Sunday, July 31, 2022

Untrained Women Interpreters in the Spanish Civil War


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

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Interpreters in Conflict Zones


“We live on a planet dominated by unbroken conflict in which the figure of the interpreter in conflict zones (ICZ) has been present since ancient times. Tragic situations such as war and conflict are the breeding grounds in which ICZ have acquired and developed their language skills. These interpreters rarely have any previous training in interpreting techniques and consequently tend to learn the job on the ground.”


These words (the emphasis is mine) come from a paper by Maria Gomez-Amich, a  graduate of the University of Granada, who has made the study of military interpreters her speciality. Interpreters in conflict zones (ICZ) is a fairly new term for them.


The paper is a very thorough and original study of a small sample of Afghan interpreters working with the Spanish military in Afghanistan. Here’s her summary of it.


The lack of training and agreed rules that regulate ICZ’s work give the wrong impression that this field of interpretation is relatively new. However, there are records of this activity dating back several centuries. As a matter of fact, conflict has always been a breeding ground for language interpreters, and their recruitment is often the result of some tragic situation. Nowadays, interpreters working in contexts as complex as the NATO ISAF mission in Afghanistan usually lack appropriate language and interpreter training. This was the case with the five Afghan interpreters participating in this study.


The hiring of untrained ICZ seems to be the combined result of the law of supply and demand and of particular concerns of the military. During the recruitment process, little importance is attached to the interpreters’ professional skills. This is particularly alarming given that appropriate skills can make the difference between life and death in this setting.


The interpreters participating in this research project displayed a perception of the interpreter’s role that diverges from the idealised notions of professional conduct described in the literature. Accordingly, they have a singular notion of interpreting quality, and they consider the culture, the parties’ needs and their employers’ expectations to be the key factors of quality assessment. The Conduit Model [in which the interpreter is only a neutral and impartial communication channel], therefore, is rebutted one more time, as ICZ seem to act as active and visible participants who take very much in consideration a series of social factors that affect their performance as well as their role perception.


In general, it is fair to surmise that, when it comes to quality, its perception and hence its assessment will vary according to settings. Research would benefit from a re-evaluation of received theoretical frameworks to encompass all settings in which interpreting takes place. In this process, (untrained) ICZ could make a major contribution. Although they are not generally considered professional interpreters, they are actually the most experienced practitioners in their action field.


In spite of the study’s great interest, it is nevertheless surprising in this day and age that the researcher still feels a need to combat the evaluation of her subjects by the standards of ‘professional’ interpreting and has to plead for “a re-evaluation of received theoretical frameworks.” These frameworks were exploded more than a decade ago by the advent of non-professional interpreting and translation studies(NPIT) and even before that by the natural translation hypothesis (NTH).



María Gómez-Amich. Interpreters in conflict zones: Their perception of role, quality and strategies. In: Rafael Barranco-Droege (ed.), Solving the riddle of interpreting quality: Dimensions and challenges. Granada: Comares. 2020, 113–138.


Rachele Antonini et al. (eds.) Non-professional Interpreting and Translation. State of the Art and Future of an Emerging Field of Research. AmsterdamBenjamins, 2017.


For other examples of ICZ interpreters, enter afghan and korea in the Search box on the right.

For more on the natural translation hypothesis, enter tenets hypothesis in the Search box.


Afghan interpreter, from a post on this blog last year.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Can There Be A Universal History of Translation?


When I was a history student (see About Me on the right) I had already read H. G. WellsThe Outline of History, subtitled "The Whole Story of Man", chronicling the history of the world from the origin of the Earth to the First World WarThen I read chunks of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, which was much in fashion in the late 1940s. Toynbee was an admirer of another universalist historian, Ibn Khaldun, part of whose Muqaddima (Preface) I had to read in my Arabic programme. I learned from these to admire their explicative power while remaining suspicious of their generalisations. Anyway I learned that whatever the drawbacks, an enlightening  universal history could be attempted by great minds.


This brings me to one of the latest developments in translatology, namely an explosion of interest in the history of translation. There have been studies of that history in the past. My first acquaintance came from a book by my erstwhile colleague at the University of Ottawa, Louis G. Kelly. His The True Interpreter is still worth reading. It's as much a history of ideas about translation, i.e. translatology, as it is about its practices. It makes no claim to being universal; on the contrary, as its subtitle says, it’s only a history of translation “in the West”. Nonetheless it covers a large slice of universal history. From it some of the recurring themes can be adduced; for instance the eternal opposition of free and literal, summed up in the famous saying of St Jerome,

“For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek I render sense for sense and not word for word, except in the case of the Holy Scriptures, where even the order of the words is a mystery.”


The blossoming current interest in translation history has led to the formation of an organisation, the History and Translation Network. Its headquarters are under Christopher Rundle at the University of Bologna, a university that has established itself as a leader in translatology research in the past decade. In May it held its first major conference, in Tallinn, and the response was amazing: over a hundred papers. I hope to say more about it in another post.


For the moment I want to draw attention to another of its productions: its Manifesto. For the most part it’s unexceptionable. However,  there is one item in it that sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s the statement that there is no such thing as a universal history of translation.”


To say that “there is no such thing” goes beyond saying that we don’t yet have a universal history to implying that such a history is impossible. Yet my earlier training recounted above leads me not only to think that one possible but to look around for attempts at it.


A universal history must begin at the beginning. The best-known universal  history, the Bible, opens with “In the beginning…” The beginning of translation is lost in the mists of time, but we can make some suppositions. First, it didn’t begin with written translation. Spoken language long preceded the written, and therefore the history of translation must begin with interpreting. We have evidence of interpreting going back four thousand years. The earliest image of an interpreter is that of Shu-Ilishu, an interpreter of the Meluhhan language (generally held to be a language of the Indus civilization) from ca. 2020 BCE. (For more on him, enter shu-ilishu in the Search box on the right.) Certainly the invention of written translation, which must have accompanied he invention of writing, was a very important next step.

“It is known that translation was carried out as early as the Mesopotamian era when the Sumerian poem, Gilgamesh, was translated into Asian languages. This dates back to around the second millennium BC. Other ancient translated works include those carried out by Buddhist monks who translated Indian documents into Chinese.”


A universal history must also have an end, which is usually the present day because histories are not predictions. For translation the end is more visible than the beginning. It’s computerisation. The evidence is everywhere on the internet.


That leaves a large gap to be filled in.


One thinker who proposed a model to do it was my mentor in translatology, the Bulgarian semiotician Alexander Lyudskanov. In the early pages of his magnum opus Human and Machine Translation (see Sources below) he linked the evolution of written translation to the development of texts. Certain text types being much in demand at certain periods, he said, the manner of translating varied to match them. In chronological order, religious, legal, literary and technical texts had this effect. It was a good try, but like Kelly he was bound by the Western tradition though he included Soviet Russia.


One constant wavering that we ourselves have noticed in connection with our Natural Translation Hypothesis is the tendency towards trained professional translators versus the prevalence of untrained translators. It’s far from modern.


A universal history cannot be just a chronological listing of events and people; there wouldn’t be room for them all. Rather it must deal in  

trends – long-term trends – and  underlying  forces. Some of them can be discerned in translation history. Therefore the confection of a universal history may be difficult but it’s not impossible. To deny it is a failure to see the wood for the trees.



H. G. Wells. The Outline of History. London: Newnes, 1919.


Arnold J. Toynbee. A Study of History. 6 volumes. Oxford University Press, 1946.


Ibn Khaldun. Wikipedia, 2022.


Louis G. Kelly. The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West. New York: St Martin’s, 1979.


St. Jerome. Letter to Pammachius on the best method of translating. In Kelly.


Aleksander Lyudskanov. Превеждат човекът и машината (Human and machine translation). Revised and expanded edn., ed. Elena Paskaleva. Preface by Miroslav Yanakiev. Sofia: Narodna Kultura, 1980. There are German, French and Italian translations.

Christopher Rundle.



Sikh message of universality at Parliament of World’s Religions, 2021.



Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Young Interpreters Asks for Your Help



Over the years this blog has reported several times on Young Interpreters (YI). To retrieve some of the posts, enter emtas in the Search box on the right.


YI is outstanding because it consists not just of a single institution but of a widespread movement in British schools and even beyond them. It lives up to its name by providing interpreting by the bilingual children themselves when needed; but it goes beyond that by helping to integrate newly arrived immigrants through a buddy system. Its success has been due in no small measure to the dynamism of Astrid Dinneen.


Now Hampshire EMTAS, the regional education authority in southern England that is the sponsor of YI,  is in the process of revamping their leaflet which aims to support parents in bringing up their children bilingually, and asks for your help. The team would also like to create a brand-new publication for children and young people growing up in more than one language and is interested to hear what Young Interpreters think this publication should include. Should it explain the importance of maintaining your languages? Should it show you how you can use your languages to help you with your learning? Should it tell you more about heritage language GCSEs? You tell us. Contributions in the form of photos, artwork, videos, audio recording etc. are welcome from Young Interpreters of all ages in Hampshire and the rest of the world. The most outstanding entries will receive a prize. Please contact Astrid Dinneen at with your ideas and examples by the end of the Summer term. Pictures of children must be carefully reviewed by each participating school to ensure all have permission from their parents/guardians,


Astrid Dinneen. Your latest edition of the Young Interpreters Newsletter. Basingstoke: EMTAS,  June 2022.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Updates on Cuneiform, Fixers and the Booker


Update on cuneiform


Last year there was a post on this blog about George Smith, the first decoder and translator of cuneiform writing. To retrieve it, enter george smith in the search box on the right. Now the BBC has produced a video about the significance of his work; it’s elementary but good for school use. To view it, go to


or click [HERE].


Update on fixers

Fixer is a term that came into fashion during the Afghan war. It designated interpreters for the military and for journalists, and whose tasks went well beyond language translation. To find our several posts about them, enter fixers in the Search box on the right.  With the demise of Western intervention in Afghanistan the term has become less common, but it will surely persist.


Now a French documentary film about them has come out.


"The local helpers known as fixers are vital for journalists working in countries where there is conflict and political instability. A documentary by a French reporter highlights the dedication of his contacts in Afghanistan, Mexico, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ukraine. French reporter Charles Villa’s documentary Fixers is a tribute to those behind the scenes. Fixers are the “bridge” between the many actors in the field and journalists, providing anything from contacts, translation, transport, even, sometimes, accommodation."

For more, go to

or click [HERE].


Never without my fixer: French documentary a shout-out to hidden colleagues. 

Yahoo News, 12 June 2022.

Update on Indian literary translation


A bee that has been buzzing around this blog for years is the lack of attention paid in the West to Indian literary translation, even in academic circles, notwithstanding the enormous amount of such translation due to the number of live Indian languages and the persistence of English as a lingua franca.  For examples of our concern, enter india in the Search box on the right.


But now attention has momentarily exploded because the English translation of an Indian novel has won the coveted International Booker Prize. The novel is Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand.


The publicity for Tomb of Sand is very welcome. Nevertheless it has some quirks. Pavan Varma’s article referenced below discusses the reaction in India itself:

“I am proud and very happy for Geetanjali. She fully deserves this belated recognition. But I would have been even happier if her creativity was more befittingly recognised in her own country before the Booker Prize.”

There is a danger that Westerners unacquainted with India may jump to the conclusion that Hindi is the country’s most important literary language and remain ignorant of other riches like Tamil. One surprise is that the translator, despite the ready availability of English translators in India, is an American. This is not to downplay the quality of the translation, which has been widely praised; and no doubt its quality was a factor in the Booker decision. Nevertheless, it is sometimes said that a translation should sound as if the original author were speaking.  So we may wonder whether the work might not sound more genuine in the voice of an Indian translator using the slightly nuanced dialect of Indian English. Just wondering.



Geetanjali Shree. Tomb of Sand. Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell. Haryana: Penguin, 2022.

Pavan K. Varma. A publishing wasteland: India needs translations. The Asian Age, 12 June 2022.  

Monday, May 23, 2022


Back in 1988 I published one of the earliest articles on the alignment of translations with their originals (see Sources below). I was not the only one to think of it about that time but I did have one distinction: I proposed a term for it, namely bitext. More precisely bitext was defined as

bilingual hypertext stored in such a way that each retrievable segment consists of a segment in one language linked to a segment in the other language which has the same meaning.”

 This technique soon turned out to be of great practical importance because it provided the data required for the statistical machine translation that made MT popular. However, the psychological implication of bitext which had been mentioned in the 1988 article, that is to say the simultaneous presence of the two texts in the working translator’s mind, was overlooked.


According to the natural translation hypothesis (NTH) and some  semioticians, language translating is not a basic human competence but a specialisation of a more general competence that in NTH we call conversion. Conversion is the ability to transform any form of expression of ideas and sentiments into any other form and moreover to conduct operations on it, such as summarising, during the conversion. Since conversion ability is universal, it is predictable that there are other forms of expression that can be organised in a way analogous to bitext. One of them is music.


Music in this post is shorthand for western classical music.  That kind of music has been recorded for centuries in a code or notation with a rich vocabulary of symbols like breves and crotchets augmented with a few natural language words, mostly Italian, and a syntax displayed on staves for joining them. We will refer to it here simply as notation. Notation offers an advantage over the natural language wording of bitext. Whereas language wording has to be chunked into convenient translation unit segments by complicated computing, music notation already has its chunking prescribed into units called bars.


These days conversion from notation to MIDI sound in the form of a MIDI file can be performed automatically by software like ScanScore (see below); moreover ScanScore is reversible. But in this post we are concerned only with human conversion.


The human conversion from notation to sound is not direct. First the notation must be perceived and decoded. Then, more important, it must be converted to muscular code. This code directs the performer’s fingers, lips, feet, etc., and vocal tract in the case of singers. There’s a developmental progression in which the conversion begins consciously but becomes internalised and intuitive with practice. Here’s Werner Goeble’s description of how it works in the case of pianists:

“Pianists achieve extreme levels of virtuosity on their instrument, requiring a combination of talent and decade-long continuous and deliberate practice, training, and experience. As with all musical behaviors, body movements in piano performance are goal directed, aiming at producing intended sounds with utmost precision and accuracy in expressive parameters such as timing, dynamics, timbre, and articulation. Body movements in piano performance may also serve communicative purposes such as to express emotional states or to coordinate with co-performers. Pianists control the timing and chain of velocities of the individual piano hammers by varying the forces applied to the piano key surfaces, as well as to the three pedals through their feet. The key forces are accomplished by coordinating the kinematic chain from their shoulders to the fingertips aligned with feet movements to manipulate the pedals. As kinematic properties such as finger velocity covary with performance parameters (tempo, dynamics, etc.), pianists have to stabilize several parameters of movement kinematics and musical expression simultaneously. The intrinsic way the fingers arrive at the piano key surface, referred to as piano touch (i.e., pressing versus striking a piano key), yields different tactile and other sensory percepts to the pianists themselves and the audiences alike, making this parameter an important one in accomplished piano performance.”


Finally the music arrives at the outcome of the chain of conversions as structured sound. Note that music is not just sound but structured sound. That’s the other half of bi-music. We need to have it in a stable form that can be recorded, stored and processed. One such medium is MIDI files but there are others.


So now we are ready to offer a definition of bi-music. It would be as follows:


Bi-music is music in standard music notation and chunked into bars, coupled with a MIDI or other sound recording of the same music and stored in such a way that retrieving any bar of the notation automatically retrieves also the corresponding MIDI or similar segment; or vice versa.


Would it be of any practical use? Perhaps more to musicologists and copyright lawyers than to musicians. However, when bitext was introduced, though it had a practical purpose it was not immediately obvious how very useful it would be.


Brian Harris. Bi-text, a new concept in translation theory. 1988. Available at




Werner Goebl. Movement and touch in piano performance.  In B. Müller and S. I. Wolf (Eds.).Handbook of Human Motion, Berlin: Springer, 2017, pp. 1-18. Available from

For the Natural Translation Hypothesis and conversion, enter tenets in the Search box on the right.


MIDI keyboard

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

School Translation Prizes


The Queen's College, Oxford

Despite the pandemia another year has passed of translation competitions for secondary school students.


The biggest of these competitions, which we have reported on several times in this blog, is the Juvenes Translatores, organised and funded by the Directorate-General for Translation of the European Commission across the whole European Union.


“The Commission has been been organising the Juvenes Translatores (Latin for ‘young translators’) contest every year since 2007. Its aim is to promote language learning in schools and give young people a taste of what it is like to be a translator. It is open to 17-year-old secondary school students and takes place at the same time in all selected schools across the EU. The contest has inspired and encouraged some of the participants to pursue their languages at university level and to become professional translators.


The judges are drawn from the Commission’s professional translators, so the standard required is high. Contestants can choose any combination of EU official languages. The organisation required is necessarily elaborate since there are 27 countries in the Union and all the countries submitted entries. However, there’s a striking absence this year. It’s the United Kingdom, previously a strong supporter but now a victim of Brexit.


Yet the British are perhaps not losing out, because now they have their own annual competition since 2020. It’s the  Anthea Bell Prize for Young Translators based at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford. (Anthea Bell, an Oxford graduate, was a well-known literary translator who gained popular recognition for her ingenious translations of the Asterix comics.) The Oxford prize has an advantage over the European one: it’s open to students from age 11 to 18. On the other hand the languages are more restricted: namely French, German, Italian (new), Mandarin and Spanish. The texts can be poetry, fiction or non-fiction.


And there are other school translation competitions that we don’t have space to describe here, for example the ones at the University of Sheffield for Year 12 and Year 13 students. In fact such competitions are becoming fashionable in the UK now that translation has once again become part of the General Certificate of Education.


We can draw several conclusions from these competitions.


a)      Their aim is not translation in itself but as an aid to language teaching.  “By providing teachers with the tools they need to bring translation to life, we hope to motivate more pupils to study modern foreign languages [MFL] throughout their time at school and beyond.”

b)      For the Anthea Bell prize, “over 500 schools from across the UK registered for the prize resources in the first year (2020-2021), with 200 selected to take part in the final competition phase.” This is astonishing. It means that translating is still widely used in language teaching in schools in spite of the strictures against it.

c)      There seems to be no difficulty recruiting contestants for either the British or European competitions. This suggests that translating is seen as a pleasurable activity by many teenagers – perhaps as a game akin to solving crossword puzzles. One teacher says, “These are my first thoughts about the benefits of teaching translation - I have been developing translation with my classes and most of my students love it - nearly as much as I do!

d)      It should not be thought that these students are naïve natural translators. They are teen-age students, many of them in the top years of secondary schools in their respective countries. As such, and as I know from my own school days, they have undoubtedly had some elementary instruction and exercises in translating as part of their language courses.




The Queen’s College Translation Exchange. The Anthea Bell prize for young translators. 2021.


European Commission.  Jovenes Translatores, a competition to reward the best young translators in the European Union. 2022.J