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

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


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

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


Susan Vo cropped
Susan Vo - interviewer
French-English interpreter


Brian Harris
Brian Harris - interviewee
Arabic-English interpreter

Calgary   Valencia
Calgary, Canada     Valence, Spain


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Edwin Nembo FORLEMU

Dear Susan:
What a brilliant interview!
Replete with nuggets of knowledge, insights and wisdom gathered from decades in the trenches of scholarly work.
Brian Harris was one of my professors and mentors when I attended the University of Ottawa (1983-1985) where I received a Graduate Diploma in Interpreting. Whar's more, I obtained an M.A. from the University of Montreal where my M.A. Thesis was a Glossary of Terms and Concepts drawn from Brian's pioneering work on Natural Translation.
I returned to Cameroon in 1985 following my studies at the University of Montreal and the University of Ottawa and worked as a translator and interpreter in the Office of the President of Cameroon before eventually reading law at Harvard Law School and pursuing a career in management various international organizations around the world.
Could you kindly share Brian's email address with me? I'd like to regain contact with him.
Best regards,
Edwin Nembo FORLEMU

Edwin Nembo FORLEMU

Hello Susan:
It's Edwin again!
I also compose a lot of poetry (nearly 1,000 so far) under the radar of what I do professionally for a living.
It might now be the right time for me to start sharing some of that with the world.

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