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Art Goldhammer called "America's finest bridge to French culture" in New Republic

January 14, 2015

"Found in Translation"
The New Republic
January 13, 2015
By: Jeet Heer

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.

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