Saturday, February 11, 2012

Two Translation Preparatory Schools for Children

A book about language that’s popular at the moment is David Bellos’ Is That A Fish in Your Ear?. Bellos himself is an Expert Translator of French literature besides being director of Princeton University’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. He knows a lot about the history and practice of translation; the book is erudite, though what one reviewer describes as “a bouillabaisse”. I learnt from it, and especially something about training children in preparation for becoming interpreter-translators. It's well known among translation historians that in the late 17th century, Louis XIV’s enterprising minister Colbert founded a language school for such children in Paris. It was called the École des Jeunes de Langue (School of Young Linguists) and was housed in a Jesuit college, later the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. What I learnt from Bellos, however, was that there was an even earlier school of the same kind in Venice. It was known as the Scuola dei Giovani di Lingua and it was founded on February 21, 1551 because
“The traumatic outcomes of Venice’s wars with the [Turkish] sultans made it clear to its rulers that in the Ottoman case the city would have to rely chiefly on diplomatic and political means rather than offensive military efforts to maintain and defend its position in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Whereas the motivation for the French was trade relations, one of Colbert’s priorities, and part of the expenses were paid by the Marseilles Chamber of Commerce.

Thus both the French and the Venetians needed translator-interpreters for their dealings with the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and both nations decided to start training them from school age. The similarity between the names of the schools suggests that the French may have been inspired by the Venetians; the French pupils were also known as Enfants de langue (Language Children), which says something about their age. The working languages of the Ottomans were Turkish and Arabic, but the bureaucracy also needed Persian. The French consistently gave initial language teaching in Paris, and then sent suitable graduates in their teens for on-the-job training in Istanbul (aka Constantinople in those days).
“The reports, translations and copies of their source texts that the Student Dragomans had to send periodically to Paris grew into a collection of contemporary documents that remains extremely useful for oriental philology.”
The Venetians started their Professional careers as assistants to the baili, the Venetian diplomats stationed in Constantinople, and were housed in the diplomats’ residence while still students.

The Venetians wavered in their method; for part of the time all their teaching was done in Constantinople, but at periods they too followed the same pattern as the French. At both schools, the intake was mainly of children from the families of men (always men!) who were themselves established dragomans, as the official translator-interpreters were called. As such, the boys were probably bilingual to some extent from the start. The Venetian school had its ups and downs for three centuries and disappeared with the Republic of Venice. The Paris school was reestablished after the French Revolution and continued into the 19th century, but its function was absorbed into a university level School of Oriental Languages, which still flourishes as the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures (INALCO). So INALCO can lay claim to being the oldest still operating school of translators in the world.

The training at the Venetian school initially lasted five years, but in 1623 it was increased to seven. The students began “very young”. One question these extraordinary schools raise is the age at which it is possible to start preparing the ground for youngsters to become Expert Translators, and multilingual at that. Note that neither the French nor the Venetians gave translator training as such before adolescence, but they did language teaching while the boys’ minds were still ‘plastic’. Furthermore, it was in the era of teaching languages by the grammar-translation method.

David Bellos. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? UK: Particular Books / USA: Faber and Faber, 2011.

Léon Vaïsse, Essai sur l'histoire de la philologie orientale en France, Paris, 1884. An extract is reproduced as Jeunes de langues, interprètes au Levant (‘Jeunes de langues’, interpreters in the Levant) in Turquie-culture / Türk kültürü, in French only, at this link. It’s a good one-page history.

We know quite a lot about the Scuola di Giovani di Lingua thanks to the research and writings of Italian orientalist Francesca Lucchetta, for example:

F. Lucchetta, La scuola dei ‘giovani di lingua’ veneti nei secoli XVI e XVII (The school of Venetian ‘giovani di lingua’ in the 16th and 17th centuries). Quaderni di Studi Arabi, No. 7 (1989), pp. 19-40. For the English abstract, click on this link.

Her other articles can be traced through the author index of the Quaderni by clicking here. There are English abstracts.

Dragoman: For more about dragomans, enter the term in the Search box on the right.

Venice in the seventeenth century, a Belgian tapestry. Source:


  1. ESL language studies abroad-Language school in Portugal – Achieve fluency in Portuguese language within a few months

  2. I cannot find your latest post on words vs. ideas. But I found it very interesting so I'll comment here. I think Brian Mossop puts it very well when he said that there is rarely a choice. At least not a conscious one, and at least not for interpreters who are under more time constraint. As the t/i strive to understand s/he also strives to transfer the idea, sometimes it's clad in the same words as in the source language, sometimes not. This is probably what differs us from machines, humans can deverbalize whereas machines cannot. In research and theory it becomes difficult when you absolutely want to isolate words from ideas.
    I'm sure you know, but research into revision (Englund-Dimitrova, Hansen and many more) show that the "raw translation" is much more literal than the final version.

    1. The reason you couldn't find the post is that you happened to see a Preview that got published by mistake. Shortly afterwards I withdrew it, but now it's back again. Sorry.
      The time constraint, i.e. the high speed, is the most important characteristic of interpreting after the vocal medium. However, it's not so severe in consecutive as in simultaneous.

  3. Fantastic work man, keep your heads high you did it.
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