Interview with British wordsmith (and translator) Ros Schwartz


ChevalierOur guest interviewee is Ros Schwartz, a prolific, prodigious and prize-winning literary translator (French>English), as this interview and her CV below make clear. Ros was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her contribution to French literature by the French Government.In 2017 she received the John Sykes Memorial Prize for Excellence from the UK Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

Ros lives in London, where she divides her time between literary translation and working as a Royal Literary Fund writing fellow at King’s College London. She is co-chair of English PEN’s Writers in Translation Committee.


  Ros S
   The interviewee - Ros Schwartz The interviewer - Jonathan Goldberg


JG: . Since you completed your university studies in France, you've been extremely active both as a literary translator and in many branches of the translating profession. We'll talk about your career in a moment, but take us back to your school years. Where were you brought up, at what age did you begin to study French and how strong was your command of French when you entered University?

RS: My parents instilled in me a love of the French language, literature, music, food and wine that has become a lifelong passion. They were both ardent Francophiles, which was quite unusual for 1950s austerity Britain. The songs I heard in my cradle were those of Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Yves Montand and Mistinguett. They sang me to sleep with En passant par la Lorraine and taught me to sing Au Clair de la Lune before I knew my ABC.

When they didn't want me to understand what they were talking about, my parents would speak to each other in French, so naturally I made it my business to decipher and master this language very quickly.

At school, an inspirational French teacher, Miss Tucker, passed on to me her love of French literature, and I embarked on a French degree. But I wasn't cut out for academia, and the University of Kent and I parted company. I ran away to Paris, aided and abetted by my tutor, David Bradby, the distinguished historian of French theatre who remained a dear friend until his death in 2010. He helped me find my first job as an assistante in a Paris Lycée. I spent 8 years in Paris, doing a variety of odd (and I mean odd!) jobs (including working for the Gare d'Austerlitz telephone information service – there are probably people still wandering around Bordeaux  today trying to find the train to Port-Bou). During those years I immersed myself in every aspect of French life, from signing on as student at the radical university of Vincennes to picking grapes in Provence, unaware at the time that this was the best possible training for a literary translator. My friends in Paris devoted themselves to teaching me the slang of Belleville and the poetry of Verlaine.


JG. You have a LèsL from Université Vincennes-Saint-Denis (Paris VIII). What language courses did you take there?

RS: I actually did a degree in English and American studies with a minor in Italian. The 1970s were an exciting time to be in a radical French uni – the 1968 afterglow. Having been at a staid UK university (and dropped out), I took courses in subjects I could never have imagined, such as "Donald Duck and Anglo-Saxon Cultural Imperialism". But it was at Vincennes that I had my first taste of literary translation, under a tutor called John Edwards. He passed on to me his passion for translating.


JG:. Did you become a translator at the outset of your career?

RS: I lived in Paris for eight years, and then spent a year in India. On my return to the UK, I discovered that despite having languages (I also have Spanish), I was completely unemployable, having never worked in the UK. In Paris I had taught English in companies as a way of keeping body and soul together, but had no 'real' work experience. I was too old to go into a job at a very junior level, too inexperienced to go in at a higher level, and too much of a maverick to fit into a company culture. So I had no option but to invent my own career. I launched myself as a translator, having translated one book before leaving Paris, for which I had not yet found a publisher.


JG:. You've translated over 100 books from French into English. How long did it take you to establish the kind of reputation that put your services in such high demand?

RS: The publishing world is quite small and once you've got a foot in the door, editors tend to pass your name on. Colleagues too. It took a few years of letter writing, taking on other types of work, notably cookery books.


JG. Which of the books was the most challenging, linguistically or in other respects?

RS: Each book has its own set of challenges. My translation of Lebanese novelist Dominique Eddé's Kite was interesting because Eddé writes in French but with an oriental sensibility. It took me way out of my comfort zone, and by the end I had a curious feeling that I'd translated from Arabic, so different is the novel's structure and language from the western narrative tradition. Re-translating a classic, Saint-Exupéry's Petit Prince had a whole set of challenges, linguistic, stylistic, ethical, translating for children, creating different voices. More recently, I translated Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel (The Feminist Press, 2017). It’s the memoir of an extraordinary woman who is a translator-activist as well as a poet. Every word of the French is exquisitely judged, so one false note in the translation would jar horribly. My most recent translation, A Long Way from Douala is by the Swiss writer of Cameroonian origin, Max Lobe. He writes in French but uses a lot of expressions in Camfranglais, which is an urban slang made up of English, French and words borrowed from local languages. I’ve talked about about the challenges in a recent interview


JG:  Do you find time to study the works of other literary translators? When you do that, do you have the source and target texts before your eyes?

RS: I'm not an academic, I'm a hands-on practitioner. I read voraciously, both translations and other literature. I am in permanent dialogue with numerous translator friends and colleagues. My work with English PEN's Writers in Translation Programme awarding promotional grants leads me to read a lot of sample translations. And as a mentor and external supervisor I see students' work. But I don't have time to 'study' translations. There aren't enough hours in the day.


JG: For those contemplating a career as a literary translator, would they have any realistic prospect of making ends meet, short of achieving the kind of success you've had.

RS: Making ends meet has nothing to do with critical success. Literary translation simply isn't well paid. And there is a limit to how many books you can translate in a year. Sadly a lot of translators find themselves churning out books in order to make ends meet. The quality of their work suffers. Most translators also have a day job. For years I made my living from running a small translation company and only did one literary work a year, for publishers who value quality and would give me the time I needed to do a good job. Now I lead workshops and am fortunate enough to have a two-year position with the Royal Literary Fund, an organisation that sends writers into universities for two days a week to help students with writing skills. Other colleagues work as teachers or editors or do something completely different as a way of earning a living.


JG: In 2009 you and Amanda Hopkinson jointly won the International Dagger Award for your translation of Dominique Manotti's Lorraine Connection. How did you divide the work between you and ensure a unity of style?

RS: I drafted the entire novel, then Amanda went over it in minute detail and made lots of suggestions, most of which I incorporated. Then we met up and thrashed out the problem sections. It was creatively satisfying. I've collaborated with Lulu Norman on a number of translations, and with Steve Cox and Sarah Ardizzone. For me, collaboration is a form of professional development. You learn a lot from working 'à quatre mains' and the end translation benefits enormously.


JG: In that same year you organised a series for peer-training translation workshops with the Translators Association, funded by the Arts Council of England. Could you explain the concept of a "peer-training workshop".

RS: Yes, it's a translator-led workshop for practicing translators. It can be language-specific or subject-oriented, e.g. translating sex/poetry/subtitles. The idea is to compare notes on techniques and strategies for dealing with challenges we all face. Although there are numerous undergraduate and postgraduate university courses for beginner translators, there's little mid-career training, so we decided to remedy that by devising our own workshops. I also run translation surgeries, where colleagues working with different language combinations bring along a specific issue which we discuss collectively. It’s interesting to see the crossovers and common challenges translators from different languages face, and to see the solutions the hive mind can come up with.

JG. You were also awarded the "Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres". Tell our readers how and why you were so honoured.


Ros Scwartz Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres Cert (small)

RS: . It's a slightly mysterious process. In June 2009 I received a letter from the French Embassy in London telling me I'd been 'nommée au grade de Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' in recognition for my 'travail de traduction, et plus largement votre rôle dans la diffusion de la littérature française'. According to the French Ministry of Culture ,the award is made to people for 'la contribution qu'elles ont apportée au rayonnement de la culture en France et dans le monde'.

I imagine it's because I've always worked with French publishers and the Book Office here to bring French titles to the attention of UK publishers (in fact that's how I launched myself).


JG: You have also organised or overseen online translation courses, including one  offered by Birkbeck College. Could you compare the advantages and disadvantages for the participants of online courses as a substitute for face-to-face instruction. Why would a college offer courses free to applicants from throughout the world?

RS: There's no substitute for face-to-face teaching. The online course was one strand of a project that involved a weekend 'taster' course and a summer school. It was for those who attended the summer school and who wanted more practice, and for anyone thinking of doing translation who wanted to try their hand. We received funding for the project which enabled us to offer the online course free. But we weren't proposing it as a substitute for face-to-face teaching, and nor were we suggesting that anyone completing the online course was ready to launch their career. But it's good to be able to offer it to budding translators around the world, not all of whom have the means to come to London for the summer school or to go to university.

One of the most interesting translator development formats I’ve been involved in is the Vice-Versa programme run by the Collège International de Traducteurs (CITL) in Arles, France. The one-week workshop brings together six translators from French to English and six from English to French, under the supervision of a tutor from each language. Each half-day session is devoted to a translation by one of the mentees. So each person has the full attention of eleven others. It’s enriching to have input from the mother-tongue participants as well as from those working in the same language direction. CITL also runs a two-month residency with three translators for each language and three different tutors each in attendance for two weeks. The fledgling translators emerge from this ready to spread their wings. I thoroughly recommend this programme. Details

In October 2019 year I was involved in a workshop and mentoring scheme to train literary translators in Cameroon. It was part of research project led by the University of Bristol and Bakwa publishers in the capital, Yaounde. Cameroon has two official languages, French and English (as well as over 250 local languages), but there is no literary translation activity between French and English. We ran a week-long workshop to train a group of promising translators in each language, followed by a three-month mentorship. The short stories the mentees translated, written by emerging writers from a previous workshop as part of the project, will  be published in an anthology later this year. This experience has reinforced my conviction that mentorship is the most effective way of fostering new talent. 

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

Interview with Canadian wordsmith (and professor of translation studies) Sherry Simon

The following interview was conducted by Skype between Los Angeles and Montreal




Sherry Simon

Jonathan G.

Professor Emerita in the Department of French Studies at Concordia University. 

- the interviewee   



           - the interviewer


JG: Your parents were born in Toronto. You spoke English at home and despite studying French at school, your first significant exposure to French came in your teens. How did that come about?

SS: My mom was very forward-looking…meaning that she recognized that French was important in Montreal! That may sound very obvious now, but I grew up in a city that was still practically a colonial city—with a powerful and very self-sufficient English-language minority. What was experienced by some as intolerable change starting in the 1960s (those who felt threatened or excluded by a French-language city) was experienced by others as a period of social, economic and political excitement. The fact that I took a university-level French course while I was still in high school changed my outlook entirely. I was increasingly attracted to French-language culture.

JG: You found Montreal to be comparable with Calcutta in certain respects. (You later wrote « Villes en traduction: Calcutta, Barcelona, Montreal », Presses de l'Université de Montreal, 2013). Can you expound on that comparison.

SS: Calcutta and Montreal were founded in the same historical period of colonialism—1609 for Calcutta, 1642 for Montreal. Montreal was founded as a French city, then there was the Conquest of 1759 which meant that Ville Marie became Montreal. Both cities were the products of spatial division—a more modern, spacious area which contrasted greatly with the rest of the city. Of course the colonial divides of India were very different from the colonial divides of Quebec—where two European powers were in competition, and where the indigenous presence had been largely obliterated. But the linguistic and spatial arrangements of Calcutta and Montreal share the same colonialist premise and the interaction between parts of the city shared similar dynamics. What I learned was that there was a great deal to be discovered when you looked at Calcutta and Montreal as cities in translation. The history of the Bengali Renaissance as it played out across Calcutta is rich and fascinating—the story of innovations in science and the arts that were a product of the interplay between communities. The same is true of Montreal, mutatis mutandis. A cultural history of the city since the 1940s for instance tells of numerous new pathways created across the city. Literary personalities such as Mavis Gallant, F.R. Scott or A.M. Klein have woven cultural ties between the French and English speakers, both in journalism and in poetry. What is important to note, however, is that translation is not always successful and that failed translation can also be useful to explore.

JG: You went on to study Comparative Literature at Brandeis University in the USA, and did your Masters in Paris, obtaining a Diplôme de l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and a doctorate in literature compareé from the University of Montreal. Your career-path is somewhat unusual: although you were initially a literary translator you soon moved into the academic study of translating. Your positions have included Professeure du Département d'études françaises at Concordia University and membre de l'Académie des lettres du Québec.

The long list of books you've written includes "Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City", for which you reached the finals of the Ville de Montreal, Grand Prix du Livre. Although some might have regarded that as being an ivory-tower occupation, your writings were widely recognized, as witness the many prizes you have won, such as the Prix Andre-Laurendeau en Sciences humaines.

During your distinguished career, what advances have you seen in the role of the literary translator?

SS: The very fact of the expansion of Translation Studies as an academic field is a great success story of the last 3 decades or so. The growth has been exponential—books, journals, academic programs, summer schools, and the list goes on. The field is especially important in Europe, and literary translation is increasingly recognized as an important creative activity. Translators are getting more recognition, I think, in general—with the wonderful work of translators associations, of high-profile translators, and of academics who take the work of these translators seriously and are making their work the object of serious study. In Canada, literary translation benefits from government support and a certain degree of public recognition. But the same platitudes are often repeated. We still need to work towards further recognition of the creative value of translation—not only in relation to the Canadian scene but internationally.

Translation EffectsJG: Your very latest book, just published, "Translation Effects: The Shaping of Modern Canadian Culture" (written together with Kathy Mezei and Luise von Flotow, McGill-Queen's University Press, pp.496) deals, inter alia, with the subject of bilingualism. For the benefit of our readers who have not read it and may not manage to do so, could you give us one or two points on Canadian bilingualism?

SS: We argue in the book that official bilingualism has in many ways masked the multiform realities of translation within Canadian society. And so the book—which is a collection of 30-some essays—shows how translation is a factor is many aspects of literary and cultural life—through First Nations languages, immigrant languages, and the unequal transactions of French and English. While official bilingualism is an important element of our national self-definition, allowing the country to function, it only applies to the legal realities of the country. The cultural realities are messier, more unequal, but also creative of new mixtures.

JG: So why has the Federal Government gone to such lengths to promote and preserve bilingualism?

SS: Official bilingualism in its current form was a result of the political unrest of the 1960s. There is a very significant separatist movement in Quebec, always ready to re-emerge, and in the 1960s it was very strong. Official bilingualism was one response to this crisis, promising a French presence from coast to coast. But Canada also has a multicultural policy, which gives cultural rights to 'ethnic' groups. These rights are sometimes in conflict with one another, or perceived as such. It is true that official bilingualism has remained in place for many decades now, and seems to have performed its task well. But while the government used to do all its translation in-house, it now outsources practically all translation tasks, and no longer ensures training.

JG: Dr Paul Christophersen of the University College in Ibadan, Nigeria, in his book called "Bilingualism", is quoted as saying that it is almost impossible for a "so-called" bilingual speaker to achieve 100% efficiency in both languages. 

SS: Of course there is no such thing as perfect bilingualism. Bilingualism is almost always asymmetrical, however there are many Quebecers who function as well in one language as the other. Usually this is an oral skill. Writing is another story. There are very few people who write as well in one language as the other, and for instance, while many can read equally well in both languages, in Quebec the literary institutions are quite separate. But as for day to day functional bilingualism, there are an astonishing number of people who could claim this capacity in Montreal especially. And while French-Canadians in the past were 'forced' to be bilingual, it is now English-language Montrealers who are increasingly bilingual. But as for 100% efficiency, I would say that this is not really a useful marker. What is 100% efficient when language is concerned?

JG: Mr John Woodsworth, a Russian-English translator and someone who submitted a report to the Canadian government many years ago, proposed to CBC: Replace the current system of separate English and French-language TV networks by a single bilingual network, with a daily schedule of mostly (if not all) Canadian-produced programming originating alternately in English and French, with captions (sub-titles) provided in the second language.

SS: An interesting idea, but unlikely to happen. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission regulates these matters. Twenty years ago it closed down a bilingual radio channel that alternated between French and English. With the present government's stance on public broadcasting, we will be lucky to retain public broadcasting, never mind revolutionize it.

JG: In the course of this brief interview, we have only been able to touch on the diverse fields of erudition that you bring to historical and cultural aspects of translating. Nevertheless, we hope to have given our readers an idea of what they may find in any of the numerous books that you have written. Many thanks.

 Sherry Simon - The Flow of Languages, the Grace of Cultures (in French)


This interview was conducted in June 2015.

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

Interview with British wordsmith Nicholas de Lange

De LangeYanky Fachler kindly acceded to our request and  travelled to Cambridge to interview Professor Nicholas de Lange, the English translator of over a dozen books by Israeli author, Amos Oz, including Judas, which was short-listed for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. An ordained Reform rabbi, Professor de Lange is Emeritus Fellow and Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Cambridge University's Faculty of Divinity and Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. He has held visiting positions at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, the Jewish Theological Seminary of Hungary in Budapest, the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, the Freie Universität Berlin, the University of Toronto and Princeton University. He is a prolific translator of contemporary Hebrew fiction, and has served as Chairman of the Translators Association. In the following extracts, Professor de Lange shares some insights on the art of literary translation.


Yanky FaschlerYanky Fachler is a translator, broadcaster and writer of  several books in the field of Jewish history. He was born in the United Kingdom, spent almost thirty years in Israel and currently lives in Ireland, where he is founder and chairman of the Jewish Historical Society of Ireland.






Y.F. :  How would you define a translator?

A translator is a reader who is also a writer. I read the text, and then I write it. My aim is to write a book that is word for word like the original – without being a word for word translation. Since I also write many books of my own, I see no difference between a translator and an author. As an author, you convert material from your mind on to the page. As a translator, you convert someone else’s work to the page. I am uncomfortable being asked which specific words of phrases in Hebrew I find difficult to translate. I don’t like being asked whether I find Hebrew a difficult language to translate. The actual words are almost irrelevant. I translate paragraphs.

 Y.F. :  Do you read a book before you start to translate it?

I don’t like to read the book in advance. Partly because translation is so badly paid that it takes up too much time; and partly because I like to discover the book as I go along. This approach, though, can lead you astray. In Oz’s My Michael, there is a couple living in Jerusalem who drink endless cups of tea. One day, the man is ill and he asks his wife to bring him tea with milk. With my British background, I found this strange. How had he consumed all the previous cups of tea? Then I learned that in Israel, tea with milk is only given to sick people. I had to go back and rewrite all the tea scenes, replacing cups of tea with glasses of tea. Going back to the question of reading a book before translating it, some of the other translators at the Man Booker event agreed with my habit of not reading the book first. But one translator was adamant: “I must read the book first, because I might not accept it.” The only time I have turned down a translation job is when I was too busy.


Y.F. : The actor Lawrence Olivier claimed that actors must learn to love the unsavoury characters they portray on stage. Does something similar happen with translators? Do you have to love some of the unsavoury characters you translate?

Laurence_OlivieN.d.L. :  Translation isn't impartial. Like Olivier rightly says, you must be on the side of the character. You must love the characters you translate. Many of the characters that populate Amos Oz's books are unpleasant, but I don't let my dislike of them stop me from portraying them as they should be portrayed. Anyway, unsavoury characters make interesting characters. You need enormous sympathy for the characters you are translating. For example, some of the books I translate have no narrator – they are entirely epistolary. Everything is in direct speech. Just as a theatre audience needs to know the distinct voice of each actor on stage, so the translator must make the reader aware of which character is speaking at any particular time in an epistolary piece. While on the subject of dialogue on stage and dialogue in translation, I once translated a piece for BBC Radio 3 that was only intended to be read aloud, not to appear on the printed page. The actress called me and said she had a problem with a couple of phrases. "Could you please go back and check the Hebrew to see whether that is what the author really meant?" My heart sank. This was going to be a disaster. Yet when I went back to the original, she was absolutely correct. Without knowing any Hebrew, the actress had stumbled upon a couple of places where my translation did not do justice to the original.

Y.F. : You are quoted as saying that a faithful literary translation demands transcending the words to convey the whole cultural context. Could you elaborate?

N.d.L. :  As a translator, you have to translate the context of the book you are translating. You are asking people to read about a culture they don't and can't know. You have to make the context clear in a subtle way. For example, when there is a reference to Chaim Nachman Bialik, Israel's national poet, you don'; have the luxury of using footnotes. You need to find a more subtle way of letting the reader know who Bialik is. It's the same with biblical and Talmudical references. I don't feel the need to explain what the Bible is or what the Talmud is. I leave it to my readers to pick up allusions and to look stuff up for themselves.

Y.F. : What is your latest Hebrew literature translation project?

N.d.L. :  I don't go out of my way to look for Hebrew books to translate, but I am currently engaged in translating perhaps the most challenging Hebrew novel, Days of Ziklag by S Yizhar. This hugely influential modernist work was first published in 1958, and is one of the two most difficult Hebrew books to translate. The other is Yakov Shabtai's Zikhron Devarim (Past Continuous). I was drawn to the Days of Ziklag project because it is the ultimate challenge for a translator – a bit like translating James Joyce. Although Yizhar was writing before the emergence of Holocaust literature as a genre, his War of Independence themes resonated with Holocaust themes such as ethnic cleansing.

Y.F. : Do you ever collaborate with other translators?

N.d.L. :  Right now, I am collaborating on S Yizhar's Days of Ziklag with a former student of mine, Yaacob Dweck. But what with me living in England, and Yaacob living in the USA, we have calculated that it will take us many years to complete the project [1] . I am not unaware of some of the perils of working with a collaborator. The translator Ros Schwartz once told me of her experience in co-translating a book with another translator. She soon discovered that they each had their own style, and this made it very difficult to find a consistent voice. Even little things like the propensity of one translator to use "start" where the other translator used "begin" caused difficulties. As a rule, I often feel uncomfortable reading other translators. If a book is translated from a language I don't know, I find myself asking what the original was like. I suppose I only enjoy translations that are extraordinarily well done.


Y.F. : In Judas, Shmuel gives Yardena a gift for her secular birthday and another for her Hebrew birthday. Having two birthdays is like having two identities. As a translator, does English represent your secular identity, and Hebrew your sacred identity?

N.d.L. :  That is a very subtle question. Yes, English is my secular identity. I certainly regard Hebrew as a sacred tongue, and I prefer to use it only for sacred purposes. I have translated more medieval Hebrew poetry into English than modern Hebrew literature. I don't speak modern Hebrew. I can't read a Hebrew newspaper. [2]  I can listen to the news, but I get lost when they talk about politics. I am unfamiliar with many modern colloquialisms. I do not even regard myself as an expert in Hebrew literature. At the get-together of the Man Booker Prize short-listed authors and their translators, the authors were asked to read from their work in the original language. Amos Oz wasn't there, and they asked me to read. I refused, because my spoken modern Hebrew is not good enough.


Y.F. : Jews have traditionally been multi-lingual. They spoke the language of the host country, they prayed in Hebrew, and conversed in Yiddish, Ladino, Aramaic or Arabic. Does the Jewish cultural DNA give Jews an edge when it comes to translating?

N.d.L. :  It is true that through the ages, Jews used their linguistic versatility to become great translators. But the golden age was during the medieval period. In the world of modern literature, Jews no longer have an edge. Most of today's best translators are not Jewish. A lot of translations of modern Hebrew literature used to be clumsy, with translators often not even translating into their mother tongue. But things are much better nowadays, because the authors themselves have learned to be more choosey about who will translate them.


Y.F. : You seem to be drawn to works associated with Israel's War of Independence. Do you think that the war could have been avoided?

N.d.L. :  The main theme of Judas is the conflict between David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister – a true-life character, and the fictional character of Ben GurionShaltiel Abravanel. Ben Gurion believed that the Arabs would never accept a Jewish state in Palestine, so the only alternative was to fight them. Abravanel insisted that war was avoidable, and for his views he was expelled from the ruling elite. He did not think that Israel should be a Jewish state, rather a country in which all could live in equality as brothers. Whatever my views on Abravanel's views may be, I do not let this influence my translation.


Y.F. : In Israel today, some people brand Oz a traitor for his controversial political views. How have his views impinged on your long-term collaborator as Oz's translator?

N.d.L. :  I don't have any opinion about Amos Oz's political views. I am a translator, and I'm really not involved or interested in Israeli politics. I am an academic. It is not my job to pass judgement on the opinions expressed in the book. It is not my job to impose myself on the text. It's not my job to get involved in the politics. It is my job to translate what's put in front of me.


1. The interviewer, Yankjy Fachler, explained to us that de Lange apparently believed that despite modern technology, such as Skype, he and his assistant would have needed to sit together to pore over many fine points in order to perfect the translation.
2. We asked the interviewer how it was possible that Professor de Lange could not read a Hebrew newspaper and yet had translated all the books of Amos Oz, which are written so beautifully and at such a high register. Mr. Faschler explained that Professor de Lange was a specialist in medieval Hebrew and has translated much medieval Jewish poetry and liturgy. However, he had first met Amos Oz at Cambridge when they were both young, and apparently through that friendship he had developed an impressive command of modern Hebrew, despite his claim that he could not read a newspaper.
Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.

Interview with American wordsmith (and poet) Jacqueline Suskin

This column has been expanded in scope to include all linguists, not just translators. This allows us to interview socio-linguists, juridical terminologists, etc. But no-one we ever interview is likely to have as unconventional an occupation as our current interviewee, Jacqueline Suskin, a "performance poet", who has chosen this niche field within the world of poetry.

Jonathan G. interviewed Jacqueline at Echo Park Lake, an island of tranquility in the bustling city of Los Angeles. Jacqueline appeared for the interview, very elegantly dressed and carrying the tools of her profession - a tiny Hermes Rocket typewriter and small loose-leaf note-pad.

JS - Echo
photo Jonathan G.

At the end of the interview, conducted while sitting on a bench overlooking the lake, we asked her to write a poem on the subject of French. Her text was as follows:


Taken from the tone of old world
the feeling is in truth
a place and all that land can gather.

So much that time and lineage
show us what it is to be from
some magic center of culture
that continues to speak with hints
of history, romantic and fully
formed by those who keep such
rhythmic language alive.

- jacqueline suskin

Feb 2014

In addition to the quality and depth of her poems, one astonishing aspect of her work is her ability to begin typing her poem the moment she hears the subject given to her. Immediately we told her our chosen theme, she instantly began banging out the poem and completed it within about 2 minutes.

JS typewriter & poem


JG: The name Jacqueline is very French. Do you come from a French family?

JS: I am third-generation American but I have French ancestors on both my parents' sides.

JG: When did you first take up poetry and what influenced you to follow that direction?

JS: I still have notes that I made when I first learnt to write at kindergarten. They are cryptic and largely unintelligible, but they reveal a definite desire on my part to express myself in writing. In 7th grade I was allocated part of a literary project and I ended up

writing a complete book. Later my father, a very literate person, read literature to me and installed in me a love of words and an appreciation of their power. At university I studied anthropology with the focus on linguistic history. I also took creative writing courses, mostly in poetry.

JG: The highlight of your working week takes place at the Hollywood Farmers Market, where you sit and receive poetry orders from passers-by. "The lady with the typewriter",  a fixed feature of the Market, sits amidst the fruit and vegetable vendors, the musicians and other participants. What made you choose that unusual work location?

JS - poem store 2

JS : I love the vibrancy and diversity of the Market. The click-clack of my typewriter keys attracts the attention of passers-by. My typewriter serves as my mouthpiece. Some people are fascinated by this antiquated tool. Some younger people have never seen a typewriter.

JG: You could have chosen a laptop computer, to store all the poems you write for future reference.

JS: Each poem I write comes from deep within me, but once it is typed out, I have no need to remember it.  Each poem is unique, even those written on the same subject.

JG: Explain the process of writing each poem, from beginning to end.

JS: People approach me. Whether I chat with them for a few minutes before they indicate the title or topic of the poem they want, or whether the request is made with hardly any prior communication, I immediately get a sense of the person's feelings, and I write a poem that is designed to strike a chord with that person. The words pour out of me spontaneously until the poem is complete. I read out the finished poem and then hand them the typed version. I don't charge for the poem. The recipients pays me whatever they like.

JG: Does your mind ever go blank? Are you sometimes lost for something to write? Do you ever hesitate?

JS: Never.

JG: Many people have never read poetry. Most people would say it is far removed from their fields of interest and occupation. How do you bridge that gap?

JS: in the age of e-mails, all of us are poets, even if we don't realize it. I can impart to people the idea of the potency of words, particularly their power to express emotions.

JG: Do you ever feel a lack of appreciation from the person who has commissioned your work.

JS: Never. The contrary is true. People often weep when they realize how deeply the poem has touched them. That is the true role of any poet, to find the depth and import of every subject.

JG: So how would you describe the service you provide?

JS: I see myself as a muse, with the  responsibility of a  poet to reach out to as many people as possible. I feel I have something to offer. I have been called a seer, a therapist, a mystic and an empath.  I am pleased if I can have a therapeutic effect on people who are suffering in some way. But when I begin to write, my own personality is sublimated and the entire focus of my efforts is the emotional situation of the person for whom I am writing. My goal is to help them identify their problems, desires, fears or whatever.

JG: You have been quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying:

"This is the most physically draining thing I've ever done in my life. When I've written poems for four hours for people I don't know, I'm like a zombie. My brain is mush."

Why is that?

JS: You are an interpreter and you know how exhausting it is to focus on every word being spoken in order to render it's true meaning. For me, the person's emotions are my "source language" and I have to strain every fiber  to turn them into words. It is a draining process.

JG:  So what is the up side if your work?

JS : It gives me a unique perspective of human nature,  the state of humanity. We all share the same kinds of problems deep down.

JG: How do you see your professional future?

JS: I have completed my second book and am looking for a publisher. I hope to write many more. I have been writing poems professionally for 5 years, but I feel I am at the beginning of my career.

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


Interview with Dutch wordsmith (and author) Gaston Dorren

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

Lyda Ruijter
The interviewer

Gaston Dorren
The interviewee

Gaston Dorren, a Netherlands-based writer and linguist, has published three Dutch books on language. One of these was published in English as Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, and translated into several other languages. He has contributed to popular linguistics magazines in the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, Norway and Switzerland. He recently published "Talking Gibberish" on Gaston speaks English, German, Spanish and poor French and reads several more languages. He blogs at

Lingo 1

Lyda Ruijter, also born in the Netherlands, graduated from the University of Utrecht, with a Masters in Sociology where her areas of study were family therapy, criminology, methodology and statistics. She worked as the Field director for a government study on victims of crimes and Regional Coordinator for the organization Humanitas. Lyda came to the U.S. to study and graduated with a Ph.D .in Linguistics, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked in various academic positions in the departments of Linguistics, Education, and English both in the United States and Malaysia.


Lyda: When did you become interested in languages as an object of study?

Gaston: I think it all began when I was learned English, French, German and Latin at school. Only then did I realize that Limburgish, the vernacular we spoke in our region, the southern Dutch province of Limburg, was a language in its own right, not just some sort of informal Dutch. It was an epiphany to me that Limburgish, like English and French and the rest, had grammar rules, vocab and sounds substantially different from Dutch. I'd never stopped to think about that before. It was learning other languages that opened my eyes. Or my ears, rather.


Lyda: Did your upbringing play a role in developing your language interests?

Gaston: I'm sure it did. My mother is quite finicky about using le mot juste, both in Dutch and in Limburgish. My father was a French teacher, (which explains the choice of my name Gaston), my first girlfriend was German and most of the TV shows I watched, like The 6 Million Dollar Man and M*A*S*H, were in English, with Dutch subtitles.


Lyda: Did you become aware of the language of the elite by growing up in the upper-class?

Gaston: Certainly not; I'm from the "middlest" middle-class background imaginable. The only elitist family thing that I can remember dates to well before I was born: When my father went to a teachers training college at the age of 17 to become a teacher, my grandfather would write him letters in French. In my granddad's childhood, around 1900, French was still the elite language in our part of Limburg, and as an adult he wasn't above a bit of snobbery.


Lyda: You are the author of 'Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages', published in the US two years ago. It's a linguistic travelogue that takes the reader through Europe, examining sixty languages. How did you plan the book? Describe for our readers the experience of writing such a book.

Gaston: It actually grew very organically, out of some purely recreational writing. Feeling that these first few pieces were quite promising, I wondered what their common denominator might be, and I settled on this 'languages of Europe' theme, which proved to be highly inspiring. The book was first published in Dutch and got excellent reviews. I then decided to be reckless and have it translated into English at my own risk and expense. That has worked out wonderfully, because thanks to my agent Caroline Dawnay and the very perceptive publisher Mark Ellingham at Profile Books, it became something of a bestseller in Britain. Other editions, including the American one, have also done very satisfactorily. There are seven different language editions now. The main gaps are, much to my distress, Italian and French. I would really love to see Lingo published in those two languages. There is a wonderful Spanish edition, so Lingo in a Romance language is definitely possible!


Lyda: Could you explain to our readers the influence of powerful personalities on the development of languages. In your book, you describe how often one particular person with a strong dedication saved a language from extinction, or promoted a certain variety of a language. Did you notice the politics behind the choices for promoting one language or language variety over another one?

Gaston: Yeah, it's true that, with hindsight, many languages owe a lot to one or two persons. Perhaps they fought for its recognition or their books had a strong impact on the standard language. Martin Luther has been important for German, Dante for Italian. These are household names, but further to the East, there are all these 'fathers of the mother tongues' that most Western Europeans and Americans haven't heard about. Some of those may indeed have saved their language from extinction or at least marginalization. For instance, in Lingo I tell the story of the Slovak linguist and nationalist Ľudovít Štúr. Despite his efforts, Slovak didn't attain an official status until the breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and it was only after Slovakia broke away from Czechoslovakia that the language really came into its own. These things work both ways: just like Slovak was in need of a country in order to flower, so Slovakia was in need of a language to claim nationhood. I'm simplifying things here, but nationalism and 'languagehood' are often considered to go together, especially in Europe. I'm not so sure that's a good thing. Nation and language make for a heady mix, even a toxic mix. Catalonia is the latest example of the tensions this can create, and similar conflicts have occurred all over Europe.


Lyda: What project are you working on now?

Gaston: I'm working on a book which is due out in late 2018, about the most widely-spoken languages in the world, from English, Mandarin and Spanish to somewhat lesser-known languages such as Tamil, Swahili and Vietnamese. Even though English is today's world language, only one in eight or so people in the world can speak it with any degree of fluency. This book will be about most of the other seven. As in Lingo, every chapter will have its own angle. For the one about Vietnamese, for instance, I'm actually trying to learn the language, and I'm going to spend a few weeks there soon. The chapter on French will be about the strong emphasis on la Norme and about Paris's dislike for minority languages. Article 2 of the Constitution says that "La langue de la République est le français", a legal fiction used to repress minorities' cultural rights. A self-confident nation that likes its citizens free and diverse would never make such an authoritarian claim. Oh boy – this is not a smart move to find a French publisher, is it?


Lyda: Since we're both Dutch, I can ask you whether you believe that the more laissez-faire cultural style in the Netherlands has allowed for less standardization, less push from the powers-that-be to conform to one language standard, and more acceptance of varieties in the language.

Gaston: I believe the Dutch situation is more or less like that in English: there is a standard, but except in spelling, considerable variation is tolerated today, both regional and in levels of formality. What is peculiar about the linguistic culture of the Netherlands is the tendency to be lackadaisical about the future of the language. Universities are fast becoming English-only areas. As a result, the future elites will not be able to explain their fields of expertise to laypeople - that is to people like you me, because we're all laypeople in most fields. We may well lose the Dutch vocabulary for whole areas of human knowledge and endeavor. I may not lose sleep over it – I mean, climate change is worse – but I would consider it a great cultural loss.


Lyda: Since your travels and your language observations are so closely tied, do you consider yourself a linguist, or a geographer or what?

Gaston: I'm a linguist, but my type of linguistics requires a lot of historical and geographical knowledge. As it happens, one of my future projects will indeed concern itself with geography - with borders, to be exact. But I'd rather not elaborate at this stage.


Lyda: I've been particularly impressed by the style of the writing. You must have a very good translator for English. I'm very curious to read the Dutch version to see how some of the passages were written by you in the original.

Gaston: Thank you! Yes, Alison Edwards did an excellent job. So did most of the translators into other languages, by the way. It has been an absolute joy working with most of them, not only because they're such dedicated professionals, but also because having this book about languages translated into, say, Spanish or German has forced me to look at some languages afresh, from the perspective of these particular target languages. I've even been giving talks to translators in several countries about this aspect of Lingo.


Lyda: Anything else you'd like to add?

Gaston: One relevant fun fact is that I performed as a singer-songwriter for seven or eight years. I think it taught me the importance of drawing in an audience. The experience has definitely changed my writing, made it more personal and I hope more engaging. It has also taught me how to give talks. I used to be terrible at them, and now they're one of my favorite things to do.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

Interview with Lebanese wordsmith (and grammarian) Lina Choueri

The following interview was conducted between Los Angeles and Beirut, Lebanon. 

Lina Jonathan
Lina Choueiri - The interviewee               Jonathan Goldberg. - The interviewer  


JG : Where were you born and educated and in which languages?

LC : I was born in Mansourieh, in the Metn hills on the outskirts of Beirut. I began school before the age of 3, and studied French as a second language. In Lebanon, the choice of second language is important, because this is the language in which all subjects are taught: mathematics, science, history and geography were all taught in French. From the age of 9 through high school, I studied English as my third language for only about one hour a week. After obtaining the French BAC, I simultaneously completed undergraduate studies in two fields, in two languages and at two universities: mathematics in English at the American University of Beirut (AUB), and French literature at l’Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth (USJ).

Lina UAB Lina USJ

JG :
Where did you complete your university studies and in which post are you currently employed?

LC : After my master’s studies were twice interrupted by the civil war in Lebanon, I went to the United States to complete my education. First, I was a student at the English Language Institute, at George Mason University in Virginia.  I needed to improve my English, which had been of limited use while I was in Lebanon. Then, I completed a Master of Science in linguistics at Georgetown University followed by a PhD in linguistics at the University of Southern California. I took seven years to complete the doctorate, doing research and building contacts in my field, before I returned to Lebanon.

JG :
What is your field of specialization?

LC : I am a grammarian and the subject of my doctoral dissertation was “The Syntax of Restrictive Relative Clauses in Lebanese Arabic”. I am currently Associate Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English at AUB.

JG :
Does your expertise in Arabic grammar have practical application?

LC : The distinction between formal Standard Arabic and the spoken varieties of Arabic in the Arab world is well known. But what your readers may not know is that there is no body of research that describes or exposes rules or patterns of speech for each of the different dialects. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for speech therapists, for example, to understand the characteristics of the spoken varieties of Arabic and to diagnose certain aspects of speech impairment in children. I have been collaborating with speech therapists in Lebanon for that purpose.

JG :
You have mentioned the two universities in Beirut at which you completed your undergraduate studies simultaneously. If you were to examine the motives for which young Lebanese choose one or the other university, what would this tell you about their linguistic preferences?

LC : It is difficult to isolate language preferences when examining the motives for which students make their choice of university.  For example, AUB and USJ, both private universities, are among the top universities in Lebanon, but AUB is considerably more expensive than USJ.  This may be a major factor in the choice of university, since we have very little by way of financial aid for students. Also, entrance requirements to each of the two universities differ. So there is no easy, direct correlation between language preference and choice of university.  One of my masters’ students, who is conducting a study on language choice among university students, has found that more than one third of her participants at USJ studied English as their second language, while nearly half of her participants at AUB studied French as their second language.

The two universities are looking for diversity in terms of the socio-economic background of students, but not for language diversity. Therefore, this current situation is not the result of a concerted effort on the part of those two institutions.


JG : Can you tell our readers something about the rivalry between French and English in Lebanon? Was the Sykes-Picot agreement by which Lebanon was put under French mandate a turning point?

LC : There are few studies on the language situation in Lebanon. Here is a simple (maybe a little simplistic) sketch.  To some, the investigation of the multilingual tradition in Lebanon should take us back to the Phoenicians.  I will start with the Ottoman period, between the 16th century and the end of World War I, when Lebanon was a site for various forms of bilingualism among the small educated class, including Arabic-Turkish, Arabic-French, and Arabic-English bilingualisms.  Arabic-French and Arabic-English bilinguals during that period were more likely to be Christians educated in the (American) Protestant and (French) Catholic missionary schools established mainly in the second half of the 19th century.  While the presence of French in education predates the French mandate in 1918-1943, the latter established French as an official language of Lebanon.  This is when French spread across religions and sects.  The status of French as an official language was dropped when Lebanon gained its independence, and Arabic became the only official language.  More recently, we have been observing a decline in the privileged position of French as a language of education, while English has been on the rise.  It is still important to point out however, that multilingualism in Lebanon is very much an educational phenomenon.

JG : Has globalization tipped the balance in favor of English?

LC: It is true that English dominance throughout the world has not bypassed Lebanon. This can be seen in the increasing realization that English is an important language for the future of Lebanon and the Lebanese.  English is perceived to be the most important language for commerce/business, international relations, technology and science.  French is still regarded by many as a language of culture. But while few Lebanese would consider French more important than English, many of them would still consider knowledge of both French and English as important.  The fact is that Lebanon still publishes a daily newspaper in French and one in English (alongside many in Arabic), and while many universities and colleges use English as the main language of instruction, French has held its own in schools. On a personal note, my father pushed me to do my graduate studies in the USA, at a time when my French was much stronger than my English, because he thought that English would open up more career doors.


JG : What determines people’s preference for the 3 languages?

LC : [A partial answer can be found above, especially in relation to the division of labor between French and English.]

At the outset, I’d like to point out that, in addition to Arabic, Armenian, Kurdish, and Syriac are among the languages spoken at home by some minority groups in Lebanon. The Lebanese variety of Arabic is the first language of the majority of the Lebanese, the language they learn to speak at home. Standard Arabic is learned through formal schooling.  As I mentioned earlier, in school, most subjects are taught in a foreign language, usually English or French.  When parents choose a school for their children, they are in fact making a choice about the foreign language that will become their children’s second language.

When talking to parents of young children, I often hear the following argument for their choice of school: English is easy; it is everywhere, and necessary for future careers; our children are bound to learn it.  French is more difficult than English; to learn it well, our children should learn it at school.  Parents therefore lean towards choosing schools where French is the medium of instruction. I have heard this argument being made by parents who are francophone and by those who are not. 

The Lebanese may now perceive that trilingualism is the preferred option, but more research would be needed to answer this question more precisely.


JG : Do people regard French and English as colonialist languages?

LC : In a global perspective, French and English can certainly be viewed as colonialist languages; more locally however, as you can glean from the brief historical sketch provided earlier, the presence of French in Lebanon predates French colonialism in the region.  During the French mandate, which lasted a little over two decades, French became an official language and it spread more widely, but it lost its official status upon Lebanon’s independence. In that sense, Lebanon’s experience under the French mandate is different from that of other countries under colonial rule, where colonial languages kept their official status, and indigenous languages were assigned low prestige, long after those countries gained their independence.  Maybe the key difference is the role of Arabic in Lebanon, a high-prestige language with a long-standing cultural tradition, which remained closely tied to national identity.


JG :
You were interviewed for a radio program of the BBC-PRI (Public Radio International, USA) entitled “Is Beirut the codeswitching LLINA signpostcapital of the world?". The specific type of code-switching referred to is the Lebanese habit of beginning a sentence in one language and ending it another. Another linguist interviewed for that program stated:

“The way people codeswitch in Beirut is unique. … A person in LA might speak Spanish at home and English at work. But in Beirut, “They're all Lebanese, talking with Lebanese, so why all this code switching? You’ll never see two French speaking to each other in German or in Spanish or Chinese, unless maybe there is a reason. But here, it’s a way of speaking in a sense.”

Do you agree with that analysis?

Traditional analyses of codeswitching have not done a good job at explaining this phenomenon, but those analyses are based on the assumption of monolingualism as a norm.  In such a context, codeswitching requires an explanation, since it deviates from the expected norm. In multilingual communities around the world, ‘mixed’ productions such as those of the young Beirutis are in fact very common; they may even be typical ways of speaking.  In my opinion, the Beiruti phenomenon would not be as unique as it is made out to be, if looked at from this perspective.


JG : Thank you for those very interesting insights. Of the many dozens of linguists we have interviewed on this blog, you are the first from the Middle East, and we hope you will not be the last.

LC : You are very welcome. I am delighted to have been able to share my experience with your readers.


Blog notes:

[1]  An Agreement signed on 16 May 1916 between France and the United Kingdom, represented respectively by François Georges-Picot and Sir Mark Sykes. The Agreement divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire by apportioning spheres of influence between the signatories. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Agreement was ratified at the San Remo Conference by the League of Nations, which entrusted the United Kingdom with a mandate over Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine, while France obtained a mandate over Lebanon and Syria. (See also: Il y a cent ans...)

[2] The Phoenicians are an ancient people that originated in the cities of Phoenicia, a region approximately corresponding to present-day Lebanon. The greatest known accomplishment of the Phoenicians was the creation of an alphabet which forms the basis of languages that later spread throughout the ancient world,  even if it was not itself the first language created.

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


Interview with American wordsmith (and interpreter) James Nolan

Nolan portrait Jonathan
James Nolan - the interviewee Jonathan Goldberg -the interviewer

JG :
You come from a cosmopolitan family and you grew up in several countries, before you settled down in the United States. Tell us about that.

James N : My father, a US Navy officer, came from Nova Scotia and my mother, an artist, from Asturias. I was born in the US at the end of World War II and shortly thereafter my family moved to Mexico City where my father did his Masters in Spanish. Both my parents were bilingual and I was raised speaking both languages. Later we lived in Venezuela and Chile before settling in California, where Spanish is also widely spoken. While at the University of California, I also spent summers in Guadalajara, where my parents lived during most of their retirement years.

JG : You are a qualified lawyer and you practiced law for a short period in New York. But your career began and continued in the field of interpreting, with a strong focus on legal interpreting. Your language strengths would presumably have stood you in good stead for either of those professions, but what induced you to choose interpreting over law.

James N : In New York City I did linguistic work for several law firms and worked as a lawyer with one of them, but as a lawyer I was one among Noloan lawthousands of lawyers in an overpopulated and extremely competitive field. However, as an interpreter I was among the best, so I decided to remain one. At the UN, I concentrated on international law and human rights issues, volunteering each year to interpret in the General Assembly's Legal Committee. I was promoted to head the language service of an international tribunal and later became Deputy Director of my division, where I also assumed some legal and administrative duties.


JG : To take the UN Competitive Examination, you went to study at Geneva University, which was the leading educational institution offering a diploma in international interpreting and translating at the time. In what languages were studies conducted? How did you fare in the UN Examination?

James N : Translation and interpretation courses at the University of  Geneva were given in the students' target and source languages, in my Nolan Geneva Universitycase English, French and Spanish. International economics was taught in English and international relations was taught in French. International terminology was taught in four languages (English, French, Spanish and  German). Stylistics and précis-writing were taught in English and French. Many of my professors were UN

Nolan Andron
           Constantin Andronikov

linguists, and there were some very distinguished visiting lecturers, such as Constantin Andronikov, former interpreter of Charles de Gaulle. On graduating, I passed the UN Concours and went to the UN in 1977. In 1979 I was selected to join the in-house interpreter training program and received interpreter training from Guido Gómez de Silva and Bruce Boeglin, two of the best diplomatic interpreters.


JG: Tell us about your career as a United Nations Interpreter, the languages in which you worked.

James N : Staff interpreters at the UN are in the booth every day, working 7 or 8 meetings per week. To ensure accuracy and fidelity, we work into our strongest language (mother tongue or language of higher education) from two other UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish).

Nolan booth

I worked into English from Spanish and French. The meetings in which I worked involved a great variety of topics and perspectives, from regional crises and decolonization to the environment and renewable energy sources. The work was sometimes stressful but always interesting. Interpretation is critical to the success of multilateral relations. During the 20 years of my career from 1982 to 2002 my assignments included 6 landmark global events which could not have taken place without simultaneous interpretation, since coverage of the languages of the 190+ Nolan Uncloscountries in the world requires using all 6 UN official languages: the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1982 adopted the largest treaty in history governing the world's oceans; the first Summit Meeting of the UN Security Council in 1992 marked the end of the Cold War; the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development ("Earth Summit") in 1992 led the way to the environmental revolution; the Special Commemorative Meeting of 1995 marked the 50th Anniversary of the UN; the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court in 1998 codified the Nuremberg precedent on war crimes and crimes against humanity, so that such crimes can now be prosecuted internationally; and the International Conference on Financing for Development in 2002 set the scene for today's economic development system. The issues addressed at those conferences required consensus-based global solutions, since every country in the world had a stake in the outcome. Each of those conferences arrived at a result that represented a step forward in resolving the issues it had addressed, and that progress could not have been achieved but for the possibility of exhaustively discussing issues in depth, using languages that all participants could understand. It is fascinating, as an interpreter, to have a front-row seat at events such as those, where history is being made and a way to the future is being charted, and to see how multilingual communication contributes to the process.

JG : Do you have any particular memories of statesmen for whom you interpreted (and those whom you may have met) and other highlights (as well as possible hitches) in your work as an interpreter at the UN?

James N : There are so many memories… At every General Assembly, a senior UN interpreter will interpret several speeches by heads of state or foreign ministers. I was often asked to interpret the presidents of Bolivia,

Nolan Pizano
Ernesto Samper Pizano

Peru and Argentina, and sometimes to translate their written speeches. One of the most amiable and courteous statesmen I met was President Ernesto Samper Pizano, for whom I interpreted in 1996 at some bilateral talks. He invited me to lunch with them during their talks, commended me on my work, and very kindly left me with a beautiful memento: a book of aerial photographs of Colombia. However, from a technical standpoint, the most interesting and challenging assignments I did were press conferences and interviews by President Jacques Chirac in Paris, interpreted live in New York at the Reuters Financial News Studio, in 1995. When you interpret live for a global television audience, the level of concentration required of you is tremendous. But I have to say that the satellite feed and technical arrangements set up by Reuters were impeccable: it was as if the speaker and I were in the same room. Moreover, M. Chirac is an excellent speaker and it is truly a pleasure to interpret someone who handles the French language so beautifully.


JG : Under the UN mandatory retirement policy your UN appointment expired when you turned 60. Since then your career has taken off in other directions and you receive invitations from different parts of the world to teach and conduct seminars and courses, principally for conference interpreters. You also serve as a consultant. Where have you been invited? Are the courses one-time events? What is the level of the students whom you teach in these courses? Are those courses confined to English-Spanish-French speakers? For which bodies do you consult?

James N : I have been invited to teach or lecture in Canada, Germany, Kosovo, Argentina and South Africa. In the US, I have taught or lectured in New York, Washington D.C., California, Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Idaho. My seminars in Canada and South Africa have become regular events, and I have made three trips to Kosovo as a consultant to prepare training courses and to train linguists for the OSCE Mission in Kosovo and the European Union legal mission, EULEX.

Nolan Capetown
With seminar participants, Capetown, South Africa

Most of my seminars are for advanced students and practicing professionals who want to improve their skills or to refine a particular language combination. My French-English professional seminars for ATIO take place each summer in Ontario; this summer we will be at the Château Laurier in Ottawa the first week of July. I focus on French, Spanish and English for conference interpreting, but I also use a "language neutral" approach that allows me to include other language combinations at some of my seminars (e.g. Portuguese in South Africa and Canada, Serbian and Albanian in Kosovo, and Dari and Pashto in my training of Canadian military escort interpreters). In the US as a consultant to the National Center for State Courts I evaluate French<>English oral examinations of court interpreters. For AIIC (L'association internationale des interprètes de conférence), I am participating in the AIIC delegation to the ASTM committee working to define nationwide standards for interpretation.

JG : Which text book do you use for your courses and seminars?

Nolan bookJames N : I use my own textbook, Interpretation Techniques and Exercises, which recently came out in its second edition.  However, I also develop coursebooks and syllabi specifically tailored to the needs and language combinations of the institutions or student groups that I work with.

JG : Is your knowledge of French acquired from the years you spent in Geneva, or have you lived in other French-speaking regions?

For 30 years all of my professional activity has been conducted partly in French, which is one of the UN's two working languages. I have always been drawn to the French language and French culture. It seems that I had a French ancestor in my family. Before the internet came along I kept up my French by subscribing to Les Temps Modernes and listening to short-wave radio, and I recall being moved by the eulogies of Charles de Gaulle in 1970. I studied French at the University of California and the Sorbonne but my exposure to French started in high school and later included both sides of the Atlantic. I lived in Paris while taking courses at the Sorbonne, and worked there for a year after graduating from the

Nolan Divonne

University of Geneva while waiting for my UN contract. I lived in Geneva and its environs (Annemasse, Haute-Savoie; Ferney-Voltaire, Ain) for two years as a student and later for five years as a UN staff member. (By the way, more than once I visited Divonne-les-Bains, where Jean Leclercq lives. It is a very pleasant town.) I also spent many vacations in Bretagne and Québec, and became fairly familiar with the French spoken in la belle province. I am proud to say that my older daughter, Catherine, is perfectly bilingual.

JG : Do you also do translations?

James N : Yes, mainly treaties and national human rights reports for the UN in Geneva, but I have also translated legal materials for the State Department and for an international tribunal.

JG : You have said that residents of Québec "know two languages for the price of one." Give us your impressions of French spoken by the Québécois.

James N :
Interpreters sometimes complain that Canadian French makes  their work more difficult but I find those complaints exaggerated. The Québécois accent is at first difficult to get used to but once your ear is attuned to it you discover that the French spoken by educated Canadians is basically a regional variety of standard French with some additional dialectical features –a situation akin to that which Spanish-English interpreters face with the diverse regional varieties of Spanish in Latin America. Moreover, Canadians take official bilingualism seriously and lavish great care on making their official publications and diplomatic communications correct and elegant in both languages. At the UN, most speeches by Canadian delegates are made partly in French and what you are often hearing from them is well-written French spoken with a slight English accent. I think the language of Molière is alive and well in Canada, although it may differ from the French spoken in Paris, Marseille, Geneva or Dakar.

Nolan Ontario
                           Legislative Assembly of Ontario

  When Nicolas Sarkozy, a brilliant speaker, was received at the Quebec National Assembly, it was hard to say who was more eloquent, the guest or the hosts. I occasionally have the pleasure of teaching French>English refresher training workshops for the staff interpreters at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario (who work mainly into French) and I am always impressed by the polished and articulate French spoken by Canadian parliamentarians and their interpreters.



JG : You have described interpreting as "playing detective". Could you elaborate on that in general and with specific reference to accent?

James N : I was referring to an element of my model of interpretation, on which I base my seminars; I try to identify the various processes that take place in an interpreter's mind while he is interpreting, and one of these is inference / extrapolation / deduction. What I mean is that there are many aspects of an utterance that can render it difficult to interpret, e.g. use of unfamiliar terminology, poor sound quality, conference-room noise, an inadvertent slip of the tongue or omission by the speaker, an obscure accent, etc., and in order to deal with those kinds of issues the interpreter is often obliged to go behind the words, fill in the blanks and read between the lines in order to grasp or reconstruct the speaker's meaning. This kind of analysis is very similar to what a detective does when he deduces the missing piece of the puzzle from all of the other available clues. That is why it is important for an interpreter to follow the thread of the speaker's ideas, focus on the context, and keep the overall picture in mind, rather than focusing exclusively on the words he is currently hearing.

JG : What direction is the profession of interpreting now taking?

James N : Like everything else, it is being changed by technology. What technology makes possible sooner or later comes to pass, and I believe we are on the verge of seeing multilingual real-time virtual meetings being convened in cyberspace using simultaneous interpretation and video-conferencing, with the speakers and the interpreters participating from different locations. For example, listen to the following dialogue, in which the Prime Minister of Japan, speaking Japanese ten thousand kilometers away in Tokyo, is brought into a conversation taking place in English in Davos, Switzerland. ("Tough choices in a time of crisis"). Notice that, due to the size of the monitor, the "remote" participant is actually the most visible person in attendance. Just as simultaneous interpreting proved to be more efficient than consecutive, I think remote video-conference interpreting will in some cases prove to be more efficient than conference-room interpreting. Let me mention a moment of crisis that I witnessed as an interpreter and venture a prediction. I believe that in years to come the heightened security concerns that were ushered in by 9/11 will probably remain at the "orange alert" state or higher, to use the terminology now in use at airports. I have had that feeling since September12th, 2001, when I was one of the two English interpreters called in to New York City to service the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council which met that day in response to the attack. Making my way through a deserted Manhattan where the dust was still settling from the destruction of the twin towers, I could not help wondering if the attacks were really over but I knew that despite the danger in the air the Council had to meet. I sensed that, for interpreters as for everyone else, things would never be the same again and security would become a constant concern. Remote interpreting has the potential to address not only the obstacle of geographical distance but also some security situations where high-level gatherings could become targets of terrorism. Moreover, where a meeting must be arranged on short notice or when a problem of "rare" language combinations arises, remote interpreting can make it possible to use the best-qualified interpreters for the job even if they are remotely located and cannot be brought in time to the meeting venue. While bearing in mind that interpreters' presence at the meeting venue is always preferable because it enables interpreters to interact with the participants and be better informed, I believe that the possibilities offered by remote interpretation should also be explored.


JG : What advice would you give to someone embarking on a career as an interpreter?

James N : I would say: take the necessary time to thoroughly master your working languages, including your "A" language, and to acquire the necessary background knowledge, training, and hands-on experience. Do not confine yourself solely to academic settings. An appropriate degree,  such as the Master in Conference Interpreting (MCI), from a good school will help you enter the profession, but interpreting is above all an art that is learned by doing. Build a reputation for quality and reliability. If you have no experience of public speaking and suffer from stage-fright, find a way to acquire more self-confidence, e.g. by joining a public speaking club like "Toastmasters" or an amateur theater group. Keep fit and learn to relax. Explore career possibilities with internet searches and tools like the Nolan YearbookYearbook of International Organizations, which lists all international organizations in the world, indexed by subject-matter, location and working languages. Take pains with your resume. Prepare for competitive examinations using the organizations' web sites. When starting out, accept even brief volunteer assignments as a community interpreter for the sake of experience. Join an interpreter's association as a student member. Study the AIIC Code of Professional Ethics and Tips for Beginners. Read widely in all your languages and broaden your general knowledge by attending meetings or lectures on current issues. Set your goals carefully, use your time wisely, and take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. Practice interpreting daily, using the wealth of speeches now available on the internet. Record yourself, listen to your performances with a critical ear, and then work systematically on getting better at whatever gave you trouble, whether it was speed of delivery, financial terminology, metaphors, numbers, or reformulation. Resist the temptation of becoming a "polyglutton": mastering two or three languages is better than knowing several superficially. Finally, do not spend too much time on abstract linguistic theorizing. Remember the advice of De Gaulle's interpreter, Constantin Andronikov: "The interpreter is like a centipede; if he thought about what his feet are doing, he would be unable to walk."

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

Interview with British wordsmith (and poet) Annie Freud

Annie freud portraitOur current guest, Annie Freud is a distinguished British poet and one of the members of the Freud lineage to gain fame for their intellectual achievements. She is the daughter of painter Lucian Freud, the maternal granddaughter of sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, and the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud. [1]

 Freud was educated at the Lycée Français in London and then studied English and European Literature at Warwick University. Since 1975, she has worked intermittently as a tapestry artist and embroiderer, in addition to publishing works of poetry : The Mirabelles, 2010 and The Remains, 2015. 


A.F. Book 2 A.F. Book 3


"Freud's poems are chaotic, hectic and witty; are a romp through London, its melancholy and beauty; are a sumptuous tumble through love, appetites and desire." (The Poetry Archive.)


Jean-Paul cropped

Our interviewer, Jean-Paul Deshayes, was a certified English teacher and teacher-trainer at the IUFM (Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres), having also taught French in London for 10 years at high-school and university levels. Jean-Paul now pursues a career as translator for the magazine media. Although retired, he engages in diverse activities: exchanges with other translators, assorted reading, DIY and martial arts, as well as trips to London with his English wife to visit their daughter and granddaughter. He regards translation (from and into English) as a particularly stimulating intellectual Bourgogne exercise and devotes himself to it both professionally and for his personal pleasure. Dedicated to poetry in all its forms, he likes  Robert Browning, Robert Frost and the English romantic poets in equal measure. By coincidence, South Bourgogne, where he resides is the birthplace of Lamartine, whose magnificent poem, “The Lake” he likes to read regularly.


Mr. Deshayes conducted this interview in English and then translated the questions and answers into French. French translation.



J-P D. : Your very first collection, "The Best Man That Ever Was", won an award and you were described as  "a new voice" in poetry. Do you find that it is a fitting description?


A.F. : Although it is not exactly comfortable for me to comment on my own work, when I return to The Best Man That Ever Was, my first collection, I find that it has a sprightliness and irrepressibility that makes me smile.

J-P D.
Poetry has come rather late in your life. Would you say then that it was a hidden or dormant calling? Did you ever suspect that it was in you, just waiting to be awakened by the right opportunity?

A.F. : The desire to write poetry was repressed rather than hidden. In some sense it still is. Often I can't seem to write anything at all … I don't seem able to allow myself the pleasure of writing. And then suddenly I have a lucky streak and write a lot very fast. 

There are many more poems I'm longing to write but I have to wait like a cat for a mouse to come out of his hole in the wall . . . Then BANG! I try not to think too much about these things because I don't want to get into the habit of having fixed ideas about how I work.

Being a late-comer to writing poetry has some advantages. Sometimes it seems that I have a lifetime of stored material and poems that are 'ready to go' like fast food.

I have made different kinds of art all my life – acting, painting, embroidery, tapestry, film scripts – but I often drew back, censored myself and was not as productive as I could have been. By the time I was writing and reading my poems to live audiences something in me changed and could not be put back into the can. I am grateful to the many people who have encouraged me and helped me to change my life.

J-P D. : What did you do before you became a "full-time poet" if I may use that phrase? 

A.F. : I do not describe myself as a full-time poet because that's not how it works for me. I don't write every day or try to. But as a writer and artist, I am a hunter/gatherer/beachcomber, always on the look-out for an intriguing word or expression, something dropped or half-buried, a piece of porcelain, an expression that someone has used, something broken, a bird or an animal, some words on a piece of paper, a place name, an unexpected colour or story. If it connects with something in my life then I will keep it until I am ready - or better still - not ready in a way that stimulates me. 

I have worked as a teacher in many different settings, and have held positions of influence in public sector institutions. I have also made embroideries on clothes for celebrities.


J-P D. : Do you consider that writing poetry is a radical break with your original activities, which were basically practical ones, or is that connection still there?

A.F. : Writing poetry and having it published was a radical break for me because it changed how I felt about myself. I stopped hiding from my talent. I stopped comparing myself to other people quite so much. I found I was inhabiting a wonderful new world. 

It was a radical break for me in other ways. For so long I had lacked purpose. When I discovered that people found my poems entertaining it was like finding a new drug. Performing was a total thrill and it still is.

When my first collection was published I was still making embroideries professionally but I found I had to put that aside for a few years and make myself become more single-minded. Now, with the publication of my third collection I feel free to do what I like – and more ambitious and willing to work as hard as I can. It's wonderful.

I have discovered that I can, and need to work in diverse ways with different materials - writing, drawing and painting – but with the same degree of application and commitment. These different activities are always feeding each other, giving me the freedom I need to pursue my desire. Now that I have passed my mid-sixties, I have to look after my health quite carefully.

J-P D. : What does it mean to you to be a poet? Do you think of yourself primarily as a poet? Is the writing of poetry something that is a great satisfaction to you, something that is truly fulfilling? 

A.F. : The idea that someone is sitting reading my poems is tremendously exciting to me. It is a kind of relationship. Knowing that the actions, sights, thoughts, visions and feelings I have put into my poems are occupying someone else's mind, and are being changed and reinterpreted by that A.F. Billy Collinsperson, simply amazes me. This is what being a poet means for me but I never think of that when I'm composing a poem. I love to talk about these things with other poets. Billy Collins (pictured left), the celebrated American poet, writes brilliantly about the relationship between himself, the poet and the reader.

The joy of composition is not easy to explain. It is like being in a landscape in which all the elements and objects are clamouring for you to observe them and to make sure that everyone sees them in their true light. Some you discard, some you keep.

I find writing poems tremendously enjoyable. When I've written something I'm pleased with, I'm like a hunter coming down the mountain carrying my prey on my shoulder.

J-P D. : Do you see poetry as a creative art and if so what makes it so distinct from other creative arts? Do you find that – at the moment anyway – it is the most adequate medium in which to express yourself?

A.F. :  What makes poetry so distinctive from the other creative arts is that its raw materials are the same as those you would use to buy a bar of chocolate from a shop. As such, it is the most democratic of all the arts. And yet,  in spite of this commonplace aspect, the influence of the great poems which compose the literary canon, is so powerful and universal that it is without bounds.


J-P D. : You have produced beautiful illustrations for your new collection, The Remains. Did you feel that they were a necessary complement and, if so, in what way? 

A.F. :  The images in The Remains are integral to the poems, not as a key to their meaning but more to do with showing who I am and what interests and excites me. It was a way of being more serious about my work and paradoxically freer and more light-hearted.

J-P D. : Do you feel that poetry has a purpose? Does it just aim at making us look at the world and at people in a different way?

I think that the purpose of poetry is to enlarge and enrich our experience of life and the possibilities it offers. I also believe that metaphor is necessary to the understanding of all things. Without it we are doomed.

J-P D. : I have noticed that many of your poems are inspired by flowers or plants, or fruit (mirabelles) or vegetables (aubergines) or amusing anecdotes (like "A Memorable Omelette") and nor devoid of humour. What are your sources of inspiration, your favourite subjects? Are there any themes you feel strongly attracted to as a poet? 

A.F. :  I like to write about things that I handle and that are familiar to me. An important part of any relationship are the words that someone you love has spoken to you because they offer the unique gift of enlightenment. These things find their way into my poems. If they are funny that makes them more valuable. Regarding "A Memorable Omelette" : the egg as a subject and image is present in a number of my poems. Another recurring image is that of the lake.

J-P D. :  How do the "right" words come to you? Do they come easily or do you have to do a lot of painstaking rewriting? Are there any poems that you would like to rewrite or alter in places? 

A.F. :  I find I usually start with two or three words that resonate. Sometimes they produce a sort of instant culture, sometimes it is just me trying too hard. Then I look elsewhere.

Often I'll find something I've abandoned that has some new unexpected appeal and find that it has possibilities. Then I'm happy to do the work. I have found that feeling hatred for your 'subject matter' can be very useful and perhaps even necessary to the making of a poem.

J-P D. : You went to the Lycée Français in London. Could you tell us about those school years? Were they formative in your life as a teenager?

A.F. : The Lycée Français in London offered a rigorous but not an intellectually stimulating education as nothing was open to discussion and everything was learnt by heart. But learning texts by heart was itself extremely useful and I'm grateful for it.

J-P D. : On page 45 of THE REMAINS, under "My chosen subject is:"  you start with Baudelaire and end with a quote from that great poet. Did his poetry influence you? Yet, whereas his form is very classical, yours seems to be ever changing and sometimes even unconventional. 

A.F. : Baudelaire's poems are some of those I love most above all others. I experience Les Fleurs du Mal as a kind of lesson for every aspect of life as well as admiring them for their formal perfection and extraordinary beauty and boldness. My favourite is Les Correspondances.

J-P D. : When listening to Dylan Thomas or Robert Frost (or others) reading their poems aloud, what is striking is how differently we perceive those poems. Do you think that poetry is meant to be read out loud first and foremost?

A.F. Dylan Thomas A.F. Robert Frost
    Thomas               Frost   

A.F. : I think that hearing poetry read aloud is very necessary to its survival as an art form and an essential and entertaining way of becoming aware of new talent. But I also advocate the discipline of close reading where the reader becomes closely acquainted with a poem and begins to assess its importance and its relationship to the past.

J-P D. : If you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring poet, what would it be?

A.F. : I would advise an aspiring poet to see lots of films, read widely across all genres, paint and draw, learn a foreign language, play a musical instrument and make strong friendships with other poets.


[1] By coincidence, the linguist of the month interviewed soon after the present interview appeared on our sister-blog,, was the translator Anthea Bell, who translated Sigmund Freud's "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life"  from German into English.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

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.