Lost in translation

I’ve just finished cataloguing a folder of correspondence between the NUWT and women teachers in Cyprus which raised a few interesting issues – not least my complete lack of knowledge of the Greek language!

Luckily the correspondence was all conducted in English and the only Greek I came across was the journal pictured below.  I initially assumed, from the content of the accompanying letter, that the journal was from a Women’s teachers organisation but then I found other references to the Pancyprian Teachers Organisation, the mixed teacher’s union, so I thought I should double-check.  As I don’t know any Greek I called upon a Cypriot friend who very kindly translated the title and index page.  The journal is ‘Educational Chronicles’ and was the monthly voice of the Cypriot Teachers Association (which I think was another term for the Pancyprian Teachers Organisation) so I’m glad I decided to look further than my original assumption and seek help with translation as if not I’d have misrepresented the function of the journal.

‘Educational Chronicles’, NUWT Collection ref UWT/D/228/4 ©Institute of Education Archive

One issue this raised for me which I thought might be of interest is to do with how to represent  out-dated, and often offensive, terms used in the original records.  When sending me the translation my friend remarked on the surprising use of very non-PC terms in regards to the education of children.  It’s an issue I’ve come across rather a lot when cataloguing the NUWT collection as there are many words used which I found quite shocking and which would never be used now, for example ‘retarded and idiotic children’, ‘mentally deficient children’, ‘backward children’.  It’s very important that, as archivists, we make sure we catalogue this responsibly.  Yes, we could remove the terms and replace them but this then misrepresents the material as we want to show the historical development of these areas of education, which includes showing the terms which were used historically.  So, what we do is retain the terms but make it obvious, by the use of quotation marks, that the terms are taken from the original text and are not being condoned or inserted by us.  Another step taken here at the Institute of Education Archive was to include an explanation on the front page of the online archive catalogue that reads:

Please note: the Institute of Education holds collections that document the changing attitude to teaching and learning since the late 18th century. As a result of the content of these collections, which also covers aspects of social history, the catalogue includes racially offensive terms, and outdated terms for people with learning difficulties, and physical disabilities. Where these terms appear in the catalogue it is in the interest of historical accuracy. Their appearance does not reflect the views or opinions of the Institute or our staff.


It was interesting to have someone else raise this issue with me as it reminded me of the decisions we have to take everyday when cataloguing material, and the responsibilities we have to ensure we represent material in context and accurately. It’s something we have to do automatically every day when cataloguing – decide which terms to leave in, when to use quotation marks and when it is necessary to include further explanations and contextual information.


2 thoughts on “Lost in translation

  1. This discussion of offensive terminology is reassuring. I face the same problem in my own research into British work camp systems. A variety of labour colonies were established for people with learning difficulties, with enormous effort going into classifying the ‘feeble-minded’, ‘idiots’, and other groups of ‘mental defectives’. I had planned to adopt the same solution, and it is good to see that this is how someone else is handling it.

    Some other issues look at first sight easier. The philanthropists and suffragettes who established the Women’s Training Colony used such elliptical language that some modern readers might struggle to work out who the colony was intended for (prostitutes). And I don’t plan to lose too much sleep about terms such as inebriate or drunkard, who were the client group of several labour colonies established in the later nineteenth century.

  2. I’m glad you’ve found it useful! Aah yes, I’ve come across that too with regards to the use of very vague terms. I can remember some 1930s material in particular which talked about restaurants refusing to serve women who came in to eat on their own – it took me a while to work out the implications were if you ate alone in the evening, or haven forbid, went for a drink or your own you were a prostitute, or women of ‘ill repute’.

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