Interview with John Hooper: A Journalist's Perspective on Language

JOHNHOOPER John Hooper is Southern Europe Editor of The Guardian newspaper and Italy correspondent for The Economist, for which he has been living in Rome since 2003, and author of two insightful books into southern European cultures, The Italians (to be published in January 2015) and the award-winning The New Spaniards (Penguin, 2006). His international journalism career began at the age of 18, when he travelled to Biafra to help make a television documentary on the Nigerian civil war. He subsequently freelanced in Cyprus in 1974, where he began working for the Guardian. In 1976, he became the Guardian's Madrid correspondent and later served as the paper's correspondent in Rome and Berlin. His postings both long-term and ad hoc have seen him on site covering the Portuguese Carnation Revolution, the aftermath of dictator Franco's death, the outbreak of the Algerian Civil War, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Kosovo conflict and the war in Afghanistan. In 1997, he uncovered and investigated the 'Ship of Death' migrant trafficking disaster. In a career spanning forty years to date, he has also worked for the BBC, NBC, Reuters and The Observer.


Let's start at the very beginning: with such an international career, you have had to learn many European languages. Did you already have some under your belt?

Like a lot of Britons of my generation, I studied French and Latin at school. But I was hopeless at both. I was even worse at French than I was at Latin (perhaps because the French master was a kinder soul than the Latin master and did not beat us if we got dire marks in the weekly tests we were given). I was so bad at French that the school, which was very conscious of its academic performance in those days, decided that I should not take the O level exam as they knew that my inevitable failure would lower their percentage of passes. I managed to scrape through Latin second time round. But it was only when my parents hired a young (and rather attractive) French mistress to give me private lessons that I began to take an interest. What really changed things, though, was going to France. I set off for Paris during my gap year and experienced for the first time that extraordinary frustration that comes over you when you can't communicate with the people around you. It spurred me on in a way that neither the threat of a caning or even the blandishments of a pert young tutor could. My French improved rapidly while I was in Paris and when I then moved on to Italy I was ready to give Italian a try, though I didn't get very far because after a while I was sacked from my job as the skipper of an opera singer's boat. That, as they say, is another story.

And one I hope to hear one day! So it is fair to say that your now impressive array of languages was something that happened later. You in fact started a wild, international reporting career with a dangerous trip to Biafra when you were still a student, though, so what was the turning point to begin a career where language learning would be essential?

Actually, my first ambition was to go into the theatre. I did some amateur - and even semi-professional - acting in my teens, but I was particularly drawn to the idea of becoming a director. It was my gap year that changed me. I so enjoyed being abroad that I decided I needed a career that would allow me to travel and I realised that, for the most part, actors and directors can only really operate in societies that have the same mother tongue. Having said that, I think that those early years of contact with the theatre helped me a lot with language learning later. I'm often struck by the fact that people who are good at languages either have some sort of experience of acting or are naturally extrovert personalities. Working in the theatre helped bring me out of myself and make me less self-conscious when trying to learn other people's languages.

Having the confidence to practise is such a necessary skill in language learning. Have you ever faced initial difficulties at work, having arrived in a country without a good knowledge of the language, and if so, how did you overcome this?

Apart from being sent off to cover wars and the like, I was posted to Germany after having only studied the language for a month and a half. It was extraordinarily frustrating. I had to hire a local assistant and rely on her for many of the things that I consider to be essential to the work of a foreign correspondent, particularly the selection of which stories to cover. Traditionally, American newspapers have not expected their foreign correspondents to speak the language of the countries in which they live and they have provided them with the means with which to hire a local assistant. But I think they lose out on a lot because of that; you can cover the political and economic news, perhaps, but it's very difficult to produce pieces about society or the culture of a place that way: the real value of language for a foreign correspondent is that it allows him or her to get under the skin of the country, understand the nuances of the society around them and avoid being misled by superficial cultural differences.

That should go without saying; I think the proof is furthermore in your books (The New Spaniards and The Italians), which are enticing portals into the countries you have worked from. Have there been occasions where knowing the local language has gone even further, to the point of saving you from a dangerous situation?

Most of the dangerous situations I have been in were in countries where I could not in fact understand the local language: places like Afghanistan, Kosovo and Northern Ireland (just a joke!). But because I have a somewhat lax approach to personal safety I have frequently done myself harm without needing to go to a conflict zone. When for example I inadvertently demolished a washbasin with my head while I was living in Madrid, my ability to speak Spanish probably saved my life. I managed to stagger half-conscious and smothered with blood onto the stairs, where there was an electrician changing the bulbs, and was able to explain to him that I needed to be taken swiftly to a doctor. If I had not been able to do so in fluent Spanish he would no doubt have taken me for a murderer who had just done away with his wife and children, and fled the building, leaving me to bleed to death.

Languages can definitely save lives, then, as Linguisticator has heard in previous interviews. What do you think has been the key to a successful career in journalism so far, though?

My experience points to something that even some journalists don't understand - that the posting of foreign correspondents has very little to do with their interest in, or experience of, a particular country or even their knowledge of the language. They are judged first and foremost on their reporting skills, then on their suitability for reporting the types of stories that are likely to crop up in that country and lastly, in most cases, on their knowledge of the local language. Provided a correspondent is known to be adept at picking up languages, then the fact that he or she does not speak that particular language will not be a big handicap.

That is a useful lesson for aspiring journalists indeed. Surely, though, a foreign correspondent who possesses a stronger sense of linguistic nuance when translating for his article definitely improves the fluidity and thus reader experience and understanding?

Yes, and to do this I try to imagine how an English speaker would express the same concept. Just to give one example, speakers of Italian and other Romance languages will say in a situation in which an English-speaker might say “I'm not worried” or “I'm not bothered” the equivalent of “I am serene”. So even though there is no grammatical or even lexicographical connection between these expressions, I always opt for the most natural equivalent in these situations as, to use this example, I think it makes the speaker look slightly ridiculous to use “serene” in that context when writing in English.

This is actually an important point to consider in discussing the concept of 'fluency'. How would you personally define it?

I think concepts of fluency vary from profession to profession. A lot of people would say it begins when you can speak without ever having to translate in your head. For a journalist, there comes a point where you can say whatever you need to say and understand more or less perfectly what is being said in the news, at a press conference and in an interview. That is when you know you are sufficiently in command of the language to operate confidently in it. It might fall short of fluency as construed by an interpreter. But it is good enough for the job in hand.

Is Italy your focal point for the distant future now?

I've changed my role of late and I now have the chance to range over a much wider area and write for a broader spread of outlets. Just in the last few months I've been working in California, the UK and Hungary (but, no, I don't speak Hungarian!). I was originally asked to go to Italy (by the Guardian in 1994) and I returned for entirely practical, professional reasons (though not in any way unwillingly). I haven't looked back since, though.

I'm looking forward to our next meeting in Rome, if you are not indeed roaming elsewhere at the time!

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