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28 December 2007

Virtualizing those critical language resources

In our previous travels abroad, in places far off the beaten track, we have often had occasion to require the kinds of vocabulary not commonly included in typical dictionaries or phrase books. Often, the approximations one must resort to when discussing narrowly specific professional subjects can be quite humorous – especially given our typical none too literate grasp of the local lingua franca in those hotspots where we never personally had expected to find ourselves. (For as much as we encourage those entering the profession to pursue language skills on their target account to the best possible proficiency, we are acutely aware from our own experiences – and those of many of our contemporaries – that with the pace one’s accounts tend to change these days, it is all too often more likely that a mid-career professional will find themselves with a slice of too many tongues at far too shallow a level of proficiency for anything but the more rudimentary of street level conversations. But then again – with only a few exceptions – the members of our skunkworks freely admit to not having much of a head for any language, English included.)

But along the way we have acquired quite a range of more useful texts to help with the problems of finding the right word to express those more obscure professional concepts. These resources usually of military origin, and usually among the older and forgotten sections of the stacks. One of our most useful finds, a number of years ago, turned out to have far greater utility than we ever anticipated as the Long War emerged. Thus we carried for a number of years in our kit an increasingly dog eared copy of a French- Arabic lexicon of military terminology originally authored in the 1920’s – yet surprisingly useful even today.

The long disused texts within the virtual stacks of the major digitization projects (including the Million Books project and Google’s own book effort) have once again provided us with an example which may perhaps be more generally useful for those that do not wish the burden of having to relay their speech through multiple imperfect lenses.

The volume is “English-Arabic vocabulary, for the use of officials in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan”, and was the product of the intelligence department of the Egyptian Army (and its British advisors) in 1905. It is both a “survival” level language resource as well as a compilation of military terminology translation.

Interested readers may also find an English-Arabic dictionary “For the Use of Both Travellers and Students” for from 1882 of some value, although it is far more general in nature.

These are the kinds of things that ought to have been made available through more concerted efforts at the very start of the Long War, as more modern resources were rapidly being created. (Though we do note that Anglo-Egyptian intelligence only came to compile its volume long after the British intervention against the Madhi’s forces in the Sudan…) Nonetheless, in both cases better late than never, and hopefully these kind of resources found in the back archives will prove of some use to those who still find themselves in the far flung locales of the world. We are certain it will prove far less heavy an item on those long treks when one must carry one’s own ruck.

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