Friday, October 9, 2020

Valencia’s Jewish Interpreters in 1238


It’s a tradition on this blog to have an entry for 9 October (el Nou de Octubre), the national day of the Valencians. The event has a monument in the village where I live, the Creu de la conca (Cross of the Conquest) , a replica of the one that was erected in the 14th century to mark the marshy area where King James I of Aragon (in Valencian Jaume I) parked his army for two weeks while he negotiated the surrender of the city after a long siege.

The Moors (Arabs and North Africans) had ruled Valencia (Arabic بلنسية) Valencia from 718 to 1238. During that time it was a prosperous and expanding city in a rich agricultural setting where they introduced irrigation and rice cultivation. Eventually, however, their regime was ended by the military campaigns of the Christians from the north and the internecine warfare between the Muslim principalities.

The pause in the fighting from 28 September 1238 onwards was ostensibly to allow the negotiations but in reality also a device for both sides to play for time. James was expecting troops from Aragon to reinforces the army he had brought mainly from Tortosa; the Moors were hoping for reinforcements from Tunis. The Tunisians made the mistake of landing further north at Peñiscola (a town worth visiting if ever you are in the area). Meanwhile the negotiators had to overcome a language problem. James only spoke Aragonese, a Latin language; the Moorish ruler Abu Zayd only spoke Iberian Arabic. Interpreters were essential. Where were they to be found?

Under the Moors, Valencia had a Jewish community eminent for its size and wealth. Their community and trade connections had always kept them in contact with both the Christian and Muslim worlds. Learned members of the community were taken on as translator-secretaries and interpreters. The names of some of them have come down to us: Maestros R. David, R. Solomon, and R. Moses Bachiel; David Almadayan, secretary to the infante D. Fernando; Maestros (or Alfaquins, physicians) R. Joseph, Abraham ibn Vives (probably the father of the wealthy Joseph ibn Vives who in 1271 held a lease of the salt-works of Valencia, and who was probably the ancestor of the humanist Luis Vives (1492-1540), after whom a street and a secondary school in Valencia are named),.  

When James finally made his entry into the conquered city on Oct. 9, 1238, the Jews went out to meet him with their rabbis and delegates at their head, and presented him with a scroll of the Law in token of homage. As a reward for the important services which they had rendered him in the conquest of the strongly fortified city, he presented to some of them houses belonging to the Moors, as well as real estate in the city and its precincts. Among those who received such gifts after the repartimient (redistribution of Valencia) were the secretaries and interpreters of the king:

James was an excellent administrator as well as a warrior. The Jewish community continued to prosper in their allotted quarter of the city (the aljama) with a few restrictions under James and his immediate successors, but envy and fanaticism were building up. On July 9th,  1391 a large group of youths attacked the Jewish Quarter and killed over 250 people, ransacking their homes and raping the women of each household. Though over 90 people were eventually arrested, this event essentially ended the Jewish presence in Valencia with the exception of visiting businessmen. The remnants of the aljama were obliterated.


Isidore Singer and Meyer Kayserling. Valencia. Jewish Encyclopedia. or click [HERE].

Luis Vives. Wikipedia, 2020., or click [HERE].

Llibre del Repartiment (Valencia). Wikipedia, 2020. or click [HERE].


Jaume I el Conqueridor, King of Majorca and Valencia, Count of Barcelona, Lord of Montpellier. Source: Google Images.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Guest Post by Prabha Sridevan

Prabha Sridevan is one of the numerous literary translators in India who translate from Indian languages ─ in her case Tamil ─  into English, such is the enduring nationwide readership for English in her country. She already contributed a guest post to this blog in 2017 which has had many readers; you can retrieve it by entering prabha in the Search box on the right. The following one reached us on this year’s World Translation Day.

Greetings on World Translation day. My first editor Mini Krishnan sent her band of translators her best wishes on this day. And one of them quoted from David Mitchell, and as is my wont, I went to the Google to read from where. And I found this.  “David Mitchell, said of his experience co-translating The Reason I Jump from Japanese: “As a writer I can be bad, but I can’t be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock. ” Are we all that? Wow! And yes can we be right all the way? A moot thought.

Very happy to write here again. When the State locked us down, in March, I naively thought that the end of the tunnel was not far away. Slowly realisation dawned that what I saw was not real light but some flickering fireflies. One had to get used to the locked-down state of affairs while battling with the guilty discomfort that I was luckier than millions of my country people. Everything familiar has changed, the year 2020 devoured it all.

Translation helped me. Now I (retired ten years ago) could also say I am “working from home”! My family has got used to this bug that bit me. My son sent me a book on translation, my daughter-in-law sent me an interview with a translator. I realised that each translator has her own technique, especially if you have ‘walked’ into translation like I have. I translate from Tamil to English. If I am doubtful about some word or the construction of a sentence, I read it aloud. I choose the one that “sounds” like how the Tamil original sounded. If I had captured the tone more closely, though another word may be closer to the meaning, the tone wins. A short story that I have recently translated is about a man and his obsession with pigeons. The title in Tamil is literally Pigeon madness. Neither the author nor I the translator liked it. I suggested “The pigeons flew into his soul.” He said yes!

I am now translating four writers, and I rejoice at the diversity. In my pen dwell a variety of people. From just the perspective of dates, the writings span from very early 20th century to the year of the pandemic. Yes, it is not my pen but my laptop if you nit-pick for accuracy. But pen has a certain delicious flavour that the laptop does not. Just listen to this, “In my laptop dwell a variety of people”…no certainly no.

Translators transform a creation from one language to another, but not just that, it is also from one culture to another, from one way of life to another. Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem “Let my country awake” which contains these lines, “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.” (Translated from Bengali) Translators chip away at these walls bit by bit, sometimes even within a country. While technology has broken down geographical bounds, human beings are stacking silos round themselves. So the translator is more important today. She gives you an insight into worlds you cannot see in one lifetime or even two. She creates empathy and understanding.

 I strongly feel that writers must bring the feel and fragrance of their country, community or culture. When they are translated into a language I can read, I understand that there are differences between the writer’s people and me, but we are the same. A novel I read some time ago was translated from an Indian language to English. I could read only the translation. I felt it was written even in the original with an eye on the world market. The names were Indian, the food was Indian, but if I changed the woman’s name to Juanita and made her cook tortillas, it will be in Mexico and you will not hear a wrong note. It did not have the “Indian core”, and I think that is essential. It is a certain ‘dishonesty’ is what I think. An arguable point. I am open to be countered.

Should we only translate recent writers?  In some languages, translations were not done with that enthusiasm as they are now. I know for sure that it is so in India. So do those long-ago writers get confined to their language readers only? Wouldn’t that be a great loss? Recently a speaker said at a lecture[1], “Libraries are ….repositories of views of every kind. Every republic needs a space for dissent, disagreement and discussion, a place for a fair and unbiased study of the past, a place where anyone may read and access anything by anyone else…what every such republic needs is libraries.”  …and translations. And also translations of great writers not new, if they have not been translated. Let noble thoughts come from everywhere (This too is a translation- a line from the Rg Veda)

[1] Bansari Seth Memorial Lecture by Justice Gautam Patel "One Nation under the Constitution" on 18th August, 2020 organized by The Asiatic Society of Mumbai

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Do University Translation Students Need Theory?

Today, 30 September, is the annual World Translation Day. It’s held on the thirtieth of September because that’s the feast day of Saint Jerome, patron saint of professional translators. He can be considered a practising professional translator because he was commissioned to do his Latin Bible translations by Pope Damasus I. He was also implicitly a theoretician of translating. In a letter he wrote to his friend Pammachius, he famously wrote:

Except of course in the case of  Holy Scripture, where even the syntax contains a mystery, I translate non verbum e verbo sed sensum de sensu: not word for word but sense for sense.”

From this we know that in general he was against literal translation, but also that he recognised the best way of translating was dependent on the genre of the source text and might be modified accordingly. His beliefs persist today. So as a contribution to this year’s World Translation Day I offer the following post.

The other day a student asked the following question on

 Our study materials for translation include both theoretical and practical considerations.  The question is "do we need to theoretical considerations to be professional translators or  suffice it to focus on the practical side  as well as reading successful translations? Students think that the theoretical considerations are waste of time and sometimes they get lost in those philosophical discussions of translation scholars. What do you think?


This is a serious question for translation educators because many students think that way, and not without some justification. It brought several good answers about what kind of theories would be helpful; certainly not “philosophical discussions” but ones based on real-life experience. However, none of them answered the fundamental question of why translation students should study any theory at all. Translating is a skill. Specialised kinds of translating require special knowledge, for example legal or medical knowledge, but basically it’s a skill. Skills are improved by practice and guidance, but they don’t need knowledge of theory. Professional footballers need trainers but they don’t need to know ballistics. So here was my answer:


Just as you can be a good musical performer without knowing music theory, so fluent bilinguals can be a good translators without knowing translation theory, especially if −as you suggest− they study the work of experienced translators.

However, there are advantages in knowing some theory. First it helps you understand what you are doing. Second it enables you to explain to others −clients and students for instance− why you are doing it.

And third it entitles you to a university degree and not just a professional certification.  

But the theory should be well taught. I found the best way was to give my students small research tasks to do, either singly or as a team.

Why bother to understand? Natural translators don’t usually bother. Nor do native translators. The need to understand arises from a universal human feeling: curiosityCuriosity killed the cat but made the man. It satisfies this feeling when we find, or think we have found, an explanation for something. Some of our ancestors looked at the world and theorised that God created it in six days. If we are curious, we cannot look at translations without theorising how they got there. Curiosity is especially important for interpreters, who must acquire all their knowledge before they act. As a test of curiosity, I used to ask my interpreter students whether they had read the newspapers in both their languages that day.

 I said theory enables you to explain to clients and students why you translated something the way you did and to defend your choices. Why, for example, one does not translate legislation the same way as literature.  Also knowledge of specialised theory may improve performance in specialised translation; for instance knowing the linguistics of word formation and sublanguages for technical translation.

 As for the third reason, it used to be thought, when I went to university in England, that universities were places for thinking and reflecting. We looked down on American universities that granted degrees for everyday activities. Here in Spain it took a long while before the few university schools of translation were accepted as deserving full university status. It grieved me when the sole theory course was dropped from the conference interpreting program at the University of Ottawa. Times have changed, yet there is a lingering belief that university degree studies should include at least a modicum of reflection and thinking.


Yasir Mutar. Theoretical or practical translation? Researchgate, 23 September 2020., or click [HERE]. The replies by Qihang Jiang and others are attached to it.

Saint Jerome (347-420). De optime genere interpretandi / To Pammachius: on the best method of translating  (Letter 57). Working papers in Translatology1. Translated by Louis Kelly. Ottawa: School of Translators and Interpreters, 1976.


Un approccio semiotico alla traduzione (A semiotic approach to translation), the Italian translation from Bulgarian by university teacher Bruno Osimo of the theoretical work Prevezhdat chovekt I mashinata (Human and machine translation) by translatologist Alexander Ludskanov. You may care to reflect on the reason for the non-literal Italian title.

Saturday, September 19, 2020




The very modern term fansubbing refers to non-professional subtitling, in particular the subtitles created voluntarily by fans for fans. Whatever its imperfections, it’s here to stay. Fans turn to it because they must; because conventional subtltling is simply not available or would be prohibitively expensive or too slow. It extends to many languages, as the Italian and Chinese examples referenced below illustrate.

One of the leading translatologists studying this phenomenon is David Orrego-Carmona, Lecturer in Translation Studies at Aston University. (Aston is in Birmingham, UK.) That makes him an important writer in the paradigm of non-professional interpreting and translation (NPIT). His latest article is worth summarising.

It emphasises the disruptive force of non-professional subtitling.Non-professional subtitling is, by definition, a disruptive practice. First and foremost, it was born as a strategy to circulate copyrighted content within an alternative (not completely legal) framework and, as pointed out by the early studies on fansubbing, people creating subtitles for the shows did not take into account the professional standards widely accepted in professional subtitling. For them, subtitles worked in a different and expressive way enabling them to explore all these new possibilities.

Exploring non-professional subtitling could help Translation Studies understand the ways in which these users of translations see and define translation. Although non-professional subtitling has been understood as non-adherent to professional standards, even consciously opposing them, new research has indicated that this is not necessarily true. Many studies draw on the fact that non-professionals tend to be extremely source oriented and understand translation only as a linguistic exchange from the source language to the target language.

   While  [there is] a developmental pattern in which fansubbing communities evolve, we recognise that the non-professional subtitling phenomenon remains highly versatile and organic, subject to individual social, linguistic and cultural conventions.

As this summary shows, NPIT is not to be held to the same standards and practices as professional translation.


The above summary was extracted with the aid of the machine learning algorithms of

David Orrego-Carmona and Yvonne Lee. Non-Professional Subtitling. In David Orrego-Carmona and Yvonne Lee (eds.) Non-ProfessionalSubtitling. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017. Pages 1-12.

Felice Addeo and Maria Esposito. Collective Intelligence in Action: A Case Study of an Italian Fansubbing Community. 2013.

Dingkun Wang and Xiaochun Zhang. Fansubbing in China: Technology-facilitated activism in translation. Target, vol. 29, no. 2, 2017, pp. 301-318.


Anime motivational poster. Source: Pinterest.


Saturday, September 5, 2020

Juvenes Translatores (Young Translators) 2020



Once again, the European Commission is running its annual competition for secondary school students. The schools must be in member countries of the European Union; so I’m not sure where that leaves the United Kingdom schools this year. The competitors aren’t translation students; on the other hand they aren’t natural (i.e., naïve) translators. Typically they’ve had second language classes at school, and those classes include some elementary practice in translating. (At least they did in my time.) It’s an online competition, so it shouldn’t be seriously affected by the pandemic.

 Usually this blog reports on the winners after the event; but the call for competitors this year is already out and the registration period has just started, so here it is.


Thursday, 26 November, 2020




On the day of the contest each participant will need to log in to the contest platform using the individual username/password assigned to them on registration.

When participants log in to their profile, the text to be translated will appear on the screen.

Participants must translate online (not on paper) and submit their translation via the contest platform. The contest will be conducted according to the individual arrangements made by the schools. The translations must be done during the official time allocated for the contest (see section 4). DG Translation will assess all translations and choose one winning entry from each EU country.

The registration is open between 2 September, 12 PM (Central European Time), and 20 October 2020, 12 PM (Central European Time). Incomplete or late registrations will not be accepted.

More information at or click [HERE].

Friday, August 21, 2020

Covid-19 and Distance Conference Interpreting


Woman wearing a headset with a microphone sits in front of two laptops.

After a string of theoretical posts, here’s one on a practical and very contemporary topic.

Distance interpreting aka remote interpreting means that the interpreter is not physically present in the place where the speaker(s) and listener(s) are located but is connected to them by audio or visual link from a separate site. The opposite is on-site interpretingIt’s by no means new. In my All of Interpreting, written 30 years ago (see Sources below), there was already a section about it. The American telephone interpreting enterprise LanguageLine had been launched in 1982 and been acquired by AT&T. It remains very successful both in the service it provides and commercially, as do the many similar enterprises that you can see advertised nowadays on the internet. They are widely used by hospitals, social services and the police. Whatever their shortcomings compared to on-site interpreting, they can offer immediate 24-hour availability and a wide variety of lesser-spoken languages; and above all they are economical.

Modern technology has extended these services to video interpreting and hence to sign languages.

However, a characteristic of all such services has been that they were intended for person-to-person communication or for small groups that could be connected in a conference call; what is often referred to as dialogue interpreting. Now the advent of computer platforms like Zoom and Skype makes it possible to interconnect much larger groups and to have remote conference interpreting. Zoom, for example, provides a simple interface and claims to allow access to online meetings with up to 500 attendees.

Then came the bombshell, Covid-19. It decimated the conference interpretation market by cancellation of many meetings. And it threw a spanner into the logistics because interpreters could no longer move around freely. It even reached to the holy of holy of conference interpretation, the United Nations headquarters in New York.

“When the coronavirus pandemic brought New York City to a halt, United Nations interpreters ran into big trouble: their booths and equipment were no longer accessible. However, they are rising to the challenge, exploring new ways to service multilateral meetings, including from their homes...

“’We unexpectedly found ourselves in our apartments wondering how to continue performing our duties and contribute to multilingualism,’ said Veronique Vandegans, Chief of the French Interpretation Section. ‘However, it quickly became apparent that we could adapt and interpret remotely, given the proper equipment, testing and training.’"

So much for the many objections. Suddenly it could be done, as surely as when Léon Dostert introduced simultaneous interpreting over the objections of the old guard of consecutive interpreters in the late 1940s.

No one doubts that there are problems. For instance,

“One major challenge is [for interpreters] to find a suitable place in their homes. Even under optimal conditions, a home location is not on par with a confined booth, where interpreters can reach the high level of concentration their job requires.”

Some improvements could be made. The quality of the equipment is crucial. Early experiments in the 1960s failed because communications were uneven or the sound and picture were too poor. One of my own early experiences with remote interpreting was for a televised Canadian election debate in 1984. On that nationally important occasion it was decided that the interpreters couldn’t be accommodated in the studio with the candidates, and so the TV engineers provided me with a video link to a room in another part of Ottawa. In so doing, they provided me with something I never had again: a giant TV screen that made me feel I was really present in the debate studio; and when they did close-ups of speakers I could see their expressions better than I would have on site. I would still recommend larger video screens. On the other hand, something they didn’t provide was a circuit for direct connection and feedback between the interpreter and the moderator of the debate. On site, if there is any hitch the interpreter can wave to the meeting participants or send a colleague to explain.

Also a long time ago there was a proposal, I think in Eastern Europe, for a centre where there would be a pool of remote conference interpreters on permanent duty instead of arrangements being set up anew for each event. I don't know what became of it.

But now the question is, what will happen when the crisis eventually subsides?  Return to the old way or consolidate the new? I think the latter, inevitably, because of the economies it represents. Only very rich users like the United Nations or the Canadian Parliament will be able to hold out against it. Of course something is lost in remote interpreting, but every new technology requires a trade-off between craftsmanship and price.

In addition, the success of both remote dialogue interpreting and remote conference interpreting make it imperative to add them to the training for student interpreters in the universities.


United Nations Department of Global Communications. Portraits: UN interpreters adapt to new work modes during Covid-19. August 2020. or click [HERE].

Brian Harris. All of interpreting: a taxonomic survey. or click [HERE]. A Spanish translation is available from the same site under the title Panorámica de los distintos tipos de interpretación.

LanguageLine Solutions. Wikipedia, 2020.

Canadian leaders debates. Wikipedia, 2020.


Lana Ayyad, Chief of Arabic Interpretation Section, works from her apartment in Brooklyn. UN Photo/Manuel Elías UN Photo/Manuel Elías.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

NPIT, A New Translation Studies Paradigm

                                                                                                                       Image result for Images Thomas Kuhn

Periods, schools and tendencies in research are commonly divided into what Thomas Kuhn called paradigms.paradigm is “a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates.” A more down-to-earth synonym might be mindset. Generally speaking, paradigms are constituted of theories and methods. Thus the Darwinian paradigm in biology combines Darwin’s well-known theory of evolution and the methodical observation and description of historical and contemporary evidence. A new paradigm may displace an older one in what Kuhn called a paradigm shift, but the old one may live on beside it. Thus the Darwinian paradigm, though it’s currently dominant, has not entirely replaced the Creationist one.

However, a paradigm may also be shifted by the object of study, something that is usually overlooked. Thus translation studies in pre-modern times were mostly based on written texts: on comparison of texts and their translations. Texts, furthermore, produced by humans. Only since the second world war have several new paradigms arisen, one of which is process-oriented translation studies, a paradigm that studies the translator’s mental operations rather than the texts they produce. Typical of this paradigm is Roger Bell’s book Translation and Translating (see Sources below). However, the older text-based paradigms persist undiminished to this day.

As for machine translation (MT), it has been through two paradigms: first the rule-governed linguistic paradigm from 1947 to 1988, and then from1988 the statistical paradigm that is now evolving into an artificial intelligence paradigm. A recent contributor to another blog gave a detailed analysis of the many imperfections in an MT French translation of a letter by Franz Kafka. Her criticisms were justified, but they were completely misplaced because she was applying to MT the method and standards of a different paradigm

In a recent post on his blog Still Thinking, the prominent interpreter-researcher Jonathan Downie deplored the multiplicity of theories in translation studies:

“What I am suggesting is that it might  be useful to set some criteria, whether the ones I have suggested or some different ones, which we could use to perform a kind of loft clearance of translation theories. Perhaps we might find a few theories *coughequivalencecough* that can safely be ditched while others can be upcycled or combined with still other theories to make something even better.”

 But realistically we cannot ditch theories, for two reasons. One is that researchers will not readily give up a favourite theory, especially if it’s their own (pardon the cynicism). Another, more substantial, is that the theories belong to different paradigms and so do not compete. That a translation may be determined by statistical identification of a segment in a previous translation or translations, as in today’s MT, simply has no competitor in human translation and its paradigms.

The biggest paradigm, in terms of the amount of discussion it generates, and one of the oldest (since Cicero and all that) is the literary translation one. And still very lively, as the current polemic over the views of Lawrence Venuti shows (see Sources).

Another very old but persistent paradigm is the Bible translation one. Sometimes it overlaps other paradigms, for instance the literary translation one (e.g. Meschonnic) or the linguistics one (e.g. Nida, see Sources); but it has its own defining characteristics, which are religious and missionary.

Certainly, as said above, machine translation has its own paradigms and those paradigms even involve quite different researchers from those who work on human translation. Most of them are computer scientists and mathematicians who only turn to linguists for the practical tasks of developing applications.

And so we arrive at the point of this post. All the paradigms before the 1970s, even MT ones, were not just based on texts, they were based on texts that were highly skilled documents. Whether they were works of literature or technical manuals, they required skilled translators. Schools of translators were set up to train translators in these paradigms and their norms.

Then in 1973 a new paradigm dawned, in maverick fashion and at first composed of a single theory, the Natural Translation Hypothesis. This paradigm did not introduce any new methodology or scientific approach but it did have distinctive characteristics in its object of study. First the translators who served as it subjects were inexpert, totally untrained, naïve, primarily children. They had to be bilingual of course, but not necessarily balanced bilinguals. This  paradigm rejected the old adage that “because someone is bilingual, it doesn’t mean they can translate,” and replaced it by, “All bilinguals can translate.” Second the texts or utterances studied were such as are appropriate for the language and cognitive level of the translators just described.

The new paradigm expanded, first into studies of bilingual immigrant children, the so-called language brokers, and then became ever-widening as the study of what is now called non-professional interpreting and translation (NPIT) with its specialised international conferences.

However, NPIT studies have not dealt with the key tenet of the natural translation hypotheses, which is that the ability to translate is inborn. All natural translation is NPIT, but not all NPIT is completely natural. For example, there are many self-taught expert translators who translate for colleagues as a sideline to their usual professional activities. Still, for the time being it’s convenient to consider natural translation a partner in the new NPIT paradigm.



Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Jonathan Downie.  A Theoretical Loft Clearance for Translation Studies. Still Thinking, 12 May 2020. or click [HERE].

Roger T. Bell. Translation and Translating: Theory and Practice. London and New York: Longman, 1991.

Jan Steyn. Showdown at the translation saloon. On Lawrence Venuti’s ‘Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic’. Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 August 2020. or click [HERE].

Henri Meschonnic (1932-2009). Several French translations of books of the Old Testament, 1970-2008.

Eugene A. Nida (1914-2011). Toward a Science of Translating. Leiden: Brill, 1964.


Thomas Kuhn. Source:


For a discussion of this post and my reply to it, see Jonathan Downie's blog Still Thinking at or click [HERE].