How language problems bedevil the response to crises

Sitting on a muddy floor beneath a tarpaulin roof, Nabila, a 19-year-old Bangladeshi, fiddles with her shoelaces as she listens to Tosmida, a Rohingya woman in her mid-30s. Both are crying. Nabila, a student-turned-interpreter, says awkwardly: “She had it from all of them in her secret place.”

The struggle to tell the story of Tosmida’s gang-rape is not just an emotional but a linguistic one. Since some 700,000 Rohingyas escaped persecution in Myanmar and fled to Bangladesh over a year ago, many Bangladeshis like Nabila have suddenly found themselves with new jobs, as interpreters. Tosmida’s Rohingya and Nabila’s Chittagonian are related but not identical. Interpreters, quickly trained, must try their best to understand another language, and fill in the gaps left by cultural differences—including taboos about what victims can say.

The biggest practical issues concern health, says A.K. Rahim, a linguistics researcher working with Translators Without Borders (twb), a group that helps humanitarian agencies. In Chittagonian, health terms come from Bengali and English; scientific knowledge and vocabulary have trickled down from educated elites. But among the relatively few educated Rohingyas, health terms come from Burmese. Most—especially women, who tend to be cut off from the outside world and denied education—have not been touched by that learning. Instead they have developed their own lexicon. They avoid haiz (menstruation) and say gusol (shower). Diarrhoea, a common camp ailment, was routinely misdiagnosed in the first few months. Many Rohingyas reported, “My body is falling apart” (“Gaa-lamani biaram”), baffling health-care workers.

Sex is the trickiest minefield. In the Rohingyas’ conservative Muslim culture, women are not supposed to talk about sex or their bodies at all. They employ euphemisms, using different words to describe sex permissible by religion, or illegal sex and sex out of wedlock. Most of these terms are deliberately vague; they refer to “shameful spaces” and “secret places”. For rape, they might use a word that means forceful torture. This has legal consequences. “I cannot imagine a Rohingya woman standing up in court and saying, ‘I was raped’,” says Mr Rahim. Interpreters must be cautioned not to fill in gaps or encourage their subjects to say particular things; that could weaken a prosecution.

These problems are far from unique to the Rohingyas. Ellie Kemp oftwbadduces the situation in north-eastern Nigeria. For many of the women there, the word for “widow” is taboo. Instead they must be asked: “Do you have a husband? Did you have one? Is he dead now?”

Ms Kemp says crisis-responders often don’t know what language expertise they will need. They hire “local” workers, assuming that is enough. In Nigeria, these might be educated people who speak only English and Hausa, one of the country’s biggest languages. But Hausa may be of little use in Borno state, where the insurgency of Boko Haram rages. If aid workers are lucky, they may find people who know Kanuri, a kind of lingua franca in Borno. But even that might not help in a state where 28 languages are spoken.

Higher-status people—often powerful men—may know several languages and act as a bridge. But aid workers are typically trying to reach the most vulnerable. Ms Kemp notes that in the last Ebola outbreak in west Africa, women were affected worst, because most international advice on prevention came in English and French, which they were less likely to speak.

Some of these problems are intractable. But some are not. Downloadable glossaries (say, between a national and a regional language) can help an aid worker with a smartphone render technical terms in a way locals will understand. In future, automated translation tools such as Google Translate might extend to lesser-known languages. That will be difficult: translation software must be trained with a lot of parallel text that has already been translated by humans. So twb is giving some of its language data to companies such as Google and Microsoft for that purpose.

Outsiders often think an alien language has “no word for” a concept that is taken for granted in English. These problems are better thought of as cultural rather than linguistic: the words exist, but it is vital to have interpreters who know which can be used and when. In a crisis, aid agencies must work quickly; often they can spare their staff for only a day or two’s language training. That is time well spent.

3 Most Common Suffixes in Medical Terminology

The world of medicine offers language lovers an uncanny look into our prevalent and inescapable Latin and Greek origins. While we hear and read the language of medicine on a daily basis, most of us seldom have the opportunity to examine the ancient history and etymological origins of these terms. To rectify that, below you will find three common suffixes used in the medical field.

LOGY : Connoting the study a certain subject

The majority of fields of study – not solely in medicine, but in all branches of research – end in this suffix. From the ancient Greek verb legein, meaning “to speak”, this omnipresent suffix came to connote a person or entity that speaks on or studies a certain subject. Thus, any root word affixed with this ending is a study of some sort.

  • Cardiology is the study of the heart (from the Greek kardia)
  • Gastroenterology is the study of the digestive system (from the Greek gaster, meaning “stomach” and enteron, meaning “intestine”); and
  • Ggynecology is the study of the female reproductive system (from the Greek gyne, meaning “woman”). Interestingly enough, the Greek gyne originated in the Proto-Indo-European gwen, which also serves as the root of the word “queen.”

ITIS: A diseases that causes inflammation

A common suffix for diseases that cause inflammation, it is derived from the Greek –ites, meaning “pertaining to.” One of the earliest uses of this ending was in the coining of the word arthritis, meaning a disease of the joints (from the Greek arthron). In the 18th century, the suffix was used to label the disease hepatitis (from the Greek hepar, meaning “liver”); in the 19th century, to create the name appendicitis (from the Latin appendere, meaning “to cause to hang from something” and later “an addition”). Polio, a shortened name for poliomyelitis, utilizes this suffix, too (coined from the Greek polios, meaning “gray” and myelos, meaning “marrow”).

LYSIS: The breakdown or dissolution of an entity

Another suffix commonly associated with pathologies, it stems from the Greek lyein, meaning “to loosen, untie.” Both the terms palsy – coined in the 14th century – and paralysis – emerging in the 16th century – stem from this root and connote a weakened state. In fact, the term “lysis” is used in biology to discuss the dissolution of cells or bacteria, and this usage can be seen in words like glycolysis (the breaking down of sugars) and even more colloquially in the word analysis (the breaking down of information).

We owe quite of a bit of our everyday language origins to the Ancient Greeks and the Romans’ use of Latin. Not only are these common suffixes used in the medical field, but also in our natural conversations with others. Learn more about our medical interpretation training courses at

Friday Finds: Talks with Ahmed Saadawi, Elias Khoury, & Youssef Rakha

The November PEN Transmissions promises Elias Khoury, Ahmed Saadawi, and monsters, while minor literature[s] promises Youssef Rakha in a sauna:

In “Silence as communication: a conversation with Elias Khoury,” Khoury talks My Name is Adam, his latest novel to be translated to English, this time by Humphrey Davies.

And this is the first of a trilogy?

Yes, the second novel is coming out in Arabic now, and I’m beginning to write the third one. It’s a long process. I collected stories from people who stayed in Lydda. I can’t go there of course, so I skyped. And then I met many people who escaped and went to Amman, to Jordan. But the major difficulty was how to recreate the life of the ghetto because very few people can tell you about it and most of them have died. So I had to recreate it myself, which opened a huge debate.

In “The blind and the elephant: a conversation with Ahmed Saadawi and Jonathan Wright,” Saadawi and Wright talk elephants. Or Saadawi does, anyhow.

If religion is important, and you said storytelling is important, what is the role of truth versus storytelling in your novel?

AS: Religious belief, political belief, dogma: all of them tell a story and say, This is the truth. People will fight another to assert the truth of their story. Novels tell us that in fact there isn’t one story. Everybody has a piece of a true story. It is like the story of the blind people and the elephant.

Six blind people all touch a part of the elephant, and they never know the whole elephant?

AS: That’s how it is. Nobody has the whole truth.

And in “The Sauna Series — Youssef Rakha,” they talk, well, all sorts of embarrassing things one discusses in a sauna.

Fernando Sdrigotti: In relation to my previous question, and because it matters to me as writer of English as a second language… How did you arrive at writing in English? Are you the same writer in English as you are in Arabic?

Youssef Rakha: Okay, it’s important to point out I never ”switched” in the way you have, I’ve always worked in two languages. The difference is I recently decided to commit to a big, long-term literary project in English for the first time. And while I’m many different people even within the same language — that’s part of what writing is about, no? — English has facilitated transitioning in a way that had never happened. What I mean by this is only in English could I fully inhabit and write from the perspective of a woman. I have no idea why, but I’m sure it’s nothing to do with the nature of English itself as a language. Maybe in Arabic I’m conditioned to be myself in a different way, and so English opened up the opportunity for a sex change operation, as Steven Toast calls it.


The theoretical ability to sell one’s business is actually a reflection of its value to others. Here’s how translators can add tangible value to their services to make their business appealing to a potential buyer.

Is my translation business sellable?1 Whether or not you have plans to sell your business in the near future, this question is very important and relevant, and not just to those on the verge of retirement. The theoretical ability to sell one’s business is actually a reflection of its value to others. Therefore, evaluating what others value about the business will give you a better idea of its potential selling points and the areas that need improvement.


Many translators have a hard time separating themselves from the business they created. “I’m my company and my company is me,” some would say. For those lucky enough, the day will come to set down the keyboard and retire. At this point, if the business and the translator are inseparable, the business may not be very valuable to others. If clients are only interested in working with you, then there is no way to continue providing the same service with new ownership. For this reason, translators generally refer clients to a trusted colleague or simply leave them to fend for themselves.

But are we letting go too easily? Is there a way to build a business so that its value is not dependent on the person running it? Are our business practices and working methods unique, and could they conceivably be used by someone else? Is it easy for someone to see the value of what we’ve created and to build upon it so the business continues to grow? Taking the time to think about these questions can help reframe our understanding of translation practices, the role translators play in them, and their value to others. By exploring how we create value beyond ourselves, we can take on the elephant in the room and learn how to build our own businesses in a way that can hold value to a potential buyer. The first step is to think practically about potential buyers.


The key to answering this question is to identify potential “interested parties” and figure out what value your business could provide them. If you can approach an interested party with potential for growth, they may consider buying your company instead of trying to grow their own organically. Here are a few suggestions for where to start your search.

Fellow Translators: If you have trusted colleagues who specialize in fields similar to yours, it might be worthwhile speaking to them to see if they have any interest in expanding their business through buying yours.

Boutique Translation Companies: Smaller companies who are looking to expand in your language set or field of specialization.

Main/Secondary Beneficiaries: Consider interested parties in your industry who may not currently focus on translation or editing, but may want to add such services.2

Now that you have a few ideas for who might want to buy your business, you need to analyze the business critically and think about what can be done to make it relevant and attractive to a potential buyer. The more confidently you can address the following issues, the more value you can add and the more attractive the business will look to a potential buyer.


1. Ironclad Numbers—Know Your Accounting: All stable businesses start with the most tedious part of the job—finances. Thoughts of selling or even evaluating a business can’t start until you audit the numbers and make sure they are defendable. Do you know what your profit/loss statement was last month? Do you have a separate bank account for your business? Do you know the current balance in your account? If you’re serious about evaluating the business, it’s worth considering hiring a professional accounting or auditing firm to complete a review of your finances and give you tips for how to improve your financial standing.

2. Mile 1, Not Mile 26—What Can Your Business Become? It can be tempting to look back at what you’ve accomplished over the years and try to estimate the value of the business based on that success. However, it’s much more critical to get into the mindset of a buyer and conduct a thorough analysis to see how feasible it would be for someone to take what you’ve created and potentially grow the business to something even greater than it is today. Remember, you may be at mile 26 of your marathon, but your buyer is only at mile one and needs to see what could be coming ahead. Can your model find success in a different market, specialty, or language set? Do you have a unique work process that differentiates you from others that would be difficult to replicate?

Another question worth considering is whether you can cross-sell new services to your clients in addition to your core business. For example, in the world of academia, translators can offer formatting, indexing, and other services that are important to their clients. Your business may have the potential to open up new channels for your buyer that they didn’t have before (be it new languages, geographic reach, cultural understanding, or otherwise). You need to make it easy for others to see this potential.

3. The Golden Rule of Seesaws—Diversify Your Client Base: One question every potential buyer will want answered is how much of the business is dependent on a single client. Think about what would happen if your biggest client left tomorrow. If one client accounts for more than 25% of your work, that can be a big liability and create an imbalance that presents greater risk to a potential buyer. A business that profits $100,000 and has 100 clients can actually be more valuable than a business that profits $125,000 and has five clients.3

The same rule applies for the services we pay for. It’s important not to be overly reliant on one employee, freelancer, or service provider. Think about a backup plan for every system you have in place and how complex it would be to switch providers or replace a departing employee. In addition, consider how complicated it would be for someone else to come in and implement a change or tweak your workflow process without your help.

4. Reverse the Rollercoaster—Improve Cash Flow Processes: Cash flow comes down to the simple question of how quickly you’re paid for your work relative to when you need to pay your expenses. If you pay suppliers at the end of the month but only collect what you’re owed after 60 days, you’ll run out of money. Cash flow issues are one of the most common reasons businesses fail.4 When a potential buyer comes to check out the business, the first thing they’ll want to know is the payment terms you have in place for clients and suppliers. This is why agencies often have long payment terms. While I’m not suggesting adopting agency payment terms with your suppliers, it may be worth considering asking clients for (at least partial) payment up front so that you can continue to pay your suppliers on time while not being crippled by cash flow issues. One way to encourage clients to pay in advance is to incentivize early payment.

5. When Did You Drink Your Last Coke? Repeat Business is Critical: The average citizen of the world consumes a Coca-Cola product once every four days.5 One of the secrets of the Coca-Cola company’s success is its ability to attract repeat customers. If you want to succeed in selling your business, your clients must be on board, which requires their trust and loyalty. How often do your clients return with new assignments? What percentage of your clients are repeat and what percentage are new? How big are the projects from returning clients? In other words, how loyal are clients to you and your brand? Loyal clients can also help you gain “social proof,” meaning that your clients talk positively about you online and your positive reputation creates positive word of mouth referrals (the best kind!).

6. Be a Fruit Loop in a Bowl of Cheerios—Stand Out from the Competition: The more specialized you are and the more you stand out among peers and competitors, the more value is created. Review your marketing materials, such as your website or newsletters. What makes you different? Is this difference clearly visible to the average visitor? Does anyone care deeply about the services you provide?

One way to differentiate yourself and encourage loyalty is by providing clients with content that is thought provoking.6 Another way to set yourself apart is to take a positive attitude when others are defeatist. If the word on the street is how Google Translate is taking business away from translators, be the translator that demonstrates how your translations are inherently superior to anything a machine can produce.

7. The Disney Principle—Customer Satisfaction: You’ve likely been asked to fill out a customer satisfaction survey for some product or service. There’s one simple question that all major companies, including Disney, Apple, Google, and Facebook, ask: “How likely are you to recommend this service to a friend?” The collected answers to this question are known as the “net promoter score.”7 True satisfaction is reflected by people willing to personally go out on a limb and recommend your services to others.

This is why you need to start tracking your success with clients. It’s important that this evidence be more than anecdotal and can be backed up by data. Celebrating success and learning from critique is the only way businesses can grow. That may mean spending more time making sure your current clients are happy than on recruiting new ones. If you can demonstrate a high level of customer satisfaction, the value of the business can skyrocket.

8. Letting Go—How Dependent Is the Company on You? It’s important to document the processes used in your business. While no one translates the same way, there are concrete and repeatable actions that can be modelled and copied by others.8 Think about what processes can be automated to make things easier for someone else. For example, if you’ve created glossaries or termbases, these may be able to give your buyer a step up. Selling your business also requires the humility to say that there might be someone else in the world who can translate materials in your niche at a high level.


Selling a translation business isn’t a very common practice and comes with significant obstacles. However, by improving the value of your business while still working, you can create a system that’s efficient and sellable. You’ll also have a better chance of passing the business on to someone else when the time is right. This process requires reflection, honesty, and even the fortitude to let go.9 Parting with a business can be difficult and painful, but it can also be an important step. Beyond the financial considerations, it’s important to remember that you’ve created a legacy. Therefore, it’s important to take steps now to ensure that others will value what you’ve created and want to continue developing the business after you’ve moved on. What do you want the legacy of your business to be?

  1. This article is based on a presentation given at the 2017 ATA Annual Conference in Washington, DC. You can find a recording of the full presentation here:
  2. Davies, Stuart. “Small Business Growth through Acquisitions,” One example is academic publishers who have added language services to their portfolio to expand the range of services they offer their clientele.
  3. Kokemuller, Neil. “Diversification and Its Importance,”
  4. Huls, Alexander. “The Key to Managing Profit and Cash Flow for Your Small Business and Knowing the Difference between the Two,”
  5. Bhasin, Kim. “15 Facts about Coca-Cola that Will Blow Your Mind,”
  6. For an example from the world of academia, see: Lagotte, Brian. “Academic Editing Tips: How to Use Your Abstract as a Tool to Create New Publishing Opportunities,”
  7. Information on Net Promoter can be found at
  8. For more on this topic, see Warrillow, John. Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive without You (Portfolio, 2012),
  9. Handelsman, Mike. “Managing the Emotional Toll of Selling Your Small Business,”

Avi Staiman is the founder and managing director of Academic Language Experts, a company based in Jerusalem, Israel, that has helped clients publish their academic research since 2011. Prior to founding the company, he worked as a freelance translator and editor in the humanities and social sciences. He has an MA in education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact:


The field of biological sciences is global, highly competitive, and fast-moving. It centers around substantial research and development that is continually documented and published. Disseminating knowledge globally is critical in the biology industry. It facilitates international collaboration, enables clinical trials to be conducted, and spreads data that can be used to support or refute knowledge in many specific fields. Between private companies, public research centers and universities around the world, hundreds of billions of dollars are invested in this industry.

Because the field of biological sciences is such a large and global market, language experts with a biology background are in high demand. Therefore some biology researchers become writers, editors, and translators for academic journals, trade publications, biotech companies, clinical research companies, and pharmaceutical companies.

Biology Editing

While English is the main language in which papers are written and research is communicated, it is worth noting that one-fifth of biological, environmental and agricultural research is published in four other major languages: French, Portuguese, Spanish and Mandarin.

A high-quality scientific article goes well beyond simply reporting the data and findings. As Root-Bernstein and Ladle explain:

Science is never just about the data. The language in which we communicate affects our confidence and our ability to persuade, our expression of complex and nuanced ideas and information, and our judgments of the value of new ideas and their authors.

In other words, the way we communicate our findings can be as important as the data we present. Editors who cannot fully understand and appreciate the nuances of a text, cannot edit and improve it, even if it is written in their native language.

Research in the biological sciences specifically demands specialized field knowledge in order to understand the concepts, methodology, and findings. Subject experts are best equipped to detect and correct errors and inconsistencies. Even a few small errors can influence chances that the paper will be published. Even more, errors can affect the impact of the research around the world.

The Unique Challenges of Biology Translation

Many biological scientists use their limited research funds on translation and editing services because they realize the importance of accuracy and quality in publication. However, generic translation services are not equipped to deal with, nor understand, the scientific technicalities, nuances, and language of the biological sciences.

To cite one common obstacle, biology texts are often chock full of acronyms and abbreviations, which may not translate easily. The translators need to transliterate and explain the terms to ensure the translation is accurate. This requires a high level of skill and specialization in both languages and the subject area.

Commercial Biology Translation

Biological sciences companies rely on specialized, scientific translators to help them reach global markets. The biological sciences industry is also highly regulated, and specialized translators ensure that these firms can meet the international regulatory requirements of agencies such as the FDA, PMDA, EMA, and CFDA. They, therefore, need high level and exact translations.

Both professional scientific editing and scientific translation are absolutely essential for biology writers who want to disseminate their work across the globe and boost their papers’ citation rates. In addition, scientific editing and translation are vital for biological sciences companies that want to enter new markets, adhere to regulatory standards, and avoid translation mistakes that can lead to lawsuits and other costly problems.

By hiring a professional academic translator or editor, you are taking the right first step on the road to publication. In today’s competitive publication environment finding the right language expert can propel your research and help you achieve your goals.


Every academic translator has a common enemy to fight: “false friends.”

False friends are words that appear to be similar in two languages, but their meanings are actually quite different.

They have a common etymological origin, but their definitions changed over time as they moved in different linguistic directions.

I have personally counted more than 50 of them in English and Spanish. They are making headway because of their similarity in sound and, in some cases, spelling, and the proximity of the two languages in some communities in the United States and Latin America. Inexperienced English-to-Spanish translators and vice versa fall in this trap because of their lack of familiarity with both languages.

These words traveled slowly and weren’t a threat when paper dictionaries were the only tools that an academic editor or translator had. Today, they travel at the speed of the Internet.

Here are 10 of the most common “false friends”:

1. Aggressive/agresivo: Be careful with this one if you are talking about violence or behavior. In English, you are describing a pushy person, an abrasive individual or an illness. In Spanish, on the other hand, you are talking about a violent person.

2. Casual/casual: In English, this word means “informal,” “without formalities” or “ceremonies.” In Spanish, it means “unforeseen” (imprevisto) or “by chance” (impredecible). If you hear, for example, “I dressed casually for the party” in English, don’t translate it as “I dressed by chance for the party.”

3. Crime/crimen: If you are a legal translator, law editor or interpreter, the life of a person could be in your hands if you don’t know the nuances of these words.

“Crimen” in Spanish means “murder,” “homicide” or “injury with the intent to kill.” The English “crime,” on the other hand, is defined as “an action harmful to the public good and legally prohibited.” Thus, rape, drug dealing, theft, and battery are crimes and do not necessarily involve murder.

4. Definite/definido: In English, when you want to be positive or express something that is certain, you use “definite”  (“She was definite about her answer”). For something that was “explained” (explicado) or “clearly marked” (claramente marcado) in Spanish, you use “definido.”

5. Disorder/desorden: If you are dealing especially with medical or scientific translation, beware of the differences. One of the words meanings in English is “malady,” “illness” or “disturbance in physical or mental health functions.” In Spanish, it could be “confusion,” “mess,” or “public disturbance.” In non-medical terms, such as “the girl left the room in complete disorder when she went out,” they are synonymous.

6. Elaborate/elaborado: “Complex,” or “worked out in great detail,” are the English meanings of this English word that has a simple rendering in Spanish: “hecho” (made) and “producido industrialmente” (industrially produced). For example: “Me gusta más el pan elaborado en fábrica” (I prefer factory-made bread).

7. Global/global:  The word’s similar spelling makes it irresistible for lazy translators. For starters, the English “global” refers almost exclusively to the whole world. Two of its synonyms are “worldwide” and “universal.” The Spanish means “tomado en conjunto” (taken as a whole). For example, “analizaremos los resultados globales” can be translated as “we will analyze the overall results.” For words like “globalize,” “global village” and “globalize” we use, in that order, “universalizar,” “aldea mundial” and “mundialización”.

8. Ignore/ignorar: Another sneaky friend, “ignorar” has been gaining undeserved popularity among Spanish speakers. In English, it means “disregard” or “do not pay attention.” In Spanish, it means “not to know” (no saber) or “lack of education” (falta de educación). However, the nouns “ignorant” and “ignorance” can be synonymous in both languages.

9. Molest/molestar: By far, one of my favorite “false friends.” My students blush when I give them a sentence to read with “molestar,” which they think has sexual overtones. They think that “mi amigo me molesta mucho en la clase” means “my friend molests me a lot in class.” But they relax when I tell them the real meaning: “My friend bothers me (or annoys me) a lot in class.”

10. Topic/tópico: Despite being so close in spelling, these two words have almost nothing in common. The English “topic” refers to “a subject of conversation or discussion.” The Spanish “tópico” could be a medicine or a chiche.

How can translators avoid falling into the false friends’ trap? The answer sounds obvious, but it’s overlooked by inexperienced translators: realizing that languages, like members of a family, may have a common ancestor, but are different. Another suggestion is that if the word that you are translating sounds similar to one in the target language, beware and dig deeper. It may take you a few more minutes to finish the job, but you might unmask a false friend.

The Scientist in the Crib

Since becoming a parent, I’ve gotten even more interested in children, their language acquisition, and their development, so I recently read The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff and Patricia K. Kuhl.

The book is about how children learn about the world and what we adults can learn from studying children, especially babies. There’s a chapter particularly about how children learn language. But what is actually involved in learning a tongue? “First, you have to break up the continuous stream of sounds into separate pieces and identify each sound accurately…Then you have to string the sounds together into words…Then you need to understand all the nuances of meaning each word can have…And, finally, you have to figure out something about the larger intent of the sentence.” (p. 92-3) Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl call it “code-breaking” and say how challenging it is, but “most complicated of all, people speaking different languages hear sounds totally differently.” (p. 96)

But what does language do for us anyway? Well, ”the most obvious advantage of language is that it lets us communicate and coordinate our actions with other people in our group…The fact that we speak different languages also lets us differentiate between ourselves and others…And the development of language is probably linked to the development of our equally distinctive ability to learn about people and things. It allows us to take advantage of all the things that people before us have discovered about the world.” (p. 100)

Here’s how it works: “Babies master the sounds of their language first, and that makes the words easier to learn….Babies seem to learn some general rules about the words in their particular language before they learn the words themselves.” (p. 109) As parents, we need to talk to our babies often, especially in a slow and slightly exaggerated way, so they can hear the sounds and then start understanding the words.

If, like me, you hope your child will learn a language from a young age, when should you start? The earlier the better. “Children who learn a second language when they are very young, between three and seven years of age, perform like native speakers on various tests…If you learn a second language after puberty, there is no longer any correlation between your age and your linguistic skill…Early in development we are open to learn the prototypes of many different languages. But by the time we reach puberty, these mental representations of sounds are well formed and become more fixed, and that makes it more difficult to perceive the distinctions of a foreign language.” (p. 192-3)


The Scientist in the Crib is an interesting, if somewhat repetitive, book, and I recommend it to parents in particular.


I like Michael Rosen’s work for children (I use The Sad Book in my children’s literature course at the university) and I’m always interested in what he has to say about language and lit. So I was excited to read his book, Alphabetical.

What a fun, interesting book! You can dip in and out and you can return to it, as there’s so much to learn from it. Sometimes it’s a bit random, as though you’re getting access to what’s going on in Rosen’s brain at any given moment. As he writes about the alphabet, topics range over the Rosetta Stone, nonsense, jokes, umlauts (he jokes about “adlauts”: umlauts used unnecessarily, especially in company names), fonts, and much more.

Here’s a typical example of how he gives history about each letter: “‘A’ starts its life in around 1800 BCE. Turn our modern ‘A’ upside down and you can see something of its original shape. Can you see an ox’s head with its horns sticking up in the air? If so, you can see the remains of this letter’s original name, ‘ox’, or ‘aleph’ on the ancient Semitic languages. By the time the Phoenicians are using it in around 1000 BCE it is lying on its side and looks more like a ‘K’. Speed-writing seems to have taken the diagonals through the upright, making it more like a horizontal form of our modern ‘A’ with the point on the left-hand side.” (p. 2)

But often the chapters go beyond the letter themselves. For example, K is for Korean and Rosen discusses the singer of the popular song ‘Gangnam Style’ as a way into looking at the Korean tongue. Korean is the “earliest known successful example of a sudden, conscious, total transformation  of a country’s writing.” (p. 163) In 1446, the king of Korea created a new alphabet (rather than using Chinese characters) because he was “saddened” that the people of his country couldn’t make themselves understood in writing. Rosen notes “I cannot think of anything in the world of alphabets more humane than that.” (p. 164)

Of course I was particularly interested in references to anything Scandinavian. Rosen mentions how a runestone from 1362 was found in the US in 1898, which seemed to prove that the Vikings had been in America. (p. 337) And he gives a list of some English words from Old Norse, which entered the English language when the Vikings came: “Anger, bag, bask, birth…rotten, rugged, run, skid…window, wing, wrong.” (p. 341)


Basically, this is a book can you return to many times. There’s so much information in it and it’s all fascinating.

Can English skills help end migrant exploitation?

In Bahrain, I was beaten. For example, they asked for tea. I gave tea leaves. I did not make the tea. She put her hand on my neck and moved me to tell, ‘Boil the tea leaves. Make tea’. They told me things in Arabic, I did not know Arabic. There was no other Bangladeshi to help me out. That’s how I worked. Sometimes, the children said me something, but I didn’t understand. Then the children knocked me. But you can never have a gloomy face. (Afia, pseudonym, a Bangladeshi migrant domestic worker)

This quote is taken from an interview with a female Bangladeshi migrant worker who was a participant in a research project we undertook which aimed to explore perceptions of the value of English for migrant workers from Bangladesh to the Middle East. The quote aptly illustrates Afia’s vulnerability as a domestic worker. Partly her vulnerability is a result of limited Arabic and English language proficiency and miscommunication.

This raises the question what the role of language skills in migrant exploitation is. Could Afia have avoided being beaten if she knew more Arabic or English? Or, to put it more generally, to what extent do communication barriers contribute to the exploitation of migrant domestic workers such as Afia?

We explore such questions in an article recently published in Multilingua, where we suggest that structural entanglements and global inequalities put into question commonplace assumptions linking language skills to economic success for Bangladeshi migrant workers.

Recent reports on the devastating experiences of Bangladeshi female migrant workers in the Middle East (which have gone largely unreported in English-language media) throw into sharp relief the deep structural issues – far beyond the linguistic – affecting the lives of female Bangladeshi migrant workers to the Middle East.

Since 1991 Bangladesh has sent more than 700,000 women abroad to work, primarily as domestic workers to the Middle East (BBC 2018). Many of these have returned reporting that they have faced exploitation and abuse in the workplace. The complaints that have been made – which echo accounts documented in our research – include receiving no salary (or a lower salary than promised), unbearable workloads, physical and verbal abuse, and sexual assault.

Reports in the Bangladeshi media relay the tribulations of Fatema, for example, who went to Lebanon to improve her family’s condition, but came back after only three months physically disabled, with a significantly worsened economic and social status (BBC 2018Prothom Alo 2018). Her employer under-fed and tortured her, and when she, not able to bear it anymore, informed her employer that she wanted to go back to Bangladesh, the employer pushed her out of a third-floor window. Like Fatema, many of the women returning from the Middle East have physical injuries and/or psychological trauma. Additionally, they also face significant social stigma, including the refusal of their families to accept them back.

Despite these reports, there have been few attempts from Middle Eastern countries to take actions against the employers who were reportedly involved with such crimes. A country with less clout than other migrant-sending countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines or Sri Lanka, attempts by Bangladesh to lobby for work environments where Bangladeshi female migrant workers can work in safety and dignity have had little effect (BBC 2018).

The restricted bargaining power of Bangladesh has been increasingly observable since 2000, when an Indonesian domestic worker who had been tortured by her employer was executed for stabbing and killing her employer in Saudi Arabia. Protests from Indonesia and human rights groups ensued, and stories of the torture and exploitation of female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia attracted global attention. As a result, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka joined Indonesia to create pressure on Saudi Arabia to improve its treatment of female domestic workers by creating travel bans to stop sending women from their countries. Facing an acute shortage of female domestic workers, Saudi Arabia proposed that Bangladesh step in to fill the gap. Although there had previously been a ban on female migration as a measure of protection, Bangladesh eventually caved in when Saudi Arabia made the continued hiring of Bangladeshi male workers contingent on the availability of a female workforce, too (Prothom Alo 2018). Saudi Arabia further insisted that, even though female domestic workers from other countries are paid 1,500 riyals per month, the pay of Bangladeshi workers would be capped at 800 riyals (Prothom Alo 2018).

Today, Bangladeshi media regularly feature harrowing stories of exploitation faced by Bangladeshi female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Despite these gloomy reports we do, of course, not wish to suggest that all migrant workers face abuse and exploitation. In fact, some participants in our research were able to improve their family’s economic and social status considerably by working abroad.

All of them shared stories of hardship, and limited Arabic and English language skills were a significant aspect of the challenges they faced. This raises the question whether pre-departure language skills training would improve the lot of Bangladeshi migrant workers.

There can be no doubt that English and Arabic language skills might help migrant workers to better navigate life in the Middle East. However, we should be wary of suggesting that language learning alone is sufficient to overcome the difficulties in which many migrant workers find themselves. The stories of suffering and exploitation from returnee female domestic workers are clear indicators that structural global inequalities must be considered when exploring the extent to which migration and language skills can be economically, personally and socially transformative to individuals like Afia and to countries like Bangladesh.


British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (2018). ফেরার পর পরিবারেও ঠাঁই নেই: সৌদি থেকে নির্যাতনের শিকার হয়ে ফিরে আসা বাংলাদেশী নারী [Translation: No place in the family upon return: Bangladeshi women returning from Saudi being victim of torture] (4 June 2018).

Erling, Elizabeth J., Chowdhury, Qumrul Hasan, Solly, Mike and Seargeant, Philip (2018). “Successful” migration, (English) language skills and global inequality: The case of Bangladeshi migrants to the Middle East. Multilinguadoi:

Erling, Elizabeth J., Seargeant, Philip, Solly, Mike, Chowdhury, Qumrul H. and Rahman, Sayeedur (2015) English for economic development: A case study of migrant workers from Bangladesh. ELTRP Report, British Council.

Prothom Alo (2018). প্রবাসী নারী শ্রমিকের গল্পটা কেউ শুনবেন? [Translation: Will you listen to the story of the woman migrant worker?] (4 June 2018).

“Always distance yourself from the original text”

Considered one of the most renowned and experienced literary translators in the business, Nabil Al Haffar has received numerous awards for his work. He began translating from German into Arabic in 1974. Here he discusses his work as a translator and the challenges it presents.

Mr. Al Haffar, what project are you working on at the moment? What drew you to this work?

Nabil Al Haffar: I am currently translating “The Trial”, which is the third work by Franz Kafka that I have translated into Arabic. While most of his major texts already have been translated several times over from English or German into Arabic, there are no translations that do justice to them either linguistically or literarily. Iʹm making an effort to change that. There is a strong demand for Kafkaʹs writing in the Arabic-speaking world and much has also been written about his work, both pro and contra. There have also been many misinterpretations caused by inaccurate or poor translations. Thatʹs the reason for this new project.

How do you approach a translation? And what do you keep next to you on your desk?

Al Haffar: On my desk, I keep a notebook for questions that arise while translating the text, vocabulary and information that I plan to look up, especially in etymological dictionaries or Google images. Kafkaʹs German uses many obsolete words, the meanings of which are not to be found in the new dictionaries. I also note my translations of certain terms, so that I have them ready if they appear again in the text.

I work systematically, eight hours a day, because translation has been my main profession for thirteen years, that is, since I retired from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus. Before that, I used to translate in my spare time.

What are the particular challenges of literary translation from German into Arabic?

Literary translator Nabil Al Haffar (photo: private)

Advice for young translators: “stay away from literal translation. Re-phrase the German sentence until you succeed in creating a clear Arabic sentence. When you are done with your translation, read it through carefully”

Al Haffar: The main challenge of literary translation into Arabic, in my opinion, mainly has to do with the authorʹs subject matter. Patrick Suskindʹs “Perfume”, for example, was that sort of challenge for me. The world of scents was extremely difficult to translate, because of the lack of specialist dictionaries. Another aspect of this challenge was to replicate the precise description of daily life across all the various social classes in 18th century France.

Another example would be Christoph Ransmayrʹs “Cox oder Der Lauf der Zeit”. The challenge of this novel lies in the high style and register of the language, which demands its equivalent in Arabic.

What advice would you give to young translators?

Al Haffar: I would tell young translators: before you start translating, read the German text carefully and also read something about the author, for example, find out about their education and training. Each language has its own structure and idiosyncrasies. But theyʹre not sacred. Stay away from literal translation. Re-phrase the German sentence until you succeed in creating a clear Arabic sentence. When you are done with your translation, read it through carefully before submitting it.

Which reading trends do you observe in the Arab world? Which books need to be translated for the Arabic market?

Al Haffar: In the Arab world people read a lot about the political experiences of countries and individuals, especially memoirs by politicians and famous personalities. History books are, of course, connected to this trend.

In the past twenty years, there has been a significant demand for scientific books, especially among university graduates. Nevertheless, the editions in the various specialised areas of literature remain scarce. Also, the price of books has doubled during this time and many books in print can be easily replaced over the Internet.

During the last decade, the novel has occupied pride of place in the field of literature, followed by the short story. Very rarely does a publisher say yes to a volume of poetry or a play. Theoretical works about literature are almost never an option.

What Arabic title would you recommend to us Europeans?

Al Haffar: I rarely have had the opportunity to get my hands on Arabic books recently, partly because of the war in Syria and also because of my emigration. Therefore, I am unfortunately unable to choose or suggest titles for translation. I read a lot about new publications in the various Arabic magazines on the Internet, but that is not enough to formulate an opinion about them.

© Litrix 2018

Translated from the German by Zaia Alexander

Nabil Al Haffar, born in 1945, studied German literature in Leipzig and earned his doctorate in theatre studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. He taught at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus, where he later became vice-rector. In 1974, he began translating plays from German into Arabic, including works by Bertold Brecht, Peter Weiss, Heinar Kipphardt and Stefan Heym. He now works exclusively as a literary translator and has received several awards for his translations into Arabic, including the Brothers Grimm Translation Prize (1982); the Goethe-Institut Translation Prize (2010); and the Syrian State Prize for Translation and Theatre (2014)