Anthony Pym

Translating world affairs (review article)

Interpreters as Diplomats. A Diplomatic History of the Role of Interpreters in World Politics. By Ruth A Roland. (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1999) 208 pp. $28.00 paper. 
© Anthony Pym 2001 

Review written for The European Legacy


This is a revised edition of a little-known text called Translating World Affairs, published in 1982. Jean Delisle, professor at the University of Ottawa, has renamed the book (to focus on interpreters), added a preface (which only talks about interpreters), and has included the result in a series of complementary texts like Translators through History (1995) and Portraits de traducteurs (1999). The dated study has thus become part of a commendable project designed to rewrite history from the perspective of intermediaries. 

Ruth Roland writes as a student of diplomatic history. She brings together innumerable anecdotes found in secondary sources, spanning cultures east and west (though not African or south-Asian) from the Bible to the 1970s, with the later decades recounted from a strongly American perspective. The result is a fascinating if fragmentary tale, devoid of any grand summarizing or historical lesson apart from an astute lament that Americans should learn more foreign languages. One reads, for example, of the various colonial strategies for fabricating interpreters by abducting natives; of occasions on which sly mistranslations have been used to turn the tide of international affairs; of traditions in China and Japan where the position of interpreter was hereditary; of Matteo Ricci, who was permitted to stay at the Chinese court in the sixteenth century because, apparently, only he knew how to repair the clocks he had presented to the emperor; of the Japanese interpreters who, during Captain Perry’s visit in 1854, were required to perform their duties on their knees; and of the unfortunately translated “Department of Intercourse” responsible for translators in China in the early twentieth century. Little of this is new, much of it is open to nuance or debate. For instance, it is bluntly claimed that in twelfth-century Toledo “a school for linguists founded by Archbishop Raymondo (Foz 1998) attracted scholars from all over Europe [...]. In 1250 this institution became the first School of Oriental Studies in Europe, for the purpose of training missionaries to the Muslims and the Jews” (34). There is only scant historical justification for the first part of this statement (the editor Delisle has added the reference to Foz but has not corrected the claim), and none at all for the second. Thus do the myths live on. One similarly regrets that Delisle’s editing has not updated the statistics on translation at the UN and the European Commission, which are about 25 years old yet are given in the present tense. There is also information on “the European Parliament (Council of Europe)” that is simply wrong. 

The editor might unkindly be accused of some sleight of hand in the new title he has given this text. The author speaks clearly of “translators and interpreters”, and emphasizes that the book is intended as a “tribute to both” (8). Indeed, the point is made that until well into the nineteenth century, most diplomatic corps made no distinction between translators and interpreters (36). Yet Delisle has chosen to name the book in honour of interpreters only. One senses his desire to create a new book out of a collection of old stories, and to slot the result into his series. One might have hoped he would do so a little more consistently, introducing rigour and scholarship where, too often, this text offers entertainment and doubt.

Last update August 2001  

© Anthony Pym 2019
URV. Av. Catalunya, 35
45002 Tarragona, Spain
Fax: + 34 977 299 488