Author unwraps a world of languages inside a Kinder Surprise
- Credit: Mysid/Wikimedia Commons
The seemingly trivial warning inside Kinder eggs has sparked a quirky book about language.
Muswell Hill sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris got the idea after unwrapping the chocolate treats and discovering the warning: 'Read and Keep: Toy not suitable for children under 3 years. Small parts might be swallowed or inhaled' translated into numerous languages.
"I've always loved something that's taken for granted that no-one looks at in detail, and treating it with importance," he says.
"I used to buy Kinder eggs for my kids and inside is this tiny global sheet of paper in a cornucopia of languages, from Chinese to Estonian, which has less than a million speakers, to Georgian which you don't often see on product packaging. It fed my interest in identifying languages, even ones I don't understand."
The Birkbeck College teacher, who has written academic books about anti-Semitism and Denialism, gave a talk about the message to the annual Boring Conference and recorded a podcast.
"It's a day of talks about things that are seemingly boring, but the joke is they are interesting when you look into them. I reached out to ask people to translate the message into unusual languages like Biblical Hebrew and Irish."
The Babel Message (Icon Books) brings Kahn-Harris' research together in a love letter to language that he hopes "anyone can read."
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"During lockdown I had a powerful need for a project outside my academic work that was fun and would reach out to people. I started firing off emails asking for translations to put on my website - even in fictional languages like Klingon or Dothraki from Game of Thrones . I thought 'maybe there's a book here about more than just translations'. Although the premise is gimmicky there is substance and serious themes as well."
Kahn-Harris says "oddities and inconsistencies" in the translations - from Jamaican patois, to Monegasque - often had wider significance. For example the warning message is the same in Romanian and Moldovan.
"I wondered are they different languages and found out they are separate and it's an incredibly contentious issue that people get het up about."
In the book, he creates his own language to translate the message, and tests how little of a language you need to write the message by looking it up on Google translate.
"One theme is what can a language do? Some languages can only express some things. There isn't a word for 'toy' in ancient Egyptian or Sanskrit, but it turns out they manage well. Languages can do anything you ask them to do."
And he's fascinated that written language is unique to humans.
"The complexity of language is something that we do all the time, every day and don't even think about it," he says.
"My last book was about anti-Semitism and I was struck by how - in an age of online argument - it is difficult for people to live alongside those who are not like them. But I realised you don't have to understand each other in order to live together, and being able to speak the same language exposes you to things about them that you might not want to know."
His favourite translation is Dzongkha - the language of Bhutan.
"It's in Tibetan script and stunningly beautiful, a work of art yet writing a mundane message. We have a sense of wonder at the languages we don't speak. The ability to take joy in that which you don't understand seems a valuable skill."
He personally speaks Spanish, French, and modern Hebrew, but says while he's not a particularly good linguist he has an ear for language.
"Most scholars agree the perfect translation is impossible. Each language has it's own way of expressing the world with nuance and subtle distinctions that make translation possible but never exact. Different languages subtly impact your way of looking at the world - some scholars say every language encodes a different world."
He cites The Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean which has had very little contact with Western society.
"We don't even know what language they speak. How could you translate the warning message in a way they would understand? Do they have a concept of age? How do they understand warnings. Or inhaling? While the concept of play is universal, we can't assume an object designed for play is universal.
"But it's not just a linguistic challenge, how would something like a Kinder Surprise egg fit into their world?"