Lost in Translation

I do not “speak” German. Or Swedish, Danish, Finnish, or Estonian. Actually German is the only one I can even remotely handle. And by handle, I mean, squawk like a 1.5 year old. I have a fancy little book that tells me things. It is a “European Phrase Book.” The idea is that if I’m struggling and need to figure out how to say, “HELP! I need to buy a fancy trinket and then could you book me a double room please?” it will tell me. What it is absolutely useless with is the responses. So it explains how to say “I have a reservation.” But the response from the proprietor is going to be “What is your name?” or “What is the booking?” Neither of those two useful phrases appears in my book. So basically the book is useless. Plus I can’t learn things fast enough and the vocabulary is extremely limited, what with it touching on only 10 languages and all.

One of the semi-useful things is the list of foods. It tells me the words for beef, carrots, chocolate, etc. This is very helpful for deciphering menus. Sometimes I’ve just randomly ordered things that look good. Something that looks like housemade bratwürsts with something or other on the side is bound to be delicious. (Oh, yes. Yes it was.) Especially when it turns out that the other stuff accompanying it is awesome mashed potatoes, covered with carmelized onions, chives, and fantastic gravy. And the best mustard on the planet.


Other times I choose to be more cautious. Especially if olives or sausage (non-würsts) may be involved. Spinat – looks like Spinach. Ricotta – ricotta. Tomaten – Tomatoes. Score. Fresh pasta with spinach and ricotta filling and tomato sauce. (I voted against the Tomaten-Sahne sauce because I had no clue what it was. Now I think it was tomato cream sauce.)


Interestingly enough, I’ve had a harder time finding people in Germany who speak English than in Estonia and Finland. Maybe it was because there I didn’t even know how to say “Do you speak English?” in the native language or because I stuck to tourist areas. Almost everywhere I went had English menus and English servers. Here I almost always am deciphering menus in German (OK I did that in Sweden too) and talking to the wait staff (and hotel staff) in German. Which is a challenge given I had 6 months of German in about 1996… But I get by. And I don’t have to start every conversation saying “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” and that makes me happy.

Edit: Before giving me an English menu tonight, the waiter told me my German was fairly good. I consider an accomplishment! (Granted I had only asked for still water, but…)

Foreign Language Help

I’m currently doing research that involves online communities and multiple languages. As part of this, I’m analyzing some exceedingly popular languages (Spanish, German, Japanese…) as well as some less studied communities (Volapuk, Ukrainian, Esperanto).

The idea is that we’re doing some basic text processing. To reduce the amount of time this takes and the value of the analysis, we’re wanting to exclude a standard list of stop words. These are words, in English, such as in to a and the that, etc. (Examples in English, German, French) While I can find these for most European languages and have learned of other languages (Japanese, Chinese) don’t really have a concept of stop words in their language.

While I’ve found stop word lists for most of the languages, I’m stumped on three languages: Esperanto, Volapuk, Ukrainian, and Bengali. Any insights would be appreciated.