Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cinderella: Conclusions

This is the continuation of the previous two posts.

Perrault ended each of his Tales with a moral in verse. I can't emulate him, but I'd like to draw some conclusions from what has happened both to the Tales and to the 1001 Nights. There are stages that they went through in their passage from their original cultures to the British theatre, and they seem to me typical of what may happen in the translation of literature.

Discovery. Somebody has first to discover that the original work is worth translating. It may be a translator, a critic or a publisher. Antoine Galland discovered the Nights not only for Europeans, but even for Arabs, by whom they weren't highly regarded. Gregory Rabassa not only translated Latin American literature, he introduced Gabriel García Márquez to English-speaking readers. It helps if an author wins a Nobel Prize. No major English-language publisher was interested in Neguib Mahfouz until he did so.

Translation. The translation may be by a Professional Expert Translator or by an Advanced Native Translator. Robert Samber, the translator of Cinderella, was a Professional Expert who could equally translate fairy stories and mild pornography to order. Whereas Galland was primarily an orientalist and archaeologist, not a translator.

The translation may be direct between the two languages, as occurred with Perrault's Tales; or indirect via a third language, as happened with the first English translations of the Nights, which were made from Galland's French version. Indirect translation is common when the original is in a little-known language. The existence of a direct translation doesn't necessarily preclude an indirect one. By the 20th century there were a number of direct translations of the Nights from Arabic, yet that didn't prevent Edward Powys Mathers' indirect translation from the French of J. C. Mardrus becoming popular in the 1920s.

There are also the re-translations, that is to say new translations produced because of changes in language changes, literary taste, social mores, etc.; or even for mundane reasons like acquiring a version that can be copyrighted.

Diffusion in the new language. This requires publication and a publisher. Sometimes the translator has to go hunting for a publisher, but there are some imprints that specialise in translations: the American house founded by Alfred A. Knopf is a famous example.

The market receptiveness for translations varies greatly between countries and cultures. You just have to take a look at the bookshops in Spain, where over half of popular new publications are translations, and compare them with bookshops in Britain or America.

The critics have a certain influence, but they are notoriously superficial in their judgements on translations, commonly compressing them into a line or two.

Nativisation. This is my shorthand for 'incorporation into the literary canon of the receptor language and culture'. From this stage onwards, many readers don't even realise that the work was once a foreign product. This is certainly true of the Perrault Tales and the Nights. To my mind, the turning point for the Nights came when it exchanged its original title for one expressing a thoroughly English viewpoint: The Arabian Nights Entertainment. Titles and tales like Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots, even Cinderella, are thought to be traditional English ones.

Adaptation. The translations of both the Nights and the Perrault Tales have been adapted endlessly for different readerships, both adult and child, and selections made from them. Indeed there are far more adaptations of them than there are complete and unmodified editions.

Inter-media adaptation. The medium is changed from book to theatre or film or even – in the case of Cinderella – ballet. That's how we got to pantomime. The summit these days for fairy tales (reached by both Cinderella and Aladdin) is to be adapted and marketed by Disney.

Imitation. Works that borrow the 'theme', the story outline, characters or style, etc. but are essentially and avowedly new productions. Some see the Cinderella theme in Pride and Prejudice:
A virtuous daughter, favoured by her father, succeeds despite foolish sisters and foolish mother. She marries the worthy D’Arcy to live on his tasteful estate, with psyche restored and fulfilled.
There are dozens of Cinderella imitations, old and new, cited in Russell A. Peck's Cinderella Bibliography (see References).

Maybe that's not all, but it goes far enough to end 2010.

The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. Thus rendered into English from the literal and complete French translation of Dr J. C. Mardrus by E. Powys Mathers. London: Casanova Society, 1923. 16 vols. Available through Amazon UK.
"Literal and complete" because Mardrus and hence Powys Mathers 'debowdlerised' the Nights, which are quite bawdy in places in the original.

Alfred A. Knopf is now part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. http:\\

Cinderella. Story adapted from Perrault by Bill Peet et al. USA: Walt Disney Productions, 1950. Animated film.

Aladdin. Screenplay by Ron Clements et al. USA: Walt Disney Productions, 1992. Animated film.

Russell A. Peck. Modern Fiction. In Cinderella Bibliography.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Cinderella (continued)

This is the continuation of yesterday's post.

And so Cinderella reached the British stage. The following is taken, with a few additions, from a website called The Magic of Pantomime, which is a mine of information about the history of the genre.
It was in 1820 that the first real pantomime version of 'Cinderella' opened at Covent Garden in the heart of London. Entitled 'Harlequin and Cinderella, or the little glass slipper' it featured the famous clown Joseph Grimaldi as the Baron's wife in the panto tradition of men playing female roles. That year, in a Perrault importation by way of another country and another culture, Rossini's opera 'La Cenerentola' had premiered in London, introducing the characters of the Baron and the Prince's servant, Dandini.

The character of Buttons emerged from page boys, who were nicknamed 'Buttons' from the close-sewn rows of buttons on their uniforms. The character first appeared in 1860, given the Italian name of 'Buttoni', and underwent many changes of name from Chips, Alfonso, and Pedro, before settling down as the Baron's trusty servant, Buttons.

The 1860 production at the Strand Theatre, also in London, developed the characters of the Ugly Sisters. As in Rossini's opera, the first character names for them were Clorinda and Thisbe, and their names have constantly changed to accommodate the fashions of passing times. Other names include Buttercup and Daisy, Euthanasia and Asphyxia, Alexia and Krystle, right up to the Spice Girls – Posh and Scary.

During the 19th Century, over 90 productions of 'Cinderella' were staged. Then as now, was recognised that it attracts larger audiences than any other. In 1958 the Rogers and Hammerstein 'Cinderella' was staged at the London Coliseum as a pantomime with Yana as Cinderella, Tommy Steele as Buttons, Jimmy Edwards as the Baron, and Kenneth Williams and Ted Durante as the Ugly Sisters. Household names to British people of my generation.

Popular trends have dictated that the Prince, usually called Prince Charming and his valet, Dandini, were played originally by women, but in recent times more by men. Among the famous female Princes have been Dorothy Ward, Evelyn Laye and Pat Kirkwood.
"This most peculiarly British art form is alive and kicking because it speaks to our inner child," writes a journalist in The Guardian. So does Perrault.

Nigel Ellacott. Cinderella. the Magic of Pantomime.

Lyn Gardner. We're still behind you! Why we'll never grow too old for pantomimes. The Guardian newspaper, electronic edition. December 23, 2010.

Poster for pantomime Cinderella at The Wimbledon Theatre, London, 1924.

And with that...

To one and all, whatever your language(s),



Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Diversion: Cinderella

Christmas is here again. I've been preparing for it.

Last year, I celebrated it in my own way by telling the story of how a collection of popular tales in Arabic, The Thousand and One Nights, became over the centuries, by way of translation, nativisation, selection and adaptation of several kinds, one of the most popular and robust of British Christmas entertainments, the theatrical pantomime Aladdin. To find those posts, just type 'aladdin' into the Search box in the right-hand column. Each pantomime production is a unique adaptation, because although the story line and characters are preserved, changes are made to fit it to the players, who are often famous stars making 'guest appearances'. Pantomimes have survived by adapting to changing times and tastes.

This year I've taken another look at the pantomime scene, and guess what I've found – more translation.

First, though, a footnote to Aladdin. Fellow Canadian Pamela Anderson (ex-Baywatch, ex-Playboy), who last year starred in a production in the London suburb of Wimbledon, is appearing this year at the Liverpool Empire in the north of England. Again she doesn't play the title role but the character of the Genie of the Lamp. Perhaps she would be too unbelievable in the male role of Aladdin even for pantomime, although the character is often played by a woman.

Yet popular though it is, Aladdin is not the most often staged of the pantomimes. That honour belongs to another fairy tale, Cinderella. And not only Cinderella but also several other favourites – Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots – all have a lineage in English that goes back to one French author and his English translator at the turn of the 18th century. The author was Charles Perrault.

Both the 1001 Nights and Perrault's stories are drawn from folk tales, but there the similarity ends. Whereas the Nights were a loose compilation of a vast number of tales, varying from manuscript to manuscript and augmented by oral tradition in Galland's translation, Perrault's book is made up of just ten stories. Whereas the authorship of the Nights remains a matter of conjecture and was certainly dispersed in both place and time, Perrault was a well-known literary figure in 17th-century France, a member of the Académie Française. Last but not least, there were plenty of French translators in London and so Perrault could be translated directly; whereas the Nights came from a little-known language and therefore via an indirect translation.

In 1695, when he was 67, Perrault lost his post in Paris as a royal secretary. He decided to retire and dedicate himself to his writing and his children. One outcome, today by far the most famous, was Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé (Tales from Olden Times), better known as Les Contes de ma Mère l'Oie (Mother Goose's Stories – see References). Its publication made him suddenly widely known beyond his own circles and all over Europe. It marked the beginnings of a new literary genre, the fairy tale, thus paving the way for the success of the Nights.

Perrault's book reached the English reading public in 1729, though many in Britain had probably read it already in French. It did so in the form of a translation by Robert Samber (1682-1745), probably for a bookseller. Strangely, no copy of the first edition has survived; not even the British Library has one. We know of it only from a newspaper: an advertisement in the Monthly Chronicle that year announced a translation "by Mr Samber, printed for J. Pote." "Mr Samber" was presumably Robert Samber of New Inn, London.

The choice of translator was important. It's true he did at least some of his work as a professional translator for booksellers – the booksellers ànd printers were the publishers of that time – but he was no 'Grub Street hack'. In 1721, Roger Greaves had paid him to translate La Motte's Fables Nouvelles (1719) as One Hundred New Court Fables, which was a good preparation for translating Perrault. He gained some notoriety in 1724 when he translated Venus in the Cloister, or the Nun in her Smock for the printer Edmund Curl (or Curll), who was promptly prosecuted for publishing pornography. However, the book itself describes the translator as "a man of honour". He was a very active freemason, an author, and as a translator he was prolific. He wrote several volumes of poetry and also translated and wrote scholarly treatises, including a Treatise on the Plague, in which he gives instructions for preventing the disease. In short, he was, by virtue of his experience, an Expert Translator. His translation of Perrault is still available (see References).

Samber's translation won wide popularity, as is shown by the fact that there was a seventh edition published in 1795, for J. Rivington, a bookseller, of Pearl Street, New York. It was followed by innumerable retellings and adaptations, mostly of individual stories. To cite just one of them:
Cinderilla, or, The little glass slipper: designed for the entertainment of all good little misses, ornamented with engravings. Albany NY: Printed by E. and E. Hosford, 1811,
which already follows another tradition, that of Perrault as an inspirer of book illustrators.

Until – as was almost inevitable in England and America in those days – Perrault's tales made their way to the stage.

To be continued.

Pantomime, abbreviated colloquially to panto: a British theatrical entertainment involving music, topical jokes and slapstick comedy, usually produced around Christmas time.

Genie: a spirit imprisoned within a bottle or an oil lamp and capable granting any wish when summoned. It came into English as a borrowing of the French génie, which was itself a blend of the existing word génie (genius) with the meaning of a similar-sounding Arabic word, jinnî.

Cinderella (aka Cinderilla as a text but not as a pantomime): from French Cendrillon, derived from cendre (ash). Italian Cenerentola.

Simon Hattenstone. Pamela Anderson. The Guardian newspaper electronic edition, December 18, 2010.

'Perrault d’Armancourt, son of Charles Perrault'. Histoires ou contes du temps passé. Avec des moralitez. Par le fils de Monsieur Perreault de l’Académie françoise. Purportedly published in Amsterdam, 1698, but the title bears the word “Suivant la copie à Paris” (According to the Paris text). 175 p. In fact written by Charles Perrault himself but put under his son's name because he was uncertain of the reception such a childish book would have from his fellow Academicians. It had an engraved frontispiece bearing the title Contes de ma mère loye (Mother Goose's Stories), and from it derives the title by which it is better known.

Charles Perrault. The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. Translated by Robert Samber and revised by J. E. Mansion. Introduction by Thomas Bodkin. Illustrated by Harry Clarke. London: Harrap, 1922. Reproduced as a Project Gutenberg eBook,
This is the Samber translation revised by the lexicographer Jean Edmond Mansion, editor of the great Harrap's Standard French and English Dictionary. I've quoted from Bodkin's introduction.

'Widow's Son'. Brother Eugenius Philalethes sendeth greeting. The Burning Taper, May 31, 2007.
Eugenius Philalethes was a pen name of Robert Samber.

Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th edition.

Image: Cinderella, by the English book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Translation in TESOL

Richard Vaughan, whose surname Spaniards commonly mispronounce as Voh-ggen, is the most popular English teacher in Spain. An expatriate American in Madrid who found a niche teaching English to corporate employees, he has come a long way and now has his own dedicated all-day television channel, Aprende Inglés TV. That’s all it does: teach English to Spaniards, and there’s a big demand for it. Undoubtedly a large factor in his success is his easy-going personality and mellifluous voice, which charms both his screen students and the viewers. English without tears in a one-on-one conversational setting. His method is to introduce new knowledge – mostly vocabulary and phrases – into the conversation naturally and with just a minimum of explanation. He has competent assistants, but none of them can match him.

Vaughan is a man after my own heart and way of thinking, because he believes in the use of translation in foreign language teaching. Besides his TV programmes, he’s published a book with a typically upbeat title: Si quieres, puedes (You Can If You Want To). It has something very unusual for a book about language teaching: not one but two chapters on the use and usefulness of translating.

Mind you, he makes a clear distinction between child and adult learning, and his students are all adults. He adopts the common hypothesis of a loss of mental ‘plasticity’ around the age of 12. Before then, language learning is instinctive and effortless; afterwards, it requires effort and you have to work at it. He emphasises hard work. He illustrates by the case of his own children, who became early bilinguals in English and Spanish without having to be taught, but who had as much difficulty as anybody else learning other languages later on.

The chapter on La traducción inversa (translation into one's second language) opens with his experience teaching a small class of recalcitrant Spanish engineers. He couldn't get them to do homework until he gave them a short list of useful Spanish sentences to translate into English. Then they all did it.
I discovered, thanks to my five engineers, men as rough-hewn as a limestone quarry, that the challenge of translating into one's second language is a powerful stimulus for inducing Spaniards to work at their English.
And he went on to compile and publish with great success three Translation Booklets, each containing 1,500 phrases.

He's very critical of the modern dogma that use of the first language should be banned from second language teaching. Indeed he positively rails at those he calls "the modern gurus of teaching."
Adults cannot accept a second language without some support from their first language... By puberty, human beings already have their brains, mouths and motor processes formed around their mother tongue.
In the short chapter on traducción directa (first-language translation) he recommends translating very literally from English into Spanish so as to point up the differences between the two languages and be more aware of the specificities of the English.

My own belief in the value of translation when learning a language comes not so much from teaching as from my own experience. I've always used translating and learning the translations by heart as one method among others for extending my knowledge and mastery of the other language. For Spanish, my favourite source book is one called Street Spanish, because it contains such a wealth of colloquial expressions. These are encapsulated in dialogues with the Spanish and the English on facing pages. I read the Spanish utterances and the corresponding English ones over and over until I can translate by heart from the English into Spanish. In other words, the English becomes a cue for my Spanish production. Then I seize opportunities to use the Spanish expressions in conversation. This is a vital step; it's by use that what start as a translation becomes incorporated into my direct Spanish production.

However, I've never gone so far as a Hungarian polyglot I once knew. He'd been brought up in a pious home where there were Bible readings every evening, so that he came to know long passages of the Bible by heart. To learn a new language, he would turn to the Bible in that language, read the passages corresponding to those he knew and mentally translate them into Hungarian as he went along.

Aprende Inglés TV. 2010.

Richard Vaughan. Si quieres, puedes: los consejos de Richard Vaughan para aprender inglés. 3rd edition. Madrid: Libroslibres, 2008. 254 p. 24 pounds from Amazon UK.

David Burke. Street Spanish: the Best of Spanish Slang. New York: Wiley, 1997. $12 from Amazon USA. Good, but use with care. It's an American production and many of the expressions aren't current in Spain.

Monday, December 6, 2010

TV Presenter-Interpreters

There’s a very popular TV programme in Spain called Más Allá de la Vida (Beyond Life). In it, an apparently gifted British medium, Anne Germain, transmits messages to members of the studio audience from their dead relatives and friends. The presenter is Jordi González (see photo). I don’t like him in the other programme he presents regularly (La Noria) because there he seems strained; but in Más allá de la vida I have to admit he too is gifted. You see, Anne Germain doesn’t speak Spanish, and of course her audience wouldn’t be able to follow her in English. Everything she says to the recipients of her messages therefore has to be interpreted. But there’s no interpreter – that’s to say, no Expert Interpreter. Jordi González does it all. I’d never have guessed from La Noria that he knew a word of English, but in this programme he does a very creditable, near-expert job in his auxiliary role; and he keeps it up through 90 minutes of short consecutive interpreting without taking notes, while at the same time carrying out his other functions as presenter such as introducing and interviewing the members of the audience who are selected. Quite a performance. He‘s not the only presenter who does occasional interpreting – the veteran Michel Drucker on French TV for instance – but I haven‘t seen another do it so sustainedly. Prime-time presenters like González and Drucker are certainly Professional Experts, but not Professional Expert Interpreters. It‘s another example of what I’ve previously (March 3 post) called unrecognised translators.

Jordi has also presented programmes in Catalan. Since he was born in Barcelona, we can presume he was an early bilingual in Catalan and Spanish. However, the official biography on his website doesn’t tell us how or when he learnt English. Or maybe he didn't. Maybe it's all a put-up job: see the Cavanilles reference below. But if it's not a genuine interpretation – and I'm inclined to believe that the interpreting at least is genuine – then it's a very good imitation of one.

Más Allá de la Vida currently appears on Sunday evenings on the Telecinco channel.

Jordi Gonzalez’s own website is at

Javier Cavanilles. Desde el más allá (más o menos): una médium de opereta [From the Beyond (more or less): a medium fit for a musical comedy]. El Mundo newspaper, electronic edition, August 13, 2010.
A scathing demolition of the medium and the programme.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Juvenes Translatores

Each year, the European Commission's Directorate-General for Translation (DGT) organises a translation contest for secondary schools throughout the European Union. It’s called Juvenes Translatores, which, in case you’re wondering, is Modern Latin for Young Person Translators. The 2010 edition has been taking place this week. For the winners, their ’remuneration’ is that they get invited to an awards ceremony in Brussels.

The contesting students have to be 17 years old, which is somewhat elitist since so many youngsters leave school at 16. Any school can apply, but it’s clear from the ones I recognise on this year’s list, that’s to say the UK ones, that they’re mostly institutions of the grammar school type, where, I suppose, traditional language teaching is still strong even in today’s linguistically lazy Britain. A total of more than 1,600 schools applied this year to take part (13% up on last year) and each school can put forward five contestants – so quite a cohort.

The aim of the contest is “to promote language learning and translation” in the hope that it “promotes young peoples’ thirst to learn foreign languages.“ It’s gratifying to see language learning and translation linked together.

The rules state that “there is no compulsory minimum level of formal language studies.” However, it’s made clear that the competition is addressed to Advanced Native Translators – not explicitly, but that’s how I would categorise them because it’s certain that though they haven’t been trained as translators and so aren’t Experts, they’ve had a good deal of contact with translation in their language courses. Furthermore, they’re allowed to use dictionaries (paper ones, no computers), and dictionaries are a sign of translator sophistication.

Here’s a sample of the kind of text that contestants have to translate:
Travel broadens the mind, they say. Despite the old adage that you’re never too old to learn, never is this truer than when the travellers are young, and never, in this increasingly globalised world, has mobility been more important. Back in 1987, when it inaugurated the Erasmus programme, the European Commission was ahead of the game. Erasmus has since given over 2 million European university students and thousands of lecturers the opportunity to study and teach abroad in more than thirty countries.
The texts are about 450 words long and the time allowed is two hours; so there’s little time for reflection and revision.

Another telling detail: “The contest has proved hugely popular.” Of the schools that take part, 99% apply to participate again. Even if we put some of the enthusiasm down to inter-school competitive spirit, it still means, as I’ve said elsewhere (September 4), that for many bilinguals translating is like a game and is not necessarily motivated by communication imperatives.

DGT, European Commission. Juvenes Traductores.

News on the contest as well as pictures and information from previous rounds are available on Facebook, and you can also follow Juvenes Translatores on Twitter. What more could you ask for?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Some Economics of Religious Translation

I’ve previously insisted on the importance of religious translating (including interpreting) and lamented that it’s given short shrift in mainstream translation studies other than historical ones. My arguments have been the amount of activity that it generates for Expert and Advanced Native Translators, and its profound cultural influence. Now comes news of another aspect, more mundane but still impressive.

Wycliffe Bible Translators is a leading worldwide organisation in its field with HQ in Florida (see photo). It was founded in 1942 by William Cameron Townsend, a missionary to the Cakchiquel Indians of Guatemala. Now it’s campaigning to translate the Bible into all the two thousand or so languages in the world that don’t have it yet. To that end, they’ve already raised $250 million in donations, including one of $50 million from a single benefactor. And that’s not all. It’s only one quarter of their target of one billion dollars. I’m betting that over time they’ll get it too.

Think of how many translators that’ll subsidise. What effect will they have on the two thousand languages, many of which don’t have a writing system yet? What effect will the translated Bible have on the receiving cultures? A speaker at an International Translation Day meeting a few weeks ago in Toronto, Maya Chacaby, whose language is Anishanaabemowin (aka Ojibwe), said that for small communities like hers, translation was the only way to save a language threated with annihilation in a country dominated by English and French. For which reason, she often works as a translator "without any remuneration."

Christian Today,, November 18, 2010.

Marika Kemeny. Glendon's International Translation Day examines quality translation for a variety of voices. InformATIO (Ottawa), 39:3.5-6.

The Wycliffe website is at

Photo: Wycliffe

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dragomans and Alphabets

When, for a couple of years, I was a history student at university in London, my tutor was Bernard Lewis. He was encouraging and very helpful to me. I didn’t realise at the time how privileged I was, because it happened in the days before he was brain-drained to the USA (Princeton) and became a well-known public guru of Islamic and Middle East history and affairs. At that period he was on a lower academic rung as a young Lecturer; however, he was already a multilingual authority on the history of the Ottoman (or Turkish) Empire, the Muslim regime that ruled most of the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans for nearly five centuries until 1918. So when, in 2004, Professor Lewis brought out a book with the title From Babel to Dragomans, I knew at once who the dragomans were that he was referring to.

Those dragomans were the official translator-interpreters (there was no distinction between the two functions) of the Ottoman administration at various levels. The most prominent of them were for a long time Constantinople Greeks.

They were also the official translator-interpreters in the embassies and consulates of the Western powers that wanted to negotiate with the Turks or do business with them. The dragomans of the Westerners might be recruited locally or they might be their own nationals specially trained. The best-organised Western corps of dragomans was that of the French. Under Colbert, a school was established in Paris specially for training dragomans from childhood onwards. Among the other powers were the British, who, like the French, maintained their dragomans until the First World War (see References below).

Since the dragomans were Professional Experts, they’re beyond the scope of this blog. However, Lewis tells an anecdote that does have some relevance here.
One of our earliest accounts of a diplomatic communication in the Middle Ages comes from an Arabic chronicler called Awhadi. He tells us that a European queen, Bertha the daughter of Lothar, queen of Franja [Frankland] and its dependencies, sent a gift and a letter to the Abbasid Caliph al-Muktafi in the year 293 of the Hijra (906 CE). With them was a further message, not included in the letter, but addressed directly to the Caliph. The letter, says the Arab historian, was written on white silk ‘in a writing resembling the Greek writing but straighter’ (presumably this was Latin writing: the queen from Italy would obviously have used the Latin script).
How did they read this message in Latin? Who would there have been in tenth-century Baghdad that could read a letter in Latin? Awhadi tells us: they searched for someone to translate the letter, and in the clothing store they found a Frankish slave who was able ‘to read the writing of that people’. He was brought into the Caliph’s presence, where he translated the letter from Latin writing into Greek writing. Then they brought the famous scientific translator Ishaq ibn Hunain and he translated it from Greek into Arabic.
You’ll expect me to remark, I’m sure, that even the famous Professional Translator couldn’t proceed without the prior contribution of a humble bilingual slave in a clothing store. But there’s more to it.

First there's the apparent confusion between writing and language, as in “he translated the letter from Latin writing into Greek writing.” Of course the slave didn’t just transliterate the Latin letters into Greek ones, which wouldn’t have helped Ishaq much; he translated the message into the Greek language. It may be just an artefact of English translation, since the Arabic word kitâbah – I presume it’s that; Lewis doesn’t give the Arabic – can mean either a writing system, a script, or a piece of writing, a text. On the other hand, the identification of script with language would be understandable in the circumstances, since Latin, Greek and Arabic each uses a different alphabet that is characteristic of it.

What is certain, however, is that the slave and Ishaq each had to know two of those alphabets; and the slave, living in Arab Baghdad, must have known all three. What I’m getting at is that to be fully bilingual in a literate society, it’s not enough to be able to pronounce two languages; you have to be able to read and write their scripts. You have to be biliterate in that sense. Writing systems have become essential gateways.

Dragoman: Note the plural dragomans; not dragomen, which is seen sometimes but is etymologically incorrect. It’s a very old and widespread synonym of interpreter. Lewis traces its history back to Assyrian ragamu, meaning to speak. It entered English by way of Old French, Italian, Byzantine Greek dragoumanos, Arabic turjmân, Aramaic, etc. The meaning Arabic or Turkish speaking local tourist guide came in with modern tourism in the 19th century.

Bernard Lewis. From Babel to Dragomans. In From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, New York, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 18-32.

Sir Andrew Ryan, KBE, CMG., 1876-1949. The Last of the Dragomans. London: Bles, 1951. Ryan, who was what the title of his book says, rose from dragoman at Constantinople to ambassador to one of the Balkan countries. Difficult to find, but Amazon has books about another British dragoman, Gerald Fitzmaurice, and Johannes Kolmodin, the last dragoman of the Swedish embassy. Fitzmaurice’s title was Chief Dragoman, so there were others under him. We know, for example, that Ryan started as Second Dragoman.

Glen M. Cooper. Ishāq ibn Hunayn. In Thomas Hockey et al. (eds.), The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, New York, Springer, 2007, p. 578.

David Diringer, et al. The Alphabet: a Key to the History of Mankind. Several editions. Available from Amazon. The classic work on the subject.

Image: 'Dragoman', from the website of Dr. Hans-Peter Laqueur,

Friday, November 12, 2010

From Natural to Expert Translator, With Essential Definitions

This blog constantly bandies about terms like Natural Translator and Native Translator; and although there’s a side panel telling readers how to find definitions of them, it requires going back a long way. So I’ll take a pause and try to make them clearer. To that end, here's a diagram showing their relative positions in the development of translation ability and skills.

The terms mean what I want them to mean, which may well be different from the way other people use them. Especially the term Professional Translator, which professional translators themselves and people close to them such as translation teachers – including myself back in the 1970s – conflate with Expert Translator. To me now, Professional Translator means someone who does translating as a livelihood, whether full time or part time. The reality is that many professional translators are not well trained or qualified, even though you have a right to expect them to be if you’re paying them well (but not if you’re underpaying them). And on the other hand, there are many people who can translate as well as the Experts but who don’t do it as a profession. They’re common among academics; colleagues have occasionally taken time from their own work to translate an article for me. When Samuel Moore, a lawyer by profession, translated the Communist Manifesto into English for Marx and Engels – surely a challenge with them looking over his shoulder – he did so out of friendship and conviction. (See post of May 2, 2010.)

At first I only distinguished between Natural Translators and Professional Translators, but that was too crude. Now I reserve Natural Translators for bilinguals who’ve had no training, instruction or specific guidance at all in translating and so they do it intuitively and spontaneously. Since bilinguals usually come while still young under the influence of other people translating or are exposed to examples of translation, the best time to catch pure Natural Translators for study is in their early childhood. Once they go to school, it’s difficult to sift out the influences. However, they may be older.

The next level, Native Translators, is that of bilinguals who have in fact been exposed to and influenced by examples: examples of other people translating and examples of translations done by other people. Here too I’ve realised that the categorisation is too crude. There’s a large gap between what a school-age child absorbs and what, say, a literary translator has learnt by years of reading that includes translations. Therefore it’s necessary to distinguish between Beginner Native Translator and Advanced Native Translator.

Language Broker is a term that wasn’t coined by translation specialists but by educationists and sociologists. Language brokers are typically young Native Translators, sometimes Natural Translators, who interpret in a particular social context: that of immigrant communities whose members need to communicate with the host community. The term is new; my own first encounters with the phenomenon came in the 1970s before the term existed. I don’t like the use of broker as if it entailed negotiating a deal – intermediary would be better, as in the German Sprachmittler – but it’s here to stay.

Coming shortly to this blog: A mediaeval tale of alphabets.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Military Interpreters – Postscript

Having written in my post yesterday about the treatment of military interpreters and the chaos in Iraq, I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised by a headline in this morning’s electronic edition of The Guardian newspaper:
Army's Iraqi interpreters face hardship after fleeing to UK.

Read all about it at

Still, they’re lucky to have got out alive from that hapless country.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bilingualism and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal - Conclusions

Photo: ‘IMTFE official interpreter’ from Wikimedia Commons. Note the IBM branding on his headset, and that he's taking notes for consecutive interpretation. The man next to him is likely a Monitor, and the non-Japanese to the right is perhaps an Arbitrator. (See previous posts.)

Though the Tokyo Trials took place long ago, we can still learn some things from Watanabe’s account of the most important one.

1. Even for important occasions that call for Professional Expert interpreting, it’s possible in extremis to make use of well-educated Native Translators instead. The latter will learn on the job:
Interpretation was inadequate in the earlier phase of the Trial (around May and June of 1946), sometimes giving only a summary of the exchange. Over time, interpreters’ and monitors’ work and cooperation improved, providing an adequate teamwork performance by March 1947.
However, it’s essential to provide a ‘safety net’ in the form of Expert Monitoring, and corrections must be admitted when the monitors spot mistakes. There was one monitor to every three interpreters at Tokyo, and the monitors did much more than just check the interpretation.
The monitor supported the interpreter – for example taking notes for them of details such as dates, periods, etc.
and so on.

To sum up then, it appears that Native Translators can be used in place of Expert Interpreters subject to three requirements: monitoring, teamwork and time to learn.

2. The pool from which the Expert Monitors were drawn in Tokyo was formed of Military Interpreters. Military interpretation has yet to be accorded its due importance in the history, training and treatment of interpreters – and in translation studies, though it’s been around at least since the time of the Ancient Egyptians. The organisation of military interpreting in recent times has been notoriously ad hoc; and in Iraq and Afghanistan it’s been chaotic, with the American military offloading its recruitment needs to private contractors. The Americans did start to train interpreters for Japanese just before Pearl Harbour, but it was too little and too late. The British were caught even worse off guard - but that’s another story. However, the skills of many Expert Military Interpreters were ultimately forged in the fire of the Pacific battles.

Perhaps, though, the most interesting lesson we can learn in this instance about Military Interpreters is that their role doesn’t end when the war does. Armistices must be negotiated, and after that there are other negotiations that are undertaken by the generals of the opposing forces. The generals naturally turn to the interpreters closest to them. Then there may be tribunals, as we have seen, and a period of occupation by the army of the victorious power as happened in Japan.

Tomie Watanabe. Interpretation at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal: an overview and Tojo’s cross-examination. TTR (Montreal), 22:1.57-91, 2010.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bilingualism and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal - 2

Continued from the previous post.
That the interpreters for the Trials weren't up to the level of Expert or Professional Translators doesn’t mean they had no acquaintance with translation. Some of them were officials from the Foreign Ministry, one at least was a journalist, one a university student. They were therefore presumably at some level of Native Translator.

Nevertheless, the American organisers of the interpreting were faced with two problems:
* Their interpreters were untrained and inexperienced
* As the interpreters had to be recruited in Japan, they might be suspected of bias in favour of the accused.
They therefore put in place a system of checks:
Monitors from officials of the Allied Powers would be relied upon to check and correct the interpretation.
Here bilingualism enters the picture again, but from a different direction. There were four monitors.
All four were Kibei Nisei, second generation residents of the US who were born in US but raised and educated in Japan, and then returned to the US before the outbreak of WWII. They were bilingual (English and Japanese) and were expected to be well versed in Japanese culture. During WWII, they worked for ATIS (the Allied Powers’ Translation and Interpretation Section). They were involved in intelligence activities such as tapping lines of communication, code breaking, prisoner interrogation, information collection from diaries, memos and other materials seized from Japanese soldiers killed during the war. They had gathered sufficient knowledge about WWII to perform to perform their tasks at the Tokyo Trial.
They were therefore Professional Expert translators by 1945, with much of the background knowledge required.

One such Japanese American was Steve Shizuma Yamamoto, who went on to have a long and successful career in the American Army (see photo). He had acquired his experience as an interrogator, having conducted no fewer than 3,000 interrogations in New Guinea. He isn’t mentioned by Watanabe, perhaps because he didn’t take part in the first trial.

In spite of the time it took, the method of interpreting was consecutive interpretation; not simultaneous, which was still very novel. The task of the monitors was facilitated by the use of consecutive. Actually, the same model of IBM simultaneous interpretation equipment as was used at Nuremberg was installed at Tokyo, but it wasn’t used in the same way. Watanabe doesn’t explain why not, but we can surmise some of the reasons:
* The absence of an organiser in Tokyo with the clout that Léon Dostert wielded at Nuremberg as personal interpreter to Eisenhower.
* There was no time to train the inexperienced interpreters for simultaneous, and in any case there were no trainers in Japan.
* Something that was told me many years later by a Japanese interpreter, Sen Nishiyama, who had begun his career in that era: the Japanese believed that English-Japanese simultaneous would be impossible because of the wide difference in sentence structure between the two languages. They were wrong. Under American pressure during the Occupation, simultaneous was in fact introduced into Japan in the 1950s.
Above the monitors was yet another tier, the Language Arbitration Board. Its members were unilingual English. Their task was to decide on any dispute or difficulty that could not be settled by the monitors. They were concerned mainly with terminology.
Once the interpretation of a disputed word was resolved by the Board, the arbitrated translation had to be used for the rest of the trial.
Some of the difficulties arose from cultural differences. There were moments when even Tojo intervened to try to clarify.
It is undeniable that [in some instances] Tojo’s rapid understanding and response, as well as his adamant assertion of translation errors, led to language arbitration… It must be added that the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal recognized the importance of cultural gaps.
The last part of Watanabe’s article is devoted to examples of interventions by interpreters and monitors, of arbitration, and particularly to the dispute over the translation of the Japanese word taian: did it mean reply to a proposal or counter-proposal? A lot depended on that single word.

Though the Tribunal has been criticised as unjust and even some of the judges issued obiter dicta at the time questioning its procedures, standards of evidence and vengeful ‘show trial’ nature, this criticism has not been directed at the interpretation. On the contrary,
There were no significant translation errors, because whenever erroneous or inappropriate interpretation was rendered by an interpreter, the monitor pressed a buzzer, lit a red light and corrected the interpretation.
In Watanabe`s opinion,
The monitors carried out their painstaking work within their capacity to secure the Japanese accused’s right to a fair trial.

To be concluded.

Tomie Watanabe. Interpretation at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal: an overview and Tojo’s cross-examination. TTR (Montreal), 22:1.57-91, 2010.

Sen Nishiyama. Translation and interpretation in Japan. Meta (Montreal), 28:1.95-110, 1983.

A magnificent Karsh-quality portrait. A pity they don’t name the photographer.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bilingualism and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal

Usually the Canadian translation studies journal TTR (which stands for Texte, Terminologie, Rédaction) is of no interest for this blog. But you never know… The latest issue is a special one on translation in Japan. Mostly it’s about sophisticated literary translation, but among the articles of that kind is sandwiched a very unusual one that does concern us. It's Tomie Watanabe’s description of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal of 1946-1948.

The Tokyo Trials paralleled the Nuremberg Trials that had started a few months earlier in Europe. Both of them used large numbers of interpreters. However, though they were both important in the history of court interpreting, the Tokyo Trials have received only a fraction of the attention that the Nuremberg Trials have. That’s what makes Watanabe’s quite detailed analysis so valuable.

The first and most famous of the trials was that of the Japanese war leaders and their major henchmen. At its coclusion, 25 were found guilty and seven of them, including General Hideki Tojo, the Japanese Prime Minister (see photo of him wearing headphones at the trial), were sentenced to death and hanged.

As at Nuremberg, the logistics were organised by the Americans, but all their Far East allies participated in the trial itself.
The official languages… were English and Japanese. However, there were participants who spoke other languages as well, for example, the prosecutor representing France spoke only French. Therefore, not only English- but also Chinese-, French-, Russian- and Dutch-Japanese… services were added, when necessary. English-Japanese interpreters performed interpretation in both directions. Relay interpretation was conducted when other languages were added.
How to find the interpreters?
The Allied Powers would have preferred non-Japanese interpreters…, but they soon discovered that it was absolutely impossible due to the complete absence of this resource in those days. Shimada [one of the interpreters] said that he was surprised how poor the Japanese proficiency was among the interpreters of the Allied Powers, noting that this was proof that the Japanese language was little known or used in the world before World War II. It was then decided that interpreters should be hired from among the Japanese, and monitors from among officials of the Allied Powers would be relied upon to check and correct the interpretation.
Now we come to the key passage as far as this blog is concerned:
The Japanese interpreters had no experience working as professional interpreters before the trial... English proficiency was the only qualification for being hired… It was extremely difficult in those days to find qualified interpreters with sufficient command of English and Japanese, as well as with an adequate knowledge of the historical and cultural background and of the legal terminology. It is clear, then, that the minimum qualification of a good command of English became the selection criterion.
In other words, the recruitment criterion was not interpreting qualifications but bilingualism. Furthermore,
Interpreters were given no prior training or preparatory classes. They received only technical information about the courtroom.
Mock trials were used, but only as an aptitude test, not for training.

To be continued.

Relay interpretation means that a speech is first interpreted from language A to language B and then re-interpreted by another interpreter from language B to language C. Thus, if no French-Japanese interpreter was available, it might be interpreted first from French to English and then from English to Japanese.

Tomie Watanabe. Interpretation at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal: an overview and Tojo’s cross-examination. TTR, 22:1.57-91, 2010.
The author is a conference interpreter. She teaches interpretation at Daito Bunka University and Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. The article is based on her M.A. thesis.

TTR has a website at

There's also a recent book:
Kayoko Takeda. Interpreting the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010. Available from Amazon.

Hideki Tôjô. Wikipedia. (This article also quotes an illuminating report by Shuichi Mizota, interpreter for Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, about the pressure exerted by General MacArthur to exonerate Emperor Hirohito and all members of the imperial family from criminal prosecution.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Natural Translation Has No Age Limit

The other evening we went to a dinner party held for a friend’s birthday in a local restaurant.

We were nine at table:
Eight could speak English
Of the eight, five could only speak English
Three could speak English and Spanish
One could only speak Spanish.
It was obvious and inevitable that the conversation would be conducted overwhelmingly in English; and that the ninth person, the unilingual Spanish speaker – let’s call him Jorge – would be isolated for most of the meal unless we did something about it. So I sat down next to him, expecting to interpret.

I needn’t have bothered. Seated opposite Jorge was a bilingual Spanish lady. She interpreted for him everything that was said in English, sometimes in full and sometimes in summary. She said it out loud, she didn’t whisper it; but there’s always so much noise in Spanish restaurants – and especially Valencian ones – that nobody was disturbed by her. She also translated into English things that she had first said herself to Jorge in Spanish. I noticed that sometimes she produced translations of items on the menu faster than I could think of them myself: clóchinas/small mussels and costillas adobadas/marinated spareribs for example. I ended up doing barely a few words of interpretation throughout the four hours.

Now, I happen to know something about that lady’s background. She was born and brought up in Spain and left school at age 14. She had no higher education. At 16 she went to England as an au pair girl (a young foreign woman who helps out with household chores and childcare in exchange for board and lodging). There she married a unilingual Englishman and stayed in England for some 50 years. So her English became fluent, though she still has a heavy accent which leaves you in no doubt that she isn’t a native speaker. She returned to live in Spain 12 years ago. She had no training in translation, not even an English language course.

She therefore conformed to the two basic elements in the definition of a Natural Translator:
* No training in translation
* Translating in everyday circumstances.
She must have had some exposure to translation, and have done quite a lot of it spontaneously as at this dinner. But still I would say that she comes close to being a Natural Translator.

She’s now in her late seventies. Natural Translation has no age limit.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Franco, Hitler and Gibraltar

Today is the anniversary, the 70th anniversary, of a fateful encounter in the history of modern Spain. It was on October 23, 1940 that Franco arrived by train to meet Hitler (see photo) in the station of the French border town of Hendaye a few kilometres from San Sebastian.

Hitler’s intention was to pressure Franco into joining the war on the Axis side and allowing his army free passage across Spain to seize Gibraltar from the British. Despite his enormous ascendancy as conqueror of France and commander of the largest, best equipped army in Europe, he didn’t succeed. Indeed he abruptly and rather rudely left the conversations, which had gone on all afternoon and until late into the evening, frustrated and annoyed. Pro-Franco propaganda later portrayed the Spanish Caudillo (Leader) as a canny politician whose heroic, imperturbable stubbornness saved a war-weary Spain from getting involved on the losing side. This version is still hotly debated by the historians. As always, the truth is more complex. What concerns us here, though, is not the discussions themselves but the interpreters. We know who they were.

Only six people were present in the railway saloon car where the discussions took place. They were: Hitler and his foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; Franco, accompanied by his foreign minister (and brother-in-law of his wife) Ramón Serrano Suñer; and the two interpreters. The face-to-face between the leaders would have been impossible without the interpreters: neither Hitler nor Ribbentrop knew Spanish and neither Franco nor Serrano Suñer spoke German. Ribbentrop and Serrano Suñer could speak French, but not their bosses.

It’s long been customary in diplomatic interpreting for each side to bring its own interpreter, who only translates what his or her own delegation says. This was done at Hendaye and the method they used was full consecutive interpretation, in which the interpreter waits for the speaker to finish an entire speech before translating. To help remember everything, the interpreter takes notes. It’s a slow method, because in effect everything has to be said twice, and this is one reason why the meeting lasted so long. However, it offers the advantage that it gives the speakers time to think during the interpretations, which probably helped Franco to avoid being browbeaten.

Franco’s interpreter was Luis Álvarez de Estrada y Luque, Barón de las Torres – a magnificent name and title, but I’ll call him De las Torres for short. He wasn’t officially an interpreter, but he was a seasoned career diplomat, Head of Protocol in the Foreign Ministry, and in that post he must have done and listened to a lot of interpreting in his time. His German was excellent and apparently he had a quick ear, for it’s to him that we owe our knowledge of the deprecating remark that he overheard Hitler mutter to Ribbentrop at a moment of frustration: Mit diesem Kerle ist nichts zu tun (There’s nothing to be done with this fellow).

Hitler’s interpreter was named Gross. We know less about him because he was only a second choice, a subordinate. Hitler’s preference would no doubt have been for his famous diplomatic interpreter, Paul Schmidt, the head interpreter of the German foreign ministry. Schmidt had interpreted between Hitler and Chamberlain at Munich, and in fact he was present in the entourage at Hendaye, but he couldn’t be called upon that day because he didn’t work in Spanish. Gross is said to have been incompetent.
As they parted, Franco, who was worried by Hitler’s attitude, decided to emphasise his esteem for him in a typically Spanish manner. He stood up and pressed Hitler’s hand between both of his, and declared, “In spite of what we’ve said, if the day ever comes when Germany really needs me I will be at your side unconditionally and without asking for anything in return.”
Gross failed completely to translate this, and so Franco's parting gesture of reconciliation went for nothing. However, Serrano Suñer was actually glad of the interpreter’s gaffe, because he saw it as avoiding another commitment.

Although the work was shared between two interpreters, the strain of interpreting such momentous matters between two such powerful men must have been great. Remember that they also had to interpret the conversation at the dinner which Hitler offered to Franco and his entourage on the German train. By the time the meeting broke up at five to one in the morning, they must have been exhausted.

That wasn’t the end of the matter for the interpreters. Both of them drew up reports of the conversations within days. The one by De las Torres was the fuller, indeed the only full account for historians to draw on. It’s a first-hand account, whereas we only have Gross’s at second hand through Schmidt. No doubt De las Torres turned back to his interpreter’s notes to refresh his memory, as Paul Mantoux had done at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

Personal Footnote
British Intelligence soon got wind of what had happened at Hendaye. It’s suspected that the leak may have came from De las Torres, who was an anglophile. Nevertheless, the British prepared for the worst. One measure they took was to evacuate the civilian population of Gibraltar to the UK. The children were placed in local schools, including the one that I was attending in London. The native Gibraltarians were bilingual in English and Spanish, though they mostly spoke English. It was from those children that I first heard Spanish.

Paul Preston. Franco and Hitler: the myth of Hendaye 1940. Contemporary European History, 1:1.1-16, 1992.

Eduardo Palomar Baró. Entrevista entre Franco y Hitler. Generalísimo Francisco Franco.

César Vidal. ¿Qué sucedió en la entrevista de Hendaya? (Enigmas de la Historia). Ideas, Libertad Digital supplements, August 8, 2003.

Paul Schmidt. Hitler’s Interpreter: The Secret History of German Diplomacy 1935-1945. London: Heinemann, 1951. Available from Amazon UK.

Paul Mantoux. The Deliberations of the Council of Four (March 24-June 28, 1919): Notes of the official interpreter. Translated and edited by Arthur S. Link with the assistance of Manfred F. Boemeke. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. Available from Amazon USA.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Night as Medical Interpreter - Conclusion

Continued from October 17. Please read this series in the correct order, starting at October 11.

My reflections on the experience.

1. I did it. Not much of it, but enough to let me feel how it feels. Actually my wife, who has no training as an interpreter, also did some of it at Cullera.

2. We’ve seen two kinds of medical interpreting in this mini-series. There’s a regulated, neutral, keep-your-distance, cut-and-dried kind in which the interpreter is assigned by an organisation, interprets for a limited time and then disengages and moves on to another assignment. That’s the kind reflected in the Australian paper. Then there’s a kind where the interpreter accompanies the patient for as long as necessary, adds information when it can be useful and does more than just translate. In G.’s case, I wasn’t only his language interpreter, I was his mediator with the bureaucracy and ‘interpreter’ (in another sense) to the doctors.

3. Interpreting for patients who are mentally ill is different from doing so for those who are physically impaired. The mental patient’s discourse may be part of the disease. It may be incoherent; or it may, as in G.’s case, mask the problem. The interpreter becomes a collaborator and an explainer.

4. The interpreter is at an advantage if he or she knows the patient’s medical history and current state of health. Interpreters are always at an advantage if they have background knowledge, whatever the mode of interpretation. This is something that laymen don’t understand; they think language proficiency is everything. But as one of my mentors, a seasoned conference interpreter, used to say, “Half the battle is knowing what they’re talking abut.” Court and legal interpreters ought to be provided with a copy of the case summary (called the factum in Canadian law) but they rarely are. Medical interpreters should likewise be briefed with a case summary. In G.’s case, I enjoyed an immense advantage by knowing what was wrong with him and I couldn’t have been so useful otherwise.

5. Lionel Dersot, in his comment on the previous post, rightly says that there’s information which the interpreter mustn't withhold. However, when supplying information, interpreters must make it clear what it is that they know personally and what's only hearsay. G.’s heavy drinking was something I’d witnessed myself; but when I told the doctors about the tests he’d undergone in England and the possible cause of his affliction, I was careful to say that I’d only heard about it from his wife.

6. You can't be squeamish. In my case it went no further than watching the security guards tie G. down to the bed. ("Sometimes we have to do it to old people," one of them said to me.) But there are also accident sites, battlefields, deathbeds, even operating theatres.

7. The doctrine of Protection of Personal Data is sometimes enforced ad absurdum. When I phoned the hospital at Alzira, all I wanted to know was whether G. was still there and whether he was improving.

6. Although Professional Expert Medical Interpreting will spread, aided by video-conferencing, there will always be places and circumstances where medical interpreting has to be done by Native and even Natural Interpreters.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Night as Medical Interpreter - 3

Continued from October 16. Please read this series in the correct order, starting at October 11.

The ambulance took us to the Hospital de la Ribera at Alzira (see photo).

G. was put into the observation section of the Emergency department and there we waited. From time to time a doctor or a registrar would come to examine him. To each of them I repeated the same information (in Spanish of course):
* G. hadn’t been drinking. He’d been lying on the bedroom floor for 36 hours.
* Physically G. was strong and healthy. His problem was mental. He’d lost part of his long-term memory and his short-term memory was very short. But some things he recalled obsessively.
* He’d been tested in England for Alzheimer’s and the conclusion was that he didn’t have it. An alternative hypothesis was that his brain had been affected by chemicals that were used at a job he’d had and which caused severe physical symptoms at the time. (This was information that B. had given me.) But it was also true that although he wasn’t drunk now, he’d been a heavy drinker in the past.
G.’s dishevelled appearance and stinking clothes were enough to convince anybody that he needed help, but when the medical staff addressed him in Spanish he caused the same confusion as he had with the initial ambulance men (see previous post). So we weren’t getting very far until, around ten in the evening,…

A doctor arrived who wasn’t Spanish but Indian. He spoke perfect English. He was therefore able to converse with G. directly in English for an extended time. At last somebody understood what I was getting at. He ordered an immediate brain scan.

The doctor in charge of the brain scan was Spanish. He said to me, “He must keep perfectly still during the scan. Tell him that if he doesn’t keep still we’ll have to sedate him.” I retorted, “Even if I tell him, he won’t remember for more than two minutes. You’d better sedate him.” The doctor replied testily, “Tell him anyway.” Which I did. But it made me realise that I’d broken two rules:
* Translate everything the doctor says.
* Don’t voice your own opinion as to medical procedure.
I was learning on the job.

Some time after midnight the results of the scan arrived. Nothing wrong there. So they started to focus on G.’s liver, taking many blood samples while I passed on instructions and tried to explain to G. what was happening and keep him calm.

Then nursing assistants came to clean G. up. He reacted by kicking one of the nurses in the chest. That set off the alarm. Security were called and they tied G. down to the bed. It was tough treatment, but it was a blessing in disguise because G. dozed off, and I tried to do likewise in an armchair next to his bed. However, each time he woke up I had to respond to him and sometimes call for help.

When the nurses started their morning round at seven o’clock, it seemed to me that I couldn’t do any more. So I walked out into the crisp air – Alzira is a hill town – and took the bus back to Cullera to tell B. what was happening. That done, I caught the train back to Valencia, coughing all the way.

The following morning I called the hospital to find out how G. was. This time they didn’t even ask me if I was a relative. All I got was, “Sorry, we’re not allowed to give any information over the phone. Protection of Personal Data.”

To be concluded.

La Ribera: Departamento 11 de Salud. In English.

Photo: Ribera Salud.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My Night as Medical Interpreter - 2

Continued from October 11. Please read this series in the correct order.

I’m not a Medical or Health Care Interpreter, neither Professional nor Expert nor even Native. I'd never done it. I’d heard about it, read about it and watched videos about it; but translating is a practical skill, and learning about it isn’t enough. You have to do it.

Nevertheless, in mid-September, just when symptoms of my incipient flu were becoming manifest, I received an anguished call for help from an elderly English lady who lives with her husband in Cullera. Cullera is a pleasant resort town with a fine beach about 25 km south of where I live near Valencia (see photo). I knew the couple because they previously lived in the same village as me. Let’s call the lady B. and her husband G.

B., like all too many English residents in Spain, though she’s lived here for several years, hasn’t learnt to speak or read a word of Spanish. The Spanish National Health Service has trouble dealing with them. On the other hand, G. does speak some Spanish. He was born in England, but his father was Spanish, a refugee from the Civil War, and when he was a child his father used to send him to spend a few weeks each summer with the family in Spain. So he was an early bilingual and could at times give the impression that he spoke Spanish well. But in reality his Spanish was very limited and uneducated.

Ever since I’d known him, G. had been losing his mind. His English was correct, but his discourse was rambling, highly repetitive and full of fantasies. He continually rehashed memories of Africa and talked about his three houses when he didn't even own one. Now he was getting worse. At moments he was violent. He had knocked B down. and she had broken her hip. She had been operated on successfully at the nearest regional hospital, but they had sent her home with a report and a list of prescriptions that neither of them could read. She couldn’t walk more than a few steps, so she couldn’t go to the doctor’s.

My wife and I drove down to Cullera. Our priority was to get proper medical attention for B. The Spanish National Health Service is well organised and free, but sometimes it's slow and it has its bureaucratic side. To be assigned a doctor, you must be registered at the town hall as a resident of the place where you live (the procedure called empadronamiento). B. and G. were not. We spent the day getting that sorted out, and from the second day onwards B. was well taken care of, and the local Health Centre put her into a rehab programme where the physiotherapist speaks enough English.

The problem of G. was not so easily dealt with.

Not only was he degenerating, but he had lost (or quite likely hidden) his medical identity card (the Tarjeta Sanitaria or SIP). Again the bureaucracy. To obtain service from the National Health, you must present your SIP, and without it you’re in limbo. In the course of negotiating a temporary SIP for G., I had to phone the National Health Service in England for some information. (British residents in Spain are covered for health services as European Union citizens.) The conversation went like this:
Me: “I need some information about G., who’s mentally ill, so he can’t come to the phone himself.”
Them: “Who are you? Are you a close relative?”
Me: “No, I’m a friend trying to help out.”
Them: “Sorry, I'm not allowed to give you any information. Doesn’t he have a relative there?”
Me: “There’s his wife, but she’s been injured and can’t walk to the phone.”
Them: “Sorry, I can’t give you any information. Protection of Personal Data.”
By that time, G. was sprawled on the bedroom floor and refused to budge from there. I called for an ambulance. When the two ambulance men arrived, their first question to me was the first one that every medical assistant asked me from then on: “Has he been drinking?” I assured them that he hadn’t been and that his trouble was mental. At that point G. sat up and talked to the ambulance men in Spanish. They asked him, “How do you feel? Have you got any pain? Do you want us to take you to the Medical Centre?” He replied that he felt fine, had no pains and didn’t want anything to do with the Medical Centre. The ambulance men said they sympathised with me, but G. was conscious and coherent, and in view of his answers they had no right to force him to go. So they left him there.

I now concentrated on getting G. the temporary SIP, and by the end of the day, even without the information from England, he had it.

The following morning, G. was still on the bedroom floor. Armed with his SIP, I went to the emergency section of the Medical Centre. There I happened upon a very helpful doctor who ordered the ambulance to be sent again and G. to be brought in. This was accomplished. I explained what was wrong with G., but it was really the fact that G. had trouble lifting one arm that convinced him to send G. to hospital for tests and observation. The regional hospital is about 15 km from Cullera, so that meant another ambulance journey.

At that point I had to decide what to do myself. I realised that nobody would understand what was really wrong with G. unless they spoke English well enough to diagnose him from his discourse. There is in fact a voluntary interpreter service for medical care along that coast, the Costa Blanca, run by British residents themselves. But it’s based at Denia, a fair distance further south, and there’d be a long delay obtaining somebody from it. In spite of my worsening flu, I went with G. in the ambulance.

To be continued.


Monday, October 11, 2010

My Night As Medical Interpreter – 1

Before I was laid low by the flu, I read a very interesting article about Medical Interpreting – the Professional Expert kind. It’s a paper from The Critical Link 5 conference (see References). The Critical Link is the premier international conference series on Community Interpreting (or as the British call it, Public Service Interpreting). Critical Link 5 was held in 2007 in Sydney. It was an appropriate venue because Australia was a pioneer in the provision of high-quality Community Interpreting. Indeed, when we organised the first Critical Link conference, which took place in Canada in 1995, I was amazed to learn that Australia was way ahead of my own country both in the provision of services and in the setting of standards.

The reason for all this activity is made clear in the article. There are still people who still think of Australia as an outpost of England and of English. But the reality is, as the article says, that
Australia is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse countries in the world. In the 2006 census it was possible to code up to 282 countries of birth, 364 languages and 115 religious groups.
The change began immediately after WW2, in the late 1940s, with the arrival of large numbers of non-English speaking refugees and other immigrants from Europe. Later waves of newcomers have come from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and more recently Africa. By 1973, in the face of this ‘new look’, the Australian government adopted a ‘multiculturalism’ policy and there was the political will to implement it by substantial increases in government expenditure on immigrant welfare and assistance.

The first part of the article relates the history of these services in the state of New South Wales (NSW) from 1972 onwards, and makes it very clear with a timeline graphic. In 1973, the government Telephone Interpreting Service was organised – a world first and a decade ahead of North America – to cope with the problem of delivering interpretation in such a vast country.
In 1977, the Health Care Interpreter Service (HCIS) of NSW was set up, initially providing a workforce of twenty-seven interpreters to serve seventeen Sydney hospitals. Today, the HCIS has a workforce of over 1,000 full and part-time interpreters… generally free of charge, in more than seventy languages (including Auslan or Australian Sign Language)… In rural and remote regions, HCIS interpreters are able to facilitate consultations using videoconferencing.
In the same year, 1977, the National Authority for the Accreditation of Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) was established to act as a uniform standards-setter. Guidelines were drawn up, then reissued and revised over the years.

The rest of the article is mainly taken up with case studies in the form of accounts of their experiences by some of the interpreters. They dwell more on the problems of cultural differences than of language differences that the interpreters encounter. Here’s an example.
Vietnamese families try to protect old patients with terminal illnesses by not telling them the diagnosis or that their time is nearly up.
Many families often approached me outside the [hospital] cubicle and told me not to break the bad news to the patient. I could only say: ‘I have to interpret what the doctor says but, if you like, I can interpret for you with the doctor. You can make the request and it’s up to the doctor to decide.’
The general conclusion is that “in all the case studies collected… the effectiveness of the interpreter’s intervention was a source of great job satisfaction.”

Yet in spite of the wealth of experiences in these real-life case studies, nothing in them prepared me for my own initiation willy-nilly into medical interpreting. This was because all the accounts treated of patients with physical injuries and illnesses, whereas I found myself up against the perplexities of mental illness, where language – or rather the discourse in the language – itself constitutes a major symptom of the disease.

To be continued.

Ilse Blignault (U. of New South Wales), Maria Stephanou and Cassandra Barnett (NSW Transcultural Aged Care Service). Achieving quality in health care interpreting: Insights from interpreters. In The Critical Link 5, ch. 14, pp. 221-234, 2009.

The Critical Link 5: Quality in interpreting – a shared responsibility. Edited by Sandra Hale (U. of Western Sydney), Uldis Ozolins (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology U.) and Ludmilla Stern (U of New South Wales). Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2009. 255 p.

New South Wales Department of Health. Standard Procedures for Working with Health Care Interpreters. (Doc. No. PD2006_053). Sydney: NSW Health, 2006.,


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Nou d’octubre

The posters warn that flu is dangerous for old people. I no longer take that lightly. Unfortunately the inoculation campaign that the posters advertise didn’t begin until 1st October, and my flu began on or about 19th September. I’m not out of the woods yet; but thanks to in-the-nick-of-time medication, I didn’t collapse into pneumonia and I can write again.

My longtime Followers know that I like to celebrate anniversaries, even if it takes us off topic. Today it’s once again Nou d’octubre (Ninth of October), the National Day of the Valencians. I wrote about it last year (post of October 9, 2009) and about the classic of Valencian mediaeval literature called Tirant lo Blanch (Tirant, the White Knight), but here’s some more.

Today is the day when, in 1238, King James I of Aragon (Jaume Primer in Valencian – there‘s a university that bears that name) entered the city of Valencia after receiving the capitulation of its Muslim regime, which had occupied it for most of the previous 400 years. Soon afterwards, the Cathedral started to rise on the site of the Mezquita. At noon today the Valencian national flag, the Senyera, will be paraded through the downtown streets to the magnificent equestrian statue of James I as Conqueror that dominates Alfons the Magnanimous Square (seen photo). Old national passions die hard.

James was not only a great warrior, he was also a great administrator. He parcelled out the lands he conquered judiciously to his followers and supporters, including of course the Church. The College of Notaries of Valencia is the oldest in Spain. Last spring, I visited one of the rare public displays of the Llibre del Repartiment (Book of Property Distribution), which is to Valencia what the Domesday Book is to England. It was lent by the still-intact Archives of the Kingdom of Aragon in Barcelona. In a hasty hand, its three small-format volumes, compiled between 1237 and 1252, list all the property holdings granted by James in what became the Kingdom of Valencia. It’s written on paper manufactured at one or other of the several paper factories that James expropriated from the Muslims.

Although James entered Valencia on this day, he’d actually received the capitulation of the city on September 28. Why did he hold back? Well for one thing he may have been waiting for his rearguard to catch up. When he did finally move, he left the rearguard six kilometres outside, near the place where I now live. There’s a mediaeval cross to mark the spot – but only approximately because the coastline has receded and the cross has had to be moved. Another reason may have been the need to finalise documents and translate them. The Muslims spoke and wrote in Arabic, the Christians in some variant of Catalan. It’s hard to pin down the latter, and it’s not certain what dialect James himself spoke because he was brought up in several different regions. What’s clear is that in this situation, translators were needed. Who were they?

Astonishingly, considering how long ago it was, we do know the names and even a little background of some of James’s staff translators, his ‘secretary-interpreters’. (Bear in mind that the sharp distinction between translators and interpreters is modern, and that until the last century ‘interpreters’ were just as likely to translate written texts as spoken ones.) They were Drs. R. David, R. Solomon, and R. Moses Bachiel; David Almadayan, secretary to the infante Don Fernando; Drs. R. Joseph, R. Samson and Abraham ibn Vives. The last was probably the father of the wealthy Joseph ibn Vives who in 1271 held a lease of the salt-works of Valencia, and who was likely the ancestor of the prominent Valencian Renaissance humanist Luis Vives, of whom there is a statue in the courtyard of the University of Valencia.

As you can guess from the names, they were all Jewish.

The Jews formed a neutral group between Christians and Muslims. There were flourishing Jewish communities in all the major Iberian towns and in many of the not so major. When I met the Israeli translation theorist Itamar Even-Zohar last year, he was going around the old nucleus of Tarragona looking for remnants of the Jewish quarter there. The Jews spoke the languages of their milieux (Arabic in the Muslim areas) and wrote Hebrew in Arabic characters. As so often, they were cultivated and connected, and they were extremely useful to their rulers of whatever language or religion.
As a reward for the important services which they had rendered him in the conquest of the strongly fortified city, he presented to some of them houses belonging to the Moors, as well as real estate in the city and its precincts... In 1239 King James assigned the Jews a commodious quarter for residence.
From 1283 onwards, well after James’s reign, this idyllic cohabitation turned sour. But that’s another story.

Llibre del Repartiment de Valencia. In Spanish. Wikipedia Español.

Alfons Garcia. Por muchos estudios, nunca conoceremos la lengua de Jaume I. (However many studies are done, we will never know what language James I spoke). In Spanish. Levante-EMV newspaper, May 8, 2009.

Isidore Singer and Meyer Kayserling. Valencia. Jewish

The promised post on Medical Interpreting will appear in the next few days.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hiatus Extended...

because I've had a very bad bout of flu and I'm still under the effects of the flu itself and the medicines for it.

But there will be something posted these coming days about Medical Interpreting.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Church Interpreting in Nigeria

In a post on August 9, 2009, I told how I first become acquainted with church interpreting at a service on the campus of the University of Buea in Cameroon, West Africa. Since then, I’ve learned many things about how it’s done in other parts of the world, some of them from you readers (see References). Now an article just published in the latest edition of Babel, the research journal of the International Federation of Translators, brings me back to West Africa, and almost next door to Cameroon in South-West Nigeria.

To sum it up:
This work investigates and evaluates the… effectiveness of religious interpretation in Yoruba speaking areas of Nigeria. The study focused on only religious gatherings that make use simultaneously of English and Yoruba languages to communicate the message of God to the worshippers. The objective of the study is to… evaluate the quality of the output through a questionnaire distributed to members of the spiritual congregations. The level of professional competence in the interpreter will also be investigated.
The term professional in the quotation is inappropriate and betrays a prior bias as to norms, because, as the author states,
40 respondents [to the questionnaire] said that most interpreters… are selected from within the congregations where they worship. 43 out of 50 reveal that they are not paid for the job, perhaps because they are potential future preachers and regard the service as a training ground.
And further on,
Interpreters in spiritual gatherings in the Yoruba speaking lands of Nigeria are not trained interpreters. They know nothing about the rules guiding the profession. They are simply bilingual with a deep knowledge of the subject matter.
In other words, these are not Professional Interpreters. They are Native Interpreters who may or may not have reached the competence of Expert Interpreters by work experience. We are told nothing more about their backgrounds, not even their ages, level of education and years of experience.

As at my Cameroon initiation,
The interpretation [is] consecutive interpretation, where the interpreter is present in a room or in a church, close to the pastor ministering the word of God. For easy communication and to avoid confusion, the speaker often stops…, passing the floor to the interpreter for the reproduction… of what the pastor has just said.
In other words, short consecutive mode. We aren’t told whether they employ the interpreter mimicry that I observed in Cameroon, where the interpreter imitates the manner of speaking and even the gestures of the preacher. However, there’s a hint as to manner in one of the questions in the questionnaire: “Is the interpreter free to correct the preacher?”

The research instrument is reproduced in full. It’s an interesting client satisfaction and opinion questionnaire but it doesn’t interrogate the interpreters. Nevertheless, there are some interesting conclusions:
39 respondents [out of 50]… are satisfied with the quality of the interpretation from English to Yoruba… Respondents with a tertiary education carried the highest number of 37 to support that the output of the interpreter was satisfactory. On the other hand, only 24 of the respondents are satisfied with the interpretation from Yoruba to English… the interpretation is better from English to Yoruba for the simple fact that Yoruba is the interpreter’s mother tongue.
There is an additional difficulty because Yoruba is a tonal language and the tones carry nuances that are hard to render in English.

A journal assessor took me to task last year for proposing that divine inspiration is an element that should be recognised in studies of religious translation. So I was interested to read that respondents enjoined both pastors and interpreters to "seek for God's guidance" as well as to "master the subject matter and the languages."

The article begins:
Christianity and Islam… were adopted in Yoruba-speaking areas of Nigeria with the accompanying languages, English and Arabic. Today the two religions are well spread and cannot be disassociated from Yoruba culture.
Yet there is nothing further about Arabic or Islam. Muslims everywhere learn to say their prayers in Arabic, just as all Catholics used to pray in Latin; but there are other parts of religious services that may be in a local language, for instance the sermon, and there's a Yoruba translation of the Qur’an.

Despite how widespread church interpreting is in Africa, this is the first research article I’ve read that’s specifically about it, and the veteran editor of Babel, René Haeseryn, is to be thanked for publishing it even if it has shortcomings. It leaves me hungry for more.

Image: Calvary Roseville United Methodist Church, Ado Ekiti, Nigeria.

Adawuni Salawi (University of Ado-Ekiti). Evaluation of interpretation during congregational services and public religious retreats in south-west Nigeria. Babel, 56:2.129-138, 2010.

Qur’an. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Translation in Yoruba. Medina: King Fahd Complex for Printing the Holy Qur’an, 2007.

Previous posts on church interpreting: July 29, August 3, August 9, August 11, August 27, October 28, 2009; April 10, 2010