Friday, January 4, 2019

The Centenary of Modern Conference Interpreting 1919-2019


This blog doesn't normally concern itself with professional interpreting. There are plenty of other blogs that do that. However, we're making an exception for a couple of posts to explain a momentous event in the history of conference interpreting.

This new year 2019 IMHO marks 100 years of professional expert conference interpreting. To be more precise, it began on 18 January 1919.

To be sure there were conference interpreters before 1919. Here are a few of them.

*  Prince Metternich himself,  Austrian host of the Vienna Congress of 1814-15, where a European consortium imposed peace on Napoleonic France, is reputed to have helped out. He'd been brought up and educated bilingually in German and French; indeed he spoke better French than German.

*  Later in the nineteenth century, Eleanor 'Tussi' Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, interpreted for her father at early socialist international conferences. She'd grown up in her father's London household bilingual in English and Yiddish (a dialect of German) and had studied French. There's a post about her on this blog; enter eleanor in the 'Search This Blog' box on the right. Perhaps she was the first woman conference interpreter; but since 1945 it's been an equal-opportunity profession, and by the time I joined it in 1970 there were as many women as men.

* The Algeciras Conference of January to April 1906. Algeciras is the city on the Spanish side of the Straits of Gibraltar. The conference was convened to ratify European intervention in nearby Morocco, might have been conducted in French, the standard diplomatic language of the period, had it not been that a key delegate, the Moroccan Vizier Mohammed Ben Abdelsalem El-Mokri, and likewise his companions, only spoke Arabic, so they needed an interpreter. Luckily one was found not far away. He was Elie Cohen from the thriving Jewish community in Tangier. (There were still remnants of the community, mostly old people, when I was teaching in Tangier in the 1980s. Tangier is an Arabic-French-Spanish trilingual city.)  Perhaps Elie was the first modern Arabic conference interpreter. You can still stay at the beautiful Reina Cristina Hotel in Algeciras where the conference took place, an oasis amidst the modern developments. When I visited it in 2000 there was a photo of Elie in the hallway together with his visiting card.

However, none of the above was a trained professional interpreter. (Eleanor Marx was a professional literary translator but not a professional interpreter.)

To be sure too there were interpreters who were professionals in other branches of interpreting, for example court interpreting, business interpreting and military interpreting. The French, for instance, had a well trained and organised corps of commerce interpreters since the eighteenth century in what was then called the Levant. But they weren't conference interpreters.

So what changed in 1919?

That will be told in the next post.

Klemens von Metternich. Wikipedia, 2018.

Algeciras Conference. Wikipedia, 2018.

Isaac J. Assayag. Tanger, un siècle d'histoire (Tangier, a century of history). In French. Published by the author, Tangier, 1981. There's a photo of Elie Cohen on page 60.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Professional and Expert Linguists Salute School Language Brokers

Here's some good news to see out 2018.

The Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) is the UK's most prestigious association of Expert and Professional Translators, Interpreters and Language Teachers. It's the most prestigious for several reasons. For one thing, it's the oldest, having been founded in 1935 by a visionary, Sir Lacon Threlford, who saw the importance of languages for business and government. Second, its examinations and qualifications are internationally recognised. (I was a Fellow of the CIOL myself for many years.) And last but not least, it's constituted by Royal Charter, a document issued to a select few by Queen Elizabeth II – and the British go bonkers over anything Royal.

At the opposite pole of professionalism stands the Young Interpreter Scheme (YIS). This is an organisation, indeed a whole movement, sponsored by one of the education authorities in Southwest England, that exists to help integrate pupils whose first language isn't English. There are hundreds of thousands of them in today's UK schools. The youngsters who enter it are given guidance but they aren't trained interpreters and they aren't remunerated. However their tasks inevitably include a good deal of interpreting between their peers and between pupils and school staff. YIS and its life and soul Astrid Dinneen have been commended many times on this blog; to find the posts, enter YI in the 'Search This Blog' box on the right.

Now the two have come together brilliantly. The CIOL has awarded YIS its most outstanding annual recognition, the Threlford Memorial Cup. Congratulations to YIS for its exemplary work and opportunities for young Natural Interpreters, and to the CIOL for recognising it.

Astrid Dinneen receives the award on behalf of YIS, 2018.
Chartered Institute of Linguists. CIOL awards. Click [HERE] or go to

Friday, December 7, 2018

Translational Licence for Conference Interpreters

Three posts ago I introduced the term translational licence (TL) to mean the divergences from the source text that are commonly allowed to translators (accidental errors and omissions excluded). To retrieve the post, enter licence in the 'Search This Blog' box on the right. Recently a friend who's a skilled literary translator told me that she makes "small corrections for greater acceptability," It's a good example. A lot of emphasis is put in the translatology literature on closeness to the source (aka fidelity, completeness), and students and examination candidates are penalised for not achieving it. But they aren't taught about the ways, nor to what extent, they may overrule it.

Admittedly there are circumstances where there is no such licence. When I was translating medical school transcripts they were vetted for any discrepancy, and the slightest difference would result in my translation being sent back to me. But those texts were exceptional because of their legal implications, and a far cry from everyday messages or the creative art of literary translation.

Moreover the degree of licence varies not only with the type of text but also according to the culture and the times and even with the type of reader. As T. S. Eliot said, "Each generation must translate for itself."

Now let's take a look at another application of TL: conference interpreting. I learned the hard way that it operates there too, and here's how it happened.
I was interpreting at an international conference of journalists in Ottawa. After the plenary, the participants split up into small groups in side rooms that were not equipped for simultaneous interpreting. The interpreting therefore had to be done in consecutive. I was assigned to a group that was addressed in French by a lady journalist from France. She spoke for about ten minutes. As I had learned to do, I took notes of what she was saying. She was a perfect speaker from my point of view: clear articulation, logical and not too fast. So I was able to note down everything she said. When she'd finished, I took my notes and translated them all. It likewise took ten minutes. Then I turned to her, expecting her to be pleased. Not at all. On the contrary, she scowled and hissed, "Mais monsieur, vous n'aviez pas besoin de dire tout ça!" (My dear sir, you didn't have to say all that again.) I was deflated. But later I had an opportunity to speak with her, so I asked her what I ought to have left out. She replied, "Vous êtes interprète. C'est votre affaire." (You're an interpreter. It's up to you,)
That day I learned that conference interpreters have a licence to abbreviate provided the omission doesn't disrupt the message. And thus I would teach my students to do so. For example, I taught them that if the speaker gives three examples of something, it's probable most of the audience is only paying attention to two of them and so the interpreter can skip the third. In simultaneous interpreting, this is a useful 'trick of the trade' for keeping up with the speaker.

Lest you think my experience was unique, let me add that a university colleague of mine, a senior Canadian parliamentary interpreter, used to reduce the mark he awarded if a student's consecutive interpretation wasn't substantially shorter than the original.

Here's another example.

Every interpretation teacher gets asked what to do if the speaker utters something insulting, vulgar, obscene or blasphemous. In court interpreting, it must be reproduced whatever the interpreter feels about it. But the conference interpreter has licence. There the interpreter should follow his or her own standards and conscience and avoid aggravating bad feelings.

Though TL is forbidden in some contexts, it's so prevalent that it qualifies as a quasi-universal of both written and oral translation.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Jonathan Downie's "Still Thinking"

The purpose of this post is to draw your attention to somebody else's blog. It's the fairly new blog of Dr. Jonathan Downie of Edinburgh, which he calls Still Thinking. He has me still thinking. Indeed I've put an answer there to his latest post, which is about the preponderance of conference interpreting in the research on interpretation. Jonathan is a professional translator-interpreter who specializes in the study of church interpreting, in which field he is currently the doyen, In 1914 he contributed a post on that topic to this blog, which you can retrieve by entering Downie in the Search This Blog box on the right. The URL for Still Thinking is or click [HERE].

Monday, November 12, 2018

Natural Translation in Africa

Not much has been published about natural translation (NT) in Africa apart from church interpreting.  African church interpreting was first described on this blog in 2009; to find the post, enter Buea in the Search This Blog box on the right. It pains me to read about the language-based conflict that's raging in that part of Cameroon today. In 2009 Cameroon appeared to be a model of linguistic convivience.

Earlier, in 1995, an African student of mine, Christiane Lozès-Lawani, presented a groundbreaking thesis about schoolchildren interpreting in her native country, Benin (see below). It was groundbreaking not only because of NT but also because of her method of eliciting it from children by story telling, and in a way that was typically African..

I was reminded of the above by an article that recently crossed my electronic desk, Importance of translation in contemporary Ghana (see below). Actually it's mostly not about NT but about the need for trained translators and interpreters. It's noteworthy that its author, Dr. Cudjue, includes among the professionals bilingual secretaries, a class of translators that's numerous in my own country, Canada, too, though insufficiently recognised. And it's of interest to Africans to know that there's a training programme at the School of Translators of the Ghana Institute of Languages in Accra, so they don't necessarily have to go to Europe or America for it. The Institute also has a School of Blingual Secretaryship. And another initiative that other schools might well look at is its classes for high school students. Why wait for university to improve young people's translating skills? But of particular interest to us is the article's introductory paragraph, which is very telling with regard to NT (emphasis added):
"Due to its colonial experience and the creation of artificial borders, Ghana finds itself face-to-face with a linguistic reality. The fact that the country is sandwiched between Francophone countries, namely Togo, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire, has a lot of implications for economic, industrial, political and socio-religious activities.
"One of the simplest ways of defining translation is 'rendering the meaning of a text into another language in the way that the author intended the text' (Newmark 1988). This definition implies then that anybody, including a child, who is delivering a message, for example, from one language into another is involved in translation.
Thus, given the colonial experience that Africans have gone through and the linguistic legacy that has been bequeathed to them, their daily communication is dominated by the process of translation."
Alfred B. Cudjoe, Importance of translation in contemporary Ghana. Graphic Online, 22 October 2018., or click [HERE].

Christiane Lozès-Lawani. La traduction naturelle chez des enfants fon de la République du Bénin. [Natural Translation by Fon Children in Benin]. Unpublished M.A. dissertation, School of Translation and Interpretation, University of Ottawa, 1994. Advisor Brian Harris. 181 p. Available from ProQuest-UMI, order no. MM04903. In French, but an English abstract is available at or click [HERE].

Benin school children. Source: English International School, Cotonou

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Translational Licence

This is to introduce a new term into translation studies aka translatology. It's translational licence (TL). Beware! It has nothing to do with licence in the sense of an official document, nor for that matter with translational in its medical sense. It's licence as used in the literary term poetic licence. That is to say, "the act by a writer or poet of changing facts or rules to make a story or poem more interesting or effective.."

In this case, for "writer or poet" substitute translator; for "facts" substitute the original text; and for "rules" substitute the current norm that a translator should stick as closely as possible to the content and manner of that text.

You can see that the new term therefore has a connection with a much older term, free translation. But free translation is the product or process, whereas TL is a loophole in the norms that allows it, and even encourages it if the free translation succeeds with readers. As for that criterion of success, 'the end justifies the means.'

Notice that it does not cover mistakes. TL is something that the translator takes advantage of knowingly and intentionally.

It can best be explained by an example. The following is a famous one.

Edward Fitzgerald's nineteenth-century translation of the Rubai'iyat (quatrains) by the eleventh-century Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam is one of the best loved poems in the English language. As much loved in English as it is in Persian. Yet nobody should be under the illusion that it's an accurate translation. Certainly Fitzgerald, who learnt Persian for the purpose, never claimed it. On the contrary, he said in a letter to a friend that he had "transmogrified" it. (Transmogrify means "transform in a surprising or magical manner.") He was not above inserting verses that were entirely his own invention. So he knew what he was doing and he assumed the concept that is expressed by translational licence.

A classmate and friend of mine when I was a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London was Peter Avery. Peter was studying Persian, but we were brought together because students of Persian also had to learn some Arabic.He was later to become Lecturer in Persian at King's College, Cambridge and died in 2008. Though he didn't deny the poetic value of the Fitzgerald version, it irked him that English readers never got from it the true feeling of the Persian, because it was veiled by Victorian sentiment and versification. So he did his own more accurate translation and got together with a poet, John Heath-Stubbs, to polish it.
"It seemed important to try and convey the baldness of the originals. Past translations of Persian verse have often tended to blur and soften the hard directness of the Persian, allowing a sentimentality quite absent from the original to intrude. It is hoped that these translations will answer the question a Persianist is often asked: 'What do the Persian originals of the ruba'is really say? On the other hand, there is no need to disparage the famous version of Edward Fitzgerald. His work is more in the nature of a fantasia than a translation. It is often very free and occasionally not precisely accurate. Fitzgerald's poetic intuition guided him aright in divining the essentially sceptical and unorthodox nature of the Persian poet's thought, but he was also the champion of such Augustan poets as Dryden and Crabbe… His study of them gave to his work on Persian originals a concision and wit which were entirely appropriate."
Here's a small sample of what this is all about. First a quatrain in the Avery-Heath Stubbs translation and then in Fitzgerald's.

I need a jug of wine and a book of poetry,
Half a loaf for a bite to eat,
Then you and I, seated in a deserted spot,
Will have more wealth than a Sultan's realm.

A book of verse beneath the bough,
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness,
O wilderness were paradise enow.

Fitzgerald's 'conceits' are obvious.

And another:

When we were children we went to the Master for a time,
For a time we were beguiled by our own mastery.
Hear the end of the matter, what befell us:
We came like water and we went like wind.

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

In conclusion, say what we will as academic linguists, Fitzgerald retains his popularity thanks to translational licence and clever poetry, whereas the Avery-Heath Stubbs translation has been remaindered.

There's a clue to Fitzgerald's success in another term that was discussed on this blog fairly recently, namely translator's affinity (to retrieve the post, enter affinity in the Search This Blog box on the right). It's defined there as "empathy with the original author." Though Omar and Fitzgerald were far apart in time and place, they were kindred spirits.

The Cambridge English Dictionary, for the term poetic licence.

Peter Avery. Wikipedia, 2018.

Omar Khayyam. The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam. Translated by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs with a long Introduction by Peter Avery. London: Allen Lane, 1979. Penguin Classics paperback edition 1981.

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam the Astronomer-Poet of Persia / Rendered into English Verse. 1st edition. Translated by Edward FitzGerald. London:
Quaritch, 1859. Full text with notes from 2nd edn at
or click [HERE].

Omar Khayyam by the great illustrator Edmund Dulac, 1909. Source: David Brass Rare Books.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

El Nou d'Octubre, Valencia Day

Today. the Ninth of October (el Nou d'Octubre), is the national day of the Valencians, a holiday throughout the Valencian Community, which consists of the Spanish provinces of Valencia, Alicante and Castellón. It commemorates the bloodless entry by the Christian monarch James I into the Moorish city of Balansiyya in 1238. James was king of Aragon; that's why the flag of Valencia, the Senyera (shown above) is based on the heraldic arms of Aragon.

In previous years, this blog has celebrated the day with a historical post about it. This year here's something different: a brief introduction to the Valencian language. It takes the form of the lyrics to the Valencian national anthem. There's a truly rousing performance of it on YouTube, sung by the popular Valencian singer Francisco; and with it the lyrics in Valencian and Spanish. To see it and listen to it, click [HERE] or go to It's accompanied by a typical Valencian band (banda); there's one in every town and village of any size, often with a music school.

There are Wikipedia articles on Senyera and James I of Aragon.