Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The N-Word: A Thorny Problem of Affective Translation

A post on this blog earlier this year treated the topic of affective or emotive translating. (To retrieve it, enter affective in the Search box on the right.) There it was considered as mainly a problem of literary translation. However, a recent case illustrates that it extends much further.

The University of Ottawa, where I used to teach, is a very politically correct institution. It’s located literally in the shadow of the Canadian parliament. It therefore comes as a surprise to hear that the university has recently been caught up in accusations of racism. The accusations come from Black students.

 I was head of a department there for several years and we had a constant contingent of Black African students, mainly from Cameroon because Cameroon is a country that is officially bilingual in English and French like Canada. Relations were good. I never received any complaint from those students; on the contrary they were so happy with us that I and other members of the staff were invited to come and teach them in Cameroon, which we did.

 So what has caused the recent fracas?

 It happened because a lecturer uttered the infamous N-word in class. (I won’t risk further controversy by spelling it out here.) She didn’t call anybody by it. She didn’t speak approvingly of it. She simply cited it “as an example of a word that a community has reclaimed.” That is to say, she did a bit of descriptive linguistics. A student protested, was supported by others, and the lecturer was suspended though she was later reinstated.

The objection to quoting and describing the N-word, as opposed to using it, is clearly unjustified. All the major English dictionaries list it and spell it out, though they accompany it by a usage label such as offensive. Some even speak the pronunciation. Indeed the Merriam-Webster has a whole paragraph on its usage and history. There are other words, for example Yid (for Jew), that are very offensive but don’t raise the same passions today. And opinions change. For instance it wasn’t until the 1970s that the OED dared to print c**t in full.  But there’s no use arguing over it, because it’s not a matter of rational argument but of emotion.

And so the all-too-familiar battle broke out between those who condemned the lecturer and those who supported her. In response to her suspension, 34 professors in multiple departments signed a letter of support for her… saying that the use of the term can offer educational value and that a classroom is a place for debate.

“It is important that university administrations, while helping to uncover and abolish all forms of systemic racism, ensure that the transmission of knowledge, the development of critical thinking and academic freedom is protected,” the letter said in French.

 In a statement posted to social media, the Students Union called the professors’ letter “appalling.” A group of law students and a group of med students wrote in separate letters that they were “gravely alarmed” by the [professors’] letter… and called on the school to develop a zero-tolerance policy on the use of he N-word by anyone at the University of Ottawa.

"I cannot even fathom what academic freedom is because I’m here trying to tell you using the N-word is already alienating me and not giving me a freedom to exist in these spaces,” said… one of the students who signed the letter from law students.

 The whole argument was, however, rendered beside the point because the lecturer never invoked academic freedom in her defence. Instead she apologised and said that she had made a mistake because English is not her first language and she isn’t comfortable in it. She is, like many lecturers at the bilingual University of Ottawa, a native French speaker who may be called on to teach in English. So let’s look at the N-word in French.

All the major bilingual dictionaries list the N-word and furthermore they spell it out shamelessly. And they all give as the first French equivalent nègre, though they accompany it with labels like péjoratif or vulgaire or offer alternatives like bougnole (raghead). Indeed nègre is often very derogatory, as in parler petit-nègre (speak pidgin French). Yet nègre doesn’t arouse the same degree of passion as the N-word does in English; and the same an be said of the Spanish negro, for I haven’t heard of protests about it here in Spain. Not that the French didn’t have Black slavery in earlier times, but…

The French colonies in the Caribbean, in which some 80% of the total population had lived under the slave system since the seventeenth century, underwent a most unusual experience involving the initial abolition of slavery in 1794 [by the revolutionary Convention], its re-establishment in 1802 and then a second – and permanent – abolition in 1848.

 Though not without racism, prejudice against Blacks was never as virulent in Canada or Europe as in the United States.  That’s why escaped slaves fled to Canada and Americans of colour who could do so, like Josephine Baker In France and Paul Robeson in England, went to live in Europe. There’s still not the obsession in Europe with Black racism that one can observe all the time on American television and in American politics. In short it’s plausible that somebody whose studies and training have been almost entirely in French-speaking Quebec, which is the case of this lecturer, might not feel the strong emotions that the N-word arouses in some Anglophone communities.

 The above remarks are not meant to take sides in the dispute. They are the observations of a linguist. Also of a translatologist, for it’s apparent that the N-word cannot be translated by anything that has the same emotive effect. Untranslatability is too often treated as a matter of all or nothing, but this is an unfortunate case of partial untranslatability. The denotation can be translated but not the connotation.



Joe Friesen. University of Ottawa professor at centre of controversy involving racial slur says she regrets actions. Globe and Mail, 20 October 2020. There were many other newspaper reports.

Merriam-Webster. Nigger. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nigger#usage-1 or click [HERE].

 Nelly Schmidt. Slavery and its Abolition, French colonies, Research and Transmission of Knowledge. www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CLT/pdf/Nelly_Sc… · Fitxer PDF or click [HERE].


More recently than the above incident, (March 2021) the director of my alma mater, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, whose name is Adam Habib, has been caught using the word in a meeting and there has been a subsequent uproar. He used it in response to a question about lecturers using the term in class.

Habib, who is originally from South Africa and has been the director of the university since the new year, defended his use of the word by saying: “You do [find it unacceptable], I don’t actually. I come from a part of the world where we actually do use the word.” He added: “So why don’t I think it was problematic to use the word when I did. Well, because context matters and I was arguing for taking punitive action. You cannot impute maligned intention without understanding context. Do I believe that only blacks can verbalise the word. No, I don’t… I am aware that this is a common view among activists committed to an identitarian politics. I don’t identify with this political tradition. I grew up in a political tradition that is more cosmopolitan oriented and more focused on the class dimensions of structural problems.”

Thursday, December 10, 2020

School poetry translators


The translating done by schoolchildren that is described in the academic literature is mostly of the school language brokering kind. It’s a practical, everyday activity,  part linguistic part cultural,  between students, staff and parents. There have been several examples of it on this blog, notably the Young Interpreter Scheme in British schools. (To find the posts, enter Hampshire in the Search box on the right.) But children are capable of translating at a much more advanced intellectual level if they are given the right motivation and encouragement – as indeed they should be.


One school that recognises and stimulates this potential is Christ’s Hospital at Horsham in the south of England.  As its name suggests, it’s a very old school; it was founded in London in 1552 when hospital meant a charitable institution for the needy, aged, infirm, or young.” Its curriculum, like its uniform, has remained traditional; however, its independence has enabled it to be adventurous. Subjects that are available include History, Geography, French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Latin and Greek. But besides the languages that it teaches, the advent of pupils from immigrant families has led to the presence of less common native languages among the pupils. Teacher Stephen Walsh was so inspired by the educational benefits enjoyed by pupils that he has developed a school-wide poetry in translation project


And so a pupil at Christ’s Hospital fought off stiff competition to win The Stephen Spender Prize 2020 for poetry in translation in the 14-and-under category. Hannah Jordan, won first prize out of over a thousand entries with her translation of a Tamil poem and received her prize at a virtual ceremony on 18th November. Hannah continues a great tradition of poetry translation at Christ’s Hospital; many of the school’s students have had success in the competition in recent years, translating from a host of different languages, including Japanese, Swedish, Russian, Swahili and Modern Greek.


Hannah described in the commentary that accompanied her entry how she liked the poem because it was so true to her experience of life in India. “When we visit my family are constantly fixing things for my grandparents. As soon as we arrive, my dad puts together a long list of all the things that need fixing; inevitably, when we return, there is another list, yet we all get by just fine, even if the monsoon winds blow through the gaps in the wall.”

Hannah found the poem on a website, then worked with her mother on any tricky Tamil words then, in classic fashion, developed her literal version (what translators call a trot) into something more poetic, including for example the clever device of the repetition of And yet in each stanza. “One difficulty was making sure that the poem sounded funny in English yet kept the specific Tamil problems in the translation,” says Hannah.

Here is her translation:-


By Manushya Puthiran (2001)

Translated by Hannah Kripa Jordan

These doorbells –

Does it matter they don’t ring?

And yet—

None of my visitors

Have left without today’s gossip.


The bathroom latch is broken, so what?

A year and a half has gone by.

And yet—

No one’s privacy has been invaded,

No daydreams interrupted.


The chair may have a broken leg,

Its balance a little rocked.

And yet—

To the startled guest,

Not a hint of disrespect.


For more than a week now,

My car-brakes have been failing.

And yet—

God keeps watch on this city.

Still I return home,

In one full piece.


I suffer a pain in my belly,

But what can I do?

Nowadays it returns frequently.

And yet—

If I recline at a certain angle,

I can just about bear the pain.


Predicaments may be endless

In most parts of our life,

And yet—

Tamil life is plain sailing,

A thread without knots

 As always with a literary translation, it can be judged either for its accuracy in rendering the original or as a  production in the target language. In this case we have an unusual chance to make a comparison because Prabha Sridavan, a Tamil contributor to this blog, has kindly tracked down for us an earlier translation of the same poem done in India by acknowledged experts (see Sources). We also get a rare chance to compare a translation done by adults with one done by an adolescent.

Here is the earlier translation:-

The doorbells

don’t work

but no one goes away.


These one-and-a-half years

with no latch on the bathroom door

have endangered

no one’s privacy.


The broken leg of this chair

will not insult a guest

only slightly imbalance him.


I have been travelling

in this god-protected city

in a vehicle without brakes

for a week.


That pain at the base of the stomach,

somewhere to the left,

comes often these days.

if I sleep at a particular angle for a while

I can manage.


There is a lot

to be set right



Even so,


is Tamil life.




Stephen Spender Trust. http://www.stephen-spender.org/spender_prize.html or click [HERE].

The Stephen Spender Trust is a charity promoting literary translation and multilingualism through school workshops and the annual Stephen Spender Prize for poetry translation, organised in association with the Guardian newspaper .


The following link takes you to the Stephen Spender Prize Celebration online event where Hannah reads her poem at 16:37: https://youtu.be/kaq7ESAa16s or click [HERE]. The video is well worth listening to. The comments by the children are remarkably adult.

Translation by C. S. Lakshmi and Arundhathi Subrimanian, in The Unhurried City; Writings on Chennai, edited by C. S. Lakshmi, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2004.


Hannah Jordan.  Source: The District Post.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Native American Women NPIT Interpreters


Sacagawea is a well-known heroine in United States history. She was the Shoshone woman who accompanied her French-Canadian husband on the Lewis and Clark journey of exploration to the West in 1804-1806, interpreted for them with the tribes they met and saved their lives. There are memorials to her and she has been celebrated on this blog; to retrieve the post, enter sacagawea in the Search box on the right. It turns out though, with a little digging, that she only represents the tip of the iceberg of interpretation between the native peoples and the Europeans, and that in many instances the communication passed through women. Luckily there is a magnificent storehouse of research about these women. It’s North American Women: A Biographical Dictionary by Gretchen M. Bataille and Laurie Lisa (see Source below). There isn’t room here to give more than a small sample of the riches to be found in it. Perhaps some enterprising graduate student can make a thesis topic of it. The order below is chronological and the entries have been edited.

We may notice the varied roles that these outstanding women played on behalf of their peoples, their chiefs and their cultures as well as of their languages. As well as for their own people, they interpreted for the American military, the Congress, health and medical services, schools, anthropologists and ethnologists. It is often overlooked how important NPIT interpreters have been throughout the world for these last two clienteles. In spite of the racial and anti-feminine prejudices of their age, these women succeeded in getting a good education with the encouragement of their parents, who understood where the future lay.

—Sarah Laura Winnemucca Coltelli HOPKINS [Thocmetony, Tos-me-to-ne, Shell Flower, Sono meta, Somitone, Sa-mit-tau-nee, White Shell] (c. 1844–1891), was a major figure in the history of the Paiute tribe and a spokeswoman for the plight of her tribe and of Indian peoples in the later part of the nineteenth century. Granddaughter of Chief Truckee, who had guided whites across the Great Basin, and daughter of Chief Winnemucca, an antelope shaman and leader, she became a legendary and controversial figure during her lifetime. Because Sarah’s first encounter with whites had terrified her, she did not want to travel from Humboldt Sink, in Nevada, to California with her family in 1847, but encounters with generous settlers along the way dissolved her fear. In California she attended a convent school, where she learned to write and speak English. She also learned Spanish and knew three Indian dialects. By adolescence her skill as a translator and her position in a prominent family brought Sarah the role of interpreter at Camp McDermitt in northern Nevada, and later at the Malheur Reservation in Oregon. She also became the personal interpreter and guide for General Oliver O. Howard during the Bannock War in 1878. Sarah’s skills rapidly gained her recognition as spokeswoman for her people and led to lectures in major western cities on behalf of justice for Indians. Winnemucca’s autobiography is not only a record of her own life but also a history of her tribe and a strong plea for redress, as the title indicates: Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. The intent of her autobiography was to bring her crusade for justice to a wider audience and to convince white society that the Paiutes were decent people willing to coexist with whites. Her narrative ends with a plea to Congress to restore land and rights to her people. Winnemucca’s crusade… for justice and an end to corruption in administration of reservations met with limited success… Before her death, she returned to her people to open a school for Paiute children

Susan LAFLESCHE PICOTTE (1865–1915) see photo above, was born on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska on June 17, 1865.. [Her father,] a chief of the Omaha, was half white and half Ponca; his wife was white and Omaha. The influential LaFlesche family supported bringing white education to the reservation and made certain that each of their children received a good education. Susan LaFlesche attended school on the reservation, then accompanied her elder sister Marguerite to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. Three years later, in 1882, she returned home to teach at the mission school. In 1884 LaFlesche began her studies at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, a school for blacks and Indians, graduating with honors in the spring of 1886. In October of that year, she entered the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia. She graduated at the head of her class in 1889, becoming the first American Indian female doctor of medicine. LaFlesche returned to the Omaha Reservation upon completing a four-month internship in Philadelphia and worked as a physician at the local school. A few months later, she was appointed physician for the Omaha Agency... The work was difficult, and her duties extended beyond the purely medical; she also served as adviser, teacher, interpreter, and nurse... Despite her ill health and against the advice of family and friends, LaFlesche announced her intention to marry Henry Picotte in 1894.. a Yankton Sioux... Susan and Henry settled in Bancroft, Nebraska, where she practiced medicine and he farmed… Picotte continued to serve her people during this period. She acted as interpreter and helped many families and individuals during the transition Omaha society was experiencing. After Henry’s death in 1905, Picotte was appointed missionary to the Omahas by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions… She was politically active as well, and in 1910 headed a tribal delegation to the nation’s capital, where she addressed the secretary of the Interior on the issues of Omaha citizenship and competency. But it was in the area of health care that Picotte made her biggest contribution. She insisted that the Omaha adopt modern hygienic practices… She also represented the Omahas in white society, serving, from time to time, as their representative to the government. But more often, Picotte was the one who spoke for the Omahas in an unofficial but nonetheless clearly recognized capacity. She represented them to groups from the East and from Nebraska, ranging from women’s clubs to missionary, educational, and medical organizations. Until her death in 1915, she was an effective role model for hundreds of young Omahas.

—Flora Jay Ann Cox ZUNI (1897–1983), was born into the Badger clan of the Zuni, who live in a New Mexico pueblo. Her father was a member of the Bear clan and an accomplished artist, and her mother was an accomplished potter. The Zuni are famous for their jewelry. They speak a language which is unrelated to the languages of the other pueblo peoples and continue to practice their traditional shamanistic religion with its regular ceremonies, dances and mythology. Flora received her education at the boarding school at Black Rock and became one of the few Zuni of her time who could speak English. Later, this skill allowed her to become an interpreter for several different groups, including anthropologists, Bureau of Indian Affairs employees, Public Health Service employees, missionaries, and teachers. Noted as an interpreter and storyteller of great skill, Zuni worked with the anthropologists Alfred L.Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Ruth Bunzel, and Elsie Clews Parsons in collecting Zuni folk tales, prayers, and linguistic material. Bunzel said of Zuni, “Flora had excellent command of English and translated her own texts and interpreted for her father, mother, and sisters and helped with the revision and analysis of all texts.” She also became an entrepreneur and saleswoman who took in boarders and sold turquoise on commission to help support her family. Zuni remained a traditional Zuni throughout her lifetime; she strongly believed in the importance of passing traditions from one generation to the next.

The range of these biographies, which extend to the present day, emphasizes once again the universality of NPIT interpreting.


Laura M.  Bataille and Laurie Lisa. Native American Women: A Biographical dictionary. https://epdf.pub/native-american-women-a-biographical-dictionary-5ea7a83151463.html or click [HERE]. There’s a wealth of other references in this work.


Susan Picotte

Source: Nebraska Studios

Friday, November 6, 2020

The Third Way of Translating is Recycling


It used to be that all translating was done by humans. Then – for better or worse – came MT and so now there are fundamentally two kinds of translator, human and computer, though there are many sub-types, especially on the human side.

How many ways of translating are there fundamentally? There used to be two. One of them is by linguistic transformation, in which words and phrases in the target language (TL) are substituted for those in the source language (SL) and the grammar of the SL is modified to adapt it to that of the TL. It was the strategy used in early MT with only very limited success but humans use it too. The other way is less direct but gives better results. It consists of decoding the SL input into the ideas and feelings that it represents and then recoding all that in the TL. The two methods aren’t mutually exclusive; indeed, as Brian Mossop pointed out (see Sources below) they may operate in parallel simultaneously. And what is the SL decoded into? The influential French  teacher Danica Seleskovitch developed what is called the interpretive theory of translation in which she maintained that it is the form in which things are stored in long-term memory (see Sources), but what that form is remains an unknown.

With the advent of automatically segmented and aligned bilingual texts (or bitexts) in the late 1980s, a third way emerged. With bitexts, finding any segment of text in SL brings with it its translation in TL. It only remained to match any segment of a new SL text to its nearest repetition in the bitext. This was achieved by statistics by 1988, using not a single bitext but an enormous corpus of them. The corpus was the proceedings of the Canadian parliament, which are always written in English and translated into French or vice versa. We thus entered the era of statistical machine translation (SMT) which fuelled a generation of popular MT applications like Google Translate. The relatively slow and imperfect alignment of texts for SMT has to some extent been replaced by more sophisticated matching using the neural networks of artificial intelligence (AI). Furthermore AIMT can be applied to parallel texts, texts that are not translations but are about a similar subject and in a similar register. One of the first theses on AIMT was presented by a graduate student of mine in Ottawa, Bruce McHaffie, in 1997 (see Sources).

Now we come to the point of this post. SMT and AIMT both feed on translations and other texts that already exist. They aren’t translating anything anew, only piecing together collages. In other words they are recycling, as surely as old bottles are broken up and recycled into new. There’s nothing new about recycling old translations; a classic example is the ever-popular Authorised Version of the English Bible, which drew heavily on the previous translation by William Tyndale:

A recent computerised study has revealed that about 84% of the AV New Testament and about 76% of the Old Testament is verbatim Tyndale.”

When whole works are recycled it's called retranslation

What is new, however, is the fragmentation of the original texts and the automation of matching the pieces. Its limitation is that it cannot be of better quality or more understanding or more up to date or more empathetic to authors and readers than the material from which is composed. But with the popularity of MT it has become established as the third way of translating.



Danica Seleskovitch.  Langage, Langues et mémoire, étude de la prise de notes en interprétation consécutive. Preface by Jean Monnet. Paris : Minard, 1975. 273p.


Brian Mossop. An alternative to 'deverbalization'. 2003. http://www.yorku.ca/brmossop/Deverbalization.htm or click [HERE].


Brian Harris.  Bitext, a new concept in translation theory, Language Monthly,  54.8-1O, March 1988. Available at https://independent.academia.edu/BHARRIS or click [HERE]


Bruce McHaffie. The Application of Neural Networks to Natural Language Translation. Advisers Brian Harris and Mario Marchand. MA dissertation, School of Translation and Interpretation, University of Ottawa, 1997. 91 p. https://ruor.uottawa.ca/bitstream/10393/4421/1/MQ28444.PDF or click [HERE].


Jonathan D. Moore. The Authorised Version: the influence of William Tyndale’s translations. https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.tbsbibles.org/resource/collection/255F0F61-81C1-4992-BC04-CA72788DF0BB/238-1.pdf or click [HERE].

Sunday, October 25, 2020

When Franco met Hitler: Addenda for "At the Gateway to Spain"




Last Friday, 23 October, was the eightieth anniversary of  one of the most famous meetings in the modern history of Spain. On 23 October 1940, Caudillo Francisco Franco met a victorious Führer Adolf Hitler for a few hours of negotiation in the railway station of the French frontier town of Hendaye. This blog has devoted several posts to it in past years, but there’s no need to go looking for them because they've been collected into an article that you can find on my Academia page (see reference below) and which focusses on the two interpreters at the conversation.

Eighty years later the event continues to fascinate both professional and popular historians. One article in the Spanish newspaper ABC drew 200 comments from readers! Indeed this posting is late because I found more new material than I anticipated.

The ABC article is one of a series. Much of what they discuss is already well worked over, for instance the reasons why Franco declined to enter WW2 alongside his supposed ally Nazi Germany. In brief, he went to Hendaye hoping to wrest large parts of Morocco, Algeria, etc., from the French, but was thwarted by Hitler’s desire to avoid a break with Pétain, whom he was due to meet a few days later. Or why he arrived in Hendaye late; was it really deliberate, to make Hitler nervous? But there are also some surprises even now.

It’s little known, for example, that before the meeting, the notorious Heinrich Himmler, head of the German SS, made an official visit to the Basque country and Madrid to coordinate the security preparations for it. Then he went off to Barcelona and Montserrat to hunt for religious relics.

Better known is Hitler’s remark to Mussolini after the Hendaye meeting that he would rather have three or four molars pulled out than suffer another session with Franco. He also complained about Franco’s droning voice. But the Germans already had a low opinion of the Spanish leader even earlier It’s typified by the put-down made by Admiral Canaris, Hitler’s spymaster, that “Franco is no hero, just a little squirt.” Yet it was the duplicitous Canaris, while in Spain to inspect the Gibraltar area, who twice advised Franco, through his foreign minister and brother-in-law of his wife, Ramón Serrano Suñer, not to get involved with the German plans. When Serrano Suñer visited Berlin in September 1940 he sensed that German support for Spain was lukewarm and he wrote home as much.

Though the French possessions in Africa were certainly on Franco’s list of demands for entering the war, it turns out he had even more pressing requirements. The Spanish economy was in tatters and its army, though battle-hardened, lacked armament. He urgently wanted wheat, petrol and artillery. He wrote in a letter to Serrano Suñer: 

“Bear in mind the seriousness of our internal supply situation with the harvests even below the latest forecasts. It forces us to seek a solution to the question of supplies from Germany with some contribution from Italy. So it suits us to be in it [the Axis war] but not to be in a hurry, If we can delay our participation without prejudice to the overall situation it will be to our advantage.”


Another surprise is that the de luxe railway carriage in which Franco travelled the 20 km from San Sebastian in Spain to Hendaye and arrived late still exists in an unexpected place and in a poor state of preservation. It was built in 1929 for the journeys of King Alfonso XIII. Decommissioned in the 1950s, it has survived abortive attempts at restoration and now sits lonely in a shed in the town of Almazán in the relatively remote province of Soria. It’s not mentioned in the official tourist guide of the town.


But perhaps the most surprising of all and the most recent, though it’s of no historical importance, is the affair of the doctored photos. Long before the era of Photoshop there were photographers who were skilled at faking photos. Franco was much smaller than Hitler. It didn’t suit the Falangist propaganda to show that. So the official Spanish news agency Efe had pictures of the meeting produced that minimised the difference. One of them is reproduced above.



Luis Tagores and César Cervera. La «actitud dura y ambiciosa» de Hitler que anticipó el choque en Hendaya. ABC, 17 December 2018.


H. Diaz. El eterno abandono del vagón de la «entrevista de Hendaya». ABC, 27 December 2017.


Mónica Arrizabalaga. Las fotos trucadas de Franco y Hitler en Hendaya. ABC, 20 October 2020.

Mónica Arrizabalaga. El día que España estuvo a punto de entrar en la Segunda Guerra Mundial, según el relato de  Serrano Suñer. ABC, 24 October 2020. The latest source, it recounts Serrano Suñer`s recollections and confirms that the real reason why Franco arrived late was the delapidated state of the Spanish railway.


Brian Harris. At the Gateway to Spain: Hitler, Franco, Pétain and Their Interpreters. Go to https://www.academia.edu/8901274/At_the_Gateway_to_Spain_Hitler_Franco_P%C3%A9tain_and_their_Interpreters or click [HERE].

Friday, October 9, 2020

Valencia’s Jewish Interpreters in 1238


It’s a tradition on this blog to have an entry for 9 October (el Nou de Octubre), the national day of the Valencians. The event has a monument in the village where I live, the Creu de la conca (Cross of the Conquest) , a replica of the one that was erected in the 14th century to mark the marshy area where King James I of Aragon (in Valencian Jaume I) parked his army for two weeks while he negotiated the surrender of the city after a long siege.

The Moors (Arabs and North Africans) had ruled Valencia (Arabic بلنسية) from 718 to 1238. During that time it was a prosperous and expanding city in a rich agricultural setting where they introduced irrigation and rice cultivation. Eventually, however, their regime was ended by the military campaigns of the Christians from the north and the internecine warfare between the Muslim principalities.

The pause in the fighting from 28 September 1238 onwards was ostensibly to allow the negotiations but in reality also a device for both sides to play for time. James was expecting troops from Aragon to reinforces the army he had brought mainly from Tortosa; the Moors were hoping for reinforcements from Tunis. The Tunisians made the mistake of landing further north at Peñiscola (a town worth visiting if ever you are in the area). Meanwhile the negotiators had to overcome a language problem. James only spoke Aragonese, a Latin language; the Moorish ruler Abu Zayd only spoke Iberian Arabic. Interpreters were essential. Where were they to be found?

Under the Moors, Valencia had a Jewish community eminent for its size and wealth. Their community and trade connections had always kept them in contact with both the Christian and Muslim worlds. Learned members of the community were taken on as translator-secretaries and interpreters. The names of some of them have come down to us: Maestros R. David, R. Solomon, and R. Moses Bachiel; David Almadayan, secretary to the infante D. Fernando; Maestros (or Alfaquins, physicians) R. Joseph, Abraham ibn Vives (probably the father of the wealthy Joseph ibn Vives who in 1271 held a lease of the salt-works of Valencia, and who was probably the ancestor of the humanist Luis Vives (1492-1540), after whom a street and a secondary school in Valencia are named),.  

When James finally made his entry into the conquered city on Oct. 9, 1238, the Jews went out to meet him with their rabbis and delegates at their head, and presented him with a scroll of the Law in token of homage. As a reward for the important services which they had rendered him in the conquest of the strongly fortified city, he presented to some of them houses belonging to the Moors, as well as real estate in the city and its precincts. Among those who received such gifts after the repartimient (redistribution of Valencia) were the secretaries and interpreters of the king:

James was an excellent administrator as well as a warrior. The Jewish community continued to prosper in their allotted quarter of the city (the aljama) with a few restrictions under James and his immediate successors, but envy and fanaticism were building up. On July 9th,  1391 a large group of youths attacked the Jewish Quarter and killed over 250 people, ransacking their homes and raping the women of each household. Though over 90 people were eventually arrested, this event essentially ended the Jewish presence in Valencia with the exception of visiting businessmen. The remnants of the aljama were obliterated.


Isidore Singer and Meyer Kayserling. Valencia. Jewish Encyclopedia. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14628-valencia or click [HERE].

Luis Vives. Wikipedia, 2020. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Luis_Vives, or click [HERE].

Llibre del Repartiment (Valencia). Wikipedia, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llibre_del_Repartiment_(Valencia) or click [HERE].


Jaume I el Conqueridor, King of Majorca and Valencia, Count of Barcelona, Lord of Montpellier. Source: Google Images.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Guest Post by Prabha Sridevan

Prabha Sridevan is one of the numerous literary translators in India who translate from Indian languages ─ in her case Tamil ─  into English, such is the enduring nationwide readership for English in her country. She already contributed a guest post to this blog in 2017 which has had many readers; you can retrieve it by entering prabha in the Search box on the right. The following one reached us on this year’s World Translation Day.

Greetings on World Translation day. My first editor Mini Krishnan sent her band of translators her best wishes on this day. And one of them quoted from David Mitchell, and as is my wont, I went to the Google to read from where. And I found this.  “David Mitchell, said of his experience co-translating The Reason I Jump from Japanese: “As a writer I can be bad, but I can’t be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock. ” Are we all that? Wow! And yes can we be right all the way? A moot thought.

Very happy to write here again. When the State locked us down, in March, I naively thought that the end of the tunnel was not far away. Slowly realisation dawned that what I saw was not real light but some flickering fireflies. One had to get used to the locked-down state of affairs while battling with the guilty discomfort that I was luckier than millions of my country people. Everything familiar has changed, the year 2020 devoured it all.

Translation helped me. Now I (retired ten years ago) could also say I am “working from home”! My family has got used to this bug that bit me. My son sent me a book on translation, my daughter-in-law sent me an interview with a translator. I realised that each translator has her own technique, especially if you have ‘walked’ into translation like I have. I translate from Tamil to English. If I am doubtful about some word or the construction of a sentence, I read it aloud. I choose the one that “sounds” like how the Tamil original sounded. If I had captured the tone more closely, though another word may be closer to the meaning, the tone wins. A short story that I have recently translated is about a man and his obsession with pigeons. The title in Tamil is literally Pigeon madness. Neither the author nor I the translator liked it. I suggested “The pigeons flew into his soul.” He said yes!

I am now translating four writers, and I rejoice at the diversity. In my pen dwell a variety of people. From just the perspective of dates, the writings span from very early 20th century to the year of the pandemic. Yes, it is not my pen but my laptop if you nit-pick for accuracy. But pen has a certain delicious flavour that the laptop does not. Just listen to this, “In my laptop dwell a variety of people”…no certainly no.

Translators transform a creation from one language to another, but not just that, it is also from one culture to another, from one way of life to another. Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem “Let my country awake” which contains these lines, “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.” (Translated from Bengali) Translators chip away at these walls bit by bit, sometimes even within a country. While technology has broken down geographical bounds, human beings are stacking silos round themselves. So the translator is more important today. She gives you an insight into worlds you cannot see in one lifetime or even two. She creates empathy and understanding.

 I strongly feel that writers must bring the feel and fragrance of their country, community or culture. When they are translated into a language I can read, I understand that there are differences between the writer’s people and me, but we are the same. A novel I read some time ago was translated from an Indian language to English. I could read only the translation. I felt it was written even in the original with an eye on the world market. The names were Indian, the food was Indian, but if I changed the woman’s name to Juanita and made her cook tortillas, it will be in Mexico and you will not hear a wrong note. It did not have the “Indian core”, and I think that is essential. It is a certain ‘dishonesty’ is what I think. An arguable point. I am open to be countered.

Should we only translate recent writers?  In some languages, translations were not done with that enthusiasm as they are now. I know for sure that it is so in India. So do those long-ago writers get confined to their language readers only? Wouldn’t that be a great loss? Recently a speaker said at a lecture[1], “Libraries are ….repositories of views of every kind. Every republic needs a space for dissent, disagreement and discussion, a place for a fair and unbiased study of the past, a place where anyone may read and access anything by anyone else…what every such republic needs is libraries.”  …and translations. And also translations of great writers not new, if they have not been translated. Let noble thoughts come from everywhere (This too is a translation- a line from the Rg Veda)

[1] Bansari Seth Memorial Lecture by Justice Gautam Patel "One Nation under the Constitution" on 18th August, 2020 organized by The Asiatic Society of Mumbai