Smart Ways #8: Constructed Languages, Translapreneurs, and more

In this issue of our weekly newsletter, we’ll dive into Arrival’s Heptapod, Game of Thrones’s Dothraki, and other fascinating constructed languages of our days. We will also talk about some translation technology myths, going from freelancers to entrepreneurs, and more. Read on!

Smart Ways 8. Under Construction (2)

Under Construction

With all this election and thanksgiving stuff, we almost missed what was much more interesting and important to us language lovers — the release of Arrival, a movie that “made linguists look almost cool” (very funny, Washington Post!). Central to its plot is “Heptapod B” — a written language used by the eponymous aliens.

In an interview for Slate, linguist Betty Birner of Northern Illinois University points out that the language’s circular logograms “don’t look anything like any [existing] written language,” and that it is “terrific to see something that was really, really different but plausible as a communicative system.” This resonates with the director Denis Villeneuve’s message (see the video from ScreenPrism below) that he “didn’t want something that can relate to any human language, [but a language] coming from another way of thinking.”

Turns out, the person behind the logograms is not a linguist but a visual artist, Martine Bertrand. As quoted by Insider, she “came up with about 100 different words, different [expressions, meanings, concepts, sentences and words] to present and communicate.” But, however intriguing and novel, “Heptapod” does not qualify as a full-fledged language. Rather, as the film’s linguistic consultant Jessica Coon says in another Insider article, “it’s an artistic idea of how complex [and] different a language could be.”

There are many examples of constructed languages in pop culture. We can mention Dothraki and Valyrian, two conlangs designed for the Game of Thrones series by linguist David J. Peterson. Peterson specializes in creating languages for TV and movies, and even wrote a book on how to create your own. It’s a fun read not only for a conlanger, but for any language enthusiast.

If constructed languages are occasional guests in Hollywood and TV flicks, the true playgrounds where language creators can let their talents shine are video games. This week, Amanda Wilks of Infinigeeks wrote about the gaming world’s most popular artlangs (artistic languages = conlangs created for a primarily artistic purpose). Dovahzul, D’ni, Hylian, Tho Fan — if these names alone are not enough to feel their artistry, here’s a quote from the second of them: “Lenah biv kenen tenesh erthbantee meh keelentee roob rekeelen fahets kenen ten ril-tsan.” It already sounds like poetry even if we don’t know the meaning, doesn’t it?

Conlanging is undergoing revival these days. “Older” conlangers used to be scorned or ridiculed by the society. As Peterson writes in his book, “parents who found their children creating languages would consider the practice so bizarre that they believed it to be indicative of some sort of mental disorder.” And though even until this day “revealing […] that one conlangs is still referred to as ‘coming out’,” times are changing. Due to the spread of online communities such as Conlang.org, the “new” conlangers don’t have “to defend their work as not being a serious attempt to create a new universal language.”

Who knows, maybe some day we will have English to Dovahzul projects on SmartCAT? We’re all for it: In its core, conlanging is driven by the same force as translating — the desire to create something from nothing.

What about you? Have you ever created a whole new language? We’d love to share your story in our blog!

The Red List

While some languages are being constructed, others go the opposite way, entering a metaphorical “Red List” of endangered languages and dialects. We already wrote about this happening to the indigenous languages of North America and Oceania, but, comes out, those are not the only ones suffering “deconstruction.”

In an article for the New York Times, researcher Emily Feng writes about the Beijing dialect — the one that was used as the primary basis for today’s so-called Mandarin. “The dialect is a testament to the city’s tumultuous history of invasion and foreign rule,” Feng writes. However, today “49% of local Beijing residents born after 1980 would rather speak Mandarin,” and the dialect is quickly disappearing. The government considered, but abandoned, the idea of teaching it in schools. The only effort to save it so far is limited to recording “the dialect’s remaining speakers,” with the material “to be released to the public as an online museum and interactive database.”

In another NY Times article, Raphael Minder shares a similar story from Europe. He writes about Alghero, a city in Sardinia that he refers to as “Italy’s last bastion of the Catalan language.” The scenario repeats here: “Catalan is not only overshadowed by Italian, but it must also compete for recognition with […] other languages and dialects,” Minder writes. Unlike the Beijing dialect, though, Catalan has no problems with the availability of books or education. But, as the article quotes Sara Alivesi of the city’s only Catalan-language publication, “you can organize conferences, publish books and do many other things, but speaking is the only thing that really keeps a language alive.” Turns out, overcoming the native speakers’ own reluctance to use their own language is the hardest part in saving it.

But perhaps the most interesting story is the one told by Kaveh Waddell on The Atlantic. The language in question is the Fula language. Mind you, it has no lack of speakers, being native to almost 25 million people across Central and Western Africa. But the problem is that “Fulani’s sounds [are] rendered imprecisely by the Arabic alphabet, the script most often used to write it[, and] the Latin alphabet presented similar problems,” writes Waddell. This leads to the lack of educational and literary content that can be used to let it thrive.

A daring solution came from two Guinean brothers, Abdoulaye and Ibrahima Barry. Back in their school days, they decided to develop their own writing system that would fit the language’s phonetics. After 26 years of copying books by hand, vagabonding across the continent, and even being imprisoned, the brothers seem to be on the right track. Adlam (that’s how the language came do be called) is included in Unicode 9.0, taught in more than 10 countries, and even has a special “Adlam SMS” app that allows smartphone users to text each other using it. Here’s a video of what the script actually looks like, and the sounds it represents:

Thus, having made a full circle from a fictional script that should help a fictional humankind to a real one that is helping real peoples, we finish our lengthy featured topic and get back to business.

From Freelancers to Entrepreneurs

Let’s talk about a career switch that is enticing for many freelance translators. How do you stop being an “individual contributor,” earning only as long as you are typing, and become someone who can take a day off and still keep getting income?

If you are asking this question to yourself, one thing you need is whether you really want to make that switch. Megan Santos of FreshBooks  lists some simple but effective steps to help you “avert the identity crisis,” namely:

  1. Audit your day-to-day responsibilities and tasks.
  2. Find out what really motivates you.
  3. Determine your end goal.

We encourage you to read the whole article, as it will make you ask the right questions before deciding to become a “translapreneur.”

And, as most of our readers are SmartCAT users, we can’t help mentioning an article we published this week, 7 Good Reasons to Grow from Freelancer to Entrepreneur on SmartCAT. Make sure to read it if you are still confining yourself to a freelancer account — you might be missing out on a lot of fun!

Finally, we know through personal discussions that the topic of starting your own agency is interesting for many of you — that’s why I decided to start a Facebook group called “Freelance Translators to Entrepreneurs.” Its purpose is to let aspiring translapreneurs help each other and share tips and tricks for starting — and running — a linguistic agency. From our side, we promise to be researching the topic closely and sharing our insights with you.

Myth Busting

One of our most-read articles is “10 Myths About Computer-Aided Translation.” A lot of you have emailed us asking to explore the topic deeper, as superstitions are hard to get rid of. And so we gladly did, teaming up with Elena Tereshchenkova and Dmitry Kornyukhov in the latest episode of #TranslatorsOnAir.

As you can see from the comments alone, it was a highly entertaining — and at times even provocative — discussion:

hard_questions_easy_answers

Nicely worded, thanks!

Which is good — because the more hard questions are asked, the more answers we can give, and the more stereotypes and myths we can debunk together.

You can watch the replay on Crowdcast or YouTube:

… and more

Okay, it was the longest newsletter to date — which is why we’re sending it out on Friday (no one likes to actually work on Friday, right?). But it wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t mention — at least superficially — these awesome translation- and language-related posts that caught our eye this week:


That’s it. Thanks for bearing with us — hope we gave you some interesting food for thought and ideas for work. Enjoy your weekend, and see you on Monday!

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