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

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.