Not just translating

How much the move into another language reveals differences of attitude and manners; for a new Anglophone learner of Spanish the utterance ‘traeme una botella de tinto y dos vasos’ in Spanish sounds imperious, officious even. It can suggest that Spanish is more direct, less polite, rather than that this is normal, standard Spanish, and not impolite at all; indeed the ‘could you bring me a bottle of wine?’ to a Spanish-speaker might sound obsequious and tremulous, rather than polite. Simple phrasebook translations do not help the speaker shift from his or her own language mindset into another way of thinking/feeling/speaking. Changes within languages over time, with developments of status-change due to political developments may give the same result, for example the taboo words in contemporary English that came from Old English, and which were not taboo but standard terms in Old English; an Old English glossary in the Cotton Ms Cleopatra A III gives testiculi : ‘bulleacas’.


The English in English-to-French phrasebooks, based on English designed for travelers, often seems inappropriately polite, and mirrors the idea of the English second lieutenant bringing to no man’s land the manners of the minor public school, and bringing too the inappropriate French phrases learned in such schools. Such academic prescriptions were mocked in an advertisement in Punch, October 1918, where Cavanders introduced ‘the “American Doughboy”’ in their advertising campaign for Army Club cigarettes, showing him reading a French and English Phrase Book, and saying ‘Can’t make nothing of this gol-darned French phrase book. All about the wooden leg of the gardener and the pens of my aunt, and that kind o’ junk’. This was perhaps unfair; it is doubtful that any phrasebook published at this time would offer such phrases, though they often displayed the politeness of a trip to the opera rather than to the local estaminet.


The realisation that schoolboy French would be of limited use, no doubt led young soldiers to learn from dedicated phrasebooks useful utterances before they went to France – Craig Gibson in Behind the Front noted that many Australian soldiers equipped themselves with a phrasebook before arriving in France. How much use were the phrases learned, not so much in terms of offering the right translation as much as the attitude suggested? ‘I should like some matches’, and ‘I wish to telegraph’, offered the publication How to Say it in French published by J W Arrowsmith (profits to the War Relief Fund), with a front cover illustration of a Tommy and Jean Bonhomme (and note that there is documentation of these terms being disliked by soldiers). ‘Thank you, Madam, for your hospitality’, offers Speak French, a Book for the Soldiers, published in Cleveland, Ohio, for American soldiers went equipped with a moral duty of politeness too, which would hopefully pay dividends (‘Good morning, my boy. We are American soldiers, friends. Have you seen a German airplane here? Where did it fall?’). In this environment the terseness of ‘I want someone to come with me as a guide’, ‘Carry this’, ‘Talk slowly’, and ‘Walk quickly’ of What you Want to Say and How to Say it in French of W J Hernan (undated ‘War Edition’) strikes an unusually authentic note.


There is a fine line between recognising and enabling likely sequences of conversation, and going beyond to scripting interactions. The last page of How to Say it in French, which differs from most in giving the French first, offers the sequence ‘Parlez-vous français?’ ‘Non, pas du tout.’ ‘Quel Dommage.’  The exchange, studied to the point of being learnt, becomes reproducible, even where not strictly accurate – in this case it is a self-contradiction. Not just foreign phrasebooks but slang glossaries published at home served this purpose; they were in effect doing the same thing, allowing the recruit to converse with the veteran at the Front in his own language. Tim Cook, in Fighting Words: Canadian Soldiers’ Slang and Swearing in the Great War, quotes the Listening Post 10 August 1917, which offered American soldiers the following advice: ‘Study this list thoroughly, and when you arrive in the trenches you will be able to greet the old soldier in his own language’. No doubt the ‘old soldier’ was less than impressed by the new arrivals’ familiarity with language carved out of the experience of shellfire. For these glossaries not only taught the language, they proposed a familiarity with the situation, which may have softened the shock for many soldiers, and given them a speech model they recognised. No doubt many of the phrases were out of date by the time there came an occasion to put them into use, hollow forms which actually served to separate the veteran from the rookie, creating shibboleths of experience.


But any attempt to place slang, or a foreign language, or sociolect, in a context or dialogue might become reproducible, especially in situations of stress. Drill terms, taught till they were automatic, served a purpose: Graves observed a soldier killing an adversary and uttering the exact words taught during bayonet drill. Equally, slang expressions like ‘being a landowner in France’ served the purpose of protection from the awfulness of reality, and might become as formulaic as peacetime condolences. Phrases originating in the military that have survived for generations – ‘Up Guards and at ’em’ and ‘Steady the Buffs’ – might make a transition into civilian life and situations far removed from the original.


Is it possible to see this as is a scripting process? Teaching people how to speak the war, as if it were a performance? And if so, who scripts the performance, and what story do they want to tell? The Soldiers’ English-German Conversation Book compiled by Henry Buller and published in 1915 certainly had an agenda. Its subtitle reads ‘arranged for his daily use when in Germany and dealing with the various conditions in which he will find himself’. While we do not know when it was compiled, it seems likely that this is reflecting the ‘over by Christmas’ mentality of autumn 1914. The last few pages create a scene of postwar reconciliation that was rapidly drifting into a distant future in 1915, and becoming more fictional.


Buller 110

Buller 112

Buller 114


These lines read like the script for a performance, which itself takes us into difficult territory: the war as performance, with Bill and Harry and Alf putting on the costume of the Tommy character and learning their moves alongside the lines to Tipperary. Anyone who has ever performed knows the way that character, lines, make-up and costume can carry you through.


This is not to say that phrasebooks alone can create events, or even a zeitgeist; however, it would be equally rash to contend that they did not reflect one. The selection process – which phrases to translate – was presumably derived partly from consultation with people with some military experience, partly drawn from existing travelers’ phrasebooks, partly from the editor’s discretion, and partly from attitudes towards speakers of the language. “First Aid” to the Swahili Language issued by the ‘Army YMCA. British East Africa’ (undated but 1916-18) carried on its inside back cover Kitchener’s ‘Letter to every soldier’, with its familiar valediction ‘Do your duty bravely. Fear God. Honour the King.’, whose rhythm and imagined intonation, if not exact words, echoed through the following years. Its uprightness is reflected, almost literally, at the end of the preceding page’s ‘14 Health Hints for East Africa’.


Swahili end

Swahili end det

Again, towards the end of the book, the end of the war is explicitly scripted – while trench journals were offering scenarios of the war lasting into the 1950s (see earlier blogpost). What does the selection of phrases tell us about the expected interaction with Swahili-speakers? The first page is ambivalent – ‘As regards pronunciation, Kiswahili is a very simple language. The accent is almost invariably on the last syllable but one.’ We are informed that we should pronounce the language on its own terms, but equally that it will not demand much of us. But the terseness and hectoring on page 12 reveals the reality of the attitude towards indigenous people, as the phrasebook scripts the relationships expected by and of the British Empire.

Swahili 12







One thought on “Not just translating”

  1. Pingback: March 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: