Saturday, April 15, 2017

Did Christ and Pontius Pilate Need an Interpreter?

This is an Easter digression from the usual topics of this blog.

One of the lesser mysteries of Easter is the language in which Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate conversed during their famous confrontation as reported in the New Testament. It's an old question and there's an ample literature about it both in the form of publications and of blog comments -- and controversy (see Sources below). I was unaware of how much controversy until I came to do the research for this post. But let's take a quick look at it in the perspective of this blog.

People assume that because Jesus was Jewish he must have known Hebrew, and because Pilate was a Roman he must have spoken Latin. That's no doubt true but it's a misleading simplification. Because both of them were bilingual (or multilingual) like most of the people in their respective communities. The problem is that on the face of it their languages didn't coincide.

First Pilate. As a Roman 'equestrian' from Italy and prefect of the Roman province of Judea, he had to know Latin, the official language of the Empire. Yet it may well not have been his first language. Because by his time Latin had been overtaken for conversation in everyday life by Greek. Not Classical Greek but the dialect that had permeated the Middle East and even Rome since Alexander the Great's conquests in the fourth century BCE: Koine. On the other hand, he is known not to have been sympathetic to his Jewish subjects; according to the Jewish historian Joesphus, he repeatedly caused trouble because of his insensitivity to Jewish customs. So it's unlikely he took the trouble to learn their language.

As for Jesus and all the native inhabitants of Judea, their everyday language wasn't Hebrew. Since the time of the exile to Babylon in the sixth century BCE it had been overtaken by another much more widespread Semitic language, Aramaic. There are still pockets of Aramaic speakers in Syria, or there were until the current conflict. I support the consensus view that as the child of humble parents, he spoke it as his mother tongue, and he continued to use it. Hebrew, however, was by no means out of the picture. Above all it had remained the religious language of the Jews, as it still is. It was the liturgical language, the language of the Old Testament and the language of disputation among the scribes and rabbis. As an orthodox Jewish male, Jesus would have been taken by his father to the synagogue from an early age and given a thorough grounding in it. Later he would need it for disputations.

As for the controversy over which was his dominant language, it need not detain us: the fact is he was bilingual. There's sometimes an element of chauvinism in the controversy. One scholar writes: "I was stunned by the extent to which some people get worked up about the language(s) of Christ." In 2014,
"Benjamin Netenyahu and Pope Francis appeared to have a momentary disagreement. 'Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,' Netenyahu told the Pope at a public meeting in Jerusalem. 'Aramaic,' interjected the Pope. 'He spoke Aramaic but he knew Hebrew,' Netenyahu shot back." 
Thus far we seem to have two bilinguals confronting one another without a common language. But there remains one more possibility. Did Jesus, like Pilate, speak Greek? Koine Greek was widely used in the Palestine of Christ's time. There were Greek-speaking communities in Galilee, including one not far from Jesus' home town of Nazareth, and there's evidence in the New Testament that he spoke it on occasion. This, then, is the likely solution: the interrogation probably took place in Greek.

According to the Gospel of Luke, members of the Sanhedrin, a council of learned men, accompanied Jesus to Pilate, so it can't be ruled out that one of them might have acted as interpreter. However, there's no mention of an interpreter in the Gospels and the recourse to Greek would have made it unnecessary.

Even if you're one of the many who don't believe Jesus Christ existed (see Gathercole below), you can read the above as an exercise in historical sociolingistics.

Koine Greek. Wikipedia,  2017.

Pontius Pilate. Wikipedia, 2017.

Who, what, why: What language would Jesus have spoken? BBC Magazine Monitor, 27 May 2014. Click [here] or go to

Mark D. Roberts. What language did Jesus speak? Why does it matter?  Patheos, 2010. Click [here] or go to

Mark Ward. Did Jesus speak Greek? theLab, 9 December 2015. Click [here] or go to

Simon Gathercole. What is the historical evidence that Jesus Christ lived and died? Guardian Unlimited, 13 April 2017. Click [here] or go to

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Football and Baseball Interpreters and Interpreter Mimicry

Javi Gracia and Interpreter

Back in 2010 – time flies – there was a post on this blog about a pilotari, a player of the traditional Valencian handball game of pilota, who had become the interpreter for his team at international matches. (To find it, enter pilotari in the Search box on the right.) Since then there have been reports of other player-interpreters, but none so interesting as the one just forwarded to me by Prof. M. G. Torres of the University of Malaga (see Sources below). It's about a Spanish football trainer, Javi Gracia, who has left his team in Malaga to go and work for the Rubin Kazan team in Russia. To enable him to overcome the language barrier, the Russian club has provided him with "a top-class interpreter". As the photo above illustrates, the interpreter's job entails not merely interpreting on his feet but interpreting on the run. And there's also a video accompanying the report that's even more interesting because it shows the Russian's interpreting style. It's a style I've only seen before in religious interpreting: to find it enter buea in the Search box on the right. It's the style in which the interpreter not only communicates the verbal message but follows the speaker around imitating the latter's gestures. For want of an established term, let's call this imitative interpreting or interpreter mimicry.

Mimicry would be frowned on in conference interpreting, court interpreting, etc. In an old UNO film (see Sources), there's an anecdote about a United Nations Russian interpreter in New York who, every time Nikita Khrushchev thumped on his desk during a speech, would do likewise on the table in the booth. The colleague who tells the story concludes disparagingly, "He used to be an opera singer. He was quite a ham." But in circumstances where the speaker is intending to be rousing or inspirational, interpreting in a neutral, disengaged style may be a betrayal.

Another sports report has also reached me, but about a different sport and interesting for another reason, namely the information it gives about the interpreter's background. "Translator [sic] Josue Peley was playing in Quebec City, still dreaming of the big leagues, when the Blue Jays called with an offer came he wasn't expecting." The Blue Jays are the Toronto Blue Jays, a top team in the American League East.

How did it come about?

First his multilingualism. He's an immigrant, a "Venezuelan-born Montrealer fluent in three languages," Spanish, English and French. He's 29 years old.
"Peley moved from Venezuela to Montreal at age 11 and attended Seminole State College in Oklahoma on a baseball scholarship before the Pirates drafted him... From 2012 to 2015 he played with the Capitales de Québec, where he no doubt improved his French."
 The event that changed his professional life came last year. There 's a long tradition of Latin American players in MLB (Major Baseball League) teams. 25% of  MLB players are from Spanish-speaking countries.
"For years the major leagues have been getting by with bilingual team mates and coaching staff when there was a need for interpreting for Spanish-speaking players. The unwritten policy of just 'getting by' at practice, team meetings and press conferences belies the current status of professional baseball… with the average team value reaching $1.2 billion."
So in January 2016 the MLB authorities issued an order that all teams with Spanish-speaking players must hire a professional translator and the Blue Jays found Josue. Note first that for many years the teams had been 'getting by' with natural translators. Second, that the people like Josue who were hired had not gone through professional interpreter training but were chosen for their bilingualism and their knowledge and experience of the game. They are 'professional' in the sense that interpreting is all or part of their job and that's what they're paid for. But even now "his job often includes playing catch or pitching batting practice."

Peley says his role is not limited to language
"He helps bridge the cultural gap between the Latin-Caribbean countries that produce many major-leaguers and the English-speaking, conservative, largely white American baseball culture… While multilingualism is a pre-requisite, Peley says his most useful tool is empathy."
Meanwhile yet another interpreter's biography that's just come this way tells how it was before the MLB instruction (see the Noah Frank reference in Sources). It's rich in detail. The player-interpreter is Ernesto Frieri, a Colombian who taught himself English with determination when he arrived as a rookie in the USA.
."Six years later… Now he's jumping in to help other teammates… When Durango is named Player of the Game and has a microphone thrust into his face for a postgame interview, it's Frieri who comes to his rescue, unprompted, translating on the fly in heavily accented but nearly perfect English."
This is how it still is in many teams today.

El duro trabajo del traductor de Javi Gracia en Rusia (Hard work for Javi Gracia's interpreter in Russia). ABC Deportes, 22 March 2017. Click [here] or go to

United Nations Organization. Other Voices. New York: United Nations Film Services, c1975.  16 mm film, 27 mins.

Barry S. Olsen. Professional baseball, globalization and the need for professional interpreting. InterpretAmerica Blog, 11 February 2016. Click [here] or go to

Morgan Campbell. This Jay's big-league job was found in translation. Toronto Star, 18 March 2017. Click [here] ot go to

Noah Frank. Life on the Farm: the unwitting translator. MLB News, 5 April 1917. Click [here] or go to

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Next Non-professional Intepreting & Translation Conference

Post No. 386

Things are moving! The call for papers has appeared for the Fourth International Conference on Non-professional Interpreting and Translation. For its web site click [here] or go to You can register from there to receive further announcements.

The dates are 22-24 May, 2018. The venue is Stellenbosch, near Cape Town.  The city is in the heart of the South African wine country. The deadline for submitting abstracts of papers is 28 May 2017. The organizer is the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study of Stellenbosch University (a bilingual English and Afrikaans institution), and from the tenor of the first announcement it looks as if the conference will be well organized. The person in charge is Prof. Harold Lesch. I'm glad to see that Rachele Antonini, the instigator of the first NPIT back in 2012, is on the advisory committee.

Cape Town is a long and rather expensive journey away for those of us in the northern hemisphere (a minimum of about 16 hours and 700 euros), but the choice of venue this time is a sign that NPIT is being recognized as a worldwide phenomenon in practice and in research. Something like what happened to the Critical Link series for community interpreters when it moved from Canada to Australia. Meeting in Africa will open up a whole new area of intense translation activity in many less familiar languages, so the conference should be fascinating.

The list of suggested topics is long and there's the usual "Topics may include, but are not limited to." However, one that I see as missing is the role of machine translation in NPIT. Whatever its imperfections (a euphemism) it can no longer be laughed off.

It's to be hoped that there won't be a repetition of the rather acrimonious divide of views that ended NPIT3. Echoes of it reached me in Spain. NPIT will always exist, fuelled by Natural and Native Translation and maintained by the impossibility of finding Professional Expert Translators for all the translation that's needed or of paying for them. It has its uses and its validity.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Competitions for 'Budding Translators'

A good way to stimulate young people's interest in something is to take advantage of their natural competitiveness by running a competition. The European Commission's Directorate General for Translation has been doing this for several years by organising an annual competition for secondary school students. They call it Juvenes Traductores. It's been mentioned several times before on this blog; for past years enter juvenes in the Search box on the right. The age limit is 17. Such is the diversity of languages in the 28 countries of the EU that this year there were entries in 152 pairs including Greek to Latvian and Bulgarian to Portuguese, but in fact the number of entrants from the different countries varied greatly: between 360 from Italy and 25 from Estonia, although all the contestants faced stiff competition. Particularly striking is the figure of 27 from Malta, because few people outside the country are aware that Maltese is a language. Imagine the effort it must take to run a competition like that! The EU's aim is not however entirely altruistic; they want to encourage young people to take up translation, knowing, with an eye to the future, that they need to keep up the supply of recruits for their own enormous translation organisation.

The Commission has just announced the winners for 2017, and they will go to Brussels in April to receive their prizes. The markers for the competition are Expert Translators from the EU's own service, so the standard is high. That doesn't mean, however, that the contestants are expert – not yet anyway. One text does not an expert make. However, they've probably had language courses in which translation was a component, and they may well have had coaching from their teachers, so they're far from being naive Natural Translators.

A different kind of competition is being organised in Italy for the first time this year. The organisers are a research group at the Forli campus of the University of Bologna which calls itself In MediO PUER(I) (Amongst Children? – my Latin is rusty) and specialises in child language brokering. Forli is the campus that hosted the first International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, and from the viewpoint of this blog their competition is potentially even more interesting than the EU one. Its name is Traduttori in Erba (Budding Translators). Its interest lies largely in the fact that it's open to children from primary school to the first year of secondary school, that is to say about six to eleven, and therefore much younger and less 'educated' than the EU ones. Moreover there are to be three levels: first and second years of primary school, third through fifth years of primary school and first year of secondary school. Taking all the entries and not just the winners, it should be possible to detect development in the translating ability. Assuming of course that there are plenty of entries.

For more information and updates, contact Prof. Rachele Antonini at

Florian Faes. Translators win big across Europe. SLATOR Language Industry Intelligence, 24 February 2017.  Click [here] or go to

Rachele Antonini et al. Concorso "Traduttori in erba" 2016/2017. METRA Centro di Studi Interdisciplinari sulla Mediazione e la Traduzione a Opera di e per Ragazzi/e, 2017. In Italian. Click [here] or go to

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Two Teenage Egyptian Interpreters

1. Luxor 1980
At dawn one morning in 1980 or thereabouts my wife and I left our hotel in Luxor to catch an early felucca across the Nile to the Valley of the Kings on the opposite bank. I had been there before, but it was my wife's first visit. You have to go early in order to move around before the midday heat. We were met at the landing stage by the usual knot of guides wearing their official insignia and clamouring for our custom. We walked away from them while we considered who to take on, discussing in French, which is my wife's first language. On the fringe of the official guide area there were some hangers-on, no doubt hoping for crumbs of business if there should turn out to be more visitors than guides that morning. Suddenly a slim boy who looked about 14 years old, wearing a torn jellabiya, emerged from the fringe and addressed us in clear Franch:
"M'sieu, Madame, vous voulez un bon guide? Moi, je connais toute la Vallée. Moi, je parle français." (Sir, Madam, do you want a good guide? I know the whole Valley and I speak French.)
We were taken aback but also amused to hear French in that context. So we decided to give him a chance. His name was Ahmed. He had a clever technique. He would go a little ahead of us and listen surreptitiously to what the official guides were saying in Arabic and then come back and repeat it to us in French. And so we passed the morning. His French was adequate and in fact he must have known quite a lot of history and archeology in order to translate.

Of course we were intrigued as to how he had acquired his French and his specialised knowledge. With his torn garment he didn't look as if he went to school. So he told us that he had joined up with a team of French archeologists who were doing research in the Valley, performing odd jobs for them and eventually picking up enough of their language to act as their interpreter. He had done this for three excavation seasons. As a tourist guide-interpreter myself in other countries, I admired his performance. We paid him off and said goodbye to him at the landing stage and never saw him again, but we recommended him to other visitors at the hotel.

2. Cairo, 1799
I cannot recall Ahmed without thinking of another Egyptian lad who picked up French with remarkable alacrity.

In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt and quickly conquered the country, which was nominally under Ottoman Turkish rule. Besides a large army, he brought with him a large team of French scientists, engineers and artists whose monumental survey opened a new era in Egyptology. Furthermore, Napoleon was a master propagandist and he realised that he needed someone to communicate for him with a populace that knew no French. "To attach no importance to public opinion is a proof you do not merit its suffrage," he said. And he had a high regard for his interpreters:
"En paix, ce sont des secrétaires intimes, en guerre, ce sont, du général (attendu les connaissances qu'ils doivent avoir) des guides sûrs et courageux." (In peacetime they are private secretaries; in wartime the knowledge they must possess makes them a general's brave and reliable guides."
So he recruited the best French interpreters of Arabic and Turkish available in France, and at their head he appointed the most experienced of them. His name was Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis (Venture for short). He came from a family of interpreters based in Marseilles. He had been trained for interpreting since childhood, first in Paris then in Constantinople (today's Istanbul). He had risen in the French diplomatic service, in the region that in those days was called the Levant, until he reached the supreme rank of Interpreter Royal (Interprète du Roi). By 1798 he was nearly 60 and semi-retired, but he was pressed back into service.

All went well at first for the Army of the East (Armée d'Orient), at least on land, but then disaster struck. Hearing that an Ottoman army with British support was heading towards Egypt, Napoleon decided in 1799 to make a pre-emptive strike by invading coastal Palestine and he sent Venture with the expedition. It was a fiasco. It was forced to abandon its siege of Acre and turn back. During the withdrawal from Acre, Venture fell ill, probably with dysentery or the plague, and died.

Napoleon slunk off back to France. The army he left behind had brought other interpreters with it, but the loss of Venture was felt. It was at that juncture that it took on a French-speaking Egyptian named Ellious Bocthor. He was 15 years old. He was a Copt, a member of the minority Christian sect to which Egypt owes so much. How he came to know French so well is a bit of a mystery. There were no schools of foreign languages in Egypt at the time. Al-Tahtawi's famous Faculty of Languages (kulliyyat al-'alsun) didn't open in Cairo until 1836 and French visitors before Napoleon were few and far between. Furthermore he came from Asyut, which is in Upper Egypt far to the south of the Mediterranean. He hadn't been abroad. Perhaps, like Ahmed at Luxor, he was a quick learner who picked it up from working with French people. One important thing we know from his later career is that his knowledge of Arabic was very thorough.

When the British expelled the French from Egypt in 1801, Ellious followed the Armée d'Orient back to France. There, thanks to his army service, he was eventually given a position at the War Ministry (Ministére de la Guerre) translating some of the mass of Arabic documents that had been brought back from Egypt and working on a large-scale map of the country.

The reputation he earned by his work there enabled him to advance further due to an important development in Arabic studies. In 1795, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, a new school of languages and translation had opened in Paris. Venture had been involved with it. It was the Special School for Oriental Languages (École spéciale des langues orientales, popularly known as Langues O), which still exists under the name Institut National des Langues et Cultures Orientales (INALCO) and can claim to be the oldest continuously operating school of translators in the world. Until that time the Arabic taught in the European universities was all of the Classical variety, that is to say the language of literature and the Qur'an. The everyday spoken language was looked down on, even by the Arabs themselves. (When I was studying Arabic at the University of London in the 1940s that was still the attitude there.) But the Egyptian expedition had opened the eyes of some of its participants to the need for a more practical approach. So in 1819 Ellious was engaged at the school to give the first course of Colloquial Arabic, and in 1821 he was made Professor of Colloquial Arabic (professeur titulaire d'arabe vulgaire).

Meanwhile he was working on what was to be his magnum opus, his French-Arabic Dictionary (see Sources below). A first draft exists from 1814. It was not really a dictionary of colloquial Arabic, but it broke with the tradition of Arabic lexicography by including post-classical modernisms. For example argent, monnaie / flws, dra:hm.

Then in 1821 he died from an illness with his dictionary still unfinished. It was completed by his successor at Langues O, Armand Pierre Caussin de Perceval, another former interpreter, and published in 1828. It remained a standard reference work throughout the 19th century.

Ahmed and Ellious, two professionalised young Natural Interpreters of the same language pair and from the same country, but from different communities in very different times and with very different destinies. In particular Ellious's career illustrates the role of French military interpreters, whose history as a corps goes back two centuries (see the Behm reference below).

Valley of the Kings. Wikipedia, 2017.

French campaign in Egypt and Syria. Wikipedia, 2017.

Copts. Wikipedia, 2017.

Ellious (aka Elie) Bocthor. Dictionnaire français-arabe. Revised and enlarged by Armand Pierre Caussin de Perceval. Paris: Firmin
Didot, 1828-1829. 2 vols., large 4°, 461 + 435 pages. The Arabic typography was supplied by Firmin Didot, a famous printer and type founder; it's clear but not vowelled There have been several re-editions, one of which can be bought through Amazon. A copy of the original edition in its red morocco binding and bearing Caussin de Perceval's autograph was recently offered on the internet at 4,500 euros.

Firmin Didot. Wikipedia, 2016.

M. Behm et al. Le Corps des Officiers des Affaires Militaires Musulmanes. ANOCRE Association Nationale des Officiers de Carrière en Retraite, 2016. Click [here] or go to

The Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis who features as a leading character in the 1997 film Passion in the Desert bears no resemblance to the real Venture de Paradis of this blog. A case of stolen identity.

1. An early morning band of visitors on the road to the Valley of the Kings. Source: Looklex Egypt.
2. Napoleon with his troops and two of his scientists.

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, 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

Cylinder seal. Wikipedia, 2016.

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.