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Friday, October 27, 2017

Eugeni Xammar: a journalist, adventurer… and sometime interpreter

By Felix Ordeig, AIB


Over the last summer I read a very enjoyable book:  “Seixanta anys d’anar pel món” (Sixty years a wandering),a chatty biography of quite a striking figure, Eugeni XAMMAR, a self-taught and self made adventurer, journalist, polyglot, unofficial diplomat, translator and yes – a sometime interpreter. I had by chance come across a TV programme on his life and became interested in finding out more about him – and so, on seeing this book staring at me in Abacus a few months later, I bought it on impulse, despite its 500- plus pages.

The book, first published in 1991 and recently re-edited, is written in Catalan, which probably means it won’t get much of a wide diffusion, which is a pity, as despite its length it is on the whole an entertaining and informative read. It is full of vivid testimonies and recollections of key historical events in the first half of last century, including both the Great War and the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany and its terrible aftermath, including the troubled times in Spain. It takes the form of a long conversation toward the end of his life (he passed away in his mid-eighties in 1973) with his lifelong friend and confidant, Josep Badia, who recorded Xammar’s memoirs and years later, must have gathered his notes and found a willing publisher.

Because more than 40 years have gone by since his death, his name has never been that familiar even within his own country, partly because he died when Spain was still a dictatorship, which had no wish whatsoever to keep alive - let alone honour - the memory of someone who, having been a vocal opponent of the Franco regime in the past, lived his last years in internal exile. Other reasons stand out: aside from his writings as a journalist and foreign correspondent in the 20’s and 30’s, this is his only book, and though he was born and died in a small sleepy town north of Barcelona, he spent most of his adult life abroad, mainly in Germany, France and Switzerland. All of the above may explain why Josep Pla, probably one of the greatest prose writers in the Catalan language - and  who as a young budding journalist in Germany in the 1920’s looked up to Xammar as a mentor and role model – was far better known.

But I digress. These blog posts are supposed to be about interpreting, however tangentially, right? And I am supposed to discuss Xammar’s facet as one-of-us. I had heard a fair bit about his career as an interpreter, supposedly at the WHO in Geneva, and had even tried to dig up some information on his time there, to no avail. In fact Xammar, in his book, defines himself first and foremost as a journalist and foreign correspondent, and I was disappointed at the paucity of references in his book to our profession – he clearly saw it as an ancillary activity, amusing and even stimulating, an example of his immense curiosity but by no means central to his life’s endeavours.

Xammar came from a humble background but, as a determined, confident and smartly intelligent young man who refused to accept his destiny as an accounting clerk with a textile firm in Barcelona, managed to befriend members of the Catalan intelligentsia in the years prior to the Great War, learnt French, English and then German and, thanks to his contacts, started working as a journalist and, thanks to his languages, became a correspondent on the Western front and never really looked back. Judging by his book, he must have been an excellent, amusing and observant journalist. His comments are always insightful, incisive and ironic; in the book, he sometimes does beat his own drum but is aware almost in the same breath that he has gone over the top and makes a rueful self-deprecating remark as a clear and healthy sign of not taking oneself too seriously. For anyone with an interest in Catalan, Spanish and European recent history, what is very enjoyable is that the book is peppered with brief albeit pithy portraits of many famous politicians, intellectuals, literary and public figures of his time- in terms of sheer name-dropping terms it reminds one of Stefan Zweig’s memoirs.

For many years, he was a correspondent for prestigious Catalan and Spanish newspapers (“La Publicitat”, “La Veu de Catalunya”and “El Sol”). He alternated this work with translating assignments and also occasionally in the press services of the post-Versailles international organizations, namely the League of Nations, where he was posted in the early 1920’s – the reader is reminded that all proceedings in plenary were interpreted in full consecutive mode into English and French, and he remarks mordantly on how tedious this was for participants and observers, since the majority of delegates were familiar with both languages, so strictly unnecessary. But interpretation was mandatory for statutory and diplomatic reasons, and Xammar hints at how demoralizing this must have been for interpreters, in particular as people ignored them and chatted with each other whilst they did their work: sounds unfortunately familiar to some of us…

After World War II –which he spent in the sleepy southern French town of Perpignan - Xammar managed to get translating work from UNESCO and was asked in 1950 to help out with interpreting at a six-week long conference of that organization in Florence, even though he had zero experience. Reading his description of the utter panic upon entering the booth, which led to him being tongue-tied: it rang so true and reminded me vividly of the stressful, cold-sweat-inducing stage fright I felt as a novice interpreter in my first meetings at the European Commission. However, his memories show a certain chutzpah, self-confidence bordering on arrogance: he claims that on day two he seized the microphone from his colleague and plunged in from the deep end, and managed to do a reasonable job and that by the end of the conference not only had he got the knack of simultaneous interpreting but was a master at his new found trade…of course we only have his word to go by, as in those pre-AIIC days there was little professional due diligence and quality control as we now know it.

After a stint as a staff translator at the UN in New York in the early fifties, which from all accounts he much enjoyed, he returned to Europe and ended up working as a free lance translator at several Geneva-based UN agencies and likewise as a f/l interpreter at the WHO (but as I said I have been unable to find any trace of his passage there). In any case, he mentions his career as a translator far more often and therein lies the suspicion that either he wasn’t really that keen on interpreting or that he found it boring (or that he wasn’t that good at it, after all). Maybe it is because interpreters can’t really be in the limelight and he certainly seemed to enjoy being a protagonist in life – at least that is the impression one gets from his memoirs.

As an anecdote, he does mention his encounter with an old Anglo-German acquaintance, Paul Smith, who had acted as an interpreter between Hitler and Franco at their famous meeting in a railway carriage in Hendaye, on the Franco-Spanish border in 1940, and who was seeking a publisher for his memoirs in the post-war years. I won’t go into details, but it is interesting to read the description of such a momentous event from a fly-on-the wall perspective, so to speak.


I will conclude this piece by strongly recommending this book (Quaderns Crema), more because Xammar was a prescient and gifted journalist rather than for his insights on our profession. Of special and topical interest for those of us living through troubled times in Catalonia right now are his sceptical yet insightful views on the advent of the Spanish Republic in 1931, the failed declaration of independence by Catalan leader Lluís Companys on 6th October 1934 and of course the tragic events of the Spanish Civil War, during which despite his doubts he remained staunchly loyal to the Republican side in the conflict.

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