Saturday, November 3, 2012

Unrecognized Translators: Tour Guides

Vincent Hardy
Hard on the heels of news about a conference on religious translation and interpreting (to find it, enter germersheim in the Search box on the right), come announcements of several other meetings that indicate people's conception of translating is broadening.

In chronological order, the first is a one-day seminar in London on 10 November with the title Tourist guiding - an exciting opportunity, and it's organized by the Interpretation Division of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. For the announcement, click here.

An initiative to be applauded! This blog has already included tourist couriering and guiding among the many forms of unrecognized translation, i.e., translating that goes unrecognized because it forms part and parcel of some other job. See, for example, the two posts that are retrieved by entering courier in the Search box on the right. In them I tell how I started out on my own interpreter career as a courier and guide for a London travel agency. (There's a technical distinction between courier and guide, but they're closely related.) I didn't forget my origins. Many years later, by which time I was teaching conference interpreting in Canada, an exercise I always gave my students was to interpret for one of the official guides (see photo and Image) on a tour of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. As the guides are bilingual in English and French, they could critique the students' work. The mode of interpreting was long consecutive, which requires note-taking. The exercise got the students out of their stuffy booths and away from their comfortable seats around a conference table and gave them a taste of interpreting on their feet and on the move valuable for liaison interpreting. It's true that the "exciting opportunity" in the London announcement means how Expert Interpreters can make extra money by guiding; but conversely guiding can give a toehold to newcomers in the interpreting profession.

Many tour guides are multilingual, and among them there are Native and even Natural Translators. I once heard Danica Seleskovitch, a famous teacher of conference interpreters, tell how she was helped out in an African marketplace by a young boy who interpreted for her. That's probably the closest she came to acknowledging Natural Interpreting, but let me add an anecdote of my own.

One morning some 30 years ago, my wife and I crossed the Nile by felucca from Luxor to the landing point on the opposite shore for the Valley of the Kings. We had left at dawn so as to be ahead of the crowd and the heat, but when we disembarked we were already assailed by the usual knot of guides, souvenir sellers and other suppliers to tourists. We wanted to break free of them, because we'd been to the Valley before. So we spoke only French to one another and pretended we didn't understand the lingua franca, English. We were almost out of the scrum when we heard a voice behind us call out, Msieu', Madame. Je parle français. Je peux vous montrer tout. [Sir, Madam. I speak French. I can show you everything.] We turned round to face an Egyptian boy 12, perhaps 13 years old, in very worn clothes. He was too young and too poorly dressed to be an official guide, and anyway he didn't have a badge. Yet we were so taken aback by his French and amazed by his quick ear that we agreed to take him on for the morning. His knowledge of Ancient Egyptian history was sketchy, but no worse than what many of the real guides spouted. We kept up the pretence of only speaking French. When we needed something from one of the locals, refreshments for example, he translated for us between French and Arabic. He also translated signs and information panels that were only in Arabic. He even claimed he could translate some of the hieroglyphic inscriptions. His French and his translations were far from perfect, but he got by.

Of course we were intrigued to know how he'd learnt French so well. Had he learnt it at school? Did he have French-speaking relatives? Neither of those. He told us he'd worked the previous two digging seasons for a team of French archaeologists in the Valley and that's how he'd picked it up.

We said au revoir back at the landing stage and it was the last we saw of him. We wondered how many other French-speaking tourists he would charm.

Vincent Hardy
Vincent is a Franco-Ontarian, a French-speaking native of the Canadian province of Ontario. There are about half a milliion of them. They are not to be lumped together with the Québecois (Quebeckers) in the province next door. Growing up among an English-speaking majority, most of them are early bilinguals. He studied at the University of Ottawa, a bilingual university that trains interpreters for the Canadian Parliament. He has a special fondness for Ottawa and its institutions, having worked bilingually both as a Parliamentary Guide and as a tour guide at the Mackenzie King Estate, residence of a former Prime Minister of Canada.

The Wikipedia article on Franco-Ontarians is here.


  1. Great post!

    It is very helpful to any tour guide and it's work.

  2. I can only agree. I think it is also important to hire only a certified tour guide . There are too many folks without certifications that are not up to standards.