The Rebirth Of Britains Lost Languages

A eus le rag hwedhlow dyffrans?” So goes the first track on Le Kov, the second album by Welsh singer Gwenno Saunders. But it isn’t Welsh: it’s Cornish, a minority language spoken by fewer than a thousand people. The line translates as “is there room for different stories?” – and this is the question at the heart of her record, which celebrates variance in language, culture and identity.

The song goes on to hymn the importance of hearing from “the ones who didn’t win”. And on the surface of things, the Cornish language clearly lost the fight: the last monoglot speaker died in 1777. Yet Saunders’ album, a dreamy, lush piece of psych-pop, is one of many signs of new life.

Britain is rich in minority languages, and there’s a growing awareness of them, possibly reflecting our desire – as culture grows ever-more globalised – to re-connect with what is local, or simply to celebrate the multicultural melting pot of British identity.

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Welsh is the best known and most-spoken minority language, but there are also three distinct versions of Gaelic, spoken in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. All have seen long-term declining numbers of speakers – but all have also enjoyed revivals in recent decades, thanks to a slow-burn interest in preserving and promoting indigenous tongues.

Prayer Book Rebellion

The ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ of 1549 was crushed, with around 4,000 Cornish killed (Credit: Alamy)

Cornish shares a Brythonic root with other Celtic languages, Welsh and Breton, once the language of Brittany. The county of Cornwall, the most south-westerly region of England, resisted anglicisation right up until the Reformation. The move to English as the language of the church was vehemently opposed by the Cornish, but their ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ was crushed viciously, with around 4,000 Cornish killed. It was a hammer blow to the language: during the 17th Century, its use declined until there were only a few thousand speakers in the far west.

‘The language we all understand’

A revival of interest in the early 20th Century helped preserve the language, although it remained pretty niche. It still is – but over the last 20 years, there’s been another surge of support. In 2002, Cornish was recognised by the UK government under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and the council began funding bilingual signage. It was taken off Unesco’s ‘extinct’ languages list in 2010, and Cornish is now taught in some nurseries and primary schools.


Cornish was taken off Unesco’s ‘extinct’ languages list in 2010, and is now taught in some nurseries and primary schools (Credit: Alamy)

“I feel that an attitude has changed,” says Saunders, suggesting that local businesses using Cornish and the council’s bilingual signage “makes a huge difference: people can see it, it’s visual. And there’s a wider community using Cornish as part of everyday life, in things like greetings. I find it really encouraging, and it’s tied in with why I had the courage to make a Cornish record.”

Not that she was born or raised in Cornwall: she’s from Cardiff, where she still lives, but was raised speaking both Welsh and Cornish – her father, Tim Saunders, is a Cornish poet.

I speak Cornish with my son: if you’re comfortable expressing yourself in a language, you want to share it – Gwenno

Her interest in recording an album in this little-spoken language was ignited by having her own child: “I speak Cornish with my son: if you’re comfortable expressing yourself in a language, you want to share it.” And having children inevitably takes you back to your own childhood – Saunders found herself reconnecting with Cornish songs and stories. Quite naturally, it fed into her music.

But there is a more political purpose here too: Saunders wants to raise awareness of all languages spoken here, and to explore the diversity of cultures that make up the UK.

Gwenno on beach

For Saunders, the ‘soft’ power of music and culture can be just as effective as political campaigning (Credit: Michal Iwanowski)

It’s in the blood – her mother was a Welsh-language activist, a member of pressure group Cymdeithas yr Iaith, who went to prison in the 1990s for defacing the Welsh Office. Their call for Welsh to be granted official status has since has been – and while numbers of first-language speakers are declining rural heartlands, Welsh is on the rise in the more metropolitan south east. Certainly, Saunders sees the difference in Cardiff; now, she can do her local shopping yn Gymraeg. Welsh-language provision in schools, and the requirement to make all publics services bilingual, has helped.

‘A mono-lingual culture’

But for Saunders, the ‘soft’ power of music and culture can be just as effective as political campaigning. “That’s the beauty of music, isn’t it? It is the language that we all understand. If I got on a soapbox and tried to tell you how important Cornish is for me, it would probably be harder to communicate that, whereas pop music is just a much a more palatable way for me to convey that depth of emotion.”

The album may only be literally understandable by listeners in a handful of towns (although it should be noted that the highest concentration of Cornish speakers is actually in London), but Saunders has found it’s going down a treat. For many listeners, Le Kov being in Cornish is an intriguing quirk, part of the record’s charm. It’s novel, not old-fashioned.

For minority languages to thrive, they need to be more than an academic concern, or seen as purely historical

And for minority languages to thrive, they need to be more than an academic concern, or seen as purely historical. Nostalgia for a specific culture can be deadening. “People can be dismissive of place within people’s cultural identity because they think it can be sentimental,” points out Saunders. “I’m not interested in sentimentality at all – I’m interested in the exploration of your cultural heritage being really forward-thinking.”

The Man Engine

The large-scale puppetry performance The Man Engine integrates Cornish songs (Credit: Alamy)

There are many cultural developments in Cornwall currently that channel place and history but in a “really pioneering or progressive spirit” she insists. Whether that’s teenagers who’ve learnt Cornish making YouTube videos or the music festival Boardmasters getting headline acts such as Frank Turner to sing in Cornish or the large-scale outdoor puppetry performance The Man Engine integrating Cornish songs, there’s plenty of new work drawing on an ancient tongue.

Granted, Le Kov is the first high-profile Cornish pop record in a long time, if not ever… But home in Wales, she’s part of a thriving Welsh-language music scene; cast an eye over the shortlists for the well-respected Welsh Music Prize and the language is represented each year, by the likes of Bendith, 9Bach, Swnami, The Gentle Good and indeed Gwenno, who won it in for her Welsh-language debut, Y Dydd Olaf.

Welsh TV has also had a little boost thanks to the vogue for foreign drama boxsets making us all more comfortable with subtitles. Bilingual shows like the crime drama Hinterland – featuring both Welsh and English – are not only pleasing Welsh-speakers, but winning fans among non-speakers who rather enjoy encountering subtitled Welsh. Welsh-language theatre company, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, is also seeing its work reach a broader audience by pioneering the use of a live translation app, Sibrwd.

Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru

Welsh-language theatre company, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, is reaching a broader audience by using a live translation app, Sibrwd (Credit: Alamy)

Saunders would like to see more languages get this sort of treatment – including those of immigrant communities. “It’s really difficult because we live in a mono-lingual culture,” she says. “There are hundreds of community languages in London for example, but you don’t get access to them in the mainstream media. It creates isolation when you’re not exposed to other cultures. I’m interested in a truer reflection of the cultural and linguistic [life] of Great Britain, because it’s really varied and fascinatingly interesting.” There’s a large Polish community where she lives in Cardiff for instance: why doesn’t she see their stories, hear their language and music, on TV and radio?

Cornish is also a reminder that the notion of ‘Britishness’ is less stable than we might think

At a time when Britain is having something of an existential identity crisis, Cornish is also a reminder that the notion of ‘Britishness’ is less stable than we might think: with its similarity to Breton, it is the “missing link” between Britain and Brittany, she suggests, a reminder of how we’ve always been subject to migration and movement of people.

Post-Brexit, we are going to have to “redefine what it means to live on this island” – and Saunders hopes that looking to our country’s true, diverse past can help foster a more open, positive attitude towards our country’s diverse present. Acknowledging that our British identity has always been pretty fluid might help “stop that feeling of isolation, of superiority, or ‘purity’,” she points out. “Because that’s never actually existed.”

Le Kov is out now on Heavenly Recordings; for tour dates see

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The Translation Industry Must Rethink How It Does Business


A convergence of circumstances are disrupting the very business model of translation. LSPs down to individual freelancers are feeling the pressure, too.

The culprits are familiar: Technology and globalization. On the one hand, we have more and more people connecting to the global community, which drives all kinds of demand for language assistance such as translation and localization.

On the other, technologies such as artificial intelligence and neural networks are making machine translations smarter every day — to the detriment of human translators, some argue.

But it’s not these circumstances that are in conflict. In fact, global demand for translation continues to grow and give translators plenty of work to do. Even during the global recession, the team at Pangeanic writes, demand for translators grew steadily.

No, the actual issue is that our industry, as it is currently structured, fails to serve most of the world’s demand for translation.

To see why this is happening — and what can be done to fix it — we first need to understand the nature of the world’s growing need for translation services.

Exploding Demand for ‘Good Enough’ Translations

LSP executives and industry leaders know this number by heart, but it bears repeating: By the time Google Translate celebrated its 10th birthday, it was translating 100 billion words per day, product lead Barak Turovsky wrote in 2016.

Granted, if Google charged even a fraction of a cent per word, the demand wouldn’t be that high. Because GT is free for everyone to use, people can use it for things like single-word translations and deducing the opening times of restaurants when they’re on vacation in foreign countries.

What this has done for our industry, translator Kevin Hendzel writes, is analogous to what smartphone cameras did to photography. We as a species take exponentially more photographs than we did a generation ago, and the non-professional shots that are the lifeblood of social media like Instagram also are found to be good enough for more professional use cases.

Just take a look at coverage of breaking news. Often, the news cycle’s first visuals of an event come from the phones of bystanders. These photos are deemed good enough to tell that story.

Translation Demands Created by User-Generated Content

Further driving demand is user-generated content, which provides valuable information for companies that do business globally. As Moravia’s Vijayalaxmi Hegde writes, companies in the travel and ecommerce industries especially must be sensitive to user-generated content such as reviews. Otherwise, they risk alienating entire communities of Mandarin speakers or Russian speakers, for example.

For the online retailer or the tour operator in Paris, an important business question arises: At what point should they graduate beyond Google Translate to handle inbound comments such as TripAdvisor reviews?

Then, there’s a question about outgoing information: Do you trust machine translation alone with your product FAQs? If not, what’s a fair price to bring in a professional translator to get the product copy up to the required standards?

The Bulk Market and the Translator’s Role In It

But evolving standards of “good enough” put downward pressure on price, and this hits hardest in the bulk market, Hendzel writes. These for-informational-purposes-only translations account for about 60 percent of commercial translations today.

In other words, the price of some translations, the global market says, is free. But there is a grey area worth exploring in the bulk market. “Good enough” has multiple definitions, and some of those definitions necessarily have a price tag attached to them.

In other words, many of these translations, the global market says, should be priced above free. The questions is how to solve this from the supply side.

We don’t feel this should initiate race-to-the-bottom pricing structures among language professionals. Instead, the professional translator should have a central role in the bulk market. The question, then, becomes: How can a translator shepherd this kind of work at a rate and at a volume that pays a fair price?

We believe there is a software answer to this question, which we will touch on in a moment. First, it is important to also explore the higher end of the translation services market.


Translators Have a Strong Incentive to Specialize in Premium Services

Hendzel makes a convincing argument that professional translators should carve out a specialization in value-added markets: Annual reports, intelligence briefings, professional journals, etc.

The demands in these markets, he says, can only be met with the highest quality of translations for precisely the same reason that National Geographic won’t be buying iPhone-shot photos anytime soon.

Corinne McKay conceives this as an either/or proposition: Translators must either focus on high-end creative work, or become minders of machines.

We believe, however, there is another path, and it lies in understanding the flaw in Hendzel’s iPhone/MT argument. A smartphone camera produces a finished product: A photograph. You can compare the quality side by side with finished products from better cameras.

But machine translation doesn’t have to compete side-by-side with high-quality translations. MT is a tool that can be used en route to creating better translations. It can be used to get a quick draft on which to improve for transcreation services, for instance.

Compare this to the photo example: You cannot take an amateur snapshot and improve it by changing the composition, lighting, focus, details, etc., to turn it into a great photo. But you can take the output of a machine translation engine and edit it until you get a final text which may even surpass the original one.

This is the key difference, and it has profound implications for the translation industry.

The Future of the Translation Software Specialist

When you embrace the idea that machine translation creates new efficiencies, not competition, you’re able to see the technology as an asset that can help translators and agencies shift to a much more customer-centric mindset. That’s just the evolutionary aspect of innovation.

“Translation is hardly alone in being shaken up by technology,” The Economistwrote in late May. “The legal industry, accounting and many other venerable professions are seeing repeatable knowledge work done passably by machines. The translators of the future need not only language and writing skills. They must, like the partners at a law or accounting firm, gain clients’ trust and learn their minds in order to do truly good work.

“The loners of the field, in other words, may find it hard going.”

TAUS founder Jaap van der Meer recognizes this need for users-first mindset. “Particularly in the translation industry, we have lost sight too often of why we translate, whom we translate for, and how the translation is used,” he writes.

“Too often translations are produced as an obligatory item in old-fashioned push or publishing models without much care for usability and findability. This must change if we are to follow the trends towards more democratic and user-centric business models.”

So, just as Uber did with transportation services, the biggest winners in the translation industry will be the organizations that put their customers, not their internal processes, first.


A Tech Road Map for the Future of Our Industry

There’s a reason Jill Krasny at Inc. identified the translation services industry as one ripe with entrepreneurial opportunity way back in 2014. Actually, there were a few: Global demand, larger companies buying up smaller LSPs and the ability to upsell clients on value-added translations.

The first quarter of 2017 saw a few eye-popping acquisitions, to be sure, but it’s global demand that will sustain our industry’s growth.

And it’s the industry disruptors who will find ways to capitalize upon that demand and propel growth in sprints. The key, says Hélène Pielmeier at Common Sense Advisory, is to stop ignoring clients’ pain points.

“LSPs see themselves as the keepers of a proven method to produce translations and often push back on what they see as unreasonable customer requests,” she writes. “They strive for stability and predictability instead of providing solutions that will rock the client’s world.”

We have the tools already to begin rocking worlds, one client at a time. It just takes a little vision to pull those tools into alignment. Software that obviates the need for project or vendor managers in the workflow is a good first step.

Even among top-tier translators, technology that can empower better workflows, make communication easier and create tighter feedback loops could have profound effects, Gábor Ugray at Jealous Markup writes, because those would bring the client and the translator into ever closer collaboration.

By leveraging technology — not fighting it, as the taxi industry does — to better connect clients with the levels of service they need, the translation industry can begin to make forward leaps that will ultimately benefit all of us.

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