Monday, February 29, 2016

Why Amateurs Should Not Translate

In my study of Spanish colonial St. Augustine from 1784 to1821, and in the creation of my book Non-Federal Censuses of Florida 1784-1945: A Guide to Sources, I have encountered a number of amateur translations.  Some of them have made me shake my head.  Some of them have made me laugh.

A few examples:

In a run of documents called the East Florida Papers, the originals of which are held at the Library of Congress, there is a letter which was written sometime in the 1920s or 1930s about a certain segment of these papers.  One document mentioned is headed, in Spanish, informacion naturalization* which the translator rendered as "Information Naturalization (?)."  At least the writer of the letter had the good sense to put the question mark in parentheses after their translation of the phrase.  Or, I should say, their mistranslation.  In Spanish, the word informacion does indeed mean "information."  But someone more familiar with the language also knows that the word has the additional meaning of "report."  And in this case, that's the word that should be used.  The translation should be "naturalization report."

In another document the amateur translator was not a paleographer, a person trained to read old handwriting.  I am a paleographer.  We can make mistakes, too, when a handwriting is really difficult to read, but one mistake this translator made is a doozy, and shows his or her unfamiliarity with paleography and with the Spanish language.  The document is a list of names that appeared in a census.  Some of the names are followed by the improbable words "el hifs," "el hiso," or "el biss."  A paleographer would recognize the error -- this is obviously a misreading of the Spanish el hijo, which means "the son."  At least el hijo makes more sense in the context than the made-up words that translator came up with.

In a collection of extracts of the marriage records I'm dealing with currently, there is an instance where the individual making the extracts was not familiar with ecclesiastical Latin, in which the marriage records were kept until 1788, when Bishop Cirilo de Barcelona, the auxiliary bishop of Cuba, made a visitation and informed the priests at the church in St. Augustine that from thenceforward, the church records were to be kept in Spanish, not in Latin.  Not that I'm all that fluent in ecclesiastical Latin myself, but I've been able to figure out enough to comfortably translate or at least read these church records.  The translator misread the document and placed the time of the marriage in question as 21 December 1786.  The Latin in the document reads "Anno Domini 1786 Die 21 Mensis Februarii . . ."  What that says is:  The Year of Our Lord 1786, day 21 month February . . ."  So the correct date of the wedding is February 21, not December.  The translator may have thought "Die" looked like "Dic," which he thought was an abbreviation for diciembre, the Spanish for December.

It's lovely that people get interested in a historical subject enough to want to do such work, usually on a volunteer basis.  However, translation is not easy.  Language is tricky.  Handwriting can be tricky, too.  I am trained in Spanish and in paleography, and I still at times feel that I am floundering.  Two lessons here are:

1.  Be careful with translated works, especially those done on a volunteer basis by amateurs.  (Be aware, however, that there are some retired professionals doing translations, too.  It's best, when retired, to have some activities, and when the retired pros do the job, it benefits everyone.)

2.  Some things are best left to the pros.

*I have to apologize that my computer does not do high-end ASCII, and I don't know any other way to make the diacritical markings used in Spanish.  If anyone has any help on that, I'd be happy to have it.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Getting down to brass tacks

Since our younger daughter moved out, we have the other two bedrooms in our house back for our own use.  My husband has not yet begun to put together his "man cave," but he's retired, so he doesn't need to get to it right away.  I, on the other hand, have made significant progress in getting my office ready.  Now I finally have a space with a door I can close to minimize interruptions -- complete with a "mean sign" saying not to disturb me unless the state forest or the house is on fire!

I have four bookcases in here, and will be ordering another one. I will also be confiscating yet another from the chaos in what should be our living room, and have on order from Kohl's a 5-shelf bookcase to hold CDs and DVDs.  I'm in the process of arranging my books on the shelves; I'm so anal retentive, I have them classified according to the Dewey Decimal system.  What do you expect?  I was trained as a librarian, having got my master's in library science at FSU in 1970.

But it's great to have this space, and I have gotten a great deal done.  I'm a little late, having had a bout of the flu after I got back home from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.  I can now spend the next terms at home, writing my thesis, since I have completed my in-residence coursework at USFSP.

It took a couple weeks to fully recover from the flu, though it was an abbreviated bout.  I had a flu shot in October, and am I ever glad I did.  I do not want to think what my bout of flu would have been like had I not had the shot! Temperature up to 102.4 and muscle and joint aches were no fun!

But now I've gotten a lot done on my proposal for my thesis.  I want to get that done in a couple more days and run it out to the member of my thesis committee who is at the University of North Florida.  Then it, and the signature form signed by the local professor, will go down to St. Pete for my major professor and the program director to sign off on.

I've also found some other sources for my research.  I have a stack of books on my desk.  This is a great desk -- it's a large oak roll-top we bought from friends who were done with it.  It has lots of drawer space, lots of cubbyholes for pens, pencils, and all sorts of other office supplies, and a large writing space, with two writing surfaces that pull out.  I have my computer on a wonderful computer desk I bought from Levenger's.  And my printer is on a low stand, with room for lots of paper, that my husband lent me.

So I'm jumping in with both feet and enjoying being able to work with few distractions.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

All done; time to go home

Today I finished my research at the Library of Congress.  In addition to the marriage license petitions I mentioned in my last post, I have found a few letters concerning "clandestine marriages," those marriages conducted without a Catholic priest present.  This was a punishable offense in Spanish society, being outside the observance of those rules laid down in the Real Pragmática de Casamientos.

There were also several royal edicts, or cédulas, regarding the Real Pragmática, the rules for marriage among the military and among government employees, and the rules for the marriage of slaves.  It is going to be interesting transcribing and analyzing these documents.  The transcription at times will also be harrowing and frustrating.  For example, the document in which the rules for the marriage of slaves is spelled out is heavily damaged by worms. There are other documents which suffer from faded ink or from just plain awful handwriting.  That's what makes paleography a challenge.

The research was intriguing.  The staff in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress are real pros.  They know their collection and are very helpful.  I had some frustrating times with the scanning microfilm readers, but that is more because at times machines and I just do not get along. 

Now I begin my preparations for going home.  I leave Monday afternoon, and am looking forward to getting home.  I am not a city person; I prefer suburbia or the country.  It is also very hot in Washington, D.C., being the middle of July.  City heat is a thing all its own.

I'll post entries here as I go along in the transcription and analysis of the documents, and the development of my thesis.  I was hoping to look at how the different governors had applied the Real Pragmática, but the marriage license petitions span only 1785-1803, the administrations of two governors, Vicente Manuel de Zéspedes and Juan Nepomuceno de Quesada.  I think there is enough material, and taken together with background reading on the Real Pragmática and other issues relating to marriage, I'm sure I can come up with something.

Just what that will be remains to be seen.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Road Trip!

I'm going on a road trip, but not by car.  I'm taking the train to Washington, D.C., next Wednesday -- provided that the arrangements get made on time -- for two months of research at the Library of Congress.

Why not fly?  I have issues with flying, which make it uncomfortable.  One problem could be serious.  Even though I was chewing gum and doing all the things you're supposed to do to equalize pressure on landing, I had an excruciating pain in my left ear on landing in Orlando in 2008 when I returned from my research trip to Seville, Spain.  Not quite a burst eardrum, but I don't want to take any chances with that!

So, the train.  I like the train.  Not so far to fall if something goes wrong, which -- knock on my little wooden head -- it won't.  And you get to see the scenery, see the real America.  I like that.

I'll be mucking about in the East Florida Papers at the Library, looking at the originals for parts which don't show up readably on the microfilms.  The 1793 Spanish census of St. Augustine, Florida, is one of those.  I'll also be looking at matrimonial license petitions.  This research is all for my thesis, which is on the application of the Real Pragmática de Casamiento (Royal Pragmatic of Marriage), proclaimed in 1776 by King Carlos III, and extended to the colonies in 1778.  One thing I'm wondering is if the various governors of East Florida in the Second Spanish Period applied the rules differently.

Yeah, it's one of those esoteric airy-fairy thesis topics.  But it can be quite important to those of us studying Spanish colonial Florida.  At least, I hope it will be.  And I hope one of the university presses will think it is, too.

So Monday through Friday, I'll have my nose to the grindstone, reading old Spanish and transcribing.  I have a bunch of the matrimonial license petitions already transcribed and some translated, as I am hoping to publish a book of annotated translations of these records.  Some of them have wonderful historical and genealogical information in them, and many of them just have good stories!  And at bottom, that's what history is to me -- a good story.

Monday and Wednesday evenings, the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room is open to 9:30.  I might feel a little antsy about walking to the Metro Station and from the bus stop back to the condo where I'm renting a room, but maybe there are tactics I can employ to make the journey safer.

I'll be haunting that reading room, and also on Saturday using the National Archives, for another project I have in mind, which is a more long-term thing and not for discussion right now.  When I have a germ of an idea, I tend to play it close to the vest.  My publisher has expressed an interest in this project.  It will require further research trips to a couple other cities, something that will be another two years down the road, at least.

But it's enough to keep me off the streets and out of the pool halls for a long time to come!

The term is over!

I'm back home from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where I'm running hard after a Master of Liberal Arts in Florida Studies.  This term was hard, but I also goofed off a bit.  In grad school, there are no Latin Honors (cum laude and all that), no honors in the major, so I have decided to study, yes, but also not to get all knotted up about it, and if I make a B, that's fine.  That's all I need.  But so far, I seem to be heading toward A's.  That's fine, too.  I certainly do not mind.

The toughest class was Theory of History.  Theoretical stuff makes my head hurt, anyway, but historical theory can get really out there.  The professor is a young neo-hippie (doesn't even own a car) who is uber-smart.  He's very fond of the French Revolution, so we read a lot of translations of French historians.  I've already talked about being a bit of an Annaliste in my own methods. I like background in my histories.  We explored other theories and methods, some of them I liked, some I didn't.  Post-structuralism (post-modernism) can only, in my opinion, lead to paralysis.  If you believe there's no such thing as "truth," what do you do as a historian?  Why bother?  I think there is such a thing as "truth," though it may not always -- or ever -- be absolute.  I think we can say things about the past that are true, and from which we can learn.

The seminar in Modern Florida was not that tough, but there was a lot of reading, some of it absolutely excellent.  One of those was Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, an account of a very dark incident in the history of the United States and of Florida.  Dr. Arsenault, who conducted the seminar, assigned the book, and almost all of us agreed that it was the best of the books we were assigned.  The author, Gilbert King, won a Pulitzer Prize just last month for the book, and it is well-deserved.  I did my paper for this course on "Prohibition and the Coast Guard in St. Petersburg, 1927-1933."  I'm waiting for feedback from Dr. Arsenault on that.  It was fun to do, and interesting to me because Prohibition is one of my favorite periods of U.S. history, and I served in the Coast Guard.  My husband also served (he's the reason I joined), and was stationed in St. Petersburg in the early 1970s.  Our younger daughter was born there.

And Dr. Arsenault gives great parties!

The last class I took was in Feature Writing (as in newspapers and magazines), which I took to satisfy the writing requirement for the Florida Studies degree.  I chose that course, as I figured there would be far less reading in that than in a literature course, which was another way to satisfy the requirement.  I didn't need 10 books to read on top of what I had to read for Theory and Modern Florida, and I hate having books assigned and then having to dissect them looking for what I think is often not there.  But I won't get into that.

The Feature Writing course was interesting, though the professor in the beginning was too enamored of the technology of the online component.  The University of South Florida is switching from Blackboard (used for mounting assignments, receiving submissions of homework and papers, e-mail service to the class, and other functions) to Canvas.  We used Blackboard at the University of North Florida, where I did my post-bacc work, and I thought it was a dog.  I think Canvas is a pig.  Paper works.

The other reason I took Feature Writing was that we actually WROTE!  We had to do two major feature articles (2500 words or more).  Mine won't be published -- that's not where my interest lies.  But it was fascinating to do the articles.  The first one was on suicide, a rather grim topic.  I learned a heck of a lot, and once I get back home, plan to do some awareness work.  It's just so important.  The second article was on the great white shark.  That was most fascinating.  I chose to focus on the shark that was tagged in March off the coast of Jacksonville, FL, and the efforts of OCEARCH to tag and track great white sharks around the world.

And that was my term.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thesis topic

I have picked a topic for my master's thesis here at good ol' USFSP.  My main area of study is colonial Spanish St. Augustine, mainly during the Second Spanish Period (1784-1821).

I have decided to examine the application of the Spanish marriage law (the real pragmática de casamiento) in St. Augustine during that period.  One of my questions is whether the law was applied differently by different governors.  I have not got past the first governor of the Second Spanish Period, Vicente Manuel de Zéspedes, who appears to have been rather an old softie when it came to folks getting married.

Another question is to see how much the law was either bent or completely ignored!  It prohibited interracial marriages, but there are documented instances when these did occur, generally of light-skinned mulattoes or octaroons with white Spaniards, and generally among the elites, who probably could get their way no matter what (also one of the questions I'll be looking at).

So I have more reason to go to Washington, D.C., and look at Spanish colonial sources at the Library of Congress, and will have to get onto lots of transcribing when I get done with this term.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Tome of Testimony

I'm a gamer.  Sometimes phrases come to me when I'm writing my papers, phrases couched in terminology used by gamers, or in words that sound like it.  I put such a phrase in my paper on the suspension and removal of Al Cahill as sheriff of Duval County, Florida.  Cahill was suspended 30 January 1958.

The term was "the tome of testimony," by which I referred to the very thick -- something like 1100 pages -- transcript of grand jury testimony generated by the investigation into the charges made against Cahill.  The newspaper reported on the thickness of the transcript.  Governor LeRoy Collins remarked, when he received a copy of the transcript by permission of the judge in whose jurisdiction the inquiry was held, that it was "a foot thick."

The transcript probably contained a wealth of information about the case, information which probably would have answered many of the questions arising out of the event.

It is information we historians will never see.  Nor will anyone else.  Grand jury proceedings, and the transcripts thereof, are secret.  Forever.

This is something historians have to deal with, especially when we deal with history that touches on politics and law enforcement.  The "smoking gun" is not available.  We can only speculate about what information the Tome of Testimony holds, but we'll never get near it.

What I had to do for my paper was look very thoroughly into newspaper reports of the event.  It occupied a lot of space in the Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville's newspaper, because it was a very big story.  There are some other sources.  There is a history of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office (formed from the old Duval County Sheriff's Office and the Jacksonville Police Department when the city of Jacksonville and Duval County were consolidated in 1968).  That book has some information on Cahill's predecessor, Rex Sweat, who was reputed to be corrupt.  There is very little on Cahill himself, as he's a character they'd probably rather forget.  There is a great deal on Cahill's successor, Dale Carson, a measure of the regard in which he is still held in the Sheriff's Office and the city generally.

There is a popular magazine article on Rex Sweat which also has useful information in it.  There are a few items concerning the case in the LeRoy Collins Papers at the library at the University of South Florida, Tampa.  One repository I have not yet had a chance to check is the state archive, which I will do before I submit the paper for publication.

The largest source in this case was the newspaper reports, which have to be approached carefully.  We have to watch for "loaded" words or words which could be interpreted in more than one way.  We have to account for the various meanings or the emotional charge a word may carry.  We have to be aware of possible reporter bias or the bias of the newspaper, and we have to take into account the possible agendas of the people being reported on.

It is possible to tell the story of an event from such scant sources, and to perform some analysis of the event and the people involved in it.  There will be questions remaining to be addressed by others with different interpretations.  There will be questions which will forever remain unanswered.  That does not mean that we should not ask them, nor does it mean that we should not try to tell the story.

But there it is, intrepid players of the game of history.  Seek thou the Tome of Testimony, only to find that it is concealed forever behind the strongest of magic spells and castle walls.  Then seek thou other sources, and use your powers of analysis to crack their secrets.