Friday, July 30, 2010

A Distinguished Native Interpreter

I’ve drawn attention before to the enormous number of translators who go uncounted in the statistics because they translate on the side but their principal occupation is something else. For example, I worked with a nun and a Franciscan father who did conference interpreting for meetings of NGOs. The nun was one of the best interpreters I’ve met. And I’ve known of two liaison interpreters who were Buddhist monks.

The first of them I knew personally. He was a young Englishman in his early twenties, a fellow student of mine at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He was studying Tibetan. (I’d tried to study Tibetan in my teens but had quickly given up on it.) One day he surprised us all by announcing that he was leaving SOAS to become a monk. He didn’t seem the sort. But off he went for training at a monastery in up-country Burma (as it used to be called in those happier times). He was expecting to live a life of contemplation. However, his superiors soon realised that his fluent English was a great asset to the community. So they sent him all over East Asia accompanying Buddhist missions. Until one day they sent him with a mission to Japan. There he fell in love with a Japanese girl, and that was the end of his monastic aspirations.

The second case has been much longer lasting and more fruitful, but I only learnt about it this week, and from an unlikely source (see REFERENCES). He was born Matthieu Ricard in Paris, son of a philosopher and a painter but he’s been doing community work in the Himalayas for more than 40 years. According to the biography on his website, he studied cellular genetics under François Jacob at the Institut Pasteur before moving to Bhutan and Nepal, where he studied under masters of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. His home is now Shechen Monastery in Nepal, from where he coordinates an NGO called Karuna-Shéchèn. He’s a widely published author and accomplished photographer who’s been translated into more than 20 languages: I’ve listed just one of his many publications below. Perhaps because of his early scientific training, he collaborates in research on the effects of meditation on the brain.

There’s no mention of translation studies or an accreditation in his biography. Nevertheless, since 1989, with an ideal background preparation for the task, he’s been personal French liaison interpreter to the Dalai Lama.

Matthieu Ricard.

Journey to enlightenment: the life and world of Khyentse Rinpoche, spiritual teacher from Tibet, with a remembrance by the Dalai Lama; excerpts from the writings of Khyentse Rinpoche and other teachers. Photographs and narrative by Matthieu Ricard, translations by the Padmakara Translation Group. New York: Aperture, c1996. Available from Amazon.

Shechen Monastery. (Amazing how even monasteries have websites these days!)


I learnt about Matthieu Ricard through the latest issue of the Spanish magazine Pronto. It’s a popular weekly stuffed with tittle-tattle about los famosos (celebrities), but it also has a few more serious pages. Translation is so universal, you never know where you may come across something interesting about it.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Critical Link

This weekend a crowd of experts on Community Interpreting (CI, which is called Public Service Interpreting by the British) is gathering, doubtless with great excitement, at the University of Aston, in Birmingham England, for the 6th Critical Link Conference, which is the premier international conference in its field.

I was closely involved in the organisation of Critical Link 1 (1995) and Critical Link 2 (1998), both of which took place in Canada. At Critical Link 2, in Vancouver, we already had 300 participants from 23 countries. Since then, its venue has moved around the world, and it’s now matured into Critical Link 6. Since I retired and moved to Spain I’ve lost touch with it, although at present I’m slowly perusing the proceedings of Critical Link 5. If any of the pioneers of the Geneva Park and Vancouver meetings are reading this post, I send you greetings from afar, thank you for happy memories and wish you a good meeting at Aston and many more Critical Links.

Thirty years ago, Community Interpreting could have been simply defined as voluntary interpreting by members of a community for members of that community in their dealings with people outside it. Now it’s not so simple, because there’s been a movement in developed countries, and more particularly those that receive large numbers of immigrants, to make it less voluntary and more professional, hence less Natural or Native and more Expert. One of the first such countries – perhaps the very first – was Australia, where they early on developed a telephone interpreter service to cope with the needs in a widely dispersed population. After that, Canada, with the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people in the 1980s. Unlike the traditional immigrants from European countries, the Vietnamese found no established community awaiting them. And then the United Kingdom, where there is now a well developed accreditation authority. And the USA, where medical interpreting now has a certification.

So the people who are gathering in Birmingham are concerned with the professionalisation and – pardon the word – expertisation of community interpreting and with the challenges thereof: best practices, training, pay, codes of ethics, specialisation, legislation, and so on. No doubt they will be debating the eternal question of whether the community interpreter should remain a neutral, disengaged language translator or can intervene as a cultural interpreter and advisor or even as an advocate. There will also be reports of research done on professional CI.

It makes common sense to insist on interpreters who are as expert as possible in critical, even sometimes life-threatening situations like hospital care, police investigations, the law courts, immigration hearings and so on. There still aren’t enough training programmes and there still isn’t enough awareness among social service providers. Sometimes there’s the awareness but the necessary funding isn’t forthcoming. In time, however, the development of distance interpreting by telephone and video should make services more accessible and economical.

On the other hand, to be realistic, there will always be circumstances in which interpreting by untrained members of the community for family members and for members of the community will persist willy-nilly. The difference in attitudes to it can be illustrated by the case of child and adolescent Language Brokers. For the experts at Aston, any suggestion that action should be undertaken to support Language Brokering would be anathema. It’s a leftover from a more primitive era. But consider the contribution of the Language Brokering Hero reported in the March 10 post. Or the in-school interpreters described in the paper I co-authored for Critical Link 1.

So my view is this, and I can express it by a metaphor. When you go for medical care to the doctor or a nurse, you expect to be looked after by people who are formally trained and accredited experts. But ideally everybody who has a basic education should be taught how to give first aid.

Professionalisation also leaves out a class of interpreters who are experts but who, with few exceptions, don’t seek remuneration. I think church interpreting should be recognised as a branch of community interpreting (for reasons why, see posts of July 29, August 3, August 9, August 11, August 27 and October 28, 2009; and April 10, 2010). It might be objected that there are no standards, no accrediting bodies, no training, no forums, no coordinating agencies. But 25 years ago that was the state of most of what will be discussed at Aston.

All the Critical Link conference proceedings have been published by John Benjamins of Amsterdam. Together they form an essential corpus of writings on the development of Community Interpreting in the past 15 years.

Carolyn Bullock and Brian Harris. Schoolchildren as community interpreters. In S.E. Carr et al. (eds.), The Critical Link: Interpreters in the Community, Papers from the 1st International Conference on Interpreting in Legal, Health and Social Settings, Geneva Park, Canada, 1-4 June 1995, pp. 227-235.

Image: CIOL

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What Aphasia Tells Us

When something goes wrong, the malfunction may give us an insight into how it goes right. Most of what I know about the workings of our car, I learnt to my cost when it went wrong. Seriously, though, we can learn something about language from people’s inability to speak normally under certain conditions. One such condition is aphasia, inability to produce or understand speech due to brain damage. The damage may have been caused by an external agent of ‘insult’ such as an accident or an operation, or internally by a stroke for example.

In the last post, I quoted Michel Paradis (see photo), one of the few neurolinguists who have studied the effects of aphasia on bilinguals, and indeed one of the few writers on bilingualism to have given importance to translation. All the subjects he describes are Native or Natural Translators with no training; he never questions that it’s normal for them to be able to translate. It’s now a year – time zooms! – since I devoted part of a post (July 31, 2009) to his description of a bilingual Moroccan woman, French and Arabic speaking, who suffered from an unusual kind of aphasia that affected her translation ability in surprising ways. Here’s another example from his casebook.
A 23-year-old Montreal patient spoke fluent French as his mother tongue and English as his working language. He had learned the latter early, even before going to school. Following an operation, his recovery of his two languages followed a progression similar to that of the Moroccan patient. For the first week after the operation, he could only speak English; so complete was the imbalance that his father had to act as his interpreter when he wanted to communicate with his monolingual French-speaking wife. In the second week, he had recovered his use of French but could no longer express himself in English. During the third week, he was given our translation test; at that stage his English was getting better but his French was still superior. He translated correctly and with no hesitation the six sentences of French (his stronger language) into English (his weaker one) but was incapable of translating the sentences from English (which he understood perfectly) to French (which he could speak very fluently).
(Notice, in passing, that the patient was helped out by another Natural or Native Translator, his father.)

On their own, individual cases like the above might seem mere curiosities. But their continual occurrence over time – Paradis’ earliest reference dates from 1887 and the famous French surgeon Charcot – in both sexes, in different languages and in different parts of the world makes them more than anecdotal. What I find most significant about them is that the ability to translate varies independently of the other components of bilingualism and even inconsistently with them. This suggests that besides the two language components, there’s a module, system, unit, structure, network – call it what you will – that activates specifically for translating and possesses a certain autonomy. Normally it’s so closely integrated with the two language components that we don’t notice it; but aphasia can open up a chink. The way this dissociation coincides with brain lesions suggests furthermore that it has a neurological basis or host or analogue. Perhaps brain scans will tell us more some day. By analogy with another term that’s a buzzword nowadays for a mysterious component, I’m tempted to dub it the translation particle.

Michel Paradis. Aphasie et traduction. Meta (Montreal), 29:1.57-67, 1984. Available online at (The English translation of the quotation is mine.)

Photo: Centre de Neurosciences de la Cognition, UQAM

Monday, July 19, 2010

More on the Lexicon

For the distinction made here between dictionary and lexicon, see the June 30 post.
What interests us most from the translation viewpoint is how the words in the lexicons of the two languages of bilinguals – assuming each language has its own lexicon – are linked and matched. At its simplest, our translation lexicon might be formed of simple word pairings like the Ebla tablets (see June 9 post). For many common words, bilinguals can produce the ‘default’ translation instantly and as if automatically. Default translation means the most common translation in the absence of any context. There’s no doubt the Spanish default translation for house is casa, even though there are other translations in certain contexts and situations, and that’s the translation a Natural Translator is likely to give if asked. Jules Ronjat’s little boy Louis (French-speaking father, German-speaking mother) was observed at 1 year 8 months spontaneously saying word pairs like oeil/Auge (French and German for eye) and Schiff/bateau (German and French for boat; he did the pairing in both directions).
But how about meaning? All words that aren’t nonsense words have a meaning (or concept) as well as a speech form. Do we store a concept for casa and a concept for house and link the two concepts in some way, or do we have two lexicons of word forms but only one joint store of meanings? That’s a question that psycholinguists have been debating for as long as I can remember, which is over 30 years ago, when I heard Paul Kolers talk about how bilinguals represent experience. The model currently favoured is the Three-Store Hypothesis (see diagram).
It’s easy to show that the shared concept hypothesis needs to be nuanced for anything but elementary default translations. For one thing, there are the differences, according to language, between what the French call le découpage de la réalité (the way we slice up the world). Casa/house, for example, fails as soon we come to translate Me voy a casa (I’m going home), because the concept of ‘casa’ overlaps the concept of ’home’. Here’s how Michel Paradis gets around this:
Note that… ‘a common conceptual system’ does not imply that the same concept corresponds to a lexical item in Lx and its lexical equivalent in Lz, but that they share some of the conceptual features [my emphasis], though each may also (and most often does) contain features not included in the other.
It follows that the common store is not one of completely formed concepts but of component conceptual features, and that they combine differently for different languages.
Anyway, I want to come back to meanings as the link between words and their translations in the lexicon. It’s clear that word forms and meanings are separable. Even in a single language, we find synonyms with different word forms by the link of meaning. However, it’s also possible that once we've learnt that x is a translation of y, and especially if the process is repeated, we store it as a ‘ready-made’ translation and reproduce it automatically whenever we are stimulated by hearing either x or y. This applies not only to single words but also to ‘stock phrases’. Thus, if asked how to say I’m going home in Spanish, I’ll say Me voy a casa without even thinking of casa/house.
Here’s a suggestion. Introspection is looked down on in scientific circles as being too individual and subject to bias or wishful thinking. Nevertheless, it has its advantages: it can be done by anybody anywhere on one’s own and it costs nothing. Also it's the basis of the technique that's widely used in translation research and is called think-aloud protocol. So next time you’re hunting for a translation and then it comes to mind or you work it out, ask yourself how you came by it. Did it just ’pop up’? Did you have to think of the meaning of the source word, perhaps imagine what the thing it named looked like, before arriving at the translation? Or were you led by similarity of sound? – not all similar-sounding translations are ‘false friends’. Or did you maybe give up on your own lexicon and go to a dictionary to consult the collective lexicon of a whole speech community?
  • Paul A. Kolers (University of Toronto, died c1986). On the representation of experience. In D. Gerver and H. W. Sinaiko (eds.), Language Interpretation and Communication, New York and London, Plenum, 1978. pp. 243-258.
  • Michel Paradis (McGill University, Montreal). A Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2004.
  • Jules Ronjat (1864-1925, University of Geneva). Le développement du langage observé chez un enfant bilingue. Paris: Champion, 1913.
From Michel Paradis' book, but he took it from a Scientific American article by Paul Kolers.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

La France

Today is July 14, Bastille Day, the national day of France.

France gave us not only French but also half (roughly) of the vocabulary of English, because England was bilingual during the formative years of modern English. And do you know that even today there’s a corner of the British Isles that’s still officially bilingual in English and French?

Estimates of the number of French speakers vary widely between 100 million and 200 million. Since only 45 million of them live in France, this means that most of the rest are in officially bilingual French+ countries around the world (Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Cameroon, Morocco, Vanuatu etc., etc.) or for other reasons know French as a second language.

I was lucky enough to be taught French at school while I was still fairly young. That grounding, though it was more literary than conversational, has stood me in good stead throughout my life. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever received came from an official at the Canadian High Commission in London one autumn day in 1965 when he looked at my application form for immigration into Canada and said, “So you know French. You should go to Montreal.” I have reason to remember him with deep gratitude.

France also gave us the metric system, known officially today as the SI System (International System of Units), SI being short for French Système International. It became the official system in France during the French Revolution. Indeed, it’s an event in the French Revolution we’re really celebrating today, the storming of the Bastille prison. The French Revolution also bequeathed us the most inspiring of all political slogans – Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité! – the most rousing of all national anthems – La Marseillaise – and the oldest still functioning school of translators: the École Spéciale des Langues Orientales Vivantes, founded in Paris in1795, known familiarly as Langues 'O to its students and today renamed Institut National des Langues et Cultures Orientales (INALCO). One of its founders was the leading French diplomatic interpreter of the eighteenth century, Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis; and not so long ago, one of the best-known contemporary researchers and writers on Expert Interpreting was teaching there: Daniel Gile.

Here in Spain, we should remember that France gave Spain its ruling royal family, the Bourbons, and the best-known piece of ‘Spanish’ music worldwide, the opera Carmen.


Friday, July 9, 2010

Soldier Translators

Soldiering is one way to see the world, meet people of other cultures and learn other languages. My own father was posted to Egypt during the First World War as a fledgling pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. His plane crashed and he was injured, so they put him in charge of a refugee camp. He learnt some Arabic and made friends among the Cairenes. Ultimately, some 30 years later, he made it possible for me to go and study in Cairo.

One famous soldier-translator was Richard Francis Burton, a great British 19th-century orientalist, explorer and Native Translator (see portrait above by Frederic Leighton). His translation of The One Thousand Nights and a Night from Arabic was mentioned in my December 24 post. His father was an army officer who travelled around Europe with the family. He learnt French, Italian and Latin at school age. He began his highly adventurous career as a junior officer in the army of the East India Company in colonial British India. It’s true that he didn’t serve long enough to rise above the rank of Captain, but he didn’t resign his commission, and during that time he learnt Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Persian and Arabic. While on active service, he even kept a large menagerie of tame monkeys in the hopes of learning their language. It’s said that in total he knew 30 languages. One of his literary achievements was to bring the Hindu erotic classic Kama Sutra into Western awareness by publishing the translation from Sanskrit that he made in collaboration with Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot of the Indian Civil Service. In order to get around the censorship imposed by the obscenity laws in Britain, he and Arbuthnot founded a private, subscription-only book club, the Kama Shastra Society, which they also used in order to publish The One Thousand Nights and One Night.

But now times have changed, the tables have been turned, and it’s the officers of armies of the Indian subcontinent who learn English. Earlier this week, in connection with the tragic bombing of a shrine in Pakistan, Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog mentioned an English translation from Persian of a classic of Sufi mysticism, the Kashf al-Mahjûb (Revelation of Mystery) written by Ali b. Uthman Al-Jullabi Al-Hujwiri in the late eleventh century: “the oldest Persian treatise on Sufism“. The translation is by a retired Pakistani army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Ashraf Javed, who is openly a Sufi believer. He declares,
Cognitional gnosis [direct conscious acquaintance with God] is the foundation of all blessings in this world and in the next, for the most important thing for a man at all times and under all circumstances is knowledge of Allah.
Cole laments that this translation by a Native Translator – Cole calls it an “amateur translation” – is the one available on the internet rather than the famous one by an Expert Translator, R. A. Nicholson, "regarded as one of the best achievements of the European orientalist scholarship of its time." It's far from being an easy work to translate. Nicholson himself said, "There are, I confess, many places in which a considerable effort is required in order to grasp the author’s meaning and follow his argument." I can’t judge the translations; for a learned review of Nicholson's by Muhammed Sultan Shah, see the reference below. However, I was struck by how clear and correct Muhammed Ashraf Javed’s English is.

In his Translator‘s Note, Muhammed Ashraf Javed mentions a translation into Urdu by Captain Wajid Baksh Syal Chishti Sabri (or Rabbani), who, I take it from his rank, is or was likewise an army officer. Muhammed Sultan Shah also reviews an English translation by him:
The English translation by Rabbani has its merits – some of which are lacking in Nicholson’s translation. The translator has been very careful throughout the whole work because he was a Muslim and a sufi as well. Therefore, he was able to understand this sufi treatise in a better way.

James Gifford (ed.). The Sir Richard Francis Burton Project.

The Kama Sutra of Vatsayayana. Translated by R. F. Burton [and F. F. Arbuthnot], London and Benares: Kama Shastra Society, 1883.

Juan Cole. Fundamentalist bombings of Lahore mystical Shrine leave 42 Dead, 175 Wounded. Informed Comment,, July 2, 2010.

Ali b. Uthman Al-Jullabi Al-Hujwiri. Revelation of Mystery / Kashf Al-Mahjub: The Earliest Persian Treatise on Sufism. Translated by Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Muhammad Ashraf Javed. Lahore: Zahid Javed Rana and Abid Javed Rana, n.d.

Ali b. Uthman Al-Jullabi Al-Hujwiri. Kashf Al-Mahjub: The Earliest Persian Treatise on Sufism. Translated by Reynold A. Nicholson. London, 1911. Later edition still in print at Amazon.

Muhammed Sultan Shah. A study of the English translations of Kashf al-Mahjub. Oriental College Magazine (University of the Punjab).

Ali b. Uthman Al-Jullabi Al-Hujwiri. The Kashful Mahjub. Translation with commentary by Wahid Bkahsh Rabbani. Lahore: al-Faisal, 2001.


Monday, July 5, 2010

The Earliest Depiction of an Interpreter

This beautiful photo of a fine Egyptian bas-relief has been lying for several years in my files and I think it’s a pity to leave it there unseen. It shows a detail, just a small corner, of a very large frieze from the tomb of Haremhab (or Horemhab) at Saqqara, ancient Memphis, just outside Cairo. It dates from about 1330 BCE. Today the frieze is in the National Antiquities Museum at Leiden, Holland

Horemhab was an exceptionally clever man who rose from the rank of commoner to become general of the Egyptian army, and eventually pharaoh. At the period depicted, he was already regent to the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen and was in charge of foreign affairs. He is shown conveying the pharaoh's reply to a delegation of Syrian and Libyan vassals come to petition for protection from incursions by mountain people and Bedouin. He does so through one of the interpreters who were kept at court in Memphis for receiving delegations from outlying territories, and here we see the interpreter cleverly ‘animated’ by the device of a double figure facing both ways, as though turning alternately towards speaker and listener. It’s the earliest known graphic depiction of an interpreter at work, or indeed of any kind of translator (though not the earliest mention).

The Egyptians were cultural snobs. They considered other peoples and languages 'barbarian', even as demonic or sick; so that interpreters sometimes held title of Interpreter and Doctor. However, there were bilinguals among them, especially from among the peoples along Egypt’s frontiers. For example, Joseph, in the Bible, a Jew who became governor of Egypt and who therefore knew Egyptian and Hebrew (Genesis 42:23); and the Nubians who provided interpreters in the Sudan borderlands. (Even today, at Aswan, one meets Nubian-Arabic bilinguals.)

The tomb at Saqqara was plundered in the 19th century and pieces of it have ended up in various museums, one of them the museum at Leiden. I visited the museum in the 1980s to pay homage to the interpreter and to marvel at his survival after three millennia, having learnt about him from an article by Ingrid Kurz. I urge you to do likewise if you’re in Holland. But there were no illustrations of the frieze on sale; and even today it’s not shown on the museum website, though the last time I checked with them, which was in 2004, it was still on display. I don’t think they appreciate its significance. Anyway I wrote to them and they kindly sent me this photo, but in a much larger format than I can reproduce.

Alan Gardiner. The Memphite Tomb of the General Haremhab. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 39:3-12, 1953. Available through

Ingrid Kurz. Das Dolmetscher-Relief aus dem Grab des Haremhab in Memphis. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Dolmetschens im alten Ägypten. Babel, 32:2.73-77, 1986.

Photo: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden