Monthly Archives: February 2014

Those Scots

A lovely footnote from a current research project.

I was looking up genealogical records for the Birnie family of Broomhill, to try and figure out the provenance of Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room MS 274, which has the names of both Mr. Robert Birnie, Minister of Lanark, and John Birnie of Broomhill. (Robert (1608-1691) was relatively easy, since there weren’t many Roberts in the family; every generation had at least one John, though, but my bet is on John (1643-1716), Robert’s only son.) I was using a funny little genealogical volume, Account of the Families of Birnie and Hamilton of Broomhill, by another John Birnie (the son of John son of Robert), edited and printed in 1838 by W.B.D.D. Turnbull.

It’s a nice little volume, available on, that has the Account following an account by W.B.D.D. Turnbull on a particular dispute involving many members of the Birnie and Hamilton families, regarding church interment. Mr. Turnbull had previously (1833) reprinted a copy of William Birnie’s (1563-1619) treatise against the practice of church burials, and prints this volume of genealogy and documents relating to the later dispute as additional material.

At the end of the analysis of the dispute, which is a section labeled “Prefatory Remarks, we find a description of the heraldic bookplate that apparently appears in several books that Mr. Turnbull has before him. They do not, evidently, impress Mr. Turnbull, who remarks in a footnote that “Heraldry was never properly studied as a science in Scotland. The present officials of that elegantly organized establishment are about the most ignorant reptiles that ever crawled between earth and heaven” (xviii).

The object of Turnbull’s scorn? The Birnies of Broomhill, in creating their crest, did not follow the rules, resulting in what Turnbull refers to as “a heraldic freak” (xviii): “They have given to their shield as supporters, two parsons precant, sable, in reading-desks–all proper!! La voila!” (xviii-xix).

As substitutes for the usual zoological complement of lions, unicorns, and gryphons, it must be said that the parsons, even when referred to with the French-influenced language of heraldry as “precant, sable,” seem a little odd.




Birnie, John, Esq. Account of the Families of Birnie and Hamilton of Broomhill. Ed. W.B.D.D. Turnbull, Esq. Edinburgh: Printed for Private Distribution (Edinburgh Printing Company), 1838.

Genealogical material possibly taken from BL Add. Ms. 28850, but the BL dates the genealogical part of that manuscript to 1730, and the printed volume includes deaths up to 1733.

Faculty Money

Just a month into my faculty contract and I’m already taking full advantage! I just got awarded a Flex Grant for Teaching and Faculty Development by the Center for Teaching and Faculty Development and the union (MSP), to start building a multilingual audio and text database for our interpreting courses.

UMass Amherst runs interpreting courses that are multilingual, include both students who are native speakers of English and those who are non-native English speakers, and have students who are at different levels of language proficiency (they are courses in interpreting studies with a heavy practical component, but not designed to be primarily interpreter-training classes). A significant part of the class is dedicated to readings and discussions about issues in interpreting, from linguistic and skill-set questions to debates on ethics and best practices to historical analyses of the role of interpreting. But about half the classes are set aside for practical work.

As such, it’s often very difficult to find materials for practice sessions. Right now, my class has five languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Spanish), only one of which I know (Spanish). I have a collection of sites with audio in various languages (international news sites, language learning online, etc.), but I can’t be confident about the level of difficulty of any of the texts but the Spanish. I’ve found and created a number of monolingual exercises designed to train and reinforce particular skills associated with simultaneous interpreting (this semester’s focus is on simultaneous), and obviously, I can find audio in English that I can select for vocabulary, speed, and complexity. But this course needs a coherent component moving into English as well, and that’s been harder. (It was apparently also a difficulty for the designer of the course, for whom I’m substituting this semester while she’s on research leave.)

A possible solution: an in-house audio bank. Texts chosen for non-technical vocabulary on a variety of topics, recorded in English, translated into the languages we need, and recorded in those languages as well. It’s not the same as working with “authentic” texts or situations, but this is training, and the “authentic” texts that are available are difficult to sort through and often problematic in one or more ways (problematic accents, technical vocabulary, mumbling). I know that if my students go into interpreting, they’ll need to be able to deal with those issues, but this course is intended as an introduction to interpreting, not a finishing school. Choosing texts and then having them translated and recorded means that the whole class can work on the same topic (roughly the same text) at the same time, address the cultural issues that arise as a class, and even be able to check their understanding of the text with the written versions in either language.

I’m trying to choose texts that are not so specific that in a year or two we’ll have forgotten the context. General-knowledge, on topics that might be relevant to interpreting, with minimal vocabulary demands (this isn’t the place to challenge their vocabulary while they’re working on their interpreting- vocabulary building can happen outside the practice session), spoken clearly and a tiny bit slower than normal, with decent pauses. Given a solid corpus of audio to use at the beginning of the semester, we can then try to work our way up to authentic texts (also giving the instructor time to find some in all of the languages!) by the end.

The grant will go to pay translators and speakers to record the translations. I’m first trying to find graduate students in the department or college who are native speakers and have some translation experience; if I can’t find the languages I need that way, I’ll look further afield. I’m aiming for four (short) texts translated and recorded in each of the current five languages by the end of the semester; it’s not a huge grant, and my contract ends in May anyway. But it’s a start, and a neat project that can keep getting built little by little.

Dns .I. de Marignac, Or, Meotodes meahte

A research project has snuck up on me, as they often do, from where it was lurking in another project. While working at the Smith College Mortimer Rare Books Room, in my character as measurer of manuscripts, I came upon a thirteenth-century Bible, possibly from the Rhine provinces. A lovely big book, 33.5 x 22.6cm, with a pretty illuminated initial at the front. What caught my eye, though, was the inscription on the flyleaf, dated 1312.

IMG_0694 copy

The hand is difficult for me, and apparently for others as well; a mid-20th century interlinear pencil notation transcribes some of the words, but not all, and even some of those transcribed seem to be wrong. I pieced together some of it the first day, but I still didn’t have enough to figure out all of the place names. The next time I was in, after I finished all the measuring, I came back to it, this time with some help from an emeritus classics professor, with whom I pieced together more of it. By the end of that session (we were still working when the librarian needed to go to a meeting, so she locked us in at 5), we’d figured out almost everything.

Apparently I needed a project like this- a bit fussy, out of my sphere, and exciting. Really needed it, or maybe even needed a few, since I was already working on the Istoria della Fine del Mondo manuscript, which shares many of those characteristics. It’s become a minor obsession. I have half a dozen books out of the library, call numbers for half a dozen more, and a few ordered from interlibrary loan.

It refers to Dns .I. de Marignac, who was not Enguerrand de Marigny (chamberlain to Philip IV of France, and sometimes spelled Inguerrand), but more likely his half-brother Jean de Marigny.

So really, the power of the measurer (meotodes meahte, stolen from Cædmon, but taken here without divine implications) is apparently the power to come back to the library later and do more research. At least, that’s the power of this particular measurer.