Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Finding Voices

Translating Voices of the Holocaust: an archive of interviews from 1946

The effects of unemployment on the individual are not purely financial. As a self-employed translator and interpreter, I suffer regular bouts of angst brought on by periodic telephone silence and an inactive Inbox: the erosion of self-esteem, self-doubt that wakes me up in the night, not knowing my next source of income. Freelancing is not for the faint of heart. From the beginning of one assignment to its completion and the search for the next one, the freelancer must constantly reinvent herself. “I should have gone into teaching…” My parents were lifetime educators and retired with wonderful pensions and medical benefits. Of course, they hated their jobs. And when I initially sought professional applications for my linguistic passion, it seemed pointless to learn French as an American to teach it to other Americans. Such a closed loop physically and emotionally excluded connection with the very language and culture that seduced me. I wanted to become French and use my language skills out there in the world.

Just when desperation leads me to start filling out an application to stand behind a cash register at Trader Joe’s, my Guardian Angel (more about him in future posts) steps up and sends me a translation or interpreting job that reaffirms my place in the world. I am intended to be a communication tool.

I had a call from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Somewhere in a library basement, a box of spools of wire was found and identified as voice recordings predating taped recording devices. IIT had developed a portable recording machine for Dr. David Boder, psychologist, whose goal was to travel across Europe immediately following WWII and interview survivors of the holocaust. The interviews were conducted in the various languages of the survivors and so some existed in native French.

I experience anguish over the translation quotation process, putting a price on my work. Besides the idea of assigning a dollar value to my individual skill, I also realize that most people I bump into in the supermarket or who live on my block will never require the use of a translator and would be shocked at what we charge. A translator or interpreter is a specialist called in to repair a situation. But are we like lawyers and orthopedists, called upon for the once-in-a-lifetime break of a law or a limb or a marriage, or the woman behind the counter in my local post office who transitions seamlessly from English to Spanish? I am humbled by easy neighborhood bilingualism. Then again, when I read the laughable instructions on the back of a box of detergent destined for French-speaking Canada, I realize that not everyone can render perfect prose in two languages. And so pricing my services is a battle between the extremes of hubris and humility.

And then there are rewards that go beyond all material gain.

Sitting in my basement office, in the isolation of my headset, I must first transcribe the audio files sent to me by IIT. Dr. Boder’s voice is kindly, professorial, with a marvelous Eastern European accent. I cannot “see” the interview, but in my mind, a slender dark-haired boy with polite manners sits across from the good Doctor. The boy’s voice has not yet changed, and as the interview takes place in the South of France, he is probably wearing shorts, and sits on this sofa with his ankles crossed and his mother at his side. “That’s a very nice English,” Dr. Boder encourages him. But the interview quickly slips into French and the sweet angelic voice of the boy reaches into my maternal heart.

He pronounces his name: Jean Kahn. Only after hearing all the audio files entrusted to me do I piece together the importance of this boy’s family. His father is Admiral Kahn, of the French navy. His mother is Marcelle Kahn, but introduces herself as Marcelle Schrameck, using her maiden name which identifies her as the daughter of Abraham Schrameck. Her husband is no less important, but Marcelle claims this link to her father, who was head of the Paris prefecture of police, then governor of Madagascar, French Senator, and finally Minister of the Interior, all during the most difficult time to be a Jewish political figure in France.

The mother is erroneously identified as Marcelle Chimay on the MP3 file entrusted to me, and I’m gratified that other ears had the same difficulties as my own in initially deciphering the voices. Her father is not identified at all, and I realized that I’m perhaps the first person since 1946 to understand the voice of a famous figure, a man who devoted fifty years of his life to government service in France, in high office, and whose family had to go into hiding and exile. Young Jean Kahn, his grandson, tells how he, his mother and his older brother fled from Marseille and eventually crossed through the Pyrenees on foot into Spain in the rain and cold, were arrested by the Spanish police, interrogated and imprisoned, and how they eventually made it to Morocco to be reunited with father and husband, Admiral Louis Kahn.

On a separate recording, Abraham Schrameck, who was placed under house arrest during the war and who received death threats from the Extreme Right in France, reveals in his interview how ordinary French citizens were duped into helping their German occupiers. Mr. Schrameck’s interview is preceded by one with his chauffeur, a Resistance fighter from central France who was twice captured by the Germans and escaped to fight at Thiers, where150 French freedom fighters prevailed against “two or three hundred” Germans. My body trembled as I listened to this unsung French hero tell very simply, in a matter-of-fact voice, how he and his unit singled out from their German prisoners those who had personally killed French comrades in arms, and shot them.

The quality of the audio files was reasonably good, yet presented tremendous challenges. The boy Jean Kahn talks about a small town on the Spanish border, and I phonetically transcribed the name of the town as I heard it and spent an hour scouring maps in the various atlas on my bookshelf until I locate, with a triumphant shout, the speck on the map labeled Osseja. I can see the boys in the rain-drenched forest, bent over the compass they procured with difficulty to guide their flight. I Google to confirm the names of places that I’m hearing and the correct appellations of organizations like the Francs-tireurs et Partisans Français (the Resistance Riflemen of France). I am listening to the very voices of history, and neither Dr. Boder, who sat in the Kahn’s living room and recorded them, nor the staff of IIT’s library in 2009, know what I am hearing. Because I am the first person to TRANSLATE what is being said.

At the end of Dr. Boder’s interview with young Jean Kahn, the two speakers once again lapse into English. Jean’s family had moved to London, and Jean studied in British schools, so his English is quite good. It is the Spring of 2009 as I listen to Dr. Boder wind up this interview of August 1946:

“Well, John, you are an awfully good boy, and it was really a pleasure to have met you. And I think you told us a good story. And I think the children there, if we translate it, will have a lot of fun in listening to your story. We will translate it into English and have another little boy read it for us, make a record.”

Ten years before I even drew breath on this planet, a psychologist sitting in a living room in Marseille, with French holocaust survivors, was thinking of me, was looking forward to having the words he just gathered translated so that the stories would not be lost.

I probably worked twice as many hours as I billed for this job. After a while, entranced by this audio treasure hunt, I stopped keeping track of the time. The assignment would keep me in private practice until the next assignment came along. But the experience of doing it was greater than any remuneration I could receive. I was meant to be here, in my place in the world, as a translator between two languages and cultures.

To hear Dr. Boder’s interviews, read the transcriptions and translations of the texts, please visit

Deborah Joyce

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