Friday, October 26, 2012

Another Historic Meeting And Its Interpreter

Somewhat to my dismay, the most popular post on this blog, in terms of number of page views, has been one that has little to do with the declared topics of Natural and Native Translation. I attribute the mismatch to the browsers: many people are transported to the blog by chance when using keywords that are unrelated to translation.

And so it's probably historical terms like Hitler and Franco that have brought so many readers to the post about the meeting of the two dictators, with their interpreters, at Hendaye in 1940. To find it, enter hendaye in the search box on the right. Just this week, K. Muralidharan from India added a comment,
"I'm really thrilled to read what transpired between these two dictators during those horrid times and how Franco helped his country not to plunge directly into WW2."
Well yes, that's something Franco did right, though he continued to sit on the fence between the Germans and the Allies.

Meanwhile Hendaye wasn’t the end of that eventful journey by Hitler, nor the end of what we know about the interpreting. From Hendaye, his private train went directly to a small town in France called Montoire-sur-le-Loir.
"The location of Montoire station was chosen because of its relative isolation and also its proximity to the main Paris-Hendaye train line. Besides, in case of an aerial attack, the train could have found shelter in the nearby tunnel in Saint-Rimay."
There Hitler already had an appointment to meet Marshal Philippe Pétain, who was by then the head of state of a defeated France. Pétain had decided he had no option but to collaborate. Ever since then, Montroie has been (in)famous in French history
"as the location where, on 24 October 1940, the handshake between Adolf Hitler and Maréchal Pétain took place signifying the start of organised French collaboration with the Nazi regime."
Here's an official photograph of the handshake between the two leaders. But who's that imposing man in the middle who seems to be presiding over the ceremony?

None other than Hitler's personal interpreter Dr. Paul Otto Gustav Schmidt. Schmidt was head interpreter (Chefdolmetscher Gesandter) at the German Foreign Ministry, a Professional Expert diplomatic interpreter who participated in too many important events to tell of here. He survived the war and the Nuremberg trials to tell his version of the story (see References), and even started a school for interpreters in Munich in the 1950s  (SDI München - it's still there).

 He'd been sidelined at Hendaye because he didn't work in Spanish, but at Montroie he came into his own.

The meeting lasted until 26 October, 72 years ago today.

Paul Schmidt. Hitler’s Interpreter: The Secret History of German Diplomacy 1935-1945. Edited by R. H. C. Steel. London: Heinemann, 1951. Available from Amazon UK.

The Wikipedia article on Montoire is here.

The website of Sprachen & Dolmetscher Institut München, the school that Schmidt founded, is here.

Source: Bundesarchiv
The fourth man in the picture is Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Tahtawi : Epilogue

This is the conclusion to the preceding post, so please read that one first.

Due to a reactionary change of regime after Mehmet Ali died, Tahtawi's School of Languages didn't last long. By 1850 it was closed and its director was banished to the Sudan. The intrepid American traveller Bayard Taylor, himself a translator, met him in Khartoum and found him disconsolate and bitter. Then came another change, and Tahtawi returned to Cairo, where he finished his life in ease and honour. But he didn't reopen al-Alsun. And so it remained nothing but a memory for a century, until a famous author, Taha Hussein, when minister of education in another era, revived it in 1951. When I visited it in 1980 it had over 1,000 students and a dedicated staff, and it taught a wide range of languages. But it was housed in a rather shabby former secondary school in the Zaitoun district. Since then, however, it has moved to a modern building on main campus of Ain Shams University, where it ranks as a faculty. So the spirit of Al-Alsun lives on.

One noticeable change is that there are now as many women students as men. There were no women in Tahtawi's time, despite the fact that he believed in and argued for education for girls. But then there were no girls in the preparatory schools from which he recruited. Expert Translator training requires good prior education.

References and Further Reading
George Antonius, The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement. 1939. 492 p. A free full download is available here.

Tahtawi. An Imam in Paris: Account of a Stay in France by an Egyptian Cleric (1826-1831). Original title: takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis bariz. London: Saqi, 2008, 416 p. This is the annotated English translation by Daniel L. Newman of Durham University. Available from Amazon. A good deal of the information above is drawn from it. There are also French and German translations.

Tahtawi. Mawaqi' al-aflak fi waqa'i' tilimak. Arabic translation of Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque. Beirut, 1867. Notice that Tahtawi didn’t think it advisable to publish it in Egypt. On Tahtawi and self-censorship, an interesting article has appeared recently:
Myriam Salama-Carr. L’autocensure et la représentation de l’altérité dans le récit de voyage de rifā’a rāfi’ al-TahTāwī (1826-1831) [Self-censorship and the representation of otherness in Tahtawi’s travelogue, 1826-1831]. TTR (Montreal), vol. 23, no. 2, p. 113–131. Abstract here.
Tahtawi. Murshid al-amin li 'l-banat wa 'l-banin. [The reliable guide for education of girls and boys]. 1873.

The Description de l'Égypte that Jomard edited, initially by order of Napoleon, is a masterpiece of engraving and printing. Alas, a copy of the precious first edition (Paris, 1809-1828) got burnt in the riots in Cairo last year. There's a CD of it if you can find it, and there are reproductions, including an inexpensive, scaled-down Taschen edition, available from Amazon.

There's a Wikipedia article on Bayard Taylor here.

The website of the modern Al-Alsun is here, but it's poorly maintained. The school is now a faculty (kulliyyat al-alsun).

The portrait of the young Tahtawi has been widely reproduced. I haven't been able to trace who drew it. I first saw it hanging on the wall of the dean's office at al-Alsun in 1980.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Remembering A Great Translation Educator


Long-time followers of this blog know that its normal course is occasionally diverted to make space for an anniversary. This time it's being done to commemorate the birthday of a thoroughly Professional Expert Translator. Furthermore he was a pioneer teacher of translation. His name was Rifaa’a Raafi’ al-Tahtawi (here Tahtawi for short), and he was born on October 15, 1801, in the prosperous town of Tahta (hence his surname), on the Nile about 500 km south of Cairo (see the Bahig Edwards entry in References).

In the 19th century a radical intellectual Arab Awakening (al-nahda) took place with lasting effect in Egypt and the Lebanon. (For a classic history of the movement, see the Antonius book in References.) Tahtawi was one of the leading figures of its Egyptian branch.
”Tahtawi was among the first Egyptian scholars to write about Western cultures in an attempt to bring about a reconciliation and an understanding between Islamic and Christian civilizations... It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the contribution made by Tahtawi to Egyptian society in the century, and the impact he had on the further development of the modern nation. He symbolized the best of the syncretism between East and West, tradition and modernity.”
His life was so full and active that it’s impossible to do him justice in a blog post. There are short, perceptive biographies of him here and here. I’ll have to make do with just one of his activities as translator and educator, namely his school of translators.

Tahtawi was a technical and legal translator, not a literary one. (He did translate Fénelon's Télémaque, but that was for its political allusions.) Indeed he was arguably the most influential Arabic technical translator and translator trainer since Hunayn Ibn Ishaq in the 9th century. One of his most important translations, for instance, was of the French Code Civil (Cairo, 1866). His school of translators, the madrasat al-alsun (School of Languages), was intended to train translators of this kind.

He set it up in 1833-34, not long after his return to Cairo from five years of study in Paris. It was one of the first schools of translators on modern lines anywhere, a century before such schools began to spread in Europe and other parts of the world. (There are now hundreds of them.) Where did he get the idea? How did he get the support?

The second question is the simpler to answer. Egypt had been taken over by an ambitious Ottoman governor, Mehmet Ali. His priority, once his power was secure, was modernization, especially of his armed forces, and technical education was well funded by him. It needed technical translations, the translating needed a constant supply of competent translators, and it was less expensive and less controversial to train them in Egypt than to send them abroad.

As for the idea, al-Alsun was just one of a range of schools that Mehmet Ali set up to train technicians. There was already a medical school (madrasat al-­tibb) and a military academy (madrasat al-tobjiyya) – Tahtawi taught at both of them for a while – as well as a preparatory school (madrasa tajhiziyya) attached to the medical school. Still, the idea of a school of translators was novel and pioneering. Tahtawi himself didn't learn translating at a school. He learnt it by mentorship under the direction of the geographer Edme-François Jomard, a member of Napoleon's ill-fated expedition to Egypt in 1798 and subsequently editor of Description de l'Égypte, the monumental publication that resulted from it.

Yet there was one other such school – languages-cum-translation – already in operation in Tahtawi's day, and it was in Paris. This was the École Nationale des Langues Orientales (known popularly as Langues O and today called Institut National des Langues et Cultures Orientales or INALCO). It was founded in 1795, taught Arabic, and there had been an Egyptian, the lexicographer Ellious Bocthor, teaching there. Tahtawi must have known about it from his Paris stay. I speculate, therefore, that it was one of his sources of inspiration.
"The venue of the Language School was a splendid palace in the sophisticated Ezbekiyya quarter. [It may be the one that appears at the bottom of the History page on the Kulliyyat al-Alsun website.] Tahtawi wasted no time in shaping the establishment to his own ideas and aspirations. The set-up was in many ways rather exceptional for the time... all of the students at the school were native Egyptians, as opposed to Turks (or Circassians, etc.) who made up the student population in other government schools. Initially, the number of students was limited to 50, and later on to 150, with the course of study being set at four years, .. most of them came, like their principal, from the south. The students were recruited from the ‘preparatory’ schools. Their ages varied between fourteen and eighteen. Tahtawi was determined to provide a broad education and in addition to languages (French, English, Italian, Turkish, Arabic), the curriculum contained subjects like geography, mathematics, history, as well as French and Islamic law. As a result, it was the only school at that time which offered a truly general education, without a direct link with military affairs. Naturally, all depended on the quality of the teaching and Tahtawi took great pains in putting together a faculty that was up to the task.
"Tahtawi displayed the same zeal and unflagging commitment and enthusiasm to his new task as he had done during his Paris student days. In addition to his duties as director (nazir), he launched himself headlong into his teaching, with classes sometimes lasting up to three or four hours, where he would sometimes teach late in the evening, or before dawn... the responsibility of producing manuals for the school also fell on his shoulders. In 1841, a translation adjunct (qalam al-tarjama) was added to the School, which was naturally also headed by Tahtawi, whereas its fifty-strong faculty consisted mainly of graduates from the Language School. His enthusiasm and the overall quality of the teaching at the Language School meant that very soon after its foundation, students began publishing their translations, albeit under the careful supervision of Tahtawi. In total, the school would produce 2,000 translations of foreign (European and Turkish) works. The choice of books clearly reflected both the latter’s predilections (with a clear dominance of historical works) and French training inasmuch as it involved works he had read in Paris.
"As the topics moved away from the purely scientific and military, Egypt witnessed the emergence of a veritable translation movement."
To be concluded. The References will accompany the Conclusion.

Monday, October 8, 2012

El Nou d’octubre 2012

Today’s the National Day of Valencians, commemorating the entry of King James I of Aragon into the city of Valencia on October 9, 1238.

It’s been celebrated on this blog in previous years, with some connections to language and translation. To find the posts, enter nou d’octubre in the Search box on the right.

Image and Sound
The Senyera, the Valencian flag.
And for a rousing rendition of the Valencian anthem, click here.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Buffalo Bill's Liaison Interpreters

The latest issue of The Linguist has a colourful, well-researched article about Buffalo Bill's Wild West, a spectacular live show that toured Europe between 1880 and 1906 and made its creator, William F. Cody, "the entertainment industry's first international celebrity." Before my time, but my father saw it when it came to England, probably when it performed in Birmingham in 1903.
"Buffalo Bill's Wild West delighted audiences in England, Scotland, Wales and 15 countries in continental Europe, igniting 'Wild West Fever' almost everywhere it went, by offering what purported to be an authentic experience of the American frontier, complete with real cowboys and 'Indians'."
In order to reach audiences in all these countries with its advertising and programmes, the show needed translators. There are copies of the materials they produced at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming,
"...yet we have no records of the translator's name, nor indeed do we know the names of the numerous translators and interpreters who enabled Cody and company to overcome the language barriers that they faced on the continent...

"The author of most of the English language source material... was John M. Burke, the General Manager, who travelled in advance of the troupe. Although one newspaper account suggests that he was an accomplished linguist... the quality of the translations is so high that it would be a remarkable feat if they were all the work of the same non-professional translator."
We also know that the Wild West employed interpreters,
"because Charles Eldridge Griffin, who managed the exhibition's side-show from 1902 to 1906, left a memoir in which he alludes to the difficulties that they had with their interpreters in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 'Some towns would be about equally divided between four or five nationalities, and, although they all understood German, the official language, each would insist on being addressed in his native language.'"
So there's nothing new about language nationalism.

Meanwhile if we know little about the translators engaged in the show's public relations, the same is not true of its internal communications. There too there were interpreters. They were needed to ensure effective communication with the show's large troupe of nearly 100 Native American performers, called disparagingly 'Show Indians' by white officials . The language common to most of them was Lakota (not to be confused with Dakota, though it's mutually intelligible with it). It's a Siouan language spoken by the Lakota people of the Sioux tribes. The Lakota were "the nation from which most Wild West 'Indians' came and on whom [Buffalo Bill] Cody's fortunes largely relied." In their case, we do know their names, because they are listed in the employee records at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. In a few instances we know more. For example,
"In 1902, Luther Standing Bear decided to join... Cody's Wild West show as it traveled across the Atlantic and toured England... Initially hired as an interpreter for the Lakota, Standing Bear soon found himself 'playing Indian' in Cody's show as well."
He performed before King Edward VII.

There was apparently no training for the Lakota interpreters. They were, in a double sense, Native Interpreters; and by the nature of their work between two languages and two cultures, they were Liaison Interpreters.

References and Further Reading
Chris Dixon. On the trail of Buffalo Bill. The Linguist, vol. 51, no. 5, October-November 2012, pp. 10-11. You can reach it through the website of the Chartered Institute of Linguists here. At the time of writing, this issue isn't posted up yet but it will be shortly.
Dixon, who reportedly speaks ten languages, is writing a book on the Lakota-English interpreters 1851-1891, so we can look forward to learning much more about them.

There's a Wikipedia articles for Lakota here.

Ryan E. Burt. 'Sioux Yells' in the Dawes era: Lakota 'Indian Play,' the Wild West, and the literatures of Luther Standing Bear. American Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 3, 2010, pp. 617-637. There's an abstract here.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West banner, c.1899. Source: The Authentic History Center,