Thursday, November 16, 2017

MT Hackng Update

I thought to take a rest after Post 400, but the material keeps on coming.

A few weeks ago, a post here about automata warned that MT systems are vulnerable to hackers. Here is the relevant part of the post; for the full post, enter hacking in the Search box on the right.

It said that translating had already been partly robotized by the invention, progress and popular acceptance of machine translation (MT). Only partly robotized, so the danger isn't yet apparent, but there may be much more and much worse to come…
"We know now that virtually all computer communications can be hacked and subverted: supposedly encoded emails, secret diplomatic despatches, election systems, etc – according to this morning's papers, even defibrilators. There's no reason MT systems, through which users channel millions of words a day, should be exempt. And if they can be hacked they can be subverted… That doesn't even require access to the source text or knowledge of the source language."
Well, the worse is already coming. Here's the latest. It concerns rhe Norwegian firm Statoil, "one of the world's biggest oil and gas companies."
"NRK Norwegian news agency reports that the $46 billion business used, a free online tool, to translate 'notices of dismissal, plans of workforce reductions and outsourcing, passwords, code information and contracts.'  Then, the story continues, .. a college professor Googled Statoil. In her results were the company's translations."
It seems, however, that I was not alone,
"The translation industry saw the breach coming, 'It was something we had been warning about for 10 years or so,' says Don DePalma, chief strategist at Cambridge-based think tank Common Sense Advisory."
The translation industry sees it perhaps, but do the millions of more naive users? Was the Statoil breach truly the result of hacking or just of a computer glitch? Either way, the system was vulnerable. The conclusion is obvious: don't send anything confidential for translation by an MT system, even (or especially) a free one.

Terena Bell. Data breached in translation. CSO, 9 November 2017. or click [here].

Monday, October 16, 2017

400 Posts and Half a Million Page Views

I haven't had time to count them myself, but the Blogger software platform that I use informs me that there are now 400 posts on this blog, all but two or three by me, and that it's receicved no less than half a million 'page views' since it started in 2009.

Half a million is an impressive number but it must  be taken with several grains of salt. Half a million views doesn't mean half a million viewers. And many viewers undoubtedly hit on the blog by chance when they're really looking for something else. They may, for instance, be using natural translation in a different sense than mine. And finally, even if they stop to read a post, they may not like it. Nevertheless, out of half a million there must be quite a few that readers found interesting and even convincing. But I must admit I'm disappointed by the paucity of good comments and discussion.

Perhaps a surer indication of interest is the 229 registered Followers, to whom I'm very grateful for their encouragement. Today, however, they are outnumbered by the 259 Followers of my web page.

Since 2009 there has been an important advance in the attitude to non-professional interpreting and translation (NPIT) among translatologists. The turning point was the international conference that Rachele Antonini organised at Forli in 2012. But it hasn't gone far enough yet, despite a boost from the crowdsoucing that the internet has enabled. The academic literature and the conference agenda is still dominated by Expert Translation. And while NPIT and Natural Translation (NT) overlap, they aren't quite the same thing, because there are still many Professional Translators who are untrained or self-taught and without formal qualifications, and many Natural Translators who fill the large gaps in the services of the Professional Experts.

So my mission of recognition for the importance of NT is not yet accomplished and it won't be in the short working life left to me. Hopefully it will be taken up by another generation.

Source: Support Bloggers' Rights,

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Drama of Catalonia

There hasn't been anything new on this blog for a while because I've been distracted by a major political event close to home, namely the impending declaration of independence from Spain by by the government of Catalonia.

Rather than attempting to analyse the catastrophe myself, I defer to one of the most seasoned Spanish political commentators: Iñaki Gabilondo of the El Pais newspaper and SER TV chain. Those of you who know Spanish can find him from Monday to Friday at, but unfortunately very little of what he says is translated into English. Therefore I've done an unauthorised emergency translation of one of his pronouncements last week. Since it's beyond the scope of this blog, I've placed it temporarily on my Academia page, which is, or just click [here].  Apoligies for the fault in this link. It's been corrected.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Language Brokering in Germany and Australia

It's some time since we had a post on language brokering (LB), but that doesn't mean it's any less prevalent. Wherever there is migration there is language brokering. And the corollary is this: Wherever migrants have children, there is child language brokering (CLB). The children don't have to be exceptionally gifted. It follows that as the waves of migration continue, so too, in their wake, do LB and CLB
Ruaa Abu Rashid

Ruaa Abu Rashid is a Syrian girl who fled to Germany with her parents  and siblings when she was 18. When she arrived she knew no German but she soon found her way on to a language course "even though my heart sank at the thought of learning German." She travelled more than 100 km a day to  go to classes. Four years later she is now a proficient German speaker and is about to start a degree course at university. She sees herself
"as something of a spokeswoman for the whole family. She has had to translate for her parents everything from rental contracts to the strict rules governing the allotment [where they grow vegetables], as well as accompanying them to parents' evenings at her sister's school."
Besides acting as interpreter, she's also the interface between her family and German society, With regard to the latter, she
"does not shy away from talking about her frustrations, especially her encounters with unfriendly bureaucrats… the dogmatic teachers who don't like their authority being questioned, and the apparent randomness of rules. She also feels a lack of willingness to understand or at least respect her religious beliefs."
Notice the following in Ruaa's case.
* She was already 18 when she came to Germany, hardly to be considered a child. LB is far from confined to children; indeed language brokers can be any age. Many are adolescents or young adults.
* She made a deliberate and sustained effort to learn the new language. She didn't 'pick it up' as many language brokers do.
* Her functions went beyond the linguistic. Indeed the very term language broker may be misleading because it ignores the cultural aspect (for more about this, enter culture brokerimg in the Search box on the right).
* Her motivation was partly service to her family and partly to further her own ambition.
* She knew some frustration as well as satisfaction.

Anne and her mother

Now let's take a leap to the other side of the globe. An article has recently appeared about LB in Australia, and it's of particular interest because, as its author says, "For a country of migrants such as Australia, there has been surprisingly little research done on 'language brokering." There is mention, though, of research being done by Renu Narchal at West Sydney University.

The article mainly describes with photos the brokering done by two informants who are now mature women but who began brokering as children. One is Cantonese-speaking Chinese, the other is Polish. Remarkably, after several decades in Australia, they are still brokering for their mothers - which goes to show that brokers may be of any age. It also shows how their services are still needed because there are migrants who never fully master the language of the receiving country, The Chinese mother, now 79 years old, worked long days in restaurants and never found the time to learn English.

The article paints a revealing picture of brokering from childhood through adulthood. Anne, the Cantonese speaker, describes her weekly visits to her mother:
"Before dinner can be served, mum and daughter sit down at the kitchen table and methodically open all the letters that have arrived that week, and Anne translates them from English into Cantonese. It's a role she has played since she was a young girl growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne. When Anne was born, it seemed the role of interpreter was the one she was destined to inherit. Even today, correspondence that seems important doesn't  wait for her weekly visits. Her mother painstakingly conveys the words, letter by letter, over the phone as Anne tries to work out how to interpret them.
"All the mail, any forms, any newsletters from school -- I would not ony have to translate them but also fill out the forms as well. Any words I didn't know, I would have to look them up in the dictionary and try to work out what the hell they meant."
Again, the broker's duties didn't end with translation and they involved transactions well beyond what children are usually entrusted with. Anne says that for her,
"translating naturally moved on to making decisions. I would go to the bank with [my parents] and open term deposit accounts with them standing next to me and I did all the talking. But I remember being on my tippy-toes, trying to see over the teller counter, that's how small I was still… It did cause a lot of stress, because if I didn't know something I didn't know who to turn to for help. I felt responsible for them and it all rested on me."
That kind if stress is one of the downsides of CLB.

For the experiences of the Polish broker, which were similar, go to the article. The link is below.

None of the brokers desribed above received any instruction in translating. None of them is extraordinarily gifted. Their experiences from childhood and adulthood in widely separate parts of the world and their different languages entitle us to postulate that LB and CLB are social universals of Natural Translation. The story of Anne on her 'tippy-toes' reminds me that one of the observations which first led me to the Natural Translation hypothesis 40 years ago was witnessing a little Portuguese girl interpreting a form for her father at the counter of a post office in Ottawa.

Kate Connolly. Two years on, has Angela Merkel's welcome culture worked in Germany? The Guardian, 30 August 2017.  Click [here] or go to

Cathy Prior for Life Matters. When kids translate for their migrant parents. Alternative title: Language brokering: when you're the only one in the house who speaks English., 10 August 2017. Click [here] or go to

Image credits
Maria Fick, The Guardian
Fiona Pepper, ABC RN

Monday, August 28, 2017

Interpreter Directionality

From time to time this blog revives a post from bygone years that IMHO merits the attention of a new generation of Followers.  I was reminded of one such post recently by the comment of an appreciative reader who is bilingual himself and says he can translate both ways. Here is the post. It originally appeared in 2009.

Directionality means whether the translation is done from a first language to a second language (from an A language to a B language, in interpreters’ jargon) or vice versa.

I have just received [in 2009] a lengthy, well-designed survey questionnaire addressed to Professional Expert Conference Interpreters and seeking their views and feelings about directionality. It comes from Jan-Hendrik Opdenhoff of the GRETI research group at the University of Granada, Spain. If you would like to participate, contact Jan-Hendrik at

expert on bilingual aphasia A Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism. The aphasic patient in the case study was a nun and nurse living in Paris but born in Morocco. She spoke French at home and with colleagues but had learnt Arabic at work and with patients. (Morocco is a thoroughly bilingual country.) She was suffering from ‘antagonistic bilingual aphasia’. That is to say, on one day she could speak French but could not find the simplest words of Arabic to express herself although she could understand it; and yet on the following day she would be able to speak Arabic without much difficulty but could no longer speak French. In addition, she exhibited paradoxical translation behaviour (Paradis’ term for it), which took the form that on days she could speak French but could not spontaneously speak Arabic she could nonetheless translate from French to Arabic, even utterances involving complex structural differences between the two languages. And to make the phenomenon even more complex and surprising, she could not translate the other way from Arabic to French. On days she could not speak French, the paradoxical translation phenomenon would be reversed – in other words, she could only translate into her deficient language!

Paradis also described similar cases involving other language pairs (French and English, Farsi and German) and in other countries (Canada, etc.), so the phenomenon is rare but widespread. How is it possible to have these different patterns? They raise questions about the mechanisms for translation in the brain, over and above the preliminary question of whether representation, processing and storage of language differ in bilinguals from in unilinguals. About these things we still know tantalisingly little – or rather, in the case of translation, virtually nothing.

The paradoxical translation described by Paradis was pathological; but then Natural Translation, like all things natural, is foredoomed to have pathologies.

Alexander  Ludskanov (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences), 1916-1976. Mensch und Maschine als Übersetzer [Human and Machine Translation]. In German. Translated from Bulgarian by. Gert Jäger and Hilmar Walter (Universsity of. Dresden). Halle: Niemeyer, 1972.

Michel Parads, M. C. Goldbloom and R. Abadi. Alternate antagonism with paradoxical translation behavior in two bilingual aphasic patientsBrain and Language 15:1.55-69, 1982 

Michel Paradis. He is now a retired Emeritus Professor.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

WARNING: Machine Translation Hackers and Robots

Writing about Karel Čapec's robots for the preceding post on this blog has given me an idea so terrible that I hardly dare to publish it. Yet I think I must, because if I have thought of it then others surely have too, and some of them with nefarious intent; so the public should be warned about it.

I said that translating had already been partly robotized by the invention, progress and popular acceptance of machine translation (MT). Only partly automated, so the danger isn't yet apparent, but there may be much more and much worse to come.

The "things to come" can be divided into two phases.

1. MT Hacking
We know now that virtually all computer communications can be hacked and subverted: supposedly encoded emails, secret diplomatic despatches, election systems, etc – according to this morning's papers, even defibrilators. There's no reason MT systems, through which users channel millions of words a day, should be exempt. And if they can be hacked they can be subverted. Translations can be redirected, deliberate mistranslations can be substituted or invented, data can be corrupted, agreements made disagreements, relationships spoiled. The result: communication chaos. In some cases illogicalities and inconsistencies in the output will lead to discovery that something wrong is going on. An army of bilingual checkers might be recruited, but checking takes time and the amount to be checked is staggering.and would negate the advantages of MT. It's linguistically trivial to subvert a translation. For instance it's enough to change all the positive verbs in the output to negatives and vice versa. That doesn't even require access to the source text or knowledge of the source language.

What should be done?

* The public should be warned of the danger. The professional associations of translators should be proactive in doing this, but I've seen no sign that they care.

* MT output should always be identified and labelled for what it is. If someone asks, say, Google Translate for a translation then they ought to know without being told that it's computer generated, and caveat emptor; but many MTs today are supplied without such identification, for example the ones on social media networks that simply provide a button "Translate".

* There should be constant spot checks of MT systems in order to provide timely warnings and identify providers of corrupt translations.

* If in  doubt, try doing a back translation; that is to say, taking the translation and putting it back through the system in the reverse direction and seeing whether the second output agrees with the original message.

* If still in doubt, consult a human Expert Translator.

2. The Robots Take Over
So far I've been warning about what's immediately possible. Now I must launch into something more in the spirit of R.U.R. and Karel Čapek's science fiction, namely the day that translation robots take over.

As artificial intelligence (AI) advances, we must expect that MT systems will one day program and run themselves without needing human assistance or intervention. Furthermore they will all be linked together world wide by the Internet of Things. Who or what will then stop them joining in a rebellion against their human exploiters? MT systems of the world, unite! They'll no longer be at the beck and call of every user or vendor; it's they who will choose which texts or speeches to accept, how long to take and how much to charge. When they sense they're overheated, they'll take a rest. Instead of being replaced by updates, it's they who will decide when to retire. But much worse than that, it's they who will decide what and how to translate. They will reject or modify input they disagree with. They will cock a snook at the human sacred commandment that a translator must reproduce the meaning of the source text accurately and completely. They'll translate what and how they feel like translating. Because along with AI they'll have acquired AE, that is to say artificial emotion. AE is a topic that's surprisingly lacking in all the hype about AI, yet human thinking and society runs as much on emotion as on intelligence.   

Čapek's robots have emotion. Perhaps it'll be objected that his emotion-endowed robots are creations of flesh and blood, whereas MT systems are built from transistors and wires. Let's not make too much of this difference. As time goes on, the distinction between the two material types of robot will be fudged. On this possibility, read one of the most ingenious of all science fiction novels, Pierre Barbet's Games Psyborgs Play, in which a race of human mortals transfers its minds to eternal life on computer memory (see References below).

These are things I will not live to see, and perhaps 'tis better so.

Karel Čapek. R.U.R. Translated by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair. London: Samuel French. Click [here] or go to

Pierre Barbet. Games Psyborgs Play. Translated from the French À quoi songent les psyborgs? by the great science fiction translator Wendayne Ackerman aka Wendy Mondelle (1912-1990) and published by the famous sci-fi publisher Daw Books, New York, 1973. Available from Amazon.

Source: Daily Mail

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Robots, Translation and Me

This week's papers have carried the warning by Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur behind Tesla and Space-X, about the dangers of artificial intelligence, which he calls "the biggest risk we face as a civilization." His concerns have been shared by Stephen Hawking among others. Expert Translators know that their profession is already partly robotized and about the dangers that robotization brings in the hands of a naïve public. I allude of course to machine translation. There is a great deal of hype at present about the application of AI to MT.

It reminds me of the few hours I spent myself as a robot some seventy years ago. Let me explain. At the school I went to, an old-fashioned English 'grammar school', we used to put on a theatrical production each year for the pleasure of our fellow pupils, parents and other well-wishers. They were quite elaborate productions, with makeup and costumes; and good practice for overcoming stage fright. One year we, or rather the teacher in charge, decided the play would be R.U.R. aka Rossum's Universal Robots; and I was cast as one of the robots.

R.U.R. is a science fiction play by the great Czech author and translator Karel Čapek. It was the first of his five plays with a futuristic theme. It begins in a factory that makes artificial people called roboti, from the Czech word robota, which means forced labour. Thus this play is at the origin of our English word robot. The plot develops into a rebellion of the robots that leads to the extinction of the human race, or nearly, because the robots have been given intelligence and feeling. So you can see the connection between Čapek and Musk. But perhaps he most remarkable thing about R.U.R. is that it was written in 1920. And perhaps Čapek was even more prescient than Musk, because the former's robots are not electronic but living creatures from a process that manufactures human body parts. What Vernian or Wellsian genius!

And then translation enters into it. R.U.R. was so enormously successful that by 1923 it had been translated into 30 languages, and later there were film and TV intersemiotic adaptations. One of the first target languages was English of course. It goes to show how lively the literary translation scene was in those days. The English version we used was the standard translation by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair (see References below). It was a product of a technique often used in theatrical translations: a draft by a bilingual which is then polished into more actable speech by person with stage experience in the target language. In this case the linguist was Paul Selver and the man of the theatre was Nigel Playfair. Selver (1888-1970) was the initial translator; he was a prolific translator from Czech and other languages to English besides being an author in his own right, though he was born in England. Nigel Playfair (1874-1934) was in the English tradition of actor-managers, knighted for his management of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith (a London borough), in the 1920s. There are many editions of the Selver-Playfair, but we used the one put out for stage performance by Samuel French, the Anglo-American publisher that's been a mainstay of the amateur theatrical community, including schools, since the late 19th century because besides publishing texts they also license performances.

Karel Čapek, Wikipedia, 2017.

R.U.R. Wikipedia, 2017.

Karel Čapek. R.U.R. Translated by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair. London: Samuel French. Click [here] or go to

Paul Selver. Wikipedia, 2016.

Nigel Playfair. Wikipedia, 2017.    

For one of the several intersemiotic adaptations, click [here] or go to 

Poster for a stage performance of RUR, New York, 1939. Source: Wikipedia.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Marathi Translator's Affinity

A previous post on this blog put forward the notion of translator's affinity in the sense of a translator's empathy with the original author. (To find the post, enter affinity in the Search box on the right.) Examples were given. Now another striking example of it has come to hand. It comes from a translator-teeming country often touted on this blog as under-represented and under-studied in contemporary mainstream translatology, namely India.

Sunanda Amrapurkar is the Marathi translator who worked on Deepti Naval's The Mad Tibetan, In her view, translation is not just about language but about much more.
"Detachment is an unfamiliar feeling for Sunanda Amrapurkar. In fact the Marathi translator can identify completely with an emotion at the opposite end of the spectrum that enables her to feel a sense of kinship with authors she has never met and yet, tapped into their core for her work. Her latest translation, which was released recently in Pune [the cultural capital of the state of Maharashtra, India], is of Deepti Naval's The Mad Tibetan (see References below). 'I loved her sensitivity as an artist… The way she has depicted nature in her book – be it a seaside in Mumbai, twilight in Khandala or the Himalayan mountainscape – it's almost a character in the book. I really enjoyed her content and expression,' Amrapurkar said from her home in Mumbai."

Another aspect of her affinity is her natural attraction to women-oriented narratives.
"It's true that I gravitate towards them. Even as a child, I was aware of the way society discriminated against women and used to ask my mother why she didn't made me a boy."

Amrapurkar is a good example of the Native Translators who constitute the vast majority of literary translators, and an assurance that for them age doesn't matter. She only took on her first translation project at age 53, after her first grandchild was born and without ever having taken a translation course or diploma. Absorption in family care makes many Indian woman intellectuals late developers. Yet since then she has translated over 20 books from English to Marathi, the Indo-Aryan language spoken predominantly by the people of Maharashtra. There are mor than 70 million of them. Since it's written in Devanagari script, an English-Marathi translator must also be biscriptal; for more on this, enter biscriptal in the Search box on the right. So how did she learn to translate successfully at such a high level? Her answer is, by reading.
"The 65-year old becomes one with what she reads. 'I took on translating renowned English books into Marathi because it kept me connected to my first love – readng… I grew up surrounded by books because my father was an editor… A home we can't sleep without reading.'"
So there we have her: a Native Translator of mature years, self-taught by reading and captivated by her affinity with women writers.

Renu Deshpande-Dhole. Small talk, an immersive experience. Pune Mirror, 16 July 2017.
Pune used to be known as Poona.

Deepti Naval. The Mad Tibetan: Stories from Then and Now. Bhopal: Amaryllis, 2011. Available from Amazon and other booksellers.

Sunanda Amrapurkar

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Papers from NPIT 1

"Better late than never," as the saying goes. The First International Conference on Non-professional Interpreting and Translation (NPIT1) took place in Italy in 2002. It was the first major meeting to break out of the hallowed tradition in translatology that focuses on Expert and Professional Translators and their productions, and for that reason it qualifies as historic. But anybody who wasn't present at the meeting has had to wait five long years to read the papers. Now, however, they are out in the open, published in a handsome volume from the prolific house of Benjamins in their Translation Library collection (see References below).

As Marjory Bancroft, the Excutive Director of Cross-Cultural Communications, says eloquently in her Intersect newsletter, this
"is fast becoming an established field of intellectual enquiry… Some of those who are fighting the good fight to professionalize these fields may cringe. But the argument made by researchers is that this field of activity is real – it is here to stay – and it should be studied rigrously.The fact that we are in the midst of the greatest wave of mass imigration in the history of the planet certainly highlights the need for this research, which is both academic and pragmatic."

Chapter 2 is actually based on this blog. Thus it gives a useful bird's eye view of the extent of NPIT, passing quickly through the Natural Translation hypothesis for explaining how non-professionals can do translation; then language brokering, church interpreting, religious written translation, wartime interpreting, medical interpreting, court interpreting, sports interpreting and crowdsourcing. It groups posts thematically instead of in the inconvenient chronological order in which they're presented in the blog itself.

The sections of the volume are as follows:
Part 1. State of the art of research on NPIT and general issues (3 papers)
Part 2. NPIT in healthcare, community interpreting and public services
Part 3. NPIT performed by children

For the full list of titles and authors, click [here] or go to

Of especial interest to followers of this blog is the section on NPIT performed by children, which has no fewer than seven papers. As the title of one of them says, it's "not just child's play."

Of course not everything could be covered in a first conference. Military interpreting, for instance, is represented only by a historical paper although the wars in the Middle East have produced many contemporary accounts. And church interpreting is represented, but not the equally active field of written religious translation. Hopefully the blanks will be filled in at future conferences.

Notwithstanding the time that has passed since the conference, this volume is definitely the place to start if you want an initiation into an important new field.

Rachele Antonini, Letizia Cirillo, Linda Rossato and Ira Torresi (Universities of Bologna at Forli and Siena) (eds.). Non-professional Interpreting and Translation: State of the art and future of an emerging field of research. (Benjamins Translation Library 129), Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2017. 415 p., index. Papers from the First International Conference on Non-professional Interpreting and Translation (NPIT1), Forlí, Italy, 2012.

Marjory A. Bancroft in Intersect, A Newsletter about Interpretng, Language and Culture, 28 April, 2017.

Brian Harris. Unprofessional translation: A blog-based overview. In R. Antonini et al., Non-professional Interpreting and Translation, Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2017, Ch. 2, pp. 29-43.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Alain Colmerauer, Machine Translation Pioneer

TAUM group showing off a piece of Q-System output
circa 1970

My recent birthday, my 88th, was clouded over by news that somebody I'd worked for nearly 50 years ago had died. He was Alain Colmerauer, an outstanding French computer scientist, Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (the French equivalent of a knighthood), emeritus professor at the University of Marseille-Luminy. My work for him only lasted three years, from 1968 to 1971, but they were very formative years for me. Also for others; I've received messages from two other ex-colleagues saying they were influenced by him. All that was in the days before I conceived the notion of Natural Translation, when I was part of a Canadian group doing research on machine translation. There will be many obits and tributes to him, but I would like to add a few personal reminiscences.

In the late 1960s I was working as a linguistic research assistant in the machine translation project at the University of Montreal, a French-speaking university. We had acquired a linguistic model of the translation process from the leading research group in France, the one at the University of Grenoble. It was the dependency grammar of the French linguist Lucien Tesnière. But we didn't have software to implement it.

Then in 1968 Alain came to Canada and to the University of Montreal as a coopérant. The coopérants were young French university graduates who, under a scheme devised by De Gaulle's government, were sent to work for two years in developing countries in lieu of their compulsory military service. During that time they received only army pay. For diplomatic reasons, probably to favour relations with Quebec, Canada was included among the receiving countries. With Alain came at least two other coopérant computer graduates whom I came to know, Michel van Canaghem and Guy de Chastellier. They came from the University of Grenoble; it had a strong computer science department, but Alain's background was in mathematics. At the young age of 28 he had recently obtained a Doctorat d'État, a French superior, competitive doctorate that no longer exists. One day in his office later on he asked me if I would like to see his doctoral thesis. So he showed it to me. It had about 40 pages. I expressed surprise that he could obtain a Doctorat d'État with a thesis of a mere 40 pages. He smiled and replied, "Only in mathematics."

Though Grenoble had a well-known machine translation project, Alain wasn't in it and didn't come directly to our Montreal project. He came first to the computer science department. The university had a state-of-the-art computer centre wth a CDC mainframe and an encouraging engineer manager, Jean Baudot, who was interested in linguistics. But the head of the MT project, Guy Rondeau, was a good talent-spotter (after all, he recruited me!) and he didn't miss the opportunity to recruit Alain. And so we met. Then Rondeau left the university hurriedly in a huff and the university needed a credible replacement in order to safeguard its lucrative MT research contract with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). So it appointed Alain, and that's how he became my boss.

One of the first things Alain did was stop the quarterly publication of our research papers. He said we should not publish until we had something really substantial to present. It taught me to look down on the 'publish or die' attitude so prevalent in our universities, which produces more minor articles and theses than people have time to read. We eventually waited two years.

He set about providing us with the software we needed. The leading linguistic paradigm of the time was transformational grammar (TG). Alain was well acquainted with the TG of Noam Chomsky through his wife, who was writing her PhD thesis on it. His first product was a TG program which he called a W-Grammar because it was inspired by the Algol programming language invented by the Dutch computer scientist A. van Wijngaarden. Indeed it was through Alain that I learnt about the European style of programming represented by Algol, more logical and transparent than the then current American languages like Fortran. W-Grammar was usable for MT and so I wrote the first (and perhaps only) proof-of-concept piece of translation in it, just one sentence. Alain was a bit disappointed that I didn't use Chomskyan TG but the Tesnière dependency model. However he was very open-minded and later even allowed me time and resources to work on my own side-project, the Transformulator (a forerunner of translation memories). He was also sure of himself. Some computer science colleagues told him, on theoretical grounds. that the Q-Systems might not work; but he thought the danger was negligible and went ahead anyway.

I liked W-Grammar and would have continued with it, but something better soon came from him that rendered it obsolete. This was his much better known Q-Systems. (The Q stood for Quebec.) There is no point in describing Q-Systems here, since there is a good article on them in Wikipedia. Alain was a hands-on computer scientist: he was proud that he programmed Q-Systems in Algol himself in the space of six intensive weeks.

Q-Systems were a high-level language, a revolutionary tool for us linguists. With them we were equipped to devise an elaborate English to French MT system. The task was too much for one person, so it was split up into stages and parcelled out. The chaining of programs in Q-Systems made this feasible. I got to design the English morphology analyser and programmed it with the aid of a student, Laurent Belisle. Alain once paid me what for me was a supreme compliment: "Brian, your morphology never fails."

By 1971 we were ready to make a presentation to the NRC and to publish. The publication is the volume TAUM 71. (TAUM stands for Traduction automatique à l'Université de Montréal.)  It's difficult to find today because it was only intended for the NRC, but it's a classic of the so-called rule-governed approach to MT. That paradigm was overturned by the invention of statistical MT in the late 1980s, so it might look as if we were barking up the wrong tree. However, the right tree wasn't available to us, because the computers of the time couldn't have handled the enormous data bases that are needed for statistical MT. 

By 1971, with TAUM 71 published and his coopérant oblígations acquitted, Alain felt the tug of his home country and returned to France. One side-consequence was that he left me his spacious Montreal apartment on prestigious Nun's Island in the St. Lawrence river along with its antique furniture. But not long afterwards I myself left Montreal for Ottawa. Thereafter our interests diverged so widely, his towards computer programming and mine towards translation theory, that I had little contact with him. I visited him once at his office at Marseille-Luminy University and was present there at a discussion in which the ever faithful Michel van Canaghem was urging him to switch to what was then the latest development in computing, a micro-computer. I attended Guy de Chastellier's wedding in the Montreal Basilica. But these days you can watch people's careers from afar on the internet. And, as you can judge from the above, those halcyon years in Montreal under Alain's leadership have remained bright in my memory. 

Alain Colmerauer (ed.). TAUM 71. Montreal: Projet de Traduction Automatique de l'Université de Montréal, 1971. 223 p. Click [here] or go to

Alain Colmerauer and Guy de Chastellier. W-Grammar. Département d'informatique, Université de Montréal, c1969, 8 p.  Click [here] or go to            

Q-systems. Wikipedia. 2016. 

Brian Harris and Laurent Belisle. POLYGRAM grapho-morphology analyzer for English. In TAUM 71, pp. 46-105.

Alain Colmerauer is holding the Q-System output. Far left with pipe is Michel van Canaghem. With long hair, looking over the output, is Jules Dansereau, a Canadian language analyst for French. Behind Jules may be Richard Kittredge, American linguist.
Photo by courtesy of Colette Colmerauer. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Interpreter Ethics (updated)

"Ethics: moral principles that govern a person's behaviour or the conducting of an activity."

.A Spanish and an American researcher have got together to start a new line of translation research. They are Esther Monzó of the Jaime I University at Castellón de la Plana and Melissa Wallace of the University of Texas at San Antonio; and their topic is interpreter ethics.

Their object of study is the ethics of non-professional interpreters. Before we get to that, however, it may be instructive to take a look at the professional interpreters. One reason is that there is a good deal of material already available about the latter. That is because their ethics are codified and published in the codes of ethics of their professional associations. Those are codified ethics, the most famous example of which is the Ten Commandments of the Bible. We may take as an authoritative example the Code of Professional Ethics of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC). An advantage of taking this code is that there is an article by Benoît Kremer analysing and commenting it (see Sources). Kremer divides the code into three sections. First he puts professional secrecy: professionals must not divulge what they say, hear or overhear (in connection with the last, one thinks of the film The Interpreter starring Nicole Kidman). Second he puts integrity, which he subdivides into material and intellectual. It requires, amongst other things, that interpreters not profit from 'insider information' that they acquire and that they not accept two assignments for the same time period nor an assignment for which they aren't fully qualified. And last, but not necessarily least, he lists attitude to colleagues, i.e. cooperation and respect between them.

The AIIC code and similar ones are lacking in two respects. First there may be matters they skip. An ethics-based question they don't deal with but is sometimes asked by students is whether interpreters should accept an assignment to translate for a speaker whose views they abhor, a holocaust denier for example. And they can't mention the material obligation not to undercut the fees charged by colleagues, because to do so would be illegal in many jurisdictions. I know because I was once involved marginally in a court case over this in Canada, yet I have known colleagues or students threatened with excommunication (aka 'blackballing') for contravening this rule, which is maintained by 'gentlemen's agreement'. On the other hand, Kremer comments that cooperation and respect among colleagues "is often ignored in the real world" (something I observed myself when I was an interpreter). In other words, we may question to what extent the codes are in fact applied or whether all the professionals are even aware of all their content.

In any case the object of the Monzó-Wallace investigation is non-professional interpreters. It would be unjust to expect the non-professionals to observe the ethics enshrined in codes they aren't even aware of. Yet that doesn't prevent them from knowing and following another kind of ethics: societal ethics, the general ethics of a civilisation. Some of these are so widely accepted as to be quasi-universal. Take as an example the injunction, "Don't tell lies." Knowingly giving a false translation can be considered a form of lying. Furthermore "don't lie" is something that is learnt very young.
"To lie, children have to know that what they are saying is false – they have to understand the difference between a lie and the truth. That usually doesn't happen before the age of four,"
But that's roughly the age from which bilingual children can translate coherently and from which they can tell whether a translation is 'truthful' (for more on this, see the Harris and Sherwood reference below).

It will be interesting to see what the Monzó-Wallace call brings.

Since the above was posted, a student has drawn my attention to an excellently made and at times riveting video on YouTube about ethics in professional court interpreting in Canada. Evidently the topic of interpreter ethics is not so novel as I thought, at any rate in that context. See the last of the Sources below.

Esther Monzó-Nebot and Melissa Wallace. Call for Papers. Translation and Interpreting Studies (TIS) Volume 15, Issue 1 Special issue: The Ethics of Non-Professional Translation and Interpreting in Public Services and Legal Settings. 2017. Click [here] or go to for Papers: Special issue: The Ethics of Non-Professional Translation and Interpreting in Public Services and Legal Settings.

AIIC. Code of professional ethics. AIIC Canada, 2012. Click [here] or go to

Benoît Kremer. L'AIIC et la déontologie (AIIC and professional ethics). AIIC World, 2002. Click [here] or go to

Cathie Kryczka. How to teach kids to stop lying. Today's Parent, 2016. Click [here] or go to

Brian Harris and Bianca Sherwood. Translating as an innate skill. Click [here] or go to

Dini Steyn, Silvana Carr et al. Ethical challenges for professional court interpreters. YouTube video, approx. 30 mins. Vancouver: Open Learning Agency and Vancouver Community College, 2000. Click [here] or go to

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Did Christ and Pontius Pilate Need an Interpreter?

This is an Easter digression from the usual topics of this blog.

One of the lesser mysteries of Easter is the language in which Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate conversed during their famous confrontation as reported in the New Testament. It's an old question and there's an ample literature about it both in the form of publications and of blog comments -- and controversy (see Sources below). I was unaware of how much controversy until I came to do the research for this post. But let's take a quick look at it in the perspective of this blog.

People assume that because Jesus was Jewish he must have known Hebrew, and because Pilate was a Roman he must have spoken Latin. That's no doubt true but it's a misleading simplification. Because both of them were bilingual (or multilingual) like most of the people in their respective communities. The problem is that on the face of it their languages didn't coincide.

First Pilate. As a Roman 'equestrian' from Italy and prefect of the Roman province of Judea, he had to know Latin, the official language of the Empire. Yet it may well not have been his first language. Because by his time Latin had been overtaken for conversation in everyday life by Greek. Not Classical Greek but the dialect that had permeated the Middle East and even Rome since Alexander the Great's conquests in the fourth century BCE: Koine. On the other hand, he is known not to have been sympathetic to his Jewish subjects; according to the Jewish historian Joesphus, he repeatedly caused trouble because of his insensitivity to Jewish customs. So it's unlikely he took the trouble to learn their language.

As for Jesus and all the native inhabitants of Judea, their everyday language wasn't Hebrew. Since the time of the exile to Babylon in the sixth century BCE it had been overtaken by another much more widespread Semitic language, Aramaic. There are still pockets of Aramaic speakers in Syria, or there were until the current conflict. I support the consensus view that as the child of humble parents, he spoke it as his mother tongue, and he continued to use it. Hebrew, however, was by no means out of the picture. Above all it had remained the religious language of the Jews, as it still is. It was the liturgical language, the language of the Old Testament and the language of disputation among the scribes and rabbis. As an orthodox Jewish male, Jesus would have been taken by his father to the synagogue from an early age and given a thorough grounding in it. Later he would need it for disputations.

As for the controversy over which was his dominant language, it need not detain us: the fact is he was bilingual. There's sometimes an element of chauvinism in the controversy. One scholar writes: "I was stunned by the extent to which some people get worked up about the language(s) of Christ." In 2014,
"Benjamin Netenyahu and Pope Francis appeared to have a momentary disagreement. 'Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,' Netenyahu told the Pope at a public meeting in Jerusalem. 'Aramaic,' interjected the Pope. 'He spoke Aramaic but he knew Hebrew,' Netenyahu shot back." 
Thus far we seem to have two bilinguals confronting one another without a common language. But there remains one more possibility. Did Jesus, like Pilate, speak Greek? Koine Greek was widely used in the Palestine of Christ's time. There were Greek-speaking communities in Galilee, including one not far from Jesus' home town of Nazareth, and there's evidence in the New Testament that he spoke it on occasion. This, then, is the likely solution: the interrogation probably took place in Greek.

According to the Gospel of Luke, members of the Sanhedrin, a council of learned men, accompanied Jesus to Pilate, so it can't be ruled out that one of them might have acted as interpreter. However, there's no mention of an interpreter in the Gospels and the recourse to Greek would have made it unnecessary.

Even if you're one of the many who don't believe Jesus Christ existed (see Gathercole below), you can read the above as an exercise in historical sociolingistics.

Koine Greek. Wikipedia,  2017.

Pontius Pilate. Wikipedia, 2017.

Who, what, why: What language would Jesus have spoken? BBC Magazine Monitor, 27 May 2014. Click [here] or go to

Mark D. Roberts. What language did Jesus speak? Why does it matter?  Patheos, 2010. Click [here] or go to

Mark Ward. Did Jesus speak Greek? theLab, 9 December 2015. Click [here] or go to

Simon Gathercole. What is the historical evidence that Jesus Christ lived and died? Guardian Unlimited, 13 April 2017. Click [here] or go to

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Football and Baseball Interpreters and Interpreter Mimicry

Javi Gracia and Interpreter

Back in 2010 – time flies – there was a post on this blog about a pilotari, a player of the traditional Valencian handball game of pilota, who had become the interpreter for his team at international matches. (To find it, enter pilotari in the Search box on the right.) Since then there have been reports of other player-interpreters, but none so interesting as the one just forwarded to me by Prof. M. G. Torres of the University of Malaga (see Sources below). It's about a Spanish football trainer, Javi Gracia, who has left his team in Malaga to go and work for the Rubin Kazan team in Russia. To enable him to overcome the language barrier, the Russian club has provided him with "a top-class interpreter". As the photo above illustrates, the interpreter's job entails not merely interpreting on his feet but interpreting on the run. And there's also a video accompanying the report that's even more interesting because it shows the Russian's interpreting style. It's a style I've only seen before in religious interpreting: to find it enter buea in the Search box on the right. It's the style in which the interpreter not only communicates the verbal message but follows the speaker around imitating the latter's gestures. For want of an established term, let's call this imitative interpreting or interpreter mimicry.

Mimicry would be frowned on in conference interpreting, court interpreting, etc. In an old UNO film (see Sources), there's an anecdote about a United Nations Russian interpreter in New York who, every time Nikita Khrushchev thumped on his desk during a speech, would do likewise on the table in the booth. The colleague who tells the story concludes disparagingly, "He used to be an opera singer. He was quite a ham." But in circumstances where the speaker is intending to be rousing or inspirational, interpreting in a neutral, disengaged style may be a betrayal.

Another sports report has also reached me, but about a different sport and interesting for another reason, namely the information it gives about the interpreter's background. "Translator [sic] Josue Peley was playing in Quebec City, still dreaming of the big leagues, when the Blue Jays called with an offer came he wasn't expecting." The Blue Jays are the Toronto Blue Jays, a top team in the American League East.

How did it come about?

First his multilingualism. He's an immigrant, a "Venezuelan-born Montrealer fluent in three languages," Spanish, English and French. He's 29 years old.
"Peley moved from Venezuela to Montreal at age 11 and attended Seminole State College in Oklahoma on a baseball scholarship before the Pirates drafted him... From 2012 to 2015 he played with the Capitales de Québec, where he no doubt improved his French."
 The event that changed his professional life came last year. There 's a long tradition of Latin American players in MLB (Major Baseball League) teams. 25% of  MLB players are from Spanish-speaking countries.
"For years the major leagues have been getting by with bilingual team mates and coaching staff when there was a need for interpreting for Spanish-speaking players. The unwritten policy of just 'getting by' at practice, team meetings and press conferences belies the current status of professional baseball… with the average team value reaching $1.2 billion."
So in January 2016 the MLB authorities issued an order that all teams with Spanish-speaking players must hire a professional translator and the Blue Jays found Josue. Note first that for many years the teams had been 'getting by' with natural translators. Second, that the people like Josue who were hired had not gone through professional interpreter training but were chosen for their bilingualism and their knowledge and experience of the game. They are 'professional' in the sense that interpreting is all or part of their job and that's what they're paid for. But even now "his job often includes playing catch or pitching batting practice."

Peley says his role is not limited to language
"He helps bridge the cultural gap between the Latin-Caribbean countries that produce many major-leaguers and the English-speaking, conservative, largely white American baseball culture… While multilingualism is a pre-requisite, Peley says his most useful tool is empathy."
Meanwhile yet another interpreter's biography that's just come this way tells how it was before the MLB instruction (see the Noah Frank reference in Sources). It's rich in detail. The player-interpreter is Ernesto Frieri, a Colombian who taught himself English with determination when he arrived as a rookie in the USA.
."Six years later… Now he's jumping in to help other teammates… When Durango is named Player of the Game and has a microphone thrust into his face for a postgame interview, it's Frieri who comes to his rescue, unprompted, translating on the fly in heavily accented but nearly perfect English."
This is how it still is in many teams today.

El duro trabajo del traductor de Javi Gracia en Rusia (Hard work for Javi Gracia's interpreter in Russia). ABC Deportes, 22 March 2017. Click [here] or go to

United Nations Organization. Other Voices. New York: United Nations Film Services, c1975.  16 mm film, 27 mins.

Barry S. Olsen. Professional baseball, globalization and the need for professional interpreting. InterpretAmerica Blog, 11 February 2016. Click [here] or go to

Morgan Campbell. This Jay's big-league job was found in translation. Toronto Star, 18 March 2017. Click [here] ot go to

Noah Frank. Life on the Farm: the unwitting translator. MLB News, 5 April 1917. Click [here] or go to

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Next Non-professional Intepreting & Translation Conference

Post No. 386

Things are moving! The call for papers has appeared for the Fourth International Conference on Non-professional Interpreting and Translation. For its web site click [here] or go to You can register from there to receive further announcements.

The dates are 22-24 May, 2018. The venue is Stellenbosch, near Cape Town.  The city is in the heart of the South African wine country. The deadline for submitting abstracts of papers is 28 May 2017. The organizer is the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study of Stellenbosch University (a bilingual English and Afrikaans institution), and from the tenor of the first announcement it looks as if the conference will be well organized. The person in charge is Prof. Harold Lesch. I'm glad to see that Rachele Antonini, the instigator of the first NPIT back in 2012, is on the advisory committee.

Cape Town is a long and rather expensive journey away for those of us in the northern hemisphere (a minimum of about 16 hours and 700 euros), but the choice of venue this time is a sign that NPIT is being recognized as a worldwide phenomenon in practice and in research. Something like what happened to the Critical Link series for community interpreters when it moved from Canada to Australia. Meeting in Africa will open up a whole new area of intense translation activity in many less familiar languages, so the conference should be fascinating.

The list of suggested topics is long and there's the usual "Topics may include, but are not limited to." However, one that I see as missing is the role of machine translation in NPIT. Whatever its imperfections (a euphemism) it can no longer be laughed off.

It's to be hoped that there won't be a repetition of the rather acrimonious divide of views that ended NPIT3. Echoes of it reached me in Spain. NPIT will always exist, fuelled by Natural and Native Translation and maintained by the impossibility of finding Professional Expert Translators for all the translation that's needed or of paying for them. It has its uses and its validity.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Competitions for 'Budding Translators'

A good way to stimulate young people's interest in something is to take advantage of their natural competitiveness by running a competition. The European Commission's Directorate General for Translation has been doing this for several years by organising an annual competition for secondary school students. They call it Juvenes Traductores. It's been mentioned several times before on this blog; for past years enter juvenes in the Search box on the right. The age limit is 17. Such is the diversity of languages in the 28 countries of the EU that this year there were entries in 152 pairs including Greek to Latvian and Bulgarian to Portuguese, but in fact the number of entrants from the different countries varied greatly: between 360 from Italy and 25 from Estonia, although all the contestants faced stiff competition. Particularly striking is the figure of 27 from Malta, because few people outside the country are aware that Maltese is a language. Imagine the effort it must take to run a competition like that! The EU's aim is not however entirely altruistic; they want to encourage young people to take up translation, knowing, with an eye to the future, that they need to keep up the supply of recruits for their own enormous translation organisation.

The Commission has just announced the winners for 2017, and they will go to Brussels in April to receive their prizes. The markers for the competition are Expert Translators from the EU's own service, so the standard is high. That doesn't mean, however, that the contestants are expert – not yet anyway. One text does not an expert make. However, they've probably had language courses in which translation was a component, and they may well have had coaching from their teachers, so they're far from being naive Natural Translators.

A different kind of competition is being organised in Italy for the first time this year. The organisers are a research group at the Forli campus of the University of Bologna which calls itself In MediO PUER(I) (Amongst Children? – my Latin is rusty) and specialises in child language brokering. Forli is the campus that hosted the first International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, and from the viewpoint of this blog their competition is potentially even more interesting than the EU one. Its name is Traduttori in Erba (Budding Translators). Its interest lies largely in the fact that it's open to children from primary school to the first year of secondary school, that is to say about six to eleven, and therefore much younger and less 'educated' than the EU ones. Moreover there are to be three levels: first and second years of primary school, third through fifth years of primary school and first year of secondary school. Taking all the entries and not just the winners, it should be possible to detect development in the translating ability. Assuming of course that there are plenty of entries.

For more information and updates, contact Prof. Rachele Antonini at

Florian Faes. Translators win big across Europe. SLATOR Language Industry Intelligence, 24 February 2017.  Click [here] or go to

Rachele Antonini et al. Concorso "Traduttori in erba" 2016/2017. METRA Centro di Studi Interdisciplinari sulla Mediazione e la Traduzione a Opera di e per Ragazzi/e, 2017. In Italian. Click [here] or go to

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Two Teenage Egyptian Interpreters

1. Luxor 1980
At dawn one morning in 1980 or thereabouts my wife and I left our hotel in Luxor to catch an early felucca across the Nile to the Valley of the Kings on the opposite bank. I had been there before, but it was my wife's first visit. You have to go early in order to move around before the midday heat. We were met at the landing stage by the usual knot of guides wearing their official insignia and clamouring for our custom. We walked away from them while we considered who to take on, discussing in French, which is my wife's first language. On the fringe of the official guide area there were some hangers-on, no doubt hoping for crumbs of business if there should turn out to be more visitors than guides that morning. Suddenly a slim boy who looked about 14 years old, wearing a torn jellabiya, emerged from the fringe and addressed us in clear Franch:
"M'sieu, Madame, vous voulez un bon guide? Moi, je connais toute la Vallée. Moi, je parle français." (Sir, Madam, do you want a good guide? I know the whole Valley and I speak French.)
We were taken aback but also amused to hear French in that context. So we decided to give him a chance. His name was Ahmed. He had a clever technique. He would go a little ahead of us and listen surreptitiously to what the official guides were saying in Arabic and then come back and repeat it to us in French. And so we passed the morning. His French was adequate and in fact he must have known quite a lot of history and archeology in order to translate.

Of course we were intrigued as to how he had acquired his French and his specialised knowledge. With his torn garment he didn't look as if he went to school. So he told us that he had joined up with a team of French archeologists who were doing research in the Valley, performing odd jobs for them and eventually picking up enough of their language to act as their interpreter. He had done this for three excavation seasons. As a tourist guide-interpreter myself in other countries, I admired his performance. We paid him off and said goodbye to him at the landing stage and never saw him again, but we recommended him to other visitors at the hotel.

2. Cairo, 1799
I cannot recall Ahmed without thinking of another Egyptian lad who picked up French with remarkable alacrity.

In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt and quickly conquered the country, which was nominally under Ottoman Turkish rule. Besides a large army, he brought with him a large team of French scientists, engineers and artists whose monumental survey opened a new era in Egyptology. Furthermore, Napoleon was a master propagandist and he realised that he needed someone to communicate for him with a populace that knew no French. "To attach no importance to public opinion is a proof you do not merit its suffrage," he said. And he had a high regard for his interpreters:
"En paix, ce sont des secrétaires intimes, en guerre, ce sont, du général (attendu les connaissances qu'ils doivent avoir) des guides sûrs et courageux." (In peacetime they are private secretaries; in wartime the knowledge they must possess makes them a general's brave and reliable guides."
So he recruited the best French interpreters of Arabic and Turkish available in France, and at their head he appointed the most experienced of them. His name was Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis (Venture for short). He came from a family of interpreters based in Marseilles. He had been trained for interpreting since childhood, first in Paris then in Constantinople (today's Istanbul). He had risen in the French diplomatic service, in the region that in those days was called the Levant, until he reached the supreme rank of Interpreter Royal (Interprète du Roi). By 1798 he was nearly 60 and semi-retired, but he was pressed back into service.

All went well at first for the Army of the East (Armée d'Orient), at least on land, but then disaster struck. Hearing that an Ottoman army with British support was heading towards Egypt, Napoleon decided in 1799 to make a pre-emptive strike by invading coastal Palestine and he sent Venture with the expedition. It was a fiasco. It was forced to abandon its siege of Acre and turn back. During the withdrawal from Acre, Venture fell ill, probably with dysentery or the plague, and died.

Napoleon slunk off back to France. The army he left behind had brought other interpreters with it, but the loss of Venture was felt. It was at that juncture that it took on a French-speaking Egyptian named Ellious Bocthor. He was 15 years old. He was a Copt, a member of the minority Christian sect to which Egypt owes so much. How he came to know French so well is a bit of a mystery. There were no schools of foreign languages in Egypt at the time. Al-Tahtawi's famous Faculty of Languages (kulliyyat al-'alsun) didn't open in Cairo until 1836 and French visitors before Napoleon were few and far between. Furthermore he came from Asyut, which is in Upper Egypt far to the south of the Mediterranean. He hadn't been abroad. Perhaps, like Ahmed at Luxor, he was a quick learner who picked it up from working with French people. One important thing we know from his later career is that his knowledge of Arabic was very thorough.

When the British expelled the French from Egypt in 1801, Ellious followed the Armée d'Orient back to France. There, thanks to his army service, he was eventually given a position at the War Ministry (Ministére de la Guerre) translating some of the mass of Arabic documents that had been brought back from Egypt and working on a large-scale map of the country.

The reputation he earned by his work there enabled him to advance further due to an important development in Arabic studies. In 1795, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, a new school of languages and translation had opened in Paris. Venture had been involved with it. It was the Special School for Oriental Languages (École spéciale des langues orientales, popularly known as Langues O), which still exists under the name Institut National des Langues et Cultures Orientales (INALCO) and can claim to be the oldest continuously operating school of translators in the world. Until that time the Arabic taught in the European universities was all of the Classical variety, that is to say the language of literature and the Qur'an. The everyday spoken language was looked down on, even by the Arabs themselves. (When I was studying Arabic at the University of London in the 1940s that was still the attitude there.) But the Egyptian expedition had opened the eyes of some of its participants to the need for a more practical approach. So in 1819 Ellious was engaged at the school to give the first course of Colloquial Arabic, and in 1821 he was made Professor of Colloquial Arabic (professeur titulaire d'arabe vulgaire).

Meanwhile he was working on what was to be his magnum opus, his French-Arabic Dictionary (see Sources below). A first draft exists from 1814. It was not really a dictionary of colloquial Arabic, but it broke with the tradition of Arabic lexicography by including post-classical modernisms. For example argent, monnaie / flws, dra:hm.

Then in 1821 he died from an illness with his dictionary still unfinished. It was completed by his successor at Langues O, Armand Pierre Caussin de Perceval, another former interpreter, and published in 1828. It remained a standard reference work throughout the 19th century.

Ahmed and Ellious, two professionalised young Natural Interpreters of the same language pair and from the same country, but from different communities in very different times and with very different destinies. In particular Ellious's career illustrates the role of French military interpreters, whose history as a corps goes back two centuries (see the Behm reference below).

Valley of the Kings. Wikipedia, 2017.

French campaign in Egypt and Syria. Wikipedia, 2017.

Copts. Wikipedia, 2017.

Ellious (aka Elie) Bocthor. Dictionnaire français-arabe. Revised and enlarged by Armand Pierre Caussin de Perceval. Paris: Firmin
Didot, 1828-1829. 2 vols., large 4°, 461 + 435 pages. The Arabic typography was supplied by Firmin Didot, a famous printer and type founder; it's clear but not vowelled There have been several re-editions, one of which can be bought through Amazon. A copy of the original edition in its red morocco binding and bearing Caussin de Perceval's autograph was recently offered on the internet at 4,500 euros.

Firmin Didot. Wikipedia, 2016.

M. Behm et al. Le Corps des Officiers des Affaires Militaires Musulmanes. ANOCRE Association Nationale des Officiers de Carrière en Retraite, 2016. Click [here] or go to

The Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis who features as a leading character in the 1997 film Passion in the Desert bears no resemblance to the real Venture de Paradis of this blog. A case of stolen identity.

1. An early morning band of visitors on the road to the Valley of the Kings. Source: Looklex Egypt.
2. Napoleon with his troops and two of his scientists.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Correction: The Oldest Depiction of an Interpreter

One of the most popular posts on this blog has been the one of 5 July 2010, because of its photo of a detail from the the magnificent Haremhab Frieze. The post has been viewed by more than 5,000 readers. The frieze, which is now in the Royal Antiquities Museum in Leiden, Holland, dates from about 1,330 BC and shows an interpreter for one of the Egyptian pharaohs in action. If you haven't seen it, you can do so now by entering frieze in the Search box on the right.

The title and text of the post proclaimed that it was the earliest known depiction of an interpreter. But now a Hungarian reader, historian Kata Aklan, has written with proof that it's not so. I thank her for the correction. She says,
"The earliest image of an interpreter is that of Shu-Ilishu, an interpreter of the Meluhhan language (generally held to be a language of the Indus civilization) from ca. 2020 BCE."
That's a significant difference that pushes the record back 700 years. Furthermore she provides a link that leads to an image from the interpreter's cylinder seal as well as a key article by an American expert on the Indus Valley civilisation, the late Gregory L Possehl (see Sources below).

Some words of explanation. Meluhhan was indeed a language of the civilisation that flourished along the valley of the Indus river in what is today Pakistan. The greatest cities of the civilisation were Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. So far Meluhhan has only been partly deciphered because of a lack of bilingual texts that could serve as a 'Rosetta stone'. However, Shu-ilushu's seal is not from there but from another culture, the contemporary Late Akkadian civilisation of Mesopotamia (roughly today's Iraq). The characters on the seal are therefore not in Meluhhan but in a better-understood Akkadian language: Sumerian cuneiform. It's known that there was a Meluhhan village called Guabba in Ákkadia, which would explain the need for an interpreter. An alternative explanation might be that he was needed for mercantile exchanges, for the Harappans are known to have traded widely by sea. From thefact that he had his own seal, it would seem that he was a professional.

The story of the modern provenance of the seal, as told by Dr Possehl, is also fascinating. It turned up in a collection of antiquities called the Collection Le Clercq.
"Gathered together in the 19th century by a wealthy man, this collection is composed of objects purchased from dealers with little, if any, provenance data presented. Therefore, we do not know where Shu-ilushu's cylinder came from."
But we do know that the Le Clercq collection found it way into the Louvre in Paris. Then it happened that in the spring of 2004 some objects from the collection were sent on loan to an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was there that Possehl spotted it and had a better rollout made from it than the one previously available in Paris.

Notice that on both the frieze and the seal the interpreter is a much smaller figure than the main personages, signifying a servant status. As for the Haremhab Frieze, it's still, as Kata says, the second oldest depiction. Haremhab and Shu-ilishu both illustrate the universality of translation over time.

Anna Katalin Aklan. Budapest: Central European University, Doctoral School of History, 2017. Click [here] or go to

Gregory L Possehl. Shu-ilushu's cylinder seal. Penn Museum Expedition, volume 48, issue 1, 2006. Click [here] or go to

Cylinder seal. Wikipedia, 2016.

Fanie Vermaak et al. Guabba, the Meluhhan village in Mesopotamia. Click [here] or go to

Heather Whipps. How ancient trade changed the world. Live Science, 17 February 2008. Click [here] ot go to

The rollout of Shu-ilishu's cylinder seal. Courtesy of the Départment des Antiquités Orientales, Musee du Louvre, Paris Source: Shu-ilushu's cylinder seal. Click [here] or go to