I’ve been thinking a lot recently about books as (inanimate) interpreters. Instruction books for languages such as Arabic, Persian and Hindustani in the nineteenth century were produced in a colonial context and often directed explicitly at soldiers, administrators and other agents of empire. Annotations by previous owners can offer an insight into the social history of these books’ production and use. Such ‘object biographies’ can be telling.
I recently acquired some books whose history is written in their pages in the form not only of the printed text, but of ink and pencil marks and bookplates of their owners over the years. One is an 1810 abridgement of Richardson’s Dictionary of Arabic and Persian, designed “For the use of Gentlemen in the Army, in the Service of the Honourable East India Company, and others, going out to India, who may think Richardson’s Dictionary too bulky or expensive.”
In 1844, a William Manchester wrote his name on the title page. (It is possible that he is a member of the family of the Dukes of Manchester, but I have no further information on him.) Inside the front cover is the bookplate of one Harold Meek, with the date April 1971.
I found what I thought was a good identification of a ‘Harold Meeks’ (1922-2015), an architectural historian (hence the bookplate’s Baroque flourishes) and translator (of many languages). I mentioned this to my father, who said “It’s not Meeks: it’s Meek.” Meek had taught him in the department of Architecture at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the 1970s. So this book has followed an interesting trajectory: from colonial administrator (or a person of that ilk), to historian and translator, to historian of translation (who happens to be the daughter of the former’s student).
Meek passed away only a few months ago. I picked up several nice things in the same antiquarian bookshop at the same time as the 1810 dictionary, at least one of which was also part of his collection. This is A. H. Bleeck’s 1857 Concise Grammar of the Persian Language, inside which Meek pencilled his name on 3 June 1940. Bleeck (1829-1877) worked at the British Museum and served in the Crimean War, using his languages in both capacities.
The Preface notes that “there are many who devote themselves to linguistic pursuits chiefly with a view to qualify themselves as interpreters, or sometimes merely for the purpose of making their way through a foreign country, yet even to these it cannot be altogether a matter of indifference whether the dialect they acquire is as rich in literature as, for example, the German, or as poor as the Bulgarian or the Gaelic.” For this reason, he gives a brief introduction to Persian literature.
What drew me to this book was Bleeck’s advertisement that it contained, in addition, ‘A New Plan for Facilitating the Study of Languages’, with specimen text for this method applied to fourteen other languages: from Arabic to Turkish, by way of Georgian and Swedish. Bleeck was not the first or the last to promise a new technique for learning languages quickly and easily.
The method is not revolutionary: it consists of short passages with translation and vocabulary. Having these contained in a single book, however, shows not just how similar teaching methods were employed for languages from very different families (Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, etc.), but how a comforting regularity could thereby be given to the acquisition of any language – whether one intuitive for an English speaker, or one more daunting.
The section on Arabic shows something of the book’s life over the past century and a half. A tear has been carefully repaired with new paper, and the missing text neatly inked in.