Introducing WordsmithsBlog.com –


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition
© 2020 defines wordsmith as:

  1. A fluent and prolific writer, especially one who writes professionally.
  2. An expert on words.

For the purposes of this blog, we prefer a wider definition, one that embraces all those who (like the undersigned, a professional translator) use words - both those in their mother tongues and those in the foreign languages they aspire to command - as their tools of  trade and the object of their passion.

JeanThis blog has its genesis in a French-language blog, www.Le-mot-juste-en-anglais.com, (LMJ) maintained by me and by my friend and French master-wordsmith, Jean Leclercq. For several years LMJ has run monthly interviews, initially with translators and subsequently with other linguists. We have dubbed each such interviewee “Linguist of the Month”.The initial goal of WordsmithsBlog is to reproduce interviews conducted in English, (as opposed to those conducted directly in French) and published on Le Mot Juste. Since 2012,  our interviewees have run the gamut of wordsmiths, including poet Hélène Cardona, translator John Woodsworth, linguist, broadcaster and educator David Crystal, historian Peter Hicks, lexicographer and terminologist René Meertens and interpreter Ewandro Magalhães  – all trailblazers in their fields. Hopefully the lives and careers of future interviewees will capture the interest of our readers, as those of our past guests have done for readers of Le Mot Juste. For a full list of wordsmiths whose interviews appear on this blog, see here.

Helene Cardona 2

Bellos

David Crystal

Hélène Cardona

David Bellos

David Crystal 

     

Hicks 11.19

Meertens 1.2019

Ewandro Magalhães

Peter Hicks 

René Meertens 

Finally, a word about our interviewers: in addition to your humble bloggers, Jean and myself, many guest linguists coming from widely different fields of language and literature have taken on that role. They include Michèle Druon, professor of French studies, Cynthia Hazelton, lecturer in legal and commercial translation, Joelle Vuille, professor of criminal law, Silvia Kadiu, lecturer in translation studies, Isabelle Pouliot, Grant Hamilton, French-English translator and author - to name only a few.We invite you to subscribe to WordsmithsBlog.com. You can then enjoy regular postings designed to open a window for you on the varied lives of these fascinating people — wordsmiths who share your love of language.

Michele DRUON Grant Hamilton updated

Michèle Druon

Grant Hamilton

Cynthia Hazelton

Kadiu 11.19

Isabelle Pouliot

JOELLE

Silvia Kadiu

  Isabelle Pouliot

Joelle Vuille

 

 

 

 

 

JJG

Jonathan Goldberg,

Los Angeles, 28 November, 2019

 

 

 

 


Interview with Wordsmith Christina Khoury

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Christina profile   Jonathan preferred

Christina Khoury
the interviewee

 

Jonathan G.
the interviewer

Preface

Our interviewee this month is Christina Khoury, resident of the city of Haifa, Israel.

The interview resulted from a stay by your faithful blogger at the Beit Shalom (House of Peace) Hotel, where Christina works. The undersigned overheard Christina conducting three consecutive conversations in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Christina standing - cropped

  Christina - Beit Shalom


The interview is preceded by a short overview of Haifa and its history.

Jonathan Goldberg

Haifa, Israel

Built on the slopes of Mount Carmel, Haifa has a history spanning more than 3,000 years. The earliest known settlement in the vicinity was a small port city established in the Late Bronze Age (14th century BCE).

 

Haifa map 2 Map - Haifa Mediteranean

Haifa and Marseille are twin cities

Over the millennia, the Haifa area has been conquered and ruled by the Canaanites, Israelites, Phoenicians, Persians, Hasmoneans, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans [1] and the British, and since 1948 it is part of the State of Israel, in which it is the third largest city.

In 1100 or 1101 Haifa was besieged and blockaded by European Christians shortly after the end of the First Crusade and then conquered after a fierce battle with its Jewish inhabitants. Under the Crusaders, Haifa was reduced to a small fortified coastal stronghold. The army of Saladin [*] (founder of a Sunni dynasty of Kurdish origins) captured Haifa in 1187 and the city's Crusader fortress was destroyed. The Crusaders under Richard the Lionheart retook Haifa in 1191.

In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Haifa during his campaign to conquer Palestine and Syria but he was forced to withdraw. In the campaign's final proclamation, Napoleon declared that he razed the fortifications of "Kaïffa" (as the name was spelled at the time) [2] along with those of Gaza, Jaffa and Acre.                                    

 

  Napoleon soldiers
 

Monument to Fallen Napoleon's soldiers in front of Stella Maris Monastery

Haifa was captured from the Ottomans in September 1918 by Indian horsemen of the British Army armed with spears and swords. It became part of the British Mandate of Palestine until 1948, when the State of Israel was founded.

The population of Haifa is heterogeneous. Israeli Jews comprise some 82% of the population, almost 14% are Christians, the majority of whom are Arab Christians and some 4% are Muslims. Haifa also includes Druze communities

[*] Salah ad-Din (or Salahu’d-Din or Ṣalāḥ ud-Dīn) was the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty.

Port of Haifa   Haifa panoramic - cropped

 

Interview:

Jonathan Goldberg: You come from a family with an interesting, cosmopolitan history. Tell our readers about that.

Christina Khoury: My paternal Grandfather was born in Torino, Italy and later moved to Genova where he got married and where my father was born and raised. My maternal grandfather had an Italian mother and Montenegrin father and was born in Constantinople in 1897. He met my grandmother in Constantinople, where she was also born. Italian was their mother tongue since they each had Italian mothers, although they were living outside of Italy.

In 1910 my maternal grandfather came from Constantinople to Haifa at the age of 13 with other members of his family to work on the Hejaz railway [3], first in Aleppo and Damascus and later in Haifa. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, construction of the Hejaz railway was halted. My grandfather remained in Haifa where he founded a factory. In 1925 he married my grandmother in Constantinople, the city of their birth. There, first my uncle (1927) and then my mother (1928) were born. In 1934 the family moved to Haifa when my mother was almost 5 years old. In Haifa, two more daughters were born (my aunts).

The family settled in Haifa and my mother and her siblings were educated in the local Christian Schools. They grew up in Haifa and spoke Italian.

During WW2, the family, being Italians and not part of the Allies in the area, were kept by the British as prisoners of war in different imprisonment Camps in what was Palestine under the British Mandate at the time, until 1948, when the State of Israel was established..

In 1948 my parents met in Haifa when my father, who was born in Genova, was on a short-term mission for the Italian consulate. They were married in Haifa in 1949 and my mother went to Italy for the first time as a young bride.

My parents settled in Genova, my father's birth town, and later moved to different parts of northern Italy. I was born in Genova but also lived in other regions of Italy before moving to Israel in 1984, at the age of 15.

J.G.: Tell us about the different languages that you speak:

C.K.: After moving to Israel from Italy I had to learn Hebrew and then continued my schooling in Hebrew, in Haifa. I had started English in middle school in Italy, but broadened my knowledge of this language here in Israel where I was able to practice it more and more. French is a language to which I was exposed already at a young age, since there are some members of the enlarged family who are French speakers, besides studying it in school. I picked up Arabic from hearing it here in Haifa from the Christian Arabs I became acquainted to. I learned German through my work, since the Hotel where I work belongs to a Swiss Organization, we get many German speaking guests. I took a course of German at the Haifa University and then practiced at work. My mother spoke 5 languages herself, so I must have inherited from her the love for languages.

J.G.: Of what religious faith are you and your husband.

C.K.: I was raised in a devout Catholic home but at an early age I chose Messianic Christianity, which is similar to the Evangelical Church.

My husband comes from a Lebanese Maronite Christian family. He was born in London to a British mother and a Christian Arab father, but came to Haifa as a baby. He grew up in Haifa and attended the Messianic Christian Community.

J.G.: In what languages do you speak to members of your family?

C.K.: I speak to my husband mostly in Hebrew, which was the language we were both schooled in here and is the main spoken language in Israel. I spoke to my late mother in Italian and I have continued that tradition by speaking to my daughter (who was born and grew up in Haifa) in Italian, and we both speak to my grandchildren in Italian. In that way five generations of my family on the female side have maintained their command of Italian (my grandmother in Constantinople, my mother in Italy, myself, my daughter and my grandchildren in Israel). At home, with my husband, our daughter and two younger sons and our son in-law, we alternate between Italian and Hebrew.

J.G.: How have you managed to keep a record of your family history?

C.K.: My mother memorialized her life in about 100 pages in Italian. I plan to translate them into English.

J.G.: What is Beit Shalom? What is your association with it?

C.K.: The Beit Shalom Hotel in Haifa belongs to a Swiss Evangelical (Protestant) organization. It was built in the 1970s. As a member of that Community in Haifa, I heard about a vacancy at the hotel 30 years ago, and I have been working there ever since.

J.G.: What kinds of guests visit the hotel?

C.K.: The Swiss organization arranges guided tour groups to visit the Holy Land, including a stay of several days in Haifa, with accommodation at the Hotel. In addition, members of the Baha’i religion, whose world center is in Haifa, find the location convenient because it is close to the magnificent Bahai terraces that occupy a large tract of Haifa. [4],[5] Guests and tourists both from Israel and abroad, enjoy our hospitality.

Haifa Bahai 1   Bahai 3 

                                                                                     Bahai Gardens



J.G.:
Haifa has several Christian communities. Can you describe them?

C.K.: in addition to our own messianic community, there are Latin Catholics, Greek Catholics and Greek Orthodox. The Catholics in particular enjoy close relations, and to a lesser extent there are contacts between them and the other Christians.

J.G.: What is the degree of ethnic and religious harmony between the Jews, Christians and Muslims of Haifa?

C.K.: It is a wonderful example of peaceful co-existence. It is manifested in everyday life: commerce, entertainment and mixed neighborhoods. Some cultural institutions aim to further encourage co-existence through intercultural meetings and activities.

J.G.: Generally, do Christians as a minority in Israel feel unsafe as they sometimes do in other parts of the Middle East.

C.K.: As far as we know and experience firsthand, Christians have full freedom and live a peaceful life in Israel, especially compared to what we hear about Christians living in the surrounding Arab Countries.

J.G.: There are different theories about the origin of the name Haifa. What do you know?

C.K.: No one is  sure about the origins of the name "Haifa", but it could derive from the name of Kepha (rock – the name of Saint Peter in Aramaic), or it could also be the combination of the words "Hof-Yafe" חוף יפה which means "nice beach", or "Chipa" חיפה  which means "covered" because of Mt. Carmel which covers over the area…

J.G.: You work at the hotel during the mornings and some of the evenings. What do you do in your spare time?

C.K.: I look after my grandchildren and help young students with their English studies.

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[1] Refers to the successors of Osman, founder of a dynasty that ruled the Turkish empire until its dismemberment after the First World War and the advent of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

[2] Haifa TintinIn French, before the adoption of the current spelling (Haifa), the city was known as Caïffe, Kaïffa, Caïfa, even Caïffa. It is this spelling that we find in the first version of Tintin in the land of black gold by Hergé, which appeared in serial in the Journal de Tintin. On the other hand, in the album, released in 1950, mention is made of Haifa (p.14). When the album was redesigned in 1971, Haifa gave way to the imaginary locality of Khemkhâh, just to get everyone to agree!

[3] Narrow gauge railway line, built between 1900 and 1908, to link Damascus to Medina (1,800 km). Ordered by Sultan Abdul Hamid II and carried out with German technical support, the project was intended to facilitate the pilgrimage to Mecca, promote trade and assert the Ottoman presence in the Arabian Peninsula. The Second World war of 1914-1918 sounded the death knell for the Hedjaz railway. Today, there are only a few segments left, in Syria and Jordan.

Haifa Hejaz map   Haifa Hejaz cover

[4] Baha’ism, also known as the Bahá'í Faith, is an Abrahamic and monotheistic religion that proclaims the spiritual unity of humanity. Members of this international religious community describe themselves as adherents of an "independent world religion". The Bahá'ís, disciples of Bahāʾ-Allāh, are organized around more than 100,000 centers, listed by the World Center in Haifa, around the world.

Haifa Carmelit[5]  The hotel is close to the underground metro, the "Carmelit", which was constructed by a French company and inaugurated in 1959 by David Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister. With only four carriages, six stations and one single tunnel-line of 1800 meters in length, the Carmelit is one of the smallest metro infrastructures in the world.


Interview with Israeli-American wordsmith (and translator/interpreter) Jonathan Goldberg

 

Man with 2 hats second optionFor several years distinguished linguists were interviewed every month for our French sister blog, Le Mot juste en anglais.  Readers therefore understandingly will ask : How have I, Jonathan, managed to insinuate myself into this exclusive club, which is usually reserved only for the illustrious? The answer was that at a point in time we were short of a high-level interviewer and interviewee. Desperate times call for desperate measures [1] so I decided, with an excess of immodesty, to fill the gap. "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." [2]

But because my chutzpah [3] has its limits, I stopped short of asking anyone to interview me. So here I am, wearing two hats, those of both the interviewer and interviewee. On n'est jamais mieux servi que par soi-même ! 

In preparing this "interview" for Le Mot juste, the first decision I needed to take was whether to draft it in English or in French. That was what is called a "no brainer" [4] in the USA. I have too much respect for la belle langue to maul it and I feared that the hachis parmentier that I wanted to cook would come out of the oven smelling like Shepherd’s Pie.

Cartoon

The next decision was whether to ask one of our band of faithful French translators to render this text into the language of Molière [5]. I decided that just this one time our French readers would not be molly-coddled [6], but would have to bite the bullet (forgive the mixed metaphor) and read the interview in what the French like to refer to as  « la langue de Shakespeare ».

J. G.

Shakespeare & Moliere

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Two hats 20Question: Describe the experience of managing a blog to which so many gifted wordsmiths contribute their time and talents.

image from https://s3.amazonaws.com/feather-client-files-aviary-prod-us-east-1/2018-02-19/0dc69a6f-78d0-4e39-b070-384909c8f7d5.png
Jonathan's attire when rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème

Answer: My motives for running the blog are both altruistic and egoistic: on the one hand, the desire that I often have to share with others the material I read; on the other hand, the fact that the blog is very good for my ego. Like many professional translators, I normally perform my work in the shadows. The blog, on the other hand, gives me a platform and a pretext to communicate with some of the crème de la crème of English and French linguists. Whenever I am able to introduce a gifted translator or contributor on the pages of Le Mot juste, I enjoy the opportunity, however fleeting, to stand shoulder to shoulder with one of the best linguists around. 


Two hats 20Question
: You are not a literary translator with a slew of books to your name, so how could you expect to come out of the darkness into the world of fame and fortune and to reach an audience beyond the readers of the blog? Travailler non seulement pour des prunes mais pour la gloire.[7] [8]

Answer: Well, by chance, I did recently come under the bright lights and I have been enjoying a short-lived moment of fame, if not of fortune. I was not going to mention this, but  if you insist, I'll tell you about it. Last year I was commissioned to translate Emmanuel Macron's memoir cum political manifesto, Révolution. Because of time constraints, I contracted with a British translator to translate half the book, and we edited each other's translations. The book was published in November and the translators were invited to London for a panel discussion to launch it.

 
Macron English cover

 

Two hats 20Question: Was the co-translation a synergistic effort? Was it a successful collaborative work?

Answer: In my Translator's Note, I stressed the point that it was indeed a collaborative endeavour, with synergistic benefits, and I went out of my way in that Note to highlight my co-translator's skills. But you will probably get a very different answer if you ask her. Most likely the same view as that expressed by my first wife, following our divorce. 



Two hats 20Question
: What did your first wife say?

Answer: "Never again!."

 

Two hats 20Question: How were you able to gauge the public's appreciation of your translation of Révolution ? Even Anglo-Saxons [9] who read French with ease don't usually compare and contrast the source text of a book with the translation in order to grade the level of the translator's skill.

 

Answer: Paradoxically, the warmest expression of appreciation I received for this project came from two people who have probably not read the translation: M. E. MACRON and his Chef de Cabinet, M. François-Xavier LAUCH (see the images below).

 

  Macron dedication-page-001 - updated

  
    Chef de Cabinet-page-001 - updated

Two hats 20Question: Mr. Macron's handwritten dedication in your book is rather difficult to decipher.

Answer: Indeed. The language of the dedication, like that of the book, is somewhat cryptic, and to judge by the handwriting, you would think that M. Macron had trained as a doctor, not an economist. I leave it to our readers to decipher the President's handwriting. I'm sure they will enjoy the challenge.

 
Two hats 20Question: Will you now take on the translation of works by other famous French politicians, scholars or writers?

6a010535f04dfe970b01b7c95298dc970b
Jonathan working in the shadows

Answer: Never again! Working on a single project for 10 hours and more a day, seven days a week, at the expense of my other interests, is not my cup of tea. But for regular work projects, being only 80 years old (twice the age of the President of the Republic [10]), I do not intend to slow down. I will continue to ply my trade in the shadows as an anonymous and unknown translator and interpreter (French>English and Hebrew>English), and to devote part of the hours of each day outside of my regular work  to  research for the blog across a range of linguistic and cultural subjects. (My other blog activity involves roping in contributors, which is sometimes as difficult as herding cats. But once they submit their contributions, they usually prove themselves to be linguistic tigers.)

I have also revived an English-language blog that I had created some time ago and that had been dormant: The Lives of Linguists : Interviews with Writers, Translators and other Wordsmiths. It is accessible at WordsmithsBlog.com. And I am in the process of creating a French-language blog named Clio, un blog pour les amateurs de l'histoire. [11] Articles dealing with historical subjects that have been written for Le Mot juste over the course of the years will be imported into the new blog. Stay tuned!

As a staunch Francophile, I will have the continuous pleasure of seeing material posted in the mellifluous French language. [12] Together with the contributos and readers, I will continue the search for le mot juste en anglais - as well as in French.

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[1] To reassure our readers that in the coming months there will be a dramatic improvement in the standard of the interviewees - a rise from this abyss - I will mention that two linguists of world renown, David Bellos and David Crystal, have agreed to be interviewed for the blog.   

[2] Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 1711

 

[3] Oxford Dictionaries:

mass noun, informal 
Extreme self-confidence or audacity 
Origin: Late 19th century: Yiddish, from Aramaic ḥu ṣpā.
 

[4]  Selon Video Language Network sur le site Femme actuelle, cette expression est utilisée pour exprimer qu'un choix est facile à faire et ne nécessite pas d'y réfléchir plus longtemps.

 

[5] According to one theory, all or many of Molière's works were in fact written by Corneille, the historic French dramatist. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaaqqLkz5t4

 

[6] Mollycoddling - World Wide Words

[7] L'Aiglon de Edmond Rostand - Nous avons fait tout cela pour la gloire et pour des prunes ! (Flambeau)
(Thank you, Jean Leclercq, for pointing me to the source of this quotation:

Dans L'Aiglon (Acte 2, scène IX), Edmond Rostand fait dire à Flambeau, vélite de la garde, après le rappel de ses glorieux états de service :

"Faits d'armes : trente-deux. Blessures : quelques-unes.
Ne s'est battu que pour la gloire, et pour des prunes.» }
 

[8) The French word prune and the English word "prune" are false friends. Prune (fr.) = plum (Eng.); prune (Eng.) = pruneau (fr.)

Plums-1 Prunes
plum = prune prune = pruneau


[9] The Anglo-Saxons
      Aeon

[10] When Macron is 80 years old, I will be 120 years. Between now and that time, I expect to receive a card from him containing the Biblical greeting: שתחיה עד מאה עשרים - "May you live to be 120 years." 

[11] What Makes French Sound Sexy
Mental Floss

[12] Clio was the Muse of History

Other articles by the author on his experience as a translator and interpreter:

The colonial influences on participants in a Los Angeles courtroom— from the perspective of a French-English interpreter.

An Interpreting Dilemma


Interview with wordsmith (and food translator) Carmella Abramowitz Moreau

                                              AN INTERVIEW TO BE SAVOURED

Andrea profile Carmella  cropped

             Andrea Bernstein
             - the interviewer

Carmella Abramowitz Moreau
- the interviewee

Carmella Abramowitz Moreau is a translator specializing in culinary translations from French, and living with her family in the 3rd arrondisement of Paris. The interview that follows was conducted by Andrea Bernstein, the spouse and personal chef of your faithful blogger. Andrea, like Carmella, was born in South Africa, where she obtained her doctorate in social work and was Professor of Social Work and Department Head at the University of Natal. After immigrating to the United States and working as an editor of academic texts, Andrea launched a new career as a consultant in the field of leadership development and was involved in the training of senior executives of major American companies. Both Carmella and Andrea are passionate about food and cooking. [1]

---------------------

Andrea Bernstein:  You grew up in South Africa, where many languages are spoken, (eleven of which are now designated as official languages) but where there was no French influence, unless you count the arrival of the Huguenots at the end of the 17th century. Despite Sorbonnethat, you gravitated to the French language, and to everything French, initially by moving to Montreal, at the age of 23, then to France where you completed the Diplôme de Civilisation française at the Sorbonne. You then went on to obtain a diploma in French-English translation, followed by a Masters in the same area. You married a Frenchman, and have lived for 35 years in Paris, where your children were born.  What stimulated your interest in learning French and in becoming sufficiently fluent to become a translator?  

Carmella Abramowitz Moreau: I completed my first degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa in Social Anthropology and English literature. My main regret regarding this degree is that I studied Zulu for only one year. My father was gifted in languages and read many alphabets. I think he helped instill in me my linguistic curiosity. As a child, I briefly took French lessons with a wonderful teacher but in high school I had to choose between French and Latin and I opted for Latin. My real attachment to, and love of, French began after my first degree, when I started studying French largely on a whim, taking intensive courses at language schools in both Lausanne and Paris, before going to Montreal where I completed a graduate diploma in language teaching. A year at the Sorbonne, also intensive, helped me on the path to fluency. Choosing to settle in a country seems to demand that one at least aspire to fluency. I was lucky to have always benefitted from excellent language and linguistics teachers.

 

AB: When I look at the list of your translations, it seems you have specialized in art, music and cooking (with some diversions into urbanism, microfinance, science and ethnomedicine). Let’s concentrate on culinary translation for the purposes of this interview. How did you get started in the field?

CAM: Carmella with pavlova My first cookbook translation fell into my lap after someone with whom I had studied translation recommended me to a publisher, knowing that I love cooking and baking, and that I had previously taken courses. One thing led to another, as tends to happen. Some time previously, I had taken weekly pastry-making lessons for a few years with a marvelous pastry chef, also a remarkable teacher. He demystified many aspects of classic French pastry-making for me. Although I don’t necessarily make this sort of thing any more, I can quite easily explain how to make Italian meringue. I can tell if there’s a serious typo in a recipe quantity, or an important ingredient inadvertently omitted, and so on. Since then, I’ve also taken short Viennoiseries courses in Viennoiseries and bread-making. But the task of explaining how to fold and roll out puff pastry never gets any easier – I suppose this is the case for any kind of a technical translation. Living in Paris certainly makes it easier to keep up with cooking trends, for example neo-bistro cuisine.

 

AB:  Personally I love reading cookbooks (even if I don’t make most of the recipes). What are some of the special challenges you’ve encountered in translating recipes?

CAM: The most challenging is translating complicated recipes by well-known chefs that are included in books targeted at the general public. They contain ingredients that are often not readily available even here in France, such as the latest vegetable or citrus fruit that they have an exclusive supply line for, a rare breed of meat, a rare species of fish, etc. I have to convey to the home cook how best to reproduce the recipe. Then there are the instructions that are incomplete or fiddly -- recipes that top chefs use in their kitchens where sous-chefs are there to weigh out 43 grams of this and 127 grams of that. Meat cuts also differ from one country to another, even among English-speaking countries (and are far more intricate in France), as do weights of what constitutes egg sizes – an EU medium egg is more or less equivalent to a large US or Canadian egg, and Australia and New Zealand are different again. Added to the egg size difficulty is the French chef’s penchant for weighing yolks and whites – 75 g of egg white converts to about one-third of a cup, but who outside a professional kitchen likes to divvy up eggs? Percentages of butterfat in cream are not specified in certain countries but one needs to know what to use, Carmella ganachefor example, to make whipped cream or a certain type of ganache. Then there are the chefs who use idiosyncratic or regional terms for the preparation of part of a chicken or a common vegetable. At times, I resort to consulting my butcher or greengrocer. I long for the day when the US will switch to the metric system and kitchen scales become more widespread there, so conversions to the imperial system will no longer be necessary.

 

AB: How do you deal with the issue of a technical vocabulary? I believe there are often no exact equivalents for French terms.

CAM: I’m frequently asked if this poses a problem. It’s true that often there is no exact word for specific actions, and that French is very rich in technical culinary vocabulary. It’s generally quite easy to explain what has to be done in a few short, explicit phrases. Chiqueter, for example, a word I learned at pastry lessons, is the action involving scoring the edge of two layers of puff pastry to seal them together using the back of a small kitchen knife. And if you were wondering, yes, it tends to be recommended when making galettes des rois. I like to add the French word so that the reader becomes familiar with it.

Carmella SALT FATChanges in language as the world becomes increasingly foodier also need to be taken into account. The other day, I watched the series “Salt Fat Acid Heat”, in which Samin Nosrat made citrus suprêmes. For the moment I’m still sticking to “sections”, but I should think that soon all English speakers will happily be decorating tarts or cake tops with “orange supremes”. (Chicken breasts are another matter.) We have to juggle with the level of readers’ sophistication and how far foodie vocabulary has spread or will have spread by the time the book is published.

 

 

 

 

AB: Carmella repas-gastronomiqueGastronomy is part and parcel of French culture, as testified by the French gastronomic meal being included in the UNESCO list of world intangible heritage. Sitting down to enjoy a meal, whether gastronomic or not, is an integral part of the way of life. Is there any reflection of this facet in recipe books?

CAM: I feel I should preface my answer by saying that I see my task as twofold. Producing a book that will not only sell outside of France but can be used by the people who buy it, and making it as user-friendly as possible, while retaining the French touch in spirit. I don’t feel that making the necessary adaptations is a betrayal in any way, so long as I can remain true to the recipe. Having said that, there is a significant difference in the French and Anglo approaches to recipe writing. An English-language recipe will take the cook by the hand, so to speak, and guide him or her through each step (of course, depending on the target readership’s level of cooking). It will give pan sizes, cooking or baking temperature, an indication of doneness at each stage, the speed for the stand mixer and the length of time to beat at that particular speed. Many a French recipe, translated word for word into English, would look terse, or even unfeasible. Pan size? Oh, just use whatever you have. Indications of doneness? We’ve given you the cooking time – surely that’s enough! Storage instructions? But they go without saying. I suspect that the underlying reason is an assumption that the user of the cookbook will have cooked with a family member during childhood, or spent considerable time watching someone cook full meals, or know what the end result should be. In other words, a great deal of previous knowledge tends to be assumed, so I think that this is where the heritage comes in.

Ingredients have to be listed in order of use – a common recommendation in most English-language cookbook style guides, but not necessarily followed in France. If there is an instruction at the end of the recipe telling the cook to stir in the raisins that have been soaking
Carmella crepes-chandeleurin rum for 24 hours, I’ll start the recipe with an instruction to soak them 24 hours ahead. Here is an example I saw only yesterday: Now that we have transitioned from galette des rois season to la Chandeleur and crepes are everywhere, celebrity chef Thierry Marx published an online recipe for a crepe cake. One of the instructions is « Ajouter le lait préalablement porté à ébullition ». After so many years in France, I still find this discombobulating. As someone who cooks quite a lot, I transform it according to logical English-language order. Useful advice, though, is often a thorny issue, as notes generally appear at the end of the recipe in French – too late for some! If possible, I incorporate them as relevantly as possible, but layout does not always permit it.

Photos, too, may be problematic: English-speakers expect the end result to resemble the photo, but French books may provide an “artistic interpretation.” A recipe for a large cake may show several individual portions or be decorated with unspecified ingredients. In cases like this I find myself resorting to what a fellow translator told me is known as “creative insubordination”.

 

AB: You once told me that cultural issues crop up in the most unexpected ways. Please give us some examples of these.

CAM: Well, one needs to be au fait with all sorts of issues.  A chef who provided a recipe in a book I translated recently advised his readers to use only Iranian pistachios, for, in his opinion, nowhere else are such fine quality nuts produced. I don’t know how well this would go down in a country with a ban on many products from Iran, not to mention the fact that California is also a major pistachio producer.
Carmella lobstersThe solution is to find something a little neutral and bland (no pun intended) to say instead. Preparing live lobsters was an issue that triggered a long discussion with the translator with whom I was sharing a project. After research showing that crustaceans feel pain, Switzerland passed a law outlawing the boiling of live lobsters. How long will it be before other countries implement similar legislation? We do try to keep in mind the shelf life (again, no pun intended) of the recipes. Awareness of sustainability may not be as pronounced here as in the countries where the book is to be sold, so for seafood, for example, we may add a note advising the cook to check that certain fish, eels, or whatever, may be used responsibly.

Carmella community gardenPre-#MeToo, I gave a workshop to students working on the translation of a compilation of recipes from community gardens in Paris. A recipe for nettle soup was preceded by a short text on the long legs of a gardener wearing an attractive mini skirt. I asked the class what their reactions were. After some thought, the mainly women students said they found it perfectly acceptable, and a good reflection of the French way of life. The book was to be marketed to tourists in Paris and community gardens in large US cities. The dual-nationality American professor, who hadn’t really noticed this previously, was outraged and said, “Censor it!” I think it was her opinion that ultimately prevailed. 

 

AB: How do you deal with dishes that are well-known in France but possibly unknown to English-speaking readers?

CAM: When I have to translate a recipe for a little-known regional specialty, I usually ask if I can include a short history or explanation of the dish. I enjoy the extra research and if there is room, certain editors are happy to have a little bonus.

Carmella macaron-v-macaroonAgain, as the world becomes more and more foody, fewer explanations will become necessary. Some ten or fifteen years ago, we would have to explain that macarons are not the same as macaroons! Now, macaron doesn’t even require italics. Kouign amman seems to have emigrated from its native Brittany and hit the US, or at least parts of it.

Amusingly, I sometimes also have to deal with the reverse phenomenon. French chefs like to “frenchify” typically Anglo-Saxon recipes. I’m thinking of apple pie and cheesecake in particular, which they often explain to their French readers. The texts for these usually need complete rewriting and so I’ll draft a suggestion for the editor. It’s an opportunity for me to add a little culinary history or fun fact, though not every editor is receptive to this type of adaptation.

 

[1]

Carmella bookshelf Andrea bookshelf rotated
Carmella's bookshelf of cook books Andrea's bookshelf of cook books

Blog Editor's note: British spelling has been used in this interview.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.


Interview with British wordsmith (and translator) Ros Schwartz

 

ChevalierOur guest interviewee is Ros Schwartz, a prolific, prodigious and prize-winning literary translator (French>English), as this interview and her CV below make clear. Ros was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her contribution to French literature by the French Government.In 2017 she received the John Sykes Memorial Prize for Excellence from the UK Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

Ros lives in London, where she divides her time between literary translation and working as a Royal Literary Fund writing fellow at King’s College London. She is co-chair of English PEN’s Writers in Translation Committee.

 

  Ros S
 
Jonathan
   The interviewee - Ros Schwartz The interviewer - Jonathan Goldberg

 

JG: . Since you completed your university studies in France, you've been extremely active both as a literary translator and in many branches of the translating profession. We'll talk about your career in a moment, but take us back to your school years. Where were you brought up, at what age did you begin to study French and how strong was your command of French when you entered University?

RS: My parents instilled in me a love of the French language, literature, music, food and wine that has become a lifelong passion. They were both ardent Francophiles, which was quite unusual for 1950s austerity Britain. The songs I heard in my cradle were those of Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Yves Montand and Mistinguett. They sang me to sleep with En passant par la Lorraine and taught me to sing Au Clair de la Lune before I knew my ABC.

When they didn't want me to understand what they were talking about, my parents would speak to each other in French, so naturally I made it my business to decipher and master this language very quickly.

At school, an inspirational French teacher, Miss Tucker, passed on to me her love of French literature, and I embarked on a French degree. But I wasn't cut out for academia, and the University of Kent and I parted company. I ran away to Paris, aided and abetted by my tutor, David Bradby, the distinguished historian of French theatre who remained a dear friend until his death in 2010. He helped me find my first job as an assistante in a Paris Lycée. I spent 8 years in Paris, doing a variety of odd (and I mean odd!) jobs (including working for the Gare d'Austerlitz telephone information service – there are probably people still wandering around Bordeaux  today trying to find the train to Port-Bou). During those years I immersed myself in every aspect of French life, from signing on as student at the radical university of Vincennes to picking grapes in Provence, unaware at the time that this was the best possible training for a literary translator. My friends in Paris devoted themselves to teaching me the slang of Belleville and the poetry of Verlaine.

 

JG. You have a LèsL from Université Vincennes-Saint-Denis (Paris VIII). What language courses did you take there?

RS: I actually did a degree in English and American studies with a minor in Italian. The 1970s were an exciting time to be in a radical French uni – the 1968 afterglow. Having been at a staid UK university (and dropped out), I took courses in subjects I could never have imagined, such as "Donald Duck and Anglo-Saxon Cultural Imperialism". But it was at Vincennes that I had my first taste of literary translation, under a tutor called John Edwards. He passed on to me his passion for translating.

 

JG:. Did you become a translator at the outset of your career?

RS: I lived in Paris for eight years, and then spent a year in India. On my return to the UK, I discovered that despite having languages (I also have Spanish), I was completely unemployable, having never worked in the UK. In Paris I had taught English in companies as a way of keeping body and soul together, but had no 'real' work experience. I was too old to go into a job at a very junior level, too inexperienced to go in at a higher level, and too much of a maverick to fit into a company culture. So I had no option but to invent my own career. I launched myself as a translator, having translated one book before leaving Paris, for which I had not yet found a publisher.

 

JG:. You've translated over 100 books from French into English. How long did it take you to establish the kind of reputation that put your services in such high demand?

RS: The publishing world is quite small and once you've got a foot in the door, editors tend to pass your name on. Colleagues too. It took a few years of letter writing, taking on other types of work, notably cookery books.

 

JG. Which of the books was the most challenging, linguistically or in other respects?

RS: Each book has its own set of challenges. My translation of Lebanese novelist Dominique Eddé's Kite was interesting because Eddé writes in French but with an oriental sensibility. It took me way out of my comfort zone, and by the end I had a curious feeling that I'd translated from Arabic, so different is the novel's structure and language from the western narrative tradition. Re-translating a classic, Saint-Exupéry's Petit Prince had a whole set of challenges, linguistic, stylistic, ethical, translating for children, creating different voices. More recently, I translated Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel (The Feminist Press, 2017). It’s the memoir of an extraordinary woman who is a translator-activist as well as a poet. Every word of the French is exquisitely judged, so one false note in the translation would jar horribly. My most recent translation, A Long Way from Douala is by the Swiss writer of Cameroonian origin, Max Lobe. He writes in French but uses a lot of expressions in Camfranglais, which is an urban slang made up of English, French and words borrowed from local languages. I’ve talked about about the challenges in a recent interview  https://www.looren.net/en/blog/better-tu-fais-ca.

 

JG:  Do you find time to study the works of other literary translators? When you do that, do you have the source and target texts before your eyes?

RS: I'm not an academic, I'm a hands-on practitioner. I read voraciously, both translations and other literature. I am in permanent dialogue with numerous translator friends and colleagues. My work with English PEN's Writers in Translation Programme awarding promotional grants leads me to read a lot of sample translations. And as a mentor and external supervisor I see students' work. But I don't have time to 'study' translations. There aren't enough hours in the day.

 

JG: For those contemplating a career as a literary translator, would they have any realistic prospect of making ends meet, short of achieving the kind of success you've had.

RS: Making ends meet has nothing to do with critical success. Literary translation simply isn't well paid. And there is a limit to how many books you can translate in a year. Sadly a lot of translators find themselves churning out books in order to make ends meet. The quality of their work suffers. Most translators also have a day job. For years I made my living from running a small translation company and only did one literary work a year, for publishers who value quality and would give me the time I needed to do a good job. Now I lead workshops and am fortunate enough to have a two-year position with the Royal Literary Fund, an organisation that sends writers into universities for two days a week to help students with writing skills. Other colleagues work as teachers or editors or do something completely different as a way of earning a living.

 

JG: In 2009 you and Amanda Hopkinson jointly won the International Dagger Award for your translation of Dominique Manotti's Lorraine Connection. How did you divide the work between you and ensure a unity of style?

RS: I drafted the entire novel, then Amanda went over it in minute detail and made lots of suggestions, most of which I incorporated. Then we met up and thrashed out the problem sections. It was creatively satisfying. I've collaborated with Lulu Norman on a number of translations, and with Steve Cox and Sarah Ardizzone. For me, collaboration is a form of professional development. You learn a lot from working 'à quatre mains' and the end translation benefits enormously.

 

JG: In that same year you organised a series for peer-training translation workshops with the Translators Association, funded by the Arts Council of England. Could you explain the concept of a "peer-training workshop".

RS: Yes, it's a translator-led workshop for practicing translators. It can be language-specific or subject-oriented, e.g. translating sex/poetry/subtitles. The idea is to compare notes on techniques and strategies for dealing with challenges we all face. Although there are numerous undergraduate and postgraduate university courses for beginner translators, there's little mid-career training, so we decided to remedy that by devising our own workshops. I also run translation surgeries, where colleagues working with different language combinations bring along a specific issue which we discuss collectively. It’s interesting to see the crossovers and common challenges translators from different languages face, and to see the solutions the hive mind can come up with.

JG. You were also awarded the "Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres". Tell our readers how and why you were so honoured.

 

Ros Scwartz Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres Cert (small)

RS: . It's a slightly mysterious process. In June 2009 I received a letter from the French Embassy in London telling me I'd been 'nommée au grade de Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' in recognition for my 'travail de traduction, et plus largement votre rôle dans la diffusion de la littérature française'. According to the French Ministry of Culture ,the award is made to people for 'la contribution qu'elles ont apportée au rayonnement de la culture en France et dans le monde'.

I imagine it's because I've always worked with French publishers and the Book Office here to bring French titles to the attention of UK publishers (in fact that's how I launched myself).

 

JG: You have also organised or overseen online translation courses, including one  offered by Birkbeck College. Could you compare the advantages and disadvantages for the participants of online courses as a substitute for face-to-face instruction. Why would a college offer courses free to applicants from throughout the world?

RS: There's no substitute for face-to-face teaching. The online course was one strand of a project that involved a weekend 'taster' course and a summer school. It was for those who attended the summer school and who wanted more practice, and for anyone thinking of doing translation who wanted to try their hand. We received funding for the project which enabled us to offer the online course free. But we weren't proposing it as a substitute for face-to-face teaching, and nor were we suggesting that anyone completing the online course was ready to launch their career. But it's good to be able to offer it to budding translators around the world, not all of whom have the means to come to London for the summer school or to go to university.

One of the most interesting translator development formats I’ve been involved in is the Vice-Versa programme run by the Collège International de Traducteurs (CITL) in Arles, France. The one-week workshop brings together six translators from French to English and six from English to French, under the supervision of a tutor from each language. Each half-day session is devoted to a translation by one of the mentees. So each person has the full attention of eleven others. It’s enriching to have input from the mother-tongue participants as well as from those working in the same language direction. CITL also runs a two-month residency with three translators for each language and three different tutors each in attendance for two weeks. The fledgling translators emerge from this ready to spread their wings. I thoroughly recommend this programme. Details https://www.atlas-citl.org/citl/.

In October 2019 year I was involved in a workshop and mentoring scheme to train literary translators in Cameroon. It was part of research project led by the University of Bristol and Bakwa publishers in the capital, Yaounde. Cameroon has two official languages, French and English (as well as over 250 local languages), but there is no literary translation activity between French and English. We ran a week-long workshop to train a group of promising translators in each language, followed by a three-month mentorship. The short stories the mentees translated, written by emerging writers from a previous workshop as part of the project, will  be published in an anthology later this year. This experience has reinforced my conviction that mentorship is the most effective way of fostering new talent. 

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.


Interview with British wordsmith (translator and author) Frank Wynne


We are honored to have as our linguist of the month Frank Wynne, prestigious literary translator (French>English, Spanish>English). Frank has won numerous prizes for his work. He received the IMPAC award in 2002, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2095 (these two awards being shared with the authors whose works he translated) and the Scott Moncrief Prize in 2008. [1]
 
For his translations from Spanish he twice received the Premio Valls Inclán - in 2012 (for Kamchatka de Marcelo Figueras) and in 2014 (for La Hora Azul / The Blue Hour of Alonso Cueto) in 2016.
 
 
Frank Wynne
Jonathan
Frank Wynne - the interviewee Jonathan G. - the interviewer
 
 
 
Wynne sansal-harragaMore recently his translation of Harraga , written by Boualem Sansal, was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize for 2016. The juries who awarded these prizes were themselves literary translators. As Frank explained in our interview with him, seeing his talents recognized by his peers is all the more gratifying, because translation is a lonely trade.
 
Frank granted Jonathan the interview that follows while on a trip to Dublin, designated as UNESCO's City of Literature in 2010.



 
Ireland may take pride in having fathered four recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and William Butler Yeats. As for Frank Wynne, he has put Ireland on the world map of literary translation.

 

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Jonathan G. : I understand that you have no French family background and that your academic training in French was confined to four years of high school, followed by a short period at Trinity College, Dublin. You have also told me that your school study of French included no verbal training and that your first opportunity to speak French came when you went to live in Paris, having never previously visited France. Yet you have reached the pinnacle of your profession as a literary translator and you also clearly have a mighty command of French literature. Given the limited number of years in which you formally studied French, and the rather unconventional Irish method of instruction, yours is a rare case of someone who, after a slow start,  made a massive leap to the front of the pack of well-known literary translators. To take Julian Barnes as an example of another Brit whose depth of knowledge of all things French is very striking, his affinity to France was established at a very young age and consistently nurtured, whereas you had no similarly extensive early immersion.

 

FWFrank Wynne :I was born and raised in Ireland in a family with no French connection whatever, and in a resolutely monoglot culture, but the Irish education system insisted that in addition to learning the Irish language (which to my shame I can barely speak now), high school students should also learn at least one other language. I studied both French and German. There was no oral component to study or examinations - aside from a little reading aloud, we spent most of our time learning verbs by rote, parsing sentences, identifying particles, discussing clauses. We never held conversations in French, and were not required to take oral examinations. This meant that when I moved to Paris on a whim in 1984, I arrived in a country I had never visited, with a 19th century understanding of the language: I spoke much the way that Maupassant writes 'quant à moi', 'je vous saurai gré de bien vouloir me passer le sel"… and for the first month I had almost no idea of what anyone was saying. Naively, I had assumed that learning to speak the language was a lexical problem: I merely needed the words to express the same thoughts I would have expressed in English. I was shocked and fascinated to discover how language shapes thought and speech, to realise that the underpinning of language - the ideas, cultural references and connotations -  are not transferable or translatable. This was the beginning of my passion for languages: I began to read as widely as possible and to immerse myself in slang, verlan, accents, dialects, in a desperate attempt to understand Frenchness - its sounds and signifiers, its codified meanings, its hidden references. I became so obsessed with language that I undertook my first translation (something I did simply to be able to share it with English friends) of Romain Gary's La Vie devant soi - a book as much about voices and the liminal spaces in language as it is a heartbreaking story about Momo and Madame Rosa.

 

JG : Your first job in Paris was with an English bookstore. Tell us a little about that.

FWFW : In Paris I got a job in Galignani, a bookshop on the rue de Rivoli which, though it was not listed in guidebooks, is mentioned by Hemingway in  “A Moveable Feast”. It was a hallowed place which had numbered among its clients Scott Fitzgerald, Ned Rorem, James Joyce et al. The yellowed index cards for their accounts were still among our files. Even in the 1980s, it was visited by the great and the good. In my time there, I met Jeanne Moreau (an enchanting woman in fluorescent yellow leggings and purple faux-fur), Marguerite Yourcenar (staying in the nearby Ritz while on a visit to Paris), Anthony Perkins, Fanny Ardant and - one of our most devoted clients, and one of the best read men I have ever encountered, Karl Lagerfeld. It was a strange, almost timeless world of soaring wooden bookshelves, but one that I loved and a world away from the Paris I discovered outside working hours - the nightclubs and the concerts, Jacques Higelin and Gainsbarre, Indochine and Les Rita Mitsouko, Coluche and Renaud…

 

JJG  : You moved back to Britain, managed a French bookstore in Kensington, London and became involved in the field of French comics. One of your first career breaks came when you were invited to interpret for French publishers at the Angoulême International Comics Festival of 1989.  How did that experience further your career?

FWFW : Discovering bandes dessinées in France was also a revelation - it had never occurred to me that the comics form could be used as an adult medium. I had no prejudices about the idea, I had simply never seen it done before, and I was captivated by the work both of humourists (the wild linguistic joys of Édika, Goossens and Gotlib) and even more so by the work of artists like Jacques Tardi and Edmond Baudoin whose work seemed to me to be as moving, as complex and as resonant as the finest short stories I had ever read. When I took over the French bookstore, La Page, in Kensington, I built a bandes dessinées department - the shop did not then have one. It so happened that this was at the time when British and American artists and publishers were interested in what would come to be called the 'graphic novel', and so over time, I got to know many of the great British comic artists who came to buy books and to discover new artists. It was through them that I was invited to act as interpreter to the UK delegation as guest of honour at Angoulême in 1989, and consequently met a number of British publishers who, some years later, would give me the opportunity to translate French literature.

At the time, it would never have occurred to me that I would be 'allowed' to translate… I remember the author's note in Barbara Trapido's "Brother of the More Famous Jack", where she said that she wrote her first novel at 41 having previous believed that novels  were written by people who were 'dead or already famous'; I felt a little like that. I felt as though translators were nurtured and fostered in some alien world; that one could not simply become a translator.  In the years after Angouême, I translated a number of bandes dessinées - by Enki Bilal, Lorenzo Mattotti and others - for various publishers and I became a reader for a number of publishers who commissioned reports on French novels in order to decide which books to publish in English. It would be several years before I finally recommended that an editor acquire the rights to a book (L'Hypothese du Désert by Dominique Sigaud), and I was supremely fortunate that the editor in question (Ravi Mirchandani, who would become a great friend) asked if I would like to do a sample with a view to translating the book. This I did, and though the book was hardly a huge success it was shortlisted for the Weidenfeld Translation Prize and was chosen as a New York Times 'notable book'. I spent evenings and weekends translating - I had a variety of day jobs to pay the bills

 

JG : You apparently inherited a literary bent from your father, who established a Yeats Society. You attended its summer school and recorded on cassette the lectures of several participants without realizing that they were literary luminaries. Was it that early introduction to the literary world – or simply the fact of growing up in Dublin, with shades of William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (to name some of the more prominent Irish writers) - that gave you a love of literature as well as the literary baggage which you brought to your new profession?

FWFW : My father was a curious case - I never thought of him as literary. The only books in our house when we were growing up were a complete collection of P.G. Wodehouse and Churchill's "History of the Second World War". Given that he had no college education, it was strange that in 1959 my father, with T.R. Henn and others, had been instrumental in setting up The Yeats Society in Sligo, and the Summer School. My first contact with the school involved recording the lectures given by visiting professors. Being young and callow, I had little idea who these people were, but had the great fortune to end up recording lectures by Kathleen Raine, Richard Ellmann and Brendan Kennelly and listening to poetry readings by a young Seamus Heaney - long before he became the man we in Ireland now call 'famous Seamus'. Those I met were open and generous, very tolerant (in retrospect) of my ignorance, and warmly encouraging. 

In a sense, literature is part of the cultural heritage of everyone in Ireland - or it was in my generation. Even those who had never cracked a page of Joyce, Beckett, Yeats or Shaw  felt curiously possessive of them and their reputation. I honed my love of some of these writers (and my contempt for others) during these summer schools, and in a culture that placed great emphasis on storytelling, on language and on music.

 

JG : Once you began to gain experience as a literary translator, what pitfalls of the profession did you become mindful of.  What were the “dos and don'ts” that you set yourself in order to avoid such pitfalls?

FWFW : ‘Translators’, in George Steiner’s words ‘are men groping towards each other in a common mist.’ Becoming a translator is a lifelong apprenticeship. The dos and don'ts are often closely related - while it can be a crime to intervene to much, to 'improve' on a text, it can be just as damning to be too timid; to fail to trust your ear, your sense of a voice. The lesson I quickly learned is that any translation is merely one version of the text: I can only give mine. There can be no definitive, authoritative, final translation since there is no adequatio between languages and cultures. Over time, I have learned to be less timid, to ask more questions, to engage with those writers who are interested in the process of translation (not all writers are); but I have also learned when to trust editors and when to stand my ground - not because my opinion is necessarily "right", but because the decisions made in a translation are personal, as individual as a pianist's interpretation of  the Goldberg variations or an actor's interpretation of a classic role. I have come to understand that any translation I have done would not only be necessarily different from one undertaken by another translator from the same source text, but it would be different had I done it three years ago or were I to do it three years from now. Translation is informed by everything we read, by the films we see, the music we listen to, the conversations he have - these provide the sounds and intonations, the voices, the cadences that may contribute to 'bringing across' a text.

 

JG : Would it be true to say that after Angoulême the next major push given to your career as a translator came when you began to translate the books of Michel Houellebecq? Did you share his literary fame in the UK and the USA? Did that make you an overnight star?

FWFW : Houllebecq's "Les Particules élémentaires" came through my letterbox from a publisher seeking a reader's report. At the time, Michel was relatively unknown in France (the book had not yet been published there). My reader's report began: "This is an extraordinary novel, in every possible sense of that word. Part dialectic, part polemic part digest history of the twentieth century, it is funny, intelligent, infuriating, didactic, touching, visceral, explicit and, possibly, dangerous." Heinemann bought the rights and I translated the novel, and we confidently expected it would get some good reviews, a lot of scathing reviews and would probably sell about 5,000 copies which, in the UK, would be a good average for a novel in translation. In fact, it was a huge, rather controversial success. The UK reviews (with one exception) were rhapsodic (the US reviews, with few exceptions) were withering; it won the 2002 IMPAC prize (one shared between author and translator) and has gone on to sell more than half a million copies in the UK alone. It firmly catapulted Houellebecq to stardom both in France and on the world stage - and while it did not do the same for me (several of my colleagues at AOL at the time suggested I read it, not having noticed my name as translator on the title page of the book!), it certainly meant that other publishers became aware of me. Without its success, I would not have imagined giving up my day job to focus full-time on translation. That decision, however, proved to be a little premature: though a handful of publishers now knew my name, making my way as a translator was still a long hard slog. For several years afterwards I took whatever work I could get - I was neither famous nor better paid than I had been before, but I certainly had a calling card, a piece of work I could mention that publishers would recognise. Building a network of editors who shared my tastes and respected my work and arriving at  a point where I could be confident that there would always be offers of work took almost a decade. For much of that time I lived in Central and South America, in part because I could not afford to live in London as a literary translator, though admittededly in part because I enjoyed travelling and living in other countries, and it allowed me to learn Spanish.

 

JG : To what extent do you regard yourself as a partner in the success or failure of each work you translate?

FWFW : While I believe a great translation will never sell a book, I firmly believe that a poor or workmanlike translation can kill a book that might have succeeded. Therefore, I allow myself to take a little credit for those books that have been successful. When reviewers talk about the ambition, the scale or the range of a novelist, the originality of his or her ideas or their plots, then credit is due to the author, but to quote a friend and fellow translator, Daniel Hahn "a reviewer who thinks he can praise the rhythm, the texture, the beauty of the prose, the warmth and wit of the voice, without acknowledging who’s responsible—as though those things in an author’s original simply reappear automatically after the mechanics of translation have been applied to a text—[is] a reviewer who simply has no understanding of what translation is."

 

JG :You are the author of one book that has been published : "I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century's Greatest Forger". Although it was a book of non-fiction, your agent has tried to persuade you  to launch a career writing fiction, and for that purpose to relinquish translating . Why have you resisted that suggestion?

FWFW : I have always wanted to write fiction - I wrote two terrible novels in my teens (which thankfully are lost), but my one published book is a piece of narrative non-fiction. I much enjoyed working on it and it afforded me the luxury of learning a little Dutch and living in Amsterdam for a year or so. But I discovered that, though I love reading non-fiction I find the practice of writing it frustrating. So much of what I want to do with language involves creating characters and voices, painting scenes, unravelling plot threads, so I tend to champ at the bit of non-fiction. With much encouragement from my agent, David, I have begun working on a novel, but I cannot imagine myself being a full time writer. When David told me  'if the novel works out, you can give up translating', I had to explain that I would never give up translating. It fulfills a need in me that writing does not; it allows me to explore worlds, characters and narrative forms that are far beyond my imagination as a writer, it allows me to give a voice to a West-African satirist, an Algerian novelist, a Colombian modernist and many others. Moreover,  I love the discipline, the craft, what Wittgenstein paradoxically called ‘the exact art’ of translation; it is part puzzle, part interpretation, part performance and yet all these roles must be performed in the service of the author.

 

JG : Which of the books that you translated from French was the most challenging, linguistically or otherwise?

FWFW : Individual books present specific challenges. I had the privilege of translating the last two novels by Ahmadou Kourouma, one of the great 20th century African novelists (from Côte d'Ivoire). The first of these, "Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote", required me to find an appropriate register and a cadence for the voice of a griot, a West-African oral storyteller, and required considerable research into a culture and a linguistic tradition of which I had no experience.  For the latter, "Allah is not Obliged", narrated by a child-soldier during the wars in Sierra Leone, I wrote to Human Rights Watch who sent me tapes of (English speaking) child-soldiers who had fought in the same wars so that I could find a tone appropriate to my twelve-year-old Malinké narrator. But one of the most difficult books I have translated is a slim volume of essays - or rather aperçus - by Petr Král (a Czech author who writes in French) entitled Notions de Base  (Working Knowledge). Král's essays, which can be a single sentence or a few pages in length, are almost prose poems; the book is a scant 35,000 words, something which might ordinarily require three months work; this took almost a year. Translating his evanescent, elliptical essays requires that every word, every comma be perfectly placed in order to preserve the fragile equilibrium of his haunting, often surreal images. It is as close as I have come to translating poetry and I found the work both exhilarating and frustrating and ultimately rewarding.

The above interview was conducted in October 2016.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.


Interview with Canadian wordsmith (and professor of translation studies) Sherry Simon

The following interview was conducted by Skype between Los Angeles and Montreal

 

Simon

Jonathan

Sherry Simon

Jonathan G.

Professor Emerita in the Department of French Studies at Concordia University. 

- the interviewee   

 

 

           - the interviewer

                                                                             

JG: Your parents were born in Toronto. You spoke English at home and despite studying French at school, your first significant exposure to French came in your teens. How did that come about?

SS: My mom was very forward-looking…meaning that she recognized that French was important in Montreal! That may sound very obvious now, but I grew up in a city that was still practically a colonial city—with a powerful and very self-sufficient English-language minority. What was experienced by some as intolerable change starting in the 1960s (those who felt threatened or excluded by a French-language city) was experienced by others as a period of social, economic and political excitement. The fact that I took a university-level French course while I was still in high school changed my outlook entirely. I was increasingly attracted to French-language culture.

JG: You found Montreal to be comparable with Calcutta in certain respects. (You later wrote « Villes en traduction: Calcutta, Barcelona, Montreal », Presses de l'Université de Montreal, 2013). Can you expound on that comparison.

SS: Calcutta and Montreal were founded in the same historical period of colonialism—1609 for Calcutta, 1642 for Montreal. Montreal was founded as a French city, then there was the Conquest of 1759 which meant that Ville Marie became Montreal. Both cities were the products of spatial division—a more modern, spacious area which contrasted greatly with the rest of the city. Of course the colonial divides of India were very different from the colonial divides of Quebec—where two European powers were in competition, and where the indigenous presence had been largely obliterated. But the linguistic and spatial arrangements of Calcutta and Montreal share the same colonialist premise and the interaction between parts of the city shared similar dynamics. What I learned was that there was a great deal to be discovered when you looked at Calcutta and Montreal as cities in translation. The history of the Bengali Renaissance as it played out across Calcutta is rich and fascinating—the story of innovations in science and the arts that were a product of the interplay between communities. The same is true of Montreal, mutatis mutandis. A cultural history of the city since the 1940s for instance tells of numerous new pathways created across the city. Literary personalities such as Mavis Gallant, F.R. Scott or A.M. Klein have woven cultural ties between the French and English speakers, both in journalism and in poetry. What is important to note, however, is that translation is not always successful and that failed translation can also be useful to explore.

JG: You went on to study Comparative Literature at Brandeis University in the USA, and did your Masters in Paris, obtaining a Diplôme de l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and a doctorate in literature compareé from the University of Montreal. Your career-path is somewhat unusual: although you were initially a literary translator you soon moved into the academic study of translating. Your positions have included Professeure du Département d'études françaises at Concordia University and membre de l'Académie des lettres du Québec.

The long list of books you've written includes "Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City", for which you reached the finals of the Ville de Montreal, Grand Prix du Livre. Although some might have regarded that as being an ivory-tower occupation, your writings were widely recognized, as witness the many prizes you have won, such as the Prix Andre-Laurendeau en Sciences humaines.

During your distinguished career, what advances have you seen in the role of the literary translator?

SS: The very fact of the expansion of Translation Studies as an academic field is a great success story of the last 3 decades or so. The growth has been exponential—books, journals, academic programs, summer schools, and the list goes on. The field is especially important in Europe, and literary translation is increasingly recognized as an important creative activity. Translators are getting more recognition, I think, in general—with the wonderful work of translators associations, of high-profile translators, and of academics who take the work of these translators seriously and are making their work the object of serious study. In Canada, literary translation benefits from government support and a certain degree of public recognition. But the same platitudes are often repeated. We still need to work towards further recognition of the creative value of translation—not only in relation to the Canadian scene but internationally.

Translation EffectsJG: Your very latest book, just published, "Translation Effects: The Shaping of Modern Canadian Culture" (written together with Kathy Mezei and Luise von Flotow, McGill-Queen's University Press, pp.496) deals, inter alia, with the subject of bilingualism. For the benefit of our readers who have not read it and may not manage to do so, could you give us one or two points on Canadian bilingualism?

SS: We argue in the book that official bilingualism has in many ways masked the multiform realities of translation within Canadian society. And so the book—which is a collection of 30-some essays—shows how translation is a factor is many aspects of literary and cultural life—through First Nations languages, immigrant languages, and the unequal transactions of French and English. While official bilingualism is an important element of our national self-definition, allowing the country to function, it only applies to the legal realities of the country. The cultural realities are messier, more unequal, but also creative of new mixtures.

JG: So why has the Federal Government gone to such lengths to promote and preserve bilingualism?

SS: Official bilingualism in its current form was a result of the political unrest of the 1960s. There is a very significant separatist movement in Quebec, always ready to re-emerge, and in the 1960s it was very strong. Official bilingualism was one response to this crisis, promising a French presence from coast to coast. But Canada also has a multicultural policy, which gives cultural rights to 'ethnic' groups. These rights are sometimes in conflict with one another, or perceived as such. It is true that official bilingualism has remained in place for many decades now, and seems to have performed its task well. But while the government used to do all its translation in-house, it now outsources practically all translation tasks, and no longer ensures training.

JG: Dr Paul Christophersen of the University College in Ibadan, Nigeria, in his book called "Bilingualism", is quoted as saying that it is almost impossible for a "so-called" bilingual speaker to achieve 100% efficiency in both languages. 

SS: Of course there is no such thing as perfect bilingualism. Bilingualism is almost always asymmetrical, however there are many Quebecers who function as well in one language as the other. Usually this is an oral skill. Writing is another story. There are very few people who write as well in one language as the other, and for instance, while many can read equally well in both languages, in Quebec the literary institutions are quite separate. But as for day to day functional bilingualism, there are an astonishing number of people who could claim this capacity in Montreal especially. And while French-Canadians in the past were 'forced' to be bilingual, it is now English-language Montrealers who are increasingly bilingual. But as for 100% efficiency, I would say that this is not really a useful marker. What is 100% efficient when language is concerned?

JG: Mr John Woodsworth, a Russian-English translator and someone who submitted a report to the Canadian government many years ago, proposed to CBC: Replace the current system of separate English and French-language TV networks by a single bilingual network, with a daily schedule of mostly (if not all) Canadian-produced programming originating alternately in English and French, with captions (sub-titles) provided in the second language.

SS: An interesting idea, but unlikely to happen. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission regulates these matters. Twenty years ago it closed down a bilingual radio channel that alternated between French and English. With the present government's stance on public broadcasting, we will be lucky to retain public broadcasting, never mind revolutionize it.

JG: In the course of this brief interview, we have only been able to touch on the diverse fields of erudition that you bring to historical and cultural aspects of translating. Nevertheless, we hope to have given our readers an idea of what they may find in any of the numerous books that you have written. Many thanks.

 Sherry Simon - The Flow of Languages, the Grace of Cultures (in French)

 

This interview was conducted in June 2015.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.


Interview with British wordsmith Nicholas de Lange

De LangeYanky Fachler kindly acceded to our request and  travelled to Cambridge to interview Professor Nicholas de Lange, the English translator of over a dozen books by Israeli author, Amos Oz, including Judas, which was short-listed for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. An ordained Reform rabbi, Professor de Lange is Emeritus Fellow and Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Cambridge University's Faculty of Divinity and Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. He has held visiting positions at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, the Jewish Theological Seminary of Hungary in Budapest, the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, the Freie Universität Berlin, the University of Toronto and Princeton University. He is a prolific translator of contemporary Hebrew fiction, and has served as Chairman of the Translators Association. In the following extracts, Professor de Lange shares some insights on the art of literary translation.

 

Yanky FaschlerYanky Fachler is a translator, broadcaster and writer of  several books in the field of Jewish history. He was born in the United Kingdom, spent almost thirty years in Israel and currently lives in Ireland, where he is founder and chairman of the Jewish Historical Society of Ireland.

 

 

 

 

 

Y.F. :  How would you define a translator?

A translator is a reader who is also a writer. I read the text, and then I write it. My aim is to write a book that is word for word like the original – without being a word for word translation. Since I also write many books of my own, I see no difference between a translator and an author. As an author, you convert material from your mind on to the page. As a translator, you convert someone else’s work to the page. I am uncomfortable being asked which specific words of phrases in Hebrew I find difficult to translate. I don’t like being asked whether I find Hebrew a difficult language to translate. The actual words are almost irrelevant. I translate paragraphs.

 Y.F. :  Do you read a book before you start to translate it?

I don’t like to read the book in advance. Partly because translation is so badly paid that it takes up too much time; and partly because I like to discover the book as I go along. This approach, though, can lead you astray. In Oz’s My Michael, there is a couple living in Jerusalem who drink endless cups of tea. One day, the man is ill and he asks his wife to bring him tea with milk. With my British background, I found this strange. How had he consumed all the previous cups of tea? Then I learned that in Israel, tea with milk is only given to sick people. I had to go back and rewrite all the tea scenes, replacing cups of tea with glasses of tea. Going back to the question of reading a book before translating it, some of the other translators at the Man Booker event agreed with my habit of not reading the book first. But one translator was adamant: “I must read the book first, because I might not accept it.” The only time I have turned down a translation job is when I was too busy.

 

Y.F. : The actor Lawrence Olivier claimed that actors must learn to love the unsavoury characters they portray on stage. Does something similar happen with translators? Do you have to love some of the unsavoury characters you translate?

Laurence_OlivieN.d.L. :  Translation isn't impartial. Like Olivier rightly says, you must be on the side of the character. You must love the characters you translate. Many of the characters that populate Amos Oz's books are unpleasant, but I don't let my dislike of them stop me from portraying them as they should be portrayed. Anyway, unsavoury characters make interesting characters. You need enormous sympathy for the characters you are translating. For example, some of the books I translate have no narrator – they are entirely epistolary. Everything is in direct speech. Just as a theatre audience needs to know the distinct voice of each actor on stage, so the translator must make the reader aware of which character is speaking at any particular time in an epistolary piece. While on the subject of dialogue on stage and dialogue in translation, I once translated a piece for BBC Radio 3 that was only intended to be read aloud, not to appear on the printed page. The actress called me and said she had a problem with a couple of phrases. "Could you please go back and check the Hebrew to see whether that is what the author really meant?" My heart sank. This was going to be a disaster. Yet when I went back to the original, she was absolutely correct. Without knowing any Hebrew, the actress had stumbled upon a couple of places where my translation did not do justice to the original.

Y.F. : You are quoted as saying that a faithful literary translation demands transcending the words to convey the whole cultural context. Could you elaborate?

N.d.L. :  As a translator, you have to translate the context of the book you are translating. You are asking people to read about a culture they don't and can't know. You have to make the context clear in a subtle way. For example, when there is a reference to Chaim Nachman Bialik, Israel's national poet, you don'; have the luxury of using footnotes. You need to find a more subtle way of letting the reader know who Bialik is. It's the same with biblical and Talmudical references. I don't feel the need to explain what the Bible is or what the Talmud is. I leave it to my readers to pick up allusions and to look stuff up for themselves.

Y.F. : What is your latest Hebrew literature translation project?

N.d.L. :  I don't go out of my way to look for Hebrew books to translate, but I am currently engaged in translating perhaps the most challenging Hebrew novel, Days of Ziklag by S Yizhar. This hugely influential modernist work was first published in 1958, and is one of the two most difficult Hebrew books to translate. The other is Yakov Shabtai's Zikhron Devarim (Past Continuous). I was drawn to the Days of Ziklag project because it is the ultimate challenge for a translator – a bit like translating James Joyce. Although Yizhar was writing before the emergence of Holocaust literature as a genre, his War of Independence themes resonated with Holocaust themes such as ethnic cleansing.

Y.F. : Do you ever collaborate with other translators?

N.d.L. :  Right now, I am collaborating on S Yizhar's Days of Ziklag with a former student of mine, Yaacob Dweck. But what with me living in England, and Yaacob living in the USA, we have calculated that it will take us many years to complete the project [1] . I am not unaware of some of the perils of working with a collaborator. The translator Ros Schwartz once told me of her experience in co-translating a book with another translator. She soon discovered that they each had their own style, and this made it very difficult to find a consistent voice. Even little things like the propensity of one translator to use "start" where the other translator used "begin" caused difficulties. As a rule, I often feel uncomfortable reading other translators. If a book is translated from a language I don't know, I find myself asking what the original was like. I suppose I only enjoy translations that are extraordinarily well done.

 

Y.F. : In Judas, Shmuel gives Yardena a gift for her secular birthday and another for her Hebrew birthday. Having two birthdays is like having two identities. As a translator, does English represent your secular identity, and Hebrew your sacred identity?

N.d.L. :  That is a very subtle question. Yes, English is my secular identity. I certainly regard Hebrew as a sacred tongue, and I prefer to use it only for sacred purposes. I have translated more medieval Hebrew poetry into English than modern Hebrew literature. I don't speak modern Hebrew. I can't read a Hebrew newspaper. [2]  I can listen to the news, but I get lost when they talk about politics. I am unfamiliar with many modern colloquialisms. I do not even regard myself as an expert in Hebrew literature. At the get-together of the Man Booker Prize short-listed authors and their translators, the authors were asked to read from their work in the original language. Amos Oz wasn't there, and they asked me to read. I refused, because my spoken modern Hebrew is not good enough.

 

Y.F. : Jews have traditionally been multi-lingual. They spoke the language of the host country, they prayed in Hebrew, and conversed in Yiddish, Ladino, Aramaic or Arabic. Does the Jewish cultural DNA give Jews an edge when it comes to translating?

N.d.L. :  It is true that through the ages, Jews used their linguistic versatility to become great translators. But the golden age was during the medieval period. In the world of modern literature, Jews no longer have an edge. Most of today's best translators are not Jewish. A lot of translations of modern Hebrew literature used to be clumsy, with translators often not even translating into their mother tongue. But things are much better nowadays, because the authors themselves have learned to be more choosey about who will translate them.

  

Y.F. : You seem to be drawn to works associated with Israel's War of Independence. Do you think that the war could have been avoided?

N.d.L. :  The main theme of Judas is the conflict between David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister – a true-life character, and the fictional character of Ben GurionShaltiel Abravanel. Ben Gurion believed that the Arabs would never accept a Jewish state in Palestine, so the only alternative was to fight them. Abravanel insisted that war was avoidable, and for his views he was expelled from the ruling elite. He did not think that Israel should be a Jewish state, rather a country in which all could live in equality as brothers. Whatever my views on Abravanel's views may be, I do not let this influence my translation.

 

Y.F. : In Israel today, some people brand Oz a traitor for his controversial political views. How have his views impinged on your long-term collaborator as Oz's translator?

N.d.L. :  I don't have any opinion about Amos Oz's political views. I am a translator, and I'm really not involved or interested in Israeli politics. I am an academic. It is not my job to pass judgement on the opinions expressed in the book. It is not my job to impose myself on the text. It's not my job to get involved in the politics. It is my job to translate what's put in front of me.

--------------------

1. The interviewer, Yankjy Fachler, explained to us that de Lange apparently believed that despite modern technology, such as Skype, he and his assistant would have needed to sit together to pore over many fine points in order to perfect the translation.
 
2. We asked the interviewer how it was possible that Professor de Lange could not read a Hebrew newspaper and yet had translated all the books of Amos Oz, which are written so beautifully and at such a high register. Mr. Faschler explained that Professor de Lange was a specialist in medieval Hebrew and has translated much medieval Jewish poetry and liturgy. However, he had first met Amos Oz at Cambridge when they were both young, and apparently through that friendship he had developed an impressive command of modern Hebrew, despite his claim that he could not read a newspaper.
 
Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.

Interview with American wordsmith (and poet) Jacqueline Suskin

This column has been expanded in scope to include all linguists, not just translators. This allows us to interview socio-linguists, juridical terminologists, etc. But no-one we ever interview is likely to have as unconventional an occupation as our current interviewee, Jacqueline Suskin, a "performance poet", who has chosen this niche field within the world of poetry.

Jonathan G. interviewed Jacqueline at Echo Park Lake, an island of tranquility in the bustling city of Los Angeles. Jacqueline appeared for the interview, very elegantly dressed and carrying the tools of her profession - a tiny Hermes Rocket typewriter and small loose-leaf note-pad.



JS - Echo
               
photo Jonathan G.

At the end of the interview, conducted while sitting on a bench overlooking the lake, we asked her to write a poem on the subject of French. Her text was as follows:


French

Taken from the tone of old world
the feeling is in truth
a place and all that land can gather.

So much that time and lineage
show us what it is to be from
some magic center of culture
that continues to speak with hints
of history, romantic and fully
formed by those who keep such
rhythmic language alive.

- jacqueline suskin

Feb 2014


In addition to the quality and depth of her poems, one astonishing aspect of her work is her ability to begin typing her poem the moment she hears the subject given to her. Immediately we told her our chosen theme, she instantly began banging out the poem and completed it within about 2 minutes.

JS typewriter & poem

---------------------

JG: The name Jacqueline is very French. Do you come from a French family?

JS: I am third-generation American but I have French ancestors on both my parents' sides.


JG: When did you first take up poetry and what influenced you to follow that direction?

JS: I still have notes that I made when I first learnt to write at kindergarten. They are cryptic and largely unintelligible, but they reveal a definite desire on my part to express myself in writing. In 7th grade I was allocated part of a literary project and I ended up

writing a complete book. Later my father, a very literate person, read literature to me and installed in me a love of words and an appreciation of their power. At university I studied anthropology with the focus on linguistic history. I also took creative writing courses, mostly in poetry.

JG: The highlight of your working week takes place at the Hollywood Farmers Market, where you sit and receive poetry orders from passers-by. "The lady with the typewriter",  a fixed feature of the Market, sits amidst the fruit and vegetable vendors, the musicians and other participants. What made you choose that unusual work location?

JS - poem store 2


JS : I love the vibrancy and diversity of the Market. The click-clack of my typewriter keys attracts the attention of passers-by. My typewriter serves as my mouthpiece. Some people are fascinated by this antiquated tool. Some younger people have never seen a typewriter.


JG: You could have chosen a laptop computer, to store all the poems you write for future reference.

JS: Each poem I write comes from deep within me, but once it is typed out, I have no need to remember it.  Each poem is unique, even those written on the same subject.


JG: Explain the process of writing each poem, from beginning to end.

JS: People approach me. Whether I chat with them for a few minutes before they indicate the title or topic of the poem they want, or whether the request is made with hardly any prior communication, I immediately get a sense of the person's feelings, and I write a poem that is designed to strike a chord with that person. The words pour out of me spontaneously until the poem is complete. I read out the finished poem and then hand them the typed version. I don't charge for the poem. The recipients pays me whatever they like.

JG: Does your mind ever go blank? Are you sometimes lost for something to write? Do you ever hesitate?

JS: Never.


JG: Many people have never read poetry. Most people would say it is far removed from their fields of interest and occupation. How do you bridge that gap?

JS: in the age of e-mails, all of us are poets, even if we don't realize it. I can impart to people the idea of the potency of words, particularly their power to express emotions.

JG: Do you ever feel a lack of appreciation from the person who has commissioned your work.

JS: Never. The contrary is true. People often weep when they realize how deeply the poem has touched them. That is the true role of any poet, to find the depth and import of every subject.


JG: So how would you describe the service you provide?

JS: I see myself as a muse, with the  responsibility of a  poet to reach out to as many people as possible. I feel I have something to offer. I have been called a seer, a therapist, a mystic and an empath.  I am pleased if I can have a therapeutic effect on people who are suffering in some way. But when I begin to write, my own personality is sublimated and the entire focus of my efforts is the emotional situation of the person for whom I am writing. My goal is to help them identify their problems, desires, fears or whatever.

JG: You have been quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying:

"This is the most physically draining thing I've ever done in my life. When I've written poems for four hours for people I don't know, I'm like a zombie. My brain is mush."

Why is that?

JS: You are an interpreter and you know how exhausting it is to focus on every word being spoken in order to render it's true meaning. For me, the person's emotions are my "source language" and I have to strain every fiber  to turn them into words. It is a draining process.


JG:  So what is the up side if your work?

JS : It gives me a unique perspective of human nature,  the state of humanity. We all share the same kinds of problems deep down.


JG: How do you see your professional future?

JS: I have completed my second book and am looking for a publisher. I hope to write many more. I have been writing poems professionally for 5 years, but I feel I am at the beginning of my career.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.  Traduction Jean Leclercq.

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Interview with Dutch wordsmith (and author) Gaston Dorren

EXCLUSIVE  INTERVIEW

Lyda Ruijter
The interviewer

Gaston Dorren
The interviewee

Gaston Dorren, a Netherlands-based writer and linguist, has published three Dutch books on language. One of these was published in English as Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, and translated into several other languages. He has contributed to popular linguistics magazines in the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, Norway and Switzerland. He recently published "Talking Gibberish" on aeon.co. Gaston speaks English, German, Spanish and poor French and reads several more languages. He blogs at languagewriter.com.

Lingo 1


Lyda Ruijter, also born in the Netherlands, graduated from the University of Utrecht, with a Masters in Sociology where her areas of study were family therapy, criminology, methodology and statistics. She worked as the Field director for a government study on victims of crimes and Regional Coordinator for the organization Humanitas. Lyda came to the U.S. to study and graduated with a Ph.D .in Linguistics, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked in various academic positions in the departments of Linguistics, Education, and English both in the United States and Malaysia.

 

Lyda: When did you become interested in languages as an object of study?

Gaston: I think it all began when I was learned English, French, German and Latin at school. Only then did I realize that Limburgish, the vernacular we spoke in our region, the southern Dutch province of Limburg, was a language in its own right, not just some sort of informal Dutch. It was an epiphany to me that Limburgish, like English and French and the rest, had grammar rules, vocab and sounds substantially different from Dutch. I'd never stopped to think about that before. It was learning other languages that opened my eyes. Or my ears, rather.

 

Lyda: Did your upbringing play a role in developing your language interests?

Gaston: I'm sure it did. My mother is quite finicky about using le mot juste, both in Dutch and in Limburgish. My father was a French teacher, (which explains the choice of my name Gaston), my first girlfriend was German and most of the TV shows I watched, like The 6 Million Dollar Man and M*A*S*H, were in English, with Dutch subtitles.

 

Lyda: Did you become aware of the language of the elite by growing up in the upper-class?

Gaston: Certainly not; I'm from the "middlest" middle-class background imaginable. The only elitist family thing that I can remember dates to well before I was born: When my father went to a teachers training college at the age of 17 to become a teacher, my grandfather would write him letters in French. In my granddad's childhood, around 1900, French was still the elite language in our part of Limburg, and as an adult he wasn't above a bit of snobbery.

 

Lyda: You are the author of 'Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages', published in the US two years ago. It's a linguistic travelogue that takes the reader through Europe, examining sixty languages. How did you plan the book? Describe for our readers the experience of writing such a book.

Gaston: It actually grew very organically, out of some purely recreational writing. Feeling that these first few pieces were quite promising, I wondered what their common denominator might be, and I settled on this 'languages of Europe' theme, which proved to be highly inspiring. The book was first published in Dutch and got excellent reviews. I then decided to be reckless and have it translated into English at my own risk and expense. That has worked out wonderfully, because thanks to my agent Caroline Dawnay and the very perceptive publisher Mark Ellingham at Profile Books, it became something of a bestseller in Britain. Other editions, including the American one, have also done very satisfactorily. There are seven different language editions now. The main gaps are, much to my distress, Italian and French. I would really love to see Lingo published in those two languages. There is a wonderful Spanish edition, so Lingo in a Romance language is definitely possible!

 

Lyda: Could you explain to our readers the influence of powerful personalities on the development of languages. In your book, you describe how often one particular person with a strong dedication saved a language from extinction, or promoted a certain variety of a language. Did you notice the politics behind the choices for promoting one language or language variety over another one?

Gaston: Yeah, it's true that, with hindsight, many languages owe a lot to one or two persons. Perhaps they fought for its recognition or their books had a strong impact on the standard language. Martin Luther has been important for German, Dante for Italian. These are household names, but further to the East, there are all these 'fathers of the mother tongues' that most Western Europeans and Americans haven't heard about. Some of those may indeed have saved their language from extinction or at least marginalization. For instance, in Lingo I tell the story of the Slovak linguist and nationalist Ľudovít Štúr. Despite his efforts, Slovak didn't attain an official status until the breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and it was only after Slovakia broke away from Czechoslovakia that the language really came into its own. These things work both ways: just like Slovak was in need of a country in order to flower, so Slovakia was in need of a language to claim nationhood. I'm simplifying things here, but nationalism and 'languagehood' are often considered to go together, especially in Europe. I'm not so sure that's a good thing. Nation and language make for a heady mix, even a toxic mix. Catalonia is the latest example of the tensions this can create, and similar conflicts have occurred all over Europe.

 

Lyda: What project are you working on now?

Gaston: I'm working on a book which is due out in late 2018, about the most widely-spoken languages in the world, from English, Mandarin and Spanish to somewhat lesser-known languages such as Tamil, Swahili and Vietnamese. Even though English is today's world language, only one in eight or so people in the world can speak it with any degree of fluency. This book will be about most of the other seven. As in Lingo, every chapter will have its own angle. For the one about Vietnamese, for instance, I'm actually trying to learn the language, and I'm going to spend a few weeks there soon. The chapter on French will be about the strong emphasis on la Norme and about Paris's dislike for minority languages. Article 2 of the Constitution says that "La langue de la République est le français", a legal fiction used to repress minorities' cultural rights. A self-confident nation that likes its citizens free and diverse would never make such an authoritarian claim. Oh boy – this is not a smart move to find a French publisher, is it?

 

Lyda: Since we're both Dutch, I can ask you whether you believe that the more laissez-faire cultural style in the Netherlands has allowed for less standardization, less push from the powers-that-be to conform to one language standard, and more acceptance of varieties in the language.

Gaston: I believe the Dutch situation is more or less like that in English: there is a standard, but except in spelling, considerable variation is tolerated today, both regional and in levels of formality. What is peculiar about the linguistic culture of the Netherlands is the tendency to be lackadaisical about the future of the language. Universities are fast becoming English-only areas. As a result, the future elites will not be able to explain their fields of expertise to laypeople - that is to people like you me, because we're all laypeople in most fields. We may well lose the Dutch vocabulary for whole areas of human knowledge and endeavor. I may not lose sleep over it – I mean, climate change is worse – but I would consider it a great cultural loss.

 

Lyda: Since your travels and your language observations are so closely tied, do you consider yourself a linguist, or a geographer or what?

Gaston: I'm a linguist, but my type of linguistics requires a lot of historical and geographical knowledge. As it happens, one of my future projects will indeed concern itself with geography - with borders, to be exact. But I'd rather not elaborate at this stage.

 

Lyda: I've been particularly impressed by the style of the writing. You must have a very good translator for English. I'm very curious to read the Dutch version to see how some of the passages were written by you in the original.

Gaston: Thank you! Yes, Alison Edwards did an excellent job. So did most of the translators into other languages, by the way. It has been an absolute joy working with most of them, not only because they're such dedicated professionals, but also because having this book about languages translated into, say, Spanish or German has forced me to look at some languages afresh, from the perspective of these particular target languages. I've even been giving talks to translators in several countries about this aspect of Lingo.

 

Lyda: Anything else you'd like to add?

Gaston: One relevant fun fact is that I performed as a singer-songwriter for seven or eight years. I think it taught me the importance of drawing in an audience. The experience has definitely changed my writing, made it more personal and I hope more engaging. It has also taught me how to give talks. I used to be terrible at them, and now they're one of my favorite things to do.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.


Interview with Lebanese wordsmith (and grammarian) Lina Choueri

The following interview was conducted between Los Angeles and Beirut, Lebanon. 

Lina Jonathan
Lina Choueiri - The interviewee               Jonathan Goldberg. - The interviewer  


                                                                                                                                         

JG : Where were you born and educated and in which languages?

LC : I was born in Mansourieh, in the Metn hills on the outskirts of Beirut. I began school before the age of 3, and studied French as a second language. In Lebanon, the choice of second language is important, because this is the language in which all subjects are taught: mathematics, science, history and geography were all taught in French. From the age of 9 through high school, I studied English as my third language for only about one hour a week. After obtaining the French BAC, I simultaneously completed undergraduate studies in two fields, in two languages and at two universities: mathematics in English at the American University of Beirut (AUB), and French literature at l’Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth (USJ).

Lina UAB Lina USJ
AUB  USJ


JG :
Where did you complete your university studies and in which post are you currently employed?

LC : After my master’s studies were twice interrupted by the civil war in Lebanon, I went to the United States to complete my education. First, I was a student at the English Language Institute, at George Mason University in Virginia.  I needed to improve my English, which had been of limited use while I was in Lebanon. Then, I completed a Master of Science in linguistics at Georgetown University followed by a PhD in linguistics at the University of Southern California. I took seven years to complete the doctorate, doing research and building contacts in my field, before I returned to Lebanon.


JG :
What is your field of specialization?

LC : I am a grammarian and the subject of my doctoral dissertation was “The Syntax of Restrictive Relative Clauses in Lebanese Arabic”. I am currently Associate Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English at AUB.


JG :
Does your expertise in Arabic grammar have practical application?

LC : The distinction between formal Standard Arabic and the spoken varieties of Arabic in the Arab world is well known. But what your readers may not know is that there is no body of research that describes or exposes rules or patterns of speech for each of the different dialects. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for speech therapists, for example, to understand the characteristics of the spoken varieties of Arabic and to diagnose certain aspects of speech impairment in children. I have been collaborating with speech therapists in Lebanon for that purpose.


JG :
You have mentioned the two universities in Beirut at which you completed your undergraduate studies simultaneously. If you were to examine the motives for which young Lebanese choose one or the other university, what would this tell you about their linguistic preferences?

LC : It is difficult to isolate language preferences when examining the motives for which students make their choice of university.  For example, AUB and USJ, both private universities, are among the top universities in Lebanon, but AUB is considerably more expensive than USJ.  This may be a major factor in the choice of university, since we have very little by way of financial aid for students. Also, entrance requirements to each of the two universities differ. So there is no easy, direct correlation between language preference and choice of university.  One of my masters’ students, who is conducting a study on language choice among university students, has found that more than one third of her participants at USJ studied English as their second language, while nearly half of her participants at AUB studied French as their second language.

The two universities are looking for diversity in terms of the socio-economic background of students, but not for language diversity. Therefore, this current situation is not the result of a concerted effort on the part of those two institutions.

 

JG : Can you tell our readers something about the rivalry between French and English in Lebanon? Was the Sykes-Picot agreement by which Lebanon was put under French mandate a turning point?

LC : There are few studies on the language situation in Lebanon. Here is a simple (maybe a little simplistic) sketch.  To some, the investigation of the multilingual tradition in Lebanon should take us back to the Phoenicians.  I will start with the Ottoman period, between the 16th century and the end of World War I, when Lebanon was a site for various forms of bilingualism among the small educated class, including Arabic-Turkish, Arabic-French, and Arabic-English bilingualisms.  Arabic-French and Arabic-English bilinguals during that period were more likely to be Christians educated in the (American) Protestant and (French) Catholic missionary schools established mainly in the second half of the 19th century.  While the presence of French in education predates the French mandate in 1918-1943, the latter established French as an official language of Lebanon.  This is when French spread across religions and sects.  The status of French as an official language was dropped when Lebanon gained its independence, and Arabic became the only official language.  More recently, we have been observing a decline in the privileged position of French as a language of education, while English has been on the rise.  It is still important to point out however, that multilingualism in Lebanon is very much an educational phenomenon.

JG : Has globalization tipped the balance in favor of English?

LC: It is true that English dominance throughout the world has not bypassed Lebanon. This can be seen in the increasing realization that English is an important language for the future of Lebanon and the Lebanese.  English is perceived to be the most important language for commerce/business, international relations, technology and science.  French is still regarded by many as a language of culture. But while few Lebanese would consider French more important than English, many of them would still consider knowledge of both French and English as important.  The fact is that Lebanon still publishes a daily newspaper in French and one in English (alongside many in Arabic), and while many universities and colleges use English as the main language of instruction, French has held its own in schools. On a personal note, my father pushed me to do my graduate studies in the USA, at a time when my French was much stronger than my English, because he thought that English would open up more career doors.

 

JG : What determines people’s preference for the 3 languages?

LC : [A partial answer can be found above, especially in relation to the division of labor between French and English.]

At the outset, I’d like to point out that, in addition to Arabic, Armenian, Kurdish, and Syriac are among the languages spoken at home by some minority groups in Lebanon. The Lebanese variety of Arabic is the first language of the majority of the Lebanese, the language they learn to speak at home. Standard Arabic is learned through formal schooling.  As I mentioned earlier, in school, most subjects are taught in a foreign language, usually English or French.  When parents choose a school for their children, they are in fact making a choice about the foreign language that will become their children’s second language.

When talking to parents of young children, I often hear the following argument for their choice of school: English is easy; it is everywhere, and necessary for future careers; our children are bound to learn it.  French is more difficult than English; to learn it well, our children should learn it at school.  Parents therefore lean towards choosing schools where French is the medium of instruction. I have heard this argument being made by parents who are francophone and by those who are not. 

The Lebanese may now perceive that trilingualism is the preferred option, but more research would be needed to answer this question more precisely.

 

JG : Do people regard French and English as colonialist languages?

LC : In a global perspective, French and English can certainly be viewed as colonialist languages; more locally however, as you can glean from the brief historical sketch provided earlier, the presence of French in Lebanon predates French colonialism in the region.  During the French mandate, which lasted a little over two decades, French became an official language and it spread more widely, but it lost its official status upon Lebanon’s independence. In that sense, Lebanon’s experience under the French mandate is different from that of other countries under colonial rule, where colonial languages kept their official status, and indigenous languages were assigned low prestige, long after those countries gained their independence.  Maybe the key difference is the role of Arabic in Lebanon, a high-prestige language with a long-standing cultural tradition, which remained closely tied to national identity.

 


JG :
You were interviewed for a radio program of the BBC-PRI (Public Radio International, USA) entitled “Is Beirut the codeswitching LLINA signpostcapital of the world?". The specific type of code-switching referred to is the Lebanese habit of beginning a sentence in one language and ending it another. Another linguist interviewed for that program stated:

“The way people codeswitch in Beirut is unique. … A person in LA might speak Spanish at home and English at work. But in Beirut, “They're all Lebanese, talking with Lebanese, so why all this code switching? You’ll never see two French speaking to each other in German or in Spanish or Chinese, unless maybe there is a reason. But here, it’s a way of speaking in a sense.”

Do you agree with that analysis?

Traditional analyses of codeswitching have not done a good job at explaining this phenomenon, but those analyses are based on the assumption of monolingualism as a norm.  In such a context, codeswitching requires an explanation, since it deviates from the expected norm. In multilingual communities around the world, ‘mixed’ productions such as those of the young Beirutis are in fact very common; they may even be typical ways of speaking.  In my opinion, the Beiruti phenomenon would not be as unique as it is made out to be, if looked at from this perspective.

 

JG : Thank you for those very interesting insights. Of the many dozens of linguists we have interviewed on this blog, you are the first from the Middle East, and we hope you will not be the last.

LC : You are very welcome. I am delighted to have been able to share my experience with your readers.

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Blog notes:

[1]  An Agreement signed on 16 May 1916 between France and the United Kingdom, represented respectively by François Georges-Picot and Sir Mark Sykes. The Agreement divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire by apportioning spheres of influence between the signatories. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Agreement was ratified at the San Remo Conference by the League of Nations, which entrusted the United Kingdom with a mandate over Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine, while France obtained a mandate over Lebanon and Syria. (See also: Il y a cent ans...)

[2] The Phoenicians are an ancient people that originated in the cities of Phoenicia, a region approximately corresponding to present-day Lebanon. The greatest known accomplishment of the Phoenicians was the creation of an alphabet which forms the basis of languages that later spread throughout the ancient world,  even if it was not itself the first language created.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.