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





Marjolijn de Jager - literary translator of the month of November 2021

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,


[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. 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, very recently published.

"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.

Interview with American wordsmith and translator Sharlee Bradley

Sharlee BradleyUpon the occasion of the recent retirement at 90 years of age of translator Sharlee Merner Bradley, after a long and fruitful career, we reproduce here an interview, the English original of which was published in Translorial, the journal of the Northern California Translators Association (NCTA). We present this abridged translation with the kind permission of Sharlee and of Translorial.

Question: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Answer: I was born in Toronto,  but I was 10 when my family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in California, the first of a number of crossings of North America by train.

Question: How did you learn foreign languages?

A: My parents encouraged their children to learn French because it was the universal language, which seems old-fashioned today. French was taught beginning in the second year of junior high school in California. Latin was taught starting the first year of high school. So I had five years of French and four years of Latin before university.

During the Second World War, when the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco, my mother told me how great it would be to become an interpreter for the United Nations. But that was never my goal. Rather, I had fun translating any literary or other works I studied at school.

Place des Nations Unis

In college, I took another year of Latin and continued on with French. I studied French each year until I received my doctorate at age 34. During my studies, I had to learn German and another Romance language: I chose Italian. My first paid translation job, offered by my professor, was to translate into Italian (!) an insurance survey. To reward myself, I went out and bought a gold bracelet as soon as I was paid.

I taught French in high school for for a few years, then snagged a Fulbright scholarship to study in France at the Sorbonne. That year plus two-years residing in Lausanne have been my only experience in a francophone country. But, one day in Lausanne, I received a phone call from the United Nations in Geneva, saying they had my name from the New York United Nations office (my thesis director had sent me to the UN in New York, where I passed the French exam). This was during the negotiations by the Kennedy administration on trade for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, GATT, and Geneva needed more translators. The “fascinating” subject I was assigned was the standardization of pallets for storing and shipping merchandise.

Spanish became my dominant spoken foreign language. I never studied it formally, but when we moved to the Canary Islands, I did exercises in a Spanish grammar book by myself. I was arrogant enough to believe that I was an expert in Romance languages because I had taught French for five years at the secondary level and two years at university. Since I was mother of an infant, I spent hours memorizing irregular verbs and repeating conversations I had heard while out of the house.

Canary Islands

How we ended up in the Canary Islands is a long story. In short, my husband, who subsequently died while we were living there, wanted to retire early. Since we weren’t wealthy, we went to the local library to research a place in the world with a mild climate, a language easy to learn and low cost of living. Believe it or not, we found a book entitled You Can Live Cheaply in the Canaries by Peggy True. The book convinced us and we left with our baby daughter, automobile, all our books and furniture without even making a trial visit, to spend the rest of our lives there; at least, that was the plan.

The thirteen years I spent in Spain seemed to have affected the French I had studied for 21 years and even my English; but upon my return to the United States, I began to receive requests to translate from French. Now, many years have passed and I translate equally well from Spanish or French.

Q: What did you do at university?

 A: BerkleyI received a scholarship to Vassar College. I took night classes at the University of California, Berkeley, towards a master’s while teaching at high school during the day; I was also librarian there. I was admitted to several honor societies, including Pi Delta Phi, promoting French language and culture.

I moved to Philadelphia with my husband and received a doctorate in Romance Languages from the University of Dictionary  Pennsylvania. Since my thesis advisor was preparing a dictionary at the time (University of Chicago Spanish-English Dictionary, highly regarded at the time), I wrote my thesis on lexicographical problems in monolingual French dictionaries, analyzing Littré, Larousse and Dauzat in detail.

University policy was that all courses in the first cycle ( graduate courses, not first cycle]) had to be taught in English. When a visiting French professor whose accent rendered the content of a linguistics course incomprehensible, we petitioned the department to allow him to speak French, but we were refused!

Q: Have you traveled abroad?

A: Yes, mostly in Europe. But also in Russia (a cruise from Saint Petersburg to Lake Ladoga, the Svir River and Lake Onega[)]; in China (a five-week trip) and in the South Pacific (two months on Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands). I once cruised the Amazon River and have often visited Mexico to play tennis.

One year, I learned a few words of Turkish when visiting Istanbul, Cappadocia and sailing and hiking along the south coast of Turkey. During another trip, I did a literary tour in south and southeast England and I stayed with a friend near Toulon, in France.

Q: How did you start translating? How long have you been a translator?

A: I received my first job through my Italian professor. Later, when I was professor at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife, I did Seal_of_University_of_La_Laguna many translations for the Department of Physical Chemistry, not because I wanted work, but simply because I was there and I spoke English. The professors knew sufficient English in their field to understand technical articles, but when they attended symposiums and conferences, they couldn’t converse in English. I gave them English conversation classes during our lunch hour. Subsequently, they gave me monographs and articles to translate into English for presentations and for publication in foreign journals.

Q: Are you also an interpreter? For whom do you interpret?

A: Upon returning to the United States, since I spoke Spanish fluently, I offered to become a guide at the Philadelphia tourist information office. After learning the history of the city, I served as a guide for many Spanish tourists; I showed them the most traditional American historic monuments.

One day, the tourist office called me to say they needed an interpreter for Federal court since the regular interpreter was not available. Was I available? Even though I had never interpreted, I bravely responded that I would go and I did a good job, even though I could have done better.

ArizonaLater, after studying interpretation at the well known University of Arizona program, I was able to interpret almost anything asked of me and remain neutral. For several years I interpreted for the Marin County Health Clinic for Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal. Many were in a difficult situation, but some tried to take advantage of a system that would help them, even when they were able to speak for themselves. Thanks to my training, I could interpret impartially.

I also interpreted for the Parole Revocation Hearing Board at San Quentin prison, for the San Francisco Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Education in Fresno, the Labor Relations Board in Sacramento, for doctors, attorneys, insurance companies and more.

Subsequently, after ceasing interpretation for two years to care for my second husband when he was terminally ill, I stopped interpreting and for twenty years have done translation, exclusively.

Q: What problems (and possible solutions) did you run into during your career as a translator?

A: Internet access has solved many research problems. I no longer feel so isolated from a great university library as I have been. Now I am donating my dictionaries, a few CDs, reference books, etc.

I work with two monitors. I can consult my terminologies on one while translating on the other. I put the source language on one and the target language on the other except when using translation software. My preferred is Wordfast.

Managing my terminologies was always a priority. After each job, I entered the new terms; then the next time I needed one, I opened the glossary on the other screen while I translated.

I have done a number of projects using machine translation. The best were for the Pan American Health Organization. They created their own program with many shortcuts to make common corrections, such as substituting two nouns for a prepositional phrase.


Q: Has the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with your professional activity? TWB

A: No, because last December at age 90 I decided that it was time to close up shop. But since I cannot completely cease translation, I still volunteer with Translators Without Borders. I also play tennis four times a week.


Tennis academic Sharlee tennis

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici

Interview with Serbian wordsmith, attorney, library curator, author, story-teller and tourist guide Viktor Lazić


Viktor cropped

Jonathan blue shirt snipped

Viktor Lazić


Jonathan G.

conducted by Skype between Los Angeles and Belgrade

  Lazik - LA - Belgrade  


JG: Before we speak about the two incredible family libraries that have been in your family for 9 generations, (and which now also serve as museums) would you introduce yourself?

VL: I am 35 years old. I live in Belgrade.  Previously I had a translation agency. (I am still a member of the Serbian Union of Scientific and Technical Translators.) I speak English, German and Russian and of course my mother tongue, Serbian. Today I am a practicing lawyer, specializing in corporate law and the restitution to their former owners of properties confiscated by the Communist regime.  I am currently working on a doctorate degree in the field of Chinese law: "Confucianism and Legalism as the dominant schools of Chinese law".

JG: You are also an author.

VL: In addition to my law practice, my academic pursuits, my extensive travels (to 90 countries on six continents), and my work in running the museums, I am a member of the Association of Writers of Serbia and a licensed tour guide. It has been my family tradition for many generations to have multiple degrees and professions. It has been used as a safeguard against the instability of life in the Balkans.

JG: Which books have your written?

VL: Lazik - book coverI have written 6 books and about 1000 articles in Serbian, mostly about travel, but also history. In my book, "The Great Adventure.", translated into 6 languages, I describe my journey of 421 days made in 2009/2010. I went from Kosovo to the North Cape of Africa and continued to Russia, then on to North Korea and Australia, and then I drove back to Serbia from Vladivostok, crossing the Gobi Desert on my own. Particular media attention in the Balkans was drawn by my description of the life of pirates in Malacca Straits, life of believers of sects of the self-proclaimed Jesus, Vizarion, in Siberia, and the life of ex-cannibal tribes and matriarchal tribes in Indonesia.  

JG: Where did you acquire your excellent command of English?

VL: I spent several months every year visiting an aunt in London. When I was 14, my country was at war and my city was very badly bombed. In the course of the bombing, my home was damaged, and my parents decided to send me to my aunt. After the horrible, 10-day ordeal of leaving Belgrade on which bombs were raining down, crossing a bridge that was bombarded only minutes later and dealing with unfriendly Hungarian officials on the other side, I arrived in London and stayed there for 5 months.

JG: Your love of books began at a very early age.

VL: I began writing poetry at the age of 6 years. At 8, I made an inventory of the family library, and at 12 I had 2000 books in my bedroom. Since childhood I dreamed of continuing the family tradition by creating an institution to maintain and expand the library, something that my family already tried to achieve before. I realized then that there were many family friends, famous writers and families owning large libraries and archives, who no longer had trust in state institutions but at the same time had no place to store their collections and needed to entrust their treasures in a safe place.


  Lazik surrounded by books  
  Viktor Lazić = bibliophile par excellence  

JG: Moving on to the collection of books that were handed down from generation to generation in your family, and the owner of which is now a cultural foundation [1] of which you are the President, tell our readers about its current situation, and we can then talk about its fascinating history, and about some of the unusual items in it.

VL: We estimate that the collection contains at least one million books. The collection serves both as a library and museum – divided into two parts, one containing books of Serbian literature and the other books, manuscripts, typewriters, etc. from all over the world. Most of the books are offered for reference purposes only and may only be read in situ in our reading room. At the moment capacity of the reading room is only 8 people but we plan to expand its capacity to 60 readers soon. But to a large extent, it is a museum, which attracts visitors from all over the world. The intake of books, which are often donated from other libraries that are closing or from individual collections, is about 5000 per week. Many of the books donated are not suitable, and we give them to other libraries.

JG: Are the visitors mostly librarians or scholars?

VL: No, many groups of children visit us, and it is our educational aim to open their eyes to books of many kinds, from far-off places, as well as other items of interest. It is an exciting way to spread knowledge, love and tolerance. But many experts from all over the world also come to use our material. Just recently we allowed researchers from Humboldt University (Berlin) to use one of our archives.

  Lazik (AO1)  


JG: The collection contains not only traditional paper books, but those written on bamboo sticks, silk and sheep fetuses or made of elephant excrement. Could you explain how and why these unusual materials are used for “books”.

VL: One of our aims is to showcase the history and richness of the world. This is why we brought books from all over the world, especially trying to obtain unusual books that bear witness to the diversity of the human mind. For example, we have books made on rice paper so that they can be eaten if the reader is hungry! These were traditionally done in China, where fear of hunger is deeply rooted in people’s minds. Or books from Thailand, created from the dung of elephants that Thai people still sometimes keep as pets at home! … Or tribal books on palm or banana leaves. We even have books with covers made of what were probably human bones…

Lazik - typewriter cropped
Lazik - Rare_books_and_artifacts _Adligat _Belgrade

Books are just the beginning. Typewriters and other literary objects are part of the collection too. MOMIR ALVIROVIC / COURTESY ADLIGAT 

You have a manuscript signed by Napoleon Bonaparte.  What is the story behind this item?

VL: I was in Parma, Italy, last year with an old friend of mine, a French woman from a noble family. We visited a museum dedicated to Marie Louise, Napoleon’s wife. My friend asked me what object in the museum my first choice would be to add to the museum’s collection. There were original Napoleonic objects around us, and I expressed my admiration of Napoleon, and of his famous Code, in particular, as I am a lawyer too. I stated that it would have been so amazing if we ever obtained any object related directly to Napoleon… After only a few months this lady found an original Napoleonic document and donated it to us, but she insisted on remaining anonymous. Behind the document is the story of Bernard Radelski, a Slavic soldier, either Russian or Polish, who most probably deserted the Russian army. We can only assume this, as the document states that he was a member of French military but belonged to the special unit comprised of ex-enemy soldiers, either war prisoners or deserters. Obviously that man did not like war, because he ran away from the French army too! Lazik - CambaceresUnfortunately, he was caught, tried and sentenced to 16 years with a prison stone tied to his leg, and he was ordered to pay a huge fine... Later the Emperor pardons him. The original document containing the pardon joined our collection. One interesting facet of the story is that the pardon reveals how bureaucratic the French state structure was, because even this simple pardon had to be signed not only by the Emperor, but also by his Ministers and Chief of Cabinet... So we have three more signatures on the document, those of Jean Jacques Régis de CAMBACERES, Hugues Bernard MARET and Claude Ambroise REGNIER – all of them extremely important people in their time. Mr Regis de Cambaceres is actually the real author of Napoleon Code, and he presided over the special commission that created the final version of the Code!

JG: Which other signatures do you have of famous Frenchmen?

VL: Our collection of books in French language and about France has more than 300.000 titles! French Revolution and French culture had significant impact on Serbia, and we are proud of this connection. Our First World War collection is especially important and has a strong connection to France. Of great significance are four documents signed by French kings - Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. This collection was bought for us by one donor, but it has not yet arrived in Serbia. We are also proud to have a small collection of Jacques Prevert signed editions and photographs, a donation by the famous Serbian journalist Kosta Dimitrijevic, who actually met Mr. Prevert and interviewed him.

JG: You also have the handwritten letters of Nikola Tesla, the iconic Serbo-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer and futurist, best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC), electricity supply system. What are the contents of these letters?

VL: Tesla PupinaMihajlo Pupin, like Tesla, was a Serbian-American inventor, and holder of the Pulitzer prize, one of the most important American inventors of the 20th century, thanks to whom the phone and radar became useful instruments. Both lived in the USA. Tesla’s letters to the General Consul of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in New York, written three months before Pupin’s death, express great concern for Pupin’s poor health, rebutting previous rumors about their hostility. The relationship between those two giants is very important in the history of science and especially for Serbia. in 20 countries, in 10 languages (including the New York Times and the Washington Post). [2]


JG: The book collection was started by your ancestor in 1720 and opened to the public in 1882. It has undergone the vicissitudes of two world wars and many upheavals in Serbia and elsewhere. The stories you tell about some of these events could fill a book. In fact, you have agreed to write an article for us containing the story of how the library was tended for more than 50 years by your illiterate grandmother, who, in her old age, designated you as its heir. For present purposes please relate the efforts made by your great grandfather to save books during WW1.

VL: My great-grandfather Luka Lazic (1876-1946) was a true book lover. He spent most of his time reading or visiting the library that his father had opened to the public by in 1882. In 1908-1910 Luka Lazic took over the library. The family lived in small northern Serbian town, Kumane, which was then in the territory of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, and he was conscripted to the reserve troops of the Austrian army. Once Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, he would have had to fight against his own nation. So he decided to run away, to

Lazik - emperor
The entry of Emperor Francois-Joseph into Belgrade, by Frederic de Haenen, 1914

overtly cross the wide Danube river, and to join the Serbian troops. But he was concerned about the fate of the books back home, afraid that some Austrian officials or military personal might enter his home and destroy or remove them. So he asked his wife Marta to stitch his favorite, most valuable books into his jacket. The jacket was a very thick Hessian fabric, with a thick layer of sheep wool, which was perfect for putting objects inside it, and he chose 6 books to be stitched into the jacket. But he could not have known what awaited him. When Serbia was attacked from all sides at the end of 1915, the Serbian Command decided not to surrender, but instead to retreat in the middle of winter through the Albian mountains, in some of the highest, most unfriendly European territory, hoping to reach the Adriatic coast and be rescued by Allied ships. Many civilians joined the retreating Serbian army, fearing enemy revenge. Most of the 1.1 million Serbian victims of the WW1 died in this ordeal, considered to be one of the worst tragedies of this war, particularly for the Serbs. [3] Luka marched for hundreds of kilometers, through snowy mountains, fighting the enemy and withstanding the wind and cold, until he arrived at the Duress swamp more dead than alive. When allies sent ships to transfer the remaining Serbian soldiers to the Greek island of Corfu, a new drama awaited Luka – he boarded a ship that was soon hit by torpedo. He survived but had to jump into water to save a friend. Only one book survived this incident. However, what is even more

Lazik - digitized newspapers
These rare Serbian newspapers from World War I are among the works digitized by the Belgrade University Library, under a grant from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. MOMIR ALVIROVIC / COURTESY ADLIGAT

incredible is that once Luka arrived in Corfu, he continued to collect books… Our books and other materials published during the war that the soldiers were reading while waiting to fight, or even during fighting, are exceptionally rare. We received a grant from the British Library (in cooperation with the Svetozar Markovic University Library) to digitalize the collection under the world program designated for Endangered Libraries and Archive. Digitalization.

JG: To end this interview, I would like to quote Adam Sofronijevic, of the Belgrade University Library, who said about your museum. “These stories are fascinating. They tell us a lot about Serbian society and culture,” It is a story of book-loving, book-keeping, and extraordinary enthusiasm.” Moreover, your uncle Milorad Vlahovic has said “This is in Viktor’s blood,” “He was always obsessed with the collection. We are happy and proud that he has done this for the library, for the family, for the country.”

VL: I wanted to build a safe haven—a place where people of culture could entrust what’s valuable to them. My success is due to the fact that people trust me and my project as evidenced by the fact that 40 persons have donated their entire legacies of books, documents and cultural objects, while more than 300 donated their libraries in whole or in part. Support from State institutions has also been remarkable, and it demonstrates recognition of the fact that we are in a better position than the State to maintain this important project It is the fruit of work invested by nine generations of my family, and important to the nation. We hope to preserve it for many years to come.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

[1] ADLIGAT Society for Culture, Art and International Cooperation
Museum of Serbian Literature Book and Travel Museum 
Josipa Slavenskog 19a, 11.040 Belgrade – Banjica, Republic of Serbia 
+381 11 36 72 807+381 63 360 218 +381 63 88 54 927


[3] Richard C. Hall (2014). War in the Balkans: An Encyclopedic History from the Fall of the Ottoman Empire to the Breakup of Yugoslavia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-61069-031-7.

Interview with The Hulse/Rozenblum family – San Francisco linguists


Hulse family cropped

Francisco and Merav, our guest linguists of the month, live in San Francisco. I have known them for many years and seen at first hand their skills as professional translators (Spanish-Hebrew-English), as well as the trilingual skills of their son Adriel. I had one such opportunity when Francisco and I attended an interpreting conference in Los Angeles, and on our way to and from it on the underground railway, we discussed the anglicized Spanish directions emanating from the loudspeaker system. (Plataforma instead of andén).

As explained in the interview, the influence of Spanish on the couple was strong, despite the fact that Francisco was born in the USA and Merav in Israel. Having chosen careers in languages, they made a point of ensuring that their son would be trilingual, with his father speaking to him in Spanish and his mother in Hebrew. Adriel, now 13 years old, is schooled in English and Spanish.

Questions for Merav:


Q: What family influences did you have on your interest in languages?

A: While neither of my parents is a linguist, my parents grew up in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires, and as kids were fluent in Yiddish in addition to Spanish, and later Hebrew, too. One of my mom's cousins and her husband (both now deceased) ended up in Los Angeles in the seventies, and both worked as court interpreters (Spanish and German into English).

Q: How did you acquire a command of spoken Spanish and English while growing up in Israel?

A: I grew up in Israel, in a small, tight community (a Kibbutz) of immigrants from Argentina. The adults never spoke Spanish to us, kids, - it was against the norms and the ideology of the time - but spoke it among themselves. When I was four, my beloved granny came to visit from Argentina and stayed with us for a few months. She could only speak Spanish to me, and to everyone's wonder, I replied to her and soon became fluent. I started taking English, like all Israeli school kids, in 3rd grade and had always loved it and was good at it.

Q: How did you use your basic knowledge of Spanish and English in your academic studies?

A: I earned my BA in English and Spanish Literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, thus perfecting my command of both languages further. In fact, that was the first time I studied Spanish in a classroom setting. I studied at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, Spain, for a year, and upon my return to Israel decided that I wanted to become a translator. The Translators and Interpreters School at the Bar Ilan University decided not to open a Spanish-Hebrew program that year, so I was given a special opportunity to join the English-Hebrew program. I graduated three years later with a translation/interpretation certificate summa cum laude from both programs, as well as a Masters in English Literature.

Q: How were you able to maintain your command of Hebrew for professional purposes?

A: I was trained as a Hebrew-as-a-second-language teacher, thinking it could land me a nice summer job. Almost thirty years later, I still teach it. I still consider Hebrew my first language: I read mostly in Hebrew, translate only into Hebrew, and try to immerse myself in all Hebrew media.

Q: As a contract interpreter and translator for the US State Department, you have translated and/or interpreted for more than one high government official. I interpreted President Obama three times, I believe: the speech that he gave in Jerusalem in front of students during his visit in 2013; at the White House when he had President Abbas, President Mubarak, King Abdullah and P.M. Netanyahu for dinner in 2010; and at the State Department in 2011.

A: I was on the translation team of Obama's Cairo speech in 2009, and Trump's Riyadh and Jerusalem speeches in 2017. I also interpreted at the Annapolis Peace Conference in 2007 and at some high-profile federal court hearings in the year following the Patriot Act.

Q: Do you have a problem translating for President Trump, despite your personal opinion of him?

A: When it comes to my principles, I would feel better translating for a president that did not offend about half of the American people. But when I work, this should not be reflected in anything that I do.

 Questions for Francisco:


Q: How did you acquire your high skills as a Spanish-English translator and interpreter, having been born in the USA?

A: My father, Lloyd Kermit Hulse, was born in rural Oregon during the depression, to anglophone parents. At age 12 he started to teach himself Spanish from books. The history of the conquistadores was the draw. He studied Spanish in high school, then at Mexico City College. After his first marriage to a Mexican American, his fluency scored him a job as the Latin-American sales representative for a California company. During those travels he met my mother, a native of El Salvador.

Despite having landowning- and thus (nominally) aristocratic parents, the early death of her father forced her mother to work outside the home (as a seamstress), something foreign to a woman of her (former) social station. Thus, my mother didn’t finish secondary school, going to work in her mid-teens as a secretary and personal assistant at a local newspaper to help support the family. When she met my father at age 23, her immersion in local journalism had whetted her appetite for the world of letters, albeit without much study in English.

The couple soon moved to La Grande, Oregon, where my mother quickly acquired English while my father taught Spanish in the local high school. He then became an associate professor at Lewis & Clark College. A masters and a doctorate from the University of Cincinnati followed. The newly-minted Doctor moved his family back to Portland and continued teaching at Lewis & Clark as a tenured full professor, until retirement.

He led several exchange programs to Latin America, family in tow. During the 1977-1978 school year, he taught Spanish at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. That year I quickly learned German, then forgot it even more quickly upon our return.

Save for these few years abroad, I was raised almost exclusively in the U.S. With no Spanish-speaking classmates in elementary and a handful in high school, the island of Spanish immersion at home was almost all of my exposure. My parents always spoke Spanish to us whenever courtesy didn’t require switching to English for English-speakers to be included.

Q: What was your own study path?

A: I studied mathematics at Lewis & Clark. I tested out of the foreign-language requirement, placing into 3rd-year French (thanks to 3 years of study of the language in high school, where I was generally the star pupil, plus a month-long homestay in France immediately before the test). I used the resulting available credit-hours to take music and art classes.

A year of poorly paid “McJobs” after college did not quell the growing desire to study music. So off I went to Mills College in Oakland for a masters, where I ran up the exorbitant debt I’d avoided as an undergrad (by the simple accident of birth: being a faculty brat). With my coursework complete and my concert given, all that was left to do to finish the graduate degree was write my thesis (about my concert compositions), but meningitis sidelined me before I could even begin it.

Now it was time to get a job. I spent a year as a substitute teacher, another as a teacher of math and science at a continuation school, and a third as a math teacher at a middle school. This last one was the turning point, for three reasons: I realized that staying in the teaching profession would make me a curmudgeon long before my time; during that year, I taught half of my classes in Spanish; I served as an impromptu interpreter for other teachers at their meetings with parents of our students.

In the autumn of that year (1995), as I contemplated a new career, the experiences garnered from my last year of teaching gave me the confidence to volunteer as an interpreter at San Francisco General Hospital.

I immediately put the volunteering on my résumé and sent that rather thin C.V. to every interpreting-&- translation agency in the Yellow Pages. The bottom feeders among them scooped me right up. Ever the autodidact, I improved and moved progressively up the ladder, landing better clients and joining the rosters of tonier agencies. Finally, in late 2010, largely at the insistence of my wife, I knuckled down and studied seriously for the court-interpreting exam. I passed it in early 2011.

This story would not be complete without mentioning my great friend Omar, who is my wife’s second cousin, and the one who introduced us. I met this friendly Argentinean in 1993. His unwavering friendship through hours, days, weeks, months and years of dialogue, discussion, disagreements, and didactic debate, coupled with his generosity in correcting my piss-poor spelling in Spanish as I wrote practice essays for the CBEST (an entrance exam for teachers) rounded the rough edges off my virtual illiteracy in Spanish.

Q: From the day Adriel was born, Merav has spoken to him in Hebrew, and you have spoken to him in Spanish, while he has absorbed most of his English from the outside world. What other efforts have been made to make him truly trilingual?

A: Witnessing the transferability of literacy from one language to another is one of the many joys I’ve had as a parent. He’s 13 and has yet to stage the common rebellion of answering back in English. He’s proud of being trilingual. So far, so good. He’s had Spanish-speaking classmates since preschool, and he attends a K-8 dual-immersion bilingual school.

When he began kindergarten, Adriel’s reading and writing in Spanish sprinted ahead, followed quickly by English. His literacy in Hebrew (with a different alphabet and thus a predictably higher bar to entry) lags behind, to this day. However, this is one extracurricular I insist on: daily reading and writing in Hebrew.

Meanwhile, my French has rusted solid, and my Hebrew advances more slowly than the peace process with the Palestinians. Still, I managed to outdo my old man in one respect: my kid is trilingual, and tri-literate.

Question for Adriel


Q: Having lived in a trilingual family, and having had to speak with your parents in two foreign languages, and with your schoolmates and friends in English, is this something you would recommend to other multilingual parents for the benefit of their children?

A: I think I would recommend to multilingual parents that they teach their children multiple languages. Even though it can be hard for kids to remain proficient in the various languages they’re expected to know, it will help them in the long term develop language skills and be able to learn faster. Or for example, if the parents are traveling to their home country with their child, not only would the child be able to communicate fluently with the locals, but they could also practice their speaking skills in the language that is spoken there (assuming they have been taught that language). I myself have been mistaken for an Israeli kid when on vacation in Israel because I can speak Hebrew like a native speaker, which I owe to my mom teaching me the language at a young age.

Additional reading:

Trumps’s Hebrew Translator says she was happier working for Obama

The Times of Israel, 30.5.2017