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A Dictionary Tells a Story

A recent thread on Linked In discussed translators' tools of the past and the memories they prompted about early career experiences and working methods. Paper dictionaries may still be of practical use, depending on the field and language combination in question, but they undoubtedly beat electronic resources when it comes to evoking a narrative linked to a particular period in history.

I have a Spanish<>English dictionary that tells a powerful story in time and space.

In 1936 young people from the UK (and elsewhere) joined the International Brigades and the POUM militia to assist the Popular Front government of the Second Spanish Republic. George Orwell is just one example, having travelled to Spain on his own initiative to fight.

The motivation was to support the struggle against fascist forces led by General Franco.

'In a letter home, one volunteer from Stockport explained why he went to Spain: “Mother dear, we’re not militarists, nor adventurers nor professional soldiers. But a few days ago on the hills the other side of the Ebro, I’ve seen a few unemployed lads from the Clyde, and frightened clerks from Willesden stand up (without fortified positions) against an artillery barrage that professional soldiers could not stand up to. And they did it because to hold the line here and now means that we can prevent this battle being fought again on Hampstead Heath or the hills of Derbyshire.” (Letter, George Green to Mother, 1938. IBA, Marx Memorial Library)'

Many of the young volunteers knew little or no Spanish, and may have consulted a dictionary such as this one.

One can imagine that, like Ernest Hemingway, some of the young people may have met and formed relationships while in Spain. Unlike Hemingway, whose love was Spanish, John B. T. fell for "Beryl".

The book looks as if it may have travelled with John in his rucksack and stood up to some tough times.

So how did I come to have the dictionary?

I taught beginners' Spanish for a Local Authority evening class. When the adult education college was closed and the service taken over at County level, its large and varied library built up over many years was disposed of, and I now have the privilege of looking after John and Beryl's book and the pleasure of sharing its (possible) story.

And as a footnote, this dictionary is still very useful if one is reading a historical text or searching for an obscure word!


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