Monthly Archives: March 2014

Eva Gillies: An Interpreter at Large

51EitcgLwIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Last time I wrote I told you some about Eva Gillies, whose translation of Lucio V. Mansilla’s Una excursión a los indios ranqueles (A Visit to the Ranquel Indians, University of Nebraska Press, 1997) Lucina Schell recently reviewed in the context of my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s La pasión de los nómades (Passionate Nomads, Aliform Publishing, 2011). I introduced myself to Eva in the year 2000, by snail mail (via her publisher), and we enjoyed a fruitful relationship between then and her death in January 2011. It was she who introduced me to María Rosa, whom she said had a book that she thought she might want me to translate.

So naturally I was excited to sit down with Eva’s posthumously published memoir, An Interpreter at Large (Great Britain: YouCaxton Publications, 2013:, which I had seen previously in manuscript form. Glancing back just now at that manuscript copy I see that the finished version contains an additional essay (“On Anthropology and Anthropologists”) to complement two others (“On Interpreting, and Interpreters” and “On Language: Pidgins, Creoles, Dialects”) which serve as “Interludes” between sections of the narrative of her life story. An additional Interlude in the published text contains photographs from the family collection, including the charming cover photo of her in native dress in Nigeria where she was doing field work in her second profession as an anthropologist.

Eva lived a fascinating life. She was born in 1930 in Germany to a Jewish-German-Argentine mother and a “gut anti-Nazi” German father who, when he determined that there was no chance of a popular uprising against Hitler, left the country for Argentina where Eva spent her childhood. Part One of her memoir describes that Argentine Childhood, starting with her memory of arriving in Buenos Aires at the end of 1933. Part Two focuses on her undergraduate years at Oxford and Part Three, after the Interlude on Interpreting, on her years on the international interpreting circuit – most notably her work for the Armistice Commission in Hanoi. Then, after the Interlude on Language, Part Four covers her transition from interpreting to anthropology and her first introduction to Africa, and Part Five, after the Interlude on Anthropology, focuses in-depth on her field work in Nigeria. Finally, Part Six deals with, among other things, her time in The Gambia (Africa) with her entomologist husband Mick Gillies, who was working on the problem of mosquitoes and malaria, and on her work from home in Hamsey (East Sussex) on such projects as abridging the seminal anthropological work of one of her Oxford professors and translating Mansilla.

Eva opens the Interlude on Interpreting with a perfect definition and distinction between translating and interpreting: “… while translation deals with written documents, interpreting is purely oral, and tends to happen mainly at conferences…. The two professions do appeal to two very different personalities: a translator” [and this is me, beyond any doubt] “is somebody who has to get things exactly right, sometimes taking a long time to do so. An interpreter has to produce his or her oral version fast; must therefore be rather quick on the uptake, and not too fussy about getting things totally accurate. It also helps to be a bit of a show-off! I am, by temperament, very much an interpreter. I can and do translate when required,” [I, with the greatest difficulty, and generally not all that well, have interpreted very occasionally], “but don’t enjoy it as much” (p. 87).

The following comment on language seems to speak very well for me too: “I don’t believe myself to have ‘a talent for languages,’ only a feeling for language as such” (p. 142): she had extreme difficulty, for instance, with tonal languages such as Vietnamese and some African languages. For my part I remember decades ago, as a freshman at Indiana University, having a terrible struggle with Russian, and I have essentially forgotten the little bit that I did learn of it. Otherwise, without paying much attention to the terminology of grammatical structures, (I have learned them much better, in both English and Spanish, through the practice of teaching), I have approached composition a good deal by an instinct, first of all, for the cadences of the language as well as through the medium of literature rather than grammar and morphology and such. I am a poor linguist, as I learned for certain in the Fall semester of 1985 while at the same time I was excelling in the study of the original Spanish Don Quijote, I was only just scraping by in Spanish Linguistics (I think Professor Quilter, who taught both classes, was being generous when he gave me a B in that one).

As for Anthropology, I enjoyed Eva’s take on Margaret Mead, who in person she found to be rather obnoxious and arrogant; also, as was beginning to be thoroughly documented at the time, not really very competent at her chosen vocation: “… the locals [in the Pacific islands] had told M. M. exactly what they thought she wanted to hear,” according to another anthropologist who was just then getting to know about it, “thereby invalidating not just her ethnography but the world-shaking conclusions that had impressed so many people, including my father [a psychologist].” She added, a bit spitefully: “I was delighted” (p. 189).

399247[1]On the other hand, some positive stories about two big names I’m vaguely familiar with: Professor E. E. Evans-Pritchard, under whom she worked at Oxford (and later abridged his seminal book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande), and the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom she met once and babysat for his extremely rambunctious son: he gave her, in recompense, a £10 note (“quite a lot of money in 1964”) and a signed copy of his book La pensée sauvage: in the dedication hoping “that a few hours with un exotique petit sauvage would not have put me off ‘field work’ (the one English phrase he used)” (p. 195).

One section I particularly enjoyed were the chapters on Vietnam, in particular the northern city of Hanoi where she interpreted (from French to English) for the Armistice Commission in 1954: pre-U.S. involvement (though she did comment that signs of a U.S. presence were beginning to be seen). Her appreciation of the food, the people, the culture, and the scenery is an excellent antidote to our national prejudices. She neither condemns nor idealizes the socialist / communist North; in fact, she tells about her efforts to help a woman emigrate to the South; but she does a lot to counteract our tendency to demonize and caricaturize. She speaks eloquently, for instance, of the elegance of Vietnamese women in particular, comparing Western tourists unfavorably in that respect: “We were surrounded by people who treat their overfed bodies as display areas for bad t-shirt jokes,” she writes. “I felt ashamed of my own culture” (p. 125).

Similarly, the sections on Africa – particularly of her field work in Ogori, in Nigeria – are wonderful. She demonstrates a deep sympathy for the local customs and remnants of “pagan” religion, and much as Lucio Mansilla does in his Excursión, offers repeated instances of hidden resemblances between their customs and ours. This could be an excellent primer for Westerners – particularly English-speakers – who plan to travel: how sad when the only thing our tourists bring back from those trips is “how lucky and blessed we are” back here in civilization.

Of course, I did enjoy the section on Eva’s work on Mansilla’s book. I am not named but am present nonetheless: his book has, she writes, “brought me a number of friends”; and she refers thereafter to her “new Mansilla-fan friends” (p. 288) – mentioning, more particularly, María Rosa and Martín Villagrán who were significant fellow travelers in the preparation of that translation which would later bring me to her – and thereby to María Rosa. I would later meet Villagrán at a Mansilla conference in Córdoba, Argentina in 2005, where I was invited to read from the Spanish-language translation of my novella A Bride Called Freedom in which Mansilla is a character.

Lucio V. Mansilla as a young man

Lucio V. Mansilla as a young man

In the spirit of Eva’s earlier remarks on appreciation for pagan customs and even religion, I like this that she wrote about why she came to feel so close to the figure of Mansilla himself: “… he remains, as far as I know, the only white man in the Americas, north or south, to have written and published, in 1870, that he felt shame at what his society was doing to the native inhabitants of the lands” (p. 289). Those are my feelings precisely, and are also pertinent to what we did, in the name of anti-Communism, to the North Vietnamese who after all might have had as much right to self-determination as we claim for ourselves.

I could go on, of course, in my appreciation for this book – I also, for instance, enjoy some anecdotes about her anti-Nazi German father; as well as a detailed account of a forebear who was a missionary in Africa during the first half of the 19th century but whose main success came as a remarkably accomplished linguist, author of a Swahili-English dictionary that was in use as late as 1965 – but I suppose this will do. It is nice, in any case, to have had Eva’s presence with me again as I read these pages.