Introducing –
Interview with Dutch-American wordsmith (and translator) Marjolijn de Jager

Interview with British wordsmith (and historian & musician) Peter Hicks

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

Peter Hicks  
Kadiu 11.19

Peter Hicks, Ph.D., linguist, historian, academic -
the interviewee
Silvia Kadiu, Ph.D.,
lecturer in translation studies, translator, author -
the interviewer

The interview that follows was conducted in (British) English and translated into French for Le Mot juste en anglais by Silvia Kadiu, whose first contribution to this blog we warmly welcome. 

Silvia is a French translator and academic. She was born in Albania and moved to France at the age of seven. After completing MAs in Comparative Literature and English at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, she lived in London for over ten years, working in publishing, translation and higher education.

SK - ReflexiveShe holds an MA and a PhD in Translation Studies from University College London. Her doctoral research on the translations of translation theory was published by the UCL Press in 2019, under the title Reflexive Translation Studies: Translation as Critical Reflection.

She has also authored several articles on translation theory, literary translation and translation pedagogy, and has co-translated several poems from Albanian into English (via French) for the poetry collection Balkan Poetry Today 2017, edited by Tom Phillips.

Silvia is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Westminster London, and works as a translator for various UN agencies, NGOs and top international brands.


SK: You completed a degree in Classics at University College London and obtained a PhD at St John's College, Cambridge. You have been working as a historian for the Foundation Napoleon since 1997. Where does your interest in history stem from?

University-college-london-ucl (1)

Image result for cambridge university logo
University College London [1]  Cambridge University


PH: My father’s father (who studied history at university) was a missionary in pre-WWII Burma (today Myanmar). When I was young, we visited his house, filled with antiques, memorabilia of the British Empire. My father’s brother (who lived with my grandparents) was not only a favourite uncle but also a furniture restorer, lover of musical boxes and 78 records. When we went on holiday, my parents would Hadrians-Wall-Scottish-Englandtake us to National Trust houses and museums (rather than the beach… though we did go there too). I grew up in Northumberland close to Hadrian’s Wall [2] (which I’ve visited very many times) bathed in this stuff and with a passion for classical antiquity…


SK: What is the Foundation Napoleon? Can you tell us about your work there?

NFPH: The Foundation is a not-for-profit which encourages and supports study and interest in Napoleon I and Napoleon III (and all connected matters). I oversee our international relations here, I exercise editorial control over our multimedia productions in English (website, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and I frequently write articles, books, give talks, etc. on the history of the 19th century and the position of the Bonapartes therein.


SK: In 2005, you discovered the Mémorial of Emmanuel de Las Cases [3] , one of the most famous manuscripts in French history, dealing with the conversations between Les Cases and Napoleon during the latter’s exile at Saint Helena [3]. The news was covered by the French and international press and has become an important source on the subject for researchers. How did this discovery come about and why was it important?

Le manuscrit retrouvePH: The manuscript was ‘hidden in plain sight’. I was working on an article about the governor of St Helena during Napoleon’s captivity, Hudson Lowe, in 2004. I simply looked in the catalogue and there it was. It had not been spotted for many reasons, but principally because it was a French manuscript in a British Library and because it had entered that public collection as a loan relatively recently (i.e. in the 1960s). The discovery of this manuscript was important because it shows us that at the end of 1816 this manuscript (containing Napoleon’s own idea of what his own reign was all about) was ready for publication (including chapter headings). It shows us that the work was probably about to go to Europe to be published and was probably produced in close collaboration with Napoleon. The final publication eight years later was about three times bigger and included much material not necessarily seen (or approved by Napoleon). So, the proto-version shows us what Napoleon wanted the Memorial to look like, and, in the process, reveals the editorial activity of Emmanuel de Las Cases after Napoleon’s death.

  Napoleon dictating to
Emmanuel Las Cases

You are fluent in English, French and Italian. You have working knowledge of German and are currently learning Russian. How did you come to learn these languages, and what role have they played in your career?

Greek hebrewPH: Languages have been primordial in my career. I think I have always enjoyed language. I was an apparently precocious reader in primary school. I loved Latin, taught myself classical Greek so as to be able to do Classics at university, and I learned Biblical Hebrew for fun. If I have to do some research for a piece of writing, I often start with the same Wikipedia article but in multiple languages. You really get a good round view of national obsessions but also the issues related to the question. I have worked in continental Europe for most of my professional life so speaking different languages was a necessity. I simply note that it would be good if I spoke more languages. I really would love to speak better German, but I never really got to grips with it. Russian is proving tricky…


SK: You have translated several historical texts (from Italian into English, but also from French and Latin). Can you describe your translating experience? What were the main challenges of translating these texts?

PH: The main challenge of translation in general is the elusive perfect match from one language to the other. Combined with tone, readability, flow, naturalness. The 15th- and 16th-century texts I have translated were harder because the original language texts (as is normal) were full of typos, vagueries etc. There was no official text. Furthermore, dictionaries were not necessarily of much use in this period when dictionaries themselves were being compiled for the first time and use of language was not generalized but often very specific to the writer. [5]  I had to be not only translator but also lexicographer. Google is a wonderful help, however. You can search strings of Italian or Latin words in 16th century texts so as to produce essentially your own handlist of what words mean, your own dictionary for a certain author. Endlessly fascinating.

SK: To end our interview with mention of another of your myriad fields of activity, you are also a semi-professional musician, singer and conductor. You are currently the music director of the Paris choir Musicanti. How does this relate to your work as a historian and your interest in languages?

Messe du Sacre de Napoléon 1PH: I have begun to perform music of the Napoleonic period. This music is little-performed since it is not as well-loved as other types. It is often seen as a bit weak and derivative. It is however the sound of the times. If you want to get an idea of the grandeur of Napoleon in 1804, there’s no better way than to perform the music from his coronation. I enjoy the idea of re-enacting musical environment. Music is very powerful. It’s an amazing time machine! And given that the French Empire came into contact with much of Western and Central Europe, the musical/linguistic possibilities are practically endless.

University-college-london-ucl (1)[1] UCL is  a public research university in London.  It makes the contested claims of being the third-oldest university in England, and the first to admit women. UCL has over 100 departments, institutes and research centres.  It has around 35,600 students and 12,000 staff. Its alumni include the  "Father of the Nation" of each of India, Kenya and Mauritius, the founders of Ghana, modern Japan and Nigeria, the inventor of the telephone, and one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, as well as at least 29 Nobel Prize winners.

[2] In the year 120, the Roman Emperor Hadrian came to Britain. After giving up his plan to conquer the North,  he had a fortified line erected , which went from Tyne to the Gulf of the Solway. It was  composed of fourteen forts and a stone wall, the famous Hadrian Wall.

[3] Emmanuel de Las Cases, Le Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Le manuscript retrouvé, critical edition with presentation and commentary, with Thierry Lentz, François Houdecek and Chantal Prevot, Perrin 2017, p. 827. Supported by the Centre national du livre.

[4] See our article (in French) on this blog with references to our previous articles about St. Helena : Le 15 août 2019 - le 250e anniversaire de Napoléon Bonaparte

[5] Over the years, various spellings of the Bard's name have been used: Shakespere,  Shackspeare, Shakespear, Shakspere, Shakspere, Shaxspere, Shackespeare, Shakspeare, Shaxper

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Silvia Kadiu.



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