An illegal translation

Via a recent Failblog post, our attention is drawn to a very bizarre sign in Czech:

Bilingual Czech-English sign forbidding... translating
Bilingual Czech-English sign prohibiting... translating

What is most puzzling about this sign is that it is not an example of what we’ve seen in the past, a translation error: Zákaz tlumočení does indeed mean “translating [interpreting] prohibited”. Apparently, and without explanation, the sign’s injunction doesn’t apply to the sign itself  — how else would it have been possible to make the sign without the act of translation?

According to the comments in the Failblog thread, the most likely explanation is that at this particular spots, noisy tours for tourists are unwelcome. Except if the tour guide speaks Czech.

Noun phrase of the day (too long for this post title)

Simon Willison tweeted about an event to commemorate the death of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, 12 years ago today. The memorial was held at the Tea Cosy in Brighton, a tea room the menu of which contains an item with a name so long it refuses to fit into my own mental memory. Behold the 28-word (well, 27 word, 1 number and 6 comma) noun phrase:

Diana, Princess of Wales memorial tea: "Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, Queen of Hearts, 10 year Anniversary, Your Death Has Torn Our Lives Apart, Farewell Dear Princess Queen of Hearts, Memorial Afternoon Tea"
Diana, Princess of Wales memorial tea: "Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, Queen of Hearts, 10 year Anniversary, Your Death Has Torn Our Lives Apart, Farewell Dear Princess Queen Of Hearts, Memorial Afternoon Tea"

I particularly like the capitalization choices. Reasonably priced, too.

Let 1000 crash blossoms bloom

So we’ve come to enjoy Cupertinos, eggcorns and snowclones, and now the Society for Found-Object Internet Sociolinguistics (SFOIS) has acquired a new member. What is this all about? Well, there was no word for it! What, you’re asking? Those train wrecks of newspaper headlines that lead us down the garden path to end up against a wall, scratching our head and wondering what on earth the subeditor might possibly have been thinking.

A particularly eyebrow-raising specimen was posted by Bessie3 on the Testy Copy Editors forum:

Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms

Confused? It may help to know that JAL means Japan Airlines, that there was a crash in 1985, that “blossoms” is the verb of the sentence, and that “linked to” means the violinist in question is a child of one of the crash’s casulties. Be that as it may — the testy copy editors had no problem decoding the mess — the discussion spawned by the oringinal post turned to the “we have no word for this” problem, which was resolved by the excellent suggestion that crash blossom would make an excellent term for referring to this kind of infelicitous headline.

A site was put up on Blogger, and the staff of the Eggcorn Database extends our most heartfelt welcome and wishes a long life to the new endeavour.

Here come the crash blossoms: welcome to the party!

Hat tip: John McIntyre and Elizabeth Herrington, first seen on Facebook.

P.S.: The same thread notes the mindboggling Man held for attempted murder of policeman after detention for confining girl expires, which while not containing a snappy term, is an even more egregious example.

Texting in Welsh

I found this in one of my own open browser tabs.

The UK mobile (AmE: cell) phone comparison site right mobilephone has a short English-Welsh phrasebook for what they say are the 10 most common text message (AmE: SMS) abbreviations in use. Useful if you’re learning Welsh.

Right mobilephone's English-Welsh texting phrasebook
Right mobilephone's English-Welsh texting phrasebook

Apologies for the lack of attribution to who ever it was whose link I followed.

Framing London’s “congestion tax”

If you want to drive a car into central London during business hours, you have to pay: a hefty £8 ($13.05, 9.27 €, as per today’s exchange rates) a day, or even more if you pay late. This payment is called the congestion charge (in official documents often capitalized), is managed by Transport for London, and explicitly serves the goal of lowering the volume motorized traffic by making motorists [BrE term] pay for the privilege of driving on streets the use of which by too many cars imposes a high cost on all central London’s permanent and transient denizens. As a payment for the use of a specific set of roads, the congestion charge is supposed to be understood as a type of toll — a fee for a service.

Map of London's congestion charge zone
Map of London's congestion charge zone
Countries whose embassies refuse to pay the congestion charge
Countries that refuse to pay the congestion charge for their embassy staff, 11/2008

Now the effectiveness of the congestion charge in actually lowering traffic into central London is debatable — and hotly being debated — but even its detractors tend to call it by its official name. Not so the US embassy’s representative, who — as cited in today’s Guardian — continues to refer to it as the “congestion tax”.

That’s a nice case of framing we’re encountering here. The embassy’s stance is simply that, if the charge is actually a local tax, the embassy doesn’t have to pay. So they call it a tax instead: 

“The mayor [of London] had hoped that Obama’s new representative in London, Louis Susman, who was sworn in two weeks ago and arrived in the capital today, would signal a change of approach due to the new administration’s green credentials.

But a spokesman for the US embassy confirmed that Washington’s position had not changed. […] The US embassy spokesman said: “Our policy on the congestion tax is a long-standing policy decided on by Washington. The US government’s position is that this a tax and therefore is prohibited by various treaties.”

TfL and the UK government, in contrast, liken the charge to paying or a toll road or bridge, something UK diplomats in the US are held to do.

The US embassy is not alone in this, although with a totted-up £3,446,420 in charges and fines by now (according to the Guardian article linked above) the worst offender among the quarter of London’s foreign diplomatic missions who just don’t pay up. A 9 month old BBC News article lists the non-payers, and I’m sad to see that Germany, too, is among them.

Eggcorn sightings!

  1. Only one more day available on BBC iPlayer, and unfortunately not available as a podcast, Stephen Fry’s wonderful August 11 episode of his BBC4 radio program(me) Fry’s English Delight mentions eggcorns appoximately 11 min into the show. It’s altogether excellent – including the notes on French, language change, the status of error etc.

  2. Eggcorns as a topic of academic inquiry! By pure chance I came across a page on the Workshop on Computational Approaches to Linguistic Creativity CALC-09, which took place in June of this year in Boulder, Colorado in the US, which had an entire session on eggcorns. Wow.

Facebook mail: commenting on your photos makes you female

Over the last few days, Facebook quite clearly seemed to be upgrading its email notification components. This is what I concluded from the email from I found in my own mailbox: Because of some personal circumstances, I happened to post more often to my Facebook account than I usually would have, and more importantly received more comments. Comments are sent to my Gmail account as per my chosen Facebook settings. What I found, however, was that not all comments were being forwarded, and some of those that were appeared in the mailbox up to about 15 min after they showed up in the Facebook user interface.

Some performance glitch, I thought. But today the email notifications became somewhat creative. Here is a screenshot of the notifications of today that contain the text “also commented on” (I have covered up last names to protect my friends’ privacy):

Screenshot: Facebook notifications with gender confusion
Screenshot: Facebook notifications with gender confusion

There are two types of notifications: For comments on status updates and for comments on photos. Each can be done by the original poster (of the status update or the photo) or, more often, by someone else. To see the problem better, here are the update notes for comments on one’s own photos and status updates:

  • Ned also commented on her photo
  • Ned also commented on his status
  • Michael also commented on his status
  • Mike also commented on her photo
  • Jason also commented on his status

When I first saw this, I wondered on whose photo Ned had also commented on.

I haven’t follow Facebook’s UI choices in-depth, but Facebook used to use the singular “they” in their notifications, even if  the user’s (self-described) sex or gender was known. So what we can suppose happening here is that they’re reducing the use of singular “they”, and producing some glitches in the process. I checked: both Mike and Ned indicate their sex as male in their Facebook profile. So Facebook is currently reassigning a female gender to posters who comment on their own photos. What I don’t know is if women get reassigned to male.

The issue only shows up in email, that I could see. On the Facebook, Ned is male:

Status update note in the Facebook user interface
Status update note in the Facebook user interface

And who, exactly, are you?

I spent the last weekend, plus days before and after, in Portland, Oregon (at the 22nd annual convention of the usenet group soc.motss). This is a city that, even by the high standards of the urban European, has a truly impressive public transport system. Not only is it complete and fast, it’s also intelligently priced, ie, low, with free rides in the city center, and bike-friendly.

One bit of linguistic interest is worth mentioning here: The announcement made on some of the MAX light rail/streetcar/tramway (pick your term) lines to indicate at which side to get off the train at the next stop. Announcements in these trains are made by an automated, prerecorded voice, first in English, then in Spanish.

The text of the announcement, after indicating the next stop’s name?

Doors to my left.

This is a bit startling. I can see why an overly nit-picky planner would want to avoid “Doors to your left” — after all, passengers may be oriented every which way in the carriage. But saying “… my left” is presuming we have a speaker here. It’s not the driver. But someone or something speaking in a disembodied voice.

Now while there is indeed a well-defined left and right relative to a moving tramway, the problem is to ascribe a sense of agency to it that would allow it to speak to us in the first person.

I have not quite succeeded in finding out if the sentient tramway is restricted to the English — I thought I heard “puertas a la izquierda”, ie “doors to the left“, but this page claims it’s “puerta a mi izquierda”.

Portland, the City of Roses and sentient, anthropomorphic streetcars.

A construction the likes of which I’ve never been able to let go

So an Air France Airbus A330 disappeared over the Atlantic last night. It’s a frightening event, and the quasi-certainty that 228 people died, maybe without a trace, in a cataclysmic accident, is terribly sad.

BBC news quotes the French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s public address: “It is a catastrophe the likes of which Air France has never seen.” The wording of the quote made me think. It sounds a bit overly convoluted to my ear, but then, this may very well express a level of pathos appropriate to the situation. Sarkozy, of course, spoke French. Interestingly, this exact wording is all over the English-language press. It must have come from an early press release: it’s doubtful there are official English translations of the pronouncements of the French president.

What is the French original? The paper Libération’s habit of publishing such things verbatim — though cleaned up — helps us out. Here is the first bit of Sarkozy’s public declaration:

Cette nuit nous avons perdu la trace d’un avion d’Air France avec 228 personnes à bord, passagers et personnels d’équipage. Nous n’avons aucun élément précis sur ce qui s’est passé. C’est une catastrophe comme jamais la compagnie Air France n’en avait connue.

The French construction employed by Sarkozy, which has no one-to-one correspondence in English, goes a long way to explain the translator’s choice. Ne … jamais can mean “never” or “ever”, depending of polarity, and there’s the partitive pronoun en, which refers back to une catastrophe. We could gloss the French as “This is a catastrophe like never the airline Air France [of it] had known,” or, using the more idiomatic present perfect, substituting seen for known, and cleaning up the word order, “This is a catastrophe like the airline Air France has never seen.”

The translator’s thought process now becomes clearer:

  • They aimed at preserving the comparison “like”, but getting rid of the informal aspect
  • They were quite happy to preserve the partitive en, somehow

“Like” therefore becomes nominalized as “the likes of which”.

In order to to get input from other English speakers, I asked around on Twitter and Facebook, provocatively, whether “the likes of which Air France had never seen” sounded clumsy. Several people were kind enough to reply:

  • Some found nothing remotely remarkable about the formulation, or even consider it the preferred way of rendering the original French
  • Some came out close to my gloss, with “a catastrophe such as Air France has never seen” or even “a catastrophe like Air France has never seen”
  • Some preferred turning “never” into “ever” (or left it out) and “like” into “unlike”, and even managed to slip the en back in in the form of “any”: “a catastrophe unlike any Air France has (ever) seen”
  • Some, including myself, went for a bold recasting: “an unprecedented catastrophe for Air France”
  • Finally, the linguist John Lawler came out in favour of “a catastrophe like Air France hasn’t never seen”, but implicitly admitted this version was really quite impossible, adding: “Alas, English Negative Concord was lost with the Dative case, and has been replaced with Negative Polarity.”

Quite a cornucopia of choices here.

Word of the day: kvell

On Twitter today, Neil Gaiman posted this:

Neil Gaiman using the verb kvell on Twitter
Neil Gaiman using the verb kvell on Twitter

The verb kvell was unfamiliar to me. The dictionaries revealed that it is, unsurprisingly, of Yiddish origin, related to the German verb quellen, which can mean several things, among which well up. The OED’s notes it as “US slang” and gives the definition as “[ad. Yiddish kveln, ad. G. quellen to gush, well up.] ” while the dictionary that comes with OS X, which is based on the New Oxford American Dictionary, has “feel happy and proud”. The word is also on Wikipedia’s very useful List of English words of Yiddish origin (“to feel delighted and proud to the point of tears”)

So Neil was overjoyed to the point of tearing up about Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie figuring on the National Portrait Gallery’s picture of the month.

A beautiful word, which I’m sure to keep in mind.