One language, many cultures

English is my first foreign language. I started to learn it at school, at the age of 10. Actually even a bit earlier than that, if listening and humming along to songs on the radio also counts.

Approximately 375 million people speak English as their first language. It is said to be the third largest language by number of native speakers, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Here is a list of all countries where English is an official language, it includes more than 80. Yet this huge anglophone universe is also ruled by multiculturalism, with many linguistic varieties and profound differences in lifestyles, mentalities and habits.

Did you know that among the things that British expats miss most about the UK are room temperature beer, the National Health Service, balanced news coverage, winding city streets and people saying sorry when it’s not their fault? It is estimated that the average Brit will say sorry a staggering 1.9 million times in his or her lifetime.

There are at least two sides to every story. An English journalist living in the United States identifies 10 British habits Americans will never understand, but for reasons of fairness she also mentions 10 American habits Brits will never understand. A Canadian columnist wants to unravel the Canadian stereotype, while an Australian blogger gives advice on how to tell an Aussie from a Kiwi just by listening. And what about all the varieties of English spoken in Africa and Asia? Whose English is it, anyway?

What is your native tongue? Mine is German. Which country do you come from? I was born in Germany, where I also grew up and got my cultural imprint. When I travel, people can often guess where I’m from just by looking at my face, before I even say a word. Did that ever happen to you?

Meet the Germans is a website run by the Goethe Institute. It provides some insight into what is typical for Germany nowadays, for instance currywurst, antlers, sauerkraut and strandkorb. If of all these things I was allowed to take only one to a deserted island, I would definitely take the strandkorb. By the way, the first one was built by German basketmaker Wilhelm Bartelmann in Rostock in 1882. Thank you for this wonderful invention!

With an estimated 100 million native speakers, German is one of the world’s major languages and most widely spoken in Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, with many varieties. Different countries, different cultures, different habits.

A Swiss TV show asked viewers to send pictures of objects that are typical for Heidi’s home country. This resulted in an impressive collection called Switzerland in 100 things. An Englishman who settled down in the oldest neutral country of the world and also wrote several books about it offers to meet Homo helveticus in his blog.

What comes first to your mind when you think of Austria? With its beautiful mountains and famous towns such as Salzburg or Vienna, the home country of Mozart, Sissi, Arnie and two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz is a very popular travel destination. The capital even has its own dialect, Viennese German. Viennese for Americans provides useful survival phrases, including pronounciation help for Americans and other English-speaking folks. Here is an example:

English: Hi.   Viennese: Griass God!   Pronounciation: Grease Scott!

By the way, German is also an official language of Belgium, Denmark, Italy (South Tyrol) and Luxembourg. On the African continent, it is one of the national languanges of Namibia, along with Herero, Oshiwambo, Rukwangali, Silozi, Setswana, Afrikaans and English. Have you ever asked yourself how often the spreading of languages is a result of colonial expansion?

French is an official language in 29 countries and estimated as having 110 million native speakers. Outside of France, the highest numbers of French speakers are found in Canada (notably Quebec), Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and also in many African countries, among them Algeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Mauritius, Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia. It is another universal language with many varieties; Canada, for instance, has Quebec French, Acadian French and Newfoundland French. Some institutions try to regulate the French language, such as the French Academy in France, or the Quebec Board of the French Language in Canada.

The francophone world has its own rich kaleidoscope of cultures and stereotypes. In his animation movie Cliché, a French producer provides some tongue-in-cheek insight into how his fellow countrymen are usually seen abroad. An American blogger who moved to France about 10 years ago shares a lot of enthusiastic thoughts about her chosen home, but she also admits that there are some French habits that she will never understand.

The Centre for Intercultural Learning, a service of the Canadian Government, presents an extensive resource for global communication issues. It not only provides useful background information on many countries of the world, but also gives answers to questions like „What do I need to know about verbal and non-verbal communication?“, both from a Canadian and a foreign perspective. Check Germany for example. Or your own country.

What would the world be without experts for international communication? It’s good to have translators.

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Quotes on the Art of Translation

Translation is a very complex challenge. Many authors are famous for having shaped world literature. One key to their success is the translation of their original works into different languages. A less known fact is that some renowned authors also translated the works of other writers and mused about this fine art and the role of this profession:

„The translator must proceed until he reaches the untranslatable; and then only will he have an idea of the foreign nation and the foreign tongue.“
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe, translated by Bailey Saunders, 1906)

„And thus every translator is to be regarded as a middle-man in this universal spiritual commerce, and as making it his business to promote this exchange : for say what we may of the insufficiency of translation, yet the work is and will always be one of the weightiest and worthiest affairs in the general concerns of the world.“
(Correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle, edited and translated by Charles Eliot Norton, New York, 1970)

„But how much easier it is to translate an anecdote, than a feeling! The witty and the unwitty can parrot the comical; but only the heart can capture the language of the heart. It has its own rules; and it is all over with it, at the moment when one fails to realize this, and wishes instead to subject it to the rules of grammar, and to give it all the cold completeness, all the tedious distinctness which we demand in a logical sentence.“
(Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Hamburgische Dramaturgie, 1767/69; translator unknown. Source: Michelle Stott, Behind the Mask: Kierkegaard’s Pseudonymic Treatment of Lessing in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1993)

„Isn’t it strange, that a verbatim translation almost always is a bad one? yet everything can be translated well. This goes to show what it truly means to fully understand a language: it means to know the people using it. „
(Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, 1800-1806, translator unknown)

„The translator’s faithfulness turns into betrayal when it makes him obscure his original.“
(Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Rettungen des Horaz, 1754, translator unknown)

„Translators can be considered as busy matchmakers who praise as extremely desirable a half-veiled beauty. They arouse an irresistible yearning for the original.“
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe, translated by Bailey Saunders, 1906)

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