Monday, July 30, 2007

Alice Kaplan - The Interpreter

The Interpreter. Most (if not all) of us are familiar with the movie starring Nicole Kidman. However, are you familiar with the book by the same name, also known by it's French title, L'Interprete, by Duke University history professor, Alice Kaplan?

If not, it may be of special interest. Kaplan is the author of French Lessons and The Collaborator and the translator of OK, Joe, all published by the University of Chicago Press. Her books have been twice nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Awards, once for the National Book Award, and she is a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Here is what the publisher had to say:

"One of the least-known stories of the American liberation of France, from 1944 to 1946, is also one of the ugliest and least understood chapters in the history of Jim Crow. The first man to grapple with this failure of justice was an eyewitness: the interpreter Louis Guilloux. Now, in The Interpreter, prize-winning author Alice Kaplan combines extraordinary research and brilliant writing to recover the story both as Guilloux first saw it, and as it still haunts us today.

When the Americans helped to free Brittany in the summer of 1944, they were determined to treat the French differently than had the Nazi occupiers of the previous four years. Crimes committed against the locals were not to be tolerated. General Patton issued an order that any accused criminals would be tried by court-martial and that severe sentences, including the death penalty, would be imposed for the crime of rape. Mostly represented among service troops, African Americans made up a small fraction of the Army. Yet they were tried for the majority of capital cases, and they were found guilty with devastating frequency: 55 of 70 men executed by the Army in Europe were African American -- or 79 percent, in an Army that was only 8.5 percent black.

Alice Kaplan's towering achievement in The Interpreter is to recall this outrage through a single, very human story. Louis Guilloux was one of France's most prominent novelists even before he was asked to act as an interpreter at a few courts-martial. Through his eyes, Kaplan narrates two mirror-image trials and introduces us to the men and women in the courtrooms. James Hendricks fired a shot through a door, after many drinks, and killed a man. George Whittington shot and killed a man in an open courtyard, after an argument and many drinks. Hendricks was black. Whittington was white. Both were court-martialed by the Army VIII Corps and tried in the same room, with some of the same officers participating. Yet the outcomes could not have been more different.

Guilloux instinctively liked the Americans with whom he worked, but he could not get over seeing African Americans condemned to hang, Hendricks among them, while whites went free. He wrote about what he had observed in his diary, and years later in a novel. Other witnesses have survived to talk to Kaplan in person."

You can read an excerpt from the book here. You can also listen to an interview about the book with the author, from NPR, here. Here are some other quotes from reviewers:

“A cross section of a tragedy.…This is an extraordinary book.”
John Lukacs, Boston Globe

“A nuanced historical account that resonates with today’s controversies over race and capital punishment.”
Publishers Weekly

“American racism could become deadly for black soldiers on the front. The Interpreter reminds us of this sad component of a heroic chapter in American military history.”
Los Angeles Times

“A brilliant account.… Inventive, moving, and beautifully written, this is a major contribution to investigative history. Highly recommended.”
Library Journal

“With elegance and lucidity, Kaplan revisits these two trials and reveals an appallingly separate and unequal wartime U.S. military justice system.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Kaplan has produced a compelling look at the racial disparities as they were played out.… She explores both cases in considerable and vivid detail.”
Sacramento Bee

In the case of this interpreter, through whose eyes Kaplan allows readers to see a unique perspective in history, the issues surrounding racial disparities were impossible to ignore. While this is an extreme example, as interpreters, we assist members of minority groups constantly as part of our daily work, and many of us are representatives of minority groups ourselves. I am sure that many interpreters will find relevance and parallels in the viewpoints offered in Kaplan's book.

So often, interpreters are portrayed using the dry and inaccurate "parrot analogy", without acknowledgment of the fact that interpreters are human beings, participants, in many ways, of the events and communication acts taking place, not just in our presence, but with our presence. Given the significance of what Guilloux experienced as an interpreter, I venture to say he would probably agree.

I came across a discussion guide for this book online, and it posed a very interesting question:

For French writer Louis Guilloux, being an interpreter was much more than just a wartime profession. What did serving as an interpreter mean to him, and how did he embrace this role both during the courts-martial and throughout his life?

This question is an interesting one to reflect upon, especially in the context of our project. What parallels are there between Guilloux's view about his work, what it meant to him, and the views we, present-day interpreters, hold of our own? I hope that some answers to this question will be revealed through the From Our Lips to Your Ears project. Certainly, Alice Kaplan has given us a banquet of food for thought.

Finally, I'm pleased to share that I've exchanged emails with Ms. Kaplan, and she has kindly offered to support the project by putting us in touch with some of the interpreters she's been in contact with in relation to the writing of The Interpreter.


Anonymous said...

I feel like I should get continuing ed points for reading your blog. ;-)

Shunra said...

Fascinating, thanks!

Nataly said...

Thanks, anonymous and shunra! I'm glad to know it's of interest.