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.