Books: The Last Lingua Franca

December 23, 2011

I came across mention of this book when I was doing a post, several weeks ago, about using the computer to translate from one language to another. Since I’m interested in anything to do with languages, I immediately put in a request for the book from the library.

Naturally, all the books I had requested became available the same week. I was sure I would like this one, so I started with it. It proved a much more difficult read than I had expected, however, so it was the last one of those that I finished.

The basic premise of The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, as indicated by the title, is that English will eventually cease to operate as a global lingua franca, but no other language will take its place. Nicholas Ostler doesn’t make this argument until the very end of the book, however. All the previous chapters are laying groundwork, showing the history behind the rise and fall of various languages that have at some point served for communication among people who do not share a mother tongue.

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Computer as translator

October 29, 2011

As a lover of language and languages, I was intrigued but bothered by the opening lines of an article I read this week at The Hot Word (’s blog). “Back in the 1940s, mathematician Warren Weaver made an audacious suggestion: what if translation was not a feat of literary theory and linguistics, but one of cryptography?” The rest of the article indicates that Weaver was on the right track, as evidenced by both Google Translate, and the recent success of some cryptographers in decoding the Copiale Cipher.

I think computers are great tools, and it wouldn’t surprise me if eventually they could be programmed to understand and use human languages fairly well. But to do it by the tools of mathematics rather than linguistics? Besides, even humans often do a poor job of translation (Charles Berlitz gives some very amusing examples in his book Native Tongues) – how could a computer possibly do better?

I decided to check out Google Translate. I took a sentence from the article I had just been reading, and pasted it into Google Translate. It didn’t matter much which language I translated it into, since my aim was to re-translate it to English and see how this compared with the original. I chose Russian. The result was not perfect, but better than I expected.

Original sentence: By making a machine-readable version of the text, a team of computational linguistics were able to run the characters through a software program that found patterns in the text, which were otherwise inscrutable.

Russian translation: Делая машиночитаемой версии текста, команда компьютерной лингвистики смогли запустить персонажей через программное обеспечение, которое обнаружили закономерности в тексте, которые в противном случае неисповедимы.

Back to English: Making the machine-readable version of the text, Computational Linguistics team were able to run characters through software, which found a pattern in the text, which otherwise inscrutable.

By way of comparison, Babel Fish produced this when translating the same sentence to Russian and then back to English: “With way to make machine-readable the version from the text, the command of computational linguistics could break into a run natures to the program of software which it found the pictures in the text, which were otherwise inscrutable.” Yes, definitely inscrutable.

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In other words

September 30, 2008

Unless you make your living translating from one language to another, you probably didn’t know that today is International Translation Day. I’ve always loved words and languages, and I enjoy trying to use what language skills I have – but I’ve never developed the degree of expertise in any language to make my living that way.

I was more interested to discover that it is also World Bible Translation Day, presumably also on September 30 to recognize the translation work of St. Jerome (who died September 30, 420). I have long heard figures on how many languages the Bible has been translated into (over 2000 have at least been started), but today is the first time I found a list of all of them. Some include samples of the beginning of the Gospel of John, though I can read only a few of them.

I also found a site where you can read the Bible online in a number of languages. It even includes some limited Bible study tools. I can’t think what practical use I can make of it right now, except perhaps to try learning a verse in German and see if my older son (who is in his second year of high school German) can understand it. (I have a Bible in German but it’s that old style font that I find difficult to read.)

Another online Bible translation I was happy to find was La Sankta Biblio. It’s been decades since I studied Esperanto with my parents (at the home of a man in our town who was eager to share his knowledge of this easy-to-learn constructed language). Even so, between what I did learn, my knowledge of some of the European languages that Dr. Zamenhof used to create this language, and my knowledge of the Bible, I can more or less understand at least familiar passages.

Fascinating as all this is, however, my brain says it’s time for bed. So, good night. Bonne nuit. Buenas noches. Bonan nokton. Gute nacht. Dobranoc. (No, I don’t know Polish – but I found a site that tells you how to say good night in a whole lot of different languages.)