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Igniting the Schwa Fire

Published: 02 December 2013

"I know what you’re thinking -- journalism about interpreting and translation doesn’t happen as much as it should."

Update: On December 4, 2013, Schwa Fire reached 100% funding on Congratulations, Michael! We can't wait to read the first issue.

This week InterpretAmerica welcomes guest blogger, journalist, language nerd and author of Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press, 2012), Michael Erard. Like us, Michael is forward looking. He sees how technology is changing language and those who study and use it--including interpreters and translators. He also sees how it can empower quality niche journalism. Last month he contacted us about a new project he's preparing to launch called Schwa Fire, a bi-monthly digital publication focusing on language.

We were so intrigued by the idea and enthusiastic about the possibility of having professional journalists writing and producing great stories about language and the language professions on a regular basis that we decided we had to support the effort. And we invite you to do the same. So, be sure to check out the Schwa Fire crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and make a funding pledge.

The campaign closes on Tuesday, December 10, 2013. Right now, the project is just a few thousand dollars shy of reaching the goal of US$25,000.00 to formally launch. With the added support from a worldwide community of translators and interpreters, that goal will surely be met. In fact, if the campaign brings in another US$7,500.00 beyond the initial goal, translation will begin with the first issue. See Stretch Goal #1 on the Kickstarter page. Mr. Erard, the floor is now yours... 

By Michael Erard, PhD

I know what you’re thinking -- journalism about interpreting and translation doesn’t happen as much as it should. At least, there’s not much of it in mainstream English-language media; perhaps there’s more in other languages. One way or the other, my gut tells me there are interesting developments with huge ramifications, fascinating characters, and critical issues that could be investigated and written about.

Right now, with the help of some other folks, I’m creating a digital publication, called Schwa Fire, that will endeavor to do just that. The goal is to publish quality long-form reporting and narrative non-fiction about language and life. We’ll locate the human part of the language world and pull out the language part of the human story. Stories will be in text or multimedia, depending on which suits the topic, and they’ll be fully accessible. Eventually one of the stories in each issue will be professionally translated into another language.

I’ve been writing in this area for over a decade; I was a language journalist before that was even a term, when I figured out how to bring my expertise in language (I have an MA in linguistics and a PhD in English, both from the University of Texas at Austin) to my love for reporting and writing about people and topics I find fascinating. I’ve written about numerous language topics, from dreaming in foreign languages to language superlearners, from Unicode to Ethnologue, for The New York Times, Wired, Science, New Scientist, and others.

In many ways, it’s a great time for stories about language, and I’ve seen writing about grammatical issues, words, and dialect issues proliferate. At the same time, language in the world today as a topic remains mostly undented and a hungry audience underserved. One reason is that “language” is divided up along professional boundaries and academic disciplines, which has created a number of effective trade journals and entertaining blogs but no single outlet where someone might go to find a story about, say, spelling bees, but written in a way that would appeal to people who practice in other language areas, or about some aspect of the language industry that would appeal to people who aren’t language workers. There’s no mainstream publication where a story about interpreting and interpreters might be told that would find the sympathy and attention of translators, linguists, and speech language pathologists. Schwa Fire is going to serve that role.

There's been a lot of interest in Schwa Fire: Fast Company wrote a profile, BoingBoing did a shout-out, and even included it in a crowdfunding wrap-up. Ben Zimmer of Language Log and the Wall Street Journal wrote aboutSchwa Fire, as did linguist and namer Nancy Friedman. Other language blogs, such as LanguageHatGlossographia,Superlinguo, and the blog of translation company Altalang have written about it. The Texas Observer (where I used to be a contributing writer) wrote about the project, and I went on Texas Observer Radio to talk about it. I also wrote a guest post for The Language Documentation Crowd blog.

There’s another issue: Much of what the public knows about language diversity in the world is that it’s decreasing, as speakers of minority languages stop teaching them to their children and those languages become extinct. However, the fact is that even as languages disappear, there remains enough language diversity and linguistic difference to make for numerous practical barriers in education, law, government, and business, for which we need translators and interpreters to help overcome. I’ve long been fascinated by the history of interpreting -- the book Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors by Frances Karttunen is essential reading for this -- and the one book I want to read (but which is probably impossible to write) is a history of language contact in the Americas: who learned whose language, who became interpreters, and how history was shaped by these interactions.

Sometimes I think that people who enjoy a privileged position in the communication world – for instance, people who can use English, who are fluent in standard forms of English, who write their language with a Roman alphabet, and even at a more basic level, who can see and hear – think that language is something that only matters to people without such privileges. That is, you only have to think about how language works when you’re trying to get it to work for you. But you and I know that not only do language, speech, and communication matter to everyone, but that society would function more effectively if that assumption were more widely shared. That’s a message I hope thatSchwa Fire can embody.


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