Tag Archives: interpreter

Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo

Shepheard's Cover

In 1895 or so (the title page does not bear a date), the famed Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo published a “Practical Handbook for Visitors to the Land of the Pharaohs” for its clientele.  Shepheard’s was the place to be for foreigners in Cairo from the mid-nineteenth century until it was burnt down in 1952, and its terrace was the place to see and be seen.  Famous guests included Henry Morton Stanley, Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence.

The Handbook presents an enticing picture of the hotel and its services – it is, after all, a piece of advertising.  Its terrace, the reader is told, “has now enjoyed a certain world reputation for tens of years.”

This is not because here, as perhaps in no other place in the world, during the season, so many celebrities in politics, art and science, the most eminent representatives of the aristocracy by birth as well as by money are here united in dolce far niente, nor is it because the terrace is to a certain extent the object of the pilgrimages of the élite of Cairo society, who take their 5 o’clock tea here in company with distinguished strangers; but it is because the visitor sitting in an easy chair can let a picture of oriental life pass before his eyes as in a kaleidoscope, a picture which can nowhere else be found in such variety and on such a scale.

The imagery is striking.  Western visitors and residents go to Shepheard’s to mingle and to interact with ‘distinguished strangers’, on a terrace raised above and cordoned off from the street.  The street life of Cairo is an Oriental scene, a picture or a drama to be observed rather than engaged with.

What, then, does the Shepheard’s Handbook have to offer travellers keen to experience Egyptian life?  Some Orientalist fantasies are quashed immediately.  There is, contrary to common opinion, no active slave market in Egypt.  Advice is given as to the best places to see dancing girls, but the reader is warned that “In no instance do they satisfy our æsthetic tastes.”  On dragomans, the Handbook cautions that “every one who is not master of the language of the country will do well, under all circumstances, to make use of the services of such a guide; he will thus save himself a great deal of time and many unpleasantnesses.”  The reader is then, of course, directed to the hotel’s office for a list of approved guides.

Anyone who wants to become “master of the language of the country” is rewarded with eighteen pages of vocabulary, and some further instructions, at the back of the Handbook.  The “native teacher”, available on demand from the enquiry office, will doubtless have been a much greater aid to the Arabic student than the brief details of pronunciation and grammar offered by the authors of the Handbook.

Shepheard's Vocabulary



12 Untranslatable Words (and their Translations)

A great article from the Guardian on 12 Untranslatable Words, skewering – among other linguistic myths – the old ‘Inuit words for snow’ chestnut, the concept of untranslatability, and the extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.


Herodotus at the Pyramids

Herodotus had plenty to say about the Great Pyramid at Giza (very big, very old), but like any more recent tourist in Egypt, he was led by his dragoman:

On the pyramid it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen, and if I rightly remember that which the interpreter said in reading to me this inscription, a sum of one thousand six hundred talents of silver was spent.  (Histories II 125.)

Can we really let him get away with poor research practice like this?  The ever-fabulous George Ade (In Pastures New, 1906) thinks not:

Herodotus discovered some large hieroglyphics on the face of the Pyramid and asked the guide for a translation. It is now supposed that the guide could not read. Anyone with education or social standing wouldn’t have been a guide, even in that remote period. But this guide wanted to appear to be earning his salary and be justified in demanding a tip, so he said that the inscription told how much garlic and onions the labourers had consumed while at work on the job, and just how much these had cost. Herodotus put it all down in his notebook without batting an eye.

“How much did they spend for onions and garlic?” he asked, poising his pencil.

The guide waited for a moment, so that his imagination could get a running start, and then he replied, “They cost 1600 talents of silver.”

Herodotus told his story and got away with it. … Marco Polo, Mark Twain, and all the other great travellers of history love to tell tall tales once in a while, but the garlic story by Herodotus will doubtless be regarded as a record performance for a long time to come.

Ade Herodotus

A Churchill learning Arabic in Burma

I recently found a copy of Hassam’s ‘Arabic Self-Taught, or the Dragoman for Travellers in Egypt‘ (1883) with an intriguing inscription on an inside page. It reads:

S. Churchill Lt RSF
Thayetmyo B. B.

RSF = Royal Scots Fusiliers
B. B. = British Burma

The Royal Scots Fusiliers were stationed in Egypt 1882-1883, which is presumably where Churchill – or a colleague – developed an interest in Arabic, and acquired the book (in Egypt, or after the regiment’s return to England in 1883). In 1885, the Royal Scots Fusiliers were in Burma, and saw action in the Third Anglo-Burmese War.

So is this any connection to the famous aristocratic Churchills? It seems not. There are tantalising connections, but the dates – and initials – just don’t match up. Lord Randolph Churchill (1849-1895) was Secretary of State for India in 1885, and instrumental in the British invasion and annexation of Burma, but he was not a Lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, and was hardly hanging out in Thayetmyo brushing up on his Arabic. Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel in command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1916, but he was too young to have served with them in Burma.

A Lieutenant S. V. F. Churchill, however, appears on the Burma Medal Roll of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, 1885-1887 (you can read it online here). This is surely our man. How did his Arabic studies go? There are no further annotations on the book, which is in very good condition indeed, so perhaps, like many a present-day student of Arabic, his initial enthusiasm and good resolutions waned in the face of challenging grammar and phonology. In Burma, without exposure to the language, it will have been difficult for him to practise.  (Burmese Self-Taught didn’t come out until 1911.)  On the other hand, the Thayet Golf Club didn’t open until 1887, so he may well have had time on his hands.

So how did Lt. Churchill’s copy of Hassam’s ‘Arabic Self-Taught’ come to be in a bookshop in Le Mans, France, in 2014? Your guess is as good as mine.

photo 2

Rachel Mairs

Postscript (21 July 2015):

Our friend Lieutenant Churchill is mentioned briefly in a few contemporary (or near contemporary) accounts of British military involvement in Burma: Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India (1907); The Coming of the Great Queen: A Narrative of the Acquisition of Burma (1888); The Chin Hills (1896).  Caveat lector: these books are (ahem) ‘products of their times’.