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Letters

Vol. 40 No. 21 · 8 November 2018

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Memory Suppression

Thomas Laqueur’s eloquent account of memory suppression in the US reminded me of two recent encounters with amnesia in southern Africa (LRB, 11 October). In Pretoria, I visited the Voortrekker monument, which features immense marble bas reliefs celebrating armed white men and their womenfolk defending themselves against ‘savage-looking’ black men. A timeline on the wall nearby concludes with Nelson Mandela’s election, marking the end of ‘Afrikaner-dominated politics’. A few weeks later in Swakopmund, Namibia, I shadowed a German tour at the memorial to German soldiers who defended settlers against the Herero and Nama people in 1904-8. A bronze soldier on the pedestal towers above his fallen comrade. Nowhere (not even in the nearby museum) do we learn that German forces exterminated 80 per cent of the Herero and 50 per cent of the Nama – not just by shooting them, but by driving men, women and children into the desert and poisoning their waterholes. A German tourist asked the German-Namibian guide about the blood-red paint on the statue, which I knew had been part of a 2016 protest. The guide shrugged. ‘Well. That’s another perspective.’ In these not-quite-post-apartheid nations, as in the US, the memory of shame has been buried under a sheen of military valour.

Claudia Koonz
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Australian Particularities

In her report on the ‘radical instability’ of Australian politics, Philippa Hetherington refers to the 2017 ‘same-sex marriage plebiscite’ and also to ‘the same-sex marriage referendum’ (LRB, 27 September). It was neither. Today the term ‘referendum’ is confined to a poll seeking to amend the constitution. The government in fact wanted to hold a plebiscite on the issue but the legislation enabling it was rejected by the senate. The government then came up with the strange idea of a postal survey to be conducted by the Bureau of Statistics. This did not require legislation and would only be advisory – voting would not be compulsory, as it is in elections and referendums.

Supporters of marriage equality were at first hostile to the proposal, seeing it as a delaying tactic, but the Bureau took its responsibility seriously, widely publicising the poll and encouraging people not on the electoral roll to add their names in time. The Bureau’s meticulous preparation of the survey encouraged supporters of marriage equality to launch a vigorous campaign. Then a remarkable thing happened. Voters were, it seemed, eager to respond. In the end an impressive 79.5 per cent responded, with 61 per cent voting ‘Yes’. Every state and territory voted ‘Yes’ by a large margin. Conservative opponents were shattered. Parliamentary opposition withered away, and in the end only four members of the House of Representatives were prepared to vote against the required legislation.

The emphatic result of the postal survey can, in some measure, be seen as a censure directed at our parliamentarians, who had evaded their responsibility for resolving the issue. But, alas, after that brief glimpse of something resembling bipartisanship, we are back with the politics of vengeance and policy paralysis.

John Rickard
Melbourne

Censorship at the BBC

Ian Jack writes about people thinking they had heard Churchill’s Dunkirk speech in the House of Commons of 4 June 1940 on the BBC (LRB, 30 August). There was, of course, no broadcasting from Parliament till the mid-1970s. The subsequent correspondence on this subject has mutated into a question of whether it was Norman (‘Winnie the Pooh’) Shelley or Derek (‘Larry the Lamb’) McCulloch who impersonated Churchill in a radio broadcast (Letters, 27 September and Letters, 11 October). Unmentioned is the fact that McCulloch (alias ‘the guy’ and ‘Uncle Mac’), as head of Children’s Hour, played a central role in the campaign by the BBC’s education department to prevent Enid Blyton ever being allowed on the air, on the grounds that she was second-rate and should not be given the opportunity to speak about ‘her methods and aims in writing for children’ (as she had offered to do in a letter to the BBC in 1936). When Lionel Gamlin unwittingly invited her in 1949 to appear on Autograph Album, Blyton had to warn him that she was ‘completely banned’; McCulloch followed up with a stiff memo to Gamlin warning him not to undermine BBC policy. Blyton was prevented from appearing for 27 years before finally being interviewed on Woman’s Hour in 1963.

David Elstein
London SW15

Be careful what you wish for

David Campbell seeks to support Theresa May’s ‘catgate’ comments in his response to Stephen Sedley’s article on the origins of the European Convention on Human Rights (Letters, 27 September). I was president of the Upper Tribunal when May, who was home secretary at the time, claimed that a Bolivian man had his appeal against deportation allowed by a judge of that chamber because he owned a cat. Like the lord chancellor of the day, Ken Clarke, I would have been surprised (and alarmed) if this had been the case, and promptly reviewed the decision in question. Far from being ‘essentially correct’, the home secretary’s comment was quite wrong.

The decision to allow the appeal was based on the Home Office’s own policy at that time (since rescinded) that generally permitted a student who had overstayed his limited leave to remain to regularise his position if he had been in a genuine and durable common law relationship for two years or more at the time of the decision. The nature of the relationship was undisputed and it was conceded by the Home Office’s presenting officer that there had been a failure to have regard to its own policy. The fact that the couple had acquired a cat together was the kind of circumstantial detail that the Home Office often took into consideration in assessing the existence of a genuine relationship; it was mentioned in the refusal decision and the judgment but was not the basis of the decision to allow the appeal. This was made plain by a statement from the Judicial Office issued that day and accurately quoted by the BBC on 6 October 2011: ‘This was a case in which the Home Office conceded that they had mistakenly failed to apply their own policy – applying at that time to that appellant – for dealing with unmarried partners of people settled in the UK. That was the basis for the decision to uphold the original tribunal decision – the cat had nothing to do with the decision.’

Campbell is equally wide of the mark in his comments about the ECHR and the erosion of sovereignty. Churchill and his fellow promoters of the ECHR would be perfectly aware that an international treaty to protect rights, supervised by a regional court of judges from the contracting states, would restrain the state from doing things that it had been previously free to do; that is the whole basis of international law, universal or regional, whether the prohibition is against aggressive war, the use of torture, destruction of the environment or failing to respect family and private life through unlawful or unjustified interference with it.

The application of Article 8 of the ECHR to the expulsion of non-citizens was very well-established in the Strasbourg Court’s case law by 1998, when Parliament decided to make it part of national law, and confirmed in 2000 when the UK endorsed the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights as reflecting the existing legal obligations of the UK and the Human Rights Act came into force. An over-generous judicial decision on the application of Article 8 would certainly have led to the case going to the Court of Appeal, but there was no further appeal in the catgate case as there was no error of law on the part of the judge who was applying the law laid down by Parliament, in fact on the all too familiar ground that the Home Office had failed to apply its own policies accurately.

Nicholas Blake
London NW5

Myths of Englishness

James Meek’s ‘two folk-myths bound up with Englishness, the myth of St George and the myth of Robin Hood’ offer an elegant way of perceiving the Leave and Remain camps (LRB, 11 October). He does, however, omit the most important national myth of all – namely, that of King Arthur, who unified warring tribes and led the defence against Saxon invaders. As a myth, it encompasses both the unifying and the cathartic fairy-tale tropes Meek identifies in the interminable Brexit quarrels. You might almost call it a Third Way.

Amanda Craig
London NW1

He got it all from me!

I am well aware of Mark Jacobs’s work on Laura Riding (Letters, 25 October). To make good my failure to acknowledge her genius, however, I’ll respond to him by quoting a characteristically lucid letter in which Riding accuses William Empson of plagiarising her: ‘What I have to say to you will in part follow in continuation. I thought I should get it all down today, but I can’t. Be sure: I shall be going on in a couple of days (I can’t tomorrow). You have here a description of the word of my address, in replying. I find an element of effrontery in your argument. In it I find also that dodging I have spoken of, which softens the effect of the former.’

She obviously had it all worked out.

Colin Burrow
Oxford

I think Mark Jacobs must be mistaken in correcting Colin Burrow on the matter of Laura Riding’s auto-defenestration. It wasn’t from a fourth-storey window, Jacobs says, but the third storey. This is the house:

Nobody disputes that Riding jumped from the top window (on the other side); so the fall was certainly four storeys (she landed on the basement-level patio). Whether an estate agent would describe the house as ‘four storeys’ or ‘three storeys with a basement’ doesn’t seem important; Burrow is accurately describing the height she fell from. (I’m very pleased, incidentally, that an argument begun on the letters page on 7 April 1994 is being resurrected 24 years later.)

John Clegg
London WC1

The book details at the top of Colin Burrow’s review should have cited Alan Hodge as co-author of The Reader over Your Shoulder. Our Fault.

The Editors

The Politics of Translation

Marina Warner refers to ‘crucial instances of overdetermination’ in biblical translation, citing the notorious case of Jerome’s rendering of the Hebrew ’almah at Isaiah 7:14 as ‘virgin’ when it ‘simply means young and nubile’ (LRB, 11 October). This overdetermination has thundered down the ages. The word ’almah illustrates the Roman Catholic Church’s inability to take a step forward without taking at least one back: the New Vulgate, published as recently as 1979, deliberately kept ‘virgo’. In an article published in 1990, the former secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Vulgate, Bishop Pietro Rossano, tried to justify the retention of ‘virgo’. He ignored the plain meaning of the original Hebrew, and appealed instead both to the authority of the Greek version of the Bible, the Septuagint, which renders ’almah as parthenos, and, no less important for his case, to the quotation of that passage in Matthew 1:23. His argument was that ‘there is no cogent reason for excluding the meaning “virgin" from the Hebrew.’ Such wilfulness reflects precisely the type of inverted or backwards logic that inspired the preceding 16 centuries of Christian anti-Jewish polemic.

Warner adds that the same word, ’almah, ‘is also used to describe the dancing girls at Solomon’s court’. There may be some overdetermination on her part here. The word ’almah (plural ’alamot) occurs rarely in the Hebrew Bible, and never with any obvious reference to dancing. Is Warner perhaps thinking of the line in the Song of Songs (attributed to Solomon) 1:3, where we read, in the Hebrew, that ‘therefore do the ’alamot love thee’? Here the word is rendered by King James as ‘the virgins’. Jerome, however, is not to blame for this: King James’s men were translating ‘out of the Originall tongues’. Jerome, to his credit, rendered this as adolescentulae – which ‘simply means young and nubile’.

David Wasserstein
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

Marina Warner mentions that the field of translation studies is ‘growing vigorously’ in universities, but I fear readers may get the wrong impression. Literary translation is just one of a huge range of translation-related topics you would hear about if you attended a translation studies conference: editing the outputs of machine translation; preparing the translations of written materials accompanying new drugs; translating the help files for new versions of software; courtroom interpreting; tracking the eye movements of professional translators as they work in order to understand their mental processes; examining the work of journalists who translate news-wire stories and simultaneously edit their content to suit their home audience; and so on.

Translation programmes at universities are similarly wide-ranging. Most of these are dependent on fee-paying students who are training to become professional translators of legal, medical, technical, financial, administrative or marketing texts. Friedrich Schleiermacher, in a lecture at the Royal Academy of Science in Berlin in 1813, pooh-poohed this kind of translation work: ‘The translator of newspaper articles and the common literature of travel … risks becoming ridiculous when his work begins to make larger claims and he wants to be recognised as an artist.’ With such texts ‘there are rarely any doubts that cannot be immediately dispelled as to which expression in one language corresponds to an expression in another. Translating in this field is therefore almost a mechanical activity that can be performed by anyone with a fair to middling knowledge of both languages.’ Similar opinions, still frequent, are uttered only by people who have never translated non-literary texts.

Brian Mossop
York University, Toronto

What action?

All criminal lawyers will agree with Francis FitzGibbon’s condemnation of our dilapidated criminal justice system and with The Secret Barrister, whose book he recommends to MPs (LRB, 11 October). ‘They need to read it,’ he says, ‘and take action.’ What action? No one expects the government to provide our adversarial system with the resources it needs. The action we should take is to make it less adversarial. There is much we might learn from our Continental neighbours. As John Langbein asserts in The Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial (2003),

European criminal procedural systems became hybrids of European and English, but they retained their defining feature, the principle that criminal courts must have the duty and the authority to seek the truth. In England, by contrast, the well-meaning reforms of the 18th century that resulted in adversary trial had the effect of perpetuating the central blunder of the inherited system: the failure to develop institutions and procedures of criminal investigation that would be responsible for and capable of seeking the truth.

It is because they are more efficient at discovering the facts that Continental jurisdictions have fewer people in jail than we do. (Germany imprisons half as many.) Europeans understand Beccaria’s old maxim that it is not the severity of the punishment that deters so much as the certainty of detection and conviction.

The right action would be to professionalise the magistracy and improve policing. There would be more resources for investigators, who would be accountable to and directed by a specialist judiciary. Investigation would be more thorough. Police would not be writing off great swathes of minor crime. Then we might begin to get prison numbers down and ensure that when prisoners finish their term they are better equipped for life outside. And, no less important, we would avoid many of the problems associated with the disclosure of exonerating material – problems that are inevitable in an adversarial system.

Richard Lomax
London SE3

It does happen

Meehan Crist writes that ‘a pair of siblings may share as much as 61.7 per cent of their DNA, or as little as 37.4 per cent’ (LRB, 25 October). In fact siblings can share as much as 100 per cent of their DNA – or slightly less, since even identical twins diverge owing to mutation, but as near as dammit. And it’s theoretically possible that two siblings could share no DNA at all, though the chance of that is around 1 in 20,000 factorial, so we can probably discount it. The way to put what Crist is saying is that the standard deviation in shared DNA between siblings is 11.7 per cent. It would be pretty rare to have more DNA in common with a cousin than a sibling, but it does sometimes happen.

Dave Morris
London SW12

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