud Translated into Italian

by Peter Corless

Pictured above: Babylonian Talmud, copied in 1342 in France; Source: Wikimedia

Spotted over at Haaretz and today are articles about the fruition of a project funded by the Italian government: “Project Talmud.” After nearly six years, a team of seventy translators and twenty researchers will present the Italian President Sergio Mattarella with the Rosh Hashanah tractate. The new edition will feature Italian and Hebrew on facing pages, translated from the original Aramaic.

The Talmud is no small task to translate. For instance, the Schottenstein Edition fills 73 volumes that collectively weigh over 300 pounds (140 kg).

The project is historic in many ways. First, it goes to right an injustice that began in 1553, when authorities in Rome burned all the Talmuds they could find during the brutal Counter-Reformation. This event marked a complete reversal of earlier Papal rulings, since Pope Leo X had granted permission for a complete edition of the Talmud to be printed in Italy, a project completed in Venice in the years 1520-1523.

Second, the project is being led by Clelia Piperno, a professor of law at the University of Rome. This will mark the first time a woman led a Talmud project.

Third, The Italian Institute of Computational Linguistics, Istituto di Linguistica Computazionale (ILC) created a collaborative web environment, Traduco, expressly to facilitate the translation of the work. Unlike traditional translation technologies, the system was designed for complex multi-role annotation. Which makes complete sense for the Talmud, as it was written in the form of the base text with extensive commentary. You can read more about this tool from a seminar presentation posted online in July 2015.

Do you have a weighty or precious translation project of your own you’d like help on? It doesn’t matter if it is just a short few lines of text or book-length works. Let us know! Contact us at

Gaeilge: working in the new working language of the EU

by Peter Corless

Image from Sinn Fein commemorating the Centennial of the 1916 Easter Uprising (Source: Twitter)

With today’s centennial commemoration of the Easter Rising in 1916, let’s turn our thoughts to the Republic of Ireland. The nation, which gained its independence in 1922, has for the past century been working diligently to renew and reinforce its linguistic heritage. The natively-fluent Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic) speaking districts, known as the Gaeltacht, have not been able to fully withstand the barrage of English language media in the modern age. A 2006 Census showed only 95,000 people living within the official Gaeltacht meeting the fluency standards of Irish speakers, and across Ireland approximately 140,000 native speakers overall. Including Northern Ireland, there are almost 168,000 native speakers of Gaeilge.

To keep the language alive, there is a significant effort across Ireland and Northern Ireland to teach Gaeilge as a second official language, apart from English. Including the second-language speakers, Irish is spoken fluently by over a million in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Over 40% of Ireland’s population can speak Gaeilge to some extent.

These efforts to preserve and share the Irish language has not come without controversy or resistance. In a recent survey funded by Studyclix, a significant minority of Irish students, 39% believe Irish should not be a compulsory subject. (A 2013 online poll showed 51% of respondents believed it should be optional.)

The resistance isn’t only at the schoolyard level. Earlier this year in March, the Irish language, Gaeilge, was announced to be a new working language of the EU. This was news, and yet it wasn’t “new” news. You see, Irish was made an official language of the EU back in 1 January 2007 but the decision to use it as a day-to-day working language was subsequently derogated until 2012, and then for another 5 years, to 1 January 2017. Right now, the next move will be to expand “the number of areas in which Irish translation is required,” with derogation hopefully slated to be fully eliminated by 2022.

Such delays have not sat well with everyone in the Republic of Ireland. In early 2015, one Irish MEP, Liadh Ní Riada, refused to speak to any of her counterparts in any language other than Gaeilge for a week in protest.

To take Gaeilge out of the shadows and into the sun has required an investment of millions of euros to attract, train, and staff around two hundred full-time translators as well as add Irish terms into EU databases. This is up significantly from the 29 posts for Gaeilge translation initially created in 2007. The European Commission has produced guidelines for contractors looking to translate works into Gaeilge, and gathered many resources on its website.

All this sounds like very positive steps. However, implementation is sporadic. For instance, when you go to the EC’s “Representation in Ireland” page, translated into Gaeilge, the only words translated are the header graphic and navigation elements — the page content itself is in English!

EC-careers-GaeilgeGetting the EU itself to adopt and support the Irish language is only one part of a larger scheme published by the Irish government in 2010, known as the 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language, 2010-2030 (Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge 2010-2030 in Gaeilge). In the plan, everything from signage to mass media to delivery of government services to commercial product packaging, and across all ages from early childhood education to adult learning is addressed.

What are your thoughts on the Irish language? Do the issues of the acceptance of Gaeilge within the EU resonate with you in other language domains or projects you have on your plate? We’d love to hear your feedback. Write to us at and let us know your opinion.



Comparing the Web’s Languages to the World’s Languages

by Peter Corless

wordcloud-top10-webWordcloud of the top 10 languages used on websites around the world,
showing the disproportionate predominance of English

A recent article in Quartz cites research by Facebook, that English language websites accounted for 56% of the global total, and a basket of merely 10 languages account for 89% of the sites in the world. This leads to a phenomenon of “linguistic exclusion” that shuts out many of those who speak any of the more than 7,000 other living languages in the world.

These top 10 languages, collectively, do not reflect global population. Let’s compare the top 10 languages for websites with the top 10 most popularly spoken languages in the world. The data cited in the web article was from w3techs’ table of “Usage of content language for websites” and is a bit outdated. w3tech’s most recent statistics show a bit of broadening, with English only representing 53.6% of global websites now. Here’s the current top 10 language list, which account for 88.2% of global websites:

Website Content Language % of Websites
English 53.6%
Russian 6.4%
German 5.6%
Japanese 5.0%
Spanish 4.9%
French 4.1%
Portuguese 2.6%
Italian 2.1%
Chinese 2.0%
Polish 1.9%

Source: w3techs

wordcloud-top10-spokenWordcloud showing the top 10 languages spoken around the world,
proportionally showing the predominance of Chinese

Here’s the most popular first languages in the world, taken from Ethnologue. It combines 13 different variants of Chinese into one broad category, and the same with 19 different variations of Arabic, and likewise combines multiple Western Punjabi languages into Lahnda. According to their listing, here are the top spoken languages in the world:

Language  Speakers (Millions) % of Global Population
Chinese (Mandarin) 1,302 20%
Spanish 427 6.5%
English 339 5.2%
Arabic 267 4.1%
Hindi 260 4.0%
Portuguese 202 3.1%
Bengali 189 2.9%
Russian 171 2.6%
Japanese 128 1.9%
Lahnda (Western Punjabi) 117 1.8%

Source: Ethnologue

Native speakers of these ten languages cumulatively account for 52.1% of the global population — little more than half of the world’s population.

English is thus extremely over-represented on the web compared to its actual global population by a factor of 10 (53% of websites compared to 5.2% of natively fluent population). Russian, German and Japanese are also over-represented on the web by more than twice their demographic percentage of global population.

French, Italian, and Polish occur on the top 10 list of web site languages, but are not among the top 10 spoken languages of the world. French is 14th place on the Ethnologue list. Italian at 21st place, and Polish is much further down, around 30th place, with around 40 million speakers.

The reason for over-representation is in part historical, and partly economical. Many of the over-represented languages reflect historically wealthy regions and larger economies of the world such as Germany, Japan, France and Italy.

Portuguese is represented on the web (2.6%) nearly in proportion to its global population (3.1%). Two other popular languages, Chinese and Spanish, are in both top 10s, but are severely underrepresented on the web compared to their populations.

Now consider Arabic, with over 267 million speakers, or Hindi, Bengali and Lahnda (Western Punjabi), which all have populations in excess of 100 million speakers, yet do not show up in the ranks of top languages used on the web. Arabic comes in at 14th Place on w3techs’ list. The other three languages from South Asia are used by less than 0.1% of the world’s web sites.

This can be attributed to the use of English as an official languages in both India and Pakistan, where it serves as a lingua franca for these multilingual nations. Yet it also shows the dichotomy of what is seen and heard on the web compared to what is spoken on the street and in the homes for hundreds of millions of people.

What thoughts do you have on the difference between the languages prevalent on the web, and those used broadly in your target markets and communities of interest? We’d love to hear! Send us your comments at

Throwback Thursday: Rosetta Stone

by Peter Corless

17374496333_54c62d9372_kRosetta Stone Detail, photo by Thomas Quine

On the twenty-fourth day of the month Gorpiaios” is how the text begins. Though, it must be admitted, hardly anyone except historians and archaeologists care what it says. And hardly anyone knows or cares that this text, known today as the Memphis Decree, was written on behalf of Ptolemy V, firmly re-establising the rule of the Macedonian Greek Ptolemies, which was to be commemorated by establishing a divine cult for his worship. That’s not the point. At least, not to modern minds.

What we best know the Rosetta stone for today was not its content, but its context. Because this obscure decree, inscribed over two millennia ago on black granite and erected as a stele in the Nile delta region of Egypt, became a vital and revolutionary cornerstone of modern archaeology. It was central to understanding the meaning and translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which had long been considered undecipherable.

The very term “Rosetta Stone” has become an idiom unto itself, to describe a near-mystical key, unlocking the capacity for mutual understanding and epiphany. It has become the metaphorical antonym to the cacophonic “Tower of Babel.”

The Rosetta Stone is also emblematic of the work of translation and translators around the world. Like much of the work of anonymous and talented translators over the centuries, we have no names of the scribes who first translated the Memphis Decree into the three most-popular alphabets of Egypt at the time: Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. For the much of its history time the stone itself was cast aside and obscured. Until its discovery by the French army engineer Lieutenant Bouchard on the Napoleonic expedition to Mamluk Egypt, it was purportedly used as a meager building stone embedded in a wall.

Though Bouchard recognized the importance of the stone upon finding it—taking word of its discovery to General Bonaparte himself—it did not stay in French possession long. After a series of military defeats, the French abandoned Egypt, and, under Article 16 of the terms of surrender, the British came to acquire the artifact. The British-French rivalry over the stone was not quite done, though, because the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion would be first to publish his deciphering of the stone’s hieroglyphs in 1822.

Even to the modern day the fate of the Rosetta Stone remains contentious. After being in the possession of the British since 1801, the Egyptian government appealed in 2003 to have the cultural artifact returned to the land of its creation. So far, they have been denied their request.

What’s in a Name?

Further emblematic of such contention is the very name we use for the stone fragment. For “Rosetta” (Italian for “little rose”) was the Westernized approximation of the Arabic name of the city wherein it was found: رشيد‎ (Rasheed). This Arabic word means “guide” or “correctly guided.” Might it not be better called the “Rasheed Stone?” For it most certainly correctly guided the translation between these ancient languages!

Then again, the ancient Egyptians themselves might be confused by any modern place name we assign to such an artifact. Because to them, the original stele stood stood in a city originally called Khito, but, by the time of the Ptolemies, was called Bolbitine, after one of the seven mouths of the Nile River.

What do you think of the Rosetta Stone? Send us your thoughts, impressions, and stories. We’d love to hear your opinion.

Also, do you have any major projects coming up that you want to translate for the world to know and remember? If so, contact us at We’ll make history together!

Japan National Foundation Day

by Peter Corless

Tennō_Jimmu_detail_01神武天皇 Jimmu-tennō: The legendary “heavenly sovereign” Emperor Jimmu,
as depicted in an 1891 woodblock print

Today, 11 February, is Japan’s National Foundation Day (建国記念の日, Kenkoku Kinen no Hi). Technically, we missed it because of the International Date Line; it’s already 12 February in Tokyo. Yet let’s take a moment to understand this date and its place in Japanese culture and history.

You’ll remember a while ago we posted about How (and When) do you say “Happy New Year.” In a way, that’s what is behind Japan’s National Foundation Day. It falls right around the time of the Chinese New Year, which was celebrated this year on 08 February 2016. The Japanese National Foundation Day, in its origin, stems from the same astronomical cycle: a lunisolar calendar. However, while the Chinese New Year still follows the advent of the new moon, causing it to vary anywhere between 21 January and 20 February, the date of Japan’s National Foundation Day was fixed to the Western Gregorian Calendar, and falls on the same date each year.

The Chinese calendar was introduced into Japan in the 6th Century CE. The legendary traditions around National Foundation Day harken back 1,200 years earlier, to the 6th-7th Centuries BCE. This was the era of the reign of the mythical Emperor Jimmu, who was said to descend directly from the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu. His tale is recounted in the third chapter of the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest books of classic Japanese history. The commemoration of this date, though, is far more recent.

The holiday was established during the Meiji Restoration of the 19th Century. Originally called 紀元節, Kigensetsu (“Epoch Day”), the first commemoration in 1872 was held on 29 January, but this coincided with the Lunar New Year. So for the next year, 1873, the Japanese government purposefully moved it to 11 February, and fixed it to the Gregorian calendar, to make sure it was distinguished as National Foundation Day. The European-style dating also emphasized the processes of Westernization occurring after the Bakumatsu (the “Opening of Japan” to foreign trade).

This holiday only lasted until 1948, when the post-war government issued a “Law on National Holidays” that deprecated anything construable as worship of the Emperor (as per the 1946 Ningen-sengen).

For many Japanese, though, the date had still come to mean something, even beyond the Emperor. You see, most countries have a specific date of their foundation. For the United States, you have the Fourth of July, which commemorates the passage of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. For the French, 14 July is Bastille Day. Canada Day is 01 July. And so on. But because the origins of Japan are so ancient, there was no more relevant annual date to commemorate the nation. So in 1966 National Foundation Day was reinstated as a holiday, though it was stripped of its Imperial and Shinto trappings.

YouTube Video from of National Foundation Day celebration at the Meiji Jingu Shrine

By 2016, it’s become even more secular. Most modern Japanese only view the day as a welcome day-off from work. This year, for the Nikkei, it was a day to catch a breather from the recent turbulent Asian markets. For others, it remains a highly symbolic day of controversy, often used to push for or against political revisions to the Japanese Constitution. Yet very few know or remember much about the history behind the holiday. As one member of the Japanese junior chamber of commerce observed, “While Japanese say they feel pride in their country, it’s something of a paradox that they don’t know about its founding.”

Canada, Cats & Dogs, and Machine Translation

by Peter Corless

CAN-TB-logoBilingualism in Canada is a big deal. Back in 1961, before the modern Canadian flag was born, and back when it was still called the Dominion of Canada, the percentage of bilingual Canadians, those who were fluent in both English and French, was only 12.2%. Less than one person in eight.

By 2011, this number increased to 17.5%, or more than one in six. In Quebec, with its concentration of French speakers, the bilingual percentage rose from 25% in 1961 to 42.6% in 2011.

Back in 1961, the population of Canada was only 18 million. The population of Canada has nearly doubled since then to over 35 million, of whom nearly 6 million Canadian citizens are bilingual, and more than a million others speak French natively. With English and French both official languages of equal status, this puts a significant requirement on government officials to understand and communicate effectively with their constituents.

Within the Canadian government, the Translation Bureau (TB) is chartered to bridge such linguistic gaps, providing both human and machine translation (MT) services. Founded in 1934, many question whether it is keeping pace with the rate of technological change and the amount of work that’s required. It recently had its staff cut from 2,000 to 1,300 over five years, with much of its work now outsourced to the private sector.

What Canadian civil servants are doing in response should not be surprising. Like most people, they are using Google Translate en masse, at a rate of over a million times each week, according to the TB’s CEO, Donna Achimov.

To help bolster its MT offerings, in April 2016 the Translation Bureau, working in conjunction with the National Research Council, plans to roll out a new system to 350,000 Canadian government workers. The new system, called Portage Statistical Machine Translation, has been under pilot with multiple governmental ministries since last summer.

This is where the controversy lies. Critics question the quality. The results have been described as “quirky” and “clumsy.” For instance, the French version of the system’s description, «nouvel outil de raduction automatique», was rendered “new tool machine translation,” rather than the more natural English construction “new machine translation tool.” It also translated the idiomatic English expression “It’s raining cats and dogs,” to «La pluie, les chats et les chiens.» (“The rain, the cats and the dogs.”) For comparison, Google Translate renders the same phrase as «Il pleut des seaux d’eau» (“It is raining buckets of water.”)

The Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), who represents the Translation Bureau’s workers, told the CBC that Portage system might be less capable than Google Translate because it will not have the same broad population of people suggesting improvements to the translation. The union’s many professional translators are leery of seeing their department’s reputation tarnished with results portrayed as amateurish or awkward.

The tool is part of a hybrid plan for human and computer-aided translation. Portage results are never meant to go directly to Canadian public. Information that needs to be sent out to the public should be linked directly over to a human translator.

The main advantages cited for the Translation Bureau hosting its own internal translation system is for building up its own government-specific translation memory, and for security and confidentiality, since the results would stay internal to the Canadian government, and not processed on public Google servers in the United States.

One thing is for sure, we’ll be watching the rollout in April with great interest! Others will be as well, since the NRC is looking to license the Portage system commercially through Terminotix.

How about your own organization? How are you balancing your work between machine and human translators? Send us an email at We’d love to hear your stories!


The Propagation of Written Language Systems

by Peter Corless

script-propagationThe spread of written language systems across the world was documented in The New Atlas of World History: Global Events at a Glance, published by Princeton University Press. Recently, a video was created and posted by Business Insider (and also Tech Insider) to visually illustrate the dawn of the era of written language systems, from Sumerian pictographs on down to the Latin alphabet. While watching the animation, be aware of the fact the main (modern) titling is in English, written in the Latin character set. When casting your mind back in time, consider the tremendous divergence that occurred across the world in linguistic evolution between the main types of character systems:

  • Alphabets (where consonants and vowels are all given individual characters) such as most European languages (most of whom are based on Latin and Greek),

greek_alphabet_clip_art_16827The Greek alphabet

  • Abjad (where alphabets only represent consonants; vowels are either left unwritten or indicated by diacritical marks) such as ancient Phoenician, as well as Hebrew and Arabic,

Phoenician_alphabetThe Phoenician alphabet

ethiopicThe Ethiopic alphabet

2000px-Table_hiraganaJapanese hiragana

  • Logographic systems (where characters represent ideas primarily, and only secondarily are bound to phonetic equivalents), such as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, modern Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji.

2000px-Chenzihmyon_typefaces.svgChinese hanzi

Each of these different types of script systems, whether pictographic or phonographic, don’t only alter one’s capability to read and understand the ideas of others as they were recorded. They also fundamentally affect the very way we think. Each type of character set links to our auditory and visual memory systems differently.

So what’s in a short two-hand-a-half minute video? Three thousand years of the amazing evolution of the very way we think today. We believe that’s a technology propagation story worth sharing. Enjoy!

p.s. Did you catch the glaring error in the image on top? That’s right! The calendar goes from 1 BCE to 1 CE without a “Year 0 (Zero)” in between. It would be more than six centuries before Brahmagupta (ब्रह्मगुप्त) would coin the term and the rules to compute with it. Apparently the creators of the video need to brush up on their Sanskrit a little more!

[Script images courtesy of Wikipedia and]