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Found in Translation

Arthur Goldhammer is America's finest bridge to French culture


In 1970, in the Vietnamese city of Cao Lanh, not far from the festering border with Cambodia, Corporal Arthur Goldhammer learned his first crucial lesson about the relationship between translation and reality. Trained in Vietnamese by the army, Goldhammer was tasked with translating reports from spies and interviewing Viet Cong defectors. As he collated these reports and stuck pins on a map to trace out supposed enemy troop movement both in Vietnam and Cambodia, Goldhammer concluded that much of what he was being told was “invented out of whole cloth” by cynical locals with no special loyalty to or love for the American mission. Goldhammer’s superiors were little interested in whether the reports were true or not. They were happy to take credit for engagements with fictitious foes. The folly of translating dubious reports was a microcosm for the larger absurdity of the war. 

Translators have to grapple not just with language but also the reality that stands behind words: that’s the lesson Goldhammer learned in Vietnam, one that he’s been able to apply under happier circumstances as a crucial cultural broker between France and the United States. “I’ve always thought of myself as a translator whose speciality is not only in language,” Goldhammer explained in a Skype conversation, his voice still parched and scraggy from a bout with cancer he survived in 2012.

Goldhammer is the major importer of French writing into the United States. Over the course of three decades, he has translated more than 100 books, some from classic authors like Alexis de Tocqueville, Emile Zola, and Albert Camus but many more from specialized scholarly like the historian Georges Duby, the literary theorist Julia Kristeva, or the classicist Giulia Sissa. Last year, Goldhammer has been in the news for his widely praised translation of Thomas Piketty’s surprise best-seller Capital in the 21st Century, which has sold more than 650,000 copies. 

More recently, he's been an invaluable guide to French politics and culture in the messy aftermath of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. In both his blog French Politics and his published articles, he's become an essential bridge between North America and France. Writing for Al Jazeera, for instance, he included Charlie Hebdo in "an old Parisian tradition of cheeky humor that respects nothing and no one. The French even have a word for it: 'gouaille.' Think of obscene images of Marie-Antoinette and other royals, of priests in flagrante delicto with nuns, of devils farting in the pope's face and Daumier’s caricatures of King Louis-Philippe, whom he portrayed in the shape of a pear." 

Many, including the author of Capital himself, are full of praise for Goldhammer’s lucid, elegant translation. “I cannot find the words to express how grateful I am to Art for the wonderful translation he has done,” Piketty told me in an email. “I made virtually zero change, this was just perfect immediately, and it reads so much nicer than everything I could ever have written with my bad english.”

David Bell, professor of French History at Princeton, writes, “Arthur Goldhammer is without a doubt the world's leading translator of French nonfiction into English. He is peerless. To a greater extent than any other translator, he combines a perfect, fluent, idiomatic command of French with a deep knowledge and appreciation of French culture and history, an impressive familiarity with the main currents of thought in the social sciences and humanities on both sides of the Atlantic, and, not least, a graceful writing style in English.”

As Goldhammer admits, his path to becoming a translator was a “checkered” one. Born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1946, the grandson of a doctor and son of an engineer, Goldhammer initially planned on following the family tradition of working in the sciences. He started studying at MIT at age 16, at first focusing on physics but increasingly tugged by the austere beauties of mathematics. “I had switched in my sophomore year from physics to math because I thought physics was too ‘messy’ and physicists took too many liberties with pristine mathematical logic,” he says.  

Evident even in his undergraduate days were the two threads that would dominate his life: Francophilia and a persistent tendency to flee from the academic imperative to specialize.

The 1960s were the golden age of Francophilia in America. In everything from student radicalism to sexual liberation, France was an older sister who always seemed two steps ahead of its Anglophone sibling Republic. In his philosophy courses Goldhammer encountered the existentialists and via New Wave filmmakers like Francois Truffaut he acquired “a yearning for a certain Gallic flavor in life, a kind of engaged insouciance that I didn’t find at home.”

In the summer of 1968, Goldhammer and a girlfriend travelled to Europe. Breathing the post-revolutionary élan of Paris in the aftermath of the May 1968 uprising deepened Goldhammer’s Francophilia. “I found the engagement of intellectuals in politics and the higher level of political debate compared with the U.S. to be quite exhilarating,” he says. 

The visit to France ended up sending Goldhammer to Vietnam. Since he travelled in Europe, the draft board decided he was no longer eligible for deferment as a graduate student. Goldhammer was already anti-war, but was unwilling to claim conscientious objector status or flee to Canada. “I didn’t want to serve, but I also felt that in a democracy it was wrong to use dishonest means to escape the draft, even if it meant serving in a war of which one disapproved,” he says, adding, “I no longer think this.”

Because of his proven language skills in French and his ability to play a musical instrument (Vietnamese is a tonal language) he received translator training. While in military training, Goldhammer joined the massive anti-war protest that rocked Washington, D.C. on November 15, 1969.

Vietnam, Goldhammer says, was where he “began to think politically” and also realize that “devotion to pure science…was an evasion of the messiness and illogicality of existence.” He started reading Marxist scholarship intensely. After his tour of duty, he received an Army Commendation Medal for his service, “mainly for my excellent grammar and typing skills.”

Given an early discharge to finish his graduate studies, he completed his PhD at MIT, writing a thesis on “Cobordism Operations in Topological, Piecewise Linear, and Differentiable Manifolds.” In the 1970s, he claims, differentiable manifolds were a fashionable subject. Despite this thesis and two years teaching Math at Brandeis, Goldhammer already decided that a professor’s life wasn’t for him. He wanted to write fiction and live in Paris. Translating scholarly works provided him with a niche that allowed him to pursue both his literary ambitions and his love for French culture.

From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, often while living in France and working as a translator, Goldhammer worked on a long novel called Shooting War, based on his Vietnam experiences and inflected with a Saul Bellow-esque sense of the inevitable clash between the luftmensch and the street smart. His inability to find a publisher for this novel is “the great disappointment” of Goldhammer’s life. After he was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, he decided to self-publish the book “in case I don’t survive and at least the text will be available.”

Translation always involves stylistic choices, ranging from extreme literalism to wild free-style improvisation. These decisions aren’t merely linguistic but invariably entangled in politics and philosophy. Literalism in translation is often favored by cultural conservatives trying to return to some irrecoverable primordial paradise: think of Vladimir Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin, the many translations done by the students of Leo Strauss, or Robert Alter’s rendition of The Pentateuch. In transposing Pushkin’s poem into an English syntax that mirrored as closely as possible the Russian original, Nabokov was surely trying to negate his exile from his homeland. An even more radical denial of history fuels Straussian translations, where a focus on the narrow dictionary-meaning of words and aversion to contextual explanation is upheld as the only way to be faithful to great philosophic texts.

Conversely, free-style adaptations—Christopher Logue’s “account” of The Iliad being a prime example—are showcases for a translator’s verbal prowess but unreliable as renderings of the original. 

As a translator, Goldhammer tries to find a pragmatic middle-ground between literalism and freestyle. The goal is to be faithful to the contents of a book but also find a style for it that works in English. For Goldhammer, Derrida’s famous adage “there is nothing outside the text” is of little use to a translator. To translate both non-fiction and novels, Goldhammer contends, “You need a familiarity with French culture. You need to do work that goes well beyond and outside the text to in order to translate inside the text. It’s part of my work as a translator to read up on a subject. When I take on a book in a new area of history in which I haven’t worked before I read other texts in both French and English that deal with a similar subject or subfield.” 

By this criteria, a good translator, someone fluent in different cultures and intellectual traditions as well as different languages, has to be a polymath as well as polyglot. As Ian Malcolm of Harvard University Press notes, “Translators working with complex ideas need an intellectual hinterland, and Art's is vast. He can move from translating a book in the heart of the humanities one day to translating advanced economics and mathematics the next, and with an equally deep understanding of text, context, and history‎. ‎It's not everyone who can write about modern art or Dionysus who has a PhD in mathematics from MIT.”

Malcolm describes Goldhammer’s range and depth of knowledge as “superhuman.” It is undeniable that Goldhammer is imposingly erudite, sometimes frighteningly so. Going over my emails over the last few years, I’ve found a note from him comparing the social theories of Karl Polanyi and Alexis de Tocqueville, a paragraph on how the phase “compositional effect” migrated from the physics of magnetism to the social sciences, a small disquisition on recent revisions in the scholarship of same-sex practices in Ancient Greece, among countless other recondite topics.

Given his polymathic range, has Goldhammer made the best use of his formidable brain-power by being a translator? He quotes the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, who once said that “translation has always been dog’s work—never well paid and seldom if ever bringing the translator any glory." Financially, translation has only made sense as a career because of Goldhammer’s marriage, in 1983, to Dr. Stephanie Engel, a psychiatrist.

“I became a translator because I wanted to have more control over my own time than the life of a professional mathematician or professional scholar would have permitted,” he says. “Sometimes people say ‘you’re a polymath’ but I say that’s the positive way of looking at it. The negative, I’m a dilettante and have never settled down to one thing. There are plusses and minuses. I would like better a world in which there are more people like me who are free to range across a number of areas. Perhaps we’d have more productive public discussions if there were people who had fairly advanced knowledge of more than one thing and we weren’t helpless in the face of specialists who say ‘this is the truth and you have to accept it because I know more than you do.’ The world as it is is not very tolerant of such people.”  

Perhaps describing Goldhammer as a translator, while accurate enough, is simply insufficient. In many ways, Goldhammer’s cultural services go well beyond translating. The case of Piketty is instructive. As George Ross, a professor at Brandeis University, notes, Goldhammer has been “in part responsible as impresario” for the Piketty phenomenon. I first became cognizant of Piketty a few months before the English translation was released, thanks to Goldhammer’s enthusiasm. Based on Goldhammer’s arguments for the importance of Capital in the 21st Century, I floated the idea of doing a “Piketty for the Complete Dummy” popularization. As it turned out, Piketty didn’t need such a sale’s pitch since he was capable of winning readers on his own. “I may have had some part in Piketty’s success because I talked the book up and brought it to the attention of a number of journalists,” Goldhammer admits. Behind the scenes, Goldhammer has been a daunting advocate on behalf of Piketty, challenging what he sees as misinterpretations of Capital

Goldhammer’s ad hoc work as a publicist for Piketty shouldn’t surprise us if we appreciate that any translation above the level of a crib involves a personal connection. It’s not an accident that Marguerite Yourcenar had the English translation of The Memoirs of Hadrian done by her lover Grace Frick or that Nabokov’s friendship with Edmund Wilson was shattered by arguments over the Pushkin translation.

“Translation is like forming any kind of human relationship.” Goldhammer notes. “When you meet a new person you think it might be a friend, you are still sometimes wary, you are not completely familiar with the kinds of exchange you are going to have with this person, so you are more cautious at the beginning. Caution is one of the things a translator has to overcome.”

This article has been updated.