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May 27, 2012 / ABC Translation Services

US Supreme Court decision reaffirms definitions of interpreting and translation as separate disciplines

The simple answer, now upheld by the Supreme Court, is that translators write, and interpreters speak.
When Japanese professional baseball player Kouichi Taniguchi fell through a wooden deck at the Marianas Resort and Spa while on vacation in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, he unwittingly set in motion a chain of legal maneuvers that culminated this week when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling.

The question presented before the highest court in the land, however, had nothing to do with construction codes, accident liability or even compensation for pain and suffering. The question presented is whether costs incurred in translating written documents are “compensation of interpreters” for purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6).

“So what?” may well be your next question. But for translators and interpreters, a cadre of multilingual knowledge workers whose importance continues to grow daily in the globally connected 21st century, and for those who rely on their services, calling things by their names matters. Clear definitions are important; they help ensure that all parties involved understand each other.

Consider Capitol Hill, home to this nation’s lawmakers. Representatives work in the House, while senators work in the Senate. The work they do is similar, but no senator would take kindly to being called a congressman, and no congressman would try to participate in a vote on the Senate floor, even though they both work in Congress.
A similar division of labor exists between translators and interpreters. Translators work with the written word. They translate international treaties. They translate seized documents from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. They have translated Harry Potter into at least 67 other languages.

In contrast, interpreters made the Nuremburg Trials possible by simultaneously interpreting witness testimony into and out of English, French, German and Russian for those present in the courtroom. Interpreters make it possible for our president to pick up the phone and speak with other world leaders. They work in countless emergency rooms across this country interpreting what doctors and patients say in life and death situations. A literary translator is of no more use to an emergency room doctor than a medical interpreter is to a company that wants to publish the English version of Stieg Larsson’s latest mystery novel.  The skills, disciplines, and job descriptions are quite distinct.

In its opinion, the Court stated that “both the ordinary and technical meanings of ‘interpreter,’ as well as the statutory context in which the word is found, lead to the conclusion that § 1920(6) does not apply to translators of written materials.”

May 27, 2012 / ABC Translation Services

Biodiversity often means linguistic diversity



Biodiversity hot spots — the world’s biologically richest and most threatened locations on Earth — and high biodiversity wilderness areas — biologically rich but less threatened — are some of the most linguistically diverse regions on our planet, according to a team of conservationists.


“Results indicate that these regions (hot spots and high biodiversity wilderness areas) often contain considerable linguistic diversity, accounting for 70 percent of all languages on Earth,” the researchers reportin this the May 7 early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.“Moreover, the languages involved frequently are unique to particular regions, with many facing extinction.”

Currently, biologists estimate yearly losses of species at a rate 1,000 times higher than historic rates. Linguists predict that by the end of the 21st century, 50 to 90 percent of the world’s languages will disappear.

“Paul Ehrlich likened the loss of species to removing the rivets in a plane’s wings,” said Larry J. Gorenflo, associate professor of landscape architecture, Penn State. “How many rivets can you remove before the wing falls off and the plane falls out of the sky? Similarly, how many species can you lose before an ecosystem fails? Unfortunately, stopping species loss in a world of 7 billion people is extremely challenging.

“We conducted this study to understand more about the people living in areas important for biodiversity conservation.”

Previous research indicated a connection between language diversity and biodiversity, but the datasets were geographically imprecise. Now, Gorenflo, working with Suzanne Romaine, Merton Professor of English Language, Merton College, Oxford University, U.K.; Russell A. Mittermeier, president, and Kristen Walker-Painemilla, vice president, social policy and practice, Conservation International, used recently compiled global data showing the geographic locations of more than 6,900 languages compiled for geographic information system (GIS) applications by Global Mapping International. They used the locations of hot spots and high biodiversity wilderness areas compiled in GIS form by Conservation International.

“We looked at regions important for biodiversity conservation and measured their linguistic diversity in an effort to understand an important part of the human dimension of these regions,” said Gorenflo.

The researchers first looked at diversity on a regional level. Locations with an exceptionally high number of species unique to that location that also has a loss of habitat of 70 percent or more — hot spots. Comprising only 2.3 percent of Earth’s surface, intact habitat in the 35 hotspots contain more than half the world’s vascular plants and 43 percent of terrestrial vertebrate species.

In these 35 hotspots, the researchers found 3,202 languages — nearly half of all languages spoken on Earth. These hotspots are spread throughout the world’s continents with the exception of Antarctica.

They also examined linguistic diversity in five high biodiversity wilderness areas, whose remaining habitat covers about 6.1 percent of Earth’s surface and contains about 17 percent of the vascular plant species and 6 percent of the terrestrial vertebrate species. These regions contained another 1,622 languages. As in the case of the hotspots, many languages are unique to particular areas and are spoken by relatively few people, making them susceptible to extinction.

“What ends up happening when we lose linguistic diversity is we lose a bunch of small groups with traditional economics,” said Gorenflo. “Indigenous languages tend to be replaced by those associated with a modern industrial economy accompanied by other changes such as the introduction of chain saws. In terms of biodiversity conservation, all bets are off.”

If losing species biodiversity is like losing rivets from an airplane, losing languages can also have a profound effect. According to Gorenflo, losing these languages can lead to the loss of a lot of environmental information that becomes inaccessible as the words, culture and language disappear.

“I think it argues for concerted conservation efforts that are integrated and try to maintain biodiversity and cultural diversity,” said Gorenflo.

He suggests that without cultural and linguistic diversity, which is increasingly appears to be tied to biological diversity, biodiversity loss likely will continue at alarming rates.

“In many cases it appears that conditions that wipe out species wipe out languages,” said Gorenflo.

The researchers do not know why areas of endangered species concentration and endangered languages coexist. Possibly indigenous cultures, supported by their languages, create the conditions to maintain species and keep the ecosystems working.

“I think basically this study helps to establish these areas of high biodiversity as the world’s most important landscapes,” said Gorenflo.

The researchers believe their study is a starting point to explore the relationship between biological and linguistic-cultural diversity. This will also help develop strategies for conserving species and languages in areas where rich diversity of both exists.

“We want to being to look at selected places with high biological and linguistic diversity to begin to explore the connections between the two, such as Tanzania, where there are 130-plus languages,” said Gorenflo. “Also, the Indo-Burma hotspot in Southeast Asia, where there are nearly 400 languages, and the island of Vanuatu in the Pacific with 100-plus languages.”


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May 27, 2012 / ABC Translation Services

China to Recognize Mongolian Signatures

Authorities in northern China have promised to allow ethnic Mongolians the right to sign official documents using their native language, according to a Mongolian rights group, following years of campaigning by one activist as part of an effort to assert autonomy under Chinese rule.

The pledge could set a precedent for ethnic Mongolians in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (IMAR) where hundreds of complaints have been filed against various levels of Chinese government branches for discriminatory policies against members of the minority group.

Munkhdalai Borjigin, a retired employee of San Lian Chemistry in the regional capital Hohhot, told the U.S.- based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) that he had received the notice on May 17 after years of appealing to government departments over being repeatedly denied the right to sign bank documents in Mongolian.

According to Munkhdalai, the notice assured him that an official government document would be issued shortly to enforce the order.

The letter was received on the same day that Tao Jian, deputy director of the Autonomous Region Political and Legal Affairs Committee met with Public Security Bureau officials and various banking authorities to adopt the decision, which ordered that signatures in Mongolian be accepted throughout the entire regional banking system, SMHRIC said.

SMHRIC director Enhebatu Togochog said that hundreds of Mongolians across the IMAR had filed similar complaints over being denied banking and other services because they had attempted to sign documents in their native language.

But he remained skeptical that the new government promise would be effectively implemented.

“The authorities have promised that they are going to come out with some official document to ensure that the Mongolian signatures are accepted without any problem, but there is no guarantee that the change will really be fulfilled,” Enhebatu said.

“According to the notice, and according to the explanation by Munkhdalai, it is applicable for everybody—every Mongolian in the autonomous region. But in reality, it’s totally different. I don’t know how the policy will be implemented in the real world,” he said.

“The Chinese authorities have done this many times.”

He gave an example of a Mongolian man who sued the Chinese postal service several years ago because postal workers would not deliver his mail with a Mongolian address printed on the envelope.

The court found in the man’s favor, ordering that the mail had to be delivered as addressed. But since then, Enhebatu said, many postal branches continue to refuse to deliver mail addressed in Mongolian.

“China is not a country of rule of law. They make promises, but in reality it is totally different.”

According to SMHRIC, Munkhdalai had spent years campaigning to have his Mongolian signature accepted on official documents after being repeatedly denied service at banks in the autonomous region.

In September 2006, the former chemical company employee had tried to withdraw money from his account with the Xian Fu Street branch of the Chinese Agricultural Bank, only to be told by a bank employee that signatures in Mongolian were “legally unacceptable” and have his request rejected.

Munkhdalai appealed to the Hohhot City Nationality Affairs Committee, which ordered that the bank employee apologize and allow him to withdraw his money.

In June 2010, Munkhdalai again signed his name in Mongolian while replacing his banking documents at the Jin Qiao Branch of the Chinese Agricultural Bank, but was told to sign using his Chinese name. When he refused, the bank suspended his account.

Munkhdalai filed a lawsuit against the bank, which was heard in July that year by the Hohhot City Saihan District Court. During the proceedings, he refused to speak in Chinese and requested the case be conducted in Mongolian.

On the back of a strong legal argument, Munkhdalai won the case, and the bank was ordered to provide him with compensation and a promise to accept Mongolian signatures in the future.

In November 2010, Munkhdalai appealed to the Hohhot City Hui Nationality District Disciplinary Committee and the Autonomous Region Nationality Affairs Committee, claiming that the refusal of Mongolian signatures in the region was a violation of rights, but was driven out of both offices.

And in March last year, he again had a request to withdraw money from the Agricultural Bank denied at its Xin Hua Street branch based on his refusal to sign his Chinese name, demonstrating that the earlier promise by bank officials was not being honored.

“There is no guarantee that the notice given to me [will be] fully implemented,” Munkhdalai told SMHRIC when asked about the likelihood that the new government pledge would be honored. “But that does not stop me from continuing to fight for my legal rights.”

Earlier, in a blog entry posted on March 23, Munkhdalai highlighted the need for ethnic Mongolians to protect their national language, culture, and identity, despite the obstacles.

“If we do not fight for our own rights, who else will stand up for them?”

In its 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, released Thursday, the U.S. State Department highlighted another of Inner Mongolia’s most prominent activists, Hada, in calling on China to improve its respect for the integrity of the person, including freedom from disappearance.

“At year’s end authorities continued to hold ethnic Mongolian activist Hada, his wife, and his son in detention without trial or pressing formal charges,” the report said, noting that Hada had been released from prison in December 2010, after serving a 15-year prison sentence on espionage and separatism charges.

Hada had founded the Southern Mongolia Democracy Alliance, which called for a referendum on the future of the IMAR.

May 27, 2012 / ABC Translation Services

Translation FAQs

Translation & Interpretation FAQs

Q: What is the difference between a translator and an interpreter?

A: Translators transfer ideas and concepts expressed in writing from one language to another. As a rule, professional translators work into their native or dominant language from a foreign tongue.

Interpreters use the spoken word to transfer meaning between languages. Interpreters work both into and out of their native tongue.

Translation promotes your business overseas (or at home, to a market that speaks a different language) and helps you gather vital information on customers, technology, and new developments in your field. One example of translation’s importance in today’s economy is localization, the process of adapting a product or service to different cultures and markets. When software is localized, on-screen text and icons, help files, and user’s manuals are translated to fit the target audience. A technically skilled translator will help you design websites for global communication and e-commerce, so your customers overseas feel like they are actually at a “local” website. Customers are more likely to buy from you if you speak their language.

Interpreting is often used in a small group setting (“consecutive interpreting”) such as a legal deposition, medical consultation, or business meeting. “Escort interpreting” is a form of consecutive interpreting used during site visits and travel with delegations. “Simultaneous interpreting,” most often used in a large conference setting, requires the rental of audio equipment (soundproof booths, headsets, microphones, etc.).

Q: How do I pick the right translator or interpreter?

A: Skills and qualifications. Translators and interpreters bring a unique combination of linguistic and subject-area expertise to the job of conveying your message accurately and completely to a foreign reader or listener. Much more than just “switching words,” the job really involves the transfer of concepts into another cultural context.

Translators are skilled in writing, editing, research, and terminology. Typically, translators have resided in a country where the source language is spoken and are familiar with its culture, business practices, and legal system.

Interpreters must be fluent in both languages and possess excellent memory, listening, concentration, and analytical skills. They convey both the meaning and tone of the original statement clearly and accurately, and must be quick-witted, often literally “thinking on their feet.”

Knowing two languages perfectly is not enough to translate or interpret professionally. In addition to their training in translation or interpreting, competent language professionals usually specialize in a particular area (such as law, medicine, finance, or technical fields). Interpreters may be certified for court interpreting at the federal level in some languages. There are also examinations in some states for court and medical interpreting.

Q: Should I look for an individual or a translation company?

A: Translation companies have a depth of resources and can assign a translator that is perfectly suited to your project. Also, translation companies routinely check all work for accuracy, which is something that is beyond the scope of most individual or independent translators. Companies also have long track records and proven success with many satisfied customers.

The strength of a language services company lies in the breadth of resources on which it can call. By working with networks of independent translators and interpreters skilled in different languages and areas of specialization, companies are able to meet a wider variety of needs. The oversight and coordination they provide can be invaluable for large projects which involve many translators, interpreters, and editors working into multiple languages. Translation companies also add value through desktop publishing or typesetting and furnish specialized equipment for interpreting assignments. Be sure to ask for references as to the company’s reputation for consistently delivering high-quality work on time and honoring its cost estimates.

Q: Why should I hire a professional instead of using a free service like Google Translate?

A: As impressive as Google Translate and other similar services are beginning to be, they still cannot do what a human can do: understand a text with all its nuances of meaning and re-create that in just the right words in another language. All Google Translate will do is match words and phrases with previously translated words and phrases in its database. It cannot research the right term for a technical document, find the right play on words for a newspaper article, or craft a message that resonates with a different target audience for an ad that will be used in a different market.

If you want a polished text that you can be proud to put your or your company’s name on, you want to work with a professional translator. And if you have ongoing translation needs, that person can prove an invaluable advisor to help you efficiently manage your documents and your budget.

If you have questions about a translation project, feel free to contact us and we’ll provide free advise – and usually a free quote as well!  Reach us by visiting our website at

May 26, 2012 / ABC Translation Services

Lost in translation: English in Brazil

One of the main challenges leading up to Brazil’s mega-events – including the Rio+20, the World Cup, and the Olympics – is a shortage of English speakers in key sectors, including tourism, transportation, and hospitality. For those who spend lots of time in Brazil and speak Portuguese or hope to become fluent, this is actually an advantage, which can allow for more immersion.

But for one-time visitors or those dependent on English as their only language or the only other way to communicate outside of their native language (such as Chinese, Russian, etc), it can prove to be a problem.

On global English rankings, Brazil does not fare well. EF, a global English education company, released its international English proficiency index for 2011, showing that Brazil ranked as a country with “low English proficiency.” Though it was among the lowest ranking countries, Brazil scored above the “very low proficiency” countries such as Panama and Vietnam.

Released in April, the GlobalEnglish Corporation Business English Index ranked Brazil among the lowest in the world among countries with the least amount of English fluency in the workplace, which puts the country “at a disadvantage.” An Economist Intelligence Unit report released this month indicated that Brazil is one of the countries that struggles the most with the language barrier in international business; nearly three-quarters of Brazilians surveyed said their company had experienced “financial losses as a result of failed cross-border transactions.”

Brazilian surveys reflect this issue, showing low levels of English knowledge at all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum. A Catho survey from late last year found that only 11 percent of Brazilian job candidates could communicate well in English, and only 3.4 percent of all candidates could speak fluent English. A 2009 Catho study found that 24 percent of Brazilian professionals speak fluent English, and that only 8 percent of Brazilian executives speak fluent English.

A lack of English speakers even in high-tech fields has hurt Brazil’s competitiveness in IT and outsourcing like call centers. According to a Data Popular survey released this month, the “new middle class” in Brazil will spend R$28.1 billion (US $13.8 billion) on education in 2012, but only 1 in 5 members of the so-called C class knows how to speak a foreign language.

One writer wrote about the puzzlingly poor translation of Embratur (Brazil’s tourism bureau)’s English site, particularly the interactive World Cup section. Some errors were particularly egregious since they simply required a Google or Wikipedia search rather than a translated phrase. At the end of the post, he wrote:

“Obviously, no one is going to decide not to visit Trancoso because of a vocabulary error. But give up visiting a country that doesn’t have legible information on its official website? With so many other countries with their eye on the billions of dollars from international tourists? It’s not only possible, it’s probable.”

In response, Embratur said it had hired a third-party company, Agencia Click, to do the site and translation, and that it would release the site with a new translation later this year. The whole thing was quite strange, considering that the agency in question, which is one of the largest and well-respected digital communications companies in the country, should have no problem finding real translators. But it’s a symptomatic case in a country where things are often and sometimes unnecessarily lost in translation.

On the other hand, the upcoming mega-events have added pressure to the tourism sector to hire more English speakers. In a recent “review” of São Paulo’s Guarulhos Airport, Kugel found that three different information booth workers were able to communicate in English, providing helpful information about hotels and sightseeing. (However, special groups run by judges aimed to solve issues like lost baggage and overbookings at Brazil’s biggest airports have only a single English-speaking employee, a recent report said.) Language schools estimate that foreign language courses will grow by 30 to 40 percent over the next four years in preparations for the World Cup and Olympics. Last year, around 120 taxi drivers in Rio received English training in a special course for taxistas – the first of its kind in the country – which inspired similar taxi driver courses from Piauí to Rio Grande do Sul.

There are plenty of English speakers in Brazil, but these speakers are sometimes concentrated in specialized fields like finance and web companies. Brazil’s real challenge isn’t just going to be finding and training English speakers in key jobs before the mega-events, but rather improving foreign language education at the elementary and secondary school levels so that the next generation has better opportunities in the global economy.


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May 26, 2012 / ABC Translation Services

Man-to-dolphin conversation? Scientists can now talk like dolphins

A new dolphin speaker device could one day help us talk with these remarkably intelligent life forms, scientists say.

Dolphins live in a world of sound far beyond our own. They can distinguish very small differences in the frequency or pitch of sound waves, and can hear and generate low-frequency sounds below 20 kilohertz that lie within human capabilities, as well as high-frequency sounds of up to more than 150 kilohertz, well beyond the range of our hearing. In addition, dolphins not only can produce tones just as humans do, but they can also communicate at a variety of frequencies simultaneously. With whistles, burst-pulse sounds and clicks, dolphins use sound not only to communicate and to scan their surroundings and prey in the dark sea (called echolocation).

Acoustic research of dolphins to date has mostly focused on recording their sounds and measuring their hearing abilities. Relatively few audio playback experiments have been attempted, since it is difficult to find speakers that can project from a wide range of low to high frequencies like dolphins do, said Heidi Harley, a comparative cognitive psychologist at New College of Florida in Sarasota, who wasn’t involved in developing the dolphin speaker.

Now scientists have developed a prototype dolphin speaker that can project the full range of all of the sounds dolphins make — from those used in communication to echolocation clicks.

The researchers employed piezoelectric components that convert electricity into physical movement and vice versa. These components were capable of broadcasting both high-frequency and low-frequency sounds. The researchers precisely tailored the sizes of these components and the acrylic disk to create an extremely broad range of sounds.

“I am happy if we can communicate with dolphins using the dolphin speaker,” researcher Yuka Mishima at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology told LiveScience.

The dolphin speaker was developed just a few weeks ago, so dolphin scientists have not had a chance to try it out yet. Mishima and colleagues plan to work with such scientists using the new speaker. The idea is to broadcast specific series of vocalizations and then record the responses; over time, this back and forth could someday both reveal what dolphins are “saying” and allow possible human-dolphin communication.

“We know very little about how dolphins classify their own sounds — we need more perceptual studies to find out, and this equipment may help us do that,” Harley told LiveScience.

As to whether or not this invention could one day result in a human-dolphin translator device, “I think we have a lot to learn about dolphin vocalizations — their productions are complex,” Harley said. “There is still a lot of basic perceptual and acoustic analysis that needs to be done before we can make strong claims about how dolphins are using their vocalizations.”

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May 26, 2012 / ABC Translation Services

Found in translation

Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest is one of those quintessentially English works of the theater that the thought of it being produced in another language immediately sets off alarm bells. But it is such a great work of comedy that it has nevertheless been adapted numerous times, not least into Chinese. This weekend sees the revival of a Chinese-language production that premiered 28 years ago, translated by one of Taiwan’s great poets and translators, Yu Guangzhong (余光中).

The play proved an enormous success when it was first shown in a Mandarin and Cantonese version in 1984 and 1985 respectively, under the direction of Daniel Yang (楊世彭), who even then was already a major figure in theater and had staged the works of major European and American playwrights. He is now Professor Emeritus of Theater, University of Colorado Boulder, and Artistic Director Emeritus, Hong Kong Repertory Theater, and his return to this challenging adaptation is a thrilling event for fans of contemporary Asian theater.

Yang said that he would select The Importance of Being Earnest as one of the top five works of theater in the English language, and he has directed the play in five separate productions in Asia over the course of his career.

The success of the Chinese adaptation owes much to the skill of Yu, who is best known as a poet and essayist, and is also a prolific translator. “In the translation of poetry and novels, especially poetry, I cannot lightly make changes to the words on the page. Poetry is designed to be read with care and patience. In a play, on the other hand, the words are spoken by actors, and pass rapidly through the ears’ of the audience. For this reason, the way I deal with the translation of plays is very different from how I approach poetry. It needs to be much more accessible,” Yu said.

Yu relies heavily on his outstanding command of the Chinese language to create dialogue that approximates the lightness and sparkling wit of the original. It is not without some irony that Yu has recently been in the news for criticizing the overemphasis on English language education in Taiwan, especially in relation to the very young. Speaking at a international conference on translation last month, Yu addressed the issue of enhanced English language testing to be introduced by the Ministry of Education. Speaking as one of the most respected translators from English to Chinese, Yu said he didn’t start learning English until high school, and that this late start had never got in his way. Yu warned that foreign language education should not be pressed at the expense of obtaining a solid grounding in Chinese. He said that as a student of foreign languages and a teacher of English, he did not oppose English-language instruction, but added that “I was very lucky in that with my other hand, I retained a very firm grasp of Chinese.”

Yu said that the linguistic subtleties of Wilde made him a great challenge to the translator, but added that on occasion, the nature of the Chinese language made his translations superior to the original. “Wilde loved using symmetrical phrases for effect, and no language on Earth is as good at this kind of symmetrical composition as Chinese,” Yu said.

Apart from the verbal pyrotechnics, Yu added that Importance of Being Earnest is a social satire, and despite the period setting and the razor-sharp banter, the play is rooted in the hypocrisy and vanity that characterized the society of his time; and society has not changed all that much, so the play continues to resonate even in modern Asian society.

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