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Lost In Translation, A Strange State Of Grace

And apps could kill it forever ...

Instant translation, lost magic
Instant translation, lost magic
Jonas Pulver


TOKYO — When I decided to move to Tokyo, I didn't truly understand what learning Japanese meant. Three alphabets, thousands of ideograms, and a way to omit the verb's subject (known as the null-subject rule) that often left me frozen with that polite-but-crooked smile of a dinner guest who can't grasp what the conversation is about.

Some very painful memories remain from that experience. Like trying to use just my hands to explain to a tax office employee (a very nice one, by the way) the logic of my income deductions. Or calling my bank's telephone service and being eternally stuck in "press 2" limbo.

A year-and-a-half later, I can read, with much effort, lifestyle articles in the newspaper and congratulate myself when I can chat without any major faux pas for 45 minutes at the barber. And of course I'm hardly the first person to have observed the gigantic gap between European languages and Japanese.

With an eye to 2020 and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan is striving to improve a general level of English that has largely stagnated in recent years. The goal is of course to improve individual language skills, but also to increase both public and private investment in simultaneous translation technology.

For example, the VoiceTra app, developed by a Japanese state-owned institute, allows users to speak into their smartphones in English and then get the Japanese equivalent from a synthetic voice. I tested it and its rival Jspeak from private company Docomo. As long as you limit yourself to short sentences, it works surprisingly well to ask your way around or book a plane ticket.

It can also provide you with a good laugh if you utter such colloquial phrases as "when pigs fly." Of course, these apps are bound to improve on the idiomatic front, even before pigs fly. I can already imagine how the way we experience being abroad could change if this technology is adapted to smart glasses or watches.

Does this prospect make me happy? Yes and no. I often think back to my first few months in Tokyo, of the sounds my tongue wouldn't allow me to make, and the strange but pleasurable sensation that somehow results from it. When the words abandon you and signs become too abstract, other means of observation and communication come to the fore: the theater of bodies, the eloquence of the eyes, a choreography of manners and postures, the music of conversations and mosaic of clothes, that odd beauty hidden in advertisements and road signs.

There's much to be gained from being lost in translation. It'd be a shame to see it go.

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Not Your Grandma's Nonna: How Older Women In Italy Are Reclaiming Their Age

Women in Italy are living longer than ever. But severe economic and social inequality and loneliness mean that they urgently need a new model for community living – one that replaces the "one person, one house, one caregiver" narrative we have grown accustomed to.

Not Your Grandma's Nonna: How Older Women In Italy Are Reclaiming Their Age

Italy is home to many elderly people and few young ones.

Barbara Leda Kenny

ROMENina Ercolani is the oldest person in Italy. She is 112 years old. According to newspaper interviews, she enjoys eating sweets and yogurt. Mrs. Nina is not alone: over the past three years, there has been an exponential growth in the number of centenarians in Italy. With over 20,000 people who've surpassed the age of 100, Italy is in fact the country with the highest number of centenarians in Europe.

Life expectancy at the national level is already high. Experts say it can be even higher for those who cultivate their own gardens, live away from major sources of pollution, and preferably in small towns near the sea. Years of sunsets and tomatoes with a view of the sea – it used to be a romantic fantasy but is now becoming increasingly plausible.

Centenarians occupy the forefront of a transformation taking place in a country where living a long life means being among the oldest of the old. Italy is the second oldest country in the world, and it ranks first in the number of people over eighty. In simple terms, this means that Italy is home to many elderly people and few young ones: those over 65 make up almost one in four, while children (under 14) account for just over one in 10. The elderly population will continue to grow in the coming years, as the baby boomer generation, born between 1961 and 1976, is the country's largest age group.

But there is one important data set to consider when discussing our demographics: in general, women make up a slight majority of the population, but from the age of sixty onwards, the gap progressively widens. Every single Italian over 110 years old is a woman.

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