Monday, December 23, 2019

Queen Elizabeth I of England, Lifelong Native Translator

There are translators who do it for money (salaried or freelance); there are those who do it pro bono (for friends, relatives, NGOs, love of literature, etc.); there are those who do it for their own self-improvement, perhaps as an aid to learning a language; and then there are those who do it for sheer pleasure, perhaps as a challenging word game like playing Scrabble.

When eleven-year-old Lady Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth I of England, translated a long French religious poem in 1544 as a present to her mother Catherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, she clearly belonged to the pro bono category.

However, she may also have done it as an intellectual game inspired by her Renaissance education. In our  paper Translating as an innate skill we mentioned children who translated between their parents even though they were aware that the latter understood one another without assistance.

Here's an extract from an earlier post on this blog about Elizabeth as translator:

"[The French poem] L'âme pécheresse was only the beginning of Elizabeth's lifelong affection for translating. She must have enjoyed doing it, for itself or for the prestige it gave her in the culture in which she had been educated. Translating was a major element in Renaissance culture and its value was justly recognised. She was an impressive polyglot who knew Latin, French, Italian and Spanish. Over the next four decades, amid the tumultuous affairs of her realm, she produced a considerable body of translations.
"They include her renderings of epistles of Cicero and Seneca, religious writings of John Calvin and Horace's Ars Poetica, as well as Elizabeth's [own] Latin Sententiae, drawn from diverse sources, on the responsibilities of sovereign rule and her own perspectives on the monarchy."
To retrieve the post, enter Elizabeth in the Search box on the right.

Now another document has unexpectedly come to light that reinforces the above. The discovery is the result of some clever detective work.

"A manuscript written by Queen Elizabeth I has been discovered after lying unnoticed for more than a century.
"A literary historian [John-Mark Philo] from the University of East Anglia made the startling find in Lambeth Palace Library in London. [Lambeth Palace is the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury,]
"He turned detective to piece together a series of clues to establish that the queen was the author of the writings.
"The work is a translation of a book in which the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the benefits of monarchical rule."
The detective work required an analysis of Elizabeth's "messy" handwriting and even her private letter paper. Her known translations were usually done in her own handwriting

"Philo noticed that the watermarks on the paper stock used for the translation – a rampant lion and the initials GB, with a crossbow countermark – were those used for the queen’s private correspondence and translations. But there was only one translator at court in the late 16th century known to have translated any of Tacitus’s Annals: the queen herself, whom her contemporary John Clapham ´[historian and poet] described taking 'pleasure in reading of the best and wisest histories, and some part of Tacitus’s Annals she herself turned into English for her private exercise'."

Perhaps she did the Tacitus translation partly for her own self-instruction. But we can scarcely escape the conclusion that it's yet another proof of how much, from childhood to advanced age, she enjoyed translating.

John-Mark Philo. Elizabeth I’s Translation of Tacitus: Lambeth Palace Library, MS 683. Review of English Studies, 29 November 2019,

Alison Flood. Messy handwriting reveals mystery translator: Queen Elizabeth I. The Guardian, 29 November 2019.

Janet Mueller and Joshua Scodel (editors). Elizabeth I: Translations, 1544-1589. University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Kerala Schoolgirl to the Rescue

Each year at the translation school of the University of Ottawa we used to host a group of sixteen-year-old students from local secondary schools and give them a chance to try their skill at interpreting. We didn`t expect an expert performance; we only wanted to give them an idea of the difficulty of the task, but sometimes we had a surprise. I always remember one girl who gave a flawless consecutive French rendition of a five-minute English speech taken from a bank of speeches that we used for training our advanced graduate students. I and my colleagues were floored. Why would we submit such a genius to even one year of classes? Therefore the following exploit doesn't surprise me as much as it seems to have done the reporters from The Indian Express and News 18.

"Rahul Gandhi lauds student for translating his speech. 
"A class 11 student earned praise from Congress MP Rahul Gandhi during his visit to Wayanad for flawlessly translating his English speech into Malayalam. He was addressing a group of students after inaugurating a new science block in the school on Thursday. During his previous visits to Kerala, Gandhi faced problems when his translators failed to articulate his speeches.
 "Fathima Safa, a 16-year-old student at the Government Higher Secondary School in Karuvarkkundu at Wadoor, stepped forward when Gandhi sought help from the audience.
"'Is there any student who would like to translate what I am saying?' Gandhi asked. 
"Safa lifted her hand and was promptly asked by the Congress leader to come to the stage.
The young student without any hesitation climbed onto the stage and translated Gandhi's speech into Malayalam without any trouble.
"Gandhi later thanked her and handed over a chocolate in appreciation.
An elated Safa later said she never thought she would get such an opportunity."

Malayalam is a Dravidian language with nearly 40 million speakers mainly in the state of Kerala. Kerala is on tte southwestern coast of India. Note that Ghandi gave his speech in English, not Hindi. English is still an official language in India, and it's still very much in use in its everyday life and its literature. It`s an enduring legacy of colonialism. which offers the advantage of neutrality, of not being associated with a particular region or the detriment of others.

Express Web Staff. Kerala student wins praise for flawlessly translating Rahul Gandhi’s speech. The Indian Express, 5 December 2019.

Kerala Class 11 Student Turns Translator for Rahul Gandhi at Wayanad School. News 18, 5 December 2019.

The above image is from a video clip that appeared in both the newspaper reports.