Thursday, August 27, 2009

Church Interpreters 4: Simultaneous

In 1994, I received a request from a branch of the Worldwide Church of God (now called Grace Communion International) to give a workshop to their interpreters. I’d never heard of the WCG, but I learned that it’s a California-based evangelical Christian denomination with about 50,000 members and 900 congregations in a hundred countries and territories. The congregation that made the request was the one in Ottawa, Canada. Ottawa is a bilingual city, situated on the boundary between the Anglophone province of Ontario and the Francophone province of Quebec.

How do the churches in Ottawa deal with two languages? The biggest, the Roman Catholic Church, can afford the luxury of separate buildings for each language community. Thus, on the campus of the University of Ottawa, which used to be a Catholic university, there are two really large churches run by the same Catholic religious order. A French Canadian translator friend who was born on the campus told me that as a child he was forbidden to attend mass at the English-speaking church. When the Francophone church burnt down a few years ago, it was decided to rebuild it rather than combine with the remaining church. An example of the ‘two solitudes’ of Canadian culture.

Smaller denominations, however, can’t afford the luxury of separate churches. One solution is to hold services in the same church at different hours in each language. Another, rarer solution is – interpreters.

When I received the request from the WCG, I jumped to the conclusion –perhaps because of my African experience – that they wanted a workshop in consecutive interpreting. They immediately disabused me. This was Canada, this was a technologically sophisticated country where people were used to the speed and convenience of simultaneous interpreting. The WCG not only had the interpreters, their church was prepared with all the necessary equipment and wiring. And who were those interpreters? Bilingual members of the congregation itself who had volunteered for the task and then were, so to speak, ‘thrown in at the deep end’. Well, a great many simultaneous interpreters of my generation – perhaps most of us, even the professionals – were thrown in at the deep end. You fear you’re drowning, and then you sink or swim.

So I gave them the workshop. I was sceptical beforehand about their quality, but I needn’t have been. Some of them had already been at it for ten years. They had no formal training, but they had companions who acted as models and as close mentors; and as a result, they were Expert Translators within their field. Indeed, they knew the terminology and phraseology of their religion far better than I did. I gave them a few ‘tricks of the trade’, but they didn’t need another workshop.

This concludes the series of postings on Church Interpreters. The previous postings were on July 29 and August 3, 9, 11.

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.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

'Translation as an innate skill' digitized

One of the key papers about Natural Translation, 'Translation as an innate skill', 1977, was published in a book that has long been out of print. A great pity, because the collection contained many other good papers. But even the publisher is defunct, or was merged beyond recognition. Now, however, 'Translation as an innate skill' has been resurrected digitized from the typescript and is available free for the asking from

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Church Interpreters 3 (continued): Norms and Mimicry

There was a striking contrast to be observed between the manner of the church interpreter at work just outside the Advanced School and the norm of professional conference interpreting being taught to the students inside. The norm in question rules that the interpreter should at all times remain dispassionate, calm and even in delivery, and above all maintain an impression of neutrality. Furthermore, the norm applies also to professional diplomatic interpreting, court interpreting and community interpreting (though some people dispute it in the last case).

It’s true there have been one or two notable exceptions to the rule. It was said of Paul Mantoux, who is generally regarded as the founder of modern conference interpreting for his role at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919:

"The official interpreter, Paul Mantoux, interpreted from French to English and back again throwing himself into each speech with such verve that one might have thought he was himself begging for territory." (MacMillan, Paris 1919, p. 54)
And in the old film about the United Nations interpreters in New York (Other Voices, c. 1975), one of the interpreters tells a story concerning the famous incident when Nikita Khrushchev took off a shoe at the General Assembly and banged it on the table. A Russian interpreter was so carried away that he too shouted, and banged the table in the interpreters’ booth until the water glasses jumped off. However, the interpreter who tells the story adds, “He was a bit of a ham. He’d been an opera singer before,” as if to underline that it was not the norm.

One might call such behaviour interpreter mimicry.

For the Cameroonian church interpreters like the one I heard there was no such norm. Or rather, the norm was reversed. The experience left me inclined to say, in imitation of Pope,
For norms of interpreting let fools contest;
Whate’er makes most compelling speech is best.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Church Interpreters 3: West Africa

When Cameroon, in West Africa, was formed at independ-
ence by amalgamating former British and French mandated territories, its enlightened first president, Ahmadou Ahidjou, made it a country that would be officially bilingual in the two colonial languages. But ‘officially bilingual’ doesn’t mean that all individual citizens are bilingual. As in many other officially bilingual countries, for example Canada, the parliament and the national government couldn’t function without a professional corps of Expert Translators and Interpreters. Cameroon gave university graduates scholarships to go for training in France, England, and later in Canada, where I came to know many Cameroonian students. Once the first generation or trainees had acquired experience, however, the government thought the training could be done at home. So a national Advanced (i.e. postgraduate) School of Translators and Interpreters was opened at Buea, in the heart of the English-speaking area of the country. Buea is a very pleasant, scattered hill station township on the lower slopes of Mt Cameroon.

Besides the two official languages, Cameroon also has about 200 native African languages as well as English and French pidgins. In those there is no formal training for translators.

When foreign Christian missionaries started work in the country in the late 19th century, they couldn’t be effective unless they found a way of communicating with Africans in the domestic vernaculars. At most a few missionaries might learn one or two languages with a large community of speakers such as Douala, a Bantu language that is widely understood today because the city of Douala is large and important. But it would not have taken them very far afield. The only solution: interpreters recruited from the local congregations. It’s a method that was put to use all over Africa. In the early days, missionary interpretation was of dubious quality:

“Since early missionaries could not know the language, they had to depend on interpreters whose own linguistic competence might be small and who might lack any knowledge of Christianity. What kind of gospel the missionaries were heard to preach can only be guessed at.” (McManners, The Oxford History of Christianity, p. 478)
But that was long ago.

One Sunday morning in the 1980s, I was coming out of the Advanced School at Buea when I saw a large crowd on the campus. The people were dressed in their Sunday best, the richly coloured clothes of the women looking especially festive. In front of the crowd a stage had been erected, and on it were just two men, the centre of rapt attention. I stopped to watch.

Both men were Africans. Both were wearing black suits. There was not much difference between them of height or build, but one was younger. Both were carrying a black book in the right hand. Both were haranguing the crowd for a couple of minutes at time, alternately. They had similar voices. They made the same gestures. In fact they were speaking different languages, but I couldn’t distinguish that. It was as if they were engaged in an impassioned mimicry of one another.

After the first few changes of speaker, I realised that I’d happened upon an evangelical church service or prayer meeting, and it seemed likely that one speaker was the preacher and the other was his interpreter. This was confirmed to me by somebody in the crowd; also that the interpretation was from Douala into another African language. So far so good, but which was the speaker and which the interpreter? Either of them, by his strong voice, his intonation, his body language, appearance and dress, could have passed for preacher. They stood there side by side, neither showing deference. However, another question to my informant confirmed what I might have deduced: that the interpreter was the younger of the two. He, like his preacher model, put on a rousing performance that lasted for another half hour.

“Are all the church interpreters like this?” I asked my informant. “Oh yes,” she replied, “How else could they inspire the congregation to turn to Jesus?”

(To be continued.)
The photo at the head of the posting shows the University of Buea campus. Source:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Polysemy of 'Natural Translation'

Terms are more specific than common language words, but they don’t belong to anybody in particular like names do, not even to their coiners; they enjoy no exclusivity, and so anybody has the right to copy them and modify their meaning. They can be borrowed or they may pre-exist.

When I introduced the term natural translation in 1972, I should perhaps have done more homework. For two reasons. First, the term was already widely used by translators to mean something different from what is meant by it in this blog. What they usually mean is a translation that is idiomatic, ‘natural sounding’. Indeed if you search for “natural translation” with one of the web browsers, that’s the meaning you will get nine times or more out of ten.

Secondly, the term is also found in fields outside translation. I have before me, as an example, a paper entitled Evolution by Natural Translation. Since its author is Jesper Hoffmeyer of the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Copenhagen, you can guess not only at the field but also at the other publication alluded to.

So natural translation is polysemous, as are a great many technical terms. Eugen Wüster and other eminent terminologists have advocated making all technical terms biunivocal (i.e. with only one meaning for each term and only one term for each concept); but their dream can only ever be partially realised, because even terms are part of natural language and everything natural is continually diversifying. Disambiguation is achieved by looking at context.

Might there have been better term? Naive Translation? Not bad. Intuitive Translation? Good too. Untrained Translation? A suitable cover term to include both natural and native translation. And insofar as most of it is spoken, it could also be called Natural Interpreting (a suggestion made early on by Otto Kade of Leipzig). Anyway, we can’t put back the clock. But when searching with browsers for natural translation, you can try to cut down the noise by adding a contextualising word like children, bilinguals or brokering.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Church Interpreters 2: From Divine Inspiration to Professionalisation

From a later Biblical epoch than the meturgeman (see posting for July 29) comes the well-known example in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two or at most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence." (I Cor xiv, 27-28 in the King James translation)

(The commentators understand by two or at the most by three to mean at any one meeting; while and that by course means separately, one at a time.)

The passage should be understood in conjunction with another in the same epistle:

“For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom… To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues.” (I Cor xii, 8-10)

So in Paul’s view the ability to interpret is an important divine gift, and it’s not given to everybody who knows a foreign language. In a mention in the Old Testament, interpreters are said to be “one among a thousand” (Job xxxiii, 23). On the other hand, it’s not a gift reserved for trained people; it may be that any bilingual in the congregation is endowed with it and can speak up when necessary.

Now let’s do a fast forward. There are still many interpreters in today’s Christian churches. A search for “church interpreter” with Google retrieves over two thousand citations, and that’s just in English. But now comes a big surprise: all of those citations, so far as I’ve had time to look at them, refer to interpreting for the deaf in what are often called the deaf ministries.

Then comes a second surprise. In a field where, because of its altruistic character, one would expect to find few if any Professional Interpreters plying their trade, professionalisation has started in some places.

A recent discussion about church visual language interpreters in the United States is revealing if we read between the lines. It’s on the site and the topic was paying or not paying the interpreters. The discussants were divided on the matter, but from what they say we can deduce the following:

1. Some churches do pay their interpreters, and some of the interpreters are professionals. In other churches, though there are professionals who might claim a fee, they donate their services. Some of their peers are against such donations: “The profession of interpreting will never be recognized as a truly skilled profession if people offer their services for free.”

2. In the USA there is a well-regulated system for accrediting sign language interpreters. Many of the church interpreters are accredited. More than that, some of them attend yearly ‘rectification classes’.

3. On the other hand, some interpreters are less highly trained: “My church has one highly qualified terp and 2 others who are well qualified but have less training.” Less training does not however mean untrained.


So at least in this very developed environment, church interpreters for the deaf are generally trained Expert Interpreters and many are Professional Interpreters.

So much for the visual language interpreters. How about voice interpreters (as the visual language interpreters call us interpreters who speak)? To be continued.