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.

Interview with British wordsmith (and musician) Christopher Goldsack

The following interview was conducted between Los Angeles and London.

Christian Goldsack
The interviewee - Christopher Goldsack
Photo: Ian Cole


The interviewer - Jonathan Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goldsack Promenade Choirs

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Blog note:

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

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

Interview with Dutch wordsmith (and tour guide) Geert Sivellis

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

 Geert Sillevis

  Geert Sivellis

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

  Get Lost Tours Zeyto  

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

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


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

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

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


population 530,000


population 800,000

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

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

Interview with Welsh wordsmith (and forensic linguist) John Olsson


The interviewer:  


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



A Olsson
The interviewee:

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


Olsson  map Wales   Olsson Word Crime

JV: How did you become interested in forensic linguistics?

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


How do forensic linguistics work, in a nutshell?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.


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

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

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





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

  Meades 3  

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

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

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

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

Meades 4

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

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

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

  Meades 6  

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

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


David Bellos  


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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



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

  Perec Gary   Tati


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

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

Une histoire fabuleuse de la traduction


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


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


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


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

GBWhat is your next project going to be?




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



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


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

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

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

Additional reading:

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Crimp
             Marie Nadia Karsky                          Martin Crimp

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

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

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

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

Blog footnote:

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


Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.