Sunday, January 22, 2017

Correction: The Oldest Depiction of an Interpreter

One of the most popular posts on this blog has been the one of 5 July 2010, because of its photo of a detail from the the magnificent Haremhab Frieze. The post has been viewed by more than 5,000 readers. The frieze, which is now in the Royal Antiquities Museum in Leiden, Holland, dates from about 1,330 BC and shows an interpreter for one of the Egyptian pharaohs in action. If you haven't seen it, you can do so now by entering frieze in the Search box on the right.

The title and text of the post proclaimed that it was the earliest known depiction of an interpreter. But now a Hungarian reader and historian, Kata Aklan, has written with proof that it's not so. I thank her for the correction. She says,
"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."
That's a significant difference that pushes the record back 700 years. Furthermore she provides a link that leads to an image from the interpreter's cylinder seal as well as a key article by an American expert on the Indus Valley civilisation, the late Gregory L Possehl (see Sources below).

Some words of explanation. Meluhhan was indeed a language of the civilisation that flourished along the valley of the Indus river in what is today Pakistan. The greatest cities of the civilisation were Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. So far Meluhhan has only been partly deciphered because of a lack of bilingual texts that could serve as a 'Rosetta stone'. However, Shu-ilushu's seal is not from there but from another culture, the contemporary Late Akkadian civilisation of Mesopotamia (roughly today's Iraq). The characters on the seal are therefore not in Meluhhan but in a better-understood Akkadian language: Sumerian cuneiform. It's known that there was a Meluhhan village called Guabba in Ákkadia, which would explain the need for an interpreter. An alternative explanation might be that he was needed for mercantile exchanges, for the Harappans are known to have traded widely by sea. From thefact that he had his own seal,it would seem that he was a professional.

The story of the modern provenance of the seal, as told by Dr Possehl, is also fascinating. It turned up in a collection of antiquities called the Collection Le Clercq.
"Gathered together in the 19th century by a wealthy man, this collection is composed of objects purchased from dealers with little, if any, provenance data presented. Therefore, we do not know where Shu-ilushu's cylinder came from."
But we do know that the Le Clercq collection found it way into the Louvre in Paris. Then it happened that in the spring of 2004 SOME objects from the collection were sent on loan to an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was there that Possehl spotted it and had a better rollout made from it than the one previously available in Paris.

Notice that on both the frieze and the seal the interpreter is a much smaller figure than the main personages, signifying a servant status. As for the Haremhab Frieze, it's still, as Kata says, the second oldest depiction. Haremhab and Shu-ilishu both illustrate the universality of translation over time.

Anna Katalin Aklan. Budapest: Central European University, Doctoral School of History, 2017. Click [here] or go to

Gregory L Possehl. Shu-ilushu's cylinder seal. Penn Museum Expedition, volume 48, issue 1, 2996. Click [here] or go to

Fanie Vermaak et al. Guabba, the Meluhhan village in Mesopotamia. Click [here] or go to

Heather Whipps. How ancient trade changed the world. Live Science, 17 February 2008. Click [here] ot go to

The rollout of Shu-ilishu's cylinder seal. Courtesy of the Départment des Antiquités Orientales, Musee du Louvre, Paris Source: Shu-ilushu's cylinder seal. Click [here] or go to

Monday, January 2, 2017

Guest Post by Prabha Sridevan

(It's a pleasure and a privilege to start off the New Year with a contribution from a distinguished literary translator. Like so many literary translators, Prabha Sridevan is a Native Translator (i.e. self-taught); she is a retired judge of the Madras High Court at Chennai, southern India She translates from Tamil for the many Indians whose language is different and who like to read in English. She is representative of the busy translation milieu in India about which we hear little in the West.

I got to know Prabha through her translations of short stories by the Tamil authoress R. Chudamani. Her post fits in well with what was written in the post of 28 November on this blog about Translator's Affinity. Scroll down to find it.)

I wandered into ‘translation’. I did not know it had a technique; or that it was both a science and an art. I had finished reading a collection of short stories in Tamil by Chudamani, a prolific and very sensitive writer. She had died a few months before and the book was released at a memorial function. I could not let her go, she clung to me not like one of those mythical demons who grip you from behind, but more like a gentle fragrance. A friend’s casual comment made me sit down to transfer Chudamani from Tamil to English. And she did not leave me. I had read somewhere that the translator’s job is “not a word more not a word less.” That was the only rule I had before me. But it was not possible. Tamil was sometimes more frugal than English, sometimes it went on a word orgy. “Vandaan” is a single word which tells us that a man came and if located in a context could even tell us where he came to. We have a word to indicate if the person who came was to be respected and that is “Vandaar”. To the familiar ears even a person’s name will indicate the class and caste. How do you transport one’s social history to an alien tongue with the stroke of a pen or tap of a key, as it happens? I did not try. I hoped that the strength of my writing would convey the essence. At that stage I was not thinking of publishing at all. Indian languages do not have capital letters, not at the beginning of a sentence and not for proper nouns. I wondered why. I asked Dr. Prema Nandakumar a scholar of many languages. She mischievously asked me “Prabha , is it linguistic democracy?” Was it? We Indians are the most class-conscious and caste conscious people, even the way we speak reveals our identity. The accents, the minor differences in words are all keys to who we are. How then did we endow our letters the gift of equality while writing? I naively hoped it meant that when we started writing these divisions were not there and then they were built brick by brick, word by word accent by accent. But I am sure I am wrong. Tamil writing is sometimes flowery. The same tone does not work in English. So not a word more was not a good guideline, as my dear editor Mini Krishnan told me right away. She said Prabha must come through the words. I thought that the translator must know the source language and the target language. I only knew I was wrong when I read the recent blog post about Pound’s Cathay. I realised I had harboured so many misconceptions about the art of translation.
Now I will go to the writer. I almost felt Chudamani’s presence while I wrote. I have written about it in my Translator’s note to Seeing in the Dark. It felt like I got into her skin, a kind of transmigration of soul. Sometimes I knew she did not approve of that particular word. But the advantage with translating her was that both of us were similar in many ways, the caste, the class, the social background, the same city and of course we were both women. Both of us could write in English and Tamil. Did this make my debut easier? I then translated three short stories by Seetha Ravi, who is in many ways like me too. These were published online and that’s how I entered the word of “Unprofessional Translation” and got introduced to Brian Harris. Seetha’s style was totally different from Chudamani’s, but still we were similar. Translation is like acting. We have to understand the “other”, the character who we are portraying and only then it will work. Many years ago I acted in a play by Maria Irene Fornes and directed by Prasanna Ramaswami. I was the maid. In India we use the word “servant”. But after that I stopped using that word. During rehearsals I realised I had to stand while she sat. It changed me forever. As a judge too, I had to "step in the other’s shoes," to quote Justice Claire l’Heureux-Dubé of the Supreme Court of Canada. Translation is also like that, I think. Sometimes I found my eyes wet while translating a story. It is different from reading. You are there in that situation, in that space, in a more immediate way when you are translating. I wept again when I did the first correction and again when I sat with my editor. I had to know if it would be the same if the source was written by a person very different from me. Did I take the easy route, by choosing women like me? So I chose two writers, different from me in every way, though one is a woman. Both the stories caught me in their hold. It was clear I was hearing a different voice. It was interesting. The writers were sharing insights into unfamiliar lives, lives I would not have known from the inside if I had not translated the stories. I have sent one of them to a journal. How readers like it will be proof of how authentic and true my voice sounds. A reader who can speak Tamil but can’t read told me after reading my translation, that he felt he was reading Tamil. Then the tone and the feel have transmigrated into the target language. Chudamani must be smiling.

R. Chudamani. Seeing in the Dark. Translated by Prabha Sridevan. New Delhi: Oxford Universit Press India, 2015. Available from Amazon and other booksellers. A collection of short stories with translator's introduction.
It was adapted for the stage and performed by The Madras Players in 2016.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

My Greek Interpreter

For light reading during the holidays, I've put a short article on my page. It relates an incident from my 20-year career (1970-1990) as a freelance conference interpreter in Canada, and incidentally it quotes a story that throws some light from an unexpected source on professional interpreters in Victorian England. To read it, click [here] or go to The title is My Greek Interpreter.

The reason I think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a real-life model for the character of Mr Melas in the quoted story is the verisimilitude of the latter's description of his work. He says that he knows "all languages – or nearly all," (Conan Doyle obviously describes him with tongue in cheek) and this reminds me of an interpreter who used to work in the Toronto courts. His first language was Russian, but he claimed that he could interpret all the Slavic languages. Eventually he was found out by a lawyer of Polish extraction who then had to do the interpreting himself for one of his Polish clients. (It was admissible in those days.) It was the lawyer who told me about him.

Illustration by Sidney Paget for the first publication of The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter in The Strand Magazine, 1893. Mr Melas is on the right.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

From Fairy Tale and Folk Story to Ballet and Pantomime by Translation and Adaptation

Once upon a time, in the early years of this blog, there used to be an annual Christmas Diversion. It took the form of a history that traced how a foreign folk tale or fairy story came to be transformed by translation and adaptation into a popular Christmas entertainment for children and their parents in British theatres. Some of them became a unique British form of musical comedy called pantomime (or panto for short). Others provided the story line and characters for ballets. Their traditions endure.

The Diversion posts are still available on the blog but they are scattered and difficult to find if you aren't adept with the Search function. So this year I've compiled a single cohesive document of them. It's too long for a blog post, so I've transferred it to my page, which you can reach in a twinkling by clicking [here] or going to,

The stories are Aladdin, from the Arabic of The Thousand and One Nights; The Nutcracker from the German stories by E T A Hofmann; and Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty, both from the French tales by Charles Perrault.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Translator's Affinity

Translator's affinity (TA) isn't a new term, but it hasn't been used much. It may mean the translator's empathy with the text or with its context, as in Ali Darwish's book (see Sources):
"... the translator's affinity to either the source text or translation… and situational affinity may act as a reinforcing positive or negative factor in defining the overall translation strategy."
In this post, however, I will use it to mean empathy with the original author.

I first became conscious of it when discovering Ezra Pound's Cathay. It's a Modernist American poet's very free translation of poems by the classical Chinese poet Li Bai (701-761, known as Rihahu in Japanese). It's been widely admired by such great English poets as T. S. Elliot, W. B. Yeats and Carlos Williams. Ford Maddox Hueffer declared,
"The poems in Cathay are things of supreme beauty. What poetry should be, that they are."
T. S. Elliot opined,
"[He is] the inventor of Chinese poetry... through his translation we really at last get the original... translucencies."
And what is especially relevant to Pound as a translator is that he has been widely admired by Chinese critics too:
"Hsieh Wen-tung, for instance, has ignored the obvious mistakes Pound has made and said that Pound's poetic acumen made up for the loss."
Here's a brief sample:
***The Jewel Stairs' Grievance***
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
Yet there's a mystery about Pound's translating. He didn't know Chinese. He worked from notes by Ernnest Fenellosa. Fenellosa was an outstanding authority on Japanese art, but he didn't know Chinese either. His notes were really lexical glosses, not translations. Wai-Lim Yip (see Sources) says,
"One can easily excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies, but it seems clear that in his dealings with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get into the central consciousness of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance."
What Yip called clairvoyance, I attributed to TA. But how to explain it? I thought I found an explanation in Chinese graphic art. By the early 1900s Pound was living in London.
"Between June 1910 and April 1912 the British Museum held a comprehensive 'Exhibition of Chinese and Japanese Paintings' housed in the museum's newly-constructed White Wing. There were 108 Chinese paintings and 126 Japanese paintings reflecting the persistent interest in the aesthetic sources for the fashionable Japonisme and Chinoiserie of the time – plus an aesthetic attraction to the colour, precision, unity, imagery and techniques of oriental art."
Moreover the curator of the exhibition was Laurence Binyon, director of the department of Japanese and Chinese paintings and prints at the museum, with whom Pound formed a long-lasting relationship of friendship and admiration.

Therefore I concluded that the bridge from Pound to Li Bai was Chinese graphic art, and that in positing any TA one should not only look at the translator and the author but also seek out the bridge that links them.

A much more recent example of TA that I have encountered is translator Prabha Sridevan's empathy for Tamil author R. Chudamani. Part of a post on this blog in June was about Prabha. To find it, enter Prabha in the Search box on the right. Here there's certainly a cultural link, since both translator and author are Indian Tamils living in their homeland. But there is also another bridge. I was once asked in a radio interview whether a work by a woman author would be better translated by a woman translator. On the spur of the moment I couldn't think why, but now I see a reason in TA between women, in this case mature women.

For a final example, I turn to something from my own ongoing experience. For 20 years now I've been translating and retranslating an Arabic poem called Al-Talaasim / The Talismans and I'm still not satisfied. "Retranslating" because there's already a published translation in an anthology (see Sources); and a student once floored me by declaring in class that she preferred the published translation to mine. Yet there's something that draws me back to it, and I think it's a case of TA. The poet was Elia Abu Madi (1890-1957), a member of the Lebanese diaspora in the United States. To understand the bridge between me and him you need to know something about the structure and content of the poem. It has five stanzas and all of them end with the same short line lastu 'adrii / I do not know; and the final stanza ends with the couplet
lastu 'adrii. Wa limaadhaa lastu 'adrii?
lastu àdrii. /
I do not know. And why do I not know?
I do not know.
The first stanza, in one of my several attempts, goes like this:
I don't know where I came from but I arrived,
And I beheld a pathway in front of me, so I started walking.
And I shall go on journeying whether I like it or abhor it.
Where did I come from? How did I see my way?
I don't know.
The bridge IMHO is the poet's agnosticism, something rare in Arabic poetry and indeed in any poetry.

Can what has been said about Translator's Affinity be extrapolated to Interpreter's Affinity? I think it can, but that's another story.

Note that TA is a feeling. It can't be taught, though it can perhaps be cultivated once it's formed. It's something intuitive, natural.

Ali Darwish. Translation Applied! An Introduction to Applied Translation Studies: A Transactional Model. Melbourne: Writescope, 2010.

Ezra Pound. Cathay, Translations by Ezra Pound, for the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihahu, from the Notes of the Late Ernest Fenellosa, and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga. London: Elkin Mathews, 1915. The text of this edition is available online by clicking [here] or going to

Ernest Fenellosa. Wikipedia, 2016.

Wai-lim Yip. Ezra Pound's `Cathay'. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969. Available from Amazon.

Ira Nadel (University of British Columbia). Cathay: Ezra Pound's Orient (Penguin Specials). 2016.

Mounah A. Khouri and Hamil Algar (translators and editors). An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Available from Amazon.

Elia Abu Madi. Click [here] or go to

Ezra Pound in 1913. Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn. Source: Wikipedia.

This post is now available for downloading at Click [here] or go to

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Rerun: A Royal Chlld Translator

A few posts ago I bemoaned the "deluge" of translation studies writings these days that no translatologist, least of all an old one like me, can hope to keep up with. Yet I must confess that I am complicit in it. There are now nearly 400 posts on this blog, that's at least a quarter of a million words, and even I can't remember all that's there. While much of it was ephemeral, there were some enduring nuggets. The thought was triggered by a reader's comment received this week on a post published on December 31, 2011. You can read the comment at the end of the present post.

So I've decided to salvage some of my favourites from oblivion from time to time by republishing them, and this is the first.

Today is December 31 [2011].

On this day in the year 1544 – in the words of Anne Lake Prescott, a distinguished American scholar of the English Renaissance –
"the eleven-year-old Lady Elizabeth presented Catherine with her own beautifully bound and embroidered translation of Marguerite's long poem Le miroir de l'âme pécheresse."
This was a red-letter day in the annals of child translators. Lady Elizabeth was the future Queen Elizabeth I of England. Catherine was Catherine (or Katherine) Parr,
"the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII, destined to outlive the mercurial ruler... She was an admirable wife to Henry and a loving stepmother to his two youngest children, Elizabeth and Edward. She was also the most intellectual of Henry's wives, caught up in the turbulent religious climate of the times."
Marguerite was Marguerite de Valois (aka Marguerite d'Angoulême, 1492–1549),
"queen consort of Henry II of Navarre. Her brother became king of France as Francis I, and the two siblings were responsible for the celebrated intellectual and cultural court and salons of their day in France... As an author and a patron of humanists and reformers, she was an outstanding figure of the French Renaissance."
As for her poem Le Miroir de l'âme pécheresse (The Mirror of the Sinful Soul), it is
"an outpouring of surprising intensity: over 1,400 lines of self-accusation and self-abasement. The Reformist orientation is apparent in the poem's Pauline-Augustinian bent, as in the prominence of biblical allusions. The speaker of the poetic monologue presents herself as a wretched sinner, who has so violated and betrayed her relationship with God that she is totally unworthy of his grace. Parsing out that relationship into a series of familial paradigms - daughter, mother, sister, wife - she explores each area of defection through an exemplary episode from the Bible."
So the translator may have been a child, but the text was no children's poem.
"Scholars sometimes assume that Elizabeth chose to translate this poem. In fact... someone older, possibly Catherine herself, would very likely have known of the book and pressed it on her.... Elizabeth could hope that by obediently translating the Miroir she could please an influential and affectionate stepmother....
“Neither do we know who, if anyone, helped Elizabeth with her translation. It seems unlikely she was utterly on her own, yet her errors and omissions suggest inattention (or inadequate French) on someone's part. She opens with a letter to Catherine. She knows of the queen's 'affectuous wille, and fervent zeale... towardes all godly learning.' So, to avoid idleness, she has turned 'frenche ryme in to englishe prose, joyning the sentences together as well as the capacitie of my symple witte, and small lerning coulde extende themselves.' Her effort is merely a beginning, so she hopes Catherine will not show it to anyone ‘lesse my fauttes be knowen of many.’ Maybe Catherine can amend it. Happy New Year."
Who might have helped Elizabeth? Let’s not underestimate her. She'd been put through a thorough Renaissance Christian education that included learning, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin besides English rhetoric and French. So she no doubt had capable teachers. We know, for instance, that her tutor in Greek was Henry Savile, later one of the King James Bible team of translators. By the time she was eleven, we can suppose, on the basis of this education and the translation itself, that she was an Advanced Native Translator.

In spite of Elizabeth’s reticence about the quality of her translation, once she became queen it was obviously in some courtier’s or bookseller’s interest to publish it and that’s what happened. See References below.

There are some other noteworthy things about this translation:
* Author, translator and intended reader were all women, unusual for its time but indicative of a breakthrough by women into the literature of the Renaissance
* The important role of religious translation, about which I've often commented elsewhere
* The constant flow of ideas and literature between France and England, aided by translations
* It's a translation from rhymed poetry into target-language prose, a not uncommon technique used even by Expert Translators
* Elizabeth's self-criticism, her meta-translational awareness (pardon the term)
* The proof that sophisticated translations by children at the Advanced Native Translator level are by no means a modern phenomenon. This example pushes it back by nearly five centuries. Elizabeth was very intelligent but she was surely not unique. How many other literary and religious translations by children have been done over the centuries, and then lost because the child was not famous or royal?

Anne Lake Prescott. The Pearl of Valois and Elizabeth I: Marguerite de Navarre's Miroir and Tudor England. In Margaret Patterson Hannay (ed.), Silent but for the Word, Kent OH, Kent State UP, 1985, pp. 61-76.

Kaherine Parr.

Marguerite de Navarre. Wikipedia.

Marguerite de Navarre. Le Miroir de l'âme pécheresse. 1521. The full text is available on Wikisource,

Susan Snyder. Guilty sisters: Marguerite de Navarre, Elizabeth of England, and the Miroir de l'ame pecheresse. Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 50, 1997, pp. 443-458.

The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul. Elizabeth's manuscript in her own handwriting. The dedication reads:
"From Assherige, the last daye of the yeare of our Lord God 1544 ... To our most noble and vertuous Quene Katherin, Elizabeth her humble daughter wisheth perpetuall felicitie and everlasting joye."
Elizabeth probably also embroidered the binding. The book is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The binding is illustrated in Wikipedia,

A Godly Meditation of the inwarde loue of the Soule.Compiled in French by Margaret Queene of Nauerre translated by Princesse Elizabeth, Queene of Englande. London, circa 1570. There are three versions of this publication in the British Library in London.

Elizabeth at age 13. Painter unknown. Source: Wikipedia.

Anonymous Comment received November 2016
I've written a couple of papers on this subject and done extensive comparative work between the original French and Elizabeth's translation. Not only was she well versed enough in French to complete the translation, there is also the point to be made that at that time foreign language was largely taught through grammar translation techniques. This would be revised and have a resurgence under the Neo-Grammarians of the 19th century. So, Elizabeth would work on correct pronunciation of the language, but the main vehicle of instruction was translation, rather than the communicative methods or total physical response (TPR), which is common in French language instruction present-day. One also shouldn't forget that the nature of this text is religious and reflects Biblical exegesis and mysticism. Elizabeth would also have received instruction in the Biblical studies. The final point to be made is that, rather than present day, Elizabeth was trained by some of the top scholars in on A Royal Child Translator

Friday, November 4, 2016

Roma Update

There was a post on this blog back in July about Young Interpreters and Roma Children in the UK. To find it, enter roma in the Search box on the right.

Now an enlightening new article has appeared about interpreting and translating Romanes (aka Romani), the Roma language; and surprisingly it comes from Canada. It appears in the latest issue of Circuit, the prizewinning magazine of the Quebec professional translators and interpreters association OTTIAQ, and it's available online (see Reference).

Truly times have changed. I didn't even know there were Roma in Canada, far less that there were these services for them. Thank you, Deborah.

Deborah Folaron (of Concordia University, Montreal). Interpreting Romani – A Canadian Overview. Circuit, No. 132, Autumn 2016. Click [here] or go to