Monday, 31 December 2012

The Bigger Picture

The East Riding of Yorkshire is considered by many as a provincial backwater. This ‘riding’ is the least well known of the three traditional constituent parts of the old county of Yorkshire. Whereas the West Riding has the lion's share of the population (with the Leeds-Bradford and Sheffield conurbations), and the North Riding has the greatest preponderance of tourist attractions (including the Yorkshire Dales and North Yorks Moors national parks), the East Riding is thinly populated and geographically off the beaten track. Apart from the port of Hull and the resorts of Bridlington and Filey, for many, the East Riding is a blind spot on the map of northern England. But all of a sudden, things are changing.   

VHEY is a cryptic acronym for the organisation which is responsible for promoting tourism in the region. In fact, is the equally implausible website address. Geographically, the territory that the VHEY tourist body represents roughly equates to the now defunct East Riding of Yorkshire (which was swallowed up by newly created North Yorkshire and Humberside regions in the local government reorganisation of 1974). It occupies an irregular triangle delineated by an imaginary line which joins up York, Hull, Spurn Head, Bridlington, Scarborough and York. The main geomorphological feature are the Yorkshire Wolds, which (for my Dutch readers) are not dissimilar to the undulating ‘uplands’ of South Limburg. The Yorkshire Wolds mark the most northerly limits of chalk in Britain and form a largely homogeneous region of rolling hills, with the Vale of Pickering situated to the north and the low-lying district of Holderness to the south.

VHEY is now producing lavishly printed brochures promoting the region as one which ‘could have been made for cycling, walking, picnics and exploring’. However, the boost to the tourist trade that VHEY is anticipating is not the result of a dream marketing campaign, but more indirectly due to the efforts of one of Yorkshire’s famous sons, David Hockney.

Though born (1937) and educated in Bradford, as an artist, Hockney is most commonly associated with California. It is his stylised and straightforward acrylics of the Californian landscape and his so-called swimming pool paintings for which he is best known. Throughout his 60-year career, he has also experimented widely with new technologies, for example, photographic landscape composites as an ‘investigation of cubism’. Photocopiers, fax machines and – more recently – the iPad have featured amongst his chosen media.

For much of the last 15 years however - many would say in the twilight of his career – Hockney has been capturing images of the East Riding on canvas, whilst also embracing the opportunities provided by digital technology in this quest. Video installations are the latest addition to this.

Working from a studio in Bridlington, a port and seaside resort which lies on the eastern edge of the Wolds, Hockney has been producing monumental landscape paintings of various locations in the Wolds, returning at various points throughout the year to provide immense ‘snapshots’ of the four seasons. Amongst his most popular locations are Woldgate and Thixendale, but also the village of Bigger, which – as a play on words – was used as the title of his most recent exhibition of the project, The Bigger Picture.

Hockney was invited to stage an exhibition of these works – which in any other mortal’s book would represent a lifetime’s work, so copious is his output -  at the RoyalAcademy in London in 2012, where it attracted record sell-out audiences. The exhibition has since been taken on tour to Bilbao (Guggenheim) and Cologne (Ludwig Museum).

No wonder the popularity of Hockney’s fascinating works, which feature the sweeping vistas, the majestic skyscapes and the rolling hillsides that predominate this rural backwater have not only been attracting art-lovers, but also the attention of marketing people keen to expand tourism in the region.

The exhibition runs in Cologne until 3 February 2013.
See also: 
Spot the Difference  

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Daylight musings

Who said you can’t cram more than 24 hours into one day? Last Saturday I travelled to England from home and had a whole 2 hours extra. Now if you’re wondering why, there’s a perfectly logical reason. Firstly, the UK runs 1 hour behind Central European Time; and secondly, the last full weekend of October marks the end of Summer Time when the clocks get put back.

At the end of August, people are already talking about the ‘nights drawing in’, but by November we’re in completely new territory. Suddenly it’s getting dark at 5 in the afternoon and there’s still a month and a half to go before sunset times even start to creep upwards again. Unless you decide to move south of the Equator, there’s not a lot you can do to beat the gloom. Just grin and bear it as best as you can until the earth’s axis starts titling in ‘our’ favour again.

Time zones and seasonal time shifts are strange phenomena. At this time of year, I can’t help feeling happy about living in the west of a time zone. You have to feel for the Poles who have to put up with sunset times of 3.15 p.m. in the depths of winter, whilst the Spanish might still be enjoying some rays of winter sunshine – however feeble – almost 3 hours later. And of course, the further north you go, the shorter the days become. I once had a fascination with looking at webcams in northern Norway in deepest December, but gave up because they were suicidally depressing – and I don’t even live there.

Daylight saving measures were first mooted in the late 19th century and governments have been tinkering with them ever since. The map above shows the countries and states that currently implement daylight saving measures. They were actually brought in as a way of conserving energy in the summer months during the First World War, at first in Germany, and then the idea was quickly copied by other industrial powers in the northern hemisphere. The principle behind daylight saving measures is to make the best use of daylight in a way which benefits the majority of the population, taking into such factors of (road) safety and the needs of the economy. In the late 1960s, the UK government introduced British Standard Time, with clocks running on 'summer time' throughout the year, so in fact, the country was a full hour ahead of GMT. As I know from first-hand experience it meant going to school in the dark, but it was a lot lighter in the evenings. The experiment was abandoned in 1971 ostensibly on the grounds of road safety.

Even in a country as compact geographically as the UK, daylight lengths can vary considerably from the north to south. In winter, the Shetlands experience less than 6 hours of daylight around the solstice, whilst Cornwall in the far south-west has over 8. (Of course, the reverse is true in the summer, when there are 5 hours of darkness in the northernmost outpost of the British Isles.) Furthermore, there's almost an hour's difference in sunset times between the west and the east of the country. The variation in times and lengths of days means that there are advocates of change (or non-change) around the country. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) favours a return to British Standard Time, with summer time (GMT+1) all year round. Going one stop further, some business people argue for the adoption of Central European Time, where the UK would effectively join the same time zone as the rest of Europe. Outdoor workers and farmers in Scotland however, are loath to see any changes to the current system, reasoning that summer time throughout the year would mean sunrise times as late as 10 a.m. 

A report in the NRC Handelsblad at the weekend pointed out yet another complication caused by the time shift. Many scientists, like Till Roenneberg, professor of medical psychology at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich – the subject of the NRC article - have argued that our body clocks are naturally attuned to sunrise and sunset times. By not listening to our biological clocks we put our health at risk. When the clocks change in the autumn, the additional hour, as well as the longer nighttime hours, give our bodies time to adjust and recover our natural sleep patterns. In the spring however, the ‘loss’ of an hour can take as much as a month to recoup in terms of sleep. Other studies have revealed that both suicide rates and the incidence of heart attacks increase after summer time comes into effect in the spring.

Changing the clocks poses other intriguing problems as well. I've often wondered what train drivers do in the middle of the night when the clocks go back. Presumably they go more slowly, or maybe stop for a nap and a cup of tea. And do they get paid overtime for this ‘extra’ hour? Self-evidently the reverse applies in spring when – somehow – they have to make up time. One supposes that traffic is scarce at that time of night anyway, so they can put on a spurt.

So what did I manage to do with those two extra hours? Simple: I spent my time penning this time-related blog.                 

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Translation tips

Source texts come in all shapes and sizes. They are not always well written and not always intended for translation in the first place. Translators will always do their best, but customers shouldn’t automatically assume that a badly formulated source text can somehow be conjured into a creative and captivating target text. Here are a few tips for customers when they consider having documents and texts translated into another language.   

Think International
If your source text is primarily targeted at a domestic readership, it will not have the same impact at an international level. Your text may need adapting to reflect the social, cultural and economic nuances of the foreign market. For example, is an English text aimed at British or American audience? Or is it intended for a wider readership which uses English as a second language?    

Clarity, brevity and style
Write clearly in your own language. Avoid long sentences. Ask yourself if all the information is relevant. What is the audience? Will it keep the reader’s attention and interest? Get a colleague to check your text for style, clarity, spelling, punctuation, etc. before you even submit it for translation. Finalise your source language text before committing it for translation. Remember, last-minute changes can be expensive.
To get maximum impact, tell the translator exactly what the translation is for. A speech will require different use of language than a product information sheet or news article. A good translator will always adapt the style.

The native-speaker principle
You may pride yourself on how well you can speak a foreign language. But speaking is not writing! Never overestimate your written command of a second language. Resist the temptation to do it yourself. False friends are snakes in the grass! Clumsy use of a foreign language will be a turn-off. If you do decide to do it yourself, always have your text checked carefully by a competent native-speaker, especially if the document is intended for publication.

Background information
Translators are resourceful, but remember, they may not always be familiar with your business culture and language. Provide the translator with as much reference material as possible (illustrations, internet links, wordlist, glossaries, list of abbreviations, previous translations, etc.) Use a single contact person who deals with the translator exclusively.

Plan ahead
A translation should never be an afterthought, but part of the production chain. It is not simply a mechanical conversion of words into another language. A translation requires time and effort, sometimes more than is initially anticipated. Allow enough time for questions and feedback before the translation can be finalised.  

Is your text intended for publication or print? Remember that the length of a translated text may vary in length to the original source text. This is an important aspect in situations where space may be restricted.

And, of course, last but not least …
By now, this should be abundantly clear but resist the urge at all costs to use Google Translate and other automatic machine translation tools!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Texting is good for you

Apart from the obvious hazards of keying in a message whilst crossing a busy street, it’s a generally accepted fact nowadays that texting is good for you.

With text and instant messaging having become increasingly popular over the last decade, an argument has been raging as to whether texting is a help or hindrance to linguistic development and whether it is bastardising the language. The doom-mongers claim that texting will leave us mentally stunted, that it is leading to serious issues arising in the classroom, and that it is wrecking the language. The result will be a general decline in literacy. Others however are far more optimistic, claiming that the popularity of instant messaging on our mobile phones means that more and more people are using the written medium to communicate with each other. Textisms - that is, abbreviations, phonetic spellings, emoticons, etc. - rather than signalling sloppy use of the language, are actually a sign that the author of the message has a good grounding in the use of written language.

The public debate in the UK was sparked off by an article written by journalist and broadcaster, John Humphrys, who hosts the BBC’s flagship morning news programme on Radio 4. In an article he wrote for the (ever-the-conservative) Daily Mail in 2007 he described the ‘onward march of texters’ as a ‘sinister and deeply troubling’ development, with the SMS ‘vandals … destroying’ the language. He expressed a fear that ‘our written language may end up as series of ridiculous emoticons and ever-changing abbreviations’. 

Baroness Greenfield, a distinguished scientist researching into brain physiology, has also spoken about the dangers of young people’s preoccupation with instant messaging and the use of social media. In another Daily Mail article, she quoted a study by an Australian professor, which stated that mobile phone use, and in particular, predictive text tools, made children more impulsive and reckless. The speedy exchanges, Greenfield said, ‘may be contributing to the decline in our attention spans and perhaps even towards the rise of attention deficit disorders’.

The vast majority of research in the last few years however, has been favourable towards texting and instant messaging. Various studies have pointed out the fact that abbreviations, or a need to economise on the use of written text, have always been part of the language. In that sense, a conventional text message (which is limited to 160 characters) is no different to other forms of writing where space is constricted, such as a telegram, a classified advertisement, a newspaper headline or shorthand.

David Crystal, very much the guru of the English language, points out that texts which use textisms are linguistically quite complex, with texters (read ‘young people’) putting more effort into texting than is actually necessary. The reason he believes is that people find it fun. He calls this the ‘ludic drive’ and compares it to creative art forms we find in the Japanese haiku or the Welsh englyn.

Clare Wood, a researcher at Coventry University, has also carried out research into the use of texting and reading and spelling development. Most forms of textisms, she contends, ‘are phonetic in nature and require a level of phonological skill to produce and decode them, or a combination of alphabetic knowledge’. Her empirical research showed that children who used a higher proportion of textisms in their messages, relative to the overall length of the message, tended to be better at spelling than children who use more conventional spellings in their messages.      

Studies in Canada have also backed up these findings. In a paper written by Connie Varnhagen from the University of Alberta and two associates, the researchers conclude that there are few relationships between new language and [lack of] spelling ability. The researchers prefer to view electronic communication as both a new, complementary language to conventional written language and a natural experiment in the development of written communication.

Hans Bennis is professor of language variation at the University of Amsterdam. In an article in Onze Taal, he points out that people from all strata of society are writing more than ever before. Step onto any bus or train today and you’ll see people busily typing into their mobile phones or tablets. He has invented the term Korterlands to describe an abbreviated form of the Dutch language. And it’s nothing new he argues: Korterlands contains traditional abbreviations (which are rife in Dutch), such d.w.z., i.v.m. and enz. and other forms which have been used widely in e.g. classified ads for decades. It is hardly surprising that people are creative in using language for such applications as text messaging, twitter and social networking because of the number of permitted characters. The use of Korterlands, he concludes, does not form a threat to the language ability of writers. Conversely, it is the result of a creative process which assumes a working knowledge of the written language.

One thing that all these studies have in common is a wish to see these developments being included on the language curriculum in schools. Crystal: There are an extraordinary number of ways in which people play with language – creating riddles, solving crosswords, playing Scrabble, inventing new words, etc. Professional writers do the same, providing catchy copy for advertising slogans, thinking up puns in newspaper headlines, and writing poems, novels and plays. Children quickly learn that one of the most enjoyable things you can do with language is to play with its sounds, words, grammar and spelling. That, of course, includes texting.

On a personal level, as a translator who works with language on a daily basis I enjoy the challenge of a text. If you’re struggling for space in an SMS message, foreign words can often provide a solution, that is, if the recipient knows how to decode the language in the first place, so of course, it doesn’t work for everyone. Here are a few examples: weer (NL=weather), ici (FR=here), e (IT=and), ieri (IT=yesterday), bis (GER=until), ex (LATIN=from).

Friday, 6 April 2012

Minority languages

Universities slash language studies: it’s the type of headline you’d be more likely to come across in a UK newspaper, but in fact these were the words ("Faculteiten schrappen talenstudies") that adorned the home news pages of de Volkskrant last week. The article reported that a large number of language courses at Dutch universities were to be disbanded over the coming years. The reasons are twofold: cuts in the education budget; and – perhaps more alarmingly – a drastic fall in the number of students enrolling for language degrees.

At least 15 courses would disappear in the short term, either scrapped completely, or subsumed into other more generalised degree courses, such as communication sciences, culture and media studies, and European studies. Government policy is for universities to offer courses with a broader (i.e. less specialised) base, the assumption being that this will lead to a decrease in drop-out rates amongst students. Funding will be conditional on a commitment to these broader based courses. In any case, because of the dwindling numbers, universities can hardly justify offering some of the more ‘offbeat’ languages.

For a country which prides itself in its linguistic adeptness and a historic standing as a major trading nation, this represents something of a reverse. The decision to stop Portuguese language studies at the University of Utrecht (the only one of its kind in North-west Europe) is not only representative of this malaise, but particularly disturbing not least in view of the fact that Portuguese is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world and what's more, the official language of Brazil, one of the great emerging economies of the 21st century. The hosting of football’s World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016 will only increase Brazil’s profile on the world stage.

Perhaps an even more worrying development at a ‘local’ level over the past decades has been the acute lack of interest in German as a foreign language. Not only do the number of student enrolments point to an indifference in learning the language of its immediate neighbour and biggest trading partner, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence too. English is hugely popular amongst Dutch schoolchildren. It is seen as cool and sexy. German, on the other hand is looked up as stuffy and outmoded. It seems the more the Netherlands embraces the Anglo-Saxon culture in its schools and universities, the further it is turning its back on the 100 million German-speakers in its back yard and, in Germany, the largest and most robust European economy.

Even in the southernmost province, Limburg, where the local dialect and culture is bound up historically not with Holland, but the Rhineland, there is a widespread aversion to German. Furthermore its school-leavers flock to university towns like Delft, Leiden and Utrecht, rather than Aachen, a mere stone’s throw away, which has one of the biggest and liveliest student populations in Western Europe being home of the prestigious RWTH, Aachen’s technical university. Aachen has never attracted large numbers of Dutch students in the past anyway, but you would think that with a single European market and increasing cross-border cooperation in the form of Euregional development, careers advisers might give it more of a plug and interest would be on the rise, not on the decline. The Dutch student society at the RWTH, Alcunius, reports that there are a mere 150 Dutch students amongst an overall student population of 30,000!

Bi-lingual (Dutch-English) streams are sprouting up at schools throughout the province of Limburg (as well as the rest of the Netherlands). More and more Dutch universities are offering mainstream courses taght in English, Maastricht in particular. (You wonder how these establishments are quite going to find enough teachers proficient to teach English to (near-)native levels, but perhaps that is another question for the time being.)

Not only is there an over-emphasis - and over-reliance - on English as a world language in the Dutch economy, there has been an increasing anglicisation of its culture too. In addition, it is not just language studies that are facing a crisis. A broad spectrum of humanities subjects too have been undergoing a demise: in troubled times, their economic value is being increasingly called into question.

So how worried should we be? Is this just part of a wider trend in the globalised climate we live in, or will a return to economic prosperity herald a linguistic revival? Only time will tell.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Euromyths explained

In response to growing euroscepticism across the continent and what’s looking like a bumpy ride ahead for the eurozone, The Guardian and 5 other quality European newspapers (Le Monde, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, La Stampa and El Pais) recently joined forces in an initiative aimed at building up “a more nuanced picture of the EU and exploring what Europe does well and what not so well”. 

The project kicked off by analysing the benefits that the EU has brought to its 500 million inhabitants. The six newspapers in the Europa project were then asked to stereotype each other, and then asked cultural commentators in each country to assess how accurate they are. It makes interesting reading, not least because many of the stereotypes actually hold true.

Whilst neither of the two quality Dutch dailies (de Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad) seem to be involved in the project, this week an interesting article relating to the issues in question appeared in de Volkskrant examining the myth and reality behind the UK’s perceived antagonism to Europe, in particular, European directives. A translation of the article, which was penned by de Volkskrant’s UK and Ireland correspondent, Patrick van IJzendoorn, is produced below:

Brussels explained for Brits: this would probably be the most apt title for the letters that are sent from time to time by European Union press officers to British newspapers. For years they have been trying to refute the euromyths that have a tendency to spread like wildfire through the islands. No! No! No! they regularly try to assure readers, Brussels does not plan to harmonise the size of condoms, to change place names, to remove the Queen from passports, or to fit black boxes in cars. And though The Guardian might like to portray things differently, Great Britain meets all the European criteria for being an island.

Sometimes breakdowns in communications are so damaging that a Euro Commissioner might have to step in and write the correspondence him or herself. Only last week for example, Michel Barnier, responsible for the internal market, wrote in The Daily Telegraph that the UK was perfectly within its rights to test doctors from other EU member states for their proficiency in English.

Since the case of a Nigerian-born German doctor, whose command of English was so poor it led to the death of a patient, hit the headlines four years ago, Brussels has been under fire [again]. Most Britons labour under the misapprehension that European legislation prohibits the country from implementing any kind of language test for doctors. A surprised Barnier responded however, that no such provisions are contained within the said directive.

Despite its obstructionist reputation, the UK has a tendency to regard such directives as set in stone. Last year, the UK-based arm of Bombardier lost an order to Siemens because British civil-servants, mindful of their renowned tradition for fair play, had observed the tendering guidelines [too] fastidiously. Moreover, by adding additional provisos to directives, British civil-servants can sometimes appear to be European than their continental counterparts. One classic example of ‘goldplating’ is a twelve-page directive on abattoirs. Whereas the French managed to summarise the directive into just seven pages, the British civil-service succeeded in increasing the scope of the directive to the proportions of a novella.

It is directives with respect to British hobbyhorses such as health & safety and equal rights that start to lead a life of their own once they are washed ashore at Dover. One such general directive, on safe working practices, was interpreted as banning sliding poles in fire-stations. When Brussels stipulates that every building has to have an entrance for disabled people, the British add the proviso that this must be the main entrance. Another directive about providing adequate information on public transport systems led South West Trains to take a decision to bombard passengers, even those in designated quiet carriages, with running announcements - all superfluous to requirements - for the whole of the journey.

Where does this overzealousness come from? In his book This Blessed Plot, journalist Hugo Young, suggested that it’s all part of a conspiracy theory. When, after several abortive attempts, the UK was finally admitted to Europe's top table of nations, key europhile mandarins, especially those at the Foreign Office, purportedly had a secret plan to introduce federalism through the back door. Whereas the French say ‘yes’ to directives from Brussels and then blatantly flout the rules, the British do exactly the opposite. They adhere to the directives so fanatically that a market-stall holder might be threatened with a prison sentence for selling fruit in pounds and ounces.

In this way, ‘Brussels’ becomes the perfect scapegoat. In order to combat euroscepticism and to give member states greater freedom, the European Commission has decided that directives need not be implemented in exaggerated fashion. Let this be the only directive that the British disregard outright.

Translation of article in de Volkskrant, Friday 27 January 2012