Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Year in Review


It’s customary to do year-end reviews. I only started seriously on this blog in July, so it can’t be a full year. Nevertheless, I’ve combed through my posts, and this is what I’ve come up with.

The languages involved: American Sign Language, Arabic, Aramaic, Chinese, Douala, English, English Pidgin, Ethiopic, French, French Pidgin, Gaelic, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Kafiri, Latin, Latvian, Polish, Pushtu, Russian, Spanish, Syriac, Urdu, and Valencian.

The places where they were used: Abu Dhabi, Afghanistan, Britain, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, India, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Mexico, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, USA, USSR and Zambia.

The time periods: in Antiquity; and in the present era, the 1st, 4th, 9th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

The types of texts to which they were applied: blogs, folklore, journalism, literature, mangas, music lyrics, religious, scientific, terminological, theatrical, videos.

The types of interpreting: business, church, court, diplomatic, family, liaison, military.

And the types of translators: individual, collective, communal, computers, fansubbers, language brokers, revisers; Natural (with no training and minimal exposure), Native (with no training but self-taught by example and experience), Expert (trained and accredited), Professional (for money).

If any of these has particularly marked the year that’s ending, I think it’s crowdsourcing (see posts of July 14 and December 19), the spread of which has been made possible by new technology but with the translating as dependent as ever on humans.

It all adds up to this - and I hope to make it even more convincing in 2010. Irrespective of language, place, time, type, training, age, circumstances and language proficiency; insofar as bilingualism is universal, so too

************* TRANSLATING IS UNIVERSAL *************

Minako O'Hagan. Evolution of user-generated translation: fansubs, translation hacking and crowdsourcing. Journal of Internationalisation and Localisation, vol. 1, no. 1, 2009, pp. 94ff.

Friday, December 25, 2009



And especially to my band of faithful Followers!

I’m going to take a break now until the New Year.

A Christmas Tale (cont.): Aladdin in England

This post is the conclusion of the two preceding posts. Please read the other ones first.

My own first contact with the Nights came about when I was barely six years old; and not from the print version, not even from an adaptation for children, nor from Disney - after my time! - but from a peculiarly English theatrical institution, the Christmas pantomime. I was taken to see Aladdin and his Magic Lamp.

Though it began in the 19th century and had affinities with the music hall, live performances of ‘panto’ are still going strong for a few weeks each year in theatres all over Britain, even with the competition from the other media. So what is it?
Traditionally performed at Christmas, with family audiences consisting mainly of children and parents, British pantomime is now a popular form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo. There are a number of traditional story-lines, and there is also a fairly well-defined set of performance conventions… along with a… 'guest celebrity' tradition, which emerged in the late 19th century.
One of the “traditional story lines” is Aladdin. The “performance conventions” require that Aladdin be played by a woman showing off shapely legs; and that his mother, named the Widow Twankey (or Twanky), be played by a man in drag, a so-called pantomime dame. But the outline of the original story is retained, as are the Chinese location, the Sorcerer, and of course the Genie (Arabic jinniy) of the Lamp.

As for the "guest celebrities", the one who’s made the headlines this year is Pamela Anderson, a star of the American TV series Baywatch. She’s playing this week in the panto at the New Wimbledon Theatre in a suburb of London. Surprisingly, considering that she’s famous for her curvaceous body, she’s not playing the title role but the Genie of the Lamp. That’s a new twist.

And that’s how a personage with a thoroughly Muslim Arabic name (it means Ennobled of the Faith) and etymology - even the double dd in the middle is a vestige of Arabic - came to figure among the thoroughly British English icons of Christmas. From one folklore to another, a remarkable story of popular cultural transfer through translation and intersemiotic adaptation. The changes are great, the new audience is unaware even of the existence of the original one, yet the essence of the story and the spirit of fantasy and ribaldry are preserved.

The image is from a poster for this year’s New Wimbledon Theatre pantomime production of Aladdin. Note the hint of Arabic calligraphy in the style of the lettering and the two dots on the i.

There are articles on Pantomime and on Aladdin in Wikipedia.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Tale (cont.): The Arabian Nights Entertainments

This post is a continuation of the preceding post. Please read the other one first.

It’s amazing how, in the 18th century, best-sellers were translated as fast as Harry Potter novels are today if the publishers sensed there was a market for them in another country; and unlike J. K. Rowling, Galland enjoyed no protection under international copyright. The earliest English translation in the British Library catalogue dates from 1712-1715, that is to say even before the publication of the original had been completed in Paris - and it was the fourth edition! It was an anonymous translation, probably the work of one or more of the notorious ‘Grub Street hacks’, who were poor, aspiring professional writers and eager translators who lived and worked in Grub Street in the City of London.

One remarkable thing about this very first English translation is the title: The Arabian Nights Entertainments. It was not, like Galland’s Mille et une nuits, a literal translation from the Arabic but one that adopted an English viewpoint and enticed readers by making the book sound both more exotic and more like light reading. Thereafter it became the standard English title. It was the first step in the process of naturalization.

All the other 18th-century English versions were derived from Galland, which means that they were indirect translations via French. It was not until the following century that direct translations from Arabic began to supplant his. From that point on, the history branches into three streams:

1. The full and for the most part accurate translations by Arabists for adult readers. One of these was by the great Arabic lexicographer Edward Lane, who had the additional advantage of having lived for several years in the Middle East. It was for a long time the most popular and it is still in print.

However, even a scholar like Lane came up against a serious social constraint. The original Nights are quite ribald, and public taste and mores in Victorian England would not tolerate their publication without ’bowdlerisation’, that is to say the expurgation or toning-down of sexual allusions and jokes. Galland had been constrained to make the same compromises for 18th-century France. The result was, to a mild degree, what the French call belles infidèles (beautiful but unfaithful). The omissions were eventually restored with a vengeance later in the 19th century by the version (in very quirky English) of Sir Richard Burton, but only by publishing it as an edition restricted to private subscribers.

2. Innumerable derivatives in the form of abridgements, versions for children or 'for family reading', and ‘imitations‘, that is to say newly invented stories in the same genre. There‘s nothing wrong with that; the Nights never were an untouchable classic. Galland himself collected and incorporated stories that were not in his source manuscript. Many of the derivatives are individual stories extracted from the collection. Of these last, the most popular have been the tales of Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Aladdin and his Magic Lamp.

3. Derivatives in other media: stage and even musical adaptations from early on, but above all the work of many famous book illustrators, for example Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898, an admirer of Burton - see image) and Arthur Rackham (1867-1939, in the ‘fairy story‘ tradition). (The Galland was illustrated by Gustave Doré.) Then, in the 20th century, came the film versions, culminating in the Disney animated Aladdin.

“All of this is very interesting,” I think I hear you muttering, “but what’s it got to do with Christmas?”
Ah, for that - if you haven’t already guessed the answer - you must be forbearing for one night more and read the concluding post tomorrow.

The Arabian Nights Entertainments: consisting of one thousand and one stories... Translated into French from the Arabian mss. by M. Galland ... and now done into English. The fourth edition. vol. 1-6. London: Andrew Bell, 1712-1715.

Grub Street is still there on the maps of London, but it’s now called Milton Street.

The Thousand and One Nights Commonly Called, in England, The Arabian Nights' Entertainments. A new translation from the Arabic with copious notes. By Edward William Lane. With six hundred woodcuts by William Harvey. London: Murray, 1839. An American edition of 1848 “for family reading“ can be read on Google Books.

Bowdlerize comes from the name of Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who published an expurgated edition of Shakespeare.

A plain and literal translation of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments, Now Entituled [sic] The Book of The Thousand Nights and a Night. With Introduction, Explanatory Notes on the Manners and Customs of Moslem Men and a Terminal Essay upon the History of The Nights by Richard F. Burton [1821-1890]. Benares: Kamashastra Society, 1885-8, 10 vols. Reissued in London "Printed by the Burton Society for private subscribers only." The original is a very expensive collectors’ item, but there’s a facsimile at Burton’s admiring but more circumspect wife published a bowdlerised version of it.

Disney's Aladdin. Adapted by Don Ferguson. New York: Mouse Works, 1993.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Tale: Aladdin

Between 1704 and 1717, there occurred one of the Great Events in the history of European translation. This was the publication of Antoine Galland’s French translation from Arabic of The Thousand and One Nights, in 11 volumes. It was the first version in any European language of one of the most captivating of all collections of folk tales. They deserve to be on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It was by no means the first translation from Arabic to French, but it was the first to become a best-seller.

The ground had been prepared for the publication. The taste for fantasy folktales had been stimulated in France - and perhaps in Galland - by the publication, just a few years earlier, of Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose. However, the fantasies of the Nights took not only France but all of literary Europe by storm. As my one-time university tutor, Bernard Lewis, has said, they were “the fountainhead of the new romantic cult of the East," or in other words what is nowadays called Orientalism.

What kind of translator was Antoine Galland (1646-1714)? Certainly a Professional Expert, by the criteria of his century. The Greek, Latin and Hebrew he learnt at school were commonplace then (see my December 2 post about grammar schools, which had their equivalent in France), but he went on to master all the three major languages of the Middle East in his time: Arabic, Persian and Turkish. He became librarian and private secretary to the nobleman who was French ambassador in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and accompanied him on the latter’s journeys through Syria, Palestine and the Balkans. His liaison work for his patron must therefore have involved him in a good deal of translating and interpreting. But beyond that, he was a bibliophile, a collector and an antiquarian.

Indeed Galland deserves a lot of credit not only for translating the Nights, but for finding them and bringing them to light. You see, they were popular, orally transmitted stuff, with constantly shifting and augmented content, and consequently not considered ’literature’ by the Arabs or by their successors the Ottoman Turks. Even two centuries later, when I was studying Classical Arabic at university, they weren’t on our reading list - which was a pity because their simple language, direct narrative style and entertaining content makes them an excellent text for beginners. Today there are critical editions by Arabs, and conferences about them. But the Arabs’ regard for the Nights today is the consequence of the Europeans’ esteem for them thanks, in the first place, to Galland.

I can’t follow the spread of the Nights all through Europe. Anyway, there’s a very good book that does so, Mia Gerhardt’s The Art of Story-Telling. Instead, I’m going to stick what ensued in England.

To be continued tomorrow - as Sheherazade might have said.

Antoine Galland (1646-1714). Les mille et une nuits: contes arabes / trad. en françois par Mr Galland. Paris: Veuve de C. Barbin, 1704-17. 11 vols. There are modern editions still in print.

Charles Perrault (1628-1703). Contes de ma mère Loye. Paris: C. Barbin, 1697. 273 p. There are modern editions and English translations still in print. Notice that Perrault and Galland had the same publisher.

Bernard Lewis. Islam in History: Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle East. London: Alcove, 1973. The paperback edition is still in print.

Mia I. Gerhardt. The Art of Story-Telling: A literary study of the Thousand and One Nights. Leiden: Brill, 1963. Has a pretty full list of European translations. A pity it’s gone out of print.

Ed Lake. Nights to remember. The National newspaper, Abu Dhabi, 2009. Click for link.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

More Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing has been mentioned on this blog before. Applied to translating it means ‘outsourcing’ a translation, usually in chunks, to a community of Native Translators. One of its manifestations is fansubbing, which was mentioned on September 28. And on July 14, I described a large Chinese collective translation network called Yeeyan.

Now comes another such initiative, this time from Canada. It’s called Plurk - awful name but I suppose it’s easy to remember. It’s an upstart competitor to Twitter in the microblogging market. (A microblog, in case you don’t know, is a blog where the blogger recounts minute-to-minute micro-events in his or her life.) It targets a niche market, Asia. To do so, it provides an interface in a number of Asian languages. Yet it has a total staff of only nine, none of them translators. How does it do it? Alvin Woon, one of its founders, explains:
Plurk has won market share in Asia with the help of users around the world willing to translate it into dozens of languages outside of its main lingo, English… When Plurk first launched, we had a translation system where the whole system was translated into 25 different languages in two weeks. It's all done by our users. We have some difficult languages, like Gaelic, Arabic, and Japanese, and it's all done by our users. That gave us a head start, especially in a place like Taiwan. I think it's different here than in Hong Kong or Singapore. People don't speak English here as well, so when they come to Plurk and they see a traditional Chinese interface, they will be like, ‘Wow, this is done by a Taiwanese company.’ There is this kind of connection between the service provider and the user. We have users in Zambia, Denmark, Norway and other places, too… When we launched, some Plurkers from a faraway country said, ‘Hey, can we translate that for you?’ And we said sure, why not. Then, it just turned viral. It's kind of interesting to see how passionate people are about the service. They really want people in their own country to use Plurk. This is all volunteer work, but we do have this kind of reward system in place where you get a badge for everything you accomplish. If you become a translator, you get a Rosetta Stone badge, stuff like that. People are gratified by stuff like that… Now we have groups of translators all over the world. When we write a new feature we will put it all out in text and push it through the system, then all the translators will take them. So all these translators will get an e-mail saying, ‘Hey, there's a new string, please help us translate it.’ It's very democratic. Say you have maybe 10 Taiwanese translators translating a string but they get to vote among them for the best translation and then the system will push the best one up to the live Web page. So we push things out, then they translate it, then they push it in… It's kind of interesting. I think the users appreciate that, in the long run. Once you set up the translation system, it's not that hard to do. I think every social-networking site should try to do that. If you only implement an English user interface, you shut out a lot of users.
So Plurk uses crowdsourcing not only to do the translations but also to evaluate them. The ability to assess translations, including one’s own, is an important aspect of Natural, Native and indeed all translating. If you can’t compare a translation with its original, how can you be sure it’s right, or at least nearly right? The ability starts in children, so it’s not surprising that the Plurk translators have it.

Dan Nystedt (IDG News Service). Plurk Users Bring Microblogging to Many Languages. PCWorld, 2009.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Coming Soon to this Blog… fast as I can cope with them, and subject to distractions:

* More crowdsourcing
* A Christmas Tale: Aladdin
* Compulsive NT
* NT and cognition
* Scanning Ronjat

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Akage No Anne (Anne of the Red Hair)

Now for some light relief from semiotics and all that.

In the September 26 post about Louis Hémon, I happened to mention that a long-popular figure in Canadian fiction, Anne of Green Gables (full name Anne Shirley), had become equally popular in Japan - thanks to translation. The novel was first translated into Japanese in 1939 and became part of the national school curriculum in 1952. Now comes this peculiar confirmation from the Toronto Globe and Mail:
A new job for Anne of Green Gables: selling beef to Japan
Georgetown, PEI, native Peter Llewellyn made the initial connection between PEI beef farmers and Japanese businesses who are looking at raising a special Japanese beef cattle breed on PEI [PEI stands for Prince Edward Island, a small, charming province on the Canadian Atlantic coast]… PEI farmers looking to sell Wagyu hope for some help from a home-town heroine… Enterprising farmers on PEI are hoping to crack Japan's stiffly competitive Wagyu beef market by using the lure of Anne Shirley, a revered figure to generations of Japanese women – the ones who decide what is served at weddings.
When foreign fiction in translation is appropriated by the advertising industry, you can be sure it’s entered the popular culture of the receiving country.

Oliver Moore. A new job for Anne of Green Gables: selling beef to Japan. Globe and Mail, December 8, 2009.

Lucy Maud Montgomery. Anne of Green Gables. Boston, 1908. Green Gables is the name of the house where Anne is brought up in the story.

Akage No Anne [Red-haired Anne]. Translated by a well-known translator, Hanako Muraoka, in 1939 from a copy belonging to a Canadian missionary, but not published until after World War II.

The image above is from a manga version. The text of the manga has been scanlated by fans (see September 28 post).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

L’informazione traduttiva necessaria

This post is the conclusion of the two preceding ones, which should be read first.

One of the sections of Alexander Ludskanov’s magnum opus that Bruno Osimo has preserved in his Italian recension is, fortunately, 3.2.1 L’informazione traduttiva necessaria (The Information Needed for Translating). It was the subject of my last discussion with A.L. in Ottawa not long before he died.

I dwell on it here because it’s a matter that’s fundamental to all translating, whether machine, expert or natural. Only a layman thinks that a good knowledge of the two languages involved is enough information. For example, even if you know the verbs, the pronouns, the sentence forms, you can’t even translate appropriately such a simple message as “How are you?” into French, Spanish, etc., without also being informed what the social relationship is between the speaker and the hearer: Comment allez-vous? or Comment vas-tu? The term A.L. uses for such information is extralinguistic.

A.L. was acutely aware that the acquisition and incorporation of extralinguistic information presented a major problem for machine translation (MT). A few years before, in 1962, the Israeli logician and linguist Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (see photo), who was engaged in machine translation research at MIT, had declared it to be an insurmountable obstacle to the realization of what he called Fully Automatic High Quality Machine Translation. His pessimism put a damper on MT research in the United States. One of his examples was the apparently simple phrase slow neutrons and protons. In order to translate it correctly into languages that require agreement between nouns and their adjectives, it must be parsed either as (slow neutrons) + protons or as slow (neutrons + protons). But the choice between them depends on prior knowledge of, or newly acquired information about, nuclear physics. To A.L., as a semiotician, the extralinguistic information did not come directly from the world outside the translator (the ‘real world’) but from what was coded in other sign systems in the translator’s mind.

On the other hand, it’s not necessary, for the translation of a given text, that the translator possess, or have access to, the whole vast ocean of human knowledge. Each translation requires only a few drops from the ocean, and that, perhaps, might be acquirable and could be processed by a computer. Generally speaking, the more narrowly specialized the source text is, the less of the ocean is needed. But how to determine and specify precisely what information is required? That’s what we saw as the primary problem of l’informazione traduttiva necessaria.

Reference (see also the two preceding posts)

Yehosua Bar-Hillel (1915-1975). The future of Machine Translation. Times Literary Supplement, April 20, 1962. Bar-Hillel called extralinguistic information encyclopedic information. He later recanted in part and admitted that perhaps MT didn’t need to be High Quality or Fully Automatic. There’s an article on him in Wikipedia, which also tells us that his granddaughter, Gili Bar-Hillel, is the Hebrew translator of the Harry Potter series.

Photo: Wikipedia

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ludskanov in Italian

This post is a continuation of the preceding one. Please read the other one first.

After A.L.’s death in 1976, his book on translation theory fell into oblivion except in Bulgaria, where it was republished and his memory was kept alive by his student and assistant Elena Paskaleva; and in Leipzig, where he’d been lecturing and the German translation was a textbook. There were several reasons for the neglect:

1. There was no English translation. Contrary to what some people might think, translation studies specialists are as dependent on translations as other people.

2. There was an excellent German translation, but it was made and published in East Germany when Europe was still divided. The French translation was in A.L.’s own imperfect French - and you know how picky the French are about their language; furthermore it was execrably printed. Even in intellectual spheres, appearances do count.

3. As time wore on, the parts of the book that had to do with computing went further and further out of date. A.L. foresaw this, and told me that future translators would have to update it. And then, around 1990, research on machine translation took a whole new direction.

4. Interest in the connections between translation and semiotics became focussed on literary and cultural semiotics, which were not A.L.‘s interest.

But now A.L.’s book and its ideas have been given new life. After the long neglect, an Italian translation has unexpectedly appeared. It was done from the French version by a team, and edited by Bruno Osimo, an enterprising and discerning teacher of translation and translation theory at the University of Milan and elsewhere in Italy (more about him at

He’s dealt with the problem of updating the computer science parts of the book by the simplest and most drastic method possible: he’s cut most of them out. As he says himself:
This is not a complete and unabridged translation of the 1967 work, which had 160 pages. Some chapters that were all about machine translation have been left out entirely… The other chapters have undergone editing so as to remove the technicalities of the most ’cybernetic’ aspects of the book; they would not mean much today to people who are interested in translation. [Cybernetic, in A.L.’s usage, conformed to the East European concept that computer science was a branch of cybernetics.] Altogether, the text has been reduced by about two fifths.
Compared with the revised Bulgarian edition and the German translation, the reduction is even more drastic. In the same spirit of reader-oriented translation,
The original Bulgarian contained a great many [quasi-mathematical] symbols and formulae. Here such abbreviations, etc., have been eliminated in order to make the text more readable.
Gone too are the many footnotes, and with them the passage about ‘intuitive’ translators that I cited at the beginning of the preceding post.

Never mind. The essential Ludskanov is there. It’s good to see the book in print again and made available to another generation. Perhaps somebody will be guided by Osimo’s editing to finally produce an English version.

The book is nicely printed, and at 10 euros it’s a bargain.

To be concluded.

References (see also the preceding post)

Aleksandar Lûdskanov. Un approccio semiotico alla traduzione. Dalla prospettiva informatica alla scienza traduttiva. Italian translation by Vanessa Albertocchi, Gaia d'Alò, Emilia de Candia, Francesca Picerno, Luca Revelant, Valeria Sanguinetti, Elisa Scarmagnani and Maura Zampieri from the French translation. Edited by Bruno Osimo. Milan: Hoepli, 2008. xix, 76 p.

Aleksander Lyudskanov. Prevezhdat chovekt i machinata. Revised and expanded edition, edited by Elena Paskaleva, with a preface by the eminent Bulgarian linguist Miroslav Yanakiev. Sofia: Narodna Kultura, 1980.

Elena Paskaleva. Alexander Ljudskanov. In W. J. Hutchins (ed.), Early Years in Machine Translation: Memoirs and Biographies of Pioneers, Amsterdam, Benjamins, 2000. pp. 361-376. For fast reading, go to, although there are a few pages missing.

Alexander Ljudskanov. Mensch und Maschine als Übersetzer. German translation by Gert Jäger and Hilmar Walter of the Karl-Marx University, Leipzig, from a greatly expanded source text. Halle: Niemeyer, 1972 / Munich: Hueber, 1973. 260 p. A.L. much preferred this translation to his own French one.

There's also a Polish translation. Osimo says he couldn't trace it, but it's in the catalogue of the National Library of Poland.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Alexander Ludskanov and Natural Translation

The fundamental tenet of the Natural Translation (NT) Hypothesis is that all bilinguals can translate. The first person to state that explicitly was the brilliant Bulgarian semiotician Alexander Ludskanov (A.L.) in 1967. He did it in a book in Bulgarian; the literal translation of its title would be Human and Machine Translation. He translated the book into French himself in 1969, and what he wrote was this:
Grâce à une certaine intuition et à une certaine habitude, chaque sujet bilingue traduit d'une manière ou d'une autre. Par conséquent, la science de la TO [traduction humaine] n'avait pas à s'occuper de la question comment apprendre à l'homme à traduire, mais de la question comment lui apprendre à agir d'une manière ou d'une autre pour obtenir des résultats correspondant à certains critères acceptés a priori.
Here’s my English translation:
By intuition and habit, all bilingual people can translate in some way or other. Consequently the fundamental question for the study of human translation is not how to teach people to translate, but how to teach them to behave in a way that will produce results conforming to certain well-established, accepted criteria.
He couldn’t have said it better; but does that mean he was an early proponent of research on NT? Not at all. First, if you re-read his second sentence, you’ll see that what he recommends is not the study of the spontaneous phenomenon, but of how natural translators can be trained to translate according to the norms of their society. Secondly, the passage I’ve quoted only occurs in a footnote. He certainly knew what he was saying, but the fact that he didn’t put it in the body of his text means, IMHO, that like several other early discoverers of NT, he didn’t appreciate its full significance.

Never mind. He clearly saw that NT exists and that it’s universal.

A.L. impressed everyone who heard him lecture by the convincing clarity of his arguments - his first degree was in law. Alas, he died in 1976 at only fifty. My wife and I knew him and his family personally, and their little old-world house in Sofia. It was thanks to him that we and his other friends of the International Committee on Computational Linguistics were able to slip behind the Iron Curtain and visit Bulgaria (Sofia, Varna, the Black Sea coast) in those far-off days of the Communist regime. We were surprised by the high level of translation activities and of intellectual life in what most people in the West thought of as a Balkan backwater. This was partly due to the Bulgarians' proximity to the linguists and scientists of the Soviet Union: A.L. himself had studied in Moscow. The Bulgarian government aped the Soviets, and A.L. received official support for his machine translation project because MT research was in vogue in the USSR. He was no supporter of the regime, but he’d managed to find a refuge in the Institute of Mathematics of the Bulgarian Academy of Science because, as he explained to me, “Mathematics is the only branch of learning that they haven’t found a way to politicize.”

There are a number of other interesting ideas in his book, but they aren’t directly relevant to this blog. What does it mean, however, to say that he was a semiotician? Semoticians study all kinds of sign systems (N.B. not just signs, but systems of signs). For them, languages are one kind of sign system, and there are others just as important. What would be such another? The genetic code, for example. For semioticians, therefore, a language translation is a conversion (or a series of conversions) of information-bearing signs, just as the transformation of DNA into RNA into protein is. (In this connection, see my July 25 post.) Semioticians think, as A.L. would have put it, “at a higher level of abstraction” than linguists.

To be continued.


Ludskanov, Ljudskanov, etc.: These are just variant transliterations of his Bulgarian name. Likewise Alexander, Alexandre, Aleksandar.

Aleksander L’udskanov. Prevezhdat chovekt i machinata. Sofia: Nauka i Izkustvo, 1967. 159 p. Published version of his doctoral thesis of 1964.

Alexandre Ljudskanov. Traduction humaine et traduction mécanique(Documents de linguistique quantitative 2 and 4). French translation by A.L. himself, Paris, Dunod, 1969, 2 fascicles.

The website of the International Committee on Computational Linguistics is at

There's an article in Wikipedia on the Institute of Mathematics of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Translators for King James

This post is a continuation of the preceding post. Please read the other one first.

Adam Nicolson’s Power and Glory (P&G) gives a mass of information and insight about the Translators. Fortunately for me in my task of analysis, Nicolson ends the book with a section of potted biographies where their education and careers are summarized. The following information is drawn from it.

Only very few of the Translators would have been early bilinguals: no doubt Hadrian à Saravia, born in what is now France, of Flemish and Spanish parents; and Richard Thomson, born in Holland of English parents, an “English Dutcheman”. For the rest, their bilingualism would have begun when they went to school. At that point they would have entered the Tudor school system for the upper and middle classes. Either they went to one of the ‘public’ schools, so called because they were open to anybody who could pay the fees, or else to one of the more local ‘grammar schools‘. Both kinds taught Latin and Greek; some also taught Hebrew. The teaching method was the traditional Scholastic approach: to acquire a reading knowledge of foreign languages by studying a grammar and applying this knowledge to the interpretation of texts with the use of a dictionary. P&G gives the names of the schools that eight Translators went through.

(The grammar schools were one of the most last lasting developments of the English Renaissance. Three centuries later, I went to one; and my father went to the King Edward VI Grammar School in Birmingham, founded in 1552. We both learned Latin, but - since the curriculum had broadened by our time - we were able to substitute German for Greek.)

In the next stage of their education, the Translators were even more homogeneous: P&G records 42 of them as being graduates of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Five of them went on to become professors of Hebrew; five were professors or teachers of Greek, including Henry Savile, tutor in Greek to Queen Elizabeth, who collaborated with other Translators to publish a famous edition of the works of St. John Chrysostom. One Translator, Richard Brett, a graduate of Oxford, is said to have been a “scholar in Latin, Greek, Chaldee, Arabic, Hebrew and Aethiopic tongues.” (Chaldee means the Aramaic used in parts of the Old Testament, and Aethiopic is the Semitic liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.)

Besides the language qualifications, seven Translators were professors of Divinity, i.e. theology, an essential field of background knowledge for the work.

And finally, there is the consideration that all but one of the Translators were ordained clergymen in the Church of England. As such, they were necessarily well-acquainted with the other English translations of the Bible, earlier or contemporary, and with the heated discussions over them. Some also read Bibles in other European languages. Many such discussions were terminological; they concerned how to translate individual words (Greek ecclesia by church or by congregations, for example). In short the Translators were already well trained in translator disputation.

We have established that from their school days the Translators were Native Translators. Can they be categorized as Expert Translators? We can’t apply the criteria of the 21st century to the 17th century. In those days there were no accrediting bodies, no degrees or diplomas in translation, no schools of translation. But the information cited above justifies our granting them an equivalence. It was genuinely for their linguistic and subject expertise and their prior knowledge of translations that they were appointed.

Another Expert criterion, one that is still applied, is whether the Translators had other published translations to their name. Some did. Richard Thomson, the English Dutcheman, was notorious for his witty, bawdy translations of Martial’s Epigrams (though I can’t trace that they were actually published). James Montague edited and translated works by James I himself.

Were they also Professional Translators? That question too can’t be answered in terms of the 21st century. Just one Translator resigned his university position to work full time on the translation. Generally speaking, the incentive wasn’t money but currying favour with the supervising bishops and with the king himself that could lead to advancement in the hierarchy. No payment in cash is recorded by P&G (except one of 50 pounds), and the reason is simple: James’s predecessor, Queen Elizabeth, had left the King’s exchequer empty. Only the revisers on the General Committee of Review were paid regularly, but by a private sponsor, the Stationers’ Company, a guild to which printers belonged. Fortunately, most of the Translators already had ‘livings’, i.e. a church position with an assured income attached to it. But some did not, and for them provision had to be made, livings had to be provided. A lot of initial effort had to go into pressuring bishops to find livings for that purpose, and we can consider the beneficiaries as professionals for the duration of the work, as we can too the revisers. The rest not.

To sum up, the KJV was the work of Expert Translators, whose initiation as Native Translators had begun as soon as they went to school and whose subsequent training was long and of the highest quality. A minority of them were temporary Professionals.

One last remark. It concerns not the KJV but Nicolson and his book. As Geoffrey Moorhouse, the enthusiastic reviewer for The Guardian, wrote, “Power and Glory is a fine piece of history, ecclesiology and literature all rolled into one and, what's more, like the Authorised Version itself, it sings.”

References (see also the preceding post)

James I, King of England. The Workes of the most high and mightie Prince, James ... King of Great Britaine, France and Ireland ... Published by James [Montagu], Bishop of Winton and Deane of his Majesties Chappel Royall. London, 1616.

Sir Henry Savile (ed. with the assistance of John Bois et al., Translators). Tou en hagiois patros hêmôn Iôannou archiepiskopou Kônstantinoupoleôs tou Chrysostomou ton heuriskomenon... [Greek text of the writings of St. John Chrysostom, one of the Fathers of the Greek Orthodox Church]. Published at Eton College, probably the most famous of the ‘public’ schools, 1610-1612, 8 vols. Savile was Provost, i.e. Head, of Eton. The tradition of Greek studies continues at Eton today: see The Eton Greek Software Project at Savile also published a Latin-English translation of part of Tacitus.

Authorized King James Version. Wikipedia.

Geoffrey Moorhouse. The making of a monument. The Guardian, May 17, 2003.

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.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Another Church Interpreter

There was a response to one of my postings about church interpreters from a follower in California named Lighthouse, who is himself such an interpreter. So I wrote to him and asked him some questions, and he was kind enough to reply. Here are his answers.

1. How did you come into it. Did you volunteer or were you pressed into service?
I started by translating my pastor’s messages at church.

2. Did you get any training or were you just thrown in at the deep end?
No, I didn’t get any training ... God put it in my heart.

3. How long have you been at it now?
12 years.

4. What languages are you interpreting?
I mostly translate in English and Spanish.

5. How do you do the interpreting? Do you have the equipment for simultaneous interpreting? Do you work alone or in a team?
We have the equipment (from listen technologies >, and freelance.

Taken together with the comment from Glasgow (August 11) and with my African and Ottawa experiences (August 9 and 27), this report from California goes to show how widespread church interpreting is. I would draw attention particularly to the answer to question 2. First it characterizes Lighthouse as a Natural-become-Native Translator, while the answer to question 3 proves he is successful at it. Secondly it underscores a point I’ve made earlier (August 3 and September 29), namely that religious translation is an area of translation studies where divine inspiration should be respected as a factor. If you don’t believe in divine inspiration, you might call it something like ‘instinctive compulsion and internal guidance’, but that’s not how the translators concerned perceive it.

Incidentally, JD-Glasgow’s August 11 remarks were illuminating on how he perceives what he’s doing and on the difference from conference interpreting.

The previous postings about church interpreters were on July 29 and August 3, 9, 11 and 27.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Don't bank on it!

From a magazine for Professional Translators, The Linguist, comes an alarming report by Angela Foster involving both Natural and Native Translation. It illustrates how some people assume anybody bilingual may be called on to act as a Natural Translator in an emergency, even for communication that involves technical vocabulary.
“Rolando Gómez Aguilar is from Mexico but has lived in London for three years and has an account with HSBC, ‘the world’s local bank’. Although he speaks some English, his communication skills are limited – especially on the phone. When he made a short visit home in April, his [bank] card was blocked on arrival in Mexico City. Most banks provide 24-hour helplines for emergencies, with English-speaking staff on hand to advise. Despite promoting an international image, HSBC’s UK website is available only in English, and Gómez was unable to negotiate his way around it to find the correct number.
“When he finally got through to HSBC, he couldn’t understand the language they used – sort codes, account numbers and CCVs...
“Despite several requests for an interpreter, the only solution HSBC could offer was a conference call between Gómez, his wife (who would act as interpreter) and a bank advisor... When she told them there were many interpreting companies they could use, they weren’t interested in trying to find out about them.”
So it didn’t work out, and it doesn’t say much for HSBC, which is immensely rich and ought to know better.

Later in the same article, however, an HSBC representative is quoted as saying, “In areas were a range of languages are spoken, the bank endeavours to employ customer service advisers who can speak those languages. ‘Several of our branches in Tower Hamlets in east London have staff who speak Urdu… Our staff are all recruited locally so we can offer a service which is relevant to our locals customers.’”
In other words, where translation is needed in those areas, the bank relies on Native Translators – I say Native rather than Natural because we can assume that the employees involved have acquired considerable experience both in banking and its terminology and in translating for clients.

Another British bank mentioned in the article is Lloyds TSB. I happen to have an account with them myself. A few years ago I received a letter from my branch in London that needed assistance for me to reply to it. Actually they wanted confirmation that a photocopy of my passport was a true copy before they would execute an instruction I'd sent them. As there are branches of Lloyds here in Valencia, I went into the main one and asked if they could help. The lady who received me told me she didn’t know English, and she made no move to find somebody who did. So I translated the letter into Spanish for her myself – but then, I’m a Professional Translator. Did it do me any good? No way. She informed me officiously that the branch in Valencia could do nothing to help Lloyds clients in England. So I can well imagine something like Mr. Gómez’s predicament occurring in reverse for somebody who needs service in English.


Angela Foster. Money talks. The Linguist, October/November 2009, p. 16. Angela is a freelance writer and subeditor. She can be contacted at
The Linguist is the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, a venerable British institution that will be 100 years old next year. Under editors Miranda and Jessica Moore, it’s become a lively periodical of general-interest articles about language. For translators in particular, it carries a regular column by Peter Newmark. More at

HSBC stands for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. Despite its name, it's another venerable British institution, but this one dating from the rip-roaring colonial China coast days in the 19th century. They tell on their website how they started, but I heard about it from an English friend who had learned Mandarin while working for HSBC in Shanghai in the 1950s.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Karpov vs. Kasparov: Autotranslation

Three weeks ago there was a memorable exhibition chess match here in Valencia between supreme Grand Masters Karpov and Kasparov. Why Valencia? To commemorate that this is probably the place where the powerful Queen piece was introduced into the modern game in the 15th century, some think in homage to Queen Isabella of Castile.

The working language of the event being English, a friend of mine was called in at 30 minutes notice (!!) to interpret the commentary, interviews, etc., for Spanish television. His was a Professional Expert job, and as such it doesn’t concern us here. However, he told me some anecdotes that do.

The first is about Karpov. The international chess press were there in force to cover the match, and a Russian journalist asked Karpov a question in Russian. Karpov gave him a long reply, also in Russian naturally. Then the other journalists turned towards my friend for a translation. He had to explain to them that he didn’t know Russian. “Never mind,” said Karpov, “I’ll interpret myself.” And he proceeded to do so into English, at which everybody present was happy.

That was autotranslation, aka self-translation: translating what one has said or written oneself. It’s fairly frequent in literary translation; Nabokov did it, for example. But it’s especially common in Natural Translation; in fact, we posited in ‘Translation as an Innate Skill’ (see August 15 posting) that in bilingual infants it precedes transduction (translating between other people). On the face of it, autotranslators enjoy certain advantages. For one thing, they know in advance the meaning of what they’re saying in the first language; they don’t have to make any effort to hear or read, nor – above all – to understand; for them there are no ambiguities. We can therefore hypothesize that the translating process is simpler, faster and imposes less mental strain. For another thing, they’re the proprietors, the ‘copyright holders’ as it were, of their own texts and utterances (though there may be some exceptional circumstances, in court proceedings for instance, where they can’t make changes). Therefore, if they decide to add or omit something, who is to gainsay them? Not that Karpov left anything out, it seems, because his interpretation took as long as his original answer; and when my friend was interpreting him into Spanish, he was insistent that everything be said as he had said it.

How and to what extent autotranslators actually exploit their rights is a matter for investigation. Autotranslation doesn’t fit into the traditional model of the translation process as
Speaker/Writer ->
Translator as receiver, transformer, transmitter
-> Listener/Reader,
which is awkward for theorists.

To be continued.


The interpreter was Guillermo Marco of Intérpretes de Conferencias,

Vladimir Nabokov, Mashen'ka, his first novel, translated by the author and Michael Glenny and published as Mary, 1970.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Can Interpretation be called Translation?

JD-Glasgow, in his comment on my August 27 posting, says that the terms translation and interpretation should not be confused and they aren’t interchangeable.

That’s the usual opinion of professional translators and interpreters and of the people who train them. Hence there are many professional Associations of Translators and Interpreters and many Schools of Translation and Interpretation; and at worldwide level there’s the International Federation of Translators on the one hand (though it actually has some interpreter members and committees) and the International Association of Conference Interpreters (strictly for interpreters) on the other.

Meanwhile, general language usage is somewhat different. There, there isn’t a sharp distinction between translating and interpreting. A good example of the general language usage is to be seen on TV: when interpretation is being used, a message often flashes over the screen image, “Voice of Translator”. This irks the professionals – a TV producer told me they’re the only viewers who complain – but they should simply recognize that the media address the public in a different ‘register’ from theirs.

Now let’s turn to Natural Translation and Native Translation. I submit that for purposes of translation theory and research, translation has two senses like in general language. In a broad sense it can mean translating in any medium: written, spoken or signed. More specifically, it’s used to mean the written sort, and then the oral and signed sort is called interpreting to distinguish it. It would be nice if we had a hypernym whose meaning was unequivocally ‘translation as a whole’, but we don’t. The Germans and Austrians have tried by introducing Translation to cover both Übersetzung (translation) and Dolmetschen (interpretation), as in Zentrum für Translationswissenschaft at the University of Vienna. It began in what was at that time East Germany; I first heard it in Leipzig in 1969 from Otto Kade, the coiner of Translationswissenschaft. But anyway that’s German. For the time being, English speakers are left to cope with a 'lexical gap'.


International Federation of Translators.

International Association of Conference Interpreters.

Zentrum für Translationswissenschaft.

Heidemarie Zalevsky. Über die Sprache hinaus (In memoriam Otto Kade). In Gerd Wotjak (ed.), Quo vadis Traductologie? Ein halbes Jahrhundert universitäre Ausbildung von Dolmetschern und Übersetzern in Leipzig, Frank & Timme, Berlin, 2007.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bianca Sherwood’s thesis published

Good news! Bianca Sherwood’s thesis Features of Natural Translation in a Language Testing Environment (2000) has at long last been published. It can now be purchased from booksellers like . It reports important empirical research on NT, though I would be inclined today to call the untrained half of her subjects Native Translators rather than Natural Translators, because they had been living for a substantial length of time in a bilingual environment (Ottawa, Canada) and were students at a bilingual university. So they had been exposed to a good deal of sophisticated translation. The comparison Expert Translator group were students in the university’s translator training school. Here’s the abstract.
“Natural translation (NT) environments reflect and shape participants= expectations and assumptions about translation activities. This study explores the features of NT environments with particular emphasis on a language testing environment. The data consists of samples of natural translations of a translation task which is a sub-test of a second language competence test for candidates seeking admission to a bilingual university program. The study also includes a translation of the test text by a fully qualified professional translator. The findings support the view that translating ability is a complex developmental cognitive competence. In performing the translation task, NT strategies tend to focus on a close linguistic matching of phrases. Student translators (STs), as is the case with the professional translator, appear to attend more systematically to a broader range of features including extra-linguistic factors. This attention to extra features may explain why most student translators were unable to complete the task in the allotted time. Nevertheless, the differences observed seem to be more a matter of degree than of type.”
An interesting conclusion can be drawn from the fact that the Native Translator group did not need to be asked to translate by the investigator; they had already done their translations as part of the admission procedure for entrance to their department of the university, which was Physical Education. It implies that the university expected its bilingual students to be able to translate fairly well in their own field of study without any training for it.

The same method, i.e. comparing a group of budding Expert Translators with a group of Native Translator students, was used later (2005) in the thesis by Maribel Gomez at the University of Granada in Spain. I was on the jury at the defence, and I remember that in her case too we were struck by how little difference there was between the quality of the translations produced by the two groups. On the other hand, Maribel’s Expert Translators were faster than her Native ones. A likely reason for this is that Bianca (or rather the University of Ottawa) set a text about a specialized subject area with which all the Natives had some acquaintance, whereas Maribel’s Natives were subject-heterogeneous and the text was ‘general knowledge’. Knowledge of the subject matter is of great importance in translating.

“But why,” you may ask, “this preoccupation with speed? Isn’t it quality that counts?” The answer is, first, that speed is an indication of the psychological complexity of the task; and secondly, that it’s a very important factor in professional translation. Whatever the quality, if you don’t translate fast enough, you won’t keep your job or you won’t make a living, and you won’t pass the professional (as opposed to academic) examinations.


Bianca Sherwood. Features of Natural Translation in a Language Testing Environment. VDM Verlag, Saarbrücken, 2009.
Bianca's email address is

María Isabel Gómez Hurtado. Traducir: ¿capacidad innata o destreza adquirida? [Translating: innate aptitude or acquired skill?]. Advisor: Ricardo Muñoz Martín. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Facultad de Traducción e Interpretación, Universidad de Granada, 2005.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Bookseller of Kabul

I’ve been reading Ǻsne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul in the English translation by Ingrid Christophersen; the original is in Norwegian. I’m aware of the controversy and the lawsuit in Norway that the book provoked and I have my sympathies, but I’ll stick to matters of translation.

The best tribute I can pay Ingrid Christophersen is that to me her translation reads seamlesly like it was original English writing. I disagree with the New York Times reviewer who said it was "slightly stiff". A Norwegian-speaking reviewer on says:
"Finally a note about the translation: overall it does the book justice. The book in its original language is not a literary masterpiece and the language is often riddled with overly simplistic expressions."

In short, it’s journalism not literature, and I think Christophersen’s text is of the kind an English-speaking journalist would write.

It’s not only a good translation, it’s also a very successful one, since it must have contributed in no small measure to the book’s becoming an international bestseller. I’m glad to see Christophersen’s name appears prominently on the title page.

It may be trivia, but it’s interesting that it was the English translation and not the Norwegian original that led to the thinly disguised main character in the book suing the author for defamation and invasion of privacy. Something that may pass unnoticed in a language of limited diffusion may cause a stir when translated into a major world language.

What is relevant for this blog, however, is not the translation of the book but the translation within the book and underlying it.

It’s a work of what might be called imaginative ethnography. The author lived like a family member in the house of an Afghan family for five months, observed their personal and social lives at close quarters, and built on what they told her. But how did they tell her? She's honest from the start, in the Foreword, about her language problem: “I never mastered Dari, the Persian dialect spoken by the Khan family.” She could hardly be expected to in a few weeks, and yet she needed Dari-speaking informants.
"Readers have asked me: ‘How do you know what went on in the heads of the various family members?’ I am not, of course, an omniscient author. Internal dialogue and feelings are based entirely on what family members described to me."

Fortunately, help was at hand:
"…several family members spoke English. Sultan [the father] had picked up a colourful and verbose form of English while teaching a diplomat his own Dari dialect. His young sister, Leila, spoke excellent English, having attended Pakistani schools when she was a refugee, and evening classes in Afghanistan. Mansur, Sultan’s oldest son, also spoke fluent English, after several years of schooling in Pakistan.”

That leaves the family members who did not speak English but whose conversation was invaluable. Again she was fortunate. The presence of English-speaking Afghanis meant there were Native or Natural Interpreters available to her:
“Sultan didn’t allow anyone outside the family to live in his house; so he, Mansur and Leila acted as my interpreters. This, of course, gave them a large influence over their family story, but I double-checked the various versions and asked the same questions of all three interpreters, who between them represented the large contrasts within the family.”
Elsewhere Seierstad has said, “I did formal interviews with everyone in the house, and Shah Mohammad Rais [the real name of Sultan] himself translated several of the interviews.”
Sultan/Rais was certainly a Native Translator: he had long exposure to translations and experience as an interpreter.
"Rais, 53, says he even carries [in his bookshop] Western favorites, including the Harry Potter series translated into Farsi."
About Mansour and Leila, we don’t have enough background.

Even in more scientific ethnographic studies than Seierstad’s, it has constantly been necessary to have recourse to interpreters, and they are unlikely to be Professional or Expert Translators, because of the unusual languages involved and the remote locations. This poses problems of verification (see the Borchgrevink reference), and it’s customary to use a checking technique such as she did. But had The Bookseller of Kabul been written without such aid, it would be a much poorer tale.

Ǻsne Seierstad. The Bookseller of Kabul. Translated from Norwegian by Ingrid Christophersen. 2003. Numerous reprints in English and many translations in other languages.
Richard McGill Murphy, The war at home. New York Times, December 21, 2003.
‘Kattepusen’. Despite unsophisticated language, a worthwhile read., 2005.
Shah Muhammed Rais. Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul. Kabul, 2007.This is Sultan’s rebuttal. It’s been translated into Norwegian and Portuguese.
Axel Borchgrevink. Silencing language: of anthropologists and interpreters. Ethnography, Vol. 4, No. 1, 95-121, 2003.