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How blog comments can eat your morning

And this is why comments rock.

I wrote the other day about a translation of the 23rd Psalm into Nigerian pidgin.

Robbie Honerkamp, a US-based unix geek who’s spent years living and working in Nigeria, posted a comment to let me know about the Nigerian pidgin translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At first glance, I assumed this was a joke – I’d never thought of the United Nations being described as “naim be say all di kontris wey de for di world come unite to be one”.

But it’s one of the 332 translations available of the document, a list that includes several languages I’d never heard of, like Tzotzil, Yi and Bugisnese. Poking through the list, we rapidly get pretty obscure with languages like Even, a language of Yakutia and the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, spoken by 7,170 individuals in 1979 (and probably fewer now.) But Even’s got nothing on Pipil, spoken by approximately 20 people in El Salvador and Honduras in 1987…

It’s fun to speculate on how the 332 languages represented here were chosen from the 6,000+ living languages spoken worldwide. Ghanaian languages are well represented, with translations into Akuapem Twi, Asante, Dagaare, Dagbani, Ewe, Fanti, Ga, all evidently written by the UN’s Department of Public Information. (If anyone knowledgeable about languages in their nation wants to take a look at the list of languages and let me know whether their local language sphere is as well represented, I’d be very interested in having more data points…) Some languages are not widely spoken, but politicially important, like Inuktitut, widely spoken in Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut. Others are unfamiliar to me, but widely spoken, like Siswati, spoken by 1.7 million people in Swaziland.

Why Nigerian pidgin? The accompanying text to the translation tells us that pidgins and creoles are used for interethnic contact, where people from different language groups come together and communicate in a third language where they both have some competence. If the resulting linguistic mashup gains new speakers, it’s a creole, like Haitian Creole. If not, it’s a pidgin. In this case, “Nigerian Pidgin English, which, though not being considered a Creole, also has native speakers, is a mixed language drawing from English and different African languages. There is no unified standard or orthography. It is used in novels, plays, radio, poetry and becoming more and more important as a language.”

Staring at this collection of translations, it’s tempting to imagine a future where this set of web pages serves as a Rosetta stone for languages that have disappeared. Will we conclude that Garifuná speakers were a stiff, bureacratic people, lacking any sense of poetry because our main record of their language is a passage group-written by hundreds of UN diplomats? Or will it help us decipher documents yet undiscovered? Or serve as a reminder of how strange and diverse the planet was in the late 1900s, before we all became fluent in Mandarin/Hindi/English creole?

Thanks for killing my morning, Robbie. And thanks to anyone who ever comments on this blog…

8 thoughts on “How blog comments can eat your morning”

  1. I use the UDHR text all the time to be _really sure_ that my scripts are internationalized. Just for fun I looked for the longest word in the whole lot (bearing in mind that the definition of just what a “word” is is fuzzy at best)…

    And the winner is, Inuktitut. For:



    It’s interesting to note that the UN is still soliciting translations… not quite up to 6,000 yet.

  2. Might I suggest Kan Campbell’s Wol Wantok, an at length discussion of his translation of Macbeth into Melanisian Pidgin. It is mad. It is mad good.

  3. And to followup on my comment on your previous post… I can’t read this Nigerian Pidgin translation of the Declaration of Human Rights without having Beasts of No Nation running through my head!

    wey dem de call United Nations

    Dem call am Human Rights.

    (BTW, your link to the pidgin translation doesn’t work because you left the ‘f’ off ‘href’)

  4. Obviously your browser doesn’t speak pidgin HTML, Cos. Perhaps it’s time to upgrade to something more tolerant and multilingual… :-)

  5. If there’s one thing I’m really good at, it’s coming up with links to stuff that sucks up large amounts of time. Glad you liked it!

  6. It’s fun to speculate on how the
    332 languages represented here
    were chosen from the 6,000+ living
    languages spoken worldwide.

    Of course not all those 6k languages are written; I would guess that around a third are.

    I do happen to know how some of the languages were chosen. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the government of Peru required that the SIL missionaries (SIL does Bible translation, and is the organization that brings you the Ethnologue) translate the DHR into indigenous languages. I don’t know, but suspect, that people in other organizations in Peru were tasked with doing translations as well.

    As you can imagine, translating a document full of bureaucratic language like the DHR into a language where many of the concepts don’t even exist, let alone the words, can be quite difficult–very similar to translating the Bible, in fact. Anyway, that’s where some of the translations into Peruvian languages (Achuar-Shiwar, Aguaruna, Bora, and in fact nearly everything that isn’t Spanish) comes from (see a list of Peruvian langauges at http://www.unhchr.ch/udhr/navigate/source.htm#CNDDHH.)

    I thought this was done in Ecuador and Colombia as well, but I don’t see any evidence (except for two Colombian languages that were done at Universidad de los Andes, which means they were probably translated by native speakers in the linguistics program there, perhaps in the late 1980s).

  7. Can you tell me if you know of anywhere in the Accra area of Ghana where they may have the Ewe language translation of the Bible that can be purchased in that area for distribution to the local people? I happened upon your website and noticed that you have information regarding Bible translators. Thanks for you help.

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