Thursday, August 20, 2009

Billy Fish

In a recent issue of The Linguist (the lively magazine of the venerable Chartered Institute of Linguists in the UK), Daniel Pageon published an entertaining survey of fictional translators, mostly characters in novels. Since then, readers have sent him some that he missed. The earliest by date of authorship that I know of myself is Mr. Melas in the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Greek Interpreter’ published in 1883. But there’s a much earlier one by date of the character portrayed. This is the great Greek to Arabic and Syriac translator and reviser Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, one of the most influential scientific translators of all times, who flourished in Baghdad in the ninth century. He figures as the hero of an Arabian Nights love story, Les amants de Baghdad, by Ghassan Aris. Highly romanticised, of course. But not out of ignorance, for in a more sober vein Ghassan wrote a substantial thesis about his hero.

All the foregoing, however, were Professional Expert Translators. How about Natural or Native Translators?

One of the delights of summer in Valencia is the open-air cinema in the Turia Gardens, which shows classic films in the cool of late evening. The other day we went there to see The Man Who Would Be King, John Huston’s 1975 adaptation and expansion of a story by Rudyard Kipling set in late nineteenth century British India and in Afghanistan. Excellent. A key character in it is Billy Fish. That’s just a nickname. Barely in time to avoid a battle with an Afghan tribe, he introduces himself to the two intrepid British heroes of the film as a Gurkha who has picked up English in the British Indian army. From then on he serves as their interpreter through thick and thin, remaining loyal right to the tragic ending of the adventure. (It’s ironic that the real Gurkhas had to campaign right up until this year to have their loyalty to the British justly remunerated.) The character is very well drawn and acted, and is much expanded from the mentions of him in Kipling’s relatively terse story. The Indian Army did in fact have professional interpreters, but Billy isn’t one of those. He is, I like to think, a Natural – or maybe a Native Translator, because according to Kipling he’s become a Freemason.

Here’s a sample of Billy’s translation, courtesy of that indispensable reference The Internet Movie Data Base. He’s interpreting, in English and supposedly Kafiri, between the two heroes, Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, and a tribal chieftain named Ootah.

Billy: Ootah say take your pick. He have twenty three daughters.

Dravot: Those are his daughters? Why the dirty old beggar!

Carnehan: Now, now Danny. Different countries, different ways. He's only being hospitable according to his lights. Billy, tell him one's as pretty as the next and we cannot choose.

[Billy translates; Ootah replies in Kafiri]

Billy: Ootah say he also have twenty sons if you be liking boys.

Carnehan [angrily]: Tell him he makes my gorge rise; tell him!

Dravot: Now Peachy, different countries, different ways. [To Billy] Tell Ootah we have vowed not to take a woman until all his enemies are vanquished.

There’s a discussion on the IMDb Message Boards about what the language really is that is passed off in the film as Kafiri, which does actually exist. One contributor explains:

“I think there was a fix between Hindi, Urdu and Arabic... perhaps there might even have been some Berber dialect mixed in there since the some of the film was made in Morocco."

Oh well, it’s fiction.

One thing that stands out in both Kipling and the film is that Billy is an intermediary in cultural matters as well as a language interpreter:

“But getting a wife was not as easy as Dan [Dravot] thought. He put it before the Council, and there was no answer till Billy Fish said that he’d better ask the girls. Dravot damned them all round. ‘What’s wrong with me?’ he shouts, standing by the idol Imbra. ‘Am I a dog or am I not enough of a man for your wenches?’ ... Billy Fish said nothing and no more did the others. ‘Keep your hair on, Dan,’ said I [Carnehan]; ‘and ask the girls. That’s how it’s done at home, and these people are quite English.'”


Daniel Pageon, 'Believe what you read?', The Linguist, 48:3.16-17, 2009. Daniel Pageon's email address is

Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Greek Interpreter’, in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, c1893. The text is available on several web sites.

Ghassan Aris, Les Amants de Bagdad: un roman. Ottawa: Vermillon, 2000.
Ghassan Aris, De Bagdad à Tolède: Le rôle des traducteurs dans la
transmission des patrimoines culturels grec et arabe à l'occident
, MA dissertation, University of Ottawa, 1985.

Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, 1888.

John Huston and Gladys Hill, screenwriters for the film The Man Who Would Be King, 1975.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Use this address rather than the regular IMDb one if you want to find translations of film titles.
The photo of Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish is from IMDb.

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