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The Odyssey of an Arabist 1959–2009
Confessions of an Arabic Interpreter
The Odyssey of an Arabist 1959–2009
Dedicated to Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad (1911–1989) Ambassador of Lebanon, poet, novelist, journalist, patriot and martyr Author of Tawaheen Beirut, Beirut 1970 Translated into English in 1976 by Leslie McLoughlin as Death in Beirut
‘He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia, They have stolen his wits away’. – Arabia, Walter de la Mare
Published by Motivate Publishing Dubai: PO Box 2331, Dubai, UAE Tel: (+971 4) 282 4060; fax: (+971 4) 282 7898 e-mail: email@example.com www.booksarabia.com Office 508, Building No. 8, Dubai Media City, Dubai, UAE Tel: (+971 4) 390 3550; fax: (+971 4) 390 4845 Abu Dhabi: PO Box 43072, Abu Dhabi, UAE Tel: (+971 2) 677 2005; fax: (+971 2) 677 0124 London: Acre House, 11/15 William Road, London NW1 3ER e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Directors: Editors: Senior Designer: Designer: Publishing Coordinator:
Obaid Humaid Al Tayer Ian Fairservice Moushumi Nandy Simona Cassano Cithadel Francisco Charlie Banalo Zelda Pinto
© Motivate Publishing and Leslie McLoughlin 2010 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form (including photocopying or storing in any medium by electronic means) without the written permission of the copyright holders. Applications for the copyright holders’ written permission to reproduce any part of this publication should be addressed to the publishers. In accordance with the International Copyright Act 1956 and the UAE Federal Law No. (7) of 2002, Concerning Copyrights and Neighboring Rights, any person acting in contravention of this will be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages. ISBN: 978 1 86063 287 7 British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Printed and bound by Emirates Printing Press in Dubai, UAE
Frequently Asked Questions Introduction Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 What is an Interpreter? What’s the Problem with Arabic? The Making of an Interpreter and the Importance of Scousers The Making of an Arabic Interpreter Death in Beirut The Lure of El Dorado and No. 10 Downing Street The Iron Lady and the Iraqis Confessions of a Downing Street Interpreter 1985–1991 The Revenge of the Princes, Dubai 1991–1993 London Calling and Al Jazeera Ibn Saud: Founder of a Kingdom and Other Controversies Arabia to Exeter 2000–2009 Epilogue Appendix A: Timeline Appendix B: Interpreting Assignments 1964–2009 Index
14 19 28 39 68 113 149 167 212 220 237 250 263 267 271 274
Frequently Asked Questions
There are twelve chapters in the book, so here are twelve FAQs. 1. What was it like interpreting for Mrs Thatcher? See chapters 6 and 7. 2. To be an Arabic interpreter do you have to be able to speak several Arabic dialects? No. See the section on myths about Arabic in chapter 2. 3. Can you be mistaken for an Arab? Happens all the time, although there is an Arabic proverb which says: ‘He who praises himself is not to be believed’. See also an ‘Awful Warning’ in chapter 4. 4. Does an Arabic interpreter have to know all twenty-two Arab countries? Not necessarily but it certainly helps. See chapter 2 on Arabic. As a matter of fact I have visited them all except Algeria. 5. What is it like interpreting for the Queen and the Royal Family? Read on. 6. How long does it take to become an interpreter to a Head of State? In my case twenty-three years from first learning Arabic. 7. Doesn’t that just prove that Arabic is an impossibly difficult language? No, just that I was a late developer. See chapter 2 for how easy Arabic is.
8. Have you ever had an embarrassing moment when interpreting? See chapter 7 for ‘How I Interrupted Mrs Thatcher and Lived to Tell the Tale’. 9. Do you interpret English–Arabic and Arabic–English? And isn’t it better to interpret into your own language? Yes. Not necessarily. I prefer to interpret into Arabic. 10. Isn’t it difficult sitting in a booth and interpreting simultaneously? Simultaneous interpreting is an extraordinarily sophisticated skill, and completely exhausting. This book is about something else. See chapter 1. 11. What happens when a speaker says something which you think might be offensive or tactless or simply the wrong thing to say? That is his or her problem. The interpreter must give a faithful and complete interpretation of what is said, with all its nuances and must never ever try to improve on what the speaker has said. 12. What was the most dramatic event you were involved in your 23 years of interpreting? I interpreted for John Major at No. 10 Downing Street, the day that the IRA nearly killed everyone there in a rocket attack.
The way to 10 Downing St. took me across Green Park as the snow fell gently. It was the evening of February 7, 1991, Iraqi forces still occupied Kuwait, and I was to interpret in a telephone conversation between the Prime Minister, John Major, and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. The snow crunched underfoot and I could only wonder at the sangfroid of John Major. That morning the IRA had nearly assassinated the entire Cabinet, by launching home-made rockets from Whitehall. The interior of No. 10 had been damaged and I had fully expected to get a phone call to say that the interpreting would not take place. No phone call had come and as I crossed the Mall into St. James’s Park I saw the lights of a police check point as a cordon had been placed around Downing St. I feared the worst as I had no written invitation to present myself at No. 10. A further problem was that the British still did not have identity cards but even worse was that it did not seem a good idea on this day of days for a person attempting to reach the Prime Minister to have an Irish name. Sure enough a police constable barred the way as I emerged from the shadows. There was no way that anyone could cross the line in the direction of Whitehall, I was told. “But I am on my way to No. 10,” I explained. His reply I have never forgotten. “No. 10 where?” So much for delusions of grandeur. I then began to explain that I was sorry that I had no invitation but I was expected at No. 10 to interpret for the Prime Minister, who was to speak to an Arab Head of State. “What’s your name, then?” “McLoughlin.” The constable called his superior instantly. 10
The Inspector questioned me closely and after telephoning No. 10 allowed me to pass. Inside No. 10 Charles Powell, Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, briefed me and as we had some time in hand showed me the extent of the damage. The Cabinet had clearly had a miraculous escape but the extraordinary feature was that in the British manner all had returned to order and calm some eight hours after the rockets had blown out the windows of the Cabinet Room. The telephone conversation duly took place between King and Prime Minister with no mention by John Major of the morning’s excitements. I then returned to normal life. By 1991 I had interpreted on many occasions for HM the Queen and Prime Ministers as they received visiting Arab delegations and I was to interpret regularly until the final occasion in March 2006, when I interpreted for Prince Charles. What follows is an account of my involvement, for fifty years, with the Arabic language and the Arab world, especially the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, with the focus on the work of an interpreter between English and Arabic. Even in my first year of studying Arabic I found that I was interpreting, largely because of the way in which my colleagues and I were taught the language. The emphasis was always on developing the ability to translate and interpret between the two languages: that is to say we were taught using Grammar/Translation methods. This approach is decried in modern times but its use in 1960 produced very quickly the ability to switch rapidly between the two languages. This is one of the themes of the book, especially when I deal with ‘The Making of an Interpreter’. The first five chapters deal with the period up to 1983 when I first interpreted for Mrs Thatcher at 10 Downing St. The reason for placing five chapters in the way of those seeking to get the inside story on Mrs Thatcher is very simple. I never acted as a consecutive interpreter ever (let alone for the First Lord of the Treasury) until I had known Arabic for twenty-three years. Those five chapters are essential for setting the scene and answering some pretty basic questions. • What does an interpreter do? • How are interpreters trained? • What is special about interpreting between Arabic and other languages? • What about security and confidentiality? 11
Confessions of an arabiC interpreter
What background knowledge does an interpreter need to interpret for a Head of State or Head of Government? • What is the British system for recruiting and training interpreters? A certain amount of autobiography is essential but the attempt is sincere to avoid writing ‘My Life and Times – 50 Years Among the Arabs’. The treatment throughout is mostly chronological with occasional flashbacks and fast-forwards. Themes such as terrorism, clash of civilizations, religious tolerance, Islam, British-Arab relations, the role of the USA, the Arab-Israeli dispute etc. emerge during the narrative. I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have been a participant observer of the changes which have taken place in the Arab world and in relations between the Arab world on the one hand and my own country and ‘the West’ on the other. The role of interpreter which I had at Head of State level for nearly twenty-five years gave insights into much of the history of the last fifty years which could not have been gained in any other way. To begin at the end. On 1 April 2007, the Israeli Prime Minister announced that Israel was ready for face-to-face negotiations with Arab states. If Saudi Arabia invited a number of Arab countries to attend a summit conference to prepare for a definitive resolution of the conflict over Palestine Israel would attend, if invited. This gesture came just over sixty years after the event which is at the origin of this story. It led to the Annapolis Conference of November 2007 when an Israeli Foreign Minister sat down for the first time with a Saudi Foreign Minister. It was sixty years before, in February 1947, that the British Foreign Office arrived in the village of Shemlan in Lebanon, in flight from Jerusalem. Today almost every British Ambassador in the Arab world is a graduate of the school (MECAS) which it then set up. The expertise and insights of these and many other Arabists were almost totally ignored in the twenty-first century in the development of the British Government’s policy towards Iraq and the tragedy of Palestine. MECAS – the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies – had been forced to leave Jerusalem only three years after its establishment when it had become clear that the British Mandate for Palestine would end in chaos. Today Jerusalem is declared by Israel to be its capital, eternal and undivided, and the surviving Palestinian entity, the Palestinian National Authority, is helpless in the face of the savagery of the Israeli assault on Gaza, launched 12
at Christmas 2008. Israel still defies international law in occupying much of the territory which it conquered from Syria and Jordan in 1967 and illegal Jewish settlements, funded by the United States, occupy much of the West Bank. Israel also rejects a UN resolution of 11 December 1948 calling for the right of return for those expelled and dispossessed by force. It does so on the specious grounds that the practically unanimous vote for the resolution (194) merely reflected the will of the General Assembly and not the UN Security Council. Lebanon continues to face disaster following the ferocious assault conducted by Israel in July 2006 in retaliation for actions carried out by Hezbollah. International aid promised in the subsequent Paris conference may restore the ruined infrastructure of the country but Lebanon faces the apparently insoluble problems of identity and security which have existed since its independence in 1943. The village of Shemlan is today partly rebuilt after being mostly in ruins on our last visit in 1997. The buildings used by MECAS from 1959 were at that time being converted into a Muslim charitable institution. In 1960, I began to study Arabic at Durham University and in 1961, I continued my studies at MECAS. The following year I was transferred to Aden, which was then the last remaining Western colony in the Arab world and was the seat of a British garrison. Aden then had a flourishing international seaport and today is avoided by most of the world’s ships after a US destroyer was attacked there in 2001 by Al Qaeda. The years since then have been even more disastrous for Aden as the Gulf of Aden is now probably the most dangerous sea area in the world. It is at the mercy of armed pirates operating from yet another failed state Somalia, where the lack of government offers Al Qaeda even better facilities than Afghanistan. My academic colleagues will, I trust, forgive me for omitting chapterand-verse references so as to let the story flow. Equally, I hope that reviewers and those who have travelled some or all of the same road in the period since 1959 will understand why there are so many names in the story. The fact that the Queen Mother is mentioned will, I hope, bring to mind the old joke, “There’s no need to keep dropping names, as I said to the Queen Mother only the other day”.
What is an Interpreter?
I wish I had a Saudi Riyal for every bad joke about interpreters that I have heard in twenty-five years of interpreting in Britain, Europe, the Arab world, the Bahamas, Bermuda etc. The favourite one being: an interpreter is an interruptor.
The ten best interpreters’ howlers
1. Italian: “Traduttore, traditore”, which in English, means: “A translator is a traitor”. 2. Security Council, New York: A visiting Foreign Minister referred to the Security Council as “this awesome organ”. Imagine the confusion among the interpreters who had to put this remarkable English phrase into the Council’s other five languages. (See Urquhart, B., A Life in Peace and War, p.325) 3. See Urquhart, B. also, for a version of the story of the Russian interpreter who caused the African delegates to storm out of the Security Council. He had tried to improve on “his” speaker who was addressing the chronic problems of underdevelopment in Africa. The speaker declared that the root cause of under-development was a complex of factors including tribalism, the legacy of colonial empires, the lingering effects of Great Power competition in the Cold War, etc. The interpreter, using a newly-discovered idiom said, “The nigger in the woodpile is . . . .” Sadly he was not able to finish his sentence. 4. President Jimmy Carter, arriving at Warsaw Airport, brought with him a US interpreter unfamiliar with the development in the hosts’ language since the Communists took over thirty years before. The President referred to “ . . . a small place . . .” The interpreter used a 14
Polish word which had, by now, sadly changed its meaning to “the loo/WC/bathroom/toilet” etc. A British interpreter for Arabic in the 1980s was handling the subject of illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank. For “settlement” he used the correct Arabic word for “settlement [of a problem]”, not “settlement [established in contravention of international law]”. At the second Hague Conference in 1907, efforts were made to resolve language problems arising in the first Conference of 1899 when English and French had been decreed to be the only languages allowed. The delegates got into fierce arguments at one point because they could not agree as to whether the last speaker had been speaking English or French. A British Minister of State in the Foreign Office, George Thomson, a Scot, spoke around 1970 at a press conference in Kuwait through an interpreter. He emphasized that there would be continuity of Britain’s “role” in the Gulf area in these changing times. His accent led the interpreter and the assembled reporters to believe that he was trying to assert British “rule” in the Gulf area . . . . Confusion all round. A Japanese interpreter in the Gulf area putting Arabic into English failed to correct in all instances the normal Japanese fault of not distinguishing between ‘l’ and ‘r’. Confusion all round once again as he spoke of the “Clown Prince”. If you thought that was bad enough, figure to yourself the consternation of Arabic listeners when they heard another Japanese interpreter into Arabic refer not to “the monarch” but to “the prostitute”. (The former ends in ‘l’ and the latter in ‘r’) At Brussels an impassioned debate was proceeding on the environmental problems caused to the oyster industry in Normandy, because of French reliance on nuclear power. A senior official, a French speaker, assured all that the admittedly complex problems could be resolved by the exercise of la sagesse normande. No one could understand why the British representatives on hearing the simultaneous interpretation through their headphones were helpless with laughter, for some minutes. [Clue: Norman Wisdom is the name of a British comedian.]
Confessions of an arabiC interpreter
Which brings us to what do interpreters do. The work of interpreters is always verbal. The word ‘translator’ is best used for written work. There are many types of interpretation, many of them familiar to the general public from television and films. A very familiar scene worldwide is that in, say, the White House, where the President receives foreign guests with his interpreter sitting between himself and the visitor and slightly to the rear, with notepad poised. As filming takes place only until the photographers are ushered out the interpreter does not normally take notes since the only words exchanged are the expected “Delighted that you were able to visit . . . etc.” or “It is a real pleasure to have the opportunity to visit you”. Another familiar scene on television is where foreign guests are received at the airport, with all the potential for inconvenience caused by the weather. Again little note-taking would be necessary as the exchanges would be limited to what is called, charmingly in Arabic, ‘the exchange of amicable sentiments’. One of the minor joys of watching such television coverage is that French Presidents always seem to employ, for Arabic, charming younger ladies, immaculately garbed and coiffured. If the weather is inclement at the airport welcoming ceremony they always seem to a (possibly chauvinist) male observer to take it personally and to show rather more discomfort than is strictly called for. Other types of translation, again often seen on television, include whispered interpretation where the interpreter whispers to his principal what is being said when a speech of welcome is delivered. There is also ad-hoc interpretation, for example in assisting the police or emergency services at an incident involving speakers of foreign languages. Then there is courtroom interpretation where, if there is litigation, both prosecution and defence would employ each their own interpreter in what is in effect extended consecutive interpretation. My work described in these pages was always ‘consecutive interpretation’, that is it was always face-to-face with the speakers. The other major type of interpreting in the international context is ‘simultaneous interpretation’ (SI). I shall have very little to say about this, largely because in twenty-five years I was asked to undertake it only once or twice, and then only as the sole interpreter. This is totally unreasonable since SI can be done competently only by teams of interpreters. The effort 16
What is an interpreter?
is so exhausting that the interpreters at the UN, for example, have to rest every twenty minutes or so. The consecutive interpreter listens to the speakers, with whom he or she is normally sitting and puts the source language into the target language after the speaker has reached an appropriate point to make a pause. The other speaker responds and the same interpreter or possibly another will do the process in reverse. And so on, throughout the meeting. The interpreter will normally have made sufficient notes to be able to read back in the target language the full substance of what each speaker has said. A great deal will depend on the skill of the interpreter in quickly making adequate notes so that the exchange of ideas can proceed smoothly. Above all the interpreter will be trying not to seem to be just an interruptor, i.e., a nuisance. Clearly the first essential will be for the interpreter to have an excellent knowledge of both languages, so that he or she sounds perfectly fluent. However, it is the note-taking which is the essential to ensure both fluency and total recall. The consecutive interpreter will have developed his/her own style of note-taking, using abbreviations and symbols which have meaning possibly only to the note-taker but which can be read back easily and immediately. It is not exactly shorthand since much is completely ad hoc. An example would be that if a speaker said, “The inevitable result of this policy will be to . . .” the interpreter would simply need to draw an arrow from A to B. With practice the interpreter can listen, digest, make notes and then read back the translation of several paragraphs, with only a minimal delay. I will describe what actually happens when I describe interpreting for Mrs Thatcher. Another feature of the process is that only short-term memory is necessary. That is, all that matters is for the interpreter to be able to read back his/her notes at the time. A curiosity is that half-an-hour afterwards the interpreter may not recall very much of the substance. This does not, of course, mean that the record of the proceedings is lost since both the host and the visitor will have their own note-takers or the proceedings may be recorded in any case. A personal comment is that this type of interpretation is much more satisfying since with SI the interpreter is not in the position of being able to follow the whole story since he/she will not be physically present, will have 17
Confessions of an arabiC interpreter
to take a break and may not even see the participants. With consecutive interpretation it is particularly satisfying to see from the speakers’ reaction that the interpretation has been correct. Problems which arise will be described in a later chapter.
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