Friday, September 17, 2021

George Smith, Translator of a Civilisation


It’s been some time since there’s been a historical post on this blog, so here’s one.


There are translators who are justly famous for introducing an author or a work into another culture: Constance Garnett for Tolstoy in England, Rimbaud for Poe in France, Rabassa for García Márquez in the United States, and so on. And then there are translators whose fame is at a transcendent level because they introduced not just a single author but a whole culture or civilisation.  Such were Hunain ibn Ishaq and his colleagues and acolytes at the Bait al-Hikma in ninth-century Baghdad who transferred the wisdom and science of the Greeks to the Arabs; or Young and Champollion, translators at the graphemic level, who unlocked the mysteries of Ancient Egypt; or Sir William Jones, who made the first English translations of several classical Indian works.


One translator in the second category is much less well known today, although in his own day his most important translations drew even the prime minister of England to come and listen to him lecture. Yet curiously enough he isn’t mentioned in the otherwise admirable Translators Through History. And if you are looking for him with a browser you have to distinguish him from the dozens of others with the same very common English name: George Smith.


He was a native, self-educated translator with excellent mentors.


As the son of a working-class family in Victorian England, Smith was limited in his ability to acquire a formal education. At age fourteen, he was apprenticed to a London publishing house to learn banknote engraving, at which he excelled. From his youth, he was fascinated by Assyrian culture and history. In his spare time he read everything that was available to him on the subject. His interest was so keen that while working at the printing firm, he spent his lunch hours at the British Museum, studying publications on the cuneiform tablets that had been unearthed near Mosul in Iraq by the great archaeologists Austen Henry Layard, Henry Rawlinson, and Hormuzd Rassam during the archaeological expeditions of 1840–1855.   These expeditions were part of a mid-19th century initiative by European institutions and governments to fund expeditions to Mesopotamia to find physical evidence to corroborate events described in the Bible. What the explorers found instead, however, was that the Bible - previously thought to be the oldest book in the world and comprised of original stories - actually drew upon much older Sumerian myths.


Smith's natural talent for cuneiform studies was first noticed by Samuel Birch, Egyptologist and Director of the Department of Antiquities, who brought the young man to the attention of Rawlinson, who was a renowned Assyriologist. As early as 1861, he was working evenings sorting and cleaning the mass of friable fragments of clay cylinders and tablets in the Museum's storage rooms. The work of piecing together the thousands of fragments was a colossal jigsaw puzzle.


By 1871, Smith published the Annals of Assur-bani-pal, which he had transliterated and translated, and he had communicated to the newly founded Society of Biblical Archaeology a paper on The Early History of Babylonia, and an account of his decipherment of the Cypriote inscriptions that had been discovered in 1800 (see Sources below).


Smith’s greatest discovery came the following year, 1872,  when he achieved worldwide fame by his translation of the Chaldaean account of the Great Flood, which he read before the Society of Biblical Archaeology on 3 December and whose audience included the Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.  According to the accounts of his co-workers in the reading room of the Museum library, on the day of the discovery, when Smith realized what he was reading he "began to remove articles of his clothing" and run around the room shouting in delight. (This must have happened in Panizzi’s magnificent new Reading room, seated in whose broad wooden armchairs I too did research when I was a student at nearby SOAS.)


The text that excited Smith so much is better known today as the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh (/ˈɡɪlɡəmɛʃ/, one of the oldest known works of literature. It had been discovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853 on an archeological mission for the British Museum on behalf of his colleague and mentor Layard. He found it in the ruins of the  library of the seventh-century BC Asssyrian king Ashurbanipal. The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, regarded as the earliest surviving notable work of literature. By this translation Smith single-handedly opened up to the West the literature and civilisation of Sumeria from around 2100 BC.


The tablet describes how the gods sent a flood to destroy the world and how one man, Utnapishtim, was forewarned and tasked by the god Enki to abandon his worldly possessions and build a giant ship to house and preserve living things; and how after the flood he sent out birds to look for dry land. It came as a bombshell to the fundamentalist-minded Victorians, for here was an account unmistakably similar to the story of Noah’s Ark in the Hebrew Pentateuch but several centuries older.


A London newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, was moved to finance another expedition. It arranged for Smith to go to Nineveh  and carry out excavations with a view to finding the missing fragments of the Flood story. This journey resulted in the discovery of some missing tablets. Smith spent most of the year 1875 fixing together and translating the fragments relating to the Creation, the results of which were published in The Chaldaean Account of Genesis (1880, co-written with Archibald Sayce).


In March 1876, the trustees of the British Museum sent Smith once more to excavate the rest of the Library of Ashurbanipal. At Ikisji, a small village about sixty miles northeast of Aleppo, he fell ill with dysentery, the bane of many Middle Eastern travellers, and died from it aged only 36.



George Smith (Assyriologist). Wikipedia, 2021.

British Museum reading room. Wikipedia, 2021.

Massimo Perna. Corpus of Cypriote syllabic inscriptions of the 1st millennium BC. Kyprios Character, 2020.

Epic of Gilgamesh. Wikipedia, 2021

Utnapishtim. Wikipedia, 2021.


Gilgamesh, King of Uruk.

Source: Geohistoria

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Fate of the Afghan Fixers


Recent events have disrupted the schedule for this blog. It’s difficult to concentrate on writing with so many disasters unfolding. A couple of posts ago we expressed the fear that efforts to rescue the Afghan interpreters who were embedded with the allied forces would prove to be too little and too late – a prediction that was tragically true for many of them. Here’s one example.


Hero Afghan Interpreter Mohammed Nabi Wardak, 30, is sleeping on the streets of Athens and fled his country of Afghanistan since he helped British armed forces in the fight against the Taliban. This simply cannot be right and it’s our duty to help him.

Mohammed served on the front line in Helmand Province between 2008 and 2011. His commanding officers during this time described him as an “excellent interpreter” who risked his life on many occasions. Earlier this year a review in policy meant that over Afghan interpreters had been given the right to stay in the UK to protect from the threat of extremists and as a way to recognise the work they have done for us. Mohammed deserves that too.

Mohammed was threatened during his service with our armed forces and continued to receive threats by the Taliban which have been directed to his family and to him. He was forced to leave the army because of it and leave a second time to look after his sick mother. He has had to leave his wife and family in Afghanistan.


The general public has a poor understanding of the role of the military interpreters (often called translators) in Afghanistan. There was much more to it than translating between English and Pashto or Dari, the two main Afghan languages. They were fixers. Fixers is a term that goes back a long way in a pejorative general sense, in fact to 1601 according to Merriam-Webster. Hence: “The one-time fixer for Trump, Cohen…” More recently, however, it has become associated with journalists sent on assignment to countries with which they are only superficially acquainted and whose languages they do not speak. In that role they are invaluable assistants, factotums. They are not only the mouthpiece for their clients, they are also their ears and must report what the other side are saying. They aren’t neutral; their loyalty is to their clients, some of whose lives they saved. And from there it is easy to understand how they became invaluable assistants to the American and allied military. This explains the close relationships that were often formed between the fixers and the soldiers to whom they were assigned and the remorse that the latter feel at leaving their fixers to their fate. If today I were to update my All of Interpreting paper, I would certainly have to add fixer. The closest terms to it are liaison interpreter and escort interpreter.


Not all the interpreters were so unlucky. Some did manage to get away in the nick of time. A recent issue of El Confidencial tells the story of Salem Wahdat, who worked for several years for the Spanish troops in Afghanistan and for the Spanish embassy in Kabul. In the latter role he even interpreted for the King of Spain. He was one of the tiny handful of Afghans who had studied Spanish at university. One Saturday morning, in spite of the turmoil in Kabul, he decided to go to the office. When he got there he found that not only had his boss failed to turn up but all the government offices were empty. He took this as a sign that the moment had come for him to disappear too. His mother and his brothers urged him to get away without them because he would certainly be a target for the Taliban. He took the first commercial flight he could find and managed to get on it thanks to his diplomatic passport. He ended up in Turkey with what little money he had managed to withdraw from a bank. His children got out later.



May Bulman. Afghan man who ‘risked his life’ for British army sleeping on streets of Athens after being rejected by UK. Independent, 17 August 2021.


Alejandro Requeijo. La historia del traductor afgano que conoció al rey y se salvó por seguir yendo a la oficina (The story of the Afghan translator who met the King and was saved by still going to the office). El Confidencial, 20 August 2021.


Brian Harris.  All of Interpreting, A Taxonomic Survey., 1980.


Image source: Air Force Magazine