Friday, December 2, 2022

Child Braille

                                            Sebastian Filoramo


A recent report in several news sources about a 12-year-old blind Venezuelan boy throws a spotlight on braille. Here’s Reuters’ version:


A blind 12-year-old Venezuelan soccer fan has found a way to participate in the craze of collecting World Cup soccer stickers, by adding Braille to them.

Sebastian Filoramo, from the western city of Barquisimeto, began the initiative with the support of his parents and school teacher a few months ago by buying and labeling the album stickers with a Braille machine.

"My dad is a genius, he thinks of everything," Filoramo, who lost his sight as a baby, said. "He told me: 'Do you want to fill the album? Then let's get it adapted.”


Of course this boy made news because what he’s doing is very topical. But in fact twelve is not exceptionally young for knowing and using braille. There’s a video on YouTube of children much younger being taught it (see Sources below).


Braille isn’t natural. Modern braille was invented in the early nineteenth century by the blind French teenager whose name it perpetuates. Strictly speaking, coding a text into braille isn't translating because braille isn’t a language. It’s a code. It encodes text that is already written in a language. However, braille coders themselves often call it translation; and anyway it’s covered at the level of conversion, so we needn’t be too fussy. (For more about conversion, enter conversion in the Search box on the right.)


Many people who know something about braille are unaware that it exists at three levels. Level 1 is the elementary level, where each braille cell (configuration of six dots) corresponds to a written letter. Young children begin there. It makes for slow reading, so at level 2 a braille cell may made to correspond to a whole word or even a whole phrase, a good example of language economy. This is the level of most older users. There is also level 3, which is personalised. Children’s progression through the levels deserves further study.


Braille is tactile. Hence it leads us into the realm of tactile interpreting, which really is translating and with all the spontaneity of voice interpreting. Although the number of people who use it is relatively small, there’s material about it on the internet and even many YouTube videos. Its most famous user was Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind.

Unlike braille, which is internationally standardised and has been adapted to many languages, the methods of tactile interpreting are more local and language dependent. They deserve more research.


Both braille and tactile interpreting are becoming computerised (see the Christian Science Monitor reference below) , but it doesn’t look as if the manual versions will go out of use any time soon.



Reuters. Blind  Venezuelan boy converts World Cup sticker album into Braille. November 10, 20223.

ONCE. Braitico ayuda a los más pequeños a aprender Braille de forma natural y divertida [Braitico helps very young children learn braille naturally and in a fun way]. In Spanish. YouTube


Louis Braille. Wikipedia, 2022.


Helen Keller. Wikipedia, 2022.


Jingnan Peng. New touch-based language by DeafBlind people: Protactile. Christian Science Monitor, 2020.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

The Natural Translation Hypothesis: Theory or Paradigm?


This is another theory post.

Many moons ago, early in the pandemia, the dean of church interpreting research, Jonathan Downie, in a friendly post on his blog Still Thinking, questioned my calling the Natural Translation Hypothesis (NTH) a new paradigm in translation research. (If you don’t know what NTH is, enter tenets of the natural translation hypothesis in the Search box on the right.) At the time I overlooked it, but now I see that quite a lot has been written about translation paradigms; there are even a couple of YouTube videos about them by Anthony Pym (see Sources). So here’s my point of view.


Research paradigm has two meanings. A strict one based on the seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, and a looser one where it is easily confused with category. Branches of translating like legal translation, simultaneous interpreting, etc., are categories, not paradigms. NTH is not a category because it applies to all those branches.


It may be that 50 years ago, when I first formulated NTH, I too confused theory and paradigm, but I wouldn’t do so today. A lot has happened in the meantime. The landscape of translation studies has changed and NTH itself has undergone some development. Today I would say that NTH is a member theory of a broader paradigm. That paradigm has a name: it’s non-professional interpreting and translation or NPIT. Non-professional is a misleading term because of its commercial connotation (like brokering in language brokering)  but such is its usage. Interest in NPIT has surged because of activities such as crowd-sourcing, translating for NGOs and translating video games. Today it has many publications and some international conferences. However, NTH has the distinction that it alone posits translation as a universal inborn and therefore inheritable ability; but NPIT has a descriptive, non-judgemental attitude to translating that accommodates it.


However, it is not enough to say that NPIT is a paradigm. In Kuhn, paradigm is closely connected with another term to form paradigm shift. A paradigm shift is a change in the basic assumptions or paradigms within the ruling theory of science. A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has been made. Kuhn argues that science does not progress via a linear accumulation of new knowledge but undergoes periodic revolution in which the nature of scientific inquiry within a particular field is abruptly transformed. Kuhn defines a paradigm as an accepted model or pattern. It is a research mode or pattern which is concluded by a scientific group at a specific time, and in turn, guides their research. According to Kuhn, “a paradigm shift is a change from one way of thinking to another. It’s a revolution, a transformation. It just does not happen, but rather it is driven by agents of change” (Kuhn, 1970, p. 10).


In the case of NTH, the agent of change has been the realisation that a great deal of translating is done by bilinguals who have had no instruction or training for it, many of them young children. In the previous, long-established paradigm, translating was always viewed as an activity conducted by people who had acquired the skill by training or example; in other words a highly cultured activity. However, we cannot claim that there has been a drastic shift from professional translation to NPIT. The old paradigm is still powerful, even dominant; and the most we can claim for NPIT is that it co-exists. (The same is true for another competing modern paradigm, the psycholinguistic one.) The dominance of the old paradigm shows in the flood of academic papers that flows across the internet each day.


By way of illustrating the cohabitation, consider the following.

“Based on an official resolution, Spain’s Foreign Ministry announced an open call (in Spanish) on October 14, 2022 to fill 49 translator and interpreter vacancies... The requirements for each individual post are outlined in the official bulletin. Beyond basic language fluency requirements — which include a combination of three languages, or one ulin our anguage and two variants of another language — an undergraduate degree is required. It can be a bachelor of arts in any discipline or an undergraduate degree in engineering or architecture. A degree in translation or interpreting is not required, a fact that has caused some people to rant on social media.”
Here's a typical traditional paradigm reaction:

‘I am totally outraged to see that, to enter the state’s Translators Corps, any degree will do… So what are we doing training translators and interpreters in our universities? It’s an INSULT.’ — Celia Rico @celiaricoperez.

 To which another reader retorts, in the spirit of the newer paradigm:

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing, provided applicants’ abilities are tested properly and we can be sure they are really able to translate. There are top-notch translators who don’t have a translation degree, and there are translation graduates who are hopeless.” — Isabel Garcia Cutillas, who is herself a professional translator.


And so the clash continues.



Anthony Pym. Summarizing the paradigms of translation theory. YouTube, 2009.

Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962..

Rocio Txabarriaga. In an unusual process, Spain set to hire dozens of translators and interpreters. Slator, 26 Oct 2022.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Language Brokering and the Pandemic in Canada

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the concept and practice of child language brokering (CLB). It's the translating and interpreting done by the children in immigrant families for their elders and peers. While a good deal has been written about it in some areas, including this blog, it’s always interesting to hear about it in other places, other languages and other contexts.


The Tyee is an independent, online news magazine from the most westerly Canadian province of British Columbia. Last year it published an article about CLB in that province, in the form of interviews with adults who had grown up with CLB in Vietnamese, Chinese and Punjabi. The article is of particular interest for the light it throws on the effect of the Covid pandemic.


In Metro Vancouver, the metropolis of British Columbia, people who have no knowledge of the official Canadian languages, English and French, total about 136,000. But in terms of what language people are most comfortable speaking at home, 621,110 people exclusively speak an unofficial language. In these circumstances we can be sure there is a lot of CLB.


The following is a condensation of the Tyee article. For more, follow the reference below.


Mimi Nguyen, Vietnamese


It was Mimi Nguyen’s older sister Kim who first modelled the expectation that the children of newcomers should step in as the family’s translators. Their parents settled in East Vancouver, by a stretch of Kingsway that many other Vietnamese refugees have called home since the late-1970s. Growing up, Kim helped these families too, translating teacher’s notices so that parents could keep up with their kids’ school progress. Because Mimi was educated in Canada, it was common for her generational peers to translate for their families as soon as they learned English.

Kim once helped their mother with an English question at just five years old, with the help of a cousin on the phone and a Vietnamese-English dictionary in front of her. The well-thumbed volume is still in the family’s possession.

It wasn’t until Mimi entered her preteens that she took over helping her parents, translating at in-person appointments and interpreting documents like bank slips.

“Sometimes it would take the whole community to translate bits and pieces of a document, calling one person and another to verify words,” she said. “Nobody in our network was fluent enough to translate everything confidently, so oftentimes, people felt like they were shooting in the dark.”

Language barriers are an age-old problem for immigrants and refugees, affecting everything from housing to health care, education to employment. But the pandemic has meant there’s more to translate than ever — and there have been dire consequences for those who can’t read the vital information. Even for people who do speak English in B.C., it’s hard to keep up with official sources and sort out the bad ones. But the “infodemic” weighs more heavily on families like Nguyen’s, who don’t get translations of government information as quickly or completely compared to official languages, if at all.

Nguyen is now 25, and with her sister living out of town, she is her parents’ primary translator.

It’s a privilege to be able to access information about the pandemic, and Nguyen worries about those who don’t have the language, time or know-how. “Every single day, those inequalities are heightened even further,” she said.

Mimi Nguyen and two of her friends started Bo V Collective for Vietnamese Canadians. The group initially thought if it “translated enough information just to help people to apply for CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit], that would be enough,” Nguyen said. But there seemed to be no end to important new information related to the pandemic, from news of various lockdowns to the vaccine rollout.

Kevin Huang, Chinese

I’ve never been a full-time translator like Nguyen, but as an on-call translator for family members, I’ve had some experience regarding what happens when facing systems that don’t use your language.

Accompanying grandparents to medical appointments, we’ve always had pleasant experiences with the doctors themselves. One ophthalmologist, not a native Cantonese speaker, made an effort to learn phrases in the language such as “Is it blurry?” and “Look this way” for patients like my grandfather.

But the gatekeepers are another story. A receptionist at Broadway’s Fairmont Medical Building belittled my grandmother by asking, “No English? Really? No English?” Another time, accompanying a relative who could speak English but needed a ride to a medical appointment, the receptionist, upon seeing us approaching, angrily said, “I can’t help you! I don’t do anything for Dr. Kwon!” We were not there to see Dr. Kwon.

When it was time for my grandparents to receive their COVID-19 vaccines, my mother and I tagged along without question. We went to the Sunset Community Centre in South Vancouver, where the vast majority of the seniors were Cantonese and Punjabi speakers. Not a single one of them went without a child or grandchild to help with translation.

Kulpreet Singh and Harjeena Heer, Punjabi

Singh, the eldest of three siblings, began translating for his grandparents at age 12. He provided help as his grandfather navigated a lymphoma diagnosis and a knee replacement. Over the years, he’s noticed things like health-care workers speaking louder and more curtly to his ganspaents or ignoring them entirely in favour of speaking with him or an English-speaking family member.

With as sensitive an issue as health care, messages don’t always come across word-for-word from English to another language, said Singh. That’s why interpretations that focus on meaning, use visuals and take cultural contexts into account are important.

Harjeena Heer and volunteers at the Sikh Health Foundation have applied this to their work translating for Punjabi audiences. Heer, 20, also grew up in a household with her grandparents, and began translating for them at age seven, taking on more responsibility as she got older. She recalls, for example, helping renew passports and answering calls regarding finances.

“My grandpa had a stroke, so I went with him for all the appointments,” Heer said. “My mom would come too, but I’d do most of the translation.”

Because most of the appointments were in Surrey — where Punjabi is the most common native language after English — her grandfather was comfortable when the person behind the counter spoke Punjabi as well. He was more nervous if there was an appointment in Vancouver. But most of all, it was reassuring to hear medical information in his native language from a trusted source like his granddaughter. “It definitely made him more comfortable to hear things coming from me, especially if it was something scary, asking if it was true.”

It’s not easy for institutions to build the same kind of trust that exists on an individual level. With so many touch points, it’s easier for governments or civic entities to sour a relationship with an individual. “It can take just one time to lose that trust,” said Huang of Hua Foundation. He understands that it can take governments time to get translation services set up, and mistakes happen. But whether it’s pandemic information or neighbourhood planning, approaching large groups of the population who don’t speak the official language in their native tongue is crucial to democracy, especially in a diverse place like Vancouver. “You’re enabling community members to become citizens, to participate in the civic agenda,” Huang said.

Mimi Nguyen’s father often pops into her room to ask what words mean. One phrase he was confused about last year was “social distancing.” Nguyen tried to think of a way to explain it in a way he’d understand. It turned out the key to interpreting it for him was to compare it to “long distance.” “I saw the light go on in his eyes,” she said. “It was because he and my mom had done long distance for a while. He was in Vancouver a full year before she joined him.”

There’s a racist double standard at work, says Hua Foundation’s Huang: “Why don’t people recognize that not everyone has the opportunity and privilege to learn English? Why is that when a primary English speaker speaks an ‘ethnic language’ it’s celebrated, but for people for whom English is their second or third language, they don’t get the same credit?”

These days, Mimi Nguyen’s father can speak conversationally, but he’s shy about getting something wrong. Paperwork an d appointments have always been “suffocating” for someone in his position, he said. Over the years, he’s feared needing an official translator because of the cost, and he’s also feared having to miss work and lose out on income — a common scenario among immigrant workers during the pandemic. “Có ti con thì ăn ui mt chút đnh (Having you children gives me comfort), he told his daughter.

While relying on English-speaking family members is one solution, Nguyen said adults like her parents sometimes feel bad for burdening young people like her, and young people also worry about letting their elders down. “When I’m doing it, I get livid,” said Nguyen. “If [something’s] not accessible, I worry about people who don’t have kids at home, or if their kids are abroad. I think about what if I wasn’t born. I know kids who have planned their futures to be close to their parents because they know that this is inevitable.” It’s a big responsibility to take on, especially when her generation might already be struggling with growing up as part of a diaspora, “trying to figure out how to fit in, how to get people to accept you.”

The pandemic has been a dramatic reminder that children like her can’t do it all.



Christopher Cheung. The translator kids. The Tyee,  30 April 2021.



Mimi Nguyen. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Intersemiotic Paraphrase

                                        Roman Jakobson


Warning: This is a theory post.


Note first that a paraphrase is not the same as a copy. The latter ideally shows no differences from its original. It’s like a photocopy. Whereas there must be differences for something to be considered a paraphrase.


It’s long been accepted that paraphrase is a kind of translation. The linguist Roman Jakobson, in his seminal article referenced below, included it under the name of intralingual translation (translation within the same language) as opposed to interlingual translation ( translation between languages). Yet until recently it has not been extensively studied by translatologists and the articles on paraphrase in Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica are surprisingly thin. A better source is the Bhagat & Hovey article referenced below.


One researcher who has done some thorough investigation of paraphrase in recent years is Boguslava Whyatt, head of the Department of Psychologistic Studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland. Her work has already been highly commended on this blog in a different context; to retrieve the post, enter whyatt in the Search box on the right of this page. For instance in the article referenced below she writes,

Our study fills the niche in empirical research and shows that both tasks [paraphrasing and translating] are carried out in the same stages but the effort needed to translate is much larger because when translating we have to switch between two different languages.


She employs the full panoply of modern research, as the following from another article illustrates:

We argue that cognitive processing in intralingual transfer and interlingual translation displays a substantial overlap in the way decisions are made. Since this theoretical claim has rarely been empirically validated, a comparative analysis of both processes is very much needed to pinpoint the similarities and differences between the cognitive effort needed to translate a text and to provide its intralingual paraphrase, for example in the form of a more reader friendly version. This aim motivated us to design the ParaTrans project in which we apply technologically advanced translation process tools, such as key-logging, eye-tracking and screen recording to collect user activity data. We discuss the methodological considerations needed to ensure the validity of the research design and reliability of its findings and report results of a preliminary study.


Nevertheless there is something missing in the current studies, and to see what it is we can do no better than to go back to Jakobson. Because he spoke not only about interlingual and intralingual translation but also about intersemiotic translation. If there is intersemiotic translation we would expect to find a parallel in intersemiotic paraphrase, and indeed there is one.  Intersemiotic translation

deals with two or more completely different codes, e.g., linguistic one vs. music and/or dancing, and/or image ones. Thus, when Tchaikovsky composed the Romeo and Juliet, he actually performed an intersemiotic translation: he 'translated' Shakespeare's play from the linguistic code into a musical one. The expression code was changed entirely from words to musical sounds

But an intersemiotic translation is never a copy. There are always changes. It’s always a paraphrase. In the case of the Tchaikovsky opus there are even three versions of it, all of them only a fraction of the length of Shakespeare’s play.


Yet even this is not the end of the matter. Because Jakobson was a linguist, he only considered intersemiotic paraphrase from a language original. To complete the picture, we also need to include the many cases where neither the original not its reproduction is linguistic. To do this, we need to move up from the level of language translation to that of conversion. For this specialised use of the word conversion, enter it in the Search box. It’s broad enough to cover intersemiotic paraphrase between any form of expression. To go back to the Tchaikovsky example, “as it was meant for ballet, there was a ballet dancer who 'translated' further, from the two previous codes into a 'dancing' one, which expresses itself through body movement.” For “translated” substitute “paraphrased”.



Boguslawa Whyatt et al. Paraphrasing and translating are similar operations for our mind but they require different effort. Poznan Studies in Contemporary Linguistics, De Gruyter, January 2016,  


Roman Jakobson (1892-1982). On linguistic aspects of translation'. In R. A.Brower (ed.), On Translation, pp. 232-239, 1959.


R. Bhagat and E. Hovy. What Is a Paraphrase? Computational Linguistics, 39, 463-472, 2013.


Kubilay Aktulum. What Is Intersemiotics? A short definition and some examples. International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, Vol. 7, No. 1, January 2017. 

Monday, August 22, 2022

Volunteer Women Interpreters in the Spanish Civil War (2)

In the previous post we drew on excellent research by Prof. Marcos Rodriguez-Espinosa of the University of Malaga which restores from oblivion the role of some of the women volunteer interpreters in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). He picks out three of them and gives interesting information about their educational backgrounds. We summarised the career of one of them, Aileen Palmer. Her story illustrates the inspiring influence of the Communist Party in the 1930s not only in Spain but also in faraway Australia. (In my student days it was strong in England too.) In conclusion, we turn to the other two.

Nan Green (1904-1984)

Nan Green was born in an Anglican family whose middle class standards of living declined when her father lost his job and fell ill in the early stages of the First World War. This process of proletarianisation would be the basis of her future left-wing sympathies, which made her join the BCP, together with her husband George…

In February 1937, George took the decision to travel to Spain as a driver of the ambulances in the convoy of the Spanish Medical Aid, with nurses, doctors and stretcher bearers. Nan, who also agreed that it was the best contribution they could make to help in the international war against fascism, followed his steps in July as a member of the administrative personnel attached to the medical units.


Green’s first responsibility was to be Assistant Secretary to Peter Harrison, a polyglot who spoke five languages, in an English hospital for wounded soldiers in the province of Cuenca, where the administrator, the surgeon, the theatre and war nurses and ambulance drivers were initially mostly from Spain, England and New Zealand… Much work was done in collaboration with the local women whose experience with nurses was limited to those nuns who mainly ran Spanish hospitals in those days… Green’s close contact with native civilians and soldiers was probably the main reason why she decided to receive Spanish lessons during the scarce free time her other responsibilities left her… “my first lessons in what later became almost a second language to me and contributed to my subsequent history…” Her growing command of Spanish was probably the reason why she was given the responsibility of escorting an Australian lady, sent by a railway organization which had raised a large sum of money for her trip. During the summer of 1938, Green was engaged as secretary to Leonard Crom, Chief Medical Officer of the 35th Division Medical Corps, where her main duties were to translate the doctor’s dispatches into formal Spanish, to keep the divisional medical records and to turn them into usable statistical information.


Crom was soon replaced by a Spanish-Gibraltarian, Enrique Bassadone, a professional and efficient doctor who did not approve of women and always addressed Green in Spanish “in the third person” [the formal person of verbs], to which she replied in the second [familiar] person, more usual in Republican Spain. This gives some idea of her character.

After the Battle of the Ebro (July-November 1938) the longest and largest battle of the war, all members of the International Brigades were ordered to withdraw from their military and sanitary duties, Nan among them. Unfortunately her husband, infantry sergeant George Green, died during the withdrawal. After the war, she kept contact for many years with Aileen.

Kajsa Rothman 

Kajsa Helin Rothman (1903-1969) was born in Karlstad, Sweden. After completing school, she moved to Paris, where she made her living as a nanny and a journalist. At twenty-two, she toured Europe and North Africa with a competitive dance group. Later on, she travelled to Romania, were, once again, she found a job as a nursemaid. In 1934, she started a travel agency in Barcelona. After the Fascist insurrection in 1936, despite her lack of medical background, she volunteered for the Red Cross and for a Swedish charity. Later in October she joined a Scottish Ambulance Unit in Madrid, contributed to Radio Madrid’s broadcasting services in Swedish and sent articles on the Spanish Civil War to a liberal Swedish newspaper... In December 1936, she approached Canadian Dr. Norman Bethune with the purpose of interviewing him for a book she was writing about him. A few days later, he hired her as secretary and interpreter at the Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit, which, with the funds provided by the Canadian Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy (CASD), he set up in a spacious apartment in one of the most affluent districts in Madrid. It was in these premises where Bethune’s team of doctors, nurses and technicians would work hard in the laboratories, fresh blood storage rooms and transfusion wards with the aim of providing blood along the front. Bethune soon figured out the relevance of propaganda in his plans to establish a blood transfusion unit in Spain. While Sorensen, his Canadian interpreter, did not share Bethune’s enthusiasm for such activities, Rothman happily engaged in short-wave radio programmes in several languages, and her close ties with influential foreign correspondents reporting from Madrid proved to be of great value as the unit’s innovative nature and the Spanish conflict began to be known in other countries... Rothman’s connections in diverse departments of the Loyalist government and her capacity to communicate in many different languages made her an essential asset in Bethune’s pressing need to find suitable blood donors. Her detailed knowledge of Spanish maps and her familiarity with the exact situation of strategic country roads, bridges and crossings also turned out to be crucial to gather information about the medical demands of the numerous mobile hospitals and the frequent trips transfusion units had to make on powerful vehicles to distant battlefields.


Rothman,, maintained a difficult relationship with her colleague Sorensen, as he resented her invading his translation duties, and also with the Spanish doctors at the transfusion unit, who thought her love affair with Bethune interfered with their work. Her outspoken confidence, her dubious political affiliations and her overt sexual behaviour would make her the perfect scapegoat of the Trotskyist spy hunt set up by communist run Servicio de Investigación Militar, the Republic’s intelligence secret police.


Later, Rothman joined the International Commission which helped Republican refugees to find a new life in Mexico, where her language skills and large scale organizational skills had made her an essential component. Rothman stayed in Mexico working as an interpreter guide and a teacher in the city of Tequisquiapan, until her death in Cuernavaca in 1969


The three women were drawn to the conflict and to one another by an affinity. Not the kind of affinity we see in literary translation (for that, enter affinity in the Search box on the right)  but an affinity of ideology and of adventurism. In conflicts that are ideological as well as military it is unrealistic to expect interpreters to be neutral. These women were not.


None of the them had trained as an interpreter, yet they were all able to function usefully. That was because all bilinguals can translate within the limits of their other cognitive abilities, experience and education. However, the translation ability has to be triggered. For this we may adapt an old saying and say, “Necessity is the mother of interpreting.”



Marcos Rodríguez-Espinosa, M. (2018). The Forgotten Contribution of Women Translators in International Sanitary Units and Relief Organizations During and in the Aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Current Trends in Translation Teaching and Learning E, 5, 348 – 394, 2018. Available at cttl_e_2018_12.pdf. Apologies for the wrong link address in the previous post

The above is only a selection from the wealth of information to be found in the article.


Battle of the Ebro. Wikipedia, 2022.

Norman Bethune. Wikipedia, 2022. 

There are photographs of the three women on Google Images. 


By happy coincidence an article in today’s The Guardian (25 August) relates something closely connected with the topic of the above. It’sSpanish civil war book reveals hidden history of female journalists” by Stephen Burgen. However, the book reviewed will not be publshed until the autumn.                                      



Sunday, July 31, 2022

Volunteer Women Interpreters in the Spanish Civil War (1)


The penultimate post on this blog was about interpreters in a recent conflict zone. This one is about an older conflict, namely the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939.

Spanish readers need no introduction to that war. Though it ended 80 years ago, the memory of it is still hot in the Spanish psyche and no day passes without reference to it in the Spanish press, media and parliament. Others,  however, may need to be reminded that it was fought between the elected government, which was very left wing and anticlerical, and a fascist military rebellion led by General Francisco Franco. Both sides sought support from forces outside the country. Franco was reinforced by the fascist regimes in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. The government side was aided by the Soviet Union and also by the motley International Brigades of foreigners impelled by their left-wing sympathies. The most famous of the latter was George Orwell; but we Canadians are also proud of Montreal surgeon Norman Bethune, who pioneered blood refrigeration and transfusion.

The foreign fighters on the government side had another thing in common besides their left-wing sympathies. It was that most of them knew no Spanish, and this generated an enormous demand for translators and interpreters. Here is a story that illustrates how desperate the situation was:

“During the defence of Suicide Hill, in the Battle of Jarama [February 1937], Captain Robert Hale Merriman, commander of the Lincoln Brigades, recalls his anguish when he asked for a stretcher for a wounded comrade at an infirmary where no one seemed to understand him: “Nobody paid attention to me. I then realized that they were French and Hollanders. I tried the sign language and my twelve words in Spanish. They thought I had gone crazy. Finally, a Hollander who could talk English came up to the station.”

Into this inferno of war and incomprehension stepped three remarkably courageous  women: Aileen Palmer, Nan Green and Rajsa Rothman. They came because of their left-wing sympathies, but on arrival it was soon found that the most useful contribution they could make was by their languages.

None of them had any previous training as interpreter, which explains why this post is dedicated to them. 

We only have space here to recount the career of one of the women, Aideen Palmer (1915-1988). For the others, we urge you to read the full article referenced below. There will be more about them in a future post. 

Aideen was born in an Australian cosmopolitan middle class family and was raised by her parents… in a progressive intellectual environment. During her education at the University of Melbourne, Palmer accomplished a competent command of French, German, Spanish and Russian, which was probably the main reason why she was hired as the personal translator of Austrian novelist and socialist activist Helene Scheu-Riesz. In the summer of 1936, [she] was travelling through Europe with her parents when they decided to spend some time in Spain. While her mother and father were busy with their literary engagements, their offspring spent her days trying to disentangle the Spanish political labyrinth through a close reading of Catalan newspapers — which she sometimes translated into English— and meeting young politically active companions, such as Lisa Gedeke, a Finish polyglot. Her knowledge of languages and her left wing political activism, which had drawn her into joining the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in the early 1930s, probably made her an ideal candidate for the job of interpreter at the Popular Olympic Games of Barcelona, when her application was received at the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), the Catalan communist party. Palmer was to have worked at the Popular Games July as an antifascist response to the Nazi Olympics held in Berlin in August of that same year, but the games were never to be celebrated because of the rebellion of General Franco and his comrades-in arms on 18th July. Palmer’s duties were, therefore, dramatically changed to act as an interpreter for the athletes of more than twenty international delegations stranded in the city and to send telegrams to their countries to say that they were out of danger… Following the recommendation of the British consul in Barcelona, who warned her father about the presence of uncontrolled anarchist militia in Barcelona, Aileen… reluctantly left Spain on board HMS London, a Royal Navy warship. However, a month later she was back in the country in her capacity of interpreter of the first British Medical Unit sent to Spain. Palmer arrived in Grañén, a tiny village in the province of Huesca [in the North East], chosen by Peter Spencer, Viscount Churchill, a prominent member of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, and Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, a medical student from Cambridge and administrator of the hospital, because of its strategic position a few kilometres behind the battle front. Palmer was the secretary and interpreter of  Sinclair-Loutit, who would have to deal with an anarchist major who regarded the foreign medical facilities in Grañen as an interference of the Republican government, with the resentment of his working-class drivers and mechanics, and with the confrontation between communists and non-communists.


Palmer’s three months on the Aragon front were full of hard work as interpreter in several languages. She often travelled on ambulances to other villages in search of wounded soldiers as, apart from English and Spanish, there were also French, Italian and German volunteers fighting. On other occasions, her assignments included translating between doctors and patients in hospitals, or “the grim task of packing up and sending home the efectos de los muertos, the pathetic bundles of belongings of those who had died.”


In January 1937, Palmer’s British Medical Aid Unit was integrated into the Service Sanitaire of the XIV International Brigade, the French-Belgian batallions. Together with her companions from Grañén, she travelled to different villages near Madrid in the Sierra de Guadarrama, where a new hospital was set up on 10th January. On the following day, the attack started and a growing number of casualties soon began to arrive. Palmer was called to interpret for two Polish doctors of the unit who spoke French and a little English and were concerned about starting a new hospital somewhere in Madrid: “By the end of January, Palmer was clearly exhausted, having been working on the front lines for five months straight. She was also suffering from having to adapt to a new regime and new people, especially as she was called upon frequently to interpret between French and English-speaking members of the service itself as well as helping to perform triage on the wounded soldiers who came from a variety of countries”


Palmer’s unit was then moved to El Escorial to provide support to the casualties in the Battle of Brunete [24 km West of Madrid] Later on, she moved back to Huete, on the Aragon front, where she became secretary and interpreter of Dr. Leonard Crome, Chief Medical Officer of the 35th Division. In July 1938, when she was already in London and the Republicans tried to cross the river Ebro launching a major attack on the Francoist army advancing over Valencia, Palmer was replaced by Crome’s new assistant, Nan Green, with whom she would keep in touch in England for many years after the war.


The humanitarian work of these women didn’t end with the war. in the aftermath they continued to participate in relief organizations which would help thousands of Spanish civil war refugees, and in humanitarian missions reclaiming fair trials for political prisoners in Franco’s dictatorship, as well as to their ultimate work translating for the state publishing houses of the emerging communist parties in China or Vietnam.

To be continued


Marcos Rodríguez-Espinosa (University of Malaga). The forgotten contribution of women translators in international sanitary units and relief organizations during and in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Current Trends in Translation Teaching and Learning E, 5 (2018), 348 – 394. Available at

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Translating in Old Age



“There are many mentions in this blog of how young humans can be when they start to translate, but how old can they get before they lose the power?”

The question was posed in a post on this blog in 2011. It bore the title Old translators never die.. they simply fade away. (To retrieve it, enter toronto eighties in the Search box on the right.) During the intervening decade, little has been done to answer it.


So in the absence of scientific studies, we are forced into the realm of the anecdotal  and what follows is some of it. Nevertheless it provides us with clues for the formation of some hypotheses.


Back in 2020 there was a post on this blog about a lady, a Spanish natural translation interpreter, who helped out impromptu at a bilingual dinner party. To retrieve it, enter no age limit in the Search box on right the right.

She interpreted… everything that was said in English, sometimes in full and sometimes in summary. She also translated into English things that she had first said herself… in Spanish. I noticed that sometimes she produced translations of items on the menu faster than I could think of them myself. She had no training in translation, not even an English language course.”

She was in her late seventies.


A little later, in 2011, there was the post Old Translators Never Die. It was about a professional translator in Toronto who was in his eighties and still working. I expressed surprise that he'd gone on for so long. He replied, "One of the good things about translation is that you can go on doing it to an advanced age."


I myself continued translating routine stuff into my early eighties. When I gave up it wasn’t because I couldn’t translate but because I found it too tiring. Fatigue is an important factor in old-age behaviour.


Now comes news from India, that country of literary translation par excellence, which raises the bar. It’s about Aditya Narayan Dhairyasheel or A.N.D. Haksar. Since he retired 30 years ago, Haksar, who is based in Delhi and is now nearing 90, has spent hours translating Sanskrit works into English, to make them accessible to more readers.

“His most recent translation, Anthology of Humorous Sanskrit Verses (see below) features 200 hasya or humorous verses drawn from various works of Sanskrit literature ranging from the millennia-old Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata to compilations from the 13th and 14th centuries.”

No mean feat.

Haksar was formerly a career diplomat and ambassador to Portugal and Yugoslavia. He therefore belongs to a particular class of literary translators, people who have retired after distinguished careers and then taken up translation as native translators. Another is my good friend the Tamil translator Prabha Sridevan, who was a high court judge in another life. She has contributed to this blog (and for more about her, enter prabha in the Search box.)


At this point we can venture a hypothesis. It’s that mutatis mutandis there’s no age limit to the ability to translate. It may continue unto death. ‘All other things being equal’ because translating depends on other cognitive abilities in addition to the core translating ability itself. Simultaneous interpreting requires a very fast rate of processing that slows down with age. Consecutive interpreting requires a good short-term memory. All translating requires a good memory for words and names. And so on.


But survival doesn’t mean unimpaired.


We have long known, since the research on aphasics by Michel Paradis at McGill University in the 1970s, that a linguistic upset can lead to surprisingly aberrant behaviour in translating. But how about degenerations that are more typical of old age such as dementia and Alzheimers? There’s plenty of scope here for a thesis. Or for several theses.



A.N.D. Haksar. Anthology of Humorous Sanskrit Verses. Delhi: Penguin Random House India; May 2022.


. Our ancient humour deserves an audience: Translator A.N.D. Haksar. Global Circulate, 20 June 2022.

Michel Paradis et al. Alternate antagonism with paradoxical translation behavior in two aphasic patients. Brain and Language, vol. 15, no 1, pp. 55-69.

A. N. D. Haksar