Friday, July 20, 2018

The Queen of Spain Thanks Her Tactile Interpreters

A little over a hundred kilometres to the south of where I live lies the resort town of Benidorm. IMHO it's a blight on the Spanish coastal landscape, famous for cheap package beach holidays and jnfamous for boozy Britons; though to be fair it also has a colony of respectable expatriates. Amongst the latest news from Benidorm is the following:
A shooting in the heart of Benidorm’s nightclub district on Wednesday night caused panic among innocent holidaymakers and resulted in a police lockdown of Calle Mallorca, known as The Square among Britons.

So it took an extraordinary event a few days ago to bring Queen Letizia of Spain to Benidorm for the first time. That  event was the 5th General Assembly of the World Federation of the Deafblind and 11th Helen Keller World Conference.

It may come as a surprise to read that the deafblind community is large and organised enough to support an international conference in a luxury hotel, but there are an estimated half a million deafblind people in the world and the conference has been acting as a forum since 1977.

The most obvious peculiarities of such a conference are first that all the participants need a personal interpreter in order to interact with other people and with the world around them; and second that, since they are denied sound and sight, the two usual media of interpreting, they must fall back on another of the human senses: touch. Interpreters who communicate by touch are called tactile interpreters, and the signs that they use are called haptic signs. (Tactile from Latin and haptic from Greek, both meaning touch.)

One classic, well-known haptic sign system is braille, which uses patterns of raised dots. perceived through the fingers, to represent the written alphabet. Like some other systems, it's used at two levels, elementary and advanced. The advanced level includes many short cuts and abbreviations. I know, from having had a blind colleague, that an advanced reader who's been using it since childhood can read a braille text as fast as a sighted person can read a printed one.

Tactile interpreters are one kind of interpreter who must be skilled in doing more than just transmitting language. Their clients being sightless, they must in addition convey some description and explanation of the context by an analogue of what is elsewhere called audio description.

The most famous tactile interpreter was Anne Sullivan (1866-1936). She was the interpreter, amanuensis and lifelong companion of the American deafblind writer, political activist and lecturer Helen Keller (1880-1968). In spite of Helen's disabilities, they travelled the world together. Anne had managed to obtain an education at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, where she became a teacher and learned the American Manual Alphabet, which can be used as a haptic code for fingerspelling (see Sources below). She was therefore not completely untrained when she was taken on as Helen's teacher. But Helen and Anne had less known though well documented predecessors, and there the story was somewhat different. Helen's predecessor was another American, Laura Bridgman (1829-1889). She too was a Perkins graduate 50 years before  Helen. She did receive ephemeral fame when Charles Dickens met her on his American tour and wrote about her. As a young child,
Her closest friend was a kind, mentally impaired hired man of the Bridgmans, Asa Tenney, whom she credited with making her childhood happy. Tenney had some kind of expressive language disorder himself, and communicated with Laura in signs. He knew Native Americans who used a sign language, (probably Abenaki using Plains Indian Sign Language), and had begun to teach Laura to express herself using these signs when she was sent away to school.
It's clear that. in the absence of any training, 'Uncle Asa' – as he was known to the family – was a Natural Sign Language Interpreter. Later, at Perkins, Laura was taught braille.

Since the tactile interpreters don't yet carry enough weight to form their own international organization, they have been taken under its wing by the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters, the organisers of the Benidorm assembly. Aong the goals of the WASLI are to
elevate awareness of Deafblind interpreting at conferences on a global scale [and] advocate for equal pay and working conditions for interpreters working with Deafblind people at conferences.
They deserve it.

Queen Letizia took pains in her closing speech to the assembly to give warm thanks to the tactile interpreters who had enabled her to converse with some of the participants.

Briton injured in gangland shooting. Costa News, 5 July, 2018.

World Federation of the Deafblind. World Conference 2018. Click [HERE] or go to

Anne Sullivan, Fingerspelling, Helen Keller and Laura Bridgman  Wikipedia, 2018.

Edith Fisher Hunter, Child of the Silent Night: the Story of Laura Bridgman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963. Excerpts at Google Books.

Kelli Stein et al. WASLI DeafBlind Interpreter Education Guidelines. Click [HERE] or go to

Deafblind Catholic priest Fr Cyril Axelrod signing to interpreter Rita Vella.
Source: Malta Deaf Association

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Was Koko, the 'talking' gorilla, bilingual?

Many people felt a pang of sorrow last week at the news that the most famous and most studied of gorillas, Koko, had died peacefully in her sleep in California . Koko herself had felt such a pang when she was given the news  that first her beloved adopted kitten and later her friend the actor Robin Williams had died. How do we know that? Because Koko communicated her feeling to her carers in her language, Gorilla Sign Language.

The extent and nature of Koko's language ability is a matter of special interest to the Followers of this blog. It's long been  hotly disputed, though it's generally agreed she did have some and that she used the medium of sign language to transmit it. The signs she used were drawn from the American Sign Language (ASL) widely used by the deaf. It wasn't the full ASL – therefore it's misleading to say that she "mastered ASL" as some obits have done – but a modified subset of it, a baby sign language. Still, she learnt 1,000 to 2,000 signs -- accounts vary -- which is quite a big vocabulary.She wasn't the first primate to learn some sign language -- it had been done by chimps -- but she was the first gorilla.

The amount of ASL that Koko knew is unimportant. It probably wouldn't have been of any use to her to know more. Her cognitive ability was equivalent to that of a young human child, and in general people only learn as much language as they need at their age. Nobody knows the whole of, say, English. However, there's another feature of Koko's language that's of interest to translatologists. Although she only produced sign language, she could understand some spoken English. Apes don't possess the organs of phonation needed for producing the sounds of English so she had no possibility of speaking it; but it's not uncommon for humans also to be able to understand a language yet not speak it. What is documented is that Koko could be asked a question in English and answer it in sign language.

In a 1978 paper on translation by young children (see Sources below) we called this kind of interaction bilingual response. It's a variety of what linguists code switching. Can it be considered a kind of translating?  In the 1978 paper we classed it among the pretranslation phenomena in children which precede translation as it is generally understood.  But translation or not, it involves a transfer of thought between symbolic systems. It therefore implies that Koko was capable of what we have elsewhere called conversion. (For more on conversion, enter the term in the Search box on the right,)

There are many other indications that animals, and not only primates, are capable of conversion; but Koko's 'bilingualism' is an important one. It raises the tantalising question of whether some of the seeds of translating may already be planted in lower animals than humans

Koko: Gorilla death coverage rekindles language debate. BBC News, 22 June 2018. Click [HERE].or go to

Washoe (chimpanzee). Wikipedia, 2018. Click [HERE]. or go to

Brian Harris and Bianca Sherwood. Translating as an innate skill. 1978. Click [HERE]. or go to

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Ethos of School Language Brokering

First a terminology round-up. The term language brokering came into use in the 1990s in the USA. The story of its later subdivision into child language brokering, etc., has already been told on this blog. To find the relevant post, enter school language brokering in the Search box on the right. As usual, the thing existed before the word for it: an early paper a Canadian school teacher and myself classed it as a form of "community interpreting" (see Sources below). As that early paper showed, the ability to interpret is not the preserve of exceptionally gifted youngsters; it's quite everyday in immigrant communities.

Child and adolescent language brokering in schools has been commented on favourably in this blog. However, there are admittedly some disadvantages and dangers. They are discussed extensively in the Cline-Crafter report listed below. It's therefore desirable for a school or related organization that uses students as language brokers to have an explicit policy that lays down what the latter can and can't do. The Cline-Crafter team has produced a Guide to Good Practice. Here's a more recent 'job description' from the EMTAS movement, which has pioneered SLB in the UK.
"Young Interpreters are trained to welcome new arrivals and make pupils with EAL feel settled at school. For instance, Young Interpreters might give tours of the school, play a game at break time, demonstrate routines, take part in activities which promote multilingualism, etc. The role of Young Interpreter is not to replace bilingual staff or professional interpreters. Pupils operate in situations which only require everyday language and do not miss out on their own learning to help others.
"At times, Young Interpreters may rely on their languages when these are shared with their buddies. At other times, they will tap into other skills to welcome pupils with whom they do not share a language: pupil-friendly English, visuals, body language, etc. This means all new arrivals can feel welcome from the start, even when no one else speaks their language. Young Interpreters therefore interpret in the broad sense of the term but most importantly, they are empathetic friends.
"As such, Young Interpreters can and should be selected from amongst bilingual learners as well as learners who only speak English and who have much to bring in terms of kindness and friendship. By selecting EAL and non-EAL pupils to train as Young Interpreters, the co-ordinator will send strong messages to the whole school community: everyone can welcome new arrivals, from the multilingual to the monolingual."
This is a view of SLB that goes beyond simple transposition of language and recognises brokers as facilitators of understanding between diverse cultural groups.

Tony Cline (University College London)  and Sarah Crafter (Institute of Education, London). Child Language Brokering at School. London: Nuffield Foundation. Click [HERE] or go to

Astrid Dinneen. What it means to be a Young Interpreter within the ethos of the scheme. Young Interpreters Newsletter, No. 31, Hampshire EMTAS, April 2018. Click [HERE] or go to

Carolyn Bullock and Brian Harris. Schoolchildren as Community Interpreters", 1995. Click [HERE]  or go to

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

NPIT4 at Stellenbosch

Today the 4th International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation (NPIT) opens at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town. and lasts for three days. It covers many of the topics treated in this blog. The programme is available by clicking [here] or going to

As usually happens at such conferences, a few papers creep in that seem to have little to do with the subject. For instance the opening paper Generativity and the Practice of Translation; but appearances can be deceptive. As a whole the papers are wide ranging and draw attention to NPIT in Africa, though I would have liked a balance that had more from the wide world beyond Europe and the USA. One of the pioneers of dialogue interpreting studies, Cecilia Wadensjö of Sweden, is participating.

One paper in particular seems relevant to a topic that was raised on this blog only a few weeks ago and was dubbed inverse child language brokering. (To retrieve the post, enter inverse in the Search box on the right.)  It's the paper by Elena Garcia Gandia of the University of Nevada and graduate of my neighbour the Jaime I University at Castell√≥n de la Plana (see below.)

To anyone at the conference who may happen on this post, my best wishes for a happy stay in South Africa.

Elena Gandia Garcia. Evaluating the  training needs of ad-hoc interpreters working with unaccompanied minors who seek asylum in the US. Paper to the NPIT4 Conference, Stellenbosch, 2018.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Karl Marx Bicentenary

Today, 5 May 2018, is the 200th anniversary of birth of the great German-British sociologist Karl Marx. British? Yes, Marx became stateless and he lived the most productive years of his life in London, where he's buried.  I used to walk past his home in the Soho district every day on my way to work, and do my research as he did in the reading room of the British Museum up the road,  Moreover his thinking was influenced by what he observed of British commerce and industry in Manchester, where his collaborator and benefactor Friedrich/Frederick Engels ran a successful business, and they would drink together at the Red Dragon pub in nearby Salford.

From among the many laudatory and critical articles published for the occasion in today's papers. I concur with the following in today's Guardian:
What makes Marx worth reading now is not his Panglossian prognoses, but his still resonant diagnoses…"The bourgeoisie,” Marx and Engels wrote, beautifully, “has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self- interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.”
I had thoughts like these while listening to Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook testimony to the US Congress las week.

Marx wrote mostly in his first language, German. His ideas and his influence couldn't have spread as far and as fast as they did without the help of his translators, so it's fitting to draw attention to the latter on this occasion. The early ones were NPIT Marxist acolytes whom Marx and Engels sought out or who did it on their own initiative. There's a tribute to a few of them in a short paper on the web page that's the companion to this blog (see below).

And the labour of translating Marx continues, now professionalised, and is probably never-ending. The centre of activity has shifted from Russia, where it was in Soviet days, to China. At the Central Bureau of Compilation and Translation in Beijing, Gu Jinping, a highly professional and highly specialised translator now aged 85, continues to work with his colleagues on translations of Marx and Marxism.

Stuart Jeffries. Two centuries on, Karl Marx feels more revolutionary than ever. Guardian Unlimited, 5 May 2018.

Christopher Hooton. Pub where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels 'discussed communist revolution' shuts down amid redevelopment. The Independent, 8 August 2017.

Brian Harris. Marx's earliest English translators., 2010-2017. To retrieve it, click [here].

Xinhua. China focus: for tranlators, Marxist works a lifetime labor of love. Xinhuanet, 8 May 2018.

Friday, April 13, 2018

We Are All Translators

Boguslawa Whyatt
In a post last October I lamented that "my mission of recognition for the importance of Natural Translation is not yet accomplished and it won't be in the short working life left to me," Then I added, "Hopefully it will be taken up by another generation."

Well, that next generation may already be among us in the person of Prof, Boguslawa Whyatt, head of the Department of Psycholinguistic Stuies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland. The title of her paper in the NPIT collection (see References below) says it loud and clear: We are all translators. A title after my own heart! Here's an abstract, in her own words, of the book on which the article is based.
"The book explores translation as a human skill in its evolutionary perspective from the predisposition to translate to translation expertise. By assuming that the human mind is intrinsically a translating mind all people who know two languages are able to translate but only some develop their natural ability into a more refined skill, fewer choose to acquire translation competence, and few attain the level of expertise. Starting with a thorough analysis of the bilingual foundations on which translation as a human skill is built the natural ability is analyzed and followed by an up-to-date account of translation as a trained skill with the underlying translation competence. To account for the developmental nature of translation as a skill a suggestion is made that the acquisition of translation expertise can be seen as a process of learning to integrate knowledge for the purpose of translating."

Why do I like this so much? First because it starts from the perspective that there is a "predisposition to translate… assuming the human mind is intrinsically a translating mind [and] all people who know two languages are able to translate." It's the basis of the Natural Translation Hypothesis, and before me it was affirmed by the Bulgarian semiotician Alexander Ludskanov, who was perhaps the first to declare, "All bilinguals can translate." Whyatt does not discuss whether the predisposition is in some way inherited, but she does reference my paperTranslating as an innate skill.

Second, she views the sophisticated skills of expert translators as the outcome of a progression of learning and experience beyond the initial predisposition. Here's her diagram of the process.

This can be compared with the diagram I posted on this blog in 2010; to retrieve it, enter bandies in the Search box on the right. Her diagram does not show a division between the path of formal training and accreditation and that of self-learning by observation and experience. However, she does so in her text. But it's misleading to say about the latter route, as she does, that "it might apply only to some limited communicative contexts or some talented individuals." This category of what I call (following Toury) Native Translators includes. for example, the large and influential tribe of literary translators, few of whom have ever followed a formal course or training in translating. Indeed, even in Whyatt's own data, among the professional (and presumably expert) translators whom she surveyed, only 57.5% attributed their expertise to a "translation training programme" or to "mentoring."

And third, she recognises that translating expertise requires extralinguistic knowledge and cognitive development as well as language proficiency.

In the 40 years since publication of  The Importance of Natural Translation, despite what Whyatt describes as "the criticism from translation scholars" with which it was received, a fair amount has been said to support it, and all the more with the emergence of such phenomena as child language brokering and crowdsourcing. Whyatt's article gives a well-written roundup of the research. All serious translatology specialists should read it.

Boguslawa Whyatt. We are all translators: investigating the human ability to translate from a developmental perspective. In R. Antonini et al. (eds.) Non-professional Interpreting and Translation, Amsterdam. Benjamins, 2017, pp. 45-64. For the book, click [here].

Boguslawa Whyatt. Translation As A Human Skill: from predisposition to expertise. Poznan: Wydawnistwo Naukowe (Adam Mickiewicz University.Presss), 2012. 447 p., bibliography. Hard to find in libraries but can be ordered from the publisher at

If you want to follow Prof. Whyatt`s research, see her pages on the ResearchGate and the websites.

Alexander Konstantinov Ludskanov (or Ljudskanov).  Prevezhdat chovekat i machinata [Human and Machine Translation], In Bulgarian. Sofia: Nauka i Izkustvo, 1967. There are German, French and Italian translations: see WorldCat..

Brian Harris. The importance of natural translation. 1976. Click [[here]. 

Brian Harris and Bianca Sherwood. Translating as an innate skill. 1978. Click [here].

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Inverse Child Language Brokering

Followers of this blog know well what child language brokering (CLB) is, but for newcomers we repeat that it's the interpreting done by children and adolescents, typically from immigrant families, for their family members and other close acquaintances. There's a considerable research literature about it, some of which is listed in the Bibliography of Natural Translation (see References)

However there's practically nothing about the opposite situation where it's adults who interpret for children. Yet this raises a number of questions. How prevalent is it? Do the interpreters adjust their language register to match the age of the children, perhaps even using baby talk? Do they edit and censor the content of the message to make it more suitable or palatable for youngsters? Do they add explanations? And so on.

While looking for examples of CLB on YouTube, I was surprised to find examples also of the opposite. Here's one that's delightful. Most YouTube viewers will understandably be fixated on the child in it, but we should also consider the activity of her interpreter, without whom the interview could not have been conducted. To see it, click [here] or go to

For lack of an established term for this kind of interpreting, I propose that we call it inverse child language brokering.

Anke Chen and Ellen DeGeneres. 6-year-old piano prodigy wows Ellen. The EllenShow, 2017.

Brian Harris. An Annotated Chronological Biblography of Natural Translation Studies with Native Translation and Language Brokering, 1913-2012. Click [here] or go to