Surely there are more direct routes to becoming a respected French-language translator than going to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a Ph.D. in mathematics, getting caught up in the Vietnam draft, and then ditching a teaching career and moving to France. But for Arthur Goldhammer, it was a circuitous path that made perfect sense. A New Jersey native with no formal French-language training, Goldhammer translated more than 125 books on French history and politics, as well as classic texts by Albert Camus and Alexis de Tocqueville, for leading academic publishers including Harvard University Press. In 2014, he achieved some celebrity after producing an English version of a book about global inequality by a young French economist named Thomas Piketty. That opus, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” sold more than 2 million copies. Piketty’s follow-up, “Capital and Ideology,” published this year, was Goldhammer’s last translation before retirement. Besides translating, he’s an author and essayist on contemporary France and French politics, and has taught at Brandeis and Boston universities. Goldhammer has close ties to the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard that date back to the 1970s. He’s currently a local affiliate and chair of the New Research on Europe seminar there. Goldhammer recently spoke with the Gazette about his unusual journey.
GAZETTE: You have a Ph.D. in math from MIT and yet you’re a leading French literary translator. How did that happen?
GOLDHAMMER: Growing up in New Jersey, I was very good at math and science. I left high school at the age of 16 because my parents moved from New Jersey to South Carolina and the high school there was so backwards that I had already done the courses they had to offer. So I applied to MIT and was admitted with a scholarship. Although math and science were my strong suits, I was quite interested in literature. I had studied the French language starting in the eighth grade and was really influenced by a number of French novelists from Stendhal to Proust, so that encouraged me to continue my reading of French, although I never formally studied it.
I graduated from MIT in ’67 and started graduate school there in ’68 as the Vietnam War was heating up. In the summer of ’68, I went to France for the first time. In those days, you had to notify the draft board when you were leaving the country. And my draft board, which was in South Carolina because my parents had moved there, chose to interpret my traveling abroad as a declaration that I was no longer in school even though it was between my first and second years of graduate school. So they took that as an opportunity to draft me. When I got back from France in September, I found my draft notice waiting. I appealed, and the appeal went all the way to the head of the Selective Service board, who actually ruled in my favor, but he declined to overrule the local draft board. He referred my case back to them with his recommendation that I be given a graduate school deferment, but they refused. So, at that point, my only choice was either to leave the country or submit to being drafted. So I decided I would take my chances with the Army.
It was in the interim years between the institution of a draft lottery and the universal college student deferment, so they were not getting many people who were college graduates going into the Army at that point. Whenever they did get one, they tested for foreign language knowledge. I was given a French language test and apparently scored very well on it. And that, coupled with the fact that I played a musical instrument, led them to select me for Vietnamese language training. The musical instrument part is because Vietnamese is a tonal language. So I wound up learning to speak Vietnamese, became moderately fluent, and was sent to Vietnam as part of an intelligence organization.
GAZETTE: You were working for the CIA or U.S. military intelligence?
GOLDHAMMER: I did some liaison work with the CIA, but I was in military [intelligence]. I ended my military service three months early and came back to MIT, where I finished my Ph.D. But my time in the Army had changed my priorities. I had fallen in love with Paris and wanted to spend some time in France. I also wanted to write fiction. I wanted to pursue some studies in history because I wanted to understand better what led to the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. But I didn’t have enough money to quit the path I was on. I was still being supported by a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. I figured that my best course was to continue in math, teach for a while to save up enough money, and then see how things turned out.
I got a job at Brandeis and taught there for two years as an assistant professor. After two years of teaching, I’d saved up enough money to support myself for a year in France. I decided I would quit and go off to Paris to live for a while. I had met someone in France who was working for a French sociologist named Michel Crozier. He had just finished a book that he wanted translated into English. My friend was working for him as his assistant so she persuaded him that I would be a good person to translate this book. I had expressed to her my interest in becoming a translator to support myself. That became my first published translation. That got me connected with the University of Chicago Press, which was a very important connection because they happened to have a backlog of books in French history by a number of well-known historians. After they got my translation of Crozier, they decided to try me on a couple of these books.
For the next five years or so, I had a steady stream of work from the University of Chicago Press. Had it not been for that, I probably would not have remained a translator because the hard thing for a freelancer is to break in and get steady work. After the first five years, my reputation was established. I got work from other presses, including Harvard University Press [Piketty’s American publisher], which became my mainstay after Chicago for quite a number of years, and that kept me going for a very long time.