Western Civilization in a Nutshell

Norman Berdichevsky

Review of the book El hombre razonable y otros ensayos by Joaquina Pires-O’Brien. Beccles, UK, KDP, 2016. Available at Amazon.com.

The announcement of the adoption of the new word ‘post-truth’ by the writers of the Oxford dictionary on 16 November 2016 came out days after the publication of an e-book in Portuguese called O homem razoável e outros ensaios, already translated into Spanish (El hombre razonable y otros ensayos) – a collection of 23 essays on some of the most defining, as well as, controversial aspects of Western Civilization. The timing of the two events shows that the author is indeed well attuned with Western Civilization and its hurdles. This is due to the fact that one of the essays of this book deals specifically with Post-Modernism, the doctrine or mind-set from where the word ‘post-truth’ originated. Besides Post-Modernism, this book covers other contemporary themes such as liberal education, the two cultures (the chasm between science and the arts and humanities) and 9/11 as well as some timeless themes such as utopia, love and man’s attachment to myth. The author, Jo Pires-O’Brien, a Brazilian resident in the U.K., is the editor in chief of PortVitoria, the on-line biannual magazine of current affairs, culture and politics centered on the Iberian culture and its diaspora, whose articles appear in Spanish, Portuguese and English.

The essay with the most difficult subject – in any language – is precisely the one that talks about post-modernism, described through its fascination with the concept of ‘narratives’; i.e. the plaything of many in the media – an attitude of scepticism or distrust towards ideologies, and various tenets of rational thought, including the existence of objective reality, truth, and the existing notions of progress. Instead, it asserts that knowledge and truth are the product of unique systems of social, historical, and political interpretation. The author’s preoccupation with the threat of post-modernism is not unwarranted. The term ‘post-truth’ adopted by the authors of the Oxford dictionary in 2016 captures the post-modernist idea that ‘there are no truths, only interpretations’. If there is no truth, science and other major elements of modern Western Civilization like its literary cannon are irrelevant.

The title of the book is taken from the first essay, which deals with a hypothetical ‘reasonable man’ that is enshrined in civil and contract law in Britain and the United States, although lacking a precise definition. Such ‘a reasonable man’ – without the definite article as in Spanish and Portuguese or ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ in British folklore, represents a person with common sense whose opinion is taken as the public opinion, and is valued in a number of particular instances such as how a person should behave in situations that might pose a threat (through action or inaction) to others. There is no need to establish a malicious intent and that this composite fictional character also is likely to commit ‘reasonable errors’ according to the circumstances and as such, is a matter of ethics. There is indeed much food for thought on how much our legal systems in the West, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon countries, are a function of a distinct tradition. One learns from the essay that the concept of the reasonable man goes back to antiquity, to the concept of phronesis or ‘practical wisdom’ of the ancient Greeks. To Socrates phronesis was the ability to discern how and why one should act virtuously, while Aristotle, and in the eve of the Modern Age, Spinoza, defined it as the capacity to think logically. The quality of a society depends on its human wealth, measured by the proportion of ‘reasonable citizens’. The theme of law reappears in another essay which deals with the crime of ‘affray’ – using or threatening to use unlawful violence towards another such that would cause a person of ‘reasonable firmness’ present at the scene to fear for their own personal safety. The etymology of the word ‘affray’ is explained showing that it goes back to a word in Proto-Germanic that has a Proto-Indo-European root.

Several essays are about influential thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Jacques Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Elias Canetti, Stefan Zweig and George Orwell. The essay entitled ‘The philosopher of liberty’ is about Hayek, notoriously out of favour among left-wing critics of the affluent modern societies and their economic policies. Hayek was one of the few who did not loose faith in capitalism in the aftermath of the Black Friday of November 1929. In The Road to Serfdom (1944), which turned out to be a best-seller, Hayek explained the misconceptions around the economic system of capitalism and highlighted the value of the freedom to use one’s enterprise and abilities to further oneself; most of all, he clarified that democracy is not an end value but only a means to achieve liberty. The Constitution of Liberty is another great book of Hayek, even though it was not a best-seller. Hayek was greatly admired by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who once took the book The Constitution of Liberty to a session in Parliament and banged on the dispatch box saying at the same time: “This is what we believe”. Another personality I single out is George Orwell (Eric Blair), author of 1984 and Down and Out in Paris and London, who is covered in two essays, one being a critical summary of Orwell`s life and the other describing the powerful metaphors of his book 1984.

The author’s past career in Brazil, as a research botanist with a PhD in forest ecology, is revealed in an essay about the ill-fated ‘Floram Project’, a reforestation programme. She based her account on the archives of the Institute for advanced studies of the University of Sao Paulo (IEA/USP) as well as on her personal memory. In this essay she shows how the Floram Project was conceived and the undeserved public maligning that caused the private sector investors to withdraw their support. The derailment of Project Floram is symptomatic of one of the major issues of our time – global warming. As Pires-O’Brien correctly concludes…’The project is an example of the constant debate between the reality and the ideal.’

One essay that is short and sharp deals with culture and cultural relativism, tracing the new meaning given to the word culture by some anthropologists and sociologists, and showing its connection to cultural relativism. The remainder essays deal with the great ideas that flourished in the West and helped to shape Western civilization – the Bible, paradise, utopia, life-long learning, love, a healthy mind in a healthy body and liberal education, as well as its current greatest challenges and threat: post-modernism and Islamic extremism. Although it is an eclectic collection of essays, there is a common denominator in the struggle of reason versus unreason.

Last but not least, the author tackles the Islamist extremism responsible for the 9/11 attacks and the use of jihad as the means to political power. This comes in the form of a series of Questions and Answers dealing not only with the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks but also with a number of relevant topics about the Islamic religion: fundamentalism, the history of the conspirators and their motivation, the nature of the Koran, the inter-Arab and inter-Muslim Sunni-Shi’ite rivalries, jihad, Wahhabism, Salafism, the Muslim brotherhood, the aspiration for a caliphate and the beliefs of the majority of ordinary Muslims who are not Islamists, as well as the failure, lack of cooperation and naïve assumptions of American intelligence agencies. All these things are explained with clarity and without exaggeration.

This is a book to read and reread to help put diverse but crucial ideas in order and perspective. As a reviewer whose first language is English and has a good reading knowledge of Spanish, I found the Spanish text eminently readable, clear, precise, light and both entertaining and informative. The style is of the kind that engages the reader’s attention and does not ‘wander’ or ‘plod’ as is frequently the case with similar narratives embracing two dozen diverse provocative themes that are nevertheless well connected.

To date, the book has appeared in Portuguese and in Spanish and there is a hint in the Preface that an English translation is not in the frame: “The repertory of the themes covered is already well known in the countries situated at the core of Western Civilization, but not in the countries of its fringe. The objective of the present collection is to contribute to correct this distortion”. Although this is probably true, I believe that even in the English language there is a gap in the literature for such a concise analysis showing the ideas that shaped Western Civilization and those which are a threat to it. It is my fervent hope that an English edition will soon fill this gap. This is a valuable book that should be required reading for entering university students in all the fields of history, philosophy, the social sciences and international relations


Dr Norman Berdichevsky is an American specialist in human geography with a strong interest in Hispanic and Portuguese cultures. He is the author of several books and numerous articles and essays. He is on the Board of Editors of PortVitoria.




No Mincing, No Newspeak

Review of the book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. Thinkers of the New Left, by Roger Scruton. London, Bloomsbury, 2015.

What is Left? What is Right? What is the New Left? These are some of the questions that Roger Scruton explores in his 2015 book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. This abrasive title undoubtedly relates to the author’s lifetime defiance of the New Left. In it, Scruton describes how New Left academics and other intellectuals empowered themselves by uniting against the common enemy of capitalism and its bourgeoisie, as well as by adopting an idiosyncratic language of its own, akin to the Newspeak in Orwell’s fictitious totalitarian society. Contrary to what the provocative title may suggest, Scruton’s treatment of the New Left is kinder than the treatment he received from its partisans, who cavorted to pin on him the slanderous label of ‘right-wing’. In his straight-forward style, with no mincing or Newspeak, Scruton dissects the irrationalism behind the New Left’s assault on all the things that makes society possible – property, custom, hierarchy, family, negotiation, government and institutions, showing that such assault has been carried out under the belief that it would lead to a society of perfect equality. He also highlights the unfairness of the New Left in comparing its imagined perfect society with real society.

Any outsider who happened to be familiar with British liberalism would be appalled to find out that Scruton’s 1985 book Thinkers of the New Left, his first attempt to pursue the subject, was withdrawn from the bookstores by the publisher due to the pressure received from the academic establishment. If this smacked of the heretic trials of the Ancien Regime, it is because New Left ideology then enjoyed a similar dogmatic status. However, New Left dogmatism ended three years later with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which triggered the process of disintegration of the old Soviet Union. Scruton links the two events when he states that he decided to rewrite his book in 1989, ‘when people began to realize that not everything said, thought or done in the name of socialism had been intellectually respectable or morally right’.

In a special chapter, Scruton examines how the New Left developed its ‘revolutionary consciousness’ that caused the culture wars of the 1980s. The process goes back to the 1960s, when disappearance of the real working class in Britain and in other parts of the Western world, created the perfect conditions for the New Left to emerge. First the intellectuals sought to be recognised as honorary members of the working class and then they started a revolution in their name, to be fought in the world of books. Here is how Scruton describes it:

“For the first time it was possible to observe the ‘revolutionary consciousness’ from close to, while running no risk of violence other than the violence of words. It was possible, in particular, to observe how quickly and adroitly the left-wing message was encased in dogma, how energetically the new revolutionaries went about the business of inventing spurious questions, barren controversies and arcane pedantries, with which to divert all intellectual inquiry away from the fundamental questions that had – from emotional necessity – been begged in their favour, including the question of revolution itself: what, exactly, is a revolution, and what good does it do?”

In describing the birth of the New Left in Britain, Scruton dwells in the idiosyncrasies of British society that facilitated the process, such as the British tradition of treating historians as leaders in the world of ideas and its unique tradition of social and literary criticism. He recalls changes in the British institutions of higher education as early as 1964, which, in his opinion, marked the transition from the Old Left to New Left. Scruton also describes the views of the most influential British socialists at that time, such as the Welsh writer and critic, Raymond Williams (1921-88), and the socialist historians who provided socialist accounts of the Industrial Revolution. Those changes marked the start of the intellectual revolution to take control of culture. In Great Britain, they were concentrated in the humanities departments, where the old set curriculum based on the objective standards of the Enlightenment was gradually replaced by a consensus-driven post-modern curriculum.

Scruton also describes the early days of the New Left in other countries. In Germany, the main drivers of the New Left were the professors and thinkers affiliated with the Institute for Social Research of the University of Frankfurt am Main. The Frankfurt School, as it is better known, pioneered the idea of ‘Marxist humanism’. Although it was closed in 1933 by the Nazis, just three years after it was founded by Max Horkeheimer (1895-1973), it survived through cooperation with universities in the United States, and resumed its operation in Frankfurt in 1951. In addition to Horkeheimer, the Frankfurt School included many big names of the New Left such as Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Erich Fromm (1900-80) and Theodor Adorno (1903-69). Scruton criticises the fact that the members of the Frankfurt School who were given the opportunity to continue their teaching careers in the United States did not pay back in kind. Horkeheimer and Adorno launched a relentless attack on the Enlightenment, claiming it was a product of bourgeois reasoning, while Marcuse denounced America’s ‘repressive tolerance’ and the ‘the totalitarian universe of technological rationality’. Jürgen Habermas (1929-), the surviving representative of the Frankfurt School, is let off the hook for having overcome its ‘stultifying agenda’.

Scruton’s appraisal of the New Left in the United States highlights the pragmatism of Richard Rorty (1931-2007) and Edward Said (1935-2003), encapsulated by a set of relativist ideas according to which ‘there is no point to the old ideas of objectivity and universal truth for all that matters is what is agreed.’ According to Scruton, both Rorty and Said inculcated doubt in the American mind and attempted to deprive the American cultural inheritance of the belief of its own legitimacy. Rorty came up with the idea of a new curriculum, a post-modern one, to replace the old curriculum, based on the Enlightenment. As for Said, Scruton states that he scorned and poisoned the way which the West portrayed the East but never considered the way which the East portrayed the West. Said’s attacks included not just the living scholars of the West but the entire Western scholarship, which Scruton presents as evidence of Said’s short sightedness. As it turned out, Said’s seminal book Orientalism was later shown to be the outcome of pseudo-scholarship, when Robert Irwing exposed its mistakes, oversights and downright lies. Scruton completes his criticism of Rorty and Said by showing some great examples of Orient Studies that came out of the Enlightenment, from Galland’s 1717 translation of the Thousand and One Nights, Goethe’s translation of the collection West-Östlicher Diwan (into German), and FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayan’s Rubaiyat. Scruton complements these with Sir William Jones dedication to preserving Persian and Arabic poetry and his pioneering study of Indian languages.

Scruton’s account of the New Left includes the building of its own brand, as distinct from that of the Old Left. He also points out two important things that the New Left preserved from the Old Left: the practice of creating cults around figureheads and the lingo. After recognizing the need for a figurehead that was exclusive to them, the theoreticians of the New Left chose Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian communist revolutionary who was imprisoned by the fascist government from 1926 until his death at age 46. There were two things that drove them to choose Gramsci over any other. The first was Gramsci’s idea of ‘revolutionary praxis’ with which he hoped to create a new and objective cultural hegemony which would replace the bourgeois culture. In a nutshell, Gramsci’s idea consisted of prioritizing ‘practice’ over ‘theory’ and it fitted well with the message the New Left wanted to convey. The second was the circumstances of Gramsci’s death in a fascist prison, a fact that gives credence to the political spectrum conceived by the New Left, where communism is located in one end and fascism the other. All the New Left had to do to make the cult around Gramsci stick was to exaggerate his credentials.

The existence of a political spectrum where the ‘Left’ end is the presumed realm of everything ‘intellectually respectable or morally right’ while the ‘Right’ end is presumed to be the realm of the opposite is a total nonsense, according to Scruton. In an attempt to throw some light on the topic, Scruton points out how the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ originated, in the early days of post-revolutionary France. When the prospect of changing France into a Constitutional Monarchy was being considered, the ‘Estates-General’, a body representing the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate), which had not met since 1614, was reconvened. In the Assembly of 1789, the representatives of the common people sat on the left of King Louis XVI while others sat on his right. This event marked the start of the association of the Left with the people and the Right with the elite. Since then, many gimmicks have been used to stretch the meaning of the Left to include anarchists, Marxists dogmatists, nihilists and American-style liberals, and to lump fascists, Nazis and economic liberals in the Right. Scruton closes his case by highlighting the common ground that unites communism and fascism:

“Communism, like fascism, involved the attempt to create a mass popular movement and a state bound together under the rule of a single party, in which there will be total cohesion around a common goal. It involved the elimination of opposition, by whatever means, and the replacement of ordered dispute between parties by clandestine ‘discussion’ within the single ruling elite. It involved taking control – ‘in the name of the people’ – of the means of communication and education, and instilling a principle of command throughout the economy.”

A special idiosyncratic language is the other thing that the New Left preserved from the Old Left. Scruton describes it as a “contemptuous Marxist lingo created to denounce, exhort and condemn”. He also tries to show the similarities between the New Left’s lingo and ‘Newspeak’, the official language of Oceania, in Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four. Scruton describes Newspeak as “a new fortified language created for the purpose of creating a ‘politics of truth’ to be used in the place of truth itself.” This lingo, according to Scruton, includes the Manichaean spin on words in order to mislead people to think that there are only two alternatives, as well as the manipulation of the meaning of certain words such as ‘capitalism’ and ‘bourgeoisie’. By presenting the word ‘capitalism’ as synonym of exploitation, the New Left gain an excuse to condemn free economies. By presenting the word ‘bourgeoisie’ as ‘a hegemonic propertied class that controls the means of production and therefore exploits the working class or proletariat’ the New Left justifies its call for class warfare. Scruton admits that many of the wrongs in British society identified by the New Left are true but he objects to the way that the New Left describes such wrongs, framing accusations in such a way that do not leave any room for defence either of the people described or of the system that contained them.

The central point that Scruton makes in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is that when the New Left juxtaposes its project against Western Civilization, it is not comparing like with like. Great Britain may have many faults but is a real society. Such is not the case of the ‘Kingdom of Ends’, a term Scruton uses to describe the society of perfect equality imagined by the New Left. He ends his book defending his position that Great Britain should remain as it is and pointing out that any improvements to it must come from within. They should be done through the improvement of civil societies, institutions and personality. By civil societies Scruton means the little platoons that exist across the land such as brass bands, study groups, choirs, cricket clubs, dances, holiday clubs, etc. As examples of institutions Scruton names professional organizations such as the Inns of Court, although these are also civil societies. By personality Scruton means the agency and the accountability of individuals as well as the institutions that include them. In spite of his dislike for the political spectrum terminology, Scruton describes what the so-called Right stands for:

‘The right rests its case in representation and law. It advocates autonomous institutions that mediate between the state and the citizen, and a civil society that grows from below without asking permission of its rulers. It sees government as in every matter accountable: not a thing but a person. Such a government is answerable to other persons: to the individual citizen, to the corporations, and to other governments. It is also answerable to the law. It has rights against individual citizens and also duties towards them: it is tutor and companion to civil society, the butt of our jokes and the occasional recipient of our anger. It stands to us in a human relation, and this relation is upheld and vindicated by the law, before which it comes as one person among others, on equal footing with those who are also subject to its sovereignty.’

‘Such a state can accommodate and bargain. It recognizes that it must respect persons not as means only, but as end in themselves. It tries not to liquidate the opposition but to accommodate it, and socialists too have a part to play in this process, provided they recognize that no change, not even change in their favoured direction, is or ought to be ‘irreversible’.’

Many of the ideas in Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands will be carefully considered by his admirers in Eastern Europe and in Latin America even though he wrote it thinking about Great Britain. Scruton wants to preserve Britain because he loves it and believes that it deserves to be preserved. He also thinks that should the New Left ideology ever become a reality, the result would be slavery. Scruton’s call to preserve society does not exclude micro-adjustments. However, before deciding which adjustments are needed people need to understand society’s two basic components, the state itself and civil society. Scruton’s view is that civil society should apply changes to the state and not the other way around. Therefore, all such changes should be from the bottom up, from changes within people. It is us who need to make a change of life that leads to self-knowledge, which in turn, would allow us to recognize that our happiness depends on wanting the right things, rather than the things that captures our attention or inspire our lust. These suggestions resonate with ideas often associated with the Left and also illustrate the nonsense of the political spectrum.

Scruton does not think that everything that the New Left thinkers wrote is wrong. In his appraisal of Gramsci, for instance, although he rated his work as ‘common sense sociology’ rather than a cutting edge philosophy, he recognised in him ‘a frankness that the more orthodox Marxists lacked’. To Scruton, Gramsci ‘was thwarted by the repudiation of the very idea of objectivity, and by the purely negative work of the comfortable professoriate in America’. Such view suggests that Scruton understood Gramsci better than those who pandered to him.

Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is the outcome of the author’s defiance against the New Left and the new order of things that the New Left sought to introduce in Britain. Scruton got a lot of grief as a result of this defiance and this could explain the streak of pessimism he reveals at the very end of this book, in the form of the questions left unanswered. If the professorship of the West’s top universities can be so mistaken, what hope can be for the rest of humanity? If the human species has a religious need that no amount of rational thought can overcome, would not that make all argument meaningless? If people are more prone to the abstract than to the concrete, is there a point is defending that which is merely real? These questions serves as food for thought for everyone who loves their country and wants to preserve it. Perhaps that was what Scruton had in mind when he asked them.


Jo Pires-O’Brien edits a digital magazine called PortVitoria, about the Iberian culture and its diaspora in the world.


Helen Kirby, reviser


Europe’s Iranian Connections

Review of the book Towards One World. Ancient Persia and the West, by Warwick Ball. London, East & West Publishing, 2010).

To Warwick Ball (WB), an Australian archaeologist specialising in ancient cultures, the contribution of Persia to Europe has been greatly overlooked and his book Towards One World aims to set the record straight. To WB, Europe created the fallacy of ‘Greek therefore European’ when it decided to single out Greek civilization to be its roots. This in turn originated the mistaken idea that the culture of the West is entirely western, as well as the disingenuous concept of West versus East.

One clarification that WB provides in the beginning of this book is about the names ‘Persia’ and ‘Iran’. Contrary to what many people think, the name ‘Iran’ is not a modern name for ‘Persia’ but the most correct name for that country. The explanation is simple. While the name ‘Persia’ is a Hellenised form of Fars or Pars, a southern province that borders the Persian Gulf, the name ‘Iran’ derives from ‘Eranshabar’, meaning ‘country of Iran’. In this book the name ‘Persia’ is used for this is how Iran was known in the ancient world.

WB depicts ancient Persia as a civilization that was not just mighty but wise as well. The wisdom of ancient Persia is implicit in the title of this book, a reference to the ancient Iranian idea of a single universal world that transcends political and ethnic boundaries. The West, of course, only came up with a similar idea – Universalism –, during the seventeen century Enlightenment. Another point that WB makes in this book is that although the Persian presence in Europe occurred in its fringes and lasted for a mere sixty years, Persia’s legacy to Europe is comparable to that of the Phoenicians, Arabs and Turks, who remained in Europe for several centuries.

Where exactly in Europe was Persia? What exactly constituted the Persian legacy to Europe?

Persia’s foothold in Europe was indeed small and short-lived. It happened when the Greek colony of Ionia and adjacent Greek lands on the west coast of Anatolia (present day Turkey) became part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. The latter was the empire created around 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great, from a coalition of Persian tribes united under the house of Achaemene, and was the largest empire of classical antiquity. It lasted until 331 BCE when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.

In order to understand where in Western culture one can find the Persian ideas one needs first to recognise the three main descriptors of the West: the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition, the Classical Greek philosophy, and the set of values formed around liberal democracy such as the concept of the ‘open society’. However, if one considers an open society to be one that is open to influence from abroad, then the ancient Persian culture was one. ‘The Persian Empire created an international world that allowed peoples, goods, ideas and artistic creativity to move on a scale much greater than the Silk Route’, says WB. During its presence in the Anatolian peninsula the Persians imposed a unity that not only outlasted its own empire but preserved the idea of a civilization that is capable of receiving and giving.

The Judaeo-Christian religious tradition of the West absorbed many concepts from Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion, including the ideas of a single universal creator, final judgement and paradise. As for classical Greek philosophy, the last descriptor of Western culture, it was valued by the Persians well before the West decided to rescue it from the dust bin of its history. Although it is commonly known that Europe recovered classical Greek philosophy from the Muslim Arabs, during the Renaissance, it was from the Persians that the latter got it. The story of how this happened is well-described in this book. It all began in 260 CE when Shāpūr I, Persian king of the Sasanian dynasty, after winning the Battle of Edessa (modern Urfa, in Turkey), took many Roman prisoners, including Emperor Valerian, and sent them to several newly founded cities in Persia, especially to Gundishapur (or Jundaisabur) in Susiana. Gundishapur was not only a centre of Greek learning which had received the teachers of the Academy of Athens after the latter was closed under the orders of the pope, but was also a centre for the translation of Greek texts into Syriac, a variation of Aramaic, the official language of the Persian Empire. As it happened, Syriac was also one of the first languages to evolve from the first alphabetic system that the ancient Phoenicians invented in the second millennium BCE. Arabic speaking Muslims took the classical Greek scripts from the Persians after Persia became islamized.

Another thing one gets from this book is that archaeology has come a long way since it emerged out of antiquarianism. If in its beginning archaeology used to run after history, nowadays it is history that runs behind archaeology, thanks to its new techniques and new ways of studying the relics of the past. In the past, the strong elements of classical Greek architecture mislead scholars to overlook other cultural elements used in conjunction to it, says WB. Although ancient Persia borrowed the Greek architecture, it often combined it with elements from other cultures. One example he cites is the tomb of Mausolus, a local governor or satrap in Anatolia, a province of the Persian Empire, in Halicarnassus (today’s Bodrum, Turkey), considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. For many years its style was considered to be purely Greek; nowadays it is recognised that it also had the funerary tradition of Anatolia.

Ancient Persia not only left a long lasting influence in Europe but in Asia as well. The greatest influence of Persia worldwide is linked to its practical decision to adopt Syrio-Aramaic, then a global language, as the official language of its Empire instead of Persian. As a result of that, related languages of Central Asia such as Bactrian, Kharosshtiand and Soghdian, survived well into the first millennium AD. Also, in the ninth century the Uighurs adopted the Soghdian-Aramaic script to create a written form of Turkish. Last but not least is the written Mongolian language that Gengis Khan commissioned to the Uigur scholars, which survives until today, although its script was changed to the Cyrillic in the 1920s.

As already mentioned, WB is a fierce critic of the concept ‘West versus East’ which to him is a stereotype that stands on the way of good relations between countries. One example of that is the use of the phrase ‘West versus East’ to explain the terrorism committed under the aegis of the Islamic jihad. WB shows that the West has a shared responsibility since the Islamic jihad was created as a counter-offensive to the Holy War of the Crusades, a concept formulated in 622 by Heraclius, emperor of the Roman Empire in Byzantium (610-641), when he introduced the idea that killing was an act of sacred piety that the almighty himself approved. From the ISIS insurgency to Iran’s nuclear programme and the surge of Syrian refugees in Europe, many of the problems of the twenty-first century are linked to the ‘West versus East’ stereotype. To WB, putting such stereotyping aside is one step towards finding the best course of action to tackle such problems, as it would facilitate the involved parties talking to each another.

The book Towards One World puts forward the message that Persian culture not only permeated into the Hellenistic and the Roman societies but also left its mark in its religion and political ethos and organization. This book also puts right an array of historical bias and misconceptions about the relation between Persia and Europe. The book is aimed at Europeans, in the first instance, but there is a faint suggestion that perhaps English-speaking Iranians would welcome it too, in the following sayings: (i) Ancient Persia was once a highly tolerant and pluralistic society; (ii) Persian civilisation survived the investiture of Islam; and (iii) the new Persia that emerged was different from the old one.

One question that WB implies is: how much of the values of ancient Persia are still latent in the minds of the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran that exists since 1979?

Although WB’s book is academic but due to the clarity of the author’s ideas and the didactic and beautiful illustrations it is also amenable to the lay reader. WB’s views are balanced and they can be taken as a contribution to the process of finding a peaceful solution to the problems affecting both the West and Iran. Although there is no easy answer, at least this book points in the right direction. It ends with a poem by the thirteen century Persian poet Sadi inscribed over the entrance of the United Nations building in New York:

The sons of Adam are limbs of each other,

Having been created of one essence.

When the calamity of time affects the limb

The other limb cannot remain at rest.

If though hast no sympathy for the troubles of others

Though art unworthy to be called by the name of a human.

Sadi, Gulistan, Book I x (ca. 1259)


Jo Pires-O’Brien is a Brazilian living in England. She is the editor of PortVitoria, an digital magazine about the Iberian culture for speakers of Portuguese and Spanish.


Revision: Carl O’Brien


WARWICK BALL. Towards One World. Ancient Persia and the West. London, East & West Publishing, 2012. Review by: PIRES-O’BRIEN, J. Europe’s Iranian Connections. PortVitoria, UK, v.12, Jan-Jun, 2016. ISSN 2044-8236, http://www.portvitoria.com/archive.html.


A Portuguese version of this review is available in PortVitoria magazine:


The Turks in Europe

Review of the book Sultans of Rome. The Turkish World Expansion, by Warwick Ball. London, East & West Publishing, 2012).

To Warwick Ball (WB), an Australian archaeologist with a large field experience in the ancient cultures, there is no pure Western and Eastern cultures. There are plenty of archaeological evidence of the intercultural exchange between Western and Eastern cultures that resulted from their incursions into each other’s territory. WB accepts the fact that ‘every culture looks at history in relation to itself’. However, he thinks that the concept of ‘West versus East’ is wrong, and that it prevents Europe from recognising the Eastern elements in its culture. Sultans of Rome is about the Turks in Europe. It is the third book in a series of four entitled ‘Asia in Europe and the Making of the West’, by East & West Publishing. Its title is taken from a citation of the Seljuk Turks after their victory against the Byzantine army of Emperor Romanes IV in Manzikert in 1071, when they declared to be the new sultans of ‘Rum’, meaning ‘land of the Romans’. The other three books in the aforementioned series deal with the Phoenicians and Arabs (volume 1), Persians (volume 2) and the peoples from the Eurasian Steppe collectively referred to as the Scythians (volume 4).

Perhaps because they were the latest arrival in Europe, or perhaps because they followed a new religion that threatened Christianity, or both, the Turks attracted a great deal of bad publicity in Europe comparatively to other eastern peoples who settled there. The classical example is the portrayal of the Ottomans who sieged Vienna in 1683 as uncouth and barbaric Asians. However, they had been in Europe for over one thousand years, and therefore their invasion was no different than that of the Romans and the Normans. Another example WB cites is more recent. It is the European Union’s reluctance to admit the Republic of Turkey as a member. WB argues that the main reason why Turkey has not been allowed as an EU member is the ongoing tensions between Europe and the Muslims, which is an invalid justification given that secularism is one of the most ‘sacred’ pillars of the EU.

WB starts his discussion about the Turks in Europe by first asking the questions ‘what is Europe?’ and ‘what is a Turk?’ It may come as a surprise to many readers to learn that the population of modern Turkey do not identify themselves as Turks, at least in the ethnic sense, referring themselves as Anatolians. WB cites similar behaviour in other countries. The population of Bulgaria call itself Slav, even though the country itself is named after the Bulgars, a Turk tribe. Another example is the inhabitants of an area in the mid-Volga river which was inhabited by a group of Turks that remained there, and whose current day inhabitants identify themselves as Tatars. WB cites the social anthropologist Fredrik Barth, who stated that ‘group identity is no more than a momentary convenience’, which to him is quite alright as it takes into consideration that people may have more than one identity.

This book is quite academic but its illustrations, consisting of eight maps and 98 colour plates, make it accessible to the lay reader. The plates are useful to capture one’s imagination regarding who the Turks were. The maps help to understand the Turks’ migration routes. Map 1 shows where in the world Turkish is spoken – not only in Turkey but also in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. However, WB shows in the book that there are significant minorities of Turks in China, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Ukraine. Map 2 shows the area of the world that in 2011 was served by the Turkish Airlines. Map 3 delineates the First and the Second Turkish empires, as well as the boundaries of the Sassanid Empire, the last Persian Empire before the Turkish-Muslim conquest. Map 4 depicts the boundaries of the Ghaznavid Empire and the Karakhanid Empire. The Ghaznavid Empire was one of the most important of the Middle Ages and the first to bring Islam into India in a substantial scale. The Karakhanid was the original Empire (Kaghnate) and it was later subdivided into Western and Eastern branches. The Karakhanids are especially noted for establishing a written form of Turkish in the eleventh century. Map 5 shows the Seljuk Empire, in Anatolia and Iran, occupying a similar area to the former Persian Achaemenid Empire. Map 6 shows the territories occupied by the Seljuk in Anatolia in 1086 and 1243. Map 7 shows the distribution of the Turkish in the world, including their three great empires: the Ottoman (Anatolia, Northern Africa, Israel, Lebanon Syria and Iraq), the Safavid (Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan) and the Moghul (India). Map 8 shows the Ottoman Empire at its height, occupying the entire Balkans – a region that takes its name from the Balkan Mountains in Southeast Europe, stretching from the east of Serbia to the Black Sea at the east of Bulgaria, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia –, the European part of Turkey as well as Northern Africa, Israel & Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Northern Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.

Although it is common to hear references to a Turkish language, in reality there are several Turkish languages. They are classified as one of the three branches of the Altaic language group, alongside Mongolian and Manchu-Tungus. Although they first gained a written form in the eighth century in Mongolia, based on the Arabic script, written Turkish was only established later in the eleventh century. Eventually, nearly all Turkish-speaking countries switched to the Latin alphabet. One exception is the Uighurs, one of China’s Turkish minorities, who still use the Arabic script.

Before their islamization, the Turks in China, Mongolia and in the Eurasian steppe toyed with several ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and even Nestorian Christianism. At some point they embraced Buddhism and made it their official religion, although Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion in the normal sense. Europe encountered the Turks after their islamization, under duress, which took place after the internationalization of Islam, right after the Abbasid Revolution of 750, when the caliphate was moved from Damascus to Baghdad. In the year 824 the Arabs penetrated into the Oghuz steppe country (Kazakhstan) and captured some two thousand Turks, which they offered as slaves to the Caliph al-Mutawakkil. These slaves were the first Turks to enter Iraq. A Turkish slave trade was established through which Turkish children were systematically taken into slavery. One interesting parallel that WB makes is with the European metaphor of the ‘noble savage’. When the Turks were first shown to the Arabs they were seen as both beautiful and barbaric, just as the New World Indians were perceived in Western Europe some one thousand years later.

The Turk slaves in the Middle East and Northern Africa were known as Ghulams or Mamluks. They distinguished themselves as warriors, and were put to serve in Muslim armies in special mercenary slave units. Due to their fighting superiority and their detachment from local tribes, they rose in the Middle Eastern society to become the main power in the Muslim caliphate system. The Islamic world gradually became Turkish. After they assassinated the Caliph Al-Mutawarrkil in 861 the Turks themselves became caliphs.

About the ethnic ancestry of the Turks, WB explains that what is known was compiled by the Chinese, and that as it is also the case of other early histories, there is much speculation in the history of the early Turks. They entered China and Inner Mongolia in the late third century CE as part of an alliance of steppe tribes. Its leaders founded the Northern Wei Dynasty in China in 386, centred in Pingcheng, modern Tatung. From China and Inner Mongolia the Turks moved into the Mongolia’s borderlands and southern Siberia, and eventually reached the Eurasian steppe where they became one of the dominant groups. In 552 the Confederacy of Turks in China was defeated, and the Turks forced to move to the Mongolian steppes, where they formed their first Empire, known as ‘Kaganate’, with Bumin as their first Emperor or ‘Kagan’. Bumin, was succeeded by his two sons Muhan (553-72), who ruled the eastern half in Mongolia, and Ishtemi (553-?) who ruled the western half, in present Khazakstan. Their elite cavalry, known as ‘wolves’, had metal armour, and that was one of the reasons for their success. Ishtemi became known as the ruler who overthrew the Hephthalite Empire (a steppe people related to the Huns) of Central Asia and Indian Borderlands. He was also the first Turk to make diplomatic contact with the Constantinople, sending an envoy in 563 to propose an alliance aimed at combating their mutual enemy, the Sasanian Empire of Iran, as well as the Avars (descendants of a dissent Turk group, the Juan-Juan).

In early seventh century a conflict emerged between the Western and the Eastern Turkish Empires. The latter eventually collapsed and its people got absorbed by Chinese groups. By 616/617 the Western Turk Empire penetrated deep into the Persian Sassanian Empire, which occupied roughly the same territory as the Persian Achaemenid Empire that preceded it. In 619 the Western Turkish Empire made further conquests, incorporating the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang Province of China), Ferghana (eastern Uzbekistan), Bactria (a province of the Persian empire located in modern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), as well as parts of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, reaching the Indus in 625. Following the death of the ruler T’ung Yabgu in 630, the Western Turkish Empire began to disintegrate. A second Turkish Empire was formed and eventually collapsed.

The main Turkish power that emerged among the others was the Seljuks. They began to move westwards into the lands they referred to by the Arabic word ‘Rum’, meaning ‘land of the Romans’: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Anatolia. In 1071 the Seljuks defeated the army of the Byzantine emperor Romanes IV in Manzikert, when they proclaimed themselves to be the ‘Sultans of Rome’. However, the Seljuks at that time were not interested in extending their conquest to Anatolia. With the passing of time the Seljuks intermarried with the families of native Anatolians, of both Roman and Greek extraction. As WB pointed out, ‘the Byzantine defeat was more symbolic than actual: more destruction to the Byzantine property and lives resulted from the civil war after the Manzikiert defeat than from Manzikert itself’.

The Seljuks were already in decline when another Turk group emerged: the Ottomans, whose name comes from Osman or Otman (Uthman, in Arabic), its first leader. In 1453 the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and their victory marked the end of the Eastern Roman Empire. According to WB the European history books have disseminated many incorrect notions about the Ottomans which he hopes to put right. Some examples he cites are: (i) stating that the Turkish capture of Constantinople was an Asiatic conquest, (ii) the description of the Ottomans as hordes from the Asian steppes, and (iii) the portrayal of the Ottomans as enemies of Christianity. As WB pointed out, the Ottomans were Muslims and their expansion was aggressive and even brutal, but they had a highly developed culture and were tolerant of Christianity.

Under the Sultan Selim the first, the new Ottoman Empire settled in Anatolia, from where they incorporated Syria and Egypt. After defeating Persia, Sultan Selim I added to his Empire all of Arab Near East (the Arabic culture). After entering Cairo in 1517, Sultan Selim I added to his title that of Caliph. He was succeeded by his son, Suleiman the Magnificent, who reigned from 1520 until 1566. Suleiman’s reign is considered to be the zenith of the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople carried on as a world capital of culture and even had a Renaissance of its own.

As pointed out by WB, the Ottomans left a huge cultural footprint in the areas they occupied. Their system of devsirme, which involved taking young boys from their families in order to educate them for the service of the Sultan, is considered the first meritocracy of Europe. Another Ottoman institution, the kulliye, combined the religious and the secular, serving as places of learning, libraries, asylums and kitchens for feeding the poor.

WB proceeds to put right another misconception about the Ottomans regarding the role of women in their society, namely their lack of liberty and rights. He points out that although polygamy is condoned by Muslim law, only some five percent of all their marriages were polygamous in the eighteen century, while the segregation of women was no different than that of the rest of Europe in the same period. Another misconception about the Ottomans that WB dispels is the belief that their defeat in the Battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571, against a coalition formed by Spain, Venice, Genoa and the Knights of Malta, marked the start of their decline. This misconception is attributed to Miguel de Cervantes, the Hispanic author of Don Quixote, who fought in Lepanto. However, Lepanto changed very little for the Ottomans and did not stop their expansion.

The Ottoman Empire was the peak of Turkish achievement and lasted for over six centuries until it was dissolved in 1923. It began to decline after it was defeated in the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78. As a result of this conflict the Ottoman Empire lost one third of its territory and Christians became the largest segment of its population. WB tries to clear the Ottomans from the accusation of perpetrating the massacre of the Armenian population in their lands just before their empire collapsed. He suggested that the responsibility for the massacre may lie elsewhere since both Greeks and Armenians survived in Anatolia under the Ottoman rule.

In this book WB dispels some significant misunderstandings regarding the Turks. He shows that the Turks who settled in Turkey started their march westwards one thousand years before 1453, the year they conquered Constantinople for the second time. Therefore, the Turks who sieged Vienna in 1683, were not barbarians but a people already established in Europe. WB also shows that present day Turkey was the stage of a great number of civilizations including not only the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans but some of the world’s oldest civilizations. Turkey has the world’s greatest concentration of archaeological sites and its wealth of Classical Greek and Roman architectural remains is unmatched by any neighbouring country. One final thread in this book is in a question left unanswered. If Europe got wrong so many facts about the ancient Turks couldn’t it also be wrong about the Republic of Turkey?


Jo Pires-O’Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, an electronic cultural magazine for Luso-Hispanophones.



Revision: Carl O’Brien



WARWICK BALL. Sultans of Rome. The Turkish World Expansion. London, East & West Publishing, 2012. Review by: PIRES-O’BRIEN, J. The Turks in Europe. PortVitoria, UK, v.12, Jan-Jun, 2016. ISSN 2044-8236, http://www.portvitoria.com/archive.html.



A Portuguese version of this review is available in the PortVitoria magazine:



Book Review. The Meaning of Human Existence, by Edward O Wilson. 2014. Liveright Publishing, New York, 207pp. ISBN 978-0-87140-100-7.

I became acquainted with Edward O Wilson’s research back in the seventies, firstly as an undergraduate in Central Washington State College and then as a masters student at Oregon State University. Although Wilson is a zoologist and I was studying botany, his 1975 book Sociobiology made a big impression on me, as did his many research papers on the geographical distribution of insect species. Back in Brazil, Wilson’s Sociobiology stood out in my bookcase and it probably caught a few eyes, for I remember an instance when a zoologist from my institution asked me if I sided with Wilson or Gould (Steven Jay) in the ongoing polemic on how natural selection worked. After moving to England in 1995 I found myself with time to read and I was able to catch-up with the polemic and developments including Wilson’s other books likeOn Human Nature (1978) and Consilience (1998).

Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence is a concise text that claims to have the answer to the biggest question humanity has ever asked. It consists of fifteen short essays grouped into five chapters that do not seamlessly flow from one to another but require the reader to fill in the dots. I recognised several topics of the book that had already appeared elsewhere as acknowledged by Wilson himself, especially his own theory of multilevel selection that resulted from his observations of ants and other social animals. This book is a sweeping account with the obvious agenda of nature conservation. It is indeed astonishing that with so few words Wilson has managed to scan such a vast territory covering the origin of life on earth, the development of man and society, the Enlightenment, the twentieth century specializations, the two cultures, biodiversity, social animals and his own theory of multilevel selection.

In the first essay Wilson explores the connotation of the word ‘meaning’ used in the title. Although in its ordinary usage the word ‘meaning’ implies intention, which implies design and a designer, he used the word ‘meaning’ in the sense of the organic evolution of the adaptations that characterize man. He explains that random events led to such adaptations and that each event alters the probability of later ones. He also explains that meaning can be conscious or unconscious and that the representations that the human brain constructs are examples of conscious ‘meaning’. As an example of unconscious ‘meaning’ Wilson cites the meaning ‘to catch a fly’ of a spider’s web: the spider may not be conscious of this ‘meaning’ but it is still a valid one. He continues to explain that the evolution of the human brain followed the same regimen as the spider’s web, but once evolved, it created consciousness which gave an intentional sense to meaning. Finally, Wilson underlines what this book is about; that the meaning of human existence involves knowing how and why intentional sense came to exist, how it made us the way we are, and how it can help us to save the environment around us so that we can continue to exist.

In the second essay (a modification of a piece that appeared in The New York Times Opinionator, February 2013), Wilson argues about the best perspectives to solve ‘the riddle of man’. Evolution and our inner conflict is the title of the third essay, a snapshot of man showing the good and the bad. Wilson then goes on to explain that social evolution, including the evolution of high levels of cooperation, happened in many species of animals and not just in man. He also explains that natural selection works through pressure and that human beings are constantly under the pressure of conflict. He cites as an example the different measures individuals use to evaluate themselves and others. Wilson provides a personal example in the two ways he perceived the value of the Pulitzer prize: as a minor achievement when his colleague Carl Sagan won it for non-fiction in 1978, but as a huge accolade when he himself received the award the following year.

Wilson goes on to say that neurobiologists have connected human traits such as devotion to music to the release of dopamine within the brain’s striatum and that from this it can be inferred that devotion to music was been hardwired in the human brain through evolution. Having established the existence of a genetic connection to man’s devotion to music, neurobiologists asked if the same connection couldn’t also explain other human traits such as tribalism, devotion to religion and the yearning for spirituality. These are interlinked and ‘the instinctual force of tribalism in the genes of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality’. This plus the realization that the great religions have caused constant and unnecessary suffering to mankind makes the study of religion a priority in neuroscience research. That would include the readiness to accept dogmas, myths and absurdities, and the unreadiness to accept that some problems can never be solved. Mapping the human brain is a task that Darwin considered impossible but which is now becoming a reality. Gradually, other natural phenomena in man are being uncovered, causing various supernatural explanations of cause and effect to recede.

Wilson explains that philosophy related disciplines traditionally attempted to study human condition in order to answer the question of where we come from. However, the latter have only been able to answer ‘what’ type questions for in order to find answers to ‘why’ type questions we need science. In other words, only science has the key to explain why we possess our special nature – listing the five scientific disciplines that hold the answer: evolutionary biology, palaeontology-archaeology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence and robotics.

In the fourth essay entitled The New Enlightenment, Wilson states that we should embrace the Enlightenment’s idea of the cosmos as a space-time continuum that ranges from the microscopic to the macroscopic. Carrying on with his narrative Wilson explains that in order to attain the measure of the dimensions of the real cosmos we must explore a multitude of continua. Wilson also defends liberal education, although he prescribes that it must have the relation between science and the humanities at its core. He also suggests that liberal education and creative thought are connected: ‘the early stages of creative thought do not arise from jigsaw puzzles’ specialization’ and that ‘the most successful scientist thinks like a poet – wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical – and works like a bookkeeper’. Another main subject of this essay is biodiversity. Given that thousands of new species are discovered every year, the total number of species on earth is likely to be much larger than the two million known species of plants, animals, fungi and microbes. In the fifth essay Wilson underlines two special roles for the humanities: providing a view of cultural evolution ‘from the outside looking in’ and as critics of the growing number of social dilemma.

Discovering how instinctive social behaviour evolved is treated in the sixth essay. In it, Wilson explains his own theory and that of his opponents. He explain that his theory of social organization stems from the theory of population genetics developed in the 1920s and the synthesis of evolutionary theory developed in the 1930s. It is based on these three principles: (i) that the gene is the unit of heredity, (ii) the gene normally acts as part of a network, and (iii) the trait prescribed by the gene is the target of natural selection. At the heart of the contention in Wilson’s theory is the so-called ‘group selection’. To quote:

‘A gene for a trait that affects a group member’s longevity and reproduction relative to other members in the same group is said to be subject to individual-level natural selection. A gene for a trait entailing cooperation and other forces of interaction with fellow group members may or may not be subject to individual-level selection.’ … ‘Because groups compete with other groups, in both conflict and their relative efficiency in resource extraction, their differing traits are subject to natural selection. In particular, the genes prescribing interactive (hence social) traits are subject to group-level selection’.

Wilson also describes the competing theory which is named ‘inclusive fitness’:

‘The theory of inclusive fitness’ … ‘treats the individual group member, not its individual genes, as the unit of selection. Social evolution arises from the sum of all the interactions of the individual with each of the other group members in turn, multiplied by the degree of hereditary kingship between each pair. All the effects of this multiplicity of interactions on the individual, both positive and negative, make up its inclusive fitness’.

Recapping, Wilson’s ‘multilevel selection’ theory operates both at the individual level and at group level, while the opposing ‘inclusive fitness’ theory considers the individual rather than the gene as the unit of selection and rejects group selection altogether. In 2010 Wilson and two mathematical modellers published a report in Nature stating that the inclusive fitness theory was unsound. Wilson discloses in this book that some 137 biologists signed a protest in Nature against his report and restates his case countercharging that no one has refuted the mathematical analysis in it. The report in question marked the start of the animosity between Wilson and Richard Dawkins, which I find to be counter productive as well as distasteful for two eminent scientists. After all, mathematical models are simply representations of reality which may not be proved or refuted. Wilson uses the Appendix to continue to argue against the ‘inclusive fitness’ theory of the late Steven Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and Richard Dawkins.

Wilson is a scientist and a polymath with an exceptional capacity to cross effortlessly into the arts & humanities. When he published Sociobiology and On Human Nature he was heavily criticised by social scientists for trespassing into their territory. However, with The Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson went much further, taking on philosophy together with the entire realm of science and the arts and humanities. He claims to have done it in the belief that solving our existential problem will set us free to focus on the future. Even when done by a world-renowned scientist a claim of this magnitude should sound alarm bells. I have no problem with this book’s agenda to save the planet as we are all responsible to preserve our planet and its biodiversity. The agenda I am worried about is the one that is not explicit, regarding ‘how the planet should be saved’. Is Wilson making the case for a religion of environmentalism, a scientist king, or perhaps both?

Jo Pires-O’Brien is a translator and editor of PortVitoria, an electronic cultural magazine for Portuguese and Spanish speakers. She is a former botanist and an environmental consultant (www.portvitoria.com).

Independent Transcreators: A Worthy Alternative for Advertising Agencies

Translation in the area of marketing and advertising is different from ordinary translation because it may involve changing both the words and the implicit meanings of the original copy, whilst maintaining the attitude and desired persuasive effect. This is why the translation of copywriting into another language is known as transcreation. A good transcreator must have the capacity to understand a brand and a brand’s voice, and to communicate the message through a subtle use of cultural metaphors. In other words, a good transcreator must be a reader, a thinker and a writer.
When a translation agency contact me about my availability to carry out a translation in marketing or advertising, I try to ascertain whether there is any remuneration for this type of translation. If the answer is no and the job’s word count is small, I normally turn it down, for I know how time consuming a short text in marketing and advertising can be. I bet that most experienced translators do the same.
It is part of a company’s strategy to keep their costs down but it is a dangerous strategy to save money at the expense of quality. A translation agency that fails to differentiate between ordinary translation and transcreation is compromising on quality. If by chance such a translation agency manages to recruit a good translator who is willing to receive ordinary remuneration to do transcreation, chances are that the translator will eventually feel resentment and quit the project. A business to business deal between an advertising company and an uncompromising translation agency is doomed to fail.
The advertising agencies who need to have their copywriting translated from English into another language should hire freelance translators directly. Those that are UK-based can find a list of translators in the websites of the two main professional translators’ organizations: the Chartered Institute of Linguistics (http://www.iol.org.uk/) and the Institute of Translators and Interpreters (http://www.iti.org.uk/). These sites are only a starting point. There are plenty of good translators available, including some with the right competence to appreciate the apparent simplicity and the subtlety of copywriting. The direct sourcing of translations with the translators themselves could prove cheaper to the advertising agencies in the long term even if they pay a premium for the higher level of difficulty that the translation of copywriting entails. I am sure that the translators contracted would be happy to receive a fair remuneration for their special job, and this would be an incentive for them to give their best every time in order to secure future business. A partnership between an Advertising Company and a Language Service Provider has all it takes to be a win-win situation.

Jo Pires-O’Brien is a Brazilian-born Portuguese translator based in the UK. She is also the editor of PortVitoria, a trilingual biannual magazine aimed at speakers of Portuguese and Spanish worldwide: http://www.portvitoria.com/Issue%20VIII/index.html