Interview with Brian Harris, by Bruno Osimo
In the 1940s, you attended a grammar school where you had your first translation experiences. What do you think of grammar schools as an institution from the point of view of translation culture?
A: The grammar school was crucial for my education because the syllabus emphasized languages. Some of the grammar schools have maintained that tradition. I learnt French, German and Latin, as well as English writing skills. Furthermore we were introduced not just to the languages but also to their literatures and through literature to their cultures. This was doubly important because it was wartime and we were cut off from direct contact with foreign countries. I spent the war years in London. Paradoxically, while the Germans were raining bombs down on us we were reading German literature from tbe Minnesänger to Stefan George. Our language courses were of the old ‘grammar and translation’ type, so we had translation exercises. And we were taught from the start not to translate literally. It was a good beginning. We had good teachers, including a history teacher from whom I learnt to distrust the popular versions of history.
You studied at SOAS with, among others, Bernard Lewis. Can you tell us something about that experience?
A: The Arabic degree I obtained at SOAS was in classical Arabic but I wanted to learn modern Arabic. In those days the Arabic department at SOAS didn’t teach modern Arabic. So I switched to the Middle East history department, where I would be able to use modern Arabic for my thesis. Bernard Lewis was then a young lecturer in the MEH department. His speciality was the Ottoman Empire, hence Turkish, but he also knew Arabic. He liked my proposed thesis topic, which had to do with 19th-century Lebanon, which at that time had been under Ottoman rule, so he took me on as a student. I learnt history under him, and not only of the Middle East. In those days the general opinion of the Ottomans was that they had been a decadent regime, but his opinion was different. So he, like my grammar school teacher, taught me to think independently about history. He directed me to go to original sources; for that it was useful that I also knew French. He was a polyglot and very thorough. When I discovered some Russian sources, he said to me, “Ah well, now you’ll have to learn Russian.” I still feel I let him down by not finishing my thesis under him but something intervened.
Why did you study Arabic? And, was it important for your life?
A: I chose Arabic for a combination of reasons, primarily practical. Most of my school contemporaries who were good at languages were going into European languages, but I wanted to outsmart the competition. I almost chose Chinese. But I reasoned that there were job opportunities in the Middle East for somebody with Arabic and yet very few Europeans were learning it. The other reason, however, was the encouragement from my father. He had served in Egypt with the British forces during the First World War and had loved it.
Arabic was important to me later because it brought me invitations to go and teach in Jordan and Morocco, wonderful experiences.
How did you decide to study at the American University in Cairo? Are there memories that you wish to share with us?
A: Again my father. While I was an undergraduate at SOAS he got to know the Secretary of the AUC, who was on a visit to London. When the Secretary heard I was studying Arabic he was so impressed that he got me an invitation to spend a while at his university. At that time it was still rare for British students to spend time abroad as part of their first degree programme, but I was lucky enough to have a tutor at SOAS who understood that I needed contact with the real Arab world.
In 1952 you went to Paris to do research in the archives of the Quai d’Orsay in Paris. Who taught you research work? Was it interesting?
A: I owed the Quai d’Orsay to Bernard Lewis. He obtained a grant for me to go there. As I’ve said, he insisted on going to primary sources; and at the Quai d’Orsay there were all the records from the French consulates in the Lebanon in the 19th century. It was very revealing because the French were very mixed up in Lebanese education and religion as well as politics. But it was slow work because in those days everything was hand written.
In 1947, then in the 1950s, you worked in Spain in the tourist industry. What did you do specifically? Were you enjoying it?
A: It was certainly one of the happiest periods of my life. I was young and I was oblivious to the harshness and hardships of the Franco regime. A young foreigner could have a whale of a time on very little money. I began in the summers, while still a student, as a travel agency courier accompanying groups of up to 100 English holidaymakers by train from London to Barcelona and from there by ship to Mallorca and Ibiza. I learnt Spanish ‘on the job’ without ever taking a Spanish course, and even a little Catalan. Then the travel agency offered me a full-time job as its representative in the field, an ‘offer I couldn’t refuse’. That’s why I left SOAS and spent a year based in Madrid and another in Barcelona.
Your life is full of changes. In 1965 you emigrated to Canada. Why?
A: I didn’t intend to go to Canada. I was still in the tourist industry in London and wanted to go to the USA to learn more about the tourist industry there. But it was easier to enter the USA from Canada than directly from the UK. The man who interviewed me at the Canadian High Commission in London said, “I see you know French. You should go via Montreal. You’re certain to find work there if you need it.” He was right. Once I got to Montreal I was never without work and had no incentive either to carry on to the USA or to return to the UK. I’ve never regretted staying in Canada.
From 1966 to 1972, you worked as a research assistant in the Machine Translation Project (Cétadol, later renamed TAUM) at the Université de Montréal under French computer scientist Alain Colmerauer. You were never tired of adding new fields of study to your activity?
A: The person who recruited me in 1966 was a pioneer French Canadian linguistics professor named Guy Rondeau. In his team and through borrowings from his personal library I learnt about mathematical linguistics and transformational grammar. I’d heard about computers before I left England and realized they were going to be very important, so I leapt at the chance to learn more about them. I was interested from childhood in technology. Colmerauer replaced Rondeau in 1969. He died a few days ago. He was brilliant. I learnt from him the French approach to computer science, which was different from the American one. Also he was very much against the ‘publish or die’ attitude to research. Under Rondeau our team had to publish something every six months; Colmerauer made us wait two years until we had something really significant to publish.
In 1968 in Bratislava there was an important international conference organized by Anton Popovič and James Holmes. Did you take part in it in any way? How did you experience that historic moment in which Western and Eastern translatology were trying to communicate?
A: In 1968 I was still very new to translation studies and knew nothing about literary translation. I did meet James Holmes once, but later. I got to know Eastern translatology from linguists who were involved in the Russian machine translation research and from Alexander Ludskanov, a Bulgarian.
Since 1972 you taught at the famous Ottawa school of translation. From an European’s point of view, what were the most noticeable differences?
A: In 1972 it was not so famous. The leading translation school in Canada was the one at the Université de Montréal. When I went to Ottawa it wasn’t to the translation school at first but to the linguistics department. In 1975 I was ‘parachuted’ into the translation school by an ambitious dean who wanted it to compete with Montreal. The most noticeable difference between all the Canadian schools and the European ones is that the mission of the former is to serve the needs of an officially bilingual country and international concerns come a poor second. In other words, the Canadian schools are good at what they do but they tend to be parochial. For instance, only a minority of Canadian students learn a third language.
In 1974, you began teaching translation theory at the University of Ottawa’s School of Translators and Interpreters. What were the pillars of your theoretical knowledge?
A: I began teaching translation theory as a replacement for Louis Kelly, who was an expert on the history of translation, but I had no competence in that field. My background was in linguistics, and my bible was Eugene Nida’s Toward a Theory of Translation (still a great book, I think). To that was added the computational linguistics and the Chomskyan transformational grammar that I had acquired in Montreal.
Can you tell us something about the conference in Ottawa in 1976 of the International Committee on Computational Linguistics you contributed to organise?
A: That conference was scheduled to take place in 1975 and was being organized by Alexander Ludskanov in Bulgaria. But then he ran into trouble there and in the midst of the crisis I got together with Guy Rondeau, who was very good at obtaining funding. Both of us knew Ludskanov and wanted to help, so we offered Ottawa on condition that we were given an additional year to prepare. We also got a lot of help from the British-American computational linguist Martin Kay. Ottawa was an appropriate venue because in those days Canada was a leader in machine translation. There were over 200 participants in spite of an airline strike. It was in recognition of our success that both Rondeau and I were coopted to the International Committee on Computational Linguistics. Rondeau is dead, alas, but I’m still a member.
Also in 1976 you were at the Olympic Games in Montreal. How did you do that?
Certainly not as an athlete! The Canadian government supplied conference interpreters for the Games and they selected them from among their pool of freelancers. I was one of them. It was six intensive weeks of press conferences during the events and international committee meetings, including the IOC, before and afterwards. I interpreted press conferences for the equestrian events, and one of the competitors was Princess Anne of England. The press got pretty excited when she had a fall. I consider those six weeks were the high point of my career as an interpreter-
In 1976, you introduced into the School’s programme Canada’s first computer-assisted translation course. What were your expectations?
A: An interesting question. I didn’t want to teach the course myself because I was fully occupied, but I had a stroke of luck. A young French Canadian named Benoît Thouin had just come home from studying computing at the University of Grenoble in France, where there was the leading French machine translation research team. So I recruited him and he taught the course for several years. At first my colleagues were sceptical and approved my introducing the course only on condition that it would remain optional. But by 1980 it was the students who were demanding that it be made compulsory.
In the 1980s you founded the school’s conference interpreter training program. Why do you think there was none before in Canada?
A: In those days there were not nearly so many interpretation programmes as there are today.There had been an early attempt at the Université de Montréal, but it had fizzled out because the instigator, the linguist and translatologist Jean-Paul Vinay, had moved away. Ottawa already had a single course in its translation progamme, taught by the chief interpreter of the Canadian parliament, but one course is not a programme. The reason there was not more was, as usual, complex. First I would put funding. Canadian universities are cost conscious and interpretation programmes are costly. On the one had they need an investment in the special equipment for simultaneous, while on the other hand the classes can only be small. (Not so today in Spain, where there are interpretation classes with up to 60 students.) Then there was a teacher recruitment problem. The professional interpreters we tried to use were constantly going off on assignments and didn’t have the academic qualifications for a university position. The Ottawa programme only got going when I left the directorship of the school and became available myself. In addition I had the support of my successor as director, Roda Roberts, who had done some interpreting. Then there was the attitude of the biggest employer of interpreters in Canada, the federal government. They didn’t believe a university training was necessary for interpreters. Few of the Canadian government interpreters I worked with had been through such a training. Indeed most of them were from a generation that antedated modern interpretation schools.
You taught Arabic to English translation at the University of Jordan in Amman, and at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Tangier, and also in other countries (Cameroon, France, Singapore, Germany, United States…). Your identity didn’t need a stable place?
A: I did have a stable place. It was the University of Ottawa. I was granted leave to teach at the other places or else I took advantage of the sabbatical year system in Canadian universities. I was never away long enough to endanger my identity.
Why did you return to Spain and how did you finish in Valencia?
I had to retire from the University of Ottawa in 1994 because retirement was obligatory at age 65. Then in 1999 some professors at the University of Valladolid whom I’d befriended when I was director in Ottawa started a translation programme, and knowing that I spoke fluent Spanish they invited me as a guest professor. They even lent my wife and me a house in the historic village of Simancas, where Philip II’s archives are housed. I taught and lectured in Valladolid for two years and then I retired a second time. By then we’d sold our house in Canada so we decided to stay in Spain. But not in Valladolid, which is cold and notoriously damp in winter. Instead we came to Valencia for its milder climate.
In Valencia there are constant reminders of translation. It’s officially bilingual in Spanish and its own distinct variety of Catalan. And near where we live there’s a stone cross that marks the area where King James I of Aragon’s army camped when he took the city in 1238. He needed interpreters for his negotiations with the city’s Arabic-speaking Moorish rulers, and he found them from among the sizable Jewish community.
You coined the term ‘translatology’. Do you think it would still be important to use it as a way to unify the studies in our field, where we have translations studies in the West and translation science in the east?
A: What’s in a name? Other studies have different names in different places, and once a technical term has become established there’s little or nothing one can do to change it. I have a personal attachment to translatology and a few other people use it, but I long ago gave up arguing for it. The reason people prefer ‘translation studies’ is psychological and perhaps ephemeral. It belongs to a currently fashionable paradigm that includes ‘women’s studies ‘, ‘black studies’, etc.
Do you think that Eastern and Western translatology today have a good degree of cooperation?
Do you think we should use a scientific approach for human sciences?
A: The very fact that you use the term ‘human sciences’ betrays a bias. The preferred term in English is ‘humanities’ (learning concerned with human culture). I think that a scientific approach has its uses and validity but it isn’t everything. Intuition has a place. But the pendulum has swung so far in favour of the scientific approach that any other approach is rejected out of hand (especially if you’re writing a thesis or applying for research funding). Inspiration often comes by intuition and is only afterwards proven or disproven by science.
Yours is the notion of ‘natural translation’. Do you think that professional translators and interpreters, who insist on the professional aspect of their profession, should be angry at you? After all, your blog is called Unprofessional Translation.
A: They shouldn’t be angry, because I’ve always insisted that natural translators are not expert translators and that there are many types of translation that need experts. However, most of the professionals are so indoctrinated by the mantra “Being bilingual doesn’t mean you can translate” that they can’t understand what I’m getting at. As for Unprofessional Translation, that’s just a blog title. I chose it back in 2009 before the term non-professional translation become current. If I could start over again, I might do otherwise.
You had experience in so many related fields of the translation-interpretation galaxy: oral and written, theoretical and practical, academic and field. Would you like to give some general advice to our young language and cultural mediators and communicators?
A: In my experience, the best way to learn a language is to work in it. When you work in it you are forced to use it and use it correctly. That’s how I learnt Spanish. Then read at least some of its literature, classical and contemporary. The literature teaches a lot about the culture and helps develop empathy. As for interpreting and translating, they are skills; and like any skills, the more you practice them the more skilful you become. Like musicians, you should practice every day and at every opportunity, whether for others or to yourself. Don’t worry about the pay in the beginning.