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Interview with British wordsmith (and translator) Mike Mitchell

Our choice of  wordsmith this time is the well-known and prolific translator (from French and German), Mike Mitchell, who kindly granted Jonathan G. this interview. Mike lives with his wife in a hamlet close to the town of Tighnabruaich, County of Argyll, West of Scotland.

Mike photo Argyll
  Argyll, Scotland


JG : You were born in Rochdale, Lancashire, and when you were fourteen you moved with your family to Dartford, Kent, until you went to the University of Oxford to study French and German language and literature. At what age did you first develop a love of languages? How strong was your French when you were admitted to Oxford.

MM: Initially, languages were one of the school subjects I was good at; I had a great love of literature and it was really so as to be able to read French and German literature that I continued with the study of the languages.

The first foreign language I took at school was French; I was very good at that when I left school (top 5% in a national examination); my command increased when I spent a year in Nancy, where I was an English assistant at a school and took courses at the university there, before going up to Oxford. As my second foreign language, my German was weaker but benefited from an intercalated year in Germany during my degree course.

After graduation I spent a year abroad (teaching English in Saudi Arabia) then went back to Oxford to do a thesis (Bachelor of Letters) on Sterling an Austrian novelist, Heimito von Doderer. I then taught German as a university lecturer at the University of Reading (1 year) and the University of Stirling (27 years).

You dabbled in translating while you were an academic, but the opportunity of early retirement from Stirling University, in Scotland, where you were teaching, opened the way for you to take on translating as a second career. You are now doing that very successfully from your home on the west coast of Scotland.

MM: My love of literature led me to try translation while I was still at school and I continued to 'dabble' in it while a lecturer—mainly from German, which I was occupied with professionally. In the early 1970s I tried to interest a publisher in a volume of translations of East German short stories, edited by a colleague. The reply from the publisher was so discouraging, I abandoned the project; if I had been more persevering, I might have been translating professionally for much longer.

DedalusIn the late 1980s I had the good fortune to be asked to translate a book by an American publisher specialising in Austrian literature and culture (Ariadne). Just as the book appeared I had another piece of good fortune: I contacted a publisher (Dedalus, with whom I still work) and they happened to be looking for a translator from German.

At first I was known as a translator from German, but after I had translated about 30 books, I felt I would like to revive my French, which was by now a little rusty, though I was reading French novels submitted to Dedalus. I felt I had enough experience as a translator to be aware of possible pitfalls in translating from French, a language I hadn't used professionally for years.

You have translated more than 90 books, the great majority of those being since you retired from university life. You must work very hard and very studiously at translating to attain both high proficiency and a consistent speed.

MM: Firstly, I find translating literature very satisfying and very enjoyable, so I maintain a high level of motivation. On the other hand, publishers' deadlines give me the discipline I need. (I didn't take early retirement to fill in my time on the golf course.) I prefer to be working on two translation projects at a time, which prevents me falling into a rut or getting tired with one. In general I complete two such 'average-length' books every six months, but the quality of the translation obviously takes precedence over speed.

Have you ever met any of the authors you have translated?

MM: Nowadays email makes contact with authors much easier than when everything had to be done by post. This correspondence can remain business-like, but very often develops a more personal tone, depending on how we respond to each other. It was a matter of course that when I happened to be in Paris, I should meet Mercedes Deambrosis, the author of Milagrosa (Dire, 2000; Dedalus 2002), the first book I translated from French;

Mike Sylvie Germaine
Silvie Germain

I also met Sylvie Germain, when she did a reading tour in England; her regular translator for Dedalus is Christine Donougher, but when she was too busy (translating Les Misérables) I translated Sylvie's novel L'Inaperçu (Albin Michel, 2008; translated as Hidden Lives, Dedalus, 2010). But the author whom I have come to know best is Jean-Pierre Ohl, as well as his wife Véronique, who are both employed in the bookstore business. They have stayed with us, and my wife and I have stayed in their holiday cottages in Scotland and recently we visited them in Bordeaux. Ohl is a great anglophile and an extremely well-read person, in addition to being a first-rate author. I recommended his first novel to Dedalus, which was again translated by Christine Donougher; it centres on two French rival students of Charles Dickens (Monsieur Dick ou Le dixième livre, Gallimard 2004; Dedalus 2008). He has also published a short biography of Charles Dickens. Jean-Pierre is a fascinating person. Your readers can read about him in an article published in The Guardian under the heading "Jean-Pierre Ohl, a Dickens de nos jours."

Jean-Pierre's latest book, set in Scotland in the 1950s, is entitled Les maitres de Glenmarkie (Gallimard 2008) which I translated under the title The Lairds of Cromarty, (Dedalus 2012).

Lairds Mike Ohl  
         Jean-Pierre Ohl  

Tell us about the book.

MM: The main part of the book is set in 1953. Mary Guthrie, a brilliant postgraduate student of English from Islay, decides to write a doctoral thesis on Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, the Scottish author, mathematician and translator of Rabelais, who supported the Royalist cause in the Civil War and then died in exile in 1660. Mary visits Cromarty House, the crumbling ancestral home of the Urquharts, where she has various 'Gothic' experiences involving Urquharts both past and present. The other focus of the book is a Catholic priest, Ebenezer Krook, a descendant of the Urquharts on the wrong side of the blanket, who sleeps with Mary and then, dissatisfied with his Bishop's response to his confession, flattens him in a rugby tackle and resigns his priesthood to go and work for an eccentric bookseller in Edinburgh.

  Mike Urguart  

In memory of Sir Thomas Urquhart, Chevalier of Cromarty. A great Scot, writer and translator of Rabelais



There is also a role for Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, who lived on Jura in the late 1940s, where in the novel he saves the young Krook from drowning in the Corryvreckan whirlpool; he also appears in his role as a Republican soldier in the Spanish civil war, where he is involved with a rather disreputable 20th-century Urquhart. 

: The Historical Novel Society reviewed
The Lairds of Cromarty very favourably : "For all its Gothic twists, this is a book filled with humour, acute observations of character and place, and literary citations worthy of a professional bookseller — Ohl's other career." The reviewer also wrote : "It has been flawlessly translated by Mike Mitchell in what deserves to become another of the latter's award-winning works." You have quoted Ohl as telling you that he prefers the English tradition of literature to the French. And he obviously has a strong affinity for Scotland. Did your own familiarity with Scotland enable you to plunge yourself into the translation with added enthusiasm and insight, in order to produce a "flawless translation"?

MM: It was fascinating to translate a novel set in the country that has been my home since 1968. My familiarity with Scotland enabled me to correct a few little errors, in particular where customs or facts had changed since the early 1950s; for example Jean-Pierre did not realise that until comparatively recently pubs did not remain open all day but were subject to strict opening hours and that meant I had to carefully—and as unobtrusively as possible—rewrite two or three scenes.

I also 'translated' the title. The French publishers, afraid they might be sued by present-day Urquharts because one or two of their 20th-century clansmen in the novel were somewhat disreputable, had insisted Jean-Pierre use fictitious names. As Sir Thomas is a historical character and Jean-Pierre quotes from his works, this didn't seem to make sense for an English version, so I persuaded Dedalus to use the real names (Urquhart, Cromarty); I did manage to contact a senior member of the Urquhart clan, who said he didn't imagine anyone would take offence.


MM1 MM2 JG: You have translated three books by the Belgian author, Georges Rodenbach (1855-98): Bruges-la-Morte (1892; translation Dedalus, 2005); Le Carillonneur (1897), which you have translated as The Bells of Bruges (Dedalus, 2007) and a collection of shorter pieces, Hans Cadzand's Vocation and Other Stories (Dedalus, 2011). The Glasgow Herald wrote: "There are few novels that quickly astound. This is one of them. Flawlessly translated…" . The prestigious Times Literary Supplement complimented your translation as being "nuanced but unfussy". Why did your publisher decide to revive him in English?

MM: Dedalus felt that he is a major French writer, whose works are not well known to English readers, although Bruges-la-Morte has been translated previously.

The Historical Novel Society review, quoted above, referred to the awards you had won. I know that in addition to such awards and prizes, you've also been shortlisted many times – in fact 4 times for The Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize alone.

MM: I won two prizes in the 1993 British Comparative Literature Association's translation competition and the 1998 Schlegel-Tieck Prize (for translations from German) for my translation of Herbert Rosendorfer's Letters Back to Ancient China.

Otherwise I have often been the bridesmaid, never the bride. I do think that being shortlisted means the committee thinks your translation, as a translation, would be worthy of the prize, then other factors come in the reckoning; it is nice, though, to actually win, especially for the publicity.


JG:  Your published translation,  “Where Tigers are at Home” Blas(original: « Là où les tigres sont chez eux »), written by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, was published in the US after an earlier publication in the UK. The Times Literary Supplement critic (to name only one who enjoyed your translation) wrote : “Long in the making, and rejected by thirty-five publishers,  this clever, exuberant philosophical novel, the winner of the three major French prizes, now appears in a splendidly complicit, fluent, vivid translation by Mike Mitchell. “

MM : Yes, he was referring to le Prix Médicis, le Prix du jury Jean Giono & le Prix du roman Fnac. It is usually impossible to know if a critic has in fact compared the source language with the English translation, but it gives me sufficient gratification to read that critics of a book I have translated have formed a very positive view of the style of the English text, judging it as if they were reading a book written in English.

JG : What is your latest translation?

MM: It is another book by Jean-Pierre Ohl, Le chemin du diable — The Devil’s Road.published this year (2019).   Set in early 19th-century England its subject is the beginnings of capitalism, industrialisation  and the  dominance of the entrepreneurial middle class. It focuses on the building of the Stockton to Darlington railway under George Stevenson, and his affluent backers who believe in Adam Smith’s profit motive as the essential force of progress; it also presents the dire situation of the exploited workers and even has a role for Jean-Pierre’s favourite, Charles Dickens — as a young boy working in the blacking factory; and it is to him that one of the men in the debtors’ prison, where his family has to live, gives a dramatic account of the Peterloo massacre. Jean-Pierre’s love of the English novel also appears here in an echo of the Gothic novel in the relationship between a local aristocrat and his French wife who disappear under mysterious circumstances.


JG : You have been very busy translating the books of other authors, but you found time to write one book yourself.

MMK : One of my favourite historical characters is an Austrian, Franz Kyselak, who was an almost exact contemporary of Franz Schubert. He was a minor civil servant but was famous in his day because he was an outstanding Mike Kyselakwalker who walked all round the Austrian Empire; his name was also well-known, if not notorious, because he wrote it everywhere, on buildings, precipitous rocks etc. He also wrote an account of one of his journeys on foot and when I couldn't find an English publisher for a translation, I wrote a fictitious account of what his journeys might have been like, Kyselak Was Here, under the pseudonym Michael Robin. 


JG : I understand that you have just taken another trip to the South of France. How do you get there from your residence in Scotland?

Mike ferryMM: My wife and I enjoyed making the journey part of our vacation: we went by ferry across the Clyde, train to Glasgow and London, Eurostar to Paris, where we spent the night (a chance to absorb some Parisian atmosphere—and food and wine); in the morning we took the train to Cahors, where another in the party met us by car; we did the return journey from Bordeaux, having stayed with Jean-Pierre Ohl and his wife, getting to London in one day and taking the overnight bus back to Scotland.


JG: Congratulations on your success in both of your careers. We hope that you will continue to be prolific for many years to come.

MM: Thank you very much for your interest and encouragement.


Original interview: June 2013. Updated 31.12.2019

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

Interview with Israeli wordsmith (engineering academic and champion sportsman) Shaul Ladany


Ladany 1`Shaul Ladany, 83, qualifies as a wordsmith on account of his knowledge of 8 or 9 languages (in 3 alphabets - Cyrillic, Latin and Hebrew). But readers may find equal interest in a life-story filled with adventures and achievements (both scholastic and sporting). For this reason, in the following interview we have taken the liberty of departing from our usual focus on linguistic issues in order to present the unusual biography of an exceptional man.

Your intrepid blogger, Jonathan G., travelled to Beer-Sheva [1] in southern Israel to meet

Professor Ladany. The interview took place at the Ben Gurion University, where Shaul Ladany is professor emeritus of Industrial Engineering and Management. It was conducted in Hebrew, transcribed into English by the interviewer. 

Beer Sheva

Ladany hands up

 JG: After the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1942, your maternal grandparents escaped the massacre by the Hungarian gendarmes of the Jewish population of their home town of Novi Sad (today in Serbia) but they were taken to the Concentration Camp at Auschwitz in 1944, where they were killed in the gas chambers.  Your own first encounter with the German war machine was in 1941, when at the age of 5, your house in Belgrade was bombed by the Luftwaffe, and you and your parents managed to survive by hiding in the underground washing room.  

What languages did you acquire while you were growing up in Europe?

SL: My mother tongue was Serbo-Croat and later I learned to write the Serbian variation in Cyrillic lettering and the Croat variety in Latin letters. I learned Russian at school. I learned German from my nanny and spoke to my parents in Hungarian. Later I was to come in contact with Yiddish speakers, and knowing German, it was not difficult to pick up Yiddish.

JG: When the Nazis overtook Yugoslavia, your parents fled to Hungary and sent you to a Hungarian monastery for your own safety, but Incinerator shortly after your 8th birthday, you were taken with your parents to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, from which few people returned. You actually entered the gas chamber, but you were reprieved at the last moment. You and your parents were extremely fortunate to be included in the 1,684 Jews released as part of the controversial "Blood for Goods" deal negotiated by Rudolf Kastner [2] and Adolf Eichman [3]. Your parents returned with you  to Yugoslavia, to try to retrieve their property. The Communists were by then in power. In 1948 General Tito allowed you and your family to leave for Israel on condition that they forfeited all their property in favour of the State. How did you get to Israel? What were your first impressions of the country, which had gained independence only a few months earlier?


Laqdany kasztner Adolf_Eichmann _1942
Rudolf Kastner   Adolf Eichman

SL imm
SL :
I was nearly 13
years old. We left Yugoslavia on a cargo ship, with 3000 immigrants, and the journey took 2 weeks instead of 2 days. The ship nearly overturned at one point. We reached Israel, which was still recovering from the attack launched against it by the Arab armies of neighboring states the day after it had declared independence in May 1948. Due to the absorption of large numbers of immigrants, housing was scarce and the apartment we received, with no water or electricity, was very different from the luxurious residence to which my family had been accustomed in Belgrade before the War. My task in the initial period was to roam around the town with two buckets, looking for sources of water to fill up the buckets and then bringing them home. But I began school studies, and learned Hebrew, which became my new mother tongue, as well as English and French. My parents started different careers from scratch.


JG: On completion of your schooling, you studied at two leading institutions of higher studies, gaining one degree in Mechanical Engineering and another in Business Administration. You then went to Ladany columbia-university-logo1Columbia University in New York for your doctoral studies in Business Administration. You were invited to lecture at many universities throughout the world. You have many inventions to your credit, eight of which you have registered as patents. You have written dozens of scientific books, including the "English-Hebrew Dictionary of Statistical Terminology", which was published by the Israel Institute of Productivity, as well as many more scientific articles. When did sport become an important part of your life?

SL: I had been an amateur marathon runner, but during my doctoral years at Columbia I turned to competitive walking [4] and began to train for the 1968 Olympic Games, and after I received my doctorate I trained intensively for six months. I represented Israel in the 1968 and 1972 games.

Ladany b & w Ladany podium

JG: The 1972 Olympic Games had been dubbed as "Heiteren Spiele", or "the Happy Games". But as we know, they ended in tragedy, when terrorists belonging to "Black September" forced entry into the Olympic Ladany 1972 victimsVillage and  penetrated the apartments of some members of the Israeli team, killing two outright and taking nine others hostage. The German government agreed to supply the terrorists with a helicopter   so as to allow them and their hostages to be flown to Cairo, but the terrorists machine-gunned some of the athletes and exploded the helicopter. In all, 11 members of your team were killed. How did you escape the attack?


SL: Our team was lodged in a building with apartment units side-by-side in Ladany Sun headline the Olympic Village, and five team-mates and I occupied a unit sandwiched between the two adjacent apartments that were attacked. I heard screams from one of the adjacent units and I ran to inform the team manager. The rest is history. The Games were stopped for 24 hours. The surviving members of the Israeli delegation were ordered to return home, contrary to my advice. ]5]


JG: You have told us how you survived the bombing of your house at the age of 5, the death camp at the age of 8, the terrorist attack at the Munich Games - and you could have added the emergency landing of your plane when one engine ceased operating on a flight to Denmark. What other frightening experiences have you had?

SL: One experience that comes to mind occurred when I was in charge of an artillery battery in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Shells were falling from all directions and after my soldiers had sought shelter in their bunker, I myself ran for cover at such speed that I think I must have broken the world record for the 100 meter run. 

In the recent Operation Protective Edge, I had to go down with colleagues and students to the University shelter when rockets from Gaza were falling on Beer-Sheva. Going into a shelter was bad enough but during a previous rocket attack, while driving in my car from my home to the University, I was forced to jump out of my car at the entrance to Beer-Sheva and protect myself against a wall as the rockets exploded around me.

Ladany medalsJG: You have won over 700 sporting awards, including that of World Champion in the 100 kilometers event at the Lugano Games of 1972. Your world record for the 50-miles walk has remained unbroken for over 30 years. What was your most difficult walking experience?



Ladany tubizeSL: The hardest walk was a non-competitive, four-day, 300-kilometer walk from Paris to Tubize, near Brussels. There is very little time for sleeping, which makes it more strenuous than any competitive 100 kilometer competition. I participated in that event 10 times and stopped participating only at the age of 74.


JG: How much walking are you doing these days? 

SL:   I do a minimum of 15 kilometers a day. This weekend I will participate in a walk of 22 kilometers on very difficult, rocky ground. I also still take part in half-marathons.

JG: Do you find that walking sharpens your brain?

Ladany 2SL: Definitely. When we are exercising we have more blood, and hence more oxygen, flowing to the brain. My eureka moments always come when I'm walking. Jean-Jacques Rousseau has said it already. I have come up with mathematical models while I'm walking.





LMJ: Were any of your cups or plaques awarded for sporting achievements other than walking?

SL: Yes, there is an annual event in which participants swim from one side of the Sea of Galilee [6] to the other. I have participated every year for 54 years, (wearing shoes, to traverse the stones at the beginning and end of the swim.) When I complete the swim, I walk back to my car, which I have parked near the starting point.

  Ladany Tiberius  

JG: I would like to end this interview with a linguistic question. If we regard Serbo-Crout as one single language, and add Russian, Hungarian, German, Yiddish, English, French and Hebrew, that makes 8 languages. What was the 9th language that you learned?

SL: When I was studying for my doctorate at Columbia University, I chose to do a course called "the language of mathematics". If you are willing to regard mathematics as a language, then I have acquired a respectable command of 9 languages. 

LMJ: Galileo, the great Italian physician, philosopher and astronomer, said: " La Matematica  è l'alfabeto in cui Dio ha scritto l' Universo " (Mathematics is the alphabet in which God wrote the Universe). So by that standard you may be regarded as having a command of a ninth language, too. We hope that you will continue to have a fascinating, but less dangerous life. To use a Biblical blessing : May you live to be 120.

 Ladany the language of mathematics



Ladany Tel[1] Beer-sheva (in Hebrew , בְּאֶר שֶׁבַע , « wells of oath » or « seven wells », in Arabic بِئْرْ اَلْسَبْعْ Biʼr as-Sabʻ.  Based on archeological discoveries, the site of a nearby hill a few miles north-east of the modern city was occupied by humans since the fourth century B.C.  The site was destroyed and reconstructed several times in the course of the centuries.  (Wikipedia)



[2] Rudolf (Rezső) Kastner (Kasztner), 1906-1957, was an attorney, journalist and the leader of the Aid and Rescue Committee during the occupation of Hungary Ladany trainby the Nazis in the Second World War. He was also charged with negotiating with the SS leaders for authorization for 1,684 Jews to leave Hungary for Switzerland, in exchange for money, gold and diamonds, on what came to be called “the Kastner train”. Kastner knew 8 languages including Aramaic.



[3] Otto Adolf Eichmann  1906 –  1962) was a German Nazi SS Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) and one of the major organisers of the Holocaust. Eichmann was charged by SS-Obergruppennführer Reinard Heydrich with facilitating and managing the logistics of mass deportatiuon of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II. In 1960, he was captured in Argentina  by the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service.

Kastner and Eichman both died in Israel, within 4 years of each other. Kastner was assassinated and Eichman was executed (the first and last person to be sentenced to death by an Israeli court).

Ladany shoes[4] The basic rule of competitive walking is that the competitor must have one foot touching the ground at all times. If the competitor appears to the judges to be running, he may be disqualified.


Ladany Spitz[5] Before the terrorist attack, the Jewish American swimmer, Mark Spitz, won 7 gold medals. After the attack, he took the first plane back to the U.S.A.

[6] Tubize (Tubeke in Flemish) is a commune of Brabant in the arrondisement of Nivelles (Belgium).

[7] The Kinnereth or Lake of Tiberius (also called the Lake Gennesaret or the Sea of Galilee) is 20 km long and 10 km broad, and more than 200 m below sea level. The name place derives from the Roman Emperor Tiberius who ruled the Roman province of Judea. It is the place where Jesus walked on water, according to Matthew 14:22-36.

Additional reading:


Ladany book 1

King of the Road: From Bergen-Belsen to the Olympic Games : 
the Autobiography of an Israeli Scientist and a World-record-holding Race Walker

By Shaul Ladany
Geffen Publishing, 2008

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

Interview with British wordsmith (and musician) Christopher Goldsack

The following interview was conducted between Los Angeles and London.

Christian Goldsack
The interviewee - Christopher Goldsack
Photo: Ian Cole


The interviewer - Jonathan Goldberg

 You graduated in physics from Cambridge University, but it appears that at an early stage you switched the focus of your interests to music.

Yes, I had always sung and been involved in choral music, at school and university, where there was a wonderful choral tradition. I studied Guildhall-school-of-music-physics and then trained as a teacher and embarked on a career as a school science and maths teacher. It was then that I started missing the high quality choral singing that I had been used to, so I started singing more for myself and chose to go to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as an external student for private singing lessons. In the end I decided to indulge myself for a year and go to study singing for my own pleasure at the Guildhall as a post-graduate student – but soon realised that my heart would have me stay longer and stayed for three years.

You also had a love of the French language. Where did you learn the language and how did you develop your command of French?

I had been exposed to French early on, as my mother was Belgian, but I really developed my fluency in the language when I spent a year in the Swiss Alps before going to university, working as a supervisor in a small boarding school and enjoying plenty of skiing. Consequently my understanding of the language is very much an aural rather than a studied grammatical one. Bernac

My first singing teacher, whilst I was at Cambridge, had also studied with Pierre Bernac, so I was soon introduced to the rich diversity of French mélodie. As a lyric baritone my voice lent itself to much of the French repertoire too.

Once at the Guildhall I continued to work at the repertoire, but I was becoming aware that my background as a scientist had not actually prepared me for working with language and poetry and I was looking for a way to engage more deeply with the texts of the songs I was singing. For my first serious recital I prepared a programme for the audience, and I translated the texts myself. I engaged with the texts as I hadn't done before. I started translating texts as a way of exploring the poetry, but also as a way of engaging with songs that I might never actually sing, such as songs for female singers.

My first significant professional work came in France and I spent a year working for Opéra de Lyon. I took the translations with me and spent many a happy hour in the city library. Eventually I developed a body of work that I thought might be the beginnings of something worth publishing. I started approaching a few publishers, but it was the early days of the internet and already it was looking as though quite a lot of this would be freely available and I gave up on that idea. Eventually I decided to join the trend and use the internet as a platform for my own website.

In truth much of this work is a student project. I have occasionally come across a glaring error from the days that my understanding of the language was less than it is now. Ideally all the translations would be re-edited, but with my current professional commitments that is unrealistic. I am now checking any translations that I am asked about as and when they are needed.

What was your first contact with the musical scene in France?

With my interest in French music I felt I should explore the possibility of settling in France as a base and I started looking for opportunities to perform there. In my last year at the Guildhall I saw that the chorus master from Lyon was holding auditions for extra chorus members and I signed up for an audition. He was rather surprised that I should be interested in what was relatively lowly work and I explained my situation. It happened that he had the brief of locating a singer to take over in a student production of Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges. He suggested that I come to Lyon and study at the Opera Studio there, whilst supporting myself financially by working for him and doing small parts for the main company. It was a wonderful way to get started in France.

You now concentrate on education. How did you turn to education rather than performance as your main professional activity?

I did have a very successful start to my professional career. I won several major international singing competitions and worked for all the major opera companies in Britain. French was always an important part of my repertoire, but I was equally comfortable singing in other languages of course. Unfortunately I started having a few small health issues which interfered with my singing and availability for work. Initially I took some private pupils as a way of keeping me afloat and supporting my family (I have a wife, who is also a singer and teacher, and a daughter).

As part of your private work, you have created and directed choirs, and unusually, you have made the teaching of French song one of your major occupations. You have given classes in French song at the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. This is an unusual specialization. Is there a demand for language coaches? Is French a popular language in the world of song?

Goldsack Promenade Choirs

I love working with young singers. As it became harder to support a professional career I took the conscious decision to change my professional focus to teaching. I had trained as a teacher and education is still in my blood. I started a youth choir as a way of bringing my experience to a wider circle of young singers locally to me. I now enjoy performing with the choirs as much as I ever did as a soloist. I deputise for local conductors and offer technical expertise to any choir that asks me for support.

I would ideally like to have a post at one of the London conservatoires, but that hasn't yet been forthcoming, though many of my private pupils have gone on to study there very successfully. I am, however, still recognized for my work in French repertoire and, as you say, am often asked to deputise as a tutor for French song classes at all the conservatoires. They all set up classes in the major singing languages as part of the learning process for students.


Is singing in English available to French students, or does English by and large not lend itself to choral singing or operas.

English is very much a singing language. Many French singers find it quite difficult to approach English, and indeed other languages, so coaches are needed. It is not something I have been called upon to do much… yet…

Your website contains "A Guide to Singing in French", containing quite technical guidance on matters such as diphthongs, semi-vowel glides, nasal vowels, etc. But could you explain to our readers in general terms the advantage to English-speaking students of having a Brit teach them French pronunciation as opposed to a Frenchman doing that.

When I was at Lyon I spent a lot of time gaining the acceptance of native French singers as an interpreter of French repertoire. I worked with local coaches to ensure that what I was doing with the language and pronunciation was above reproach, at least in song. Some of the highlights of my career were certainly the major international competitions that I won in France, singing French repertoire. I learned a lot about how language worked with music and above all the details of French phonetics. I have spent a lot more time analyzing the phonetics than any native speaker would do and, though after twenty-five years back in England I might not speak as fluently as I once did, I am very aware of the specific issues that many non-native singers have with the language. Interestingly, when I coach at the conservatoires, I frequently come across French singers who are really surprised when I start picking them up on the details of their own language. The language is evolving and there are aspects of the phonetics that are appropriate for songs and poetry that are now largely glossed over.

Your website contains translations into English of the works of Auric, Bachelet, Berlioz, Bizet, de Breville, Casterède and many other French composers and lyricists. I would like to ask you about these translations, but first let me define the terms literal translations, non-singable and singable commonly used in this field:

1)  Literal translations, sometimes also including pronunciation guides, to aid those singing or hearing the lyrics in the original language.  They do not fit the music, so they cannot be sung.  Usually they are not poetic in diction and are not in verse.  They are often found in program notes.  

2)  Non-singable verse translations, for those wishing to understand the original lyrics, but willing to sacrifice some literality in order to experience something of the poetry of the original.  These translations also do not fit the music and thus also cannot be sung. 

3)  Singable translations, that is, translations which can be sung to the original music, having the proper meaning, number of syllables, accents, and diction level, and (usually) versification reminiscent of the original and compatible with the music.  They are performed, sometimes in the United States, often in England.

So my question relating to your own translations is which category they fall into and what considerations have determined your choice.

They are literal translations. I am trying to make the language of this vast and diverse repertoire accessible to non-native speakers - singers and audience alike. I try to stick closely to the meaning of the text and word order, but occasionally I might change word order to clarify meaning.

There was a time when I would have laughed at the concept of creating a translation of a Debussy mélodie to be sung – but interestingly I did understudy a performance of Pelléas in Pelléas et Mélisande for English National Opera. It was such a success in bringing the work to the wider British audience that I have softened my view. Creating a worthwhile singing translation is the work of a poet, however, and one with a gift for music at that. I have written singing translations of some things for my choir – notably for Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes – but it is not something I find easy, and there are many who would to the job better.

Finally it might be worth saying a little about how I chose which songs to translate… I would often browse scores and recordings and come across songs that appealed to me. I have tried to cover all the standard repertoire, but add a selection of the broader repertoire too. The Casterède songs, for instance, are a wonderful but challenging cycle. The composer had been on the jury of a competition that I won. Afterwards he composed this cycle and sent me the score. The texts are by a poet called Alain Suied, whom I had known for several years through his association with a musical organization called Le Triptyque.

Because creating singable translations is difficult, the best known English lyrics of popular songs that were originally not in English are sometimes not translations at all.  Though they (usually) bear the same title as the original, they are entirely new English lyrics having only a tenuous relation to the meaning of the original. Some examples that come to mind are Edith Piaf's song "La vie en rose" and "Les Miserables".  Would you agree with that?

Certainly the best singing translations must be faithful to the spirit of the original, but be very natural in translation. This will often mean that the translation will differ markedly from the original. The nature of the French language compared to English, which has a much stronger rhythm, makes French vocal music much more fluid. However, even in translations this can make a significant effect. When I was at Lyon I was involved in the company's performance of Richard Strauss's Salomé, in the composer's own re-working of Oscar Wilde's original French text to his score. [1] Strauss spoke about the difficulty he had adapting the French language to his music, and the final opera feels quite different in French.

[1] Blog note:

Salomé is a tragedy by Oscar Wilde. The original 1891 version of the play was in French.  The play tells in one act the Biblical story of Salome, stepdaughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who, to her stepfather's dismay but to the delight of her mother Herodias, requests the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the dance of the seven veils.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

Interview with Dutch wordsmith (and tour guide) Geert Sivellis

Jonathan G. interviewed Geert Sillevis following a guided walking tour through Amsterdam conducted by Geert.

 Geert Sillevis

  Geert Sivellis

LMJ: You have Dutch-sounding names and you live in Amsterdam, and yet you were born and grew up in Portugal. How did that happen?

Geert SillevisGS: My parents are both Dutch but they met in Portugal and have been involved in commerce there for many years. I spent my first 19 years near Lisbon.


LMJ : The first thing anyone listening to you would notice is that you speak English articulately and with a pure Anglo accent, in very idiomatic English, and at great speed. No-one would imagine that you were not born and bred in the United States. But in fact you were born in Portugal to Dutch parents and later moved to Holland. Can you tell our readers more about that?

Geert SillevisG.S.: I grew up in a very international community within Portugal. There were at least 5 English-language international schools in the area.  The common language was English. My parents briefly attempted to teach their offspring Dutch, but it proved too confusing for the young brains that were at the same time learning English and Portuguese. Since Dutch was considered the least useful language at that point, it was dropped. My parents did retain it as their secret language, however. They would speak Dutch to each other when they had something to discuss that the kids weren't to know. I only began to learn Dutch after moving to the Netherlands for University (where my courses were also all in English).
Many people find the 'Dutch boy born in Portugal but speaks English' story to be amusing and confusing, but it was very common where I grew up. We all watched a lot of American television and movies, which gave us the idioms. As for the high speed at which I speak, I suppose that comes from being the youngest of four boys. It was the only way to get my piece in!


LMJ: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have the strongest possible command of English or of any language other than that spoken by the local population?

Geert SillevisG.S.: Something many people notice when they visit Portugal is the relatively high level of English spoken there, especially when compared with neighbouring Spain. The main reason for this is that Portugal doesn't dub English language television or movies, whereas Spain does. That means that the Portuguese have a lot more contact with the English language. So my advice would be - watch television!

LMJ: You moved to Utrecht at the age of 19. Which studies did you pursue?

Geert SillevisG.S.: I attended University College Utrecht. It was the first American-style Liberal Arts College of the Netherlands. There are now University Colleges in many Dutch cities. My studies centered around History, Literature and the Performing Arts, with many little things on the side. My Major was Humanities.

: Can you rank the languages you know, in order of your spoken and written command of them?

Geert SillevisG.S. : English is first, native in speech and writing. I am fluent (but not native) in spoken Portuguese, but I find it very difficult to write it. My Dutch is always improving - I would consider myself relatively fluent now. Again, I struggle to write it (written Dutch is quite different from spoken Dutch). I speak near fluent Spanish, or rather, Portuñol, which most Portuguese can speak. I don't have much occasion to write in Spanish. And last and least, I speak some French, at least enough to get by when travelling in Francophone countries.

In Amsterdam, it's possible to live for a long time without ever needing to speak Dutch. People here are eager to speak English.


LMJ : You work as a tour guide for a leading tour company in Amsterdam. But you are an independent contractor. Do you see this as your long-term career or as a stepping stone?

Geert SillevisG.S.: I just turned 30, so these are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night. Honestly, I thoroughly enjoy the work. I enjoy meeting people from around the world and telling stories. The freedom of having my own business (the wonderful Get Lost Tours) allows me to pursue my other interests, such as writing, travel, acting and random bouts of creativity. I have written and directed a few film projects. I hope to continue to use my work as a way of funding my hobbies. Also, I like to use my background in guiding to create new things. For example, a partner and I set up Zeyto Games, and we design treasure hunt/escape room puzzle-type games that are played so as to explore Amsterdam and Lisbon, solve puzzles and learn the cities’ history all at once!

  Get Lost Tours Zeyto  

LMJ : As a tour guide you share many historical points about Amsterdam and Holland in general. How in-depth is your knowledge of Dutch history? Do you have to keep up reading on these subject?

Geert SillevisG.S.: I love to read Dutch history, I love to visit museums and fortunately I have friends who love the same things so we're often sharing stories. I would say I have a relatively deep knowledge of Dutch history, although it's definitely Amsterdam-centric.


LMJ: What other professional activities have you pursued alongside your work as a tour guide?

Geert SillevisG.S.: I have worked as a travel writer (which was not as fun as it sounds). I hosted a radio show for a year and I've done some work as a voice actor. Four years ago I was hired to set up the Lisbon operation of one of the tour companies I work with and spent 9 months doing that. As I said above, I started designing city-wide games. Less professionally (i.e. things I am not paid to do), I write stories and perform them, and I'm currently working on a children's book and very, very slowly working on writing a musical.

LMJ : How do you compare Lisbon and Amsterdam as cities to live in? Is there another city you would like to live in?


population 530,000


population 800,000

Geert SillevisG.S.: Lisbon is changing rapidly so I might be very out of date in my impressions. It is becoming quite the tech hotspot - it's very cheap to live in, the people are extremely friendly and the food is the best in Europe. The climate is incredible and it is incredibly beautiful. I choose to live in Amsterdam because it is so international and the standard of living is very high. That means you have lots of creative people with the time and the resources to engage in their passions. That makes it easy for me to find illustrators, composers and designers to work with on my little projects. The only downside here is the terrible weather, which I can live with. Amsterdam is fun and friendly, unbelievably safe and very small.  I'm a small town boy at heart. Honestly, I'm always surprised that more people don't come live in Amsterdam. It's as close to a perfect city as I've ever seen. That said, should the opportunity arise, I'd love to live in New York or San Francisco, both cities I've spent some time in.

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

Interview with Welsh wordsmith (and forensic linguist) John Olsson


The interviewer:  


Our correspondent, Joëlle Vuille, Ph.D.holder of a law degree and a doctorate in criminology, is assistant professor of law at the University of Fribourg. Joëlle lives in the Geneva region.



A Olsson
The interviewee:

John Olsson,
Ph.D., professor emeritus of the University of Bangor, Wales, a distinguished world specialist in forensic linguistics, and author of several books, including "Word Crime. Solving Crime Through Forensic Linguistics". Professor Olsson kindly agreed to respond questions that Professor Vuille put to him. We thank them both for shedding light on a linguistic field that is not well known.


Olsson  map Wales   Olsson Word Crime

JV: How did you become interested in forensic linguistics?

JO: I first became interested in authorship at about the age of 22 while studying literature, but it remained a dormant interest for a long time. In between I had studied psychology and became interested in behaviour, and had studied Skinner and Watson, but felt that behaviourism did not have any of the answers. I found behaviourist theories of language very weak and was interested to read Noam Olsson - Chomsky Olsson Coulthard Chomsky’s somewhat damning rebuttal of what Skinner had to say about language. In the early 1990s I decided to study linguistics and took an MA at Bangor University. I got to hear about work being carried out at Birmingham University under Professor Malcolm Coulthard on fabricated confessions and did a postgraduate dissertation on that topic, and later a PhD in forensic authorship methods, which I actually took at Glamorgan University where they were developing a new section in the forensic sciences.


JV:  How do forensic linguistics work, in a nutshell?

JO: Forensic linguistics is really an umbrella term for a number of related disciplines, all to do with language and the law. Some people are interested in legal language and how ordinary people interact with that. I just examined a PhD dissertation from a student in the Caribbean Olsson cartoonwho was interested in the disconnect between lawyers’ language and the language of the lay client. It was fascinating to see, once again, how the real difficulty was not so much that this was legal language which people were grappling with, but poor communication skills on the part of the professionals. You have to take the view that if a client cannot understand what a lawyer is saying then it is the lawyer’s fault. The client can absolutely not be blamed for that: the problem is, it can be very costly for the average person. One interesting example was the word ‘deed’ as it applies to land. In this particular case the client was an elderly, very religious lady who interpreted the word ‘deed’ in a biblical sense, as an act, a religious act, and the lawyer – I’m afraid they do not teach lawyers literature or Latin any more – did not pick up that this was the sense in which the client understood ‘deed’. The lady had a dispute with her husband about property, and she was thinking that ‘deed’ had something to do with the act of separating from her husband, and how a ‘deed’ would deliver the land to her in a religious sense. For twenty minutes the lawyer and the client simply spoke at cross purposes to each other. This goes beyond legal language, or the language of the law: it is really to do with ignorance and arrogance on the part of lawyers who talk down to their clients. The really successful lawyers know how to talk to non-legal people. They understand that the difference between their own perspective and the perspective of the client is not purely linguistic, or even cultural, but, rather, depends on an understanding of how the law works. You only get that if you train and work as a lawyer. The problem is that some lawyers seem to forget that the average person they speak to is not going to understand legal principles without a little help.

What linguists can do in relation to this type of problem is to show lawyers how to communicate better with their clients. It is really a communication problem as much as a legal language problem. Unfortunately, most forensic linguists have little or no knowledge of the law. In Europe and America, there are perhaps no more than half a dozen linguists with legal qualifications.

Having said all of that, I have come across some lawyers who are wonderful communicators, both inside and outside of the court room. They are the really successful ones, the top QCs who are doing murder trials and major fraud cases.


JV: Tell us about a case where forensic linguistics had an important impact on the investigation or prosecution of a suspect.

JO: My own specialty is authorship, although I do sometimes get asked to do things like interpreting gang language or even to break codes. A couple of years ago a young man was in Manchester prison charged with attempted murder. He wrote a letter to his girlfriend and told her that on the back of the page were a bunch of numbers but she was to disregard those. In the UK, it may be the same in other countries, the prison authorities censor outgoing mail and they passed this letter to the police. It ended up on my desk and at first I could not make sense of it. It was very short, about 80 words. There weren’t even 26 different symbols, and Olsson detectiveof the symbols turned out to be punctuation marks, and indeed some of the punctuation marks turned out to be symbols. It was a motley thing. After playing around with it for a while I remembered one of the officers telling me that the writer was extremely polite, courteous, considerate and so on, suspiciously so. I idly wondered if the word ‘please’ might appear in his text and so I looked for strings of six letters or characters and began to play with those. Eventually, I found one that looked promising and broke the code from there. It turned out that our young man was telling his girlfriend to take a big bag of cash around to the victim’s house and try to bribe him into not giving evidence. I must say, it was a very generous offer, but fortunately it never reached its intended recipient. Even if it had he probably would have felt safer with the shooter behind bars. So, in fact, he got a much more severe sentence than he would have, because he was attempting to pervert the course of justice, as well as having tried to kill someone.

Mostly, however, I do authorship cases. It isn’t always the major murder cases which prove the most important. Sometimes it is good to know that through work you have done you have actually helped to turn someone’s life around. I recently did work in an harassment case, and I am sure that if the writer in that case had not been found, he would have simply continued to make his victim’s life a complete misery.

Olsson judgeJV: How reliable are forensic linguistics? Do courts usually admit evidence based on forensic linguistics?

JO: In the UK, authorship has a good track record in the courts. I think between my colleagues and myself we have probably collectively given evidence well in excess of a hundred times. I’ve given evidence on about 70 or 80 occasions, in a wide variety of courts, from magistrates’ courts to the Court of Appeal, and several foreign courts, sometimes in person, sometimes via video link.

When you give evidence in the UK you often get asked questions by the judge. Judicial intervention is very common in UK courts – judges take a hands-on approach to understanding the value or significance of expert evidence. It is an entirely different system from what you have in the States. Frankly, I prefer our system because I think it is the judge’s court. He or she knows the case probably as well as the lawyers do, if not better, and it is the judge who will be able to assess the value of the evidence. A judge who finds expert evidence unpersuasive can always direct a jury accordingly. I am not in favour of reams of complicated rules about what judges can and cannot do. There are not many incompetent judges around.

JV: Based on the trends that you are observing now, can you predict how forensic linguistics will evolve in the next decades?

JO: Forensic linguistics has a huge capacity to solve crime – even to prevent crime, but unfortunately governments have very little Olsson Serviceinsight into its potential. Actually, it is almost entirely down to the legal profession that we have had the advances that we have had. Recently in the UK the government closed down the Forensic Science Services to save a paltry few million pounds a year, while – I am sure – stocking up on such essentials as banqueting crockery, government wine cellars and ministerial car pools. Thus, I am not sanguine that, absent the dedication of a handful of linguists, the perseverance of certain lawyers committed to justice, and the occasional perspicacious judge, we will necessarily see much advancement on where we are now. I know that sounds pessimistic, but if you think for a moment where the money is going in law enforcement, it is going on weapons and buildings and more powerful surveillance systems. It is not going on understanding and analysing human interaction and the study of individual differences.

JV: You taught forensic linguistics for a number of years before studying the law? How did you find the experience of going back to being a student after being an academic for such a long time?

JO: Well, it’s an experience I would recommend to everyone. In fact, I think every academic ought to be sent back to class about every ten or Olsson booksfifteen years – don’t send them on a sabbatical, put them back in a classroom and let them see what it’s like for the students of today – all of whom work when they are not studying, many of whom have to live in less than ideal conditions, study in libraries with often inadequate facilities, and cope with the shock of having left home, and suddenly having to make really important decisions about their lives. So, if you do send your professors back to class, for goodness sake – don’t pay them a salary. Make them live like the other students do.

Olsson BangorHaving said that, I really enjoyed my time. First of all, Bangor is my favourite university – I absolutely love the atmosphere, and just the way people are so easy to get on with. I had great lecturers, great fellow students, and the subject was one I had always wanted to get my teeth into. Since finishing the degree I have spent a lot of time in court as an observer, and in fact am currently working towards doing the bar exam next year. So, yes, there’s something quite addictive about studying, and I think every academic should get back to it often.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.


Interview with British linguist (and food, architecture and film critic) Jonathan Meades

Meades 1
The interviewee - Jonathan Meades The interviewer - Jonathan Goldberg

Jonathan Meades
, a British intellectual, has established a solid reputation with  public both within Britain and beyond its borders, in particular in the fields of food, architecture, films (about 25 television documentaries) and writing. Amongst all his professional activities, he served as the culinary critic of
The Times of London for several years.





JG: A short list of the fields in which you have established a solid reputation in the public eye includes food, architecture, film documentaries (about 50 TV films) and writing. To begin our interview on the subject of food: as the restaurant critic of The Times for many years, what is your view of the recent case in France [Une blogueuse condamnée pour une critique de restaurant : une décision de faible portée - L'OBS] in which a court fined a blogger who wrote a critical review of a restaurant, after the owner complained that the review had adversely affected his reputation? You spend long periods in France. How would you deal with such constraints if you were a food critic in France?

  Meades 3  

JM: I stopped writing about food and restaurants and about the questions such writing might raise fifteen years ago. Having said which food blogs do appear to attract some spectacularly ignorant non-writers.

JG: Your research into unusual aspects of architecture is well known to the public through several series of TV programmes of which the first was Abroad in Britain, (available in DVD format). How would you explain the anomaly of that title to our French readers and why did you choose it?

JM: My British subjects have invariably been provincial. As someone who lived all his adult life in London till seven years ago the British provinces are foreign, they are abroad...

JG: In a two-part documentary, Magnetic North, you introduced the British public to the lesser-known aspects of Northern Europe. Considering that many Britons have travelled throughout Northern Europe, how did you go about researching material that would make the film an eye-opener for TV audiences.

Meades 4

JM: The very point was that most Britons are entirely ignorant of northern Europe. The British, when they travel in Europe, favour Spain, France and Italy. Virtually anything i chose to show in northern Europe would be unknown to them. The programmes were, by the way, not travelogues but, like most of my stuff, polemical essays.

Meades 5JG: In 2012 BBC4 screened Jonathan Meades on France, a series in which you visited your "second country". You seem to have adopted Benjamin Franklin's dictum: "Every man has two countries : his own and France." As someone who is very familiar with many European countries, what particular attraction does France hold for you?

JM: As I pointed out the 'dictum' is not Benjamin Franklin's. It comes from a play by Henri de Bornier - who was French. I admire French republicanism.

  Meades 6  

JG: You recently wrote an article in The Guardian entitled "So frenchy, so touchy, about the English language.", in which you suggested that the French should drop their opposition to the influence of English. You wrote: "What is ... peculiar is the dogged Canutism of a certain stratum of French society that fails to acknowledge that languages are mongrel organisms, and that the idea of purity is as unachievable as it is undesirable." But don't you think that there comes a point in the slavish adoption of English where many Frenchmen can have a legitimate fear that their language and culture are under threat?

JM: The chances of the French 'slavishly adopting' anything that they don't want to adopt are nil.

Meades 7JG: Your dozen published books include "Filthy English", a collection of short stories and your first work of fiction. Stephen Fry said that no-one understands England better than Meades. One reader described the book as follows:".. A meal consisting of pan-fried foie gras with raspberry reduction, followed by confit of duck with cherry reduction, and a crepe Suzette to close. All delicious in their way but not in one evening." Can you relate to that opinion expressed  in culinary terms? Another reader wrote  that he had only understood every third word. Might your style be too high-falutin in today's dumbed-down society? Put otherwise, is this a book to be appreciated principally by the literatii? 

JM: I despise writers who take any notice of what their readers say, especially when they say it in so corny a way 

LMJ: What are you currently doing in France? When in France do you engage in the same activities as if you were at your desk in England? What are your plans for the future?

JM: I am writing a new book and planning a new tv show - two almost antithetical exercises.


Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

Interview with British wordsmith (author, translator and professor of translation studies) David Bellos


David Bellos  


Dr. David Bellos -
the interviewee 
  Dr. Geraldine Brodie -
the interviewer 
Princeton   University-college-london-ucl (1)
University of Princeton      University College London


David Bellos is the Meredith Howland Pyne Professor of French and Comparative Literature  and Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University. He is the author of Romain Gary: A Tall Story (published by Vintage Digital, 2010), and Georges Perec: A Life in Words (published by David R. Godine, 1993) (Prix Goncourt for biography), amongst other books, and the translator of Chronicle in Stone: A Novel by Ismael Kadare (Arcade Publishing, 2011), amongst other translations.

Geraldine Brodie, our Linguist of the Month of August 2016 and since then a regular contributor to this blog is Senior Lecturer in Translation Theory and Theatre Translation in the Centre for Multidisciplinary and Intercultural Inquiry, where she convenes the MA in Translation Theory and Practice. *


GBYour career has progressed from obtaining an Oxford French degree to becoming Professor of French and Comparative Literature and Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton. University, one of the leading universities in the USA.  How has your study of French literature and language informed your interest in translation?


David BellosIn my youth I was a scholar of nineteenth-century French literature, with a special interest in Balzac and in the book market of the Romantic era.  Obviously, as a university teacher of French, I taught translation every week, but I never thought of myself as being a translator—which is just as well, since I now realize how specific the discipline of pedagogic translation really is. But one day, a colleague put in my hand a slightly dog-eared paperback copy of Georges Perec’s La Vie : mode d’emploi, saying, he couldn’t finish this, but I would probably like it. And indeed I did! It was a revelation. It struck me as a novel that happened to have been written in French but could just as well have been in English, or any language. I wanted to share it. More than that: I wanted to write it! By a series of adventures and misadventures, I did eventually get the chance to do just that. It was a lucky turn of events. La Vie mode d’emploi is not quite as difficult as it looks (much of it echoes the English tradition of the comic novel), but it is a pretty tough assignment (and a very long one) all the same. I think I learned to translate by translating that work. I learned a huge amount about writing in English, and also about the nature of French. The two languages are very close and have long borrowed from each other, but the task of creating Life: A User’s Manual really showed me how different they are in structural terms. To move a work successfully from one to the other takes quite a bit of thought, and if the end product makes it look easy, that’s because the process was Perec Life A User's Manualvery hard. That’s how my so-called career as a translator began: serendipitously. And I do not really think of it as a career. I have always had a day-job. But because Life: A User’s Manual attracted considerable attention, I was asked to translate more Perec, and then all sorts of other things too. Which I did, and still do, but limiting myself to one book a year, since the job that pays the rent has to take priority, after all.

For each book, I do my best to conform to the current ideology of translation, which requires the translator to find an English “voice” for each foreign author and to submit his or her own writing to that imagined identity and style. In retrospect, however, I realise that I write the way I write and that irrespective of my effort to find the right tone for Simenon or Berr or Fournel or Kadare, there must be stylistic commonalities between all the books I have written under my own name and all those I have written as translations. Perhaps one day some assiduous analyst will be able to nail down what it is that makes a translation by me more like another translation by me than like a translation of the same author by another hand. I can’t see what those features are, because they are natural to me, but I strongly suspect they exist.

What I like about translating is that it gives me a chance to bring things that I like to an audience beyond the academy. Luck also plays a role—in the titles that are brought to my attention, and in the respectful relations I have with a number of publishers who understand my taste. Also, because I do have that day job, I only translate books I like, and I know that is a rare and in a sense quite outrageous privilege to have as a translator. But I also think that because translating demands scholarship, on the one hand, and creativity, on the other, it is one of the most rewarding things that a language specialist can do.

GBYour publications list is hugely varied, with a large number of translations to your name. How do you see the mix between academic literature, translations and more publications of more general interest among your work?



David BellosYou say my publications are varied, and I find that flattering, because I would like to believe that, like my hero Georges Perec, I never write the same book twice. Well, I would like to believe it, but it is not entirely true. Three of my books belong to the genre of biography (the lives of Perec, Tati, and Gary) calling on many of the same skills and methods, and they are located in the same cultural, geographic and chronological space—all my subjects are more or less un-French creators working in Paris between 1945 and 1982. 

  Perec Gary   Tati


Three of my other books are books about books (Cousine Bette, Père Goriot, and Les Misérables) and similarly exploit the same broad field of expertise and the same general methods of approach. The outlier is Is That a Fish in Your Ear? —but that’s about translation, something I’ve been doing for thirty years, and that I’ve been teaching for even longer than that. If I had the knowledge and the cheek, I’d like to be much more varied than that!

  A Fish in your Ear    Le poisson et le bananier
 Translation and the Meaning of Everything  

Une histoire fabuleuse de la traduction


GBIs That A Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything was described by Susan Harris in The Quarterly Conversation (5 December 2011) as ‘that marvelous rarity, a book by a specialist that can be enjoyed by general readers’. What inspired you to write this book?


David BellosI never intended to write a book about translation. In 2007 I was asked to become the director of a new undergraduate program at Princeton that aimed to educate our students about the nature and stakes of translation (not to train translators—Princeton doesn’t do vocational training of any kind). So I devised a new course that introduced some of the philosophical, linguistic, historical and social issues related to the phenomenon of translation. It was a whole new education for me! In the course of devising and teaching the course I became increasingly irritated by the numerous inherited clichés that many others have railed against before me, and I began to write a few little squibs about the silly things people carry on saying (“translation is no substitute for the original”, les belles infidèles, traduttore traditore, and so on). My son, who is a much more celebrated writer than I am, took a look and told me to carry on. So I did. Especially because on the first day of a semester of study leave I slipped on a patch of ice and broke my ankle, so I had three months stuck indoors in a plaster cast. What else could I do but write a book? I had no idea who might publish such a set of essays, so I contacted a literary agent, and she too urged me to carry on and to turn it into a book, subject to various adjustments she thought necessary. In due course, she found a publisher for me, and my editor at Penguin (and then the American editor at FSG) made all kinds of smart suggestions for re-ordering the material and bringing the work to completion. So although the book is undoubtedly mine, it is also the product of my students, my agent and my brilliant editors. I really enjoyed the back and forth, and the discovery of what the book really had to say through argument and discussion. I know a lot of people grumble about publishers and agents and editors but I must say I have found wisdom and support in those quarters. They are not writers, but they do know what writing is.


GBAs a translation expert, what are your thoughts on the translations of Is That A Fish in Your Ear? into various languages. Were you involved in the translation process?


David BellosSince I argue very strongly that everything can be translated—I have an almost allergic reaction to people who declare things to be untranslatable, even when translating books absurdly entitled “Dictionary of Untranslatables”—I was overjoyed when foreign publishers bought the rights to Is That A Fish in Your Ear?  It’s a book that can only be proved right by its own translation! Flammarion put me in touch with Daniel Loayza, who turned out to be the most perfect French translator imaginable. He’s a learned classicist with long experience in translating for the theatre and a tremendous sense of fun. He translated, I commented, and together we found solutions to the thorniest problems I had created, in correspondence but also in brainstorming sessions in Paris and in Princeton. The title was altered to Le Poisson et le bananier , because the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which inspired the English title, (Is That a Fish in Your Ear?….) is not very well known in France. [1] (It is not a problem in German, since Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is well known there—in fact, the German title is a direct quotation.) So for France we replaced it with an internal reference to the first translation of the Gospel of Matthew into Malay, where the parable of the fig tree is transformed into a banana in what is perhaps the earliest example of cultural substitution as a translation technique. The word fish remains in Le Poisson et le bananier, but supported by two additional pages explaining the story of the Babel Fish, with a picture to show it too.  The French translation appeared just a few weeks after the English original, so it was available to the Spanish translator as a model of adaptation; he borrowed some of Daniel Loayza’s ideas but also added informational paragraphs about the specific history of Bible translation in Spain, which is different from the English story. The German translation changes, adds and subtracts very little, partly because German is (perhaps surprisingly) quite close to English in translation culture. As for the Asian translations, I’m afraid I don’t have the equipment to get involved. I just look at the Korean on my bookshelf and admire.

GBWhat is your next project going to be?




 David BellosMy next project? I’ll tell you when it’s done! This semester I am teaching a new course on the history and culture of copyright (COM 332, Who Owns This Sentence?), in partnership with an Intellectual Property lawyer. It’s a complicated subject, also fascinating and great fun—and also, I believe, quite fundamental to the world in which we now live. But I don’t yet know if it will grow into a book very soon, or at all. Am I not allowed to take a break?



 [1] The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the first of five books in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comedy science fiction "trilogy" by Douglas Adams. The novel is an adaptation of the first four parts of Adams' radio series of the same name. The novel was first published in London on 12 October 1979.


* Geraldine devised and co-convened the Translation in History Lecture Series and the Theatre Translation Forum, and was a co-editor of the online journal New Voices in Translation Studies from 2012 to 2015.

Geraldine's research focuses on theatre translation practices in contemporary London, including the collaborative role of the translator in performance and the intermediality and interlinearity of surtitles.She is a frequent presenter on these topics, in the UK and internationally, and her work has been published in a variety of publications. Geraldine is a member of the Panel of Associates of ARTIS, a new research training initiative in the broad area of translation and interpreting studies.

Geraldine has an MA in Comparative Literature from University College London and read English as an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford where she specialised in Linguistics, Old and Middle English and Old French. She has a Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera from the Instituto Cervantes. Geraldine's research interests include the multiple voices of translation; direct, indirect and literal theatre translation; adaptation and version; the intermediality of surtitles; and ethics in translation. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and a member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. Geraldine's first monograph, The Translator on Stage, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Additional reading:

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables

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

Interview with British wordsmith (and professor of translator studies) Geraldine Brodie

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


The following interview was conducted by Skype between Los Angeles and Cartagena, Spain. 


Geraldine Brodie
Geraldine Brodie - The interviewee               J. G. - The interviewer 


LMJ:  You are a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and a member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. Did you study and practice Accounting before you came to the humanities? Did you abandon the former in favour of translation studies?

GB: In some ways I’ve had a circular career. I read English at Oxford, specialising in Old English and Old French language and literature. I’ve always had an interest in language, translation, interculturality and how they affect the way literature crosses borders.

KpmgAfter graduation, I trained as an accountant with the firm that is today KPMG. It wasn’t particularly unusual to do that with an English degree - accountants have to communicate well, and be systematic and enquiring. I was able to use my language skills there, running an audit in Paris. I stayed with the firm for 12 years, including two years in New York. While there, I took the opportunity to learn Spanish, at what is now the Instituto Cervantes.

That Spanish ultimately led me back to university. I signed up for a diploma in Spanish to improve my focus on learning, which remindedUCL me how much I enjoyed studying languages. I applied for a place on the Comparative Literature MA programme at University College London; I was intrigued by the Translation Studies element, which seemed to address the interlingual cultural issues that I had begun to explore at Oxford, and continued to interest me as I worked in different environments. From there, I didn’t look back. I went on to a Ph.D. in Translation Studies, and stayed on as a Teaching Fellow. I’m now a Lecturer in Translation Theory and Theatre Translation. I did all this part-time, as I continued to work as an accountant, and I still have business interests.


LMJ: Your academic field presumably rests upon two pillars – theatre and translation. How did you develop an interest in each of those and how did you go about combining them?

GB: I inherited my interest in theatre from my mother. One of my childhood treats was to go with her to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and I joined their youth programme (then called Theatre 67) when I was a teenager. An early highlight was a visit from Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet. My mother and I still enjoy the theatre together – we go to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon when we get the chance.

An essay on tragedy for the Comparative Literature MA was the catalyst for me to combine theatre and translation. I decided to compare plays by Ibsen and Lorca, and when I realised how many, sometimes startlingly different, English translations were available, I wanted to investigate and understand the translation process.

Manuela PerteghellaOf course, I’m only describing my own journey - I’m by no means the first to notice this phenomenon. In fact, I learned a great deal from Manuela Perteghella on a short course she taught at London Metropolitan University, and she also introduced me to academic theatre translation research circles when I was beginning my Ph.D.

: Could you define your field of study and research for the 10 years you have been with UCL.

GB: I find theatre a particularly rewarding site to study translation, because, as I’ve mentioned, new translations tend to be commissioned alongside each new production, especially for classic plays. For example, one of the books I use in teaching my undergraduate module European Theatre in Translation is Romy Heylen’s “Translation, Poetics, and the Stage: Six French Hamlets”, Translation book cover in which the author discusses successive translations of Shakespeare’s play over two centuries. In the other direction, tickets are currently being sold in London for Molière’s “The Miser” in a new adaptation by Sean Foley and Phil Porter. “The Miser” has already been translated into English on many occasions, but for this new production starring Griff Rhys Jones there will also be a new text. What does this continual cycle of reinvention tell us about the nature of translation (and theatre)?

My research investigates this procedure: how these translations are commissioned; which plays and translators are selected; where translated productions are staged; who are the translators and other theatre practitioners collaborating in the process. I am particularly interested in the progression from the initial play in another language to the translated text that is performed, and the terminology that is applied to describe the process.

In London, translation into English for the theatre often takes place via a “literal translation”, prepared by an expert in the source language, which is then used by a writer to create a performance text. The result of this process is usually billed as a version or an adaptation rather than a translation - but not always; so it is difficult to work out how the production you are seeing has been translated. A current Florian-Zellerexample of this is the work of the young French playwright Florian Zeller: three of his plays have recently been performed in London, all translated by the writer and director Christopher Hampton, who translates from French and German. And yet the most recent of these plays, “The Truth”, is billed as an adaptation. Why? In trying to answer questions like this, I am hoping to make the intercultural movements in theatre and translation more apparent and highlight the expert and very creative work of all the participants involved. That should include the literal translators, who are not given enough credit for their contribution, in my opinion. My book, “The Translator on Stage”, which I am currently writing for Bloomsbury, delves into these details.

LMJ: Were you ever able to use techniques learnt in accounting for your research or writings in translation studies?

GB: I use my accountancy skills all the time as a lecturer and researcher in Translation Studies. It’s useful to have a background in planning, budgeting and project management when organising teaching programmes and funded research activities. However, I have also drawn on my experiences investigating and documenting systems, learned when I was auditing organisations of all sizes from sole traders to multinational corporations, to research the field of theatre translation. My aim is to establish and record procedure, and then see whether I can find patterns or trends of behaviour.

So I don’t restrict my research to a particular language, historical period or genre of writing – I look at what is actually taking place on stage. With its very active and in some ways diverse theatre scene, London is a fruitful research ground for theatre translation. I estimate that around 12% of productions are derived from another language. These range from the classical plays of antiquity, such as Sophocles and Euripides, through historically renowned playwrights - Racine, Schiller, for example – to the more recent canon: Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Lorca, Brecht are all regularly performed. But there are also instances of lesser-known or contemporary playwrights being given rare or first performances in the English language. Plays do tend to come from the same languages, though -French, German, ancient Greek, Italian, Russian, Spanish. The Scandinavian languages are particularly well represented by number of productions. Of course, there are always exceptions to these generalised trends, and initiatives aiming to broaden the range.


LMJ: The book “Words, Images and Performances in Translation”, (to which you contributed a chapter, “Theatre Translation for Performance: Conflict of Interests, Conflict of Cultures”) demonstrates the ways in which words, images and performances are translated and reinterpreted in new socio-cultural contexts. Can you explain that concept?

GB: Anyone who has ever tried to translate knows that translation is far more than linguistic code-shifting. Replacing a word, phrase or sentence in one language with a similar unit in another is only the beginning of the communicative transfer. The book considered translation from a wider perspective, discussing how other media, such as artwork or advertising images, can be translated – and why the cultural implications of these activities are also relevant to what is traditionally thought of as translation.

My chapter on theatre translation discussed how a range of factors beyond code-shifting influenced the representation of translated theatre, which of course is a visual, aural and textual translation.

LMJ: You coedited a special issue of the Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance on "Martin Crimp – playwright, translator, translated", with Marie Nadia Karsky of Université Paris 8. Can you tell us about the symposium that took place on which that issue was based and on your collaboration with Marie Nadia Karsky?

GB: As so often happens in academia, this collaboration came about serendipitously.

Marie Nadia was a co-organiser of a symposium at Paris 8 where I had been invited to speak about theatre translation in London. Over a Misanthrope cup of coffee after the event, we discovered a shared interest in Martin Crimp’s translation of Molière’s “The Misanthrope”, from our different language perspectives.

InstitutA year or so later, I was invited to apply for funding from the Institut Français du Royaume-Uni to run a series of workshops at UCL developing links with French academic organisations and exploring directions for research collaborations. I immediately thought of Marie Nadia and our shared interest, which both of us had been developing in the intervening period. Marie Nadia, together with colleagues from the French research group TRACT (Traduction et Communication Transculturelle Anglais-Français/Français-Anglais), had been working on a project with Masters students to translate Crimp’s version of “The Misanthrope” back into French. I had been investigating Crimp’s voice as a writer as it is revealed in his own plays, his translations from French and his versions from other languages where he has used a literal translation (these include German, ancient Greek and Russian).

Between us we put together a two-day workshop with presentations by academics from three French and three UK universities; a bilingual theatre workshop led by Anne Bérélowitch (director of the theatre company L’Instant Même) with French and English actors, exploring “The Misanthrope” in Molière’s original, Crimp’s translation, and the “back-translations” by the students; and finally a conversation about translation between the critic Aleks Sierz and Martin Crimp himself, to which the public was invited.

We had a very exciting two days, full of energy. Many of the students who had worked on the translations came over to London on Eurostar with the academic presenters and the French theatre practitioners. The Birmingham School of Acting provided student actors, and all mixed in with the UK academics and UCL staff and students. We drank a lot of coffee and ate substantial quantities of cheese, thoughtfully brought over by the French students.

The special issue of the journal publishes expanded versions of the academic presentations given during the symposium, and a transcript of Aleks Sierz’s interview with Martin Crimp. We hope it captures some of the energy and the range of conversations during the symposium. Marie Nadia and I very much enjoyed our collaboration, and are already discussing our next venture.

Martin Crimp
             Marie Nadia Karsky                          Martin Crimp

LMJ: Translation Studies are said to be expanding their boundaries. In what directions are they moving?

GB: Translation Studies has always been an interdisciplinary field. Just as translation itself adapts to fit the environments in which it takes place, the academic discipline is evolving to reflect new routes of enquiry. The fact that UCL now offers both MA and MSc programmes in Translation is evidence of the numerous opportunities for study and research.

In addition to the broadening of translation within the Arts and Humanities to include performance, artworks, images and other intercultural movement that I mentioned earlier, there is also an increasing awareness of the advances of technology in translation. This is significant for the use of digital tools for translation – how will Google Translate impact future translations and translators? Technological advances also present an opportunity to carry out new science-based methods of research. My UCL colleague Claire Shih, for example, sees translation as a cognitive human behaviour that can be investigated using digital research instruments, such as screen recording, key logging and eye tracking software.

These different areas also speak to each other: advanced digital tools can be used to translate theatre in the form of intermedial surtitles; computational software can be harnessed to investigate style in literary translation. It is this interdisciplinarity that I find exciting about Translation Studies as a discipline. Ultimately, though, it is the everyday presence of translation in our lives, mostly overlooked, that for me is endlessly captivating, and I’m pleased if I can pass on any of that fascination to my friends, family and, most of all, my students.

Blog footnote:

UCLUCL 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.


Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

Interview with British wordsmith (and author) Julia Cresswell

JuliaThe following interview with Julia Cresswell was conducted by Julian Maddison. Julia and Julian – the interviewer and the interviewee – not only have similar first names, but have followed similar paths, both holding degrees from Oxford University and living in that world-famous city.

Julia Cresswell studied English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, taking the specialist course in Philology and Medieval Literature, before going on to study for an MA in Medieval Literature and a PhD (an edition of a late 15th-century English translation of a French prose romance), both at Reading University.  She financed her post-graduate research by university teaching and working as a researcher for OED, and has continued working in much the same way ever since.  As well as contributing as a lexicographer to numerous large reference works, she has some 2 0 book titles to her name, mainly in the field of the English language and mythology.  She has taught for Oxford University, Oxford Brookes, and numerous American study abroad college departments including Sarah Lawrence and Stanford.


Julia - book 1` Julia - book 2


Julia - JulianJulian  read French and Linguistics at St John’s College, Oxford

Professionally, Julian’s business interests take most of his time; he is the co-founder and co-director of a company which supplies the automotive industry. 

However, he continues to write articles covering two of his interests: car design and Goscinny.  His work has appeared in various publications in France and the UK and he has been consulted for a number of books and exhibitions related to Goscinny and/or Asterix.

Julian interviewed the late Anthea Bell, a world-famous translator of the French books of Asterix.


How do you set about tracing the etymology of a cliché?

For any etymology, the first stop is always the Oxford English Dictionary.  However, OED is not actually that good for collocations (words in groups), rather than individual words, although it is covering them more thoroughly in the new revisions.  This is not criticism, simply that OED was set up to trace individual words.  Even when it does deal with collocations, it often does not go into their origins.  On the other hand, there are lots of other books that will tell you the story behind expressions.  Unfortunately, these are often wildly imaginative folk-etymologies – Michael Quinion’s P.O.S.H. devotes a whole book to folk etymologies, many of which are widely believed. The title comes from the belief that the word ‘posh’ comes from the initials for ‘Port out, starboard home’ which was supposed to be on tickets allocating cooler cabins on P&O liners to and from India, although the shipping company has always denied that such tickets ever existed, and no evidence has been found to support the claim.  Quinion’s World Wide Words ( is a reliable source on information on both folk etys and true derivations, and on language in general.  Luckily, many clichés are pretty transparent – ‘a spanner in the works’, ‘grind to a halt’ are quite clearly about machines in their literal sense.  The task is then to find out how old they are, and when they come into general, metaphorical use.  Those that do not have an obvious origin are often hidden quotations.  I was very pleased with myself over my research on the term ‘crowning glory’ for female hair.  At the time OED’s first quote was very odd, as it was from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).  This was quite obviously an unlikely source of a cliché, so I searched through newspaper archives, and sure enough found an advert run in The Times, and no doubt elsewhere, from 1919 for Rowland’s Macassar Oil, claiming it would make a woman’s crowning glory more glorious still.  I left it there, satisfied, as I knew from previous experience, working as a researcher for the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations, that Joyce liked to incorporate adverts into his prose.  Checking up, I see that OED’s revised entry has a headline from an American newspaper of 1893 for this use, and has dropped the Joyce quotation – but I’d still bet there’s an advert somewhere behind it.  Sometimes, finding the origin is just a matter of luck.  I spent years tracking down ‘Live Fast, Die Young’.  At the time it was not in any dictionary of quotes or phrases that I could find and nor was its source then findable on-line.  In the end I took to raising the matter with anyone I thought might know, and sure enough, an elderly American friend said his evening class had just been studying the novel it came from!  Yet again, although I upped the OED at the time of writing, its vast resources have turned up an earlier example than the one I found, but they still miss the key quote that turned it into a cliché via the film of a novel, both called ‘Knock on Any Door’.

Would it be correct to say that there are in effect two etymologies to a cliché? There is the origin of the metaphor and then the start of its widespread use and possible shift from literal to ironic use.

 I would say this is a matter of tracing the history, rather than the etymology.  As I said above, the actual etymology is often quite obvious, but the transitions you describe less easy to follow, particularly as the different states co-exist, certainly in different people’s speech, often in one’s own, depending on context.


The Cat’s Pyjamas is dedicated to the “broadcasters, journalists and politicians who have made this book possible”. If they are mainly responsible for using clichés is it the case that clichés are more widespread in the modern world than ever before?

A difficult judgement to make, as so much of the evidence is lost, and what survives mostly unknown to me.  Given that most of what survives from the past, or at least most of what I am likely to have read, is literary, the language is likely to be more consciously artistic than everyday speech.  Certainly Shakespeare uses clichés, both for his ‘man in the street’ language and in his elevated characters (and Venus and Adonis is pretty-well solid cliché )  The same can be said for the medieval literature that has been my other area of study, although academics may prefer to call them tropes or topoi.  This is because clichés can be very efficient means of communication – I explain more about this in a piece I wrote for the British Journalism Review now on my website at .  So no, I would guess that clichés are not more widespread than ever before.


Your book gives examples of clichés according to discipline. Apart from sport and politics which areas of life are especially prone to cliché?

The military love clichés (again efficiency comes in here) and a lot of them derive from the world of work, although it can be difficult to differentiate between cliché and jargon.  So much depends on the context in which language is being used.  If you listen to your own exchanges, you will find that polite conversations with strangers are full of clichés (platitudes, you might prefer to call them) which you would never dream of using in a carefully considered piece of prose.


How do you define the difference between a cliché and a frequently used metaphor?

This is one of the most difficult questions to answer.  I spend much of the introduction to The Cat’s Pyjamas wrestling with it.  One way of looking at it is that clichés do your thinking for you.  I cite as an example a journalist who unthinkingly writes of ancient giant kangaroos that once ‘walked the earth’ when everyone knows kangaroos hop.  This is just bad writing, but the unthinking response becomes dangerous when it involves terms such as ‘hearth and home’, ‘this great nation of ours’ and all the other phrases loved by rabble-rousing politicians.  However, it has to be admitted that it all comes down to personal judgement.  Incidentally, I do not consider ‘the cat’s pyjamas’ to be a cliché, which makes the book’s title a source of some embarrassment.  A designer came up with a cover that the editor loved and insisted on using, and I then had to go back and add appropriate text to the book.  Not an unusual thing for a professional writer, in my experience.


You must monitor the potential for contemporary phrases to become clichés. Are there any examples that were widely used for a short time but fell out of use before they could become a cliché?

Yes.  I was very pleased with myself for spotting the start of ‘not fit for purpose’ (23 May, 2006, John Reid in the House of Commons).  The trouble is that such expressions tend to fall off my radar too (judge for yourself if that is a cliché).  One much in the papers in the last few days is ‘dog-whistle politics’.  This was new to me, but OED has it from 1995 and Wikipedia (which we all have to use sometimes) takes it back to 1988 in the language of opinion pollsters.  I suspect that it is quite well established in the idiolect of politicians and their cohorts, but it will be interesting to see if it now spreads to the general population.  At the moment I would guess not as its meaning is not terribly obvious , but we shall have to see if usage is reinforced by future events.

Are some languages or cultures more prone to clichés than others? How does the English language compare to other languages?

We have already seen, above, that there are certain cultures where clichés are common.  I’m not sure I am qualified to answer about other languages.  The only other language I know at all well is French, and being of a generation that was taught to read Racine but not how to order a beer, my colloquial French is not good.  Certainly, Medieval French, which I know best, is full of clichés; they are in classical Latin, and students I have taught who are fluent in other languages have no difficultly coming up with examples, so I would guess all languages find them useful.

What cliché do you use the most?

Hmm.  I don’t think I would use them if I was aware of it.  I just asked my husband, and he says he will listen and see!

Based on this answer and that you talked about “bad writing” earlier would I be right in thinking that you think clichés are always best avoided in speech and writing?

My usual stance is that cliché can be a useful and efficient means of communication.  For example the phrase “run for your life” used in a television drama is probably bad writing but it could be a very useful warning in a real life event such as a tsunami. Terry Pratchett wrote that “The reason clichés become clichés is they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication” and I would agree with thatClichés become dangerous when they are used to influence thinking and distract people from reality.

Are you working on any linguistic projects at the moment?

I’m pretty well retired now, so not working on any book at the moment.  The last two books I wrote came out in 2014.  One was mainly aimed at teenagers, on Charlemagne and his Paladins, dealing with the history, but mainly with the medieval legends.  The other was the Little Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, a pocket-sized reworking of my earlier Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins.  I’d be quite happy to do another language book if anyone wanted me to do one, but chasing after publishing contracts in this field has become a difficult task in a world where everything you need is available on-line (which I love), so I have decided not to chase.  I have always done a certain amount of university level teaching, particularly of the history of English and medieval literature, and a still do a little of that, including teaching a course on the history of English on an Oxford University Department of Continuing Education summer school called The Oxford Experience every year.

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

Interview with wordsmith (and translator) Tina Kover

The Albertine Prize is awarded each year in New York for the best English-language translation of a work of fiction written in French. The winners of the Prize for 2019 are Negar Djavadi, the author of
ésorientale,  and the translator, Tina Kover.  Tina's translation, Disoriental,  was published by Europa Editions (May 1, 2018).

Négar Djavadi was born in Iran in 1969 to a family of intellectuals opposed to the regimes of the Shah, then to that of Khomeini. She arrived in France at the age of eleven, having crossed the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and sister. Djavadi is a screenwriter and lives in Paris.

Albertine Desorientale + Djavadi

The Prize was awarded on June 5, 2019, at a ceremony at the Albertine Bookstore, in the presence of the author and the translator, as well as Lydia Davis and the French TV presenter and literary critic, François Busnel.

Albertine 4 participants
Négar Djavadi et Tina Kover,
at center

To watch the discussion (1 hour 18 minutes) that followed the ceremony, see

The name of the Albertine Prize and of the bookstore of that name where it is awarded every year, is located on Fifth Avenue, New York, in a building belonging to the French Government in which the Cultural Services of the Embassy of France are housed. It is also the name of one of the characters in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), Albertine Simonet, the lover of the narrator Marcel. Albertine appears in several of the seven volumes of Proust’s work, such as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs), Sodom and Gomorrah (Sodome et Gomorrhe) and The Prisoner (La Prisonnière).

Tina Albertine Prize J.T.Mahany cropped
Tina Kover
The interviewee
  J.T. Mahany
The Interviewer

Tina Kover has been a literary translator for nearly twenty years, translating works of both classic and modern literature including Alexandre Dumas’s Georges, the Goncourt brothers’ Manette Salomon, and Anna Gavalda's Life, Only Better. She studied French at the University of Denver and the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and later worked in Prague teaching English as a foreign language. She currently lives and works in the northeast of England. Her translation of Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental was a finalist for the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2018 and the PEN Translation Prize in 2019, before recently winning the Albertine Prize.

J.T. Mahanay is a translator of French literature. He received his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arkansas in 2018. In 2015, he translated Antoine Volodine's Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. His translation of Bardo or not Bardo, also by Volodine, was awarded the debut Albertine Prize in 2017. 2020 will see the publication of his translation of Onze rêves de suie (Eleven Sooty Dreams) by Manuela Draeger. He is also an amateur teuthologist. 


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

J. T. Mahany: The Albertine Prize is now the latest in a long parade of accolades that Disoriental has obtained. What is it about Djavadi's book you feel that has drawn so much acclaim (both in its original French and your translation)?

Tina Kover: I think there are several factors. Of course the writing itself is exquisite, and Négar Djavadi is a brilliant storyteller with a rare ability to make each reader feel as if she’s speaking directly to them. The book also touches on a number of issues that are of the utmost timeliness at the present moment: immigration (and refugee emigration), bigotry, sexual identity, acceptance. There is something in Disoriental for everyone; some intimate moment or observation that feels deeply personal no matter what you might be struggling with. This is a book that reaches across many lines and crosses multiple boundaries and I think that’s why people respond to it in any language.


J. T. Mahany: What was the process of translating the book like? Did you collaborate with Djavadi at all on the text? Did it differ much from the way you have translated the rest of your (rather prodigious, I may add) bibliography?

Tina Kover The process in itself was pretty much my standard one; I never read a book before I begin translating it and so I’m discovering the characters and the plot as both a reader and a translator, which, for me, at least, I think is key to retaining freshness and spontaneity in the finished work. Likewise, it’s not my general practice to communicate with authors during the translation process. They’ve created the original text in the solitude of their own minds and I prefer to do the same thing, though of course I welcome their input during the editing phase. I will say that from very early on I knew that Disoriental was something very special, the kind of novel that doesn’t come along very often, and I felt what I can only describe as a sort of reverence for its beauty as I got deeper into the story and realized what Négar was crafting and how ingeniously she was doing it.

  Albertine poster  
  “An extraordinary novel, both in incident and telling.”
Rivka Galchen

J. T. Mahany: A review of Disorientalin in The Thread compares Djavadi's work to that of Elena Ferrante. Do you agree with this comparison?

Tina Kover: I’m certainly no expert on Ferrante, but I can see why people might make that comparison. I think Danny Caine said it very well in the review you mentioned: both Négar and Elena Ferrante are incredibly adept at creating brave and fully-realized female characters, and both are able to draw intimate portraits set within a context of broader-ranging social and political climates. I think it says a great deal for the wisdom of the editors at Europa Editions, who published both authors, that they saw how important these books could be and how much people would take them to their hearts.


J. T. Mahany: Disoriental concerns itself with a narrator who feels as though she is caught between two worlds, a theme which has appeared in the works of a number of authors writing in French, such as Dany Laferrière and Akira Mizubayashi. What is it about this type of narrative that you believe is appealing to readers?

Tina Kover: Most of us, if not all, feel caught between two worlds at some point in our lives, whether physically, emotionally, or culturally. As an expatriate myself there is a great deal in Disoriental that struck a personal chord with me even though my own experience of leaving one country and settling in another was different in almost every particular. But people might also feel like they inhabit a different “world” because of sexuality or race or disability or any number of things. At bottom I think that “caught” feeling is about alienation, about feeling like one doesn’t belong, and that’s something we can all identify with.


J. T. Mahany: How did you first get into translation?

Tina Kover: I actually self-published my first translation, George Sand’s The Black City, which was then taken on by a wonderful literary agent, Sandra Choron, and subsequently purchased by the now-defunct Carroll & Graf. Things progressed from there. I’ve been very fortunate to come into contact with a lot of incredible people in the publishing world and to have had the opportunities I’ve had, and I feel especially privileged to be a translator right now, when literary translation is receiving so much interest and attention, and when it’s more important than ever to keep the lines of communication open between cultures, to promote intercultural exchange and understanding when so many seem bent on their destruction.


J. T. Mahany: Do you have any upcoming projects about which you'd like to speak?

Tina Kover: I’m extremely excited about the upcoming release of my translation of Mahir Guven’s Older Brother, which will be out from Europa Editions on October 8, 2019. The book won the Goncourt Prize for a debut novel in 2018 and it’s another timely and extremely powerful depiction of life on modern society’s fringes, another story we all need to hear right now.

Additional reading:

Author Negar Djavadi Awarded 2019 Albertine Award for Her Debut Novel "Disoriental"
L'Officiel, June 7, 2019

A Persian Turned Parisian Insists: I'm Not an Immigrant, I'm an Exile
The New York Times, January 8, 2019

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Tina Kover.