Introducing –

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.

This blog has its genesis in a French-language blog,, which has been active since I created it in 2010. 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  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


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 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 Cindy

Michèle Druon

Grant Hamilton

Cynthia Hazelton

Kadiu 11.19

Isabelle Pouliot


Silvia Kadiu

  Isabelle Pouliot

Joelle Vuille







Jonathan Goldberg,

Los Angeles, 28 November, 2019





Interview with multilingual translator and interpreter, Alex Tomić,

E X C L U S I V E     I N T E R V I E W 

conducted between Rome and Brussels

Alex Tomic
Alexandra Tomić

the interviewee


Susan Vo 9.19
Susan Vo
the interviewer

Our linguist, Alexandra was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and  has lived in Belgrade, Berne (Switzerland), Cambridge (United Kingdom) and Leiden (The Netherlands). She has a BA in French Language and Literature and English Language and Literature from the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade (1982). Alex worked as a translator and interpreter at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia from 1994 until 2003, when she was recruited by the International Criminal Court as chief of language services, a post she occupied between 2003 and 2020. In 2013, she completed a Masters in Military Studies with the American Military University, specializing in strategic leadership. Alex embarked on a PhD at the Leiden University as a buitenpromovendus (independent candidate) in 2014 and was awarded a doctorate in history in 2021.



Our interviewer, Susan VO is a French Interpreter with 14 years experience as a staff member and freelancer with the United Nations, the Canadian Federal Government and in the private sector. She is an alumna of the the School of Translation and Interpretation at the University of Ottawa. She was Linguist of the Month on this blog: her interview can be found here and here.

Her thesis was on the history and memory of the First World War in Serbia. Alex was an external lecturer at her alma mater in Belgrade between 2017 and 2022. She continues to work with different universities on an ad hoc basis. She now lives in Brussels (Belgium).

Susan Vo 9.19You worked at the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) and later at the ICC (International Criminal Court), both in the Hague. Can you tell our readers about your different functions at those two institutions.

Alex TomicAt the ICTY I was a translator and interpreter and at the ICC I was a manager, so very different experiences. However, in both courts simultaneous interpretation was done in court hearings, official meetings and/or presentations when there were facilities available and also for conferences. Simultaneous was also done for training sessions and round tables if required, and occasionally for judges' deliberations. 

Consecutive interpretation was done during investigations to get witness statements, it was done whenever there were delegations visiting (and simultaneous was not appropriate or practical) and it was done during questioning of suspects, dealing with detained persons by Detention Unit staff (at least to begin with) or for interactions between suspect/accused and their counsel IF they did not share a language (which sometimes happened). Obviously, all suspects if arrested would have the arrest warrant interpreted consecutively into their language. Although I guess this was more liaison interpreting. 

It is important to mention that there were a few occasions when consecutive would be done in court hearings - this happened when there were some languages of lesser diffusion (we did not use the term rare languages) that did not have any simultaneous interpreters. It would happen for some cases and the consecutive interpreters would usually still sit in the booth so as not to be filmed/seen but the chamber and the parties would be informed that it would not be simultaneous but consecutive and that they would need to wait longer for the interpretation. This happened in a case relating to the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) situation for the Kilendu language and for a case in the Mali situation for the Bambara language.

Susan Vo 9.19You were born and grew up in Belgrade. You had a successful career both as an interpreter and a senior administrator. What event in your life, career or education do you consider the start of your interpreting career?

Alex TomicThe first time that I interpreted without realizing it was when a pen pal came for a visit. She was from Dijon and it was her first visit to Yugoslavia. I must have been 13 or 14. The first time I interpreted professionally was when I was working for the Dutch Council of Refugees in 1992. The war in Yugoslavia was entering its second year, I had just moved from Cambridge, England to Leiden in the Netherlands with my family. I wanted to do something useful and I soon realized that interpreting was in fact the most useful thing I could do.

Susan Vo 9.19What do you remember most from your first day on the job?

Alex TomicIn August 1994, at the ICTY I was given a big pile, all mixed up, documents to translate. As the investigators and the prosecutors did not know understand the contents of the documents, they wanted all of them translated. It took some time for them to understand that it was more efficient to have a translator scan the material, sight-translate titles and general content before they decided what they really needed to have translated.

Susan Vo 9.19What has been the most difficult day of your career?

Alex TomicI had two: The first one, at the ICTY in July 1995 – Srebrenica. We were following with concern what was happening with those believed to be under the protection of UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) but we could not imagine that all these thousands of Bosnians would be executed. There had been heinous war crimes before July 1995, but Srebrenica was the last straw, and it showed that the Bosnian Serb leadership would stop at nothing. For me, it was the end of the world.  The war in Yugoslavia had already destroyed so much and the genocide in Srebrenica was the final explosion which ruined the future of several generations.  The fact that there are Serbs (and some others) today who dispute or deny what happened in Srebrenica is unfortunately not surprising – it is like neo-Nazis et al who deny the Holocaust . For those of us who have worked with the victims, survivors and witnesses of the Srebrenica massacre, as well as with the accused, such denial is absurd. I cannot have a conversation with someone who denies the crimes that I have seen, heard and interpreted.

The second event took place at the ICC in June 2012, when an ICC delegation was detained by Libyan militias in Zintan. There were four of them, one an interpreter. Of course, I was worried about all the colleagues but mostly about the interpreter – she was someone I knew very well, and she was also my responsibility. I had authorized her mission and I sent her there. The detention lasted four weeks. They returned safe and sound, although it had been a considerable trauma, for them of course, but also for us waiting for them.  I don’t think I slept in those four weeks.  It was worse for them and in particular it is always the most difficult situation for interpreters, who, in their capacity of cultural and linguistic mediators, will always experience the worst pressure in such situations.

Susan Vo 9.19How do you think things have changed in the field of interpreting and how would you like them to change further in the future?

Alex TomicIt seems to me that the “new” interpreters adapt to new technologies more easily today than those of earlier generations. I think that it is because as interpreters we are all alone facing the users of interpretation, it is our brain, our vocal apparatus, it is the person doing all the work. I understand why so many colleagues have resisted innovation (e.g., remote interpretation) but as the Covid crisis has confirmed, it is possible to adopt them. One simply has to define what optimal conditions are, and in order to do that you have to understand the potential and the limits of the technology. And even if we are alone, we need good colleagues, good databases, good tools, good conditions and good equipment. Interpretation, like any other profession is changing with the technology, and one has to change with it.

Future changes: I would like to see more users acquire at least some command of a second language, which would help them work with multilingual interpreters. Accepting multilingualism should be the norm rather than the exception. “Monolingualism is curable” is a slogan I once saw on a T-shirt.

Susan Vo 9.19What would you tell someone starting off as an interpreter today?

Alex TomicPrepared to be surprised. In interpretation you have to be ready, but you can never truly relax. You have to be on the alert without appearing stressed. To be fully prepared and then ready to improvise. Does that speak to you? Reading in all your languages, reading everything, from cereal packets to philosophical treaties as well as novels and non-fiction, is essential. What is happening in the world? Working in any international field, you have to know all the latest news so as to be able to command the right vocabulary. Can you do this day in day out the way you brush your teeth? It is a very difficult job to do well if those challenges don’t appeal to you or if you are unable to work with all new technologies.

Susan Vo 9.19What are the skills or attributes you believe are absolutely necessary for an interpreter, and the ones that must be cultivated over a career?

Alex TomicCuriosity, patience, humility. Do not underestimate preparation. Whenever I talk to students, I tell them to always be polite with everyone. Interpreters, perhaps because they see and hear so much, sometimes start believing that they are somehow superior to lesser mortals. I do not think it is an appealing or useful quality.


Susan Vo 9.19Which early challenges in court interpreting resolved themselves over time?

Alex TomicDifferences between the civil law and common law. It is more than just the vocabulary; you really need to understand how procedures differ. It is not just that counsel can “object” in the Anglo-Saxon system. When we have a hybrid system, as is the case in many international courts, you have to learn which element comes from which system and why. It makes it easier to understand the essence of the legal issue. To achieve that with limited time to prepare for a hearing, I would consult translators or revisers who had done such labour-intensive work and I advised colleagues to do the same.  

Susan Vo 9.19Talk to us of indirect or residual PTSD transferred from witnesses to interpreters, particularly during the investigative phase of GB sexual violence…what are your observations or thoughts on this?

Alex TomicAt the ICTY the psychological support came rather late. Better late than never. No interpreter can remain indifferent when dealing with difficult subjects, especially in the cases involving sexual violence. Working with investigators at the ICTY, we felt a need not to appear upset by the terrible things we were hearing and reading. It is normal, for us to try to protect ourselves. Also, if we break down and cry, it’s unproductive and unprofessional. It is important to understand this – it is normal to be feeling sick or upset but the normal reaction to the horrors is not the desired reaction. It is also advisable to receive training in self-care. Understanding what primary or secondary PTSD is and how it can be treated.  However, not all psychologists are qualified or experienced to treat primary or secondary PTSD. It helps to talk to colleagues. In my case, for instance, what helped was talking to an investigator who had seen it all. Someone reliable, stable and serious, with a lot of experience. I had nightmares for several months at the start of my career. And then they stopped, and it is not always a good sign, when we get desensitized by our work. You have to learn about the symptoms that can appear.

At the ICC, we started prevention very early on. Regular debriefings etc. That can help, but is not a formula that always works.

Once we stop working with the subject matter, it does not mean we have forgotten all about it. The war in Ukraine has affected me greatly. It was as if I were going back, as if it were all happening again, and we know or we think we know what these people are going through. Some of my colleagues felt the same. When you have observed the consequences of war at close quarters, when you have translated and interpreted victims’ testimonies, they stay with you. Tribunals and international courts are not perfect, but without them you would never hear the voices of the victims.

Susan Vo 9.19What languages did you feel most at ease interpreting to and from?

Alex TomicIn the interpreters' booth I worked into English from B/C/S (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) and French. But I had stopped reading books in B/C/S and I sometimes struggled to find words in my A language and ended up interpreting into my B (English) from my A and my C languages. It is unusual, but there were many interpreters at the ICTY who did that. For people who have consistently worked and functioned in English, who read a lot in English, using it in all walks of life, this made sense. To this day, I always tell students to read as much as they can in their target language(s). In consecutive I worked in both directions of course. Very different experiences.

Susan Vo 9.19You’ve talked about the prerequisite of being relaxed in the booth to do a good job. Describe how to get to that ideal state…

Alex TomicImagine you are in a bubble by breathing very slowly. My go-to mantra was: “This is it! …everything else can wait now”. I managed to relax in the booth far more easily than in other situations except perhaps when having an MRI scan). The world is outside, I can relax and breathe, no one will disturb me. I admit it is a bit odd.

Susan Vo 9.19Tell me about your PhD.

Alex TomicIn 2010, I decided to continue with my studies. First to do a Master, which I did with the American Military University. I was interested in military studies; I had carried out much research in military subjects in my ICTY years. After I finished my Master in 2013, I decided to do a PhD in history and memory. I wanted to investigate the reasons why the memory of the First World War is so important in Serbia today. This was my thesis which I defended in 2021. I then wrote a book based on the thesis. It is due to be published this year. “Everything passes except the past”. Unfortunately, it’s true.

Interview with Franco-British educator, linguist and author, Michael Mould



Initials JJG

Jonathan Goldberg
the interviewer


Michael Mould
Michael Mould
the interviewee

This month’s guest read history and educational psychology in England, his home country. He holds an honours degree in educational psychology from the University of London. 

Sainte genevieve versaillesHe arrived in France in 1970 and has been there ever since. He began his teaching career at the prestigious école préparatoire aux grandes écoles de Sainte-Geneviève in Versailles. He holds a master’s degree in English from the Sorbonne Paris IV. For 25 years he was head of the Languages and Translation Department at France Telecom corporate headquarters in Paris.

His letters and articles have been published in England in the Financial Times and The Linguist (the official magazine of the British Institute of Linguists) and in France in Le Monde, Télérama, Marianne and in his local newspaper La Provence.

Financial Times.jfif Chartered Institute of Linguists La Provence

The Routledge Dictionary of Cultural References in Modern French
, (Routledge, Oxford et New York), constitutes a cultural bridge between  francophiles and anglophiles. This book has just come out in its second edition. Michael has also published several books with the French publisher Belin, Paris, listed below.


Michael lives with his wife Danielle, in a small fishing village in Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône).



Initials JJGWhere were you born and where did you grow up?

M.M.I was born in the county of Middlesex in England in 1947.  And I grew up in a small town called Mill Hill in the north-west suburbs of London where I lived until the completion of my studies in 1970.  


Initials JJGWhat path did you follow at university?

M.M.I studied at the College of St Mark and St John, an Anglican teacher’s training college that, at the time, was part of the faculty of Education of the University of London.  I commuted daily to the Kings Road, Chelsea, the heart of “swinging London” between 1966 and 1970.

My “academic” subject was history, my specialist period being 19th century social and economic history while my “professional” subjects included child psychology, social psychology, sociology, philosophy as well as the history of British education. From the second year onwards, I specialized in psychology. Each year, for three years, I did teaching practices in schools in the Greater London area.

Initials JJGYou came to France to learn French. How is it that 50 years later you are still there?

M.M.French is not a language that one learns in a year! I enrolled at L’Alliance française. At the end of my first year at Ste Geneviève, I had the possibility of renewing my contract which I did twice.  After having lived three years in Paris and Versailles it seemed impossible to return to England. Living abroad is so enriching. I realized that my life was going to be lived in France.

Why did you choose to retire to a small fishing port in Provence?

My wife comes from Marseilles and as a young girl she spent many holidays in the village where we live today. We already had a vacation home here while we were living in the Paris region and when we retired, the choice of this village was obvious.


Initials JJGWhat was your position in France Telecom. What did your job consist of?


AI was head of the Département Langues et Traductions that I had created at the corporate headquarters of France Telecom (at that time it was still known as La Direction Générale des Télécommunications) in 1981.  My work consisted of :

AEnglish language training (initially) of the Chairman and executive directors of the company.

ATranslating for the needs of the Presidency and the General Secretariat.

The management of a multicultural team of 12 teachers - 6 English, 3 German, and 3 Spanish. France Telecom’s investments in Argentina and Mexico led us to propose Spanish lessons to our senior management plus German lessons following the signing of a strategic alliance between FT and Deutsche Telekom.

A large part of my time was spent on pedagogical and linguistic research which led, in close collaboration with one of my fellow teachers, to the publication of several books with the Parisian publisher Belin.  

Initials JJGWhat books have you written? Describe them briefly.  

M.M.Two of the three books published by Belin were co-written with an exceptionally talented colleague on my team, Anne Paquette.


AL’Anglais à Haute Fréquence 1987;

ACorporate English 1992;

LA’Anglais des Ressources Humaines 2003

Langlais Corporate English L'anglais a haute frequence

These books were intended for our students within the company but were equally aimed at students in « préparatoire ». The functional and notional aspects were always in the forefront of our research. We insisted heavily on the art of making presentations in a foreign language, a task frequently asked of our managers.   The technical content of their presentations was more than adequate but the art of public speaking left a lot to be desired.  Consequently, we invested a great deal of time in the field of discourse analysis

The book published by Routledge was a long-standing ambition of mine. After my first five years of living in France I became an avid reader of Le Canard enchaîné. I quickly realized that my basic knowledge of French was inadequate to understand this satirical newspaper.  The component words themselves were not a problem but I was totally missing the hidden meaning behind the words. Thirty years later, on retirement I had the time necessary to engage in wide-ranging research on the cultural references of Le Canard enchaîné. To understand this satirical weekly, one needs to possess very comprehensive cultural keys: literary, biblical, historical, mythological, theatrical, cinématographical… One needs a comprehensive knowledge of the French language in order to seize the puns, which, are legion in this newspaper, let alone the spoonerisms and slang. The word « atmosphère » is a case in point. The word is practically the same in English with the same denotation.  However, my teachers and my dictionaries did not tell me that  « atmosphère » in French:

Ais one of the most famous rejoinders in French cinema history;

Ais the most famous word ever pronounced on screen by the actress Arletty;

Ais part of the most famous scene in the no less famous film Hôtel du Nord.

In the early days I didn’t know the work of the comic 
Fernand Raynaud and I was mystified when coughing, as people, in unison, asked me why I was coughing, « Pourquoi tu tousses tonton ? ». What a ridiculous question, I thought!

The objective was thus to give the foreign student of the French language a short cut to that knowledge that is so sadly wanting in traditional university courses and that one takes years to acquire.

With my wife I also published a book, intended for the layman, on the principles of mobile telephony in 1995 “Roaming with GSM” that was published in a quadrilingual version (English, Spanish, German, French).


Initials JJGWould you say that the French language has deteriorated over the past  50 years ? How far would you attribute this phenomenon to the negative influence of the English language?  

M.M.I’m very wary of the term « deteriorate ». If language is deteriorating today this is because it has always been deteriorating.  Cicero lamented the fact that Latin, in his day, was going to the dogs.  Each century is tempted to believe that the century before was the linguistic Arcadia… which never existed, let it be said in passing. Over time, languages are modified by ignorance, laziness, snobbery and accident, For example, in the Middle Ages, the definite article was attached to the noun in question. “a » before a noun beginning with a consonant and « an » before a noun beginning with a vowel.  Thus the word « napron » was written “anapron”.  Later on it was decided to separate the noun from the accompanying article The separation was badly done and « a napron » became «an apron ». Inversely, still in the Middle Ages, the word for newt was in fact “ewt”. Here again the indefinite article was stuck to the noun i.e.  anewt. But later, when the separation took place, here again it was badly done  and instead of cutting so that the word read « an ewt », as it should have been done, the “n” of the indefinite article was  added to the noun, giving us the word we know today “a newt”.

« Make » used to be a regular verb, the preterite being “maked”. But it is a lot easier to say « made » than “maked”….and so on.  
In my opinion, English words used in French are an epiphenomenon. We should do well to remember that 30% of the words in the English language are foreign words, French for the most part, which endows the English language with a force and flexibility that French does not possess, derived as it is almost exclusively from Latin roots.  That being said, any English word adopted by the French must have a justification. The use of the word « challenge » in French, to my mind, is totally illegitimate. It is longer than the French word it replaces « défi » without bringing any advantage in terms of the connotation or the denotation.  This is a question, as is so often the case, of Parisian linguistic snobbery. On the other hand, in the technical domain, would you prefer the English word « handover » or its French translation; « the automatic, inter or intra-cellular transfer » that takes place when a mobile telephone leaves its nominal home address!  For me, any ”decline” in the French language  can be explained by four things :

AThe catastrophic drop in the quality of public education.

AThe excessive use by young people of i phones, pads and social networks where an « ersatz » of the French language is used.

AThe mediocre level of French used by French newsreaders and TV hosts; these people speak to millions of viewers on a daily basis. This is the source of the contamination of mediocrity.  With such barbarisms as « slightly catastrophic and « very unique ».

Political correctness, « wokism » and inclusive writing constitute dangerous aberrations particularly when imposed in universities.  

Initials JJGConsidering the development of the English language in Great Britain and the French language in France, would you be in favour of an institution such as l’Académie française  to watch over accepted linguistic practice   or do you prefer a more  British laissez-faire approach?

M.M.It’s not without interest to have an official body such as l’Académie française but this corresponds more to the Jacobin tendency to wish to centralize and control everything ; this is not in the English psyche. In fine, a language, like a rivulet, will find its own route. L’Académie française try as it may, will say that we should use the expression “navire transbordeur” but it’s the word “ferry” that carries the day in French. 

Initials JJGHow do you spend your time now that you have retired?

M.M.Writing and research take up a lot of my time. Since retiring I have published two rather big books with Routledge.

I read enormously, my favourite subjects being linguistics, politics, religion…

Linguistic research is omnipresent: At France Telecom we developed a programme designed to help our students give better presentations in English. Since my retirement, I have been asked for help in this area by three of our grandchildren (who use English for their job). I subsequently adapted the initial programme bearing on telecommunications to the needs of:

Astudents in climatology and earth sciences

Amilitary doctors in the field
Aasset managers.

I subsequently made the same adaptation for the ophthalmic surgeon (essentially for pathologies relating to the retina).  

To carry out the related research, I was able to access the most recent documents in each of these fields: in this respect, for the military doctors’ version, I was able to consult the data base of the American army, navy and air-force to assess all of the health risks associated with each combat environment; truly remarkable wealth of data. 

Last but not least, I give English lessons to my little neighbour who is 10 years old.  We have had a one-hour lesson per week for the past four years. Having spent my professional life with adults, meeting the mind of a little six-year-old girl is a fascinating teaching experience.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici

Interview with Caribbean wordsmith, translator and interpreter, Gennike Mayers

    E x c l u s i v e    i n t e r v i e w 

Gennike 2

Jonathan blue shirt snipped

Gennike Mayers
The interviewee


Jonathan G.
The interviewer


The following interview was conducted by Skype between Hope Bay, Tobago and Los Angeles.  

Map of Tobago


Map of la


By way of a brief description, the Caribbean archipelago is a chain of idyllic islands in North and South America, surrounded by the Caribbean Sea.  Essentially, the Caribbean consists of Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Bermuda, The Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Turks and Caicos, Trinidad and Tobago, the British Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands (with English as the predominant language), Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin and St. Barthélémy (predominantly French-speaking), Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten, and Suriname (Dutch), Haiti (Haitian Creole and French) and Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba (Spanish-speaking).



Jonathan G. : You were born and grew up in Trinidad (like your parents), with English as your mother-tongue. You later moved to Tobago. When were you first exposed to foreign languages?

Gennike snipYes.  The two form the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago. Both my parents are from T&T and this is where I grew up. It’s a country with a rich history that changed hands several times between the Spanish, French, British and even Dutch colonial powers. The result is that today we have town names and family names that reflect this diversity. For example, the capital of Trinidad is Port-of-Spain. The capital of Tobago is Scarborough. The second largest city in Trinidad is called San Fernando while in Tobago, I shop in a village called L’Anse Fourmi. Trinite-et-tobago-carte.gif

TRinidad dancing

As a child I was exposed to music in foreign languages such as Bossa Nova, Samba, Bolero and Salsa. My dad was a fan of Julio Iglesias so that music was often played at home and in the family car. Also, Trinidad & Tobago’s Christmas traditional music known as “Parranda” or parang, in English, is sung in Spanish. It’s actually folk music from Venezuela that made its way into our Christmas house-to-house caroling traditions through successive waves of Venezuelan migration. My mom is a parang fan so at Christmas this is what played on the radio and we’d sing along with the popular “Río Manzanare, dejame pasar, que mi madre enferma me mandó a llamar…”  So I’ve had an ear for foreign languages without quite understanding what I was hearing.


Initials JJG You later developed a passion for French and Spanish, which you studied at school, but were drawn to them in different ways. Explain that.

Gennike snip

My first formal encounter with foreign languages was at age 11 upon entering secondary school. I went to a prestigious all girls’ school where there were no boys around to distract us from studies. Our Headmistress, Dr. Anna Mahase, was a single woman, a feminist who raised generations of smart, savvy young women who have gone on to build families and build our society. Beyond the academics, she demonstrated what beauty, boldness, brain and brawn could look like in one woman. She was one of my earliest role models.

At St. Augustine Girls’ High School (SAGHS) French and Spanish were mandatory for the first three years. This is where I had a eureka moment as the musical sounds I had stored in my mind started to make sense. I could finally understand what some of these songs meant and realised I’d been singing them wrong all along!

I had a natural flair for foreign languages so learning was almost effortless for me. I also admired my French teacher Mrs. Gosine who was passionate about all things French. She was très chic and her bold fashion statements straight out of Paris Match magazine in a fairly conservative school resonated with my inner rebel. I’d never seen anyone mix stripes and polka dots or plaid with animal prints! She is single-handedly responsible for causing me to fall in love with French fashion, food, music, poetry and the language as a whole. My ears discovered French through her sultry French voice. It was music to my ears.

I loved Spanish too and was very good at it but it was a different connection. French language learning opened up a world I knew nothing about whereas Spanish confirmed familiar things.

For example, as a teenager my family hosted exchange students from Martinique and Guadeloupe every July/ August vacation period through the Alliance Française. While my family didn’t have the means to send me overseas, I was able to interact with these native French speakers for two months every year. While learning standard French at school, I discovered that these French Overseas Departments (DOMs) had their own language known as Creole.

Musique-creole-centre-du-monde-couv DOM

Their popular music, zouk, was Caribbean flavoured rhythm but sung in Creole compared to the French metropolitan hits from Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf and more modern Vanessa Paradis. This was a whole new world for me. Beyond learning the fundamentals of French language and Literature in school, I was learning about the dynamics and dichotomy of French metropolitan and French West Indian culture and politics through these relationships being nurtured via student exchanges and correspondence. Those were the days of pen pals and postcards!

Comparatively, I was already familiar with some elements of the hispanophone cultural traditions. One of my aunts was a high school Spanish teacher and I had the privilege of accompanying her and her students to neighbouring Venezuela when I was about 14. I recall my first time there felt familiar. Curiously enough, while I was there, I met a group of French speakers at the hotel lobby where we stayed. There was some misunderstanding with the receptionist, and I attempted to translate for them, only to be humiliated because a man said he didn’t understand my French. That was a defining moment for me as I told myself I would one day speak French so well that no-one would know I’m not French. There I was in Spanish-speaking Venezuela, proclaiming into the atmosphere, almost prophesying my life today.

Initials JJGEnglish, French and Spanish, in which you are fully conversant, are at the heart of your present life and profession. You reached your current lifegoal by what you call a “scenic route” (side routes, not the beaten track)– a somewhat winding path you followed until you settled down in Trinidad & Tobago and became engaged full-time in providing translation and interpreting services directly and through other people and companies.  You did this by studying in Trinidad and abroad, in person and digitally, and by obtaining university degrees and work experience in journalism, languages and diplomacy. Describe your academic path and your areas of work, and how you were able to combine the above three professional fields synergistically.

Gennike snip

I describe my journey as the “scenic route” because it was far from linear and I travelled at my own pace taking the time to stop and smell the proverbial roses as I diverted off onto little-known unexplored footpaths while many of my classmates pursued an accelerated academic life along the Bachelors- Masters- Doctorate highway. After being schooled in a very competitive high school alongside brilliant national scholars, many of whom won scholarships to pursue university studies in the US, UK and Canada, I started working immediately. My parents didn’t have the means to send me to university and despite my best efforts writing the American SAT exams, I didn’t secure any scholarships to study anywhere.

This was a blessing in disguise as I was recruited as a trainee journalist with AVM Television Channel 4, a local television station, at age 18. It was a sort of incubator for Caribbean journalists. This was yet another eye-opening and rewarding experience for me as I was perfecting my native language skills, conducting interviews, writing news stories and documentaries, voicing scripts and interacting with movers and shakers of society. During my two-year stint, I met a business delegation from the Martinique Chamber of Commerce that visited T&T on a trade mission. I was able to interact with and interview them in French. They were impressed and I recognised there and then that French UWIwas my superpower, a key that could unlock business relationships and job opportunities. I felt ready to explore the hallowed halls of a university as it became clear that in order to advance beyond trainee journalist, I needed a degree in something. I chose the easiest ‘something’ I could find: Bachelor’s degree in French, at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad. It was a stone’s throw away from my former high school. 


Little did I know that signing up for French at UWI would open the doors for me to finally set foot in a French- UdAspeaking country. The French government sponsored a semester-abroad programme that enabled me to study at l’Université des Antilles-Guyane in Martinique for one semester. That was my first linguistic immersion after hosting native French-speakers in T&T for years! I revelled in this new experience and it boosted my confidence in my language skills. After that semester I returned to UWI to complete my BA then upon graduation, another opportunity arose to return to Martinique as an English language assistant through the French Government’s Ministry of Education foreign language assistant programme. While most UWI French graduates opted to go to metropolitan French to pursue their Master’s, I opted to stay in the sunny Caribbean.

For three years, I taught English in primary and secondary schools. After school and during the vacation I went trekking through hiking trails, discovering beautiful beaches, sampling all the local food and living life at my own pace. I needed a break from studies and I took full advantage of my free time to explore the country. At the same time,  I was invited to do freelance work as a bilingual journalist, radio show host, freelance writer for a tourism oriented magazine and freelance English teacher at a beauty school. This was my three-year Master of Arts in living life to the fullest! Those three years in Martinique afforded me the opportunity to reconnect with the French business people I had met as a journalist. Outside of studies, I was being invited to business and networking events, cultural shows, association activities, and local family functions. Very quickly I became assimilated into the French West Indian culture.

The words I spoke as a 14 year-old in Venezuela came to pass. On one of my trips back from T&T, Martinican immigration officials were hard-pressed to believe that I was not from Martinique and questioned me about my T&T passport and how I spoke French and Creole so well.

After falling in love with the French language, it was no surprise that I fell in love with a French man. We got married and that led me to another French island, Guadeloupe where I lived for three years. There other doors opened for me to pursue a Master’s degree in Communications with l’Université de Versailles St. Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ). It was the right time and the perfect opportunity to combine my work experience as a journalist with my undergraduate studies in French. Fortunately for me I was able to pursue this degree in the tropical warmth as the professors from Paris came to Guadeloupe to teach the different modules of the course.

As the seasons of life got stormy, I opted to return to my homeland. Armed with a degree in Communications I landed a wonderful job in Public Relations with a marine research institution that liaised frequently with partner agencies in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Cuba on scientific research projects. How privileged I was to be able to bring to the new job my full range of skills in foreign languages, journalism, communications but also my intimate understanding of cultural specificities in other islands. At the same time, just as I returned to T&T in 2005, the University of the West Indies launched a part-time Postgraduate degree in Interpreting. I jumped at the opportunity to pursue this formal programme of study because I had found myself serving as Interpreter for meetings without formal training. I recognised my limitations and the need to be properly trained, prepared and certified. And so it was that I graduated with a PGD in Interpreting from UWI in 2007.


Perhaps my most beautiful memory as an Interpreter was my first real conference- the CARICOM Ministers of Agriculture Forum- where I stepped into the booth trembling next to my mentor and examiner. As part of the Interpreting programme, we worked for a live conference, with real people listening to us. The fact that these were Ministers from around the region made it all the more nerve-wracking but there I was doing what I had been trained to do, loving the adrenalin and in the end being congratulated and paid for a job well done! I will never forget the cheque from my first CARICOM conference, which reimbursed my studies.


Though I had this new degree, I wasn’t able to earn a living from Interpreting, so it remained my side hustle Etnia Negra while I pursued career opportunities in communications. In T&T there were far more opportunities for Spanish/ English interpreters than French/ English thanks to trade links with Latin America and an initiative by the government to institute Spanish as the first foreign language of Trinidad & Tobago. Thankfully among the many opportunities that came along, I was able to use my foreign language, communications and journalism skills. For instance, I was selected as a Caribbean journalist to attend the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City in 2008 where I interviewed stakeholders in Spanish and was able to amplify their message in English for local audiences back home.  Likewise, I was able to lead a special project partnering with the Panamanian Embassy in T&T to celebrate and broadcast festivities from the first ever Día de la Etnia Negra in Panama City. This was only possible thanks to my language superpowers. Later I stepped into the field of humanitarian communications with the largest humanitarian network in the world, based in their Caribbean office in Port-of-Spain. When the devastating 2010 earthquake struck Haiti, despite my lack of emergency response experience, I was deployed to the frontline because of my mastery of French, hands-on journalism experience and familiarity with Creole. I would eventually stay in Haiti for close to three years.

In the midst of this life-changing experience, I recognised the need for another critical skill set: diplomacy. Humanitarian diplomacy was an emerging field where the boundaries between communications, advocacy, diplomacy, international law and politics were all muddled. In 2013, I completed a short course in Humanitarian diplomacy with DiploFoundation which helped equip me for future complex disasters. Without wishing, the next major disaster for me came in the form of the Rohingya refugee crisis where ethnic Rohingyas were forced to flee their homes in Myanmar to seek refuge in Bangladesh. While French and Spanish were of no use to me while working as a Communications Delegate in Cox’s Bazar, humanitarian diplomacy was. While working in this complex man-made crisis triggered by political violence, the opportunity arose to pursue an online degree in Contemporary Diplomacy. It seemed timely and I felt it would help me transition from my Communications portfolio to Humanitarian Diplomacy where I could fully use my skills to influence decision-making that could save lives. I sat in the same office with a colleague who was the Humanitarian Diplomacy Liaison and we had heated discussions about seemingly self-serving politics that created disasters rather than resolving them.

I started this rigorous programme with the University of Malta and DiploFoundation in 2019 aiming for a postgraduate diploma. I started the programme with the face-to-face induction residency in Malta, continued in Bangladesh, submitted assignments from Barbados, Guadeloupe, Malaysia, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago and Zimbabwe while travelling for work. Eighteen months later, I completed the full course and submitted a dissertation to complete the requirements for a Master’s degree.*

University of malta

Gennike 3Coming out of this dissertation, I published my first book in January 2021 titled,« CARICOM: Good Offices, Good Neighbours: Explaining the diversity of CARICOM Members States’ approaches vis-a-vis the Venezuelan crisis ». This is the culmination of varied areas of interest in humanitarian service, diplomacy, my passion for Caribbean affairs, my connection with people facilitated by my ability to connect across language barriers.

Initials JJG While you were a salaried employee, for example working with the Red Cross in Haiti, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Panama, etc., you received permission to do some freelance work, in particular as a conference or group interpreter, with your principal language pair being English and French. Describe the places and conditions in which you performed that “gig-work”.

While languages are my all-time passion, Interpreting has been my side gig. While I was employed in various full-time positions, I informed my employers in advance, and negotiated where necessary, that I could take leave days to work as an Interpreter in order to maintain my special skill set. For the most part, there was no issue with this as my supervisors understood the value of these skills and how they added value to these organisations. It was also a privilege for me to have access to bodies of specialised knowledge that I encountered as an Interpreter. There was a cross pollination of fields where Interpreting was nurturing my communications portfolios and communicating with people from all walks of life, in different languages was consolidating my language skills.

Thanks to this flexibility I’ve been able to interpret for conferences hosted in Barbados, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia and at home in Trinidad and Tobago. This involved getting on a plane to go to work which sometimes seems exotic, but the reality is it can be stressful because you’re never entirely certain that the flights will be on time. Flight delays or cancellations can throw you off entirely which is why remote simultaneous interpreting technologies have positively changed the game.

Initials JJGIt appears that your decision to establish your own translating and interpreting agency was very timely, because since the outbreak of Covid, platforms that allow distance interpreting to individuals and groups, have become very prevalent.

Gennike snip

Absolutely! Interpreting Your Needs has its own journey that started in October 2011 in Guadeloupe where it was first established. Then when I moved back to Trinidad in 2015, I registered a legal entity here by the same name though other full-time opportunities came along that held my attention. So it remained dormant until 2020 when I returned home from Zimbabwe in the midst of the pandemic determined to work from home. For personal reasons, I felt unsafe and decided to leave a full-time job with the UN to return home, though with T&T borders closed I wasn’t quite sure when I would actually be allowed to set foot on home turf.

In taking that leap of faith, I was determined to revamp Interpreting Your Needs and make it my mainstay. With COVID raging across the globe I no longer had an appetite for travel and overseas work. After all the years of living somewhat like a student in shared accommodation with colleagues, sleeping in tents, retrofitted containers and hotel rooms, I just wanted to be at home, enjoying the comfort of my home, making a satisfactory living from home. 

In the context of COVID, so many businesses were caught off-guard and forced to move online. In my case, I was ready to flourish online because I’ve been studying in online environments and networking with colleagues around the globe for many years. So this is a natural progression for me and my business services.

Initials JJGHaving now run your own business since 2020, what new opportunities are presenting themselves for cooperation with other entities in the field.

Gennike snip

Having my own business means I wear different hats on different days. I’m more than a freelance Interpreter. I am also responsible for marketing my business services, financial accountability, business administration, quality assurance, customer care and project management. At the same time, working from home means I am able to enjoy quality time with my dogs and spend a lot of time in my garden growing organic food to keep my mind and body healthy. It’s a lifestyle choice that is very different from the life I’d been living for years where I was running to disaster zones, eager to serve others but ultimately neglecting my own needs which led to burn out.

Since I changed my focus and committed to developing my own business, I have been fortunate to attract many opportunities to serve, but this time it’s service by bridging language barriers. My language skills help people to connect, communicate and collaborate towards problem-solving. This is my passion. This is what motivates me daily.

As I expand my network via platforms like Linked In, I have been blessed to meet very interesting people with whom I have found great synergies. We support each other in our entrepreneurial path, barter skills and services, recommend and promote each other’s expertise and generally maintain good healthy relations. Through these online relations, many doors have been opened to me including speaking on various panels, remote simultaneous interpreting for conferences, translations for customers far away.

I’ve also been able to sharpen my RSI skills as I’ve been pursuing certification with the KUDO multilingual platform. This technology is innovative and timely. It has revolutionised how Interpreters work and has made available a marketplace that potential clients can tap into to book interpreting services on demand for multilingual meetings.

Initials JJG

in your book,  “CARICOM: GOOD OFFICES, GOOD NEIGHBORS, referred to above,   you explain the diversity of approaches of members of the Caribbean Community vis-à-vis the Venezuelan crisis. Who are the member states of CARICOM? 

Gennike snipThe Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is an organization created in 1973 by the Treaty of Chaguaramas, signed by the founding members (Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago) to promote economic integration and cooperation. The organization currently consists of 15 Caribbean nations and dependencies. These member states are Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat (a British Overseas Territory in the Undersea Islands Vent), Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. In addition to the full members of the community, there are five associate members and seven observers. The five associate members are Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands. The role of Associate Members, all of which are British Overseas Territories, is not yet defined. Observers are States that participate in at least one of the CARICOM Technical Committees.


Initials JJGYou are one of the go-to translators for the Caribbean Interpreting and Translation Bureau (CITB) of the University of the West Indies.

Gennike snip

The CITB is an arm of the University of the West Indies which provides, as the name implies, interpreting and translation services to public and private clients. Since UWI offers an Interpreting degree, successful graduates of the course are contracted as freelancers for client jobs. I’ve been fortunate to work as a freelancer with CITB since 2007 when I graduated from the postgraduate diploma. Most rewarding of all, my lecturers in the PGD programme have become mentors and friends with whom I still work today.


Initials JJG

What is the principal economic activity of Trinity and Tobago and what is the life style of its inhabitants.

Gennike snip

Trinidad is the busy commercial and industrial hub while Tobago is the laid back, almost sleepy touristic island. Together, Trinidad and Tobago offer visitors a balance of business and pleasure.  Trinidad and Tobago is considered as the economic hub of the English-speaking Caribbean because of its oil and gas production and solid manufacturing sector which exports much of its merchandise to CARICOM neighbours, South American trade partners and the USA.

Initials JJG

What are your favorite extra-curricular activities?


Gennike snip

I’ve had different hobbies at different stages of my life because I was always trying out new activities in the countries where I had the chance to live, study and work. In Haiti I took up kick-boxing as a form of stress relief. In the Dominican Republic, I learnt to dance Salsa and Merengue. In Martinique, I learnt to dance zouk and the traditional dances like Gwo Ka, Biguine and Mazurka. In Guadeloupe, I joined a cycling club and practiced a range of water sports which were easily accessible (kayaking, snorkelling, swimming). In Barbados, I took surfing classes. Now with the COVID-19 related restrictions imposed in my country, including the closure of beaches, I’ve been spending a lot more time in the garden doing subsistence farming and reading in the hammock. I’ve also been experimenting with sargassum seaweed recipes in the kitchen. So far I’ve created sargassum lasagne, sargassum pizza dough and sargassum brownies. All delicious!


* Gennike has since received her Masters degree.

    Address: 87 Hope Estate, Hope Bay, TOBAGO
    Mob.: +868 762 0266

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici (première partie) et ici (seconde partie).


Interview with Marjolijn de Jager - American literary translator

The following interview was conducted by Skype between Los Angeles CA and Stamford, Connecticut.

Marjolijn   Jonathan

Marjolijn de Jager -
the interviewee      



    Jonathan Goldberg
- the interviewer

Initials JJG

Marjolijn connecticut
Connecticut in fall   California in fall


JG: You were born in Indonesia, which at that time was the Dutch East Indies [1]. What brought your parents there?


Marjolijn map

Marjolijn: We are talking about MANY generations back, on my father’s side at least 5 generations back to the mid-nineteenth century; on my mother’s maternal side at least 3 generations back.

JG:: So your mother language was Dutch? Were you schooled in Dutch?

Marjolijn: I was born on Borneo where my father worked in the Royal Dutch Oil fields. In March of 1942 when the Japanese invaded the then Marjolijn SurvivalDutch East Indies we were living on Java. (The book Song of Survival: Women Interned, written by Helen Colijn, which tells the story of the British missionary, Margaret Dryburg, takes place in one of the camps on Sumatra.)  The Japanese incarcerated all non-Indonesians into camps of women and children only (boys until the age of 10) and men’s camps. Women were made to work in the banana plantations, herding swine, or digging pits; children were to tend the vegetable gardens, the produce of which went to the Japanese commander’s house. Education was strictly forbidden.

My mother, at great risk, had decided she didn’t want an illiterate child and began to teach me and a small group (4, 5?) of other children with a stick in the sand, as there weren’t any paper, pencils, or books. She was not a teacher but simply improvised, taking things a step further when we appeared to be ready to move on. Miraculously, all but one of us entered 4th grade after the war was over. When we arrived in Melbourne I was 9 years old and very warmly dealt with at St. Michael’s Anglican school. I did end up repeating 4th grade in Amsterdam a year later because the material taught in Melbourne and in Amsterdam was too different and, of course, I had not had any Dutch history at all.

JG: Having been a survivor of WW2 at a young age, did you feel a special affinity to Anne Frank.

Marjolijn AnneFrankMarjolijn: Yes, to some extent but much of that was also due to my not having any friends in Amsterdam yet and to our being so close in age, that is to say the age I was when reading her diary and the age she was when writing it. In real time, born in 1929, she was 7 years older than I.  She seemed like a far-flung friend to me. My diary was similar to hers in that it talked about school and school friends and such. When I read through it a few years later I found it self-absorbed and I destroyed it, as I have done with every other diary I ever kept for any length of time, stopping that activity definitively when I was in my thirties.

JG: You completed B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. studies in the USA. What were your majors? What was the subject of your doctoral thesis?

  Marjolijn NCMarjolijn: B.A. from Hunter College in NYC with a major in French and a minor in Classical Greek. M.A. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with a major in French and a minor in Spanish. Ph.D. from the same university with a major in French Literature, a 1st minor in Spanish Literature and a 2nd minor (required) in Comparative Literature. My doctoral dissertation was a stylistic study of one of the books (“Les Feux”) of Agrippa d’Aubigné’s [2] lengthy epic Les Tragiques, concerning the Huguenots [3] and their suffering at the hands of the Catholic Church.

JG: You taught summer courses at New York University for 10 years. Tell our readers about that.

Marjolijn: I began teaching Literary Translation (French to English) in NYU’s SCPS program, which as an elective course was then offered for ten weeks only in the summer. If I am not mistaken all the courses are taught on-line these days and I must confess that I am happy I was still able to teach this face-to-face! The students were completing many required courses in specific areas (Legal, Medical, Commercial translation) and this was one of the few they could choose as an elective.

JG: You have a long list of honors and awards. Which one gave you the most satisfaction?

Marjolijn: The African Literature Association  has been and still is the most important professional organization to which I belong. For me it has been an education from the beginning in areas of literature and cultures of which I knew (and still do) all too little. After my membership of almost 28 years it has also become a community of friends for me, which I cherish. Receiving the Distinguished Membership Award from the ALA for my translations of Francophone African literature in particular was a crowning touch coming from an immensely respected and extraordinary organization. 

JG: You were invited to be translator-in-residence at the Villa Gillet in Lyon. [4] Tell our readers a little about that.

Marjolijn: I found out that one could apply if working on a French or Francophone project of interest to them, so I did with Ken Bugul’s Riwan ou le Chemin de sable (1999). In September 2007 I spent an intensely satisfying month there, finishing about half the text and in the interim getting to know Lyon in many of its marvelous culturally rich aspects. Unfortunately, no publisher was ever found for the translation and I had to abandon the project when other (paying!) work came around.

JG: You first visited Africa in 1986 and subsequently made several visits to West Africa in the 1990s. What took you there?

Marjolijn_West_AFricaMarjolijn: The purpose of my first visit was to visit my son, who had volunteered for the Peace Corps in Togo. Subsequent visits were to Togo, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana. On two such occasions I went on grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and on two others for African Literature Association Conferences. I did research in those countries, with the assistance of my husband who was a professional photographer and who videographed subjects of interest. He filmed one 75-minute documentary that I presented at an ALA Conference.


JG: Explain the connection between your family’s colonial background and your interest in Africa

Marjolijn: I have been an activist all my life and have always despised colonialism, so that having the ability to use my professional activities to bring the voices of some African writers to an English readership was, and remains, very much a political action for me, in addition to the love I bring to these texts, of course.

JG: Can you name an African author whose works you admire and have translated, and whom you have come to know personally.

Marjolijn : Werewere Liking, Marjoloijn Werewereoriginally from Cameroon, has been living in Côte d’Ivoire for most of her adult life. She established the Village KI-YI M'Bock (signifying "ultimate knowledge" in Bassa, Liking's native language) in 1985 then on the periphery of the city of Abidjan. (The Village KI-YI can be found on-line in many different entries.) Its purpose is to protect and maintain traditional Pan-African culture in all its forms, ranging from theater, dance, music (both instrumental and vocal), the plastic arts, costume design to performances and classes for adolescents. Liking is a truly Renaissance person in that she is equally gifted in almost all of these arts herself. In addition she is a really fine painter and playwright and an exceptional novelist. Of her novels I have translated three: The Amputated Marjolijn LoveMemory (The Feminist Press, 2007), It Shall Be of Jasper and Coral (Journal of a Misovire), and Love-Across-a-Hundred-Lives (University of Virginia Press, CARAF, 2000). Although I admire and love all of them, my personal favorite is Love-Across-a-Hundred-Lives for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is the amazing character of the grandmother who weaves in and out of the narrative, spreading her wisdom (literally) across the ages.

Thanks to a great extent to the ALA and to university departments of African Studies and African Literature, among others, African literature and African writers individually have finally gained some of the prestige, recognition and attention that must be paid to them in the West. We need to get away from the Euro-centered world and these works are among some of the finest guides to get us there.

JG: Of all the works you have translated, can you mention any particular one to which you feel a special affinity.

Marjolijn: One of my own favorite translations is The Bridgetower Sonata, written by Emmanuel Dongala. (Schaffner Press, Inc.),  published this year. See also: [5]

MJ - Bridgewater.jpg MJ - Emmanuel Dongala     MJ - M de J & Emmanuel

Both Emmanuel Dongala and I attended a small launching event at the French Consulate in New York, on October 13, 2021.

JG: Tell us about your work over the past few years?

For the past several years in my work as a translator, it has been a true privilege to be able to continue my focus on Francophone African literature. An increasing number of wonderful books, both fiction and non-fiction, have come my way. In fiction there are five important novels:

Congo Inc. Bismarck’s Testament by In Koli Jean Bofane. Published by Indiana University Press: 2018, Global African Voices Series, it was on the Short List for Best Translated Book Award (Fiction) 2019. 

MJ - Congo  Inc. MJ - In-koli-jean-bofane
  In Koli Jean Bofane


The Bone Seekers by Tahar Djaout. Published by Dialogos / Lavender Ink: 2018.

MJ - The Bone Seekers MJ - Tahar Djaout

An Algerian journalist, poet, and novelist, Tahar Djaout was attacked on May 26, 1993, as he was leaving his home in Bainem, Algeria. He lay in a coma for a week and died on June 2. He was assassinated by the Armed Islamic Group because he opposed fanaticism of any kind. One of his attackers stated that he was killed because he "wielded a fearsome pen that could have an effect on Islamic sectors."

“If you speak you die, and if you remain silent, you die. So, speak and die.” Tahar Djaout

Timothy SchaffnerI am especially indebted to Timothy Schaffner of Schaffner Press for giving me the opportunity to collaborate with him and his wonderful team on three books so far, while I am putting the finishing touches on a fourth and look forward to our working together on a fifth in 2022. This has been, and continues to be, an amazing and profoundly rewarding partnership. I am truly honored to be able to add my translations to his very impressive list of publications! (  

Below are the three translations that Schaffner Press has published so far:

For a Long Time, Afraid of the Night by Yasmine Ghata (2019). Also available as an audio-book.      

MJ - For a Long Time Afraid of the Night MJ - Yasmine Ghata

 In the middle of the night in early April 1994, Arsène, an eight-year old Rwandan boy, flees his village as shouts and gunshots draw near. Carrying only a battered suitcase of his father's, hastily packed with a few essential items by his grandmother--who along with the rest of his family and the entire village will be massacred that night--he runs into the wilderness and wanders alone and afraid through unspeakable horrors.

I read excerpts from For a Long Time, Afraid of the Night at a PEN Translation Committee event.


The Mediterranean Wall by Louis-Philippe Dalembert (July 2021).

MJ - LOuis-Philippw Dalembert

The Mediterranean Wall has been given the French Voices Annual Grand Prize. The award is sponsored by the Cultural Services division of the French Embassy in the U.S. in recognition of “the quality of both the original work and the translation” and epitomizes “the many facets of a vibrant French literary scene.” The annual Grand Prize winners – one each for fiction and non-fiction – receive $10,000, shared by publisher (60%) and translator (40%).

The last two titles are both shortlisted for the Albertine Prize, a reader’s choice award for French books in English translation:

  MJ _ Albertine Short List  

The third book is The Bridgetower Sonata: Sonata Mulattica, mentioned above.

I have also translated several non-fiction books from Dutch:  Black Shame: African Soldiers in Europe, 1914-1922, by Dick van Galen Last, Camp Life Is Paradise for Freddy by Fred Lanzing, Personal Reflections of a Psychoanalyst by Hendrika Freud, and Invisible Years by Daphne Geismar

Marjolijn de Jager's contact details :
(203) 322-0706, [email protected]


[1] Marjoijn VOCThanks to its hardy navigators – whom we sometimes tend to forget – the tiny royalty of the Netherlands was able to carve out (and to preserve until the 20th century) a vast colonial empire in Asia and in the Americas. In the East this enterprise was the achievement of a commercial company, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (the VOC), created by the Dutch Republic of the Seven United Provinces in 1602. The VOC also maintained a monopoly over Japan’s commerce with the West. Before being dissolved in 1799, the VOC was the instrument of Batavian capitalism and imperialism over two centuries. Subsequently, the colony of the East Indies was managed as a separate entity. Its defense was ensured by a private army of mercenaries, and it was independent of the Dutch metropolitan forces. The poet Arthur Rimbaud signed up to serve in the East Marjolin Arthur_RimbaudIndies, and after undergoing basic training in Den Helder (in Zeeland), he was sent to Java. He took very poorly to military life; he was quick to desert and returned to Europe by working on a cargo ship. That fleeting experience in the Far East must certainly have been a revelation for the young man from the Ardennes.


[2] Aubigné (Agrippa d'),1551-1630. « French poet, born close to Pons, in Saintonge (a former French province) a childhood friend of King Henry the Fourth, who remained an avowed Protestant all his life. Extremely precocious, he could read Latin, Greek and Hebrew before the age of eight years. (Dictionnaire des littératures, published under the direction of Philippe Van Tieghem. Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1968, pp. 258-259).

Marjolijn Aggripa   

Agrippa d'Aubigné lived and died in the Maison de la Rive, Hotel de ville Street, Geneva.

He was the grandfather of Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquess of Maintenon, second wife of King Louis XIV

[3] A deformation of the German word Eidgenossen (name of the Genevan partisans of the confederation opposing the Duke of Savoie), which the French Catholics ended up using (originally pejoratively) to refer to Calvin Protestants in France. The wars of religion opposed the Papists and the Huguenots. French synonym: parpaillot(ote).


Marjoiljn Villa Gillet[4] La Villa Gillet, located in the Cerisaie Park at 25, rue Chazière, Lyon, aspires to be a laboratory of ideas. Artists and thinkers meet there periodically to contemplate together the problems of the contemporary world. The building was constructed in 1912, designed by the architect Joseph Folléa for the Gillet family, rich local industrialists. In May each year, the Assises internationales du Roman are held there. It is worth noting that since 2011 the Villa Gillet organises "Walls & Bridges – Transatlantic Insights" in New York. This festival is designed to facilitate a dialogue between French and American thinkers and artists.


[5] For an interview with the author Emmanuel Dongala, click here.  

From LIMELIGHT by Harriet Cunningham on 23 July 2021:

“You know the legend. The Bridgetower Sonata, or “Sonata Mulattica”, as it appears on the composer’s original manuscript, is better known as Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A, Op. 47, The Kreutzer. As the story goes, Beethoven and his new friend, a young, mixed race violin whizz called George Polgreen Bridgetower, gave the first performance of the work together, playing from a score on which the ink was still wet. But weeks later, Beethoven dropped the original dedicatee in favour of the more influential (and more white) virtuoso, Rodolphe Kreutzer.”


Additional reading:

Literary Translation by Marjolijn de Jager, Ph.D. 

Paradise Road (1997 film)

Marjolijn - Paradise Road



Interview with historian and translator, Alan R. Hoffman

Our guest translator, Alan Hoffman, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School [1] , was for nearly 50 years a trial lawyer in Boston. He is President of the American Friends of Lafayette. Mr. Hoffman translated Lafayette en Amérique, en 1824 et 1825, ou, Journal d'un voyage aux États-Unis, by Auguste Levasseur and published it in 2006 under the title Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825. Alan Hoffman’s translation is the only known translation of the entire chronicle.

  Alan Hoffman Lafayette book cover  

The interview that follows, conducted by Jonathan G,  covers Lafayette’s visits to the United States in 1777, 1780 and 1824-1825. Space does not permit us to discuss Lafayette’s years in France, nor his abolitionist activities in favor of slaves in France and the USA, of which Alan Hoffman also has extensive knowledge.  For this purpose, we recommend Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, Mike Duncan, 520 pages, Public Affairs, August 24, 2021, as well as Lafayette, Laurent Zecchini, Fayard, 580 pages, 10 avril 2019.


Who was Lafayette?

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette ( 1757 –1834), known in the United States as Lafayette, was a French aristocrat and military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War.  


At the age of 19 Lafayette first left for America, where he joined the forces of George Washington (having previously met King George III in London) and joined the insurgent army, commanding American troops in several battles, including the Virginia campaign and the siege of Yorktown. [2]


Lafayette & Washington at Forge Valley

Washington & Lafayette
at Forge Valley


During a lull in the War, Lafayette returned to France in early 1779 to lobby King Louis XVI and his ministers for more material aid, loans, French troops and the return of the French fleet to the United States. The French Ministry approved his plan, and Lafayette returned to America in 1780 to rejoin the Continental Army.

After returning to France to settle there, he was a key figure in the French Revolution of 1789 and the July Revolution of 1830. He was co-author of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

Hero of 2 WorldsIn July 1824, General Lafayette, by then known as “The Hero of Two Worlds”, sailed from Le Havre for the United States, his adoptive country, on the invitation of Congress and President James Monroe. Although he had not visited American shores since 1784 (after the Treaty of Paris formally ended the American Revolution, which he had shared the glory of winning on the battlefield), this visit, 40 years later, when he was 67 years old, produced a fervid outpouring of affection from the American people for the last surviving Major General of their Revolution. During his 13-month tour, he visited all 24 states, which celebrated and honored him wherever he went.  He was hosted by former Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, by Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, and by future President Andrew Jackson. In all, he dined with the first nine presidents of the United States. Lafayette was accompanied by his only son, 45-year-old Georges Washington Lafayette, his secretary André-Nicolas Levasseur and his valet.

Who was André-Nicolas Levasseur?

André-Nicolas Levasseur (also known as Auguste Levasseur) was a 19th-century French writer and diplomat.

Like Lafayette, Levasseur considered Napoleon “the Usurper” and was extremely critical of Restoration France under the Bourbon Monarchy. [3] Tellingly, he receives the news of Louis XVIII’s death from then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1824, without comment.

Levasseur is best known in the United States for accompanying Lafayette on his final visit to the United States in 1824, which Levasseur chronicled. 

What was the extent of your interest in Lafayette before you undertook the translation project?  

I had a strong interest in history, particularly early American history, which I picked up in college, but had only rudimentary knowledge of Mass Lafayette until 2002 when I read Andrew Burstein’s America’s Jubilee: How in 1826 a Generation Remembered Fifty Years of Independence. The first chapter was about Lafayette’s 1824-1825 Farewell Tour of America. My interest having been sparked, I started reading everything I could find about Lafayette. This interest led to my joining the American Friends of Lafayette (AFL) and the Massachusetts Lafayette Society, and to Levasseur and his journal.

Friends 1How long has your association, the American Friends of Lafayette, existed? Are you able to meet with authors or researchers from France to discuss aspects of Lafayette’s life ?


The AFL was founded in 1932 at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. It has 450 members in most of the states and
Canada, France, England and Germany. It has an annual meeting in a city or town associated with Lafayette and is one of the 13 organizations that celebrate General Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown each October 19, the day of the surrender in 1781.

Some of our scholar-members are fluent in French, like Robert Crout, of the College of Charleston, and Lloyd Kramer of the University of North Carolina. We also have contact with scholars in France like Iris de Rode, who has just published the diaries of Chastellux, Rochambeau’s second-in-command.

  Crout Iris   Lloyd
  R.C.         I. de R                   L.K.

What was the level of your comprehension of written French when you undertook this project?

ShopI had six years of French and Latin at school. In 2003 I was looking for Levasseur’s journal of Lafayette’s Farewell Tour and could not find a copy of an 1829 English translation. However, I found the original French version at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston in the rare book room. I opened Volume 1 to the preface, and to my surprise was able to sight read it. At that moment I decided to translate the book.



Did Lafayette have any fluency in English before he arrived on American shores the first time?

No, but he learned to speak and write English aboard the Victoire, the ship that he purchased to transport himself and other French officers to America.


Lafayette had studied Latin and, of course, French in school. He had an excellent tutor during the seven-week voyage, the Baron de Kalb, who was fluent in English. Lafayette brought along an English grammar book.

Could you comment on the command of written English which Lafayette acquired, in the light of the fact that he constantly wrote letters in English  to a number of Americans, including George Washington?

Lafayette developed a command of written (and spoken) English quite rapidly. This is evident, for example, in the earliest letter that he wrote to General Washington on October 14, 1777, just four months after arriving in America. See The Letters of Lafayette to Washington 1777 – 1779, 2nd printing, Louis Gottschalk, Editor (The American Philosophical Society, 1976).

Here is a quote from the very recently published book,  Hero of Two Worlds, (Page 141) by Mike Duncan.

"Most of French society expected his brilliant madness in America to be a hilarious failure. Instead, Lafayette trusted himself, took a bold risk, and it paid off magnificently. Sure, his title, wealth and connections opened doors in America but his courage, loyalty and talent won him acclaim." 



Do you agree with the above? Did Lafayette’s physical involvement in the war contribute anything above and beyond his financial contribution, and the participation of several thousand French soldiers? If it did, was that principally as a morale booster?

I generally agree, especially with Duncan’s last sentence. His first sentence might, however, be overstated. Some of Lafayette’s contemporaries, like his best friends, the Vicomte de Noaille (his brother-in-law) and the Comte de Ségur who had obeyed their fathers’ command not to go to America to join the Insurgents, did not think Lafayette was crazy but instead envied him.

Noal Louis XVI



Vicomte de Noaille Louis XVI Comte de Ségur

Lafayette’s contribution to the American cause was critically important. His diplomatic role was paramount. Upon his return to France on furlough from the Revolutionary Army in 1779, he, together with Benjamin Franklin, lobbied the French ministers for more money, supplies, land forces, and a return of a French fleet. The acceptance of his plan led to the Yorktown victory. Lafayette’s military role was not insignificant. His Virginia campaign in 1781 produced the condition, namely the entrapment of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown that set the stage for the siege of the English forces and their surrender, in October 1781.

Would the insurgents have won the war of independence without the support of Lafayette and of France?

The short answer is “probably not”, and certainly not in 1781. The French Expeditionary Force, under Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, with its engineers and huge siege guns, as well as the West Indian Fleet under the Comte de Grasse, which joined with Washington’s troops from the north and Lafayette’s forces already stationed in Virginia, were decisive in the final major engagement in the War, the Battle of Yorktown. Without Lafayette and France, we would still be singing “God save the Queen”.



Is there a paradox in the fact that Louis XVI may be considered one of the heroes of the American Revolution yet became the villain and victim of the French Revolution?

Louis XVI
and his ministers, in particular the Comte de Vergennes and the Comte de Maurepas, were not Enlightenment liberals, but supported the American insurgency to avenge France’s loss of part of its colonial possessions in the Seven Years War of 1756 – 1763. The French support for the United States was financed by borrowing. This fact, together with wasteful spending by the Crown and an unfair and inefficient tax system, led to the country’s bankruptcy and to the French Revolution, which, of course, cost Louis XVI his head.

  Louis XVI execution  



The French personalities involved in the War of Independence included Rochambeau and Lafayette, who clashed at times. Rochambeau called Lafayette a “hothead”, but did Lafayette’s boyish enthusiasm prove more valuable than Rochambeau’s circumspection? Which of them made a greater contribution?

Lafayette is generally acknowledged to have made a much greater contribution than Rochambeau, by virtue of his diplomatic role coupled with his military successes. Also, his boyish enthusiasm and overall likeability proved infectious. His personal generosity – paying for uniforms for his troops from his own funds – clearly boosted the spirits and morale of the troops that he served with.

  Rochambeau_Monument _Newport _Rhode_Island  

Statue of Rochambeau, 
Newport, Rhode Island



Lafayette, after his first trip to America, and his return to France, had his sights on an attack on Britain. He also considered attacking the English in Canada. Although neither of those plans was executed, can one deduce that he was at heart a warmonger?

No, he was not a warmonger at heart. Lafayette’s motive in considering these plans was purely strategic. He believed that success in each theater would have led to a speedier conclusion of the War and that American independence would have been won with less loss of life.


Have you seen Hamilton, the musical. To what extent is the portrayal of Lafayette authentic?

HamiltonI have seen Hamilton three times, on Broadway, in a Boston theater and the movie on TV. The play is not historically accurate in all respects, nor does it make that claim. For example, while Hamilton portrays Lafayette as being present at the inception of the American Revolution, he actually joined the Continental Army in July 1777. Also, the Lafayette character does not have a major part and sings only a few solo lines. However the play is accurate in portraying Lafayette’s friendship with Hamilton, his popularity with his comrades in arms and the importance of his contribution to the war effort.


Lafayette wrote Washington in February 1783:

L & W“Now, my dear General, that you are going to enjoy some ease and quiet, permit me to propose a plan to you which might become greatly beneficial to the Black Part of Mankind. Let us unite in purchasing a small estate where we may try the experiment to free the Negroes, and use them only as tenants – such an exemple [sic] as yours might render it a general practice; and, if we succeed in America, I will cheerfully devote a part of my time to render the method fashionable in the West Indies. If it be a wild scheme, I had rather be mad in this way, than to be thought wise in the other task.”

By the standards of the late 18th century, were Lafayette’s ideas of abolition and more specifically his plan to turn slaves into paid tenants, way ahead of his time?

SlaveryStarting in 1783, Lafayette advocated for the abolition of slavery in America and in France and its colonies. When Washington did not agree to Lafayette’s proposed experiment, Lafayette purchased a plantation in Cayenne, on the northern coast of South America in 1785, and he initiated a program of gradual abolition of the enslaved persons on the plantation. [4] Unlike American leaders, like Washington and Jefferson, who acknowledged that slavery was wrong, Lafayette put his money where his mouth was. His early anti-slavery activity was very advanced. Only the Quakers in the United States held more progressive views.




Gazette AFLThere are 79 cities and towns, counties and other small geographic units in the United States named for Lafayette or his Chateau, La Grange. The names are Lafayette, Fayette, Fayetteville, Lafayetteville, Lagrange and Lagrangeville. There are 45 cities or towns, 17 counties, 16 townships, villages etc., and one ghost town, Fayette, Michigan, now a State Park. Gazette of the American Friends of Lafayette, No. 83, pp. 51 – 52 (October, 2015). There is Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire, the Lafayette River in Virginia, Lake Lafayette in Florida and Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. There are more than a score of Lafayette (Masonic) Lodges, numerous statues of Lafayette and Lafayette Squares or Parks. The number of streets named for Lafayette likely exceeds 1000.


L. Paddle Passage Trail

Statue clipped L. College
Lafayette Paddle Passage Trail

Statue of Lafayette
by Alexandre Falguière & Antonin Mercié

Lafayette College, Pennsylvania


Coins and stamps bearing the image of Lafayette have been issued in the U.S.A. and elsewhere:

Lafayette_stamp_3c_1952_issue 1900 memorial silver dollart lafayette_dollar_obv Cameroon stamp
U.S.A. 1952 Lafayette & Washington
1900 memorial silver dollar
Cameroon 1975


[1] The previous interview on this blog was with a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School, Professor Noah Feldman.

[2] Washington & Lafayette | History | Smithsonian Magazine

[3] Napoleon and the Marquis de Lafayette

[4] Lafayette and Slavery
The Cayenne Experiments

A French translation of the above article appears here:

Additional reading:

Why Don't the French Celebrate Lafayette
Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, August 16, 2021

What Happened to This Hero From the American Revolution?
New York Times, August 27, 2021


Interview with American linguist and author Alyssa Kermad

E X C L U S I V E    I N T E R V I E W



The interviewer:  Kevin Hirschi, Ph.D.
Candidate in Applied Linguistics
at Northern Arizona University


The interviewee: Alyssa Kermad, Ph,D.
Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics and TESOL at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona




Kevin Hirschi is a Ph.D. candidate (and presidential fellow) in the Applied Linguistics program at Northern Arizona University where he has taught French and English.  He is currently studying factors that impact success of Mobile-Assisted Pronunciation Training for adult immigrant ESL communities, international students, and foreign language students.  Kevin has served in the Kyrgyz Republic as a Peace Corps Volunteer English teacher where he taught university students critical thinking skills and trained teachers in communicative teaching approaches.  After receiving his M.A. in Teaching English as Second Language (MA-TESL), Kevin served as a U.S. English Language Fellow in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he developed programs in academic writing and taught diverse courses ranging from American studies to English Pronunciation and research methods.  Kevin speaks English, French, Russian, Kyrgyz, Spanish, German, and Turkish.




Alyssa Kermad is an assistant professor of Applied Linguistics and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.  Her research interests are in second language speech and pronunciation, speech perception, prosody and pragmatics, second language acquisition, individual differences, and speech assessment.  


Applied linguistics

Kevin thumnailWhat inspired you to study French and linguistics?

Alyssa thumbnailI knew from a really young age that I wanted to work with language.  I was in about the 5th grade when my teacher introduced a pen pal program.  For $1, we could select one country and be sent the name/address of someone who would like to write letters to us from that specific country.  I chose about five pen pals from five different countries.  While not all of them wrote back to me, my pen pal from Japan responded immediately.  We became very close through the back-and-forth exchange of our letters, souvenirs, food, and so on.  We became so close that she came to the U.S. to visit me, and I went to Japan to visit her when I was just 14 years old.  The relationship that we created led her to come to the U.S. to finish high school with me!  It was almost surreal that a simple pen pal program blossomed into a real-life friendship.  I watched her study into the early hours of the morning, not only learning the material, but learning it in her second language.  This is when I knew that I wanted to work with language learners like her, but not only that, I wanted to learn languages too.  I began studying Japanese, learning how to read and write katakana, hiragana, and some kanji characters.  Once in college, I started learning French while at the same time I began to specialize in English, linguistics, and TESOL.  After I finished my B.A. at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, I joined the Teaching Assistant Program in France run by the French Ministry of Education which brought me to France for two academic years as an assistante de langue.  The first year I was placed in Troyes at une école primaire and the second year I was placed in Reims at un lycée technique.  Naturally being immersed in the language and the culture, my French improved to the point where I was able to pass B2 and C1 levels of French proficiency tests.  Although I took a break from teaching in France to complete my M.A., I went back to France after the degree was complete and taught again in Reims, but this time at the university level.  My teaching experiences in France culminated in the realization that I wanted to pursue research in applied linguistics, namely second language speech and pronunciation.  I found it fascinating that there was such great variability in pronunciation performance among learners, and I wanted to discover what accounted for that variability.  This inspired my dissertation which was on individual differences and pronunciation outcomes. 

Kevin thumnailHow do you feel that a knowledge of language and linguistics helps address problems in the real world?

Alyssa thumbnailThis is a really important question.  In fact, in my undergraduate “Introduction to Linguistics” classes, I start off by having students think about the importance of language (spoken, written, sign, non-verbal, etc.) by way of imagining the world, or even a single day, without it.  This tends to bring an eye-opening awareness that language is everywhere.  It is the very core of what makes us human and what allows us to get an education, carry out our duties at our jobs, go home and have a conversation with our loved ones, read and comprehend a good book, watch a film, write an email, read a text, navigate through an airport, give a speech, and so on and so forth. 

Linguistic knowledge has been crucial to so many real-world areas such as language learning, language teaching, language policy, dialect coaching, translation, interpretation, marketing, business, international affairs, government, computer science, law, medicine, speech language pathology, and on and on.  Because language is at the core of what we do, linguistic knowledge has played immense roles in areas outside of language learning, teaching, and research.  A knowledge of linguistics provides a type of “super power” for tackling issues, problems, and controversies in the world around us.  It enables us to think systematically about a means toward an end.

Kevin thumnailHow has learning French helped you in your professional examples?

Alyssa thumbnailI draw on my knowledge of French quite a bit when I am giving my students examples of how other languages do things.  For example, French provides great examples of the formal vous vs tu , which many of my Spanish-speaking students can relate to with usted vs tú.  I draw on French to illustrate gendered nouns, which English does not have.  French is also great for illustrating phonetic issues that come up for anglophone speakers of French, such as distinguishing between dessus (above) and dessous (below).  It also helps to have some familiarity with how French varies from speech community to speech community within regional France, within Europe, and inter-continentally.  Furthermore, French verlan is an extremely fascinating linguistic system.  I didn’t learn verlan at school likely because it wasn’t perceived as “correct,” but once I arrived in France, I heard it everywhere—on the streets, in my classrooms, in film, in music, and in conversation.  Verlan goes far beyond the simple inversing of syllable structure, as words in verlan also undergo sound changes, spelling changes, and meaning changes.  Furthermore, one cannot simply inverse any word—these words are established in and by the speech community.  This goes to show that linguistic variation is not simply random use of bad language—it’s rule governed and systematic and part of what makes a living language. 

Kevin thumnailLiving in the western US, there’s a lot of Spanish around. What is the value of learning French if you are from the West Coast or Southwest?

Alyssa thumbnailSouthern California is a linguistic ratatouille.  I love that I can go out and hear multiple different languages spoken around me.  There is a good number of Francophones in Southern California, but Spanish is most widely spoken in this area.  Considering its ties to Latin, knowing French definitely makes learning Spanish easier.  While my proficiency in Spanish is still at a beginner’s level, I am trying to learn more.  Oftentimes, I can draw on my knowledge of French to produce and comprehend words in Spanish. 

Kevin thumnailEnglish has dominated the globe as the lingua franca. What does this mean for Americans and what does it mean for the language learning classroom?

Alyssa thumbnailThe domination of English as a lingua franca carries both positive and negative implications for Americans.  On the positive end, the need for English language teachers across the globe is great; therefore, fields of study such as TESOL, language studies, applied linguistics, education, etc. can carve out a trajectory which leads Americans abroad to become global citizens of other countries, teaching English in different contexts.  Living and working abroad naturally fosters multilingualism, cultural awareness, and cross-cultural relations with diverse communities.  We can share our culture with others while learning about other ways of going about communication, life, and living.  On the other end of the lingua franca spectrum is the English-only comfort zone.  Americans can largely get by with only knowing English both at home and in travel.  However, this mentality places the burden of communication on others to know and communicate our language.  It can also give others the impression that English is more important than other languages, even if that is not our intention.  I encourage Americans to learn even some words of other languages, especially when travelling.  There is something so personal and relatable when one is able to utter sounds to create words which are not in our native language but which are meaningful to others.  Knowing additional languages, even at a beginner’s level, ultimately widens the net of how, when, where, and with whom we can communicate in this large global network.  We are able to make connections with people that may not have been previously possible.  Bi/multilingualism is one way to engage in global citizenship and demonstrate interest in the world around us, the cultures around us, the people around us, and the texts around us. 

Kevin thumnailWhat reforms should the US make? What would be the impact of those changes?

Alyssa thumbnailIn terms of language policy, I firmly believe that we as a country in the United States need to give more priority to language learning at an earlier age.  Not only that, but we need to recognize the value of bi/multilingualism and consider this as an asset.  If we look at the models from the rest of the world, Europe for example, students begin learning their first foreign language from a young age and then add an additional foreign language later on.  Anecdotally speaking, I was teaching English in France to primary school children who would likely later go on to add a third foreign language!  Yet due to what I think is the combined result of anglocentrism and English as a lingua franca, formal language learning is not prioritized at a young age in the U.S.  If we could become organized as a nation to give more priority to language learning from a younger age, the effect would be far-reaching, leading not only to a greater degree and appreciation of bi/multilingualism but also to a greater awareness of other cultures and more wide-spread opportunities.   Furthermore, this open-mindedness fosters linguistic, cultural, and geographical awareness.   

Kevin thumnailWe know that accented English (both for learners and minorities) results in real world social issues. Why do you think that accent discrimination is different from other types of discrimination?

Alyssa thumbnailAccent discrimination is different from other types of discrimination for several reasons, but mostly because it’s not perceived as discrimination and oftentimes goes silently undetected.  However, its effects on the speaker are far-reaching.  Much of this has to do with the ideology of what is “standard” or “expected” in a language, and then anything that deviates is subject to stigmatization.  However, even this idea of deviation is relative and varies from person to person.  One can make judgments about the way someone talks assuming that it is somehow rationalized through this dichotomized standard/non-standard ideology or that it’s not a form of discrimination because it is “only” language.  We all know this is the farthest from the truth.  Language varieties are deeply rooted in one’s identity, one’s culture, one’s ethnicity, one’s region, and one’s sense of belonging.  Therefore, linguistic discrimination is just as serious as other types of discrimination.  A well-known quote from Rosina Lippi-Green (2012) states, “Accent discrimination can be found everywhere in our daily lives.  In fact, such behavior is so commonly accepted, so widely perceived as appropriate, that it must be seen as the last back door to discrimination.  And the door stands wide open” (p. 74).  When Lippi-Green wrote this in 2012, the back door stood wide open, and even today in 2021, it door still stands wide open. 

Kevin thumnailDo you foresee a day when accent discrimination is a thing of the past? What would get us there?

Alyssa thumbnailAccent discrimination happens all across the world, but I do see a day when people are more aware of accent discrimination.  Even if we have a long way to go, progress is being made, research is being done, outreaches are being performed.  I think that we all have to do our part, not only in spreading this awareness but also by trying to be better conversationalists.  We have to let people know that having an accent does not make anyone less human.  In fact, what people are surprised to find out is that everyone has an accent!  We need to focus on successful communication, rather than differences in communication.  With respect to English and its role as a lingua franca, we have to keep in mind that native English speakers are in the minority; there are currently more non-native English speakers of English than native English speakers.  Therefore, the standards and ideals are so far out of touch with reality.  Even within our own language of (American) English, we have to be accepting of different varieties which are not considered “standard,” as every variety is equally complex and systematic as the other.  Furthermore, we can do our part in being better listeners.  People would be surprised to discover that if they stopped judging someone on the way they spoke, they would actually understand them better!

Kevin thumnailGiven the issues with the “where are you from” question, how do we balance respecting people’s identities while showing genuine interest in people’s backgrounds and helping them keep their diversity?

Alyssa thumbnailThe “where are you from?” question is tricky.  Because humans notice accented speech in less than one second, we are quick to assign labels to speakers who sound different from ourselves.  However, imagine that a second language English speaker living in the U.S. starts their day and stops to grab a coffee.  They order the coffee, and they get asked “where are you from?”  They then run by the post office to send a letter and get asked “where are you from?”  They head to work and make a phone call when someone quickly detects their accent and asks “where are you from?”  These questions can quickly marginalize someone when all they want to do is buy a coffee, send a letter, or make a phone call.  We have to consider that accented speakers may be actively trying to integrate into a given speech community.  On the other hand, the “where are you from question” can be asked out of genuine interest or to relate to someone personally.  It can be used to open a discussion of mutual interest in travelling, language learning, culture, and so on.  My advice would be to save the “where are you from?” question for interpersonal bridge-building or when your good intentions can be perceived as good intentions.



Kevin thumnailI see that you and your coauthors have Second Language Prosody and Computer Modeling coming out soon. Can you tell us more about it? 

Alyssa thumbnailDr. Okim Kang (Northern Arizona University), Dr. David Johnson (University of Kansas), and I have written Second Language Prosody and Computer Modeling, a reference book which will be published by Routledge in the near future.  This is a collaborative effort between two applied linguistics (myself and Dr. Kang) and one computer scientist (Dr. Johnson).  The book is set up into three overarching parts.  Part I provides the linguistic foundation for computer modeling.  It begins by defining prosody and tracing the historical development of prosodic frameworks throughout the years.  We then give detailed attention to two major frameworks commonly used to describe prosody today.  Following, we lay out the many ways that speech properties have been calculated manually by humans in efforts to show how computers can become trained.  Part II, takes the foundational knowledge from Part I and applies it to computer modeling processes.  For example, we discuss the process of breaking continuous human speech into syllables automatically with computer algorithms.  This is followed by an explanation of how computer models have derived prosodic properties through time.  This part ends with a comparison of several computer models for automatically scoring oral proficiency and intelligibility from suprasegmental measures of speech.  Finally, Part III of our book explores directions for future research and future applications of prosody models. 

Okim Kang

David Johnson

Dr. Okim Kang Dr. David Johnson

References :

Kang, O., Johnson, D., & Kermad, A. (forthcoming). Second language prosody and computer modeling. Routledge—Taylor & Francis.

Lippi-Green, R. (2012). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge

10 alternatives to 'Where are you from?'


Interview with American law professor, linguist and author, Noah Feldman

E x c l u s i v e    i n t e r v i e w


Feldman thumbnail

Dr. Noah Feldman is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University. He is widely known as a constitutional scholar and legal historian. During the 2019 proceedings to impeach President Trump, Professor Feldman became a household name when millions of television viewers saw him and two other distinguished American constitutional scholars present the case for impeachment.

In 1992, he received his A.B. summa cum laude in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard College (the undergraduate college of Harvard University) and was  awarded the Sophia Freund Prize, awarded to the highest-ranked summa cum laude graduate

Dr. Feldman is less known amongst the American public for his knowledge of languages, particularly Near Eastern languages. The breadth of that knowledge is reflected in the interview that follows, which was conducted between Los Angeles and Boston by your faithful blogger, Jonathan G.


JG2Tell our readers about your upbringing and your education before you reached university.

Feldman thumbnailI was educated at the Maimonides school in Brookline MA, which is the school named for a towering figure of medieval Jewish thought who lived his whole life in the Islamic world and spoke Arabic.

Feldman Maimonides School _ mysite-2 Feldman Maimonedes
Maimonides School,
Moses Maimonedes

While at that school I was very fortunate to be taught Biblical Hebrew as well as Mishnaic [1] or Rabbinic Hebrew, Aramaic, English of course, and French. Then I studied Arabic at age 15 at the Harvard University summer school with Dr.  Wilson Bishai and then again the next summer, when I was 16, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in their summer program, with extraordinary professors. That program included classical Arabic as well as medieval and modern Arabic. I was also very fortunate that in between those courses and then in the offseason when I couldn't go to summer school I was tutored in Arabic by Michael Cooperson, a linguistic genius, who was an undergraduate at the time, and is now a professor of Arabic at the University of California Los Angeles.


JG2You’ve referred to different categories of Arabic and Hebrew. Could you explain those in a little more detail for our readers?

Feldman thumbnail

There are four “flavors” of Hebrew : Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinic, or as it’s also called Mishnaic Hebrew, then there’s medieval Hebrew, which draws upon both of those earlier traditions but has its own flavor, especially if it’s medieval philosophical Hebrew, and the reason for that is that medieval philosophical Hebrew derives from direct translations from Arabic ,and so it has its own syntax and grammar that are very much derivative of Arabic. Then obviously there's modern Hebrew.

In Arabic there is pre-Koranic Arabic, a corpus of which is mostly preserved in poetry; then there's Koranic (classical) Arabic; medieval philosophical Arabic, which is based largely on translations from Greek, although those translations came via Syriac which is itself a version of Aramaic, so in other words the way that the Arab scholars translated Aristotle and Plato (those parts that they had) in the 8th, 9th 10th and 11th centuries is as follows: first the Greek would be translated into Syriac, then the Syriac would be translated into Arabic, so by the time it emerged the syntax and mode of medieval philosophical Arabic were pretty distinctive. And of course, there's modern Arabic, usually dated to the 19th century, which draws on some tropes and language of classical Arabic but is spoken differently. Finally there's colloquial Arabic, which is different in nearly every Arabic speaking country, so much so that if you're a Moroccan and you're speaking to an Iraqi, if you were to both speak colloquial dialect, it would not be a simple matter to communicate; in fact it might prove impossible. If you were an Iraqi and you were speaking to a Moroccan you would ordinarily speak in modern standard Arabic, which is the derivative of classical Arabic, which you would both understand, and that's what's spoken on television and what's written in the newspapers.


JG2Which courses did you study at Harvard for your undergraduate degree?

Feldman thumbnailAt Harvard I studied biblical Hebrew and a great deal of medieval philosophical Hebrew. I also studied Arabic, primarily medieval philosophical Arabic, but I did take a course on modern colloquial Arabic given by Dr. Bishai. He took the basic foundations in modern standard Arabic, but he taught us “tricks” for transforming grammatically modern standard Arabic into colloquial Egyptian Arabic. That’s a very unusual way of teaching colloquial Arabic which was very distinctive and unique to Dr. Bishai. He was a charming, wonderful and encouraging teacher. He told me that “anyone who seeks to dine at the banquet table of Arabic shall be made welcome”.  He had a great influence on me in his language instruction and I owe him a great deal.

You have been called a “hyperglot” with a command of spoken/and or written  English, Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, but also a grasp of French, German, Italian, Spanish. You also speak and read Korean, as well as being able to read Greek and Latin.

Feldman thumbnail

On the French, Spanish and Korean, I’ll explain:  I get to speak French whenever I'm in France and I watch French films. I had the good fortune to be in Tunisia working both as an adviser and as an observer for the Tunisian constitutional process, I mostly used Arabic but there is a class of highly educated Tunisians who like to speak in French and the French there is a kind of working phenomenon. The same is true in Lebanon, where again educated Lebanese are equally comfortable using English, French and Arabic, so French has been very useful to me, not only in France but also more broadly in the francophone world.

With respect to Spanish, a high percentage of Americans speak Spanish so it's really a second language for Americans. There's a lot of Spanish television on all the time here so it's easy to engage with the language and to use Spanish colloquially and informally. Regarding Korean, I began to study Korean when I was living in Washington DC before I was engaged to my former wife, a Korean American, and then when we were engaged. Her parents were first-generation immigrants from Korea, and they spoke perfect English, but they spoke Korean around the house, and I wanted to be able to participate. Remarkably at the time that I was there the Korean Embassy in Washington DC offered free evening courses in Korean, so I took two years of evening Korean, very seriously taught by first-rate teachers in a beautiful building in “Embassy Row”, in Washington DC. After we married, I came back to Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow and I took a year of second-year college Korean as a postdoctoral fellow. That was a very funny experience for me because I was 29 and the other people in the class were freshman, aged 18, who had acquired fluent Korean in their homes, but who didn't know how to read or write or didn't have proper grammar, so they didn’t need an introductory course because they could already speak the language, but they didn't place into advanced Korean because they didn't have the formal training in Korean that was required. As the one person in the class who wasn't essentially a quasi-native speaker of Korean, I found it very challenging to keep up.

A lot of the language instruction at Harvard takes place in the same building – a very old building called Vanserg Hall that was originally built as auxiliary space during WWII. So I was sitting in Vanserg, where I'd sat a decade previously, studying Arabic, and I painfully realized that my ability to memorize vocabulary had degraded just in that decade between being 19 years old and being 29 years old.  It was very upsetting to see in real time that one's brain was already doing it. Now I'm 50 and I look back on what it was like to be 30 and I ask myself how much more language acquisition skills have I lost in the intervening 20 years? It's a painful thought.

Since you graduated from Yale Law School, and embarked on a prestigious career as a law professor at Harvard University, have Feldman Yaleyou managed to keep up to speed with any of those languages? Are you still proficient in non-living languages, such as ancient Greek, Latin and Aramaic?

Feldman thumbnail

I am lucky enough to use the Aramaic all the time because I direct a program on Jewish and Israeli law (the Julius-Rabinowitz Program -

Feldman HarvardIt’s  a seminar that I run that meets every other week throughout the academic year and the sources are primary documents from all periods of Jewish history, but many of them are  rabbinic or Talmudic or medieval, whereas  some are more contemporary and modern, so that gives me a chance in a very ongoing way to exercise my language skills and my interest in those sources and texts.

I use the Talmudic texts, many of which are in Talmudic Aramaic, a lot. I use the classical Arabic to some degree when I am supervising graduate students or working on Islamic studies or when I'm writing on the classical Islamic world, which I have done as part of my career, because I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to write a book or two that touched on classical Islam.

I have to say that my Greek and Latin are a little rusty, but they are serviceable when I have to translate a passage or read a passage.  But the  lucky thing for law professors is that we can work on all kinds of different projects both historical and in the present, and so I have for example the book manuscript that I've been working on, on the side for years,  that traces Aristotle’s idea of equity through a wide range of different legal systems including Athenian law, Roman law, Islamic Law, classical Jewish Law, Canon Law and early modern and modern British law. In that project I had to deal with texts in all those languages.  I haven't yet published that manuscript, I hope to do that someday, but what I love about it is that it requires me to engage in all of these languages and it's completely consistent with what I do is a law professor, so that is very fortunate that I can go backwards as well as into the present. It keeps getting bigger and bigger but eventually I do intend to cut it in such a way that a reader would actually want to read it, and then I would publish it.

Looking back on your years of studying languages, did you find that to be beneficial beyond the intellectual exercise involved?

Feldman thumbnail

Massively. I would say to learn another language is to begin (not to complete but to begin) the process of entering into another thought-world. Particularly for someone who, like me, had been brought up in an educational milieu that was Jewish, because I went to a Jewish school, and had learned modern Hebrew, to study Arabic was to begin the process of trying to learn to see the world through the eyes of people with different religious backgrounds, with different religious experiences. Even though the classical medieval, especially the medieval Jewish, world was deeply Arabicized, so that, for example, Moses Maimonides the person for whom the school I went to was named, himself was a native speaker of Arabic and wrote the “Guide for the Perplexed”, his most famous philosophical work and one of his most famous works, entirely in Arabic.

Of course, I knew that many important Jewish thinkers had written and thought in Arabic, and had indeed been influenced by Islamic civilization, to know that in the abstract is very different from knowing it in the concrete. To speak to people especially in the Middle East who grew up in Arabic-speaking countries or maybe even grew up in Israel but were native speakers of Arabic, really changed my way of seeing the world fundamentally. I would say that more than almost any other single factor that I can think of in my bildung*, being exposed to Arabic at a relatively early age changed the way I encountered the world and it has affected everything that I've done professionally and academically since, not only in the literal sense of the value of knowing the language and being able to speak to people and to access texts, but more profoundly in realizing just how many different perspectives there are on any one set of issues or questions, and how profoundly different those perspectives, are, and how people from all sides can be utterly convinced of the correctness of their experiences and views (including me - I'm no different than anybody else), and yet that we as humans also have the capacity to open ourselves up and listen to other people. That’s kind of the astonishing thing. You would think that humans associate by language, associate by culture or associate by a received narrative, so surely would never be able to expand, but actually the opposite is the case:  we are able to expand and the acquisition of another language, even when we're no longer children and can't speak exactly like natives, is a great, great testament to the human capacity to try to understand one another, without claiming perfect comprehension, but just the human capacity to try.

You are familiar with the story of the rejuvenation of Hebrew as a living language. Aramaic, on the other hand, also a Semitic language historically connected to Hebrew, is spoken, in its different forms by one million to two million people and may join the list of disappearing languages. Did you ever have a chance to compare Hebrew and Aramaic, and do you have any observations about their similarities, differences and trajectories.

Feldman thumbnail

The trajectory difference is really fascinating, because whereas Hebrew began as a living language, then it was a language that was alive in books and in scholarly circles, but was only rarely spoken interpersonally, and then starting in the 19th century through this very self-conscious process of rejuvenation it was remade into a modern language that in certain respects is similar to the classical Hebrew but in other respects is so different, that some linguists actually think it should be called a different language:  “Israeli”. In contrast, Aramaic has been spoken by communities that self-identify as Chaldean or as Assyrian, and these are very self-contained, communities that have managed to preserve themselves for a few thousand years through their strong communal identities, and they have an unbroken continuity of their language, but they haven't governed a state through their language in a long time.  There were empires governed in Aramaic, great empires. The Assyrian Empire for one, in various times, but not in a long time, and so their language has a continuity that is absent from the revivified modern Hebrew, but because it doesn't have a state attached to it, it's always vulnerable alongside the vulnerability of the people who speak it.  And since many of those people live or historically lived in areas that are war-torn and dangerous and because they've been an oppressed minority for much of the last 2000 years, that's one of the reasons that there is a worry about the survival of their language community. It's not that they've stopped speaking their language.  Sometimes a language becomes endangered because the people who speak it stop speaking it, sometimes the language becomes endangered because the people who continue to speak it are endangered, and it's really the latter that's the case for native speakers of Aramaic.

JG2You have published a great deal including 8 non-fiction books Please tell us about those books.

Feldman thumbnailI can divide them into two groups:  roughly half deal with political governance in the Middle East, both historically and in the present. Those grew out of my dissertation work on medieval Islamic political theory, updated to the contemporary world and so a lot of them were about Islam and democracy, and how they can or cannot interact, including my most recent book in that genre which is called “The Arab Winter:  A Tragedy”.  So you can guess from the title of that book that is not very optimistic; my earlier books in that area were more optimistic. And then the other half of my books are roughly about the US constitutional tradition, and they focus on the intellectual history of the ideas that inform the US constitution, as seen through the human beings who developed those ideas and shaped them. So I have a long biography of James Madison, who was the primary draftsman of the US constitution, another long book about a group of four Supreme Court justices appointed by F.D. Roosevelt who developed American constitutional ideas into the modern era.  I'm just finishing a book now which is not yet in press so effectively won't come out for a year or so, about Abraham Lincoln and how he changed the constitution in the course of the American civil war.

JG2You have mentioned some of your practical activities, outside the academic sphere. Please expand on that.

Feldman thumbnailYes, so for example over the last three years I've been involved in inventing and designing a constitutional “court” for Facebook, that is made up of independent scholars and activists who don't work for Facebook. This entity has an endowment, which Facebook put into it, but Facebook can't touch it, so it's independent. The “Court” has taken the first set of cases that they're going to take and they're going to adjudicate those cases about what content should stay up on Facebook's platform or what content should be taken down, and Facebook has committed itself to abiding by its decisions. That has been an extraordinary experience for me. It involves languages as well, as Facebook operates in more than 100 countries and therefore has people using Facebook in scores and scores of languages, and so its content moderation requires a nuanced comprehension of different languages and that's a huge challenge for Facebook and it will be a challenge for the oversight board as well. That's an example of a practical pursuit that I’ve spent a lot of time on in the last few years in the hopes of making incremental improvements in the way Facebook operates, because although obviously Facebook does a lot of good by connecting people, it also has many risks and downsides associated with disinformation and hate speech and other things, so this institution is meant to try to address some of those issues through independence, reason-giving, transparency and accountability.

JG2For our French speaking readers would you compare or contrast French with other languages that you have learned? Would you call yourself a Francophile?

Feldman thumbnailI would call myself a Francophile, maybe I would call myself more precisely a “Francophonephile”.  It's not that I don't love France but I really love the French language tremendously, and  as any speaker of French knows, the French have produced an extraordinary literature on the beauties of the French language, so I wouldn't presume to have original insights into the beauties of French, but I do think that French is extraordinary in that it is simultaneously a language for philosophical thought and reflection and a language that is capable of a significant degree of poetic license despite being rather formalized. That is an unusual combination, because many languages are good at one thing or the other.  English is very good for plain talk, especially plain talk in any space in philosophy or in law or even in poetic diction, but English is not that good at the high-flown forms. French is good at two very, very different things and that's a remarkable aspect I think of French. I think German is also good at both of those things but in different ways and there is a way in which when one does philosophy in French it seems to press in certain directions of thought and when one writes poetry in French or reads poetry in French it also seems to push in identifiable directions and those seem very, very different from their German equivalents, so I think they're very differentiated in that way.


[1] The language of the Mishna (a collection of Jewish traditions), written about AD 200. This form of Hebrew was never used among the people as a spoken language.


  • (2003).  After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 
  • (2004). What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
  • (2005).  Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem – and What We Should Do About It. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 
  • (2008).  The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
  • (2010).  Scorpions: The Battles and Triumps of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices New York: Twelve Books. 
  • (2013). Cool War: The Future of Global Competition. New York: Random House. 
  • (2017). The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.  Random House, New York. 
  • (2020). The Arab Winter: A Tragedy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
  • Feldman, Noah R.; Sullivan, Kathleen M. (2019). Constitutional Law (Twentieth ed.). St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press.  – various editions/supplements have been published
  • Feldman, Noah R.; Sullivan, Kathleen M. (2019). First Amendment Law (Seventh ed.). St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press. 

Interview with French-American linguist and author, Dianne Murez

    e x c l u s i ve   i n t e r v i e w 

The following interview was conducted in French and translated by Diane Murez into English.
Link to French version:

Diane Murez (cropped) (2)



Raia Del Vecchio (cropped)

Diane Murez, a trilingual writer born in Baltimore, studied for a year at the Gymnasium Goetheschule in Hannover on an American Field Service scholarship.  After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University, she moved to Paris, where she contributed features to French and American magazines, shot experimental films, and became a French citizen.  Her non-fiction children’s book, A Day on the Boat with Captain Betty, was published by Macmillan. 

Diane - book cover

Her composite novel, To Each Her Own, from which “Home” was excerpted in Da Costa a Costa, an Italian anthology of contemporary fiction, will appear as a dual language publication with original drawings by Françoise Petrovitch. Currently she’s working on a Parisian trilogy, of which the first volume is called Rites of Paris, and the second, A Dancer’s Diary.  She lives near Paris with her photographer husband, where she founded Mon Montrouge, a local political association, and Amitié et Culture, a group for attending cultural events.



Raia Del Vecchio, was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Switzerland. After graduating from the Geneva School of Translation, she studied Comparative Literature and Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Freie Universität, Berlin.

She has translated into French Hebrew authors such as Eshkol Nevo, Etgar Keret, Sayed Kashua or Gilad Seliktar and the films of Yaelle Kayam (Mountain, 2015), Avishai Sivan (Tikkoun, 2015) and numerous screenplays. She also translated from German Arnold Schönberg’s children's book Die Prinzessin and press articles from Italian.

Her first novel, Hôtel Receptor (Phébus, 2017), won the Prix des lycéens d'Île de France.

Raia - Hotel Receptor book cover


Raia (thumbnail)
After you completed your university studies, you decided to settle in Paris though you previously had no particular ties to France.  Could you explain this choice?


Diane (thumbnail)

In fact it was by chance.  I was unhappy in my love life and wanted to go "far away."  At that time I was offered a teaching job at the American School of Paris.  And, as luck would have it, I met a group of young intellectuals there who invited me to write for their new magazine, The Paris Metro, the first magazine devoted to the city of Paris.  Their dynamic team was bursting with ideas, and I had the good fortune to take part in a project presenting an Anglo-Saxon vision of our adopted city.

Raia (thumbnail)When did you start to write and in what context?  ?

Diane (thumbnail)

Long before I started to write I loved to "tell stories."  I think I inherited that propensity from my paternal grandmother, who told me lots of stories that weren’t meant for the ears of children:  a neighbor threatened by the Mafia, an illiterate immigrant woman who confused a laxative with a chocolate bar.  Following my grandmother's example, I told stories to all the kids in my neighborhood.  In first grade the teacher wrote on my report card that I would surely become a writer.  Actually, I wrote poems, sketches, and stories, but it took me a long time to come to terms with my desire to write literature.  First I worked in teaching and journalism, then wrote books for children.


Raia (thumbnail)For your collection of stories To Each Her Own, written mainly in Paris, could you describe the experience of creating a literary text in one language (in this case English) when you were living in an environment in which another one (French) was spoken?  Does it create a kind of schizophrenia, familiar to many exiles, or is it a way to recreate a "chez soi" or "home away from home"?

Diane (thumbnail)

Probably both, though I never thought of my writing that way.  When I was young I felt more at home in the world of books than among my contemporaries, and when I began to write I recreated that refuge in my imagination.  When my characters started to involve me in their adventures, it was a great pleasure.  For me, the schizophrenia to which you refer was less a matter of being divided between two countries, or two languages, than a split between interior and exterior worlds.  Sometimes I felt guilty that I was so content in my own world, but luckily that isn’t a foible that hurts other people….  It so happens that the characters in To Each Her Own live in the U.S. and speak English, but that isn’t always the case in my other texts.

Raia (thumbnail)For this project you opted for a dual language edition using translators who are native French speakers.  Did you first consider translating the text yourself?  I’m thinking of writers like Nabokov, Beckett, etc., capable of writing in several languages, for whom such an experience proved to be a new creative process.


Diane (thumbnail)That’s a multi-layered question which raises interesting issues.  Before responding, I have to say that I have an unforgettable memory of the afternoon that I had tea with Samuel Beckett at la Closerie des Lilas

Beckett Closerie-des-Lilas-Montparnasse

As he drank his Irish coffee, he spoke with an amazing eloquence and talent for storytelling, not pausing as he ranged from his latest lexical discovery to dinners with James Joyce.  Never had I heard anyone speak the English language so beautifully, without the least hesitation or repetition of vocabulary.  Beckett was a language genius, who spent hours doing research in dictionaries, and his brilliant mastery of language shows in his writing, for which I have a boundless admiration.

I think that Beckett, Nabokov, Conrad, and certain other geniuses possess a rare talent for writing in two (or more) languages.  To be honest, that’s not my case.  I never thought that my proficiency in written French was sufficient for translating into that language.  However, in working with my translators  (Pascale-Marie Deschamps, Jean-Paul Deshayes and Catherine Wallisky), I felt obliged to express choices about the translation, since I really do understand the language.  That wasn’t true, for instance, for the Italian version of my short story Home.  I was very surprised when an Italian reader remarked that the story must take place in Florence, since the main character used the Florentine word "babbo" for "Dad".

Pascale-Marie Deschamps
J-P cropped
Jean-Paul Deshayes

Catherine Wallisky


Raia (thumbnail)And what part did you play in the revision of the French translation?  Was it complicated for you and the translators to each find your role?  Sometimes it’s said rather ironically that if an author is happy with a translation, that it's a bad sign.  By the way, that’s not the case for this book, where the translation is remarkable.


Diane (thumbnail)

Each one of the three talented translators could only handle part of the text — for various personal reasons.  So the final translation is a result of their different approaches.  It was necessary to revise the entire text to harmonize their different writing styles, and especially to make sure that the various levels of language corresponded — the use of vous and tu forms, etc.  This collaborative work on the translation was extremely enriching for me, and I learned to appreciate that the French text, even though it closely resembled the English, possessed its own unique character.

Also, I was fortunate to work with an excellent proofreader, Cybèle Castoriadis, who knew how to weigh the significance of punctuation in both languages, and how to find solutions so that it would not only be correct, but also meaningful.

Finally, my work with the translators did require rewriting at times, especially when an equivalent for the English text didn’t exist in French — as with plays on words, for example.  Luckily, all of my translators are passionate about their work, and they were inventive in finding the word or phrase that came closest to what I wanted to express.


Raia (thumbnail)Who are the European or American authors who influenced you the most?  Nowadays do you read in French or in English?  And do you think that the French language or something French resonates in your writing?


Diane (thumbnail)

When I was little, I mainly read the books in my school library.  I loved biographies and exhausted their supply.  Then I started to read the youth literature of the period, often detective stories.  One day my father announced that this stuffing of my brain with “junk books” was a waste of time.  He bought the Great Books collection and made me promise that for every three entertaining books I’d also read a classic.  It was thanks to this deal, which he forgot almost immediately, but which I kept for years, that I discovered Henry James.


Henry James initiated me into literature.  His books didn’t correspond to my age or to my milieu, but they revealed a whole unsuspected world.  He talked about things whose existence was never mentioned by the people around me.  And perhaps the romantic lives of his American expatriate characters awakened a desire in me to discover Europe.

Later I was influenced by Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf, and I wrote about their use of Greek mythology in constructing their characters.  I think that Woolf expanded the range of English much like Proust did for French, and both of them stretched the limits of the novel in their explorations of time. 

Thomas_Mann VirginiaWool

In German I like Ingeborg Bachmann and Walter von der Vogelweide, so distant in time, but both so modern.

Sometimes I prefer to read in a foreign language when I’m working on an English text in order to avoid any interference of style.  But I always return to Shakespeare when I’m going through a dry period in my writing.  I plunge into the language of the Bard and emerge energized.

As for the influence of other languages, I think that’s a rather mysterious subject.  There are times when certain words come to mind only in a particular language.  If a French or German word makes itself felt with insistence, I try to examine its significance for me in order to find an English equivalent.

More than the sounds of other languages, their rhythms influence my writing.  Kafka is often given as an example of a writer who uses "simple" sentences.  On the contrary, I find that his astonishing way of utilizing short sentences in a breathless rhythm creates an underlying anxiety.  That remarkable sense of rhythm is something I take a lot of care with in my own writing.  Often I read certain passages aloud in order to listen to their rhythm.


Raia (thumbnail)Could you tell me how your collaboration with Françoise Pétrovitch, whose illustrations for this edition of Suite Américaine are magnificent, came about?  Unless I’m mistaken, she was unable to read the original text, due to her limited mastery of English.  Did she discover, thanks to the translation, another aspect of your personality, and you another aspect of hers?

Diane (thumbnail)Françoise Pétrovitch a tout de suite accueilli avec enthousiasme l’idée de collaborer à ce projet.  Avec la graphiste Elsa Cassagne, nous avons beaucoup parlé de la meilleure forme à donner à cette collaboration.  Françoise a insisté sur le fait que des simples illustrations ne l’intéressaient pas ; elle voulait dessiner ce que les textes lui inspiraient.  Effectivement, elle a lu les textes en français et a choisi de dessiner un seul objet par histoire— comme invitation à la lecture et comme évocation de son contenu.  D’abord, nous avons pensé aux dessins en noir et blanc, mais à la fin nous avons préféré la couleur pour évoquer le changement de saisons.  Ce qui m’a épatée, c’est que les images que lui ont inspiré mes textes sont telles que j’aurais pu les rêver.  C’est passionnant de travailler avec une artiste d’une telle sensibilité et je suis ravie de cette rencontre de nos deux mondes imaginaires.

Raia (thumbnail)Now for a question about your text.  The first story, After the Beep, portrays a bourgeois woman, without any financial difficulties, "SDF" (sans difficulté financière ) as we say ironically in French*.  Life seems to be unrelentingly cruel towards this poor widow, Janet, an embodiment of many bourgeois clichés.  In a time of feminism, is this a way to denounce the insubstantial role of women who didn’t need to work and let themselves be supported, whether out of generosity, abnegation or laziness?  And where does this fascination with cruelty come from?

Diane (thumbnail)

The assessment of cruelty in my work surprises me, but I’ve heard it several times from French readers — though not the English-speaking readers.  There was even a reader who made a comparison to Les Contes Cruels of Villiers de l’Isle Adam.  Is this due to the difficult subjects I treat?  Or was I influenced by Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which the mother of the German family with whom I lived gave me to learn the language?  I really don’t know.


As for feminism, that’s a question that touches me deeply.  For me feminism entails an obligation to give a voice to women — all women — in all of their diversity, and not just in positive roles or as objects of a masculine point of view.  I was struck by a letter of Charlotte Brontë's, in which she wrote about her desire to create a heroine who wasn’t beautiful — before she wrote Jane Eyre.  So I think it’s just as interesting to write about a widow at loose ends, whose life raises true questions about our society.

Raia (thumbnail)You studied comparative literature at Princeton and have lived in Paris for a long time.  In what way is American culture foreign to you today and in what way is French culture foreign, or has it become familiar?  Do you have the impression that by being in that particular position you can be a go-between, able to explain one culture to the other — beyond the usual clichés?

Diane (thumbnail)One day a French friend said to me, "You're not American, you’re…Parisian!"  She was talking about the cosmopolitan blend of people one finds in Paris, where a mix of cultures is prevalent, and it’s common to speak more than one language.  On the other hand, it’s complicated to understand French society and culture at a profound level, and I believe that one never loses certain attitudes inculcated during childhood in one’s culture of origin.  Although my culinary habits have been French for years, I still have a tendency to be too precisely on time according to my French friends.  I have dual nationality, and I enjoy the singular status that allows me to take advantage of both cultures and to extract what I prefer from each.  I believe that I’m capable of playing a role of «go-between", as you put it, and my current literary project is a Parisian trilogy about cultural difference.

* SDF is well-known in France as an abbreviation for sans domicile fixe, meaning homeless. 


Interview with American wordsmith, author, translator and publisher Mark Polizzotti

Mark Polizzotti cropped 1

The interviewee


The interviewer

Mark Polizzotti has translated more than fifty books from the French, including works by Gustave Flaubert, Patrick Modiano, Marguerite Duras, and Arthur Rimbaud. He is the author of eleven books, including Revolution of the Mind:
The Life of André Breton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995), which was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction; monographs on Luis Buñuel and Bob Dylan, and Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto

(MIT Press, 2018). A Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the recipient of a 2016 American Academy of Arts & Letters Award for Literature, he directs the publications program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  

Metroploitan Museum of Art

Born in Iowa, Ella Bartlett is a writer and poet who is delighted to discover more about translation. After graduating from Barnard College of Columbia University, she is currently a graduate student at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. She is currently writing her thesis on intersectional feminism in the works of two nineteenth-century women writers, George Sand and George Eliot. Her works can be found in JetFuel Review, decamP magazine, and forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins.




Ella cropped thumbnailYou are a writer and a translator of more than 50 books and are currently the Publisher and Editor in Chief of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Can you speak a little about how your writing projects, translations and otherwise, fit together with your work at the MET?


Mark thumbnailWhether writing, translating, or publishing (or editing), it’s all about books, it all draws from the same source and serves similar ends. As a self-admitted book nerd, I believe these activities are all interrelated and cross-pollenate. To take an example, when I was writing the biography of André Breton, the original manuscript was something like 1200 pages long. My editor sent it back with one piece of advice: cut it in half. And largely because I’d been lucky enough to have experience as an editor of other people’s work, and therefore had been trained to look at any text, even my own, not only as a writer but also as a reader, I was able to do it without too much stress—and the final manuscript was much the better for it. Ultimately, in all three domains, it’s about the optimal use of language, how to say what needs to be said in the best (or most appropriate, or most economical) way.

Ella cropped thumbnailWhen you were seventeen and studying at a university in Nanterre, you met the French author Maurice Roche, whose books you then went on to translate. I have to admit that’s a little bit of a fantasy for those who want to go into translation! Can you speak a little bit about how this small event turned into a career? What did you do following this encounter that paved your way into translation?

Mark thumbnailI had actually dabbled in translation before that encounter with Maurice Roche. In high school French classes, for instance, instead of just reading the chapter assigned for homework, I found myself translating it, trying to get a deeper sense of exactly what was going on in the text. Later, in college, after I had met Maurice and “translated” (in big quotes) his novel CodeX, I took a translation seminar in which everyone worked from different source languages. So by necessity, the emphasis was on the end product, the English translation, as its own entity rather than as a successful or unsuccessful mirror of the original. The questions we asked were, Does this work as a text on its own terms? Does it make sense to a reader coming to it cold, with no reference to (and probably no understanding of) the original? How did the author of the English text (i.e., the translator) achieve that particular effect? And so on.

Meeting Maurice Roche was a wonderful catalyst, because even though I took on CodeX without having any idea what I was doing, it tossed me into the deep end of the pool and got me grappling with issues that, to a large extent, I’m still grappling with today. CodeX was a mid-seventies experimental fiction, and highly demanding, but the challenges it posed, deep down, are no different from those posed by a Patrick Modiano novel: how can you make this text work in another cultural context and linguistic system while keeping it true to itself? After that, I took on another novel of Maurice’s, Compact, which I found could be adapted more successfully and which eventually was published, and in the meantime I was asked by a friend who ran a small publishing house to translate the essays of René Daumal (eventually published by City Lights), and by one of my ex-professors at Columbia to translate several books of philosophy for the Semiotext(e) imprint, which he ran at the time. And little by little, the more books I translated, the more people started seeking me out.

Which is not to say I haven’t pursued projects with publishers. Aside from Compact, which took years to place, I intentionally went after the novels of Jean Echenoz. Jean’s novel Cherokee was submitted to Random House; I read it as a favor to the acquiring editor and fell in love with it. After the then-editor in chief of Random House passed on it (by literally tossing the book over our heads and into the hallway), I learned that the small Boston house of David Godine had taken it on; so I wrote to David, saying that I had almost no translation experience but I loved the book and would like to translate it if he’d give me a chance. And he did!

The other thing I should mention is that, because I don’t live off my translation work, I have the luxury of taking on only those projects that appeal to me - or, more accurately, projects that I connect with, to which I feel I can do justice. If I don’t feel I can give a text my best effort or that I can put myself in the skin of the writing, then my impulse is to turn it down. It wouldn’t be fair to the book, the author, or the reader for me to translate it under those conditions. That said, there are times when you take on a project you don’t feel as viscerally connected to, for any number of extenuating reasons, and of course you do the very best job you can, but it’s not ideal.


Ella cropped thumbnailSome of the books you’ve translated -- I’m Gone by Jean Echenoz, for example, or the novellas Afterimage and Flowers of Ruin by Patrick Modiano (in the volume Suspended Sentences), feature a young or middle-aged man who disappears, leads a life that is secret to some, or leaves a wake of absence. I’ve heard that writers have a handful of themes that they write about constantly—take Proust, for example, whose themes might include obsession, love and memory. Like a writer, do you think that a translator can have their “themes”? And if so, what are yours?

Mark thumbnailI think you’re right that these writers have that little cluster of obsessions they keep coming back to. For Modiano, it’s the past, the unreliability of memory, the long trail of the Occupation on the French psyche. I greatly enjoy translating his works, I strongly feel that connection I just spoke of, but these are not necessarily my obsessions. The same for Echenoz, who I’ve loved translating, and who often uses the conventions of thrillers and detective novels, some of them quite violent - even though I myself have never chased after anyone with gun in hand.

Those are surface differences. For translators, as for writers, the real ‘theme’ is language, and how that language is manipulated. For me, what appeals is a dry, phlegmatic tone, and also economy of expression, in which not a word is wasted – which is why I enjoy translating writers like Modiano or Echenoz or Marguerite Duras. Paradoxically, I find that kind of understatement and economy leaves open a space for greater emotional impact than with a writer who lets it all hang out, perhaps in the same way that shadow is made possible by light.


Ella cropped thumbnailThis reminds me of Patrick Modiano, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, whose dry tone has clearly something boiling underneath it. This comes across very clearly in your translation of his Suspended Sentences. In this book, his descriptions of Paris are dreamlike, ghostly, yet specific. How did you become intimate with Modiano’s Paris, and what kinds of research did you do to recreate his vision in English?

Mark thumbnailI’m so pleased you recognized that! That ‘something boiling underneath’ is exactly the quality I was trying to convey in the translation. His writing has a calm surface, but there are monsters under there. As well as a very wistful sense of nostalgia for a Paris that no longer exists, and maybe never did.

Many think of Modiano as a writer of the French Occupation. But while that historical moment clearly haunts him (he was born in 1945, so just after the war ended), the real turning point in his life is the early to mid 1960s, when he found personal liberation. He had a very difficult childhood, as he has recounted— among other things, his brother, with whom he was very close, died at a young age, and his parents were disasters—and the period when he turned twenty, freed himself from dependency on them, began writing, and began living his own life, is the setting of many of his books. The other thing that occurs frequently in his writing is a, for lack of a better word, discomfort with what Paris has become. I don’t know whether his nostalgia is for the way the city used to be per se, or for that sensation of endless possibility that he apparently felt in his youth, for which mid-sixties Paris, with its specific cars and cafes and metro stops and bookstores and restaurants and neighborhoods, provided the backdrop.

Modiano’s Paris is from the mid-sixties and I first lived there in the early ‘70s, so not that much had changed. I remember some of those neighborhoods, those places that he mentions and that are now gone. The things is, though, it’s not the way Paris really was that matters. I learned this when I went to visit some of the sites he mentions, intrigued by the foggy, magical atmosphere that emanates from his descriptions. What I found was not the wonderland I had envisioned, but rather that Modiano had filtered these places through his consciousness – of course he did, he’s a writer. Though these places existed in the physical world, in a very real sense they existed only in his mind. He gives many geographical particulars in his writing, as a way of anchoring the story he’s telling in physical and historical reality, but the end result is only to make them more elusive. His books are about indirection and vagueness. He gives you clues and then leaves you to create your own narrative—and as such, to become much more emotionally and personally invested.


Ella cropped thumbnailI want to speak a little about your book Sympathy for the Traitor. You add an incredible and realistic perspective to translation theory, notably your rejection of the notion of “fidelity.” This age-old debate of Schleiermacher, Venuti, and others— is based around foreignizing or domesticizing the original text by how exactly the translator replicates it. Why do you think this notion of fidelity has become the dominant discourse in the field?

Mark thumbnailWell, as you know, debate between so-called fidelity and felicity, or literal versus liberal, stretches back to the very beginnings of translation. Horace and Cicero were making pronouncements about it at the turn of the first millennium. Throughout history, commentators and practitioners of translation have taken sides, depending in part on whether they think of translation as an art or a science. I think if that debate has taken on the character it has today – I would say ‘the acrimonious character’, but it’s always been acrimonious; people get really worked up over this stuff – it’s in part because translation theory has emerged as a significant academic discipline, one with (it seems to me) deeper roots in linguistics than in literary studies. And by nature, an academic discipline, to preserve its credibility, tends to systematize and look for applicable rules – some translation schemas look like mathematical formulas - which runs counter to a view of translation that’s more instinctive, less codified, and by nature less easy to encapsulate. Although certain aspects of translation do lend themselves to codification, once you get too rigid about it, or become too swayed by a particular theory, I believe it leads you down a false path. To create a good piece of writing, you have to call upon many different strands, many approaches, sometimes mixing several at once. And that also means knowing when to let something go, sacrificing it for the greater good, as it were. If you become too attuned to the original, too attached to its every nuance, the harder it becomes to translate, because the reality is you can never catch everything. But you can catch what’s essential.

With Sympathy for the Traitor, I was not interested in advancing a theory – there are enough of them as it is. I approach translation as a form of reading, a very active and creative form of reading suspended between two linguistic and cultural systems. By nature, that reading will be personal – the translations I produce are a result of my reading. Someone else would do it differently. But for me, the measure of success is whether, in reading over the English translation, I can hear in my head and feel in my heart the same resonances that I hear and feel from the French. That to me is the kind of fidelity that matters—but to arrive at that overall fidelity, you often have to commit many small infidelities.


Ella cropped thumbnailIn continuing with this idea of fidelity, I’m curious if an English reader who is familiar with French might feel as if the translation is hiding something if a cultural detail is “anglicized” to a certain extent. For example, if a French character takes an aspirin, when another brand of painkiller is a lot more common in France, that might be bizarre for certain English Francophile readers. How familiar do you expect your readers to be with the source language and culture?  

Mark thumbnailI don’t expect the readers to be familiar at all, or at least I can’t count on it. There is no simple answer to your question, though, as many of these choices are case-by-case. Almost every translator will come across this kind of problem, and much of the time the solution depends on what the text specifically needs at that point: Is it enough to know the character took a painkiller? Do we need to know it’s ibuprofen and not paracetamol (and does it matter if I call it ‘acetaminophen’ instead)? If I specify that it’s Percocet, is that relevant information (for instance, do I want to suggest the recent controversy over painkiller addiction, in which that brand was often named), or is it only to give a patina of precision to the text, in which case any name might do? In cases where the reference is a throwaway, it might be less cumbersome to just let it go. If an unfamiliar reference conveys important information, I might need to sneak in a ‘stealth gloss’, a word or two unobtrusively added, to clue the reader in.


Ella cropped thumbnailI want to mention your biography on André Breton, yours being his first comprehensive biography in English to date. What drew you to him as a surrealist, and how did this project come about?

Mark thumbnailI came upon Surrealism by accident when I was a teenager and used to practice automatic writing, without knowing what it was until a friend pointed me toward some Surrealist art books. I became fascinated by not only the visuals, but also the atmosphere. Later, in my first year living in France, I began reading books by Breton and other Surrealists, and in college I took a class where the professor made that whole crazy movement come to life. Over the following decade, as I read more and more of Breton’s works, I realized that, although a lot of his writing is self-referential, he didn’t really tell you a lot about his life, and I was curious.

My first instinct, since I was working as a fledgling editor at Random House by that time, was to commission someone else to write the book; but Random House wasn’t interested in the biography of someone who, they said, no one had ever heard of. Not long afterward, after I’d left Random House and was interviewing for a new job, an editor suggested that I should try writing it myself, which hadn’t really occurred to me. I happened to have a friend who was just starting out as a literary agent, so I put together a proposal and she ended up selling it to Farrar, Straus.

The biggest obstacle at first was getting access to Breton’s unpublished papers, which had been put under embargo for fifty years after his death in 1966 (when I started the project, it was only twenty years after the fact). I met with Jean Schuster, Breton’s literary executor, who gave me the gift of his trust, asking only that I take an honest and open-minded approach, and who opened a number of doors for me. He also took me to meet Breton’s widow, Elisa, whose signature I needed in order to see these unpublished papers, by special waiver. At their request, I translated my proposal into French and sent it to them, and then waited and waited for an answer, in the meantime doing what research I could. Finally, the answer came back: a formal No. I wrote back and asked if I come see them the next time I was in Paris. Fine. So around a large table, at the famous apartment at 42 rue Fontaine, with much of Breton’s collection still on the walls (this was before everything was auctioned off after Elisa’s death), I sat with Elisa Breton, Jean Schuster, and several others and asked them what, specifically, they had objected to – thinking it was some drastic flaw in my approach, or the very fact of writing a biography. Instead, they pointed to a paragraph in which – for the benefit of the American publishers to whom we’d pitched the project – I listed a number of famous figures with whom Breton had interacted; and buried in the middle of that paragraph was the name Jean Cocteau. ‘You say here that Cocteau was a friend of Breton’s,’ they told me. ‘Breton hated Cocteau. You obviously don’t understand anything about him, so we cannot grant you access.’ ‘I know Breton hated Cocteau,’ I replied. ‘All it says here is that they knew each other.’ ‘Oh… well, in that case…’ – and in two minutes I had the authorization I’d been waiting nearly two years to receive!


Ella cropped thumbnailTo finish, I am going to quote you in Sympathy for the Traitor. You write, “What concerns me is the emergence of a world in which translation really is no longer necessary…because the world’s languages no longer express the psychological and cultural differences that make them distinct…” (page 149). Do you think we will ever get to a point where translation is not necessary?

Mark thumbnailThis was one of the tougher themes to think through in writing the book, and my discussion of it was meant mainly to open the question, rather than to provide answers that, frankly, I don’t have. In broad strokes, the paradox is this: On the one hand, translation can create a context for greater understanding, or let’s say, greater availability of other points of view, other ways of living. On the other, this increased availability leads to greater familiarity, which can lead to homogenization as other people’s ways of living, to which we now have almost unlimited access, become absorbed and assimilated into our own. It’s true that a cultural viewpoint is not the same as the cultural artifacts that form the backdrop of modern life seemingly everywhere – the Gaps and Starbuckses and Uniqlos, the “ethnic” foods, pasteurized music, anonymous high-rises, and other more obvious trappings of globalization. But we are formed in part by our surroundings, and when those surroundings begin to look increasingly uniform, you have to wonder if specific cultural viewpoints will begin to follow suit.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating isolationism or parochialism, not at all. I just think it’s a regrettable tendency when places lose their distinct character and start looking like everywhere else. We’re not there yet, of course – Paris is still not the same as London or New York or Seoul. But the Paris of cafes, which for centuries was such a central part of its cultural life, is fading; the Parisian bookstore, to me one of its crowning glories, is under threat—as was driven home the other day when I read about the closing of Le Pont Traversé, one of the truly wonderful bookstores of Paris. It’s a loss, a progressive erasure. But again, it’s difficult, because the logical antidote would be to freeze a city or a culture in time, which of course is absurd. Things, places have to evolve. I would just hate to see Paris, or anywhere, become one more undistinguishable metropolis, another exemplar of International Bland. Part of this is that the US has a great cultural pull, largely by virtue of its economic and linguistic dominance, and we tend to try to remake things in our image, for better or, mostly, worse. And translation plays a part in that.


Ella cropped thumbnailWhat are the consequences of translating into English, which is a language that is has a large, sometimes dominating, as you say, influence in modern life around the world?

Mark thumbnailThere’s no question that English, specifically American English, holds a disproportionately influential position in the world today and that this influence can often be abusive and hegemonic. I’m in no way an apologist for the American/Anglophone will to dominance and exploitation. But I do believe there is a difference between American politics (military, economic, or cultural) and the American language per se, and we can demonize that language to a point where we become paralyzed and exchange becomes impossible. You mentioned foreignization. The thing about foreignization – subverting the norms of so-called ‘correct’ English by importing syntactical or grammatical conventions from the source language – is that, ultimately, it becomes counterproductive. You end up with is something that sounds not innovative or culturally responsible but merely incompetent – something that does not credibly represent what the author was trying to do in the original (unless that author set out to violate the rules of his or her own language, which is a different story). To my mind, this does a disservice not only to the target reader, but also to the source author whose book you’ve just mangled.

As a translator, I feel my responsibility is to represent the works I translate, not apologetically, or by artificially denaturing the English into which I render them, but by using the resources of the English language to the best of my ability to convey these works with respect and conviction. To me, ‘fidelity in translation’ means representing a viewpoint and a discourse so that their foreignness and uniqueness remain intact even as they reach across cultures, geographies, and times to touch a different readership – and, in my ideal world, so that they leave the reader seeing things differently from when she began.

Additional reading:

Mark Polizzotti. Why Mistranslation Matters
Would history have been different if Krushchev had used a better interpreter? N.Y.T. 28/06/2018

Interview with British-Canadian wordsmith (and professor of translation studies) Brian Harris


E X C L U S I V E   I N T E R V I E W 
(Part 1)

The interview below was conducted between Calgary, Canada  and Valencia, Spain


Susan Vo cropped
Susan Vo - interviewer
French-English interpreter


Brian Harris
Brian Harris - interviewee
Arabic-English interpreter

Calgary   Valencia
Calgary, Canada     Valence, Spain


Our interviewer, Susan VO is a French Interpreter with 14 years experience as a staff member and freelancer with the United Nations, the Canadian Federal Government and in the private sector. She is an alumna of the the School of Translation and Interpretation at the University of Ottawa, which Brian Harris helped developed. She was Linguist of the Month on this blog: her interview can be found here and here.

Our guest interviewee, Brian HARRIS, recently celebrated his 90th birthday. His long, interesting and prodigious career in the theory and practice of translating and interpreting, as well as his strong interest in history,  is reflected in this interview. Special mention should be made of the fact that he coined the term 'translatology' for the scientific study of translation.  (In the 1970s, a French professor of translation, René Ladmiral,  introduced traductologie in French. Traductologie caught on and was soon borrowed into other Romance languages as traductología, etc.; translatology never caught on and was eclipsed by ‘translation studies’.) Natural translation is Harris' most important contribution to translation studies. In the early 1970s he began to notice that while he was supposedly teaching university students to translate, many people were doing translation successfully without such training; indeed that the untrained translators were doing more translating than the trained ones and often to just as high a standard. Many of the interpreters Harris worked with, including some from the Parliament of Canada had never had formal training. This led Harris to the conclusion that all bilinguals can translate within certain limits. In 1978, he and an assistant, Bianca Sherwood, published  "Translation as an Innate Skill", which has been described as the seminal article on natural translation.

Brian lives in Valencia, Spain with his wife and cats. His  blog is accessible at UNPROFESSIONAL TRANSLATION


Your early childhood and formative educational background are intriguing. You were brought up in London, you have a degree Classical Arabic and in Middle East History at SOAS and also studied at the American University in Cairo and did postgraduate work on Lebanese history in Paris. You then worked in Spain before emigrating to Canada.

Can you please talk about this fascinating trajectory, the origins of your connection to the Arab language and culture, how you acquired your other working languages, and what brought you to Canada?

I was supremely lucky to be born in England and so I learnt English as my first language for speaking and thinking. It saved me a lot of effort compared with what was needed by many of the people I worked with. But the London into which I arrived, though it's changed very much since then, was already a cosmopolitan city where one heard many languages. My first memory of a foreign language goes back to when I was about three and we were living in an apartment above a French family. When we passed their children in the morning the kids would sing out to us "Bonjour", and as my mother instructed me to reply "Good morning" I realised that that was what "Bonjour" meant to them.

My father was a big influence. He knew several languages. He conversed with my grandmother in Yiddish, won a prize for German at school, had visited Barcelona and picked up a smattering of Spanish, and -- most important as it turned out -- served with the British Harris - The Silent Wayforces in Egypt during the First World War. He had made friends there and learnt a little colloquial Arabic. He devised a little game for us children in which we spoke into a toy microphone imitating the sounds and intonation of European speakers we heard on the radio. Years later I read in Caleb Gattegno's book "The Silent Way" that one should begin to learn a language by its melody. That's true but it's rarely done in language courses.

I began serious study of languages when I went to secondary school at age 11. It was a modern school but it had a traditional grammar school curriculum. I was placed in the languages stream. There I learnt the elements of French, German and Latin and from good teachers. (In those days you needed Latin to get into Oxford or Cambridge.) Also English literature. Our language lessons and manuals included regular translation exercises, so they were my introduction to translation norms. It was there that I was taught "translate the ideas, not the words." We had little opportunity to speak the languages, since it was the war years. On the other hand, we spent a lot of time reading from the literatures, something I feel is missing from present-day language teaching. It was ironic that while the Germans were raining bombs and missiles down on us in London and we were holding classes in air raid shelters, we kids were studying a thousand years of German literature. Literature is something you can share with native speakers and it gives you an idea of the culture of a language. Even Latin; I still recall my favourite Latin text, Cicero's "Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino", a good Roman courtroom drama.


When the time came for me to go to university, I chose Arabic. There were two reasons. One was practical: the employment prospects. My school fellows who were good at languages were all going into European languages, but I saw there was a demand for Arabic from the diplomatic service and the oil companies and hardly anybody was responding to it. In those days the British Foreign Office even ran its own school of Arabic in the Lebanon. And again there was encouragement by my father. Indeed it was one of his contacts in Egypt who got me an invitation to go and study at the American University in Cairo. At that point my grandmother died and left me a small legacy that was just enough to finance the journey. So I hitchhiked across France and took a deck passage on an Italian ship from Marseille to Alexandria. I had a fabulous time in Egypt. It was in the dying days of King Farouk's regime, between Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet" and General Naguib's army revolution, when Cairo was still a melting pot of peoples and languages. Besides Egyptian Arabic, I came into daily contact with Greek, Italian, French, Armenian and even Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). To accompany the weekly showing of American films at the university, there was an auxiliary screen alongside the main screen to accommodate all the subtitles.


Harris BOA LogoAfter I completed my degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London I could have gone on to graduate studies in the Arabic Department, but there was a snag. In those days it only taught Classical Arabic, i.e. medieval Arabic, and I, with an eye to employment and after my Cairo adventure, wanted Modern Arabic.

Then I heard  about a lecturer in the Middle East History department who used Modern Arabic for his research. He was
Harris Bernard LewisBernard Lewis, later a professor at Princeton. He took me on as his student and I started a PhD on Lebanese history under him but first I had to do a qualifying second undergraduate degree in history. He did me an inestimable favour: he believed historians should work from primary documents so he got me a grant to go and do research in the archives of the Quai d'Orsay, the French foreign ministry in Paris. Another fabulous experience among the handwritten nineteenth-century consular correspondence. Of course it improved my French.


Then I discovered there were Russian sources for my thesis and Lewis had told me I would have to learn Russian when my life took a different turn and another language. I had been at school with a boy from Gibraltar who had been evacuated to London in 1940 when a German invasion of Gibraltar looked imminent. Like all native Gibraltarians, he was bilingual in English and Andalusian Spanish. When he went to university, his Spanish got him a summer job escorting parties of British holidaymakers to Spain for a London travel agency. He knew I had been to Spain (for all of two weeks!) and learnt a little Harris book coverSpanish from my father's dog-eared copy of Hugo's "Teach Yourself Spanish in Three Months without a Master". One day, on a Monday, he phoned me to say that family obligations would make it impossible for him to leave from London with a party of eighty the following Saturday; so could I stand in for him? To quell my doubts he told me that the people at the agency knew even less Spanish than me, and he gave me essential instructions for handling the work. In fact business was so good that the agency kept me on as well as him for that summer and the next one. Meanwhile my Spanish improved by leaps and bounds, and I even picked up a little Catalan, yet I never took a Spanish course. I tell people who ask me for advice about learning a language that the surest way is to get a job that forces you to work in that language. The Spanish job led to my first contacts with interpreting. I did so well that the proprietor of the agency offered me a job as his resident representative in Spain. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. I abandoned my PhD and went to live for a year in Madrid followed by a year in Barcelona.

That was the last language I learnt for a long time. Meanwhile my degree got me teaching assignments in Jordan and Morocco that revived my Arabic.

In 1999, after I had retired from university in Canada, I received another offer I couldn't refuse. It was for a temporary post in a university in Spain. As a result, I went back to Spain and eventually ended up in a village that's a suburb of Valencia. Most of the villagers are bilingual in Spanish and Valencian, which is a variety of Catalan. So I borrowed a school primer from our landlady and taught myself Valencian and read some Valencian literature.

If I moved to another country, which is unlikely now, I wouldn't hesitate to learn its language. We're born with an innate ability to learn many languages, even at an advanced age; but we need time, effort, an environment of native speakers and confidence.


What led you to help form the ambitious and formidable vision of founding the School of Translation and Interpretation at the University of Ottawa? What were the fundamental tenets of developing the school and program?

The University of Ottawa School of Translation was already six years old when, in 1975, I was parachuted into it from the Linguistics Department of the University to reform its MA program. I ended up reforming its BA program too and staying on as director for four years.

It was called “School of Translators and Interpreters” but in reality it only had one interpretation course (although it was taught by the head interpreter from the House of Commons, and several parliamentary interpreters of that generation took it). By 1970 I’d become a conference interpreter myself and I felt I could give substance to the denomination “…and Interpreters” by building an MA program. It was based on the European model of a strict admission exam, teaching consecutive interpreting before simultaneous, instruction by professional interpreters and a final exam before a professional jury. But it had an unusual addition: a compulsory real-life on-the-job period of experience (the ‘practicum’). “Real life” meant working as an active team member at an actual conference. That would have been difficult to impose in Europe because of AIIC opposition, and in the event I did have run-ins with some members of AIIC Canada, but fortunately we got cooperation from some sympathetic professionals. I persisted because of my belief that conference interpretation is a public performance and so young interpreters need to be exposed to the stress of performing before a live audience.

I made mistakes. One of them was to only consider interpreting courses at the graduate level.

Here in Spain it’s common practice in the universities for all undergraduate translation students to get one or two interpretation courses. So now I see value in that, but in those days I shared the common fallacy of equating all interpreting with conference interpreting, whereas in reality there are many other branches of interpreting that offer employment – court interpreting, business interpreting, community interpreting, telephone interpreting, etc. --  and that can be taught to undergraduates. Students should at least have some idea of what they are like and the most gifted students can be selected from among them for conference interpreting.

Another mistake was to teach only English and French interpreting.  That’s understandable in the bilingual Canadian context, but it prevents graduates applying for lucrative posts at the United Nations.

Until the present decade the University of Ottawa’s was the only conference interpreter training program and degree in Canada. Nowadays it continues under an agreement with the Translation Bureau of the Government of Canada, who supply the instructors. I’m proud that the very first graduate from the program, in 1982, nearly forty years ago, a student from Cameroon named Martin Chungong, is now the Secretary General of the Inter-parliamentary Union in Geneva.

Part 2

Susan Vo: How did the theory of Natural Translation play a role in developing the School of Translators and Interpreters at Ottawa University and how was it received by the academic community at the time?

The latter 50 years of my career have been dominated by missionary work for the Natural Translation Hypothesis (NTH), which is of more lasting importance than all the rest. I call it a hypothesis because there’s as yet no definite proof of it, but the indications are strong.

We can divide it into several propositions. The first is that all bilinguals can translate. I wasn’t the first to assert this; my mentor in translation studies, the Bulgarian semiotician Alexander Ludskanov, wrote it a decade before me. What’s more, he explained the difference between natural (i.e. untrained) translators and professional ones. He said that what we teach in translation schools is not to translate but to do so according to the norms and standards of a culture and a society.

The second proposition is that bilinguals’ universal ability to translate is innate. That’s to say, along with our ability to learn languages, we are born with the ability to translate between them. The key paper on this point is “Translation as an Innate Skill”, which I wrote with my student Bianca Sherwood in 1976 and which is available for everyone to read through my page.  The main argument for this assertion is the very young age at which bilingual children start to translate, and to translate quite well; they do it at around three years old and without any instruction from their elders. It’s analogous to the argument that Chomsky uses for innate language competence. We were very lucky, when we started writing the paper, to receive a generous gift of data from an educational psycholinguist in Toronto called Meryl Swain who had been recording a Quebec bilingual boy.

I wasn’t the first either to observe that young children can translate. That distinction belongs to a French linguist named Jules Ronjat who published a study of his own bilingual son in 1913.

But both Ljudskanov’s declaration and Ronjat’s description had gone unnoticed by translation theorists. My contribution was to point out the significance of their work and to continue it.

“Innate Skill” was generally received with scepticism or even outright ridicule by the community of professional translators and translation teachers. On the other hand, it was appreciated by some leading psycholinguists like Wallace Lambert at McGill University in Canada, David Gerver at Stirling University in Scotland, and Kenji Hakuta and his student Marguerite Malakoff at Stanford University in the USA. Also by one influential translation theorist, Gideon Toury , who had a model of his own called Native Translation that fitted in with mine.

Acceptance of the concept has advanced only slowly in the last 40 years, but some aspects of it are now mainstream, or almost. Language brokering studies, which started in the USA in the 90s, opened people’s eyes to the vast amount of translating done by children. The NPIT (non-professional translation) conferences and publications of the last decade have helped brush away the cobweb of misunderstanding in the old saying that “because you are bilingual, it doesn’t mean you can translate” (or interpret, for that matter).All around us, NGOs, manga and computer game publishers, Wikipedia and others depend on crowdsourcing their translations. Of course there’s a tradeoff. Mass production and amateurism can rarely matched skilled craftmanship, but it’s a price to pay to get the translations done.

The third proposition is that there are two pathways –as in other skills—from Natural Translation to Expert or Professional Translation. One is by formal instruction and the other is self-instruction by imitation. The second is the way we learn our first language, and it’s what Toury meant by Native Translation.

Finally I’ve gone back in my blog “Unprofessional Translation”, to an idea that was already held by semioticians like Ludskanov. It’s that what we call translation is the language specialization of a more general conversion of all kinds of signs, and it’s that general ability which we inherit.


Susan Vo: In your own words, with hindsight and observations of current trends, how would you say that Natural Translation and Simultaneous Interpretation are similar? What kind of traits do you believe all simultaneous interpreters inherently possess, (from a cognitive, cultural and even personality standpoint), how do these traits develop, either naturally or with deliberation?

The Natural Translation Hypothesis is a general theory about all translation (spoken, written or signed) and it says nothing that’s specific to simultaneous interpreting or indeed any interpreting. It goes without saying that simultaneous interpreters have to be competent translators, but NTH isn’t concerned with the quality of translations beyond a basic, childlike level; only with whether people can translate.  There are too many other factors in expert translation, such as family, schooling, work experience, travel, etcetera. Nevertheless, leaving aside NTH, there may well be features that are natural in the sense that they are, or they develop from, abilities that we interpreters are born with or that develop in us without being taught to us – which doesn’t mean that they can’t be improved by teaching and practice.

The one most commented on is mental speed. In simple terms, simultaneous interpreters have to be quick thinkers, but it’s not so simple. Simultaneous interpreting is not really completely simultaneous. There’s what linguists call the latency, or ear-voice span, typically two or three seconds. But that’s the most simultaneous interpreters can allow themselves if they don’t want to lose part of what the speaker is saying. Not everyone can keep this up. That’s why I and others have insisted on a shadowing test in admission exams. There have been magnetic resonance imaging studies recently that show there may be a physiological factor in mental speed, to do with the coating on the axons in our brains. But that doesn’t prove it’s inherited.

Another one often mentioned is personality. It’s true conference interpreters are performers, because they have to perform live often before an audience of thousands. So I’m inclined to think there’s a connection. Studies of the relationship go back to the 1950s, but without conclusive evidence or proof that it’s innate. So all we can say is maybe.

And the same applies to concentration, split-mindedness, stamina, even ability to work as a team.

As for “current trends”, the hot topic at the moment is automation. It’s true that interpretation only operates at present at the simple level required by NTH but it will improve. And automation is the opposite of natural.

Susan Vo: Machine translation, which had a pivotal moment in 1988, can be said to be the precursor of capabilities being used commonly today and advancing: google translate, translation apps, use of artificial intelligence in linguistic services. What are your thoughts on the role of MT, the role of the human translator, and where we are heading?

My interest in machine translation goes back a long way. It was in 1966 that I was recruited to a team at the Université de Montréal that was doing research on MT for the Canadian National Research Council. We were part of the second generation of MT researchers; the first was in the 1950s.  I was recruited as a linguist but I quickly understood that you can’t research MT without some understanding of computers. So I took courses in programming and mathematical linguistics and worked for three years as an assistant to a brilliant French computer scientist named Alain Colmerauer who was later the inventor of an AI programming language called PROLOG. We had some limited success by designing the prototype of an MT program called METE0 that has translated many of the Canadian official weather bulletins between English and French since 1974. But the computers and software of that epoch couldn’t have handled today’s AI. Instead we, like our French and Soviet contemporaries, used grammars and dictionaries.

Then in the late 1980s, long after I’d left MT for other interests and when computers had become vastly more powerful, there was a revolution caused by IBM’s introduction of statistical machine translation (SMT). It became the basis of today’s MT. I had played a small part in its beginnings with some work on the alignment of translations with their source texts, but that work was insignificant compared with IBM’s.

And then in 1996 I was given a new understanding of MT and AI by sheer chance. One of my Ottawa students named Bruce McHaffie came to me with a proposal to explore the use of neural networks for MT. (Neural networks are currently the dominant computer tools for what’s popularly called AI.)  I encouraged him and he succeeded in producing a feasibility study for his MA thesis. He was a pioneer; however, he only had primitive neural network software at his disposal and it was more than a decade before networks became mainstream.

As to whether AI produces better results than statistical MT, there is a saying that “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Try it for yourself; after all, it’s widely available on the web and it’s free. My own experience is that at present it’s only marginally better. But it does have one major advantage over SMT, which is that it doesn’t need preliminary close alignment of texts. Therefore, over time, there will be much more of it and that in itself should lead to further improvements because AI systems learn by experience.

In the long term, MT still faces problems that current AI cannot solve. One of them was foreseen by the Israeli researcher Yehoshua Bar-Hillel back in the 1960s. It’s the application of non-linguistic knowledge, or what he called encyclopedic knowledge, because we don’t have adequate computer representations of such knowledge. For example, the correct translation of such a simple sentence as “Cross the river” requires a French translator (or MT system) to know whether the addressee is a close acquaintance (Traverse la rivière) or not (Traversez la rivière) and to be sensitive to the difference in usage between European and Canadian French; and also to know whether it’s an ordinary river (rivière) or a large one flowing into the sea (fleuve). Legal translation requires knowledge of legal systems.

But in 1966 we couldn’t foresee MT like today’s, and so we just have to wait for the next 1980s revolution. Anyway, MT has reached a point of no return and the next step is MI (Machine Interpreting). It’s already on the horizon.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici (premier partie) et ici (seconde partie). Traduction Nadine Gassie.