Friday, November 27, 2009

The Greatest Ever English Prose Translation

At the Castelló symposium, Ann Corsellis, indefatigable British champion of professional standards for Public Service Interpreters, made me a gift of her own copy of Adam Nicolson’s Power and Glory (P&G). She couldn’t have given me a better present. The year 2011 will mark the 400th anniversary of the publication in London of the King James Version of the Bible (KJV). It will be duly celebrated in England and other parts of the English-speaking world; it’s been announced, for example, that BBC Two is preparing a documentary about it. Reading P&G is a fascinating way to start preparing for it.

It‘s known as the KJV after King James I (ruled England 1603-1625, see portrait), who officially commissioned this direct translation from Hebrew and Greek. More than that, we now know from P&G that he inspired it before it started and kept it under tight supervision and control while it was under way. It’s also called the Authorised Version (AV), because, once it was finished, he authorised it for sole use throughout the Anglican Church.

If, as Nicolson declares at the outset, it “can lay claim to be the greatest work in prose ever written in English,” then it follows that it can lay claim to be the greatest ever English prose translation.

Yet I notice the high place and ingrained influence of the KJV in English culture is often not appreciated by people of other cultures. When I came to teach at a Spanish university a decade ago, I wanted to copy a page from it for one of my classes. So I went to look for it in the library that served the Department of English Studies. It wasn’t there. Then I asked my students, the majority of whom had a degree in Filología Inglesa (English Language and Literature). Most of them had never heard of it; they all said it hadn’t been covered in their programme of studies. I was shocked. How could they be taught English literature without it?

It’s true that when I was at school in England we didn’t read it in our English classes. We didn’t need to. We were treated to a live reading from it every morning at School Assembly. During my seven years at that school, I listened to a lot of it. From time to time it would be my turn to step up to the lectern and give the reading. It was then that I learned to appreciate its sonority and rhythms and simple sentences. When the original title page says that it is “Appointed to be read in Churches” it means to be read out aloud in Churches. I feel this was an important factor in its style. Bear in mind too that the KJV was written in the era that was the summit of English theatre, while Shakespeare was still writing.

But it’s still a translation, and not exempt from some translationese. Only much later did I find translationese to be the explanation of a feature that used to puzzle me at the Assemblies: Why was it that so many of its sentences began with And when we were being taught in class that we should never begin a sentence with And?

The organization that was put in place for translating and revising the KJV was complex even by modern standards. It had to be, in order to keep the 50 or so translators in line; what’s more, everything was revised and the revision was carried out by committees. Prior to reading P&G, I already knew something about the technical side of the organization from a much earlier book, Ward Allen’s Translating for King James. Contrary to what I wrote in a previous post (October 28) about the role of divine inspiration in religious translations, in the instructions to the KJV translators, says P&G, “There is no hint of inspiration, or even of prayerfulness, no idea that the Translators are to be in the right frame of mind. These are exact directions, state orders, not literary or theological suggestions.” But what Nicolson adds so richly to Allen is the intimate connection between the KJV and Jacobean England (the England of King James). If you’re interested in the social dimension of translation, this is an astoundingly revealing study for you; if you’re interested in the politicization of translation, it’s a must.

Just a single example of the political bias: in the Geneva Bible, a more radically protestant, Calvinist version that had been published in Geneva in 1560, the word tyrant occurs over 400 times; in the KJV, not once.

So much for the translation. More relevant to this blog is the mass of information that P&G contains about the Translators (their title was always capitalized at the time).

To be continued.


Adam Nicolson. Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible. London, 2003. 281 p.; many colour illustrations. Available in paperback.

The Holy Bible Conteyning the Old Testament and the New: Newly translated out of the Originall Tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and reuised by His Majesties speciall Commandement /Appointed to be read in Churches. London, 1611. The text is accessible on several internet sites.

John Bois (1561-1644). Translating for King James: being a true copy of the only notes made by a translator of King James's Bible, the Authorized version, as the Final Committee of Review revised the translation of Romans through Revelation at Stationers' Hall in London in 1610-1611 / Taken by John Bois ... these notes were for three centuries lost, and only now are come to light, through a copy made by the hand of William Fulman. Here translated and edited by Ward Allen. Vanderbilt University Press, 1969. With facsimile reproductions.

The text of the Geneva Bible is accessible at

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Many Varieties of Liaison Interpreter

I said previously that fixers are one variety of liaison interpreters. It’s pretty obvious that liaison interpreters are so called because they enable their clients to 'liaise', i.e. establish communication links with other people. Fixers do this for a particular clientele (journalists) for a particular purpose (news gathering) in particular places (like war-torn Afghanistan). We’ve seen that they’re temporarily Professional Interpreters but that they’re untrained.

At the Castelló meeting, Franz Pöchhacker, author of the comprehensive Introducing Interpreting Studies, pulled out from his archives a list of interpretation terms that I’d drawn up in the early 80s. On it, along with liaison interpreting were several synonyms. One of them was ad hoc interpreter, which strikes me as British. It comes from the way such interpreters are often found and engaged for one particular encounter and not regularly.

Another synonym was escort interpreter, from the way the interpreter accompanies clients around, as we‘ve seen with the fixers.

Yet another was elbow interpreter, from the position that the interpreters usually take up next to their clients. But I’ve never heard that one anywhere than in Canada, and nor had Franz, though a Google search does turn up a few other scattered sources.

Business interpreters, who accompany business persons to meetings, are also liaison interpreters. Most business interpreting is done in dialogue, short consecutive mode; but sometimes it requires long consecutive. The first experience I had of long consecutive interpreting came about when a businessman I was accompanying was invited to a banquet and I was told unexpectedly to interpret his speech of thanks. I’d had no training for it.

To business interpreter must now be added, as a partial synonym at least, the new term facilitating interpreter: see February 21 post.

Another of the Castelló papers, the one by Ricardo Munoz – to which I’ll be returning – introduced the truncated form terp, an American army colloquialism for its many interpreters. Military interpreting is a very important branch of interpreting which deserves more study than it has received. Not all military interpreters are liaison interpreters, but most of them are. Some armies have a well-organized interpreter corps with Professional Interpreters, in others the interpretation is much more ad hoc. The Americans, as soon as they got bogged down in Iraq, became desperate. Muñoz told us:
“Adults may become impromptu translators and interpreters, as in the case of the 250 terps who work for the military in Afghanistan, or the 2,000+ in Iraq. To rapidly turn out skilled linguists, a US army program just recruits native speakers with demonstrated proficiency in English who are permanent U.S. residents. Most of them have little or no training for their translating and interpreting duties, such as Josh Habib, a retired engineer, Ahmadullah Barak, a used-car salesman, and Topeka (Peggy) Farhang, a security guard in a casino in Las Vegas, whose cases have been reported in the press.”
Such people are Natural Translators who have rapidly become Native Interpreters under fire. At one period the interpreters at Guantanamo among other places were supplied by an outfit called Titan Corporation in San Diego CA, “a leading provider of comprehensive information and communications products, solutions, and services for National Security.” I tried to find out from them what their recruitment criteria were, but there was no response. It was no doubt a mistake on my part to have told them at the start that I was a professional.

Franz Pöchhacker. Introducing Interpreting Studies. London: Routledge, 2003.
Franz Pöchhacker. Community Interpreting (Studies) in the Interpreting (Studies) Community. Paper to 10th Jornadas de Traducción e Interpretación, Universitat Jaume I, Castelló de la Plana, November 12-13, 2009.
Ricardo Muñoz. Nomen mihi Legio est: A cognitive approach to Natural Translation. Paper to 10th Jornadas de Traducción e Interpretación, Universitat Jaume I, Castelló de la Plana, November 12-13, 2009.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fixer (postscript)

As I started to write the previous post, news came of another reporter and his fixer. Coincidentally, the reporter was, like Seierstad, a Norwegian.
OSLO (AP) — A Norwegian freelance journalist kidnapped a week ago in eastern Afghanistan has been released along with his Afghan interpreter, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday. Journalist Paal Refsdal and an unnamed interpreter were freed Wednesday night after being abducted Nov. 5 near the border with Pakistan, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said.
The unnamed Afghan interpreter was a lot luckier than Sultan Munadi: see September 9 post.


An earlier post (October 11) pointed out how essential family NT had been to Åsne Seierstad for gathering the material of her book The Bookseller of Kabul.
Towards the end of the book, there’s a chapter about another kind of translator whose name is Tajmir.

Tajmir is liaison interpreter for an American journalist called Bob. Since both he and Bob are employed by “a large American magazine”, he must be considered a Professional. Indeed his motivation is strictly money:
“When the journalists streamed into Kabul [in the wake of the Taliban retreat] the American magazine picked him up. They offered to pay in one day what he was normally paid in two weeks. He thought about his poor family...”

Tajmir is a Native Translator. He speaks exceptionally good English thanks to the education forced on him by his mother, Feroza:
“Feroza’s burning ambition was that Tajmir would grow into something important. Every time she had some spare cash she would enter him for a course: English classes, extra maths classes, computer courses.”
When the civil war came, she fled with her family to Pakistan, and there Tajmir went to more English classes. After they came home, he found work with a foreign NGO, which no doubt gave him some interpreting experience. Finally he left the aid work, went to the magazine, “and started to interpret, in an imaginative and artful English.” At some point, Seierstad implies, he was employed as an interpreter for the American military. But he didn’t train as a translator or interpreter. Nobody has certified him.

Liaison interpreting has always had an extra-linguistic element of arranging things for clients besides the actual interpreting. When I was a liaison interpreter for Spanish businessmen visiting London, I used to change their reservations for them, get documents notarized, take them sightseeing, book a day at the races (the only time I saw the Derby live), and so on. I even knew an interpreter in Rome who could provide an audience with the Pope. But that was a peaceful occupation. Tajmir, on the contrary, lives dangerously alongside the intrepid Bob. They drive out of Kabul towards the Pakistan border, where the intelligence services believe “that if Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar are still alive... then this where they are.”
“Tajmir is trying to find them. Or at least find someone who knows somebody who has seen them... In contrast to his fellow traveller, Tajmir hopes they’ll find absolutely nothing. Tajmir hates danger. He hates travelling into the tribal areas, where trouble can erupt at any moment. In the back of the car are bulletproof waistcoats and helmets, ready for action.”
Nevertheless, he ends up getting Bob into heavily armed strongholds for interviews with some of the local warlords. On the way, he finds food and lodging and whatever else the travellers need.

In a word, Tajmir is a fixer. Fixers are a variety of liaison interpreter that has come to be associated particularly with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A fixer is someone who offers assistance to foreign journalists who are trying to get a story. Fixers use their local experience and contacts to smooth the way for their employers and many receive a high rate of pay, especially when compared to locally available wages. For traveling journalists, fixers are crucial, because without a fixer, it can be very difficult to get a story or to connect with the people of a country.”
Tajmir’s contacts are invaluable. The first warlord he and Bob come across, surrounded by his bodyguard, is Padsha Khan (see photo).
“Padsha... greets Bob rather coldly but embraces Tajmir warmly... They had often met during Operation Anaconda, America’s major al-Qaida offensive. Tajmir had interpreted, that was all.
'My men are prepared,' Padsha Khan tells Tajmir, who translates while Bob scribbles in his notebook... The men look at him, then at Tajmir, then at blond Bob who is frantically noting everything down... Tajmir receives a slap on the thigh for every utterance; he translates automatically [i.e., mechanically, at a steady pace]...
A little later, Tajmir gets Bob an interview with Padsha Khan’s arch-enemy, who is holed up in the fortress-like provincial police station. The interpreting is hard work, even if it’s repetitive: “Tajmir translates and translates. The same threats, the same words.” Like most liaison interpreters, Tajmir works alone, in consecutive, and often for long hours.
“Tajmir and Bob disagree fundamentally about what constitutes a successful trip... Bob wants violent action in print; like a few weeks ago when he and Tajmir were nearly killed by a grenade [which] got the car behind them... those things make Bob feel he is doing an important job, while Tajmir curses ever having changed his. The only plus about these trips is the extra danger money.”


Åsne Seierstad.The Bookseller of Kabul. Translated from Norwegian by Ingrid Christopherson. London: Little, Brown, 1993.

Photo: BBC News

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Castelló/Castellón de la Plana

I said last week that that there’d be a hiatus in this blog while I prepared for and attended the symposium Interpreting... Naturally at Castelló de la Plana. I should have added “and recover from it.” It was a very successful meeting, with participants from countries as far apart as Austria, Britain, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, the USA, and of course Spain itself. But what really bowled me over was the warmth of the atmosphere generated there. It could have been a dutiful acknowledgement; instead it was a celebration.

I want to say a sincere thank you to the organizers at the Jaume I University and everyone involved. The variety and quality of the papers are a proof that any survey of translation studies, or for that matter of bilingualism, which still ignores the topics of this blog (see sidebar) is missing out on something serious.

I’ll have more about it, but for the moment there are some loose ends to tie up. Next post tomorrow.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Karpov vs. Kasparov (concluded)

A recent posting (October 21) related how an interpreter friend of mine was caught up in the Karpov-Kasparov exhibition match in Valencia. He’s not a chess player himself, but if he’d been given time to prepare he would have swotted up on the topic, as professional interpreters must often do. However, he was, as I said, brought in at 30 minutes notice.

So he ran into difficulties with the technical descriptions that the TV commentator was giving of the moves, the so-called algebraic chess notations. You know the sort of thing: Ngf3 meaning “knight from the g-file moves to the square f3,” and so on. Fortunately there was a bilingual member of the organizing committee for whom these were no problem, so she translated them.

This is an instance of where the Native Translator scores over the Expert Translator not because of interpreting expertise but because of the expert background knowledge needed. In such circumstances it’s wise to let the Native take over.

Let me add a personal recollection. I remember vividly my ‘baptism of fire’, the first conference I ever interpreted at professionally. The interpreting was simultaneous, in English and French, and it was about the History of Music. Now, I’m not a musicologist or even a musician, but unlike the chess interpreter I was given one week to prepare. I’d read a lot of programme notes for symphony concerts in my time, but only in English. So the first thing I did after signing the contract was buy a little Que sais-je? book on Histoire de la Musique and plough through it. I too had a problem with notation, musical notation; and in the isolation of the booth for simultaneous interpretation, I foresaw that I wouldn’t be able to turn to anybody for help. So I prepared an illustrated glossary something like what you can find today for Music in the Oxford-Duden Bilingual Pictorial Dictionaries.

What’s the difference between Native Interpreters with expert subject knowledge and Professional Expert Interpreters, when faced with a difficulty like chess or musical notation? The former have an advantage in a particular field with which they are familiar, but they are generally limited to that field; whereas the latter must be capable of absorbing knowledge and terminology for new fields very quickly. This is especially the case with freelances, who may be engaged for a board meeting on education one day and a scientific conference on fisheries the next and are expected to cope. It’s something interpretation students have to learn and exercise. I call it Interpreter Versatility.

Photo: Wikipedia

Friday, November 6, 2009

Update on Lloyds TSB in Valencia

When I wrote on October 25 about my experience with the Lloyds TSB Bank branch in Valencia, I was careful to say that it had occurred several years previously. More precisely, in 2002. Since then, I’d steered clear of the place. So I thought that, to be fair to Lloyds, I ought to go back and find out whether things had improved.

I’m glad to report that they have. This time the lady who received me spoke very good English and she had no trouble giving me information. In the end she couldn’t help me with the difficulty I put to her, because Lloyds in Spain doesn’t have access to the data of clients’ accounts in the UK. But that’s a banking problem, not a language one, and for English speakers Lloyds UK maintains a round-the-clock telephone call centre. Lloyds Spain’s website is also bilingual.


The postings on this blog will be sporadic for the next ten days, while I prepare for and attend the two-day symposium Interpreting… Naturally at Castellón de la Plana (Castelló in Valencian) on November 12 and 13. “Regular service will resume,” as they say, “thereafter.”

Castelló is on the coast one hour north of Valencia by car or train. It has a university named after King James I of Aragon (Jaume I in Valencian – see my posting of October 9). Like so many Spanish universities these days, Jaume I has a degree programme in Translation and Interpretation. Twenty years ago there were only three University Schools of Translation in Spain (Granada, Barcelona and Las Palmas) and they didn’t even have full degree granting status. Today there are so many Faculties – yes, Faculties with Deans and all the paraphernalia – Departments and Programmes of Translation and/or Interpretation that I’ve lost count. It’s become a bandwagon. But Jaume I has the distinction of possessing the most high-tech interpreter training laboratory of any that I’ve seen.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Richard Sonnenfeldt, Interrogation Interpreter Extraordinary

Richard Sonnenfeldt, one of the few surviving interpreters from the Nuremberg Trials, died a few days ago at the age of 86. All the other survivors must be over 80 by now. Sylvie Lambert has thoughtfully forwarded to me the obit of him that appeared in The New York Times. There was another good obituary in The Times of London. In what follows, I’ve used elements from both. Very few interpreters have achieved the honour of an obituary in those prestigious newspapers: the only one I can think of is Paul Mantoux (see my August 11 posting) in The Times.

A considerable amount has said and written about the Nuremberg interpreters, much of it recorded by the interpreters themselves. However, it’s mostly about the court interpreters, that is to say those who actually interpreted in the courtroom at the trials. Their accounts are fascinating both because of the drama and notoriety of the proceedings and because they were guinea pigs in the first use of simultaneous interpreting on a large scale. But what has interested me in particular is that they were set to doing the most difficult kind of interpreting, and under very poor conditions, with only a few days of hurried preparation. And yet they achieved a historic success. They were recruited from far and wide purely for their language proficiency. The real Professional Experts, of whom there was a group left over at the League of Nations in Geneva with nothing to do during the War, had only been trained in consecutive interpreting and most of them were too wary of the new-fangled, American-imposed simultaneous interpreting to cooperate. The newcomers accepted to work without enclosed booths and often for long stretches.

However, Richard Sonnenfeldt was not one of those. The descriptions of him as ‘chief interpreter at Nuremberg’, as if he were head of all the interpreters, are a bit misleading. The Times is more accurate when it gives his position as “chief of the interpretation section of the US counsel.” That means he laboured behind the scenes as an interrogation interpreter. This is an important branch of interpreting, some of it civilian for the police, legal and intelligence services, some of it military, and none of it done in simultaneous. It normally attracts little attention because it’s performed in the shadows, even in secret; the Abu Ghaib debacle brought to light a little of it. In Sonnenfeldt’s case it was done for investigative lawyers. He worked not as a neutral translator for the court but as a partisan interpreter for the American prosecutors. He said himself, in his autobiography, that he felt “the Jewish refugee I once had been tugging at my sleeve.”
“He began as an interpreter but he evolved into a fairly significant interrogator,” said John Q. Barrett, a professor at St. John’s University who has written about the Nuremberg trials and was a friend of Mr. Sonnenfeldt’s. “He was the person who could really thrust and parry with the prisoner in his native tongue.”
Nor did he feel he had to translate everything. “I will listen to you and decide whether it’s necessary to translate it,” he told Goering. We can sense here what the sociologist Anderson called the interpreter as ‘power figure’, and in this he outsmarted Goering. Sonnenfeldt is said to have had a surprising rapport with and control over many of the prisoners

Like the courtroom interpreters, Sonnenfeldt was thrown into the job without any proper training. At the time he was 22 and just “a United States Army private who had helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp [and] was plucked out of an Army motor pool to be chief interpreter, recognized as a rare native German speaker who had a firm command of English.” His first language was German, but he had acquired a high level of English proficiency as a refugee in England, Australia and the United States. General 'Wild Bill' Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, had asked for an interpreter. “Impressed by Sonnenfeldt’s American accent, which was free of the guttural inflections that made other German native speakers hard to understand, Donovan whisked him off to the OSS office in Paris.” So we may deduce that his trump qualification for recruitment as head interpreter was not how well he could translate but that he was a bilingual who was exceptionally proficient in both his languages.

In fact, however, he was a very good translator:
"At Nuremberg Sonnenfeldt rapidly established himself as chief interpreter because his were the only interrogations not plagued by disputes about translation. He was in general disparaging about the abilities of other interpreters provided by the State Department, many of whom — in a context where nuance was all — were Poles or Hungarians who spoke German or English with marked accents or limited vocabularies."
His assessment indicates a quality that’s very important in the performance of interpretation and must be fostered in students: self-confidence.

Sonnenfeldt didn’t remain an interpreter. He was only a Professional Native Interpreter for a couple of years. It was exciting, but just a passing phase in a very full life, not a career. He’d been drafted into interpretation, but his real interest lay elsewhere. Once demobilized, he went on instead to a career in electronics: the photo of him above dates from that period and shows him much closer to how he looked at Nuremberg than the one of him as an old man that accompanied the NYT obituary.

A. G. Sulzberger. Richard W. Sonnenfeldt, Nuremberg Interrogator, Is Dead at 86 (The NY Times Obituaries). The New York Times, October 12, 2009.

Anon. Richard Sonnenfeldt: chief US translator at the Nuremberg trials. The Times, October 22, 2009.

Francesca Gaiba. The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation: The Nuremberg Trial. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1998. A well-researched account of the courtroom interpreting at Nuremberg using primary sources. But as she's only concerned with the simultaneous interpreting, she doesn’t mention Sonnenfeldt.

R. Bruce W. Anderson. Perspectives on the role of interpreter. In R. W. Brislin (ed.), Translation: Applications and Research, New York, Gardner Press, 1976, pp. 208-228. The term partisan interpreter is also Anderson’s.