Found in Translation

About soldiers-turned-defendants, a novelist-turned-interpreter, and French-turned-English

HUMANITIES, July/August 2008, Volume 29, Number 4

Alice Kaplan, French professor at Duke University, was finishing up research a few years ago about Robert Brassilach, a 35-year-old anti-Semitic journalist who was tried and put to death in the winter of 1944-1945 by the Liberation government of France, when a French writer handed her a book and said, “Look at this novel, the French weren’t the only ones executing people at the end of World War II.” Kaplan read the novel, OK, Joe, then translated it, and then began a new research project that would lead to a new book, The Interpreter. “I wanted to see if the cases were based on historical fact, and I learned that they were.“ The book turned out to be, she says, a “moral whodunit.”

In the summer of 1944 when the Allies were liberating towns and cities in Brittany, the U.S. Army was also court-martialing GIs there for crimes committed along the way, anything from desertion and black market activity to assault, rape, and murder. Following well-established military practice for invading armies to bring their own legal system with them, the Army set up a general court-martial in the town of Morlaix, about thirty miles to the east of the port city of Brest.

In the European Theater, 443 death sentences were pronounced by courts-martial, 70 of which were carried out. Fifty-five of those executed were African Americans. In France alone, 181 soldiers were charged with rape, and 139 of those accused were black. This was at a time when less than 10 percent of the Army was black.

The courts-martial in Brittany began taking place at a fast clip shortly after General George S. Patton issued a memo in August 1944, saying, “I am gravely concerned with the increasing number of crimes of violence against French civilians which are being committed within the Army, particularly by service troops.” Eighty percent of African Americans in the segregated Army at the time were in the service units, quartermaster regiments assuring transportation of supplies or other units engaged in food preparation, but most were not involved in combat (the segregated Army did have a few “colored-only” combat units). Patton went on, “It is not to be tolerated that a comparative few shall, by their criminal conduct, bring discredit upon us.” Company commanders were instructed to inform the troops that the death penalty would be applied in cases of rape. Undue command influence over court-martial proceedings, which is what Patton’s comments came down to, became unlawful after the war.

In her book The Interpreter, Alice Kaplan follows the case of James Hendricks, an African-American service-unit soldier who was arrested after a killing in the countryside near the small town of Plumaudan. He was tried, found guilty, and executed by public hanging. Another case tried shortly after involved seven GIs, all black, found guilty in a gang rape. They were not, however, sentenced to death. For this, the court received what amounted to a reprimand from Troy Middleton, Commanding General of the VIII Corps, for not imposing the death sentence. Officers had generally understood Patton’s memo to mean seeking the death penalty wherever possible. A third case, involving an officer who shot and killed a French Resistance fighter, had even greater potential for stirring up resentment against the Army in this part of France, the very thing Patton was trying to avoid. An all-white military tribunal, however, found the white captain not guilty.

We have a better picture today of the plight of James Hendricks and many other black GIs (along with some whites) who were executed without much notice taken by anybody back home while the Allies were accumulating victories across France and grabbing headlines. The unanswerable question Kaplan’s book asks is, Where does the discrimination start in a segregated army? In training camps, the courtroom, bad defense, or assumptions of criminality?

Not long after Hendricks was executed, two important events took place that would go a long way to making the judicial procedure fairer. First, during the Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944 and January 1945, many African Americans who had only seen duty in service units were ordered into combat, where many distinguished themselves, earning respect even from southern officers as well as throughout the Army for their valor. Their courage and performance under fire influenced President Truman’s decision shortly after the war to desegregate the Army. Also, reforms to the military judicial system were occurring. Where possible, black officers would be appointed to serve on courts-martial where black soldiers were being tried for violent crimes. And inexperienced officers like Hendricks’s defense lawyer (a recent law school graduate who had not taken the bar exam) would be replaced by officers trained in the Judge Advocate program.

In the cases Kaplan describes in The Interpreter, French witnesses testified. Professionally trained interpreters, though, were very difficult to find. The Americans considered themselves lucky to have come across a French novelist working as a translator in the mayor’s office of a town that had just been liberated. Louis Guilloux was not a novelist who was read widely in the United States, and his literary talents would have been unknown to the Americans. But they recognized his solid command of English and hired him almost on the spot.

In the first of the five cases Guilloux worked on, Private James Hendricks, an African American from North Carolina serving with his unit as a truck driver, was found guilty of felony murder. Drunk on what was probably very potent calvados or cognac, he fired his rifle through the door of a farmhouse, killing the father of the family, Victor Bignon. He then followed Bignon’s wife to another farmhouse nearby and tried to sexually assault her. With Patton’s recent comments fresh in officers’ minds, the prosecutor in Hendricks’s case, Lt. Joseph Greene, sought and got the unanimous decision needed for a death sentence from the military tribunal. There is much evidence to show that Hendricks was, indeed, guilty of unintentionally killing Victor Bignon (he confessed to his commanding officer to shooting through the door, but none of the French witnesses were able to pick him out of a lineup). Greene, though, aggressively sought a felony murder conviction rather than manslaughter. But in a case of felony murder involving sexual assault, the assault occurs before the killing, which was not the situation with Hendricks. That his case was not a classic example of felony murder and yet was prosecuted as though it were helps cast suspicion on the absolute rightness of its outcome.

It is perhaps from there a short step to the conclusion that the entire procedure was tainted. During Kaplan’s research, she talked with a former Graves Registration sergeant who had buried James Hendricks. Having seen sixteen of the public hangings, which he was never able to get over, the white veteran then living in North Carolina said, “It was old KKK procedure. It was a legal lynch.”

One may shrink from so harsh a judgment, but it does make one want to know how white defendants in similar circumstances were treated. George P. Whittington, the accused in the other case that Kaplan treats in detail, was a white captain who had fought heroically during the landing on Omaha Beach several weeks earlier. Later, while with his unit in Lesneven, near Brest, Whittington went AWOL, spending an evening drinking in a nearby town with other Americans and a French soldier, Francis Morand, a paratrooper who fought in Brittany with the Resistance. Born in Austria and having a strong German accent, Morand told Whittington and others he was from the French Alps and had fought with the Fascists in Spain. (A large part of Whittington’s defense was built around questions of Morand’s identity. Could Whittington legitimately have suspected Morand of being a German spy?) Whittington later that evening shot and killed Morand with his pistol in the courtyard outside the bar, claiming self-defense. Because Brest at this time was still under attack from the Germans, Whittington’s commanding officer, who filed the original charges against him and who told the Inspector General he thought Whittington was trigger-happy, was never able to appear in court. Statements from others who could have established Whittington’s apparent zest for killing were also never introduced as evidence. Represented in court by the prosecutor in Hendricks’s case, who turned out to be a skillful defense lawyer, too, Whittington was found innocent and returned to civilian life as a hero after the war.

Kaplan, whose father was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, has had a lifelong interest in World War II. She came to regard Louis Guilloux, who was interpreting in these trials in both the linguistic and cultural senses, as her mentor on this project. The portrait of Louis Guilloux that Kaplan sketches in The Interpreter is of a man of letters “with enormous curiosity and passion for causes.” Guilloux was also a man who suffered great hardships during the German occupation and due to a paper shortage and the wartime crisis in communications, hadn’t been able to make much extra money by translating. By 1944, he was extremely thin and gaunt. No one in Brittany had had much to eat.

He grew up in the tiny town of Saint-Brieuc on Brittany’s northern coast, where, as a teenager he would strike up conversations with British sailors, thereby perfecting his ear for English. As a young man he traveled often to Paris to work as a journalist and translator and eventually became acquainted with Albert Camus, André Gide, and André Malraux. Despite his professional accomplishments, Guilloux always regarded his translations, especially those he did for newspapers in Paris, as piecework. Self-taught, he never looked upon the translator’s art as a noble endeavor, but rather just another way to make ends meet.

Before the outbreak of World War II, Guilloux had already come out with two novels. One of them, Bitter Victory, published in 1935 and set during World War I, with a somberly philosophical and suicidal schoolmaster as its protagonist, is considered his masterpiece. He had also translated Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem, concerning, coincidentally enough, an African American serving in the U.S. Army in World War I. Its protagonist, Jake, is disillusioned by not being allowed to participate in combat.

Guilloux continued translating and writing novels after the war, and his fictional memoir of his experiences as an interpreter, OK, Joe, was published in 1976, four years before his death (Kaplan translated it into English, and it was published in the United States in 2003). Though OK, Joe was based on notes he took during the month he served as courtroom interpreter, it wasn’t until 1974 that he began working on first drafts. Having fulfilled his role as interpreter in the literal sense, Guilloux was slowly beginning to interpret more broadly what he had witnessed in court. He wrote: “The guilty were always black, so much so that even the stupidest of men would have ended up asking himself how it was possible that there be so much crime on one side, and so much virtue on the other.”

It was certainly no coincidence that Guilloux, a watcher of politics and international affairs, felt compelled, finally, to get going on the novel during the Civil Rights era. What he had seen and heard, evidently, was, in the way of translations and interpretations in general, still percolating through his thoughts and memories.

From having translated McKay's novel about the African American soldier in World War I, Guilloux was somewhat familiar with the “etiquette,” as author A. Russell Buchanan puts it in Black Americans in World War II, surrounding Jim Crow laws and rules and policies in the United States designed to keep African Americans from having access to all the rights and privileges enjoyed by other citizens. But Guilloux was in no way expert in American race relations. He was intuitive and he was able to portray the pervasive, perhaps often unconscious prejudices of members of the military tribunal in the cases he saw without putting a name on it for the reader. Guilloux’s talent as novelist, as is true of all great storytellers, is the ability to show without having to tell. He wouldn’t editorialize.

In OK, Joe, the first time the character in the novel Guilloux based on himself sees Hendricks, he’s able to view the accused sympathetically but only at a remove:

The military tribunal was set up in the party room. A little before nine, everyone was in place, even the defendant: a cat. A very young cat, less than twenty. A gracious young cat, surprised, worried, with big shiny eyes, a sad cat standing all alone between two guards from the Military Police armed with rifles. A cat who didn’t even dream of taking a leap.

Guilloux’s empathy for the victim is apparent in the novel and in his notebooks, but so is his fondness and admiration for the Americans who hired him and the others he met while staying in the barracks. He noted in his diary: “I admire the Americans’ democratic spirit: even in uniform, they never stop behaving like civilians.” And of the aggressive prosecutor in Hendricks’s case, he wrote: “I am really enjoying my new situation, great rapport with the lawyer, Lt. Joseph D. Greene.” The Americans had even given Guilloux a uniform and introduced him around to officers in the barracks and mess hall as “our official interpreter.” He had been working with the Resistance before the invasion, and the Americans made him wear his Free French armband as a security measure, even though he had trouble in his weakened state getting it pulled into place on his sleeve.

Guilloux reserved his deepest empathy for the victims, fellow Bretons, some of whom spoke a mixture of Gallo and French at home, and who now relied upon him in court to help them get at the truth. In one instance, Lt. Greene, the prosecutor, who sought to link the killing of Victor Bignon with a rape charge, thereby, in the case of a guilty verdict, assuring the death penalty, insisted that Guilloux press the victim, Noémie Bignon, about the details of the attempted rape. Greene asked specifics. Guilloux repeated the questions in French. Madame Bignon responded. But Greene wasn’t getting the answers from the Frenchwoman that would result in a rape conviction. “I told you about ten times already what he tried to do,” she said in response to Greene, with Guilloux interpreting. “He tried to force me. That’s all I can say.” Guilloux was caught between his desire to protect the Frenchwoman from humiliation and his duty to interpret her words accurately for the court. Greene called a recess and instructed Guilloux to press the victim for specifics. When they returned from recess Guilloux asked Madame Bignon the question that must have been the most difficult for him, on several levels: “Did he, at any time, insert his private part into your private part?”

Interpreting is a complex mental activity, requiring, it is often said, the use of more than twenty individual cognitive skills. Guilloux would have been under extreme pressure to apply most of them at this point. At the very least, he was, on the spur of the moment, trying to match in French the same level of language as in the original question, being as specific as Greene had demanded during recess, while at the same time trying to surmount the social and cultural obstacles of translating what really amounted to nothing more than a euphemism. Despite the limits of language, somehow the message got through (transcripts in French never existed), and Noémie Bignon was finally able to answer Greene’s questions in enough detail to show that a rape had not occurred. Reluctantly, Greene had to drop that charge for the lesser one of sexual assault.

Guilloux later wrote, “I never should have let myself be dragged into this mess.” The experience was taking its toll. He also observed about the whole linguistic process, “My role as interpreter made me feel important, of course, but equally embarrassed, worried, and distressed.”

Because he was also a novelist, it is tempting to think of his role in the courtroom as being more artistically creative than technically disciplined. Whether translation and interpretation are art or science is an ongoing debate. The pressure to quickly resolve fuzzy equivalents and faux amis (false friends) and rework the syntax of the language of Shakespeare into the language of Molière is daunting and requires a deep technical knowledge of how both languages work. The discipline and knowledge required for such work comes, finally, in great measure from both art and science, but, regardless, the stress would eventually become too much for Guilloux. The Americans had asked him to go with them to Belgium and Germany, but by that time he had become too sick to continue.

Guilloux the novelist, though, certainly got a lot of creative energy from both Guilloux the translator and Guilloux the interpreter. Having chosen the English title OK, Joe for his French novel makes this, to use a translator’s term, transparent. Borrowing directly from the source language is a time-honored practice. Guilloux had heard the GIs in Brittany repeat their easy-going Americanisms so often, they represented for him a kind of verbal tic. He would even compile lists of expressions the good-natured GIs would bandy about. The dialog in OK, Joe is peppered with these locutions and is alive in a way that would have been impossible for a writer without Guilloux’s perfect ear for American English and an interpreter’s love of transmitting tone of voice, rhythm, and cadence to his listeners.

Kaplan says Guilloux provided a kind of language lesson in his novel, inserting English phrases he heard while talking to the GIs and then translating them for his French readers. For Kaplan, translating these sections of the novel into English became problematic. She had to drop them eventually from her translation since Guilloux’s clarifications about English couldn’t have the same effect on Kaplan’s readers as they had on Guilloux’s.

The difference between an interpreter and a translator can be summed up like this: If you’re at a party where there’s an interpreter and a translator and there’s someone there who’s terribly chic and well-coiffed and carrying on every conversation with ease, that’s the interpreter, and if there’s someone else there who’s a little disheveled and somewhat shy, with a quiver of pens and pencils in his shirt pocket, that’s the translator. Guilloux was undoubtedly more comfortable as a translator, and he did make a few mistakes while interpreting, Kaplan says. For instance, he once said “she flew away” when clearly what was meant was “she ran away.” In another instance, a French witness said, “Il m'a regardé avec des yeux terribles,” and Guilloux interpreted it literally as, “He looked at me with terrible eyes,” even though, judging from the context, it probably meant “he looked at me sternly.”

“People got it, though,” Kaplan says. “He wasn’t a professional interpreter. What I want to impress on people is the ad hoc nature of the trials and how quickly they went and how in spite of that, the basic message always got through.”

Many of our notions of interpreting come from watching highly skilled and trained U.N. interpreters who repeat simultaneously, and seemingly effortlessly, in the target language what is being said in the source language. Guilloux, however, would have been performing what we think of as consecutive interpretation, a summing up of sentences or even paragraphs, which demands tremendous short-term and long-term memory and a grasp of subtle nuance in both languages, just the thing Guilloux excelled at.

Ultimately, though, it was Guilloux as cultural interpreter that interested Kaplan the most. In an interview with the quarterly Prologue, she said, “The great thing about examining events through the lens of another language and culture is getting to look at ourselves differently—seeing ourselves the way others see us.”

By first becoming engaged with the events of the trials in English through his official role as interpreter and then thinking and writing about them much later in French in his fictional memoir, Guilloux the novelist was fulfilling the classic role of interpreters and translators as couriers, as it were, of the human spirit. As he put it himself in his notebooks in 1951: “Why write? . . . To transmit . . . To jostle our ignorance, to bring the evidence home.” Through a long cycle of translating, writing, interpreting, and researching, Louis Guilloux and Alice Kaplan together did, in fact, bring the evidence home.