Language Guessing Game

For those who like sounds,  accents and/or languages and have 5 minutes for a bit of fun, here is a little game where you listen to eight short recordings and must guess what language it is from a choice of two or three each time.

I scored 6/8. How did you do?


Good Bye… for Now

Dear followers,

Thank you very much to the 62 people who have followed this blog over the past 16 months of its existence. It’s good to know I’ve not been talking/writing to myself 🙂

Sadly, as my translation work is growing, I have decided to reduce and refocus my blogging activities. Much as I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and researching for this blog, I must put this one on hold for now and may add to it as and when I find something inspiring to share. In the meantime, I have started a new blog (with fewer posts) on translation, which some of you may like to follow too:

Wishing you all a gloriously sunny summer!


The Gallic rooster is a mascot familiar to many, especially to the followers of team sports such as rugby or football. But why a rooster?

The answer is not quite clear, but it seems to revolve around a debate on the etymology of the name of Gaul. Some argue that ‘Gaul’ takes its root from the Greek Galatai or Galatae (milk-white, in an alleged reference to the Gauls’ skin), others defend that it stems from the Germanic term walha (foreigner, Romanized person), while another group supports that the Romans simply called this land Gallia or Galli.

If we accept the Latin origin, the idea of the Gallic rooster would come from a pun with the word gallus, i.e. rooster. The debate then continues as to whether the Romans used the pun to make fun of the Gauls, making an analogy with the loud and proud bird that did not compare to the Roman eagle, or whether the Gauls themselves thought of the pun and adopted the domestic animal as their emblem when the Roman Empire lost Gaul to the Franks in the late 5th century.

Bertie by Penelope TimmisPainting: Bertie by Penelope Timmis (

The Tanks’ Aura

Last April, I finally visited the Tanks at Tate Modern and came back enthralled. When some thought that the ubiquitous plain white cubic space of art galleries could not be stripped down to a more minimalist decor, Tate tears the plaster-and-paint flesh from the walls, exposing the bare stout bones of its foundations.

In spite of the desolate and austere visual quality of the surrounding, with small flights of stairs going from an inaccessible overhanging platform to cemented doorways, there is an aura of dignity and welcoming warmth, as if those stern walls and pillars watched over you from the height of their old age and wisdom. While these structures are certainly imposing, there is nothing intimidating about the place. Indeed, the quiet atmosphere leaves you with a feeling of peace.

Although the appreciation of concrete as the final material in its own right is nothing new, other raw pieces of architecture such as Le Corbusier’s or the Arche de la défense (the foundations of which can also be visited) rarely give such a mighty aura, especially on such a small scale.

How to Address your Mother-in-Law in Dyirbal

If the formal and informal ‘you’ forms of some languages seem like a minefield to the English speaker, Dyirbal, an Australian language from North Queensland extinct since about 1930, offers a challenge of another level yet.

Dyirbal comprised two separate sublanguages, each depending on who was present. A Dyalnuy, or “mother-in-law language”, was used in the presence of certain “taboo” relatives and a Guwal, or everyday language, was used in all other circumstances. Taboo relatives (parents- or children-in-law or a cross-cousins – i.e. a father’s sister’s or mother’s brother’s child – of the opposite sex) could not be approached or looked at, let alone spoken to directly. In the case of cross-cousins, the distinction was made so as to create a distance between people who might be interested in each other as spouses, which was forbidden. Thus the language signalled very clearly who was sexually available to whom.

While this may sound like a linguistic and cultural nightmare, the complexity of the social conventions and the key role that language plays are no less fascinating.

Chocolate, Lard and Tea

Ai WeiWei’s A Ton of Tea, recently exhibited in Bristol, conjures up Chocolate Gnaw and Lard Gnaw (1992) by Janine Antoni. Although the two pieces address different topics, they coul be perceived as following the same metaphorical discourse, with Ai’s work retrospectively expanding on the interpretation of Antoni’s.

In an interview with MoMA, Antoni explains that “[Chocolate] seemed to embody desire for the viewer, and what happens if you succumb to that desire? You get fat. So I used fat as the material to make the second cube … The lard will begin as a cube and as the exhibition goes on, it will collapse on to the floor”. By extension, her cubes could be read as a comment on consumerism, saturation of greed overindulgence and the eventual collapse of capitalism.

As if following in Antoni’s steps, Ai’s A Ton of Tea “makes reference to post-war art history and globalisation, through the humble substance of tea, China’s oldest export” (caption), thus alluding to today’s economy, with the Sleeping Giant now waking up to take over in the lead.

Photos of Antoni’s work:,
Photo of Ai’s work: my own

Translating Mandela

It probably comes as no surprise to most Europeans that Nelson Mandela wished for his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, to be translated into several African languages. It seems the obvious way of making the book accessible to all as well as acknowledging minority languages and the diversity of communities sharing the country of South Africa. But reading an article by Antjie Krog, translator of Long Walk to Freedom into Afrikaans, I was surprised to discover an opposite perspective:

“An important barometer of the power of a language is the number of texts translated into it, so imagine my surprise when I received a request to translate Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, from English into Afrikaans, my mother-tongue, spoken by only 13.5 percent of the South African population.

“I was informed that Mandela wanted it to be translated into Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and Northern Sotho. Why? I wondered. The translation of the Bible into our indigenous languages was frowned upon as a form of colonisation: a way for Western values to gain entry into the traditional heart of the indigenous communities. But as we came to know the man, this request was vintage Mandela.”

As a European translator, I see translation as a vehicle for mutual understanding, the sharing ideas and international peace. Coming across such a view was both striking and humbling.

Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog

Photo: (credit: Philippe Matsas)

What do You Want to See?

Art is about to compete with marketing, or indeed take centre stage in our streets, as many commercial posters will be replaced by prints of artworks all around the UK for two refreshing weeks.

From the 21st June (tomorrow), the Art Everywhere project will open its virtual polling station to the broad public. By voting for your favourite 50 British artworks, this is your chance to influence what we see around the country between 10th and 25th August, making a visual difference to our urban landscape. As there will be tens of thousands of such posters, this will turn the UK into “the world’s largest art gallery”.

This is free, so get involved and get voting!

The Beguiling of Merlin, by Edward Burne-Jones

The Beguiling of Merlin, by Edward Burne-Jones


Oh Noooo…

There is no shortage of political or diplomatic incidents in international archives caused by mistranslations, often due to false friends. Some blunders, however, are comical rather than harmful.

One such example is cited in John Coleman-Holmes’s book Mâcher du Coton. As a Spanish speaker once started to address the delegates of a conference by saying “Please excuse me, I have a cold”, the French side suddenly burst into laughter. Curious as to the cause of this hubbub, the rest of the delegation tuned into the French channel, looking towards the interpreters’ booths. In a lapse of concentration, the Spanish-to-French interpreter had translated “Estoy constipado, perdónadme” as “Excuse me, I’m constipated”.

Mistakes (and painful embarrassment) happen to us all…

embarrassed bunnyPhotos:

A Fading Jewel on the Emerald Coast

Rothéneuf, a village near St Malo in Brittany, France, is among those enigmatic coastal spots where the well-polished boulders have given way to a transfixed colony of people and animals.

From 1894 to 1910, abbé Fouré, a local priest who became partly paralysed and deaf at the age of 30, sculpted the rocks into a semi chaos reminiscent of Easter Island silhouettes, fallen gargoyles and bas-relief. Mostly inspired by the news, he portrayed real people, some of whom are famous. (Jacques Cartier, who was born at Rothéneuf, is thought to be represented twice on the site.) A few animals and strange creatures also appear in places.

The monumental and extravagant display evokes a creative delirium, mixing the fun and fantastic of the setting and odd creatures with an element of meditation with the motionless characters forever contemplating the sea.

Over a century later, the ebb and flow of 40,000 pairs of feet a year have added to the erosion of this once colourful crowd to the point of endangering the art work’s existence. The association Les Amis de l’œuvre de l’abbé Fouré was founded in 2010 to campaign for the preservation of the site.

(The 8th June is World Oceans’ Day.)