Tag Archives: History

Signing with a Philly accent

Nina P. put together this episode.

Cheesesteaks, Peanut Chews, Tastykakes, oh yeah, the Liberty Bell — there’s so much to love about Philadelphia, but one of the best things about the city of Brotherly Love is the accent. We’re not talking about spoken English — we’re talking about American Sign Language. This week on the podcast we learn about the Philadelphia accent in ASL.

What is an accent in ASL? ASL speaker and researcher Jami Fisher explains it all. Fisher, along with University of Pennsylvania linguistic professor Meredith Tamminga, is working on a study to document and explain this “weird,” as Fisher calls it, way of signing. (For the hearing impaired or those who cannot access audio immediately, there’s a full transcript here.)

Also on the podcast, we hear from the actors of the Broadway musical, “Spring Awakening.” This production features eight deaf actors. John Hockenberry from our friends at The Takeaway got the chance to interview some of the actors.

PODCAST CONTENTS:

0:00 Sean Monahan doing the Philly accent. He does a series of PhillyTawk videos on YouTube.

1:18 Murph (Nick Kroll) of Pawnsylvania

1:39 Meet Jami Fisher, ASL Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania. She is studying the Philadelphia ASL accent

2:54 What is an accent in ASL?

3:56 Why does Philadelphia have an accent in ASL?

4:29 Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet found the first deaf school in Hartford, CT in 1817

5:35 Pennsylvania School for the deaf is founded in 1820

6:27 Theory about the Philadelphia signs

7:54 Theories as to why the ASL Philly accent may be disappearing

9:31 Jami Fisher recruited her father to help interview deaf participants in the study

10:31 What are some similar sign language accent studies around the world?

11:07 Growing up “CODA” (child of deaf adults)

12:16 The story of Jami’s parents learned to sign

13:55 Broadway actor Daniel Durant on speaking American Sign Language

15:37 John Hockenberry, the host of The Takeaway interviews some of the cast members of the current ASL Broadway production of “Spring Awakening”

Music heard in this episode:

“Peas Corps” and “Bad Scene” by Podington Bear

Music from the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening

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Minnesota’s Umlautgate

The post comes from my Big Show pal David Leveille.

The Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton issued a quirky executive order on Wednesday concerning the spelling of the name of the small Minnesota city of Lindström (population, 4,442).

Somehow, it seems when highway crews last updated the road signs leading into town, they removed those little twin dots that hover over the O. Lindström became Lindstrom. The transportation department defended the decision, citing federal policy that highway signs include only letters in a standard alphabet.

The omission wasn’t much noticed, though, until a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter spotted it. Soon enough, many of the town’s Swedish American residents were up in arms. They wanted the dots restored to reflect their heritage.

Keep in mind that the city of Lindström is nicknamed America’s Little Sweden. Many locals speak Swedish when buying Scandanavian donuts at the local Swedish bakery. A sign near the city center reads “Välkommen till Lindström.”

So on Wednesday, the governor predictably set things right by ordering the umlaut to be put back on the green highway signs that welcome tourists. “Nonsensical rules like this are exactly why people get frustrated with government,” Dayton said. “Even if I have to drive to Lindström, and paint the umlauts on the city limit signs myself, I’ll do it.”

“Underbar, and that means wonderful!” said local historian and tour guide Sally Barott reacting to the governor’s order. “We are ecstatic he’s making the umlauts come back.”

Barott says the dots affect the pronunciation and, more importantly, express the region’s cultural history and link to Swedish immigrants. “It’s important,” she says. “We have the old and the new. The blend is happening all over America, but I believe being able to retain our history and cultural ways, and to recognize and be traditional, honors the way we were taught and the way it was meant to me.”

Barott regularly escorts tourists around the city that was founded by Swedish immigrants back around 1850. One of her favorite stops is the Lindstrom Bakery where she orders Swedish glazed donuts and Swedish gingersnaps, called pepparkakor.

The Lindstrom Bakery does not use  an ö in its name. Go figure. (Photo courtesy of Lindstrom Bakery)

The Lindstrom Bakery does not use an ö in its name. Go figure. (Photo courtesy of Lindstrom Bakery)


Those gingersnaps have likely just come out of the oven, thanks to baker Bernie Coulombe, the woman behind the counter.

“This is a Swedish town. It has always been known for the Swedish settlers who first came here. So it is important to our customers and people who live here,” she explains. She says the town proudly shows off its heritage to tourists with a statue of Karl Oskar (a character in Vilhelm Moberg’s novels about Swedish emigration to the United States) that honors the early Swedish immigrants. There’s also an old water tower that’s in the shape of a coffee pot and a small Lutheran church that’s “strictly Swedish.”

But Lindstrom isn’t just hanging onto the past. “This is the way we were brought up, this is our Swedish inheritance, and you’ve got to keep your inheritance going,” says Coulombe.

This case of what might be called Lindstrom’s “umlautgate” is on the radar of The World’s language editor Patrick Cox. “Generally speaking English is thought of as the language where diacritics go to die.” All of the accents and the dots usually disappear, he says.

“America is the place where when you come to America, you sort of drop your clothes from the Old World and you embrace the New World. Names, surnames get changed, also the names of towns and cities get changed, and generally speaking the accents go.” But keep in mind, he says, “there are no rules in the English language right? I mean nobody’s going to stop the governor of Minnesota from saying ‘throw in some Cyrillic letters if you want to do that.’ He has every right to issue a decree like this.”

Strictly speaking, the Swedish ö does not use an umlaut. It is considered a separative letter in the Swedish alphabet. The umlauted o is a German thing.

But if you want to learn more about the linguistic difference between Lindstrom and Lindström, or the distinction between an umlaut (which has its origin in German) versus the happy twin dots that show up in Swedish words, and hear why rock bands ranging from Blue Öyster Cult to a Ukrainian band named Flëur like to play with umlauts, then you really must listen to Patrick’s podcast, The World in Wörds.


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Spanglish is older than you think

Hugo Reid at Rancho Santa Anita, as imagined in a 1885 sketch  (Wikimedia Commons)

Hugo Reid at Rancho Santa Anita, as imagined in a 1885 sketch (Wikimedia Commons)

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

To truly explore the early roots of Spanglish, we have to go back to the dawn of the Dons.

Picture California in the early-19th century, when Los Angeles was known simply as the little “pueblo” and “Alta California” as the region was then called, was still a part of Mexico.

And living in the a rancho just north of the pueblo was a young Scottish adventurer named Hugh Reid. In the 1830s he left the old world for the new — Mexico. And in his adopted home he was rechristened with an additional Spanish name, Perfecto Hugo Reid. Reid would eventually settle down on a ranch in southern California near the San Gabriel mission in what’s now Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, where he married a local woman, Doña Victoria.

Robert Train has been obsessed with Hugo Reid’s backstory for the last few years. Train is a professor of Spanish at Sonoma State University. We met recently at the Huntington Library archives in Pasadena, to read Reid’s extremely yellowed letters.

Reid wrote to a man named Abel Stearns, another gringo — yes, that was a term, Train says, that was used around that time — living in Alta California. Stearns had emigrated from Massachusetts and, like Reid, he had also become a Mexican citizen. Reid’s letters to Stearns detail daily life in early California.

In one letter, Reid tells Stearns about his recent trip around other parts of Mexico. It’s a fairly ordinary letter at first, except woven into the mostly English letter are phrases in Spanish. Often sentences will start in one language and shift to fluidly to the other language. Neither Spanish nor English, this is pure Spanglish.

Letter from Hugh Reid to Abel Stearns (Nina Porzucki)

Letter from Hugh Reid to Abel Stearns (Nina Porzucki)

Hugo Reid wrote letter after letter to Abel Stearns in Spanglish. That’s not to say he couldn’t write in strictly Spanish or strictly English. He could. And he did — Train has plenty of examples of those — but often the Scotsman chose to use both at once doing what Train calls code-switching.

“It’s not about not knowing one language or the other. That’s a sort of myth that some people seem to think — that code-switching is all about not knowing one language, not being able to find the word. But that’s not typically the case. He knew how to say “take a little rest,” says Train.

Reid could’ve easily communicated to his English-speaking-mate in English. But instead he chose Spanglish.

Both Reid and Stearns married native Spanish speakers. Historians don’t know for sure but assume they spoke Spanish inside their homes. And Reid’s correspondence reflects a sort of back and forth between worlds. The Spanish words often key into domestic affairs, like requests from Reid to buy cloth from Abel Stearns store. Stearns was a merchant. He is credited with helping to start the port in San Pedro.

In another letter, Hugo Reid writes, “… the old woman requires for the house a piece of percale and best in manta blanca. Si no hay percala send her pura manta blanca. I remain yours truly, Perfecto Hugo Reid.”

“Percala” is a type of cloth called percale in English and “manta blanca” is coarse cotton, but the most curious part of the exchange is not Hugo Reid ordering fabric for his wife in Spanish but what he calls his wife in English: “the old woman.” It’s a direct translation, says Train, of how men in Alta California might’ve referred to their wives in Spanish.

“La Vieja, which I guess is the standard use of this time for ‘the old lady,’” Train says.

So what’s the big deal? A few native English speakers spoke Spanglish to each other way back when. What’s this have to do with anything today? Simple, says Train. Hugo Reid’s letters are reminders that California was, is and has always been a multilingual place.

In fact, when California became a state in 1850, the new constitution was written in both English and Spanish. For many years, California laws were written in both languages. But somewhere along the way, English usurped Spanish. And Spanish became, well, a foreign language.

When I learned Spanish in southern California public schools, I learned it as my foreign language prerequisite.

Reading the signs as you drive down Third Street in East LA, Spanish is far from a foreign language. But the real lingua franca is Spanglish. The sign for the East LA institution, King Taco is a great example. “King Taco. The Best Food in Town. Burritos y Tacos Al Pastor. Y Carne Asada. Park here.”

King Taco is an East LA institution. (Nina Porzucki)

King Taco is an East LA institution. (Nina Porzucki)

Robert Train and I did park and eat and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the women sitting at the table next to us. Two young mothers, Desiree Gardenas and Brenda Padilla, and their toddlers are speaking Spanish and English and, yes, Spanglish.

Do you ever mix the languages together, I asked them. Yes, of course they said. It’s normal.

Post lunch, around the corner from King Taco, Train and I made one final stop at the Calvary Cemetery.

It’s a beautiful, old cemetery on a hill. Thousands of stone monuments commemorate the early residents of the pueblo of Los Angeles. And the modern city, with her tall skyscrapers and her smoggy skies, can be seen in the distance. This is where Hugo Reid and Abel Stearns — these early Spanglish speakers — are buried mere miles from where Spanglish continues to thrive.

“I read this part of a whole immigrant story, part of an unexpected one really,” Train says.

Hugo Reid died at the age of 42, just two years after Mexican Alta California became the 31st United State. Incidentally, in his final days he became obsessed with saving another language, the language of the Gabrieleño Indians, the ancestral language of his wife Doña Victoria. Sadly, that language has not survived.

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Remembrance of the Man who Translated Proust

Photo: louveciennes/Flickr Creative Commons

Photo: louveciennes/Flickr Creative Commons

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

It’s not often that a translator has a story as good as the author himself. But C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s was wild enough to seem like fiction.

Moncrieff was the first person to translate Marcel Proust’s seven-volume epic, “Remembrance of Things Past” into English. He was also a poet, a soldier during World War I and a spy in Mussolini’s Italy.

But Moncrieff’s own life was mostly hidden, according to his great great-niece Jean Findlay. She recently published the book “Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator.”

“All I really knew about him is that he had translated Proust,” Findlay says. “His life story was really kept hidden from me. Nobody had investigated it very much — mainly because they were ashamed of the fact that he was a homosexual.”
Findlay’s own interest in her great great-uncle began after her mother handed Findlay a suitcase full of his poetry.

“He had a book of poems that he’d kept since adolescence, which were mainly written in pencil,” she says. “A lot of them were first dedicated to a girl, and then dedicated to a boy. A lot of them were erotic and a lot of them were poems which had multi-layers and hidden meanings, and I realized that this was a very complex and exciting person.”

Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff was born at the start of the 20th century. “He was a bit of genius: He learned French when three from a Belgian nanny, and then he was a brilliant translator of Latin and Greek at the age of 11,” Findlay says.

He was a voracious reader, going through the entire library at his boarding school. He also began writing and publishing his poems at age 16.

He started working as a translator after returning home from World War I, and even his first translations weren’t anything to scoff at. He translated “La Chanson de Roland,” or “The Song of Roland,” from medieval French, and then went on to translate Beowulf from Old English.

In 1922, he tackled “Swann’s Way” — the first volume of Proust’s epic, “Remembrance of Things Past.”

The translation proved to be a challenge, not the least because of the dense and complicated prose — one page could often be one whole sentence. But, according to Findlay, the manuscript itself was a mess as well.

“The version he was given was a very complicated version, because it had been published during the first World War, when there weren’t very many typesetters,” Findlay explains. “They mixed up a lot of the objects and subjects of the sentences. So very often it was a work on interpretation and guess work.”

Even Moncrieff’s translation of the title, “Remembrance of Things Past,” was also called into question. It’s a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

“He thought that that line from Shakespeare contained enough references to cover the ambiguities in the French [“À la recherche du temps perdu”], which is about in search of lost time and wasted time,” Findlay says.

Proust himselt didn’t like Moncrieff’s title: He wanted the translator to put a “To” at the beginning: “To Remembrance of Lost Time.”

“And then [Proust] said, ‘Well my English isn’t that good, so that might not be a good idea,’” Findlay says.

Moncrieff’s translation of Proust went on to be the authoritative version for many years. A new translation wasn’t even published until 2002. That attempt took seven translators and seven years to write. Moncrieff also took seven years to complete the work — in between spying for the British in Mussolini’s Italy as well as translating other authors, like Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello.

Moncrieff’s version went on to influence authors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. “In fact, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that she was reading Scott Moncrieff’s Proust, and it was so exciting it was almost like a sexual experience,” Findlay says.

She re-read her great great-uncle’s translation while she was working on his biography. “I think he’s better and better the more you read him,” she says.

“You can actually open Proust anywhere in the enormous novel and find something which is utterly poetic and meaning and will take you back into yourself,” Findlay says. “It’s a bit like meditation: It takes time apart. It can make one second an entire chapter.”


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How the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped military slang

A jinglytruck (British English)/jingle truck (American English) in Afghanistan. (Photo: Kurt Clark via Flickr)

A jinglytruck (British English)/jingle truck (American English) in Afghanistan. (Photo: Kurt Clark via Flickr)


Here’s a post from The Big Show’s Leo Hornak.

How do you feel about doing armourbarma on the way to Butlins? Or getting a craphat to check for Terry in a jinglytruck?

Unless you’re a member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, you’re probably totally confused.

The British Army has a centuries-long tradition of picking up slang terms from the many countries in which it serves, both within the British empire and from other places around the world. And while the British Army lowered the flag at its last base in Afghanistan, the country has left its own mark on British military language and culture.

So in the above example, armourbarma is a method of checking for IEDs; Butlins was the name given to Camp Bastion, the army’s main Afghan base; craphats are members of a rival unit; and a jinglytruck is a highly decorated Afghan vehicle.

And Terry? Terry is short for the enemy — Mr. “Terry” Taliban, of course.

If some of those names sound oddly light-hearted, writer Patrick Hennessy, a former army captain, says that shouldn’t be a surprise. “The British Army has a particular tradition of black humor,” he says. “It’s much easier to fight someone if they are an object of ridicule than if they are an object of fear. The tendency towards something like ‘Terry’ is not intended to humanize the enemy — quite often the opposite.”

Terry has overtones of Jerry, the sarcastic name British soldiers used for German forces during the world wars. Giving a foreign enemy a banal, suburban British name helped Brits — who were similarly, maybe ironically, nicknamed “Tommies” during World War I — psychologically cut their opponents down to size.

Hennessy says he still has a fondness for Terry, at least as a name if not as an adversary. “There’s a famous comedian called Terry Thomas [in Britain] who was a bit of a ridiculous clown,” he explains. “I always loved the fact that the nickname we came up with was more ridiculous than threatening.”

Army jargon still carries the legacy of the British empire with it. Soldiers still refer to washing as “dhobi,” derived from the Hindi word for laundry. Something obtained for free is said to be “bukshee,” meaning “bribe” in Urdu and Hindi.

These words are looked on with pride as a sign of military heritage and history. Hennessy believes that tradition will carry over to include the slang of the Afghan war. “We worked very closely with the Afghan National Army, and a lot of the terms — like kandak for a battalion, or tolai for a company — [have been included],” he says. “I’m sure that in a hundred years time, sergeants on the drill square at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst will still be talking about kandaks to show their historical credibility.”

[Patrick Cox adds: We invited American vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to tell us their favorite slang terms. Listen to the audio above for some of the cleaner responses.

To join The World’s SMS community of veterans, text “RETURN” to 69866]


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Cajuns are fiercely proud of their culture, but they’re divided over the word ‘coonass’

Photo: Veronica Zaragovia

Photo: Veronica Zaragovia

Here’s a post from Veronica Zaragovia.

The town of Eunice, Louisiana is one of those places that lets you know exactly where in America you are.

“I’m the owner of KBON 101.1 FM down in Cajun Country,” says Paul Marx, whose station began broadcasting music in 1997.

Much of life in so-called Cajun Country involves the French language, and Marx is fluent in what he calls Cajun French.

“We do speak different French here, a little different from Canada or France but it’s still our language — French,” he explains.

Cajun culture and the French language weren’t always so valued, though. In fact, French as a spoken language nearly disappeared, but the language and culture have made a comeback.

Paul Marx, owner of KBON radio station in Eunice, LA, stands near a collection of autographed photos and a wall covered in signatures. His station mostly plays music by Louisiana musicians, including Jamie Bergeron & The Kickin’ Cajuns, whose song “Registered Coonass,” has not been received well by all Louisianans. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

Paul Marx, owner of KBON radio station in Eunice, LA, stands near a collection of autographed photos and a wall covered in signatures. His station mostly plays music by Louisiana musicians, including Jamie Bergeron & The Kickin’ Cajuns, whose song “Registered Coonass,” has not been received well by all Louisianans. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

“We do a variety of music with a Louisiana flavor,” Marx says about his radio station. “About 75 percent of our overall music is Louisiana record artists.”

Artists like Jamie Bergeron & the Kickin’ Cajuns. People from around here either love or hate one of Bergeron’s songs, called “Registered Coonass.”

You can hear the song on Marx’s radio station because he likes it. Not all Cajuns do.

“I kind of got a threat by an attorney that if I continued playing the song, there’d be a lawsuit,” Marx says. “Well, that made me put the song on the playlist.”

The attorney was Warren Perrin, who threatened to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission if KBON kept playing the song. Since then, the station now only plays it if a listener requests it, and DJs announce it not as “Registered Coonass” but “RCA.”

Warren Perrin’s law office is 40 miles away from Eunice in Lafayette, on a street called Rue de La France. Perrin regularly sends letters to people asking them to stop using the word “coonass.”

“We ask that the person voluntarily do so and that is usually the end of it,” Perrin says. “We have not had to institute any type of formal suit or claim with the Human Rights Commission or anything like that.”

Warren Perrin, an attorney in Lafayette, LA, has a stack of files documenting how The Council for the Defense of French in Louisiana has attempted to stop people from using the term “coonass” in certain instances. Perrin served as president of the state agency for 16 years. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

Warren Perrin, an attorney in Lafayette, LA, has a stack of files documenting how The Council for the Defense of French in Louisiana has attempted to stop people from using the term “coonass” in certain instances. Perrin served as president of the state agency for 16 years. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

For 16 years, Perrin served as president of an organization called the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.

“That state agency is the only one in America existing, supported by the state of Louisiana, to promote the French language,” he says. “We have 30 French immersion schools — eminently successful. So we turned it around and we developed along the way pride in ourselves.”

Pride in your roots and the word “coonass” don’t go together, says Perrin, who’s part of a movement that has tried to stamp out the use of the word. The movement won a big victory back in 1981 when it got the Louisiana State Legislature to condemn the word as offensive. Legislators not only condemned it, they outlined the word’s etymology.

“In that concurrent resolution, the politicians in Baton Rouge wrote: The word coonass comes from the standard French word connasse, which means dirty whore or stupid person,” says local Cajun historian Shane Bernard, paraphrasing what’s in the 1981 resolution. “Cajun GIs were called this when they were in France during World War II. Anglo GIs were standing nearby, didn’t know what that meant, but said, ‘Sounds like coonass, so that’s what we’re gonna call you from now on.’”

1943 photograph of the C-47 Cajun Coonass, with enlarged inset. (Photo: Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Shane Bernard)

1943 photograph of the C-47 Cajun Coonass, with enlarged inset. (Photo: Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Shane Bernard)

That’s the official take on the origin of the word – a vulgar ethnic slur. But it’s not correct, Bernard says. He found a photo from the National Archives taken in April 1943 of a plane called the “Cajun Coonass.” The photo was taken before the allied invasion of France.

“Because there were no Cajuns in France or any Americans in France until June 6, 1944, which is D-Day, that means that if the connasse theory were true, it had to have been created sometime after D-Day because you had to have Cajuns in France to be called connasses,” Bernard says. “Presumably you had to have some extended period of time for the word to morph into coonass.”

Bernard says he’s found other references to the word predating D-Day, as well. As far as he’s concerned, no one can be sure where the expression came from.

Whatever its origins, coonass isn’t a slur these days to people like Angie Sonnier. I found Sonnier on a rainy afternoon taking shelter beneath a roof of a Shop Rite store in Duson, Louisiana. The store sells bumper stickers and T-shirts with a “Registered Coonass” logo on them. Sonnier doesn’t care about tracing the history of the term “coonass.”

“If it was meant being ugly when it first came out, it’s not ugly now,” Sonnier says. “Not unless you look at it that way, and some people may. I just don’t.”

Instead, “coonass” is shorthand for her rural Cajun identity.

“I was raised, you know, running crawfish traps with my dad, and working on a farm with my dad, and doing different other things — going fishing with my family and, you know, generally doing all this type of stuff that is around here,” Sonnier says. “It’s in your blood.”

At his radio station, Marx echoes that sentiment. He remembers when speaking French at school was really frowned upon.

“‘You tried to shame us but now you know what? There are a lot of people who want to be coonasses,’” Marx says. “It’s kind of our way of slapping them in the face and saying, ‘You didn’t accomplish anything. We’re still here. You’re just an American. We’re Cajun, baby! We’re coonasses!”

It seems that, for better or for worse, the expression will be sticking around for a while.


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A brief history of simultaneous interpretation, from the Nuremberg trials to now

From left, Capt. Macintosh of the British Army translates from French into English, while Margot Bortlin translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

From left, Capt. Macintosh of the British Army translates from French into English, while Margot Bortlin translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

Lynn Visson was a UN interpreter during the height of the Cold War. She can still rattle off grandiose Soviet titles like it was yesterday.

“General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party — you had that practically memorized,” Visson recalls.

After 23 years, she’s still at it, interpreting from French and Russian into English. She’s witnessed — and spoken for — some pretty heavy hitters. “I remember Castro spoke for all of eight minutes, but the charisma was incredible,” Visson says. “The electricity the man generated — Bill Clinton could do that, too, Gorbachev could do that. Some other delegates were great speakers, but they didn’t light that spark.”

These days, we’re long used to seeing diplomats at the UN plugged into earphones, listening to speeches that are instantaneously translated into one of the six official UN lanugages — English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Russian, but simultaneous interpretation is actually a rather recent invention, developed in 1945 for a very different global event: the Nuremberg Trials.

Defendants, Defense Counsel and Interpreters rise as the eight members of the Tribunal enter the courtroom. Monitors, front: Leon Dostert, back: E. Peter Uiberall and Joachim von Zastrow. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Defendants, Defense Counsel and Interpreters rise as the eight members of the Tribunal enter the courtroom. Monitors, front: Leon Dostert, back: E. Peter Uiberall and Joachim von Zastrow. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Before the Nuremberg Trials, any kind of interpretation was done consecutively — talk first, and then wait for the interpreter to translate. But at the end of World War II, the Allies created the International Military Tribunal, which was charged with an explicit mission: “fair and expeditious trials” of accused Nazi war criminals.

“Those two words put enormous constraints on the people organizing the trial,” says interpreter and historian Francesca Gaiba, who has studied the origins of simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg Trials.

She says holding a trial that was “fair” and “expeditious” meant speeding up translations of the four languages of the nations involved: English, German, Russian and French. The solution was thought up by Col. Leon Dostert. Born in France and a native French speaker, Dostert became an American citizen and a foreign language expert for the US Army.

“He was the person who thought it was possible for a human being to listen and speak at the same time,” Visson says.

Possible, yes, but far from easy. And then there was the problem of transmitting all of those languages in real time. This was 1945, so digital recordings and tapes weren’t around. But Dostert pressed on and consulted with IBM to develop a system of microphones and headsets to transmit the cacophony of languages. He hired interpreters and practiced this new type of interpreting with them.

And somehow, despite a few episodes of tripping over cords in the courtroom, Dostert’s system worked.

Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trial; Front: English desk; Back: French desk. To the left, monitor. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trial; Front: English desk; Back: French desk. To the left, monitor. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Even before the Nuremberg trials were over, Dostert had taken his system to the UN in New York. It’s still the model being used today, albeit with some minor upgrades in technology.

“When I started, all interpreters were lugging around heavy dictionaries,” Visson remembers. “Now they’re lugging around iPads and notebook computers because most glossaries are in those.” She says TV monitors in the back booths also let interpreters watch the expressions of diplomats and the movements of their mouths.

But technology still hasn’t advanced enough to replace the interpreters themselves. “The computer can’t pick up the intonation,” Visson says.

But one of the biggest challenges for interpreters is often not the tone, but simply figuring out what a diplomat is saying.

“People with foreign accents for example, you want to be careful that when you hear somebody saying, ‘Mr. Chairman, we wish to congratulate you on your defective leadership.’ You know he didn’t mean his ‘defective leadership,’ he meant his ‘effective leadership.’” Visson says. “But you’ve got to not be simply auto-translating word for word, because heaven help you if you say we congratulate you on your defective leadership.”

Of course, relaying the words of world leaders also means not mincing them, be they Holocaust denials, carefully crafted insults or strongly worded Cold War rhetoric.

“One of the things you are taught is that you’re like an actor on stage,” Visson says. “There are plenty of actors who play the part of people who are absolutely vile. So I think if you look on it as acting, it can almost become fun — even if you are saying things that you personally find repugnant or hateful.”


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