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Saturday, November 26, 2022

REVIEW OF “Ceci n'est pas un livre de mémoires: Entretiens avec Christopher Thiéry”

 By Hugo Pooley, AIB

Many colleagues, and most AIIC members, will have heard of Christopher Thiéry. He was one of the key founders of the profession as we know it, back in the 1950s; famously bilingual, founder member of AIIC, honorary president of that Association, interpreter to a long succession of Presidents of France, chief interpreter at the Quai d'Orsay, director of the interpreting section at the École Supérieure d'Interprètes et de Traducteurs (ESIT). Conference interpreters today have, I submit, a great deal for which to be thankful to CT and others of the pioneer generation (also: CPIC, anyone?) As we can also be grateful for the fact that he is still completely with us at the age of 94, now spending his time between the (Atlantic) Île d'Yeu and Paris. 

Earlier this year a book of interviews in French with him, conducted by Anne-Marie Widlund (former head of French booth at the European Parliament and author of a biography of Danica Seleskovitch), was published on Amazon. The original intention was to provide a record of his life and times for his three children, but its scope soon transcended the personal sphere and gives a fascinating account of the interpreting scene, viewed from Paris, from 1949 to 1998. The book also allows the reader to get to know the man, his personality, views, insights, tastes and experiences more closely than many of us who know him did before.  

CT was born of a French father and Irish mother in England in 1927. The book follows him through his childhood near Oxford and his youth in London and Paris, all of which might seem relatively unremarkable, though of course this was when the foundations were laid for his renowned bilingualism. Circumstances were such that he was scarcely over twenty years of age when, after he had completed the first years of a degree in medicine, interpreting became central to his life. 

One of the intriguing aspects, not least for those of us who spent one, two, or three years acquiring conference interpreting techniques at postgraduate schools, is the repeated throwaway assertion that CT and others of his generation learned our craft sur le tas. Some had attended HEC, some were coming from the Nuremberg trials, and it is worth recalling that most of the work was performed in consecutive in the early days. Nonetheless, little detail of this on-the-job learning process is given, suffice it to say that they must have been geniuses with exceptional aptitudes!

The book is highly evocative on the early conditions in the profession. It also includes thirty or so curious photos from the biographical archive. The reader learns that in the 1950s freelance interpreters in Paris often worked long days in consecutive, alone, and sometimes then had to write up the minutes of the meeting in the evening! It was clearly an exhilarating life, with an abundance of work in the nascent international institutions there (OEEC…) as well as on the private market; at this time one could drive from one end of the city to the other in twenty minutes or so, and park without any problem! When offered his first assignment, CT deemed the rate to be most satisfactory for a week's work; but it was per day! (This level of earnings) “m'a permis très jeune d'avoir de jolies voitures de sport, à l'âge où justement on en profite le plus.”

CT has always attached the greatest importance to professional secrecy in our profession, and it understandably became one of the cornerstones of AIIC. Confidentiality is also the explanation for the title of his book: great care has naturally been taken to eschew any information on the contents of his work interpreting with heads of state and government meeting with five successive presidents of the French republic, so any reader foolish enough to expect juicy revelations will be disappointed. This is a fine line to walk, and moderately tantalising for the reader who comes upon such teasing allusions as those on pp. 267-9, 284-5. 

Favourite one-liners refer to the late Queen Elizabeth II, who “me faisait toujours apporter un verre du vin sublime…”; and to CT's relatively close relations with, for example, Ronald Reagan or King Hussein of Jordan: as a result of their regular interviews with Monsieur le Président and of CT's long tenure, they could not fail to notice that “le president n'était pas toujours le meme, mais l'interprète l'était …”! There is here an elegant combination of modesty and self-confidence. “L'écriture est la petite fille de la pensée” (p. 117) appears to be an original expression reminding us that thought is first “translated” into words, which are intrinsically oral; this of course ties straight into the “théorie du sens” and thus to our métier.

Those of us fortunate enough to have been taught by Christopher at ESIT many years ago now may remember him as a somewhat aloof presence: he did not give away much of a personal nature in the unforgettable Salle 7. Even so, he occasionally showed a penchant for quoting absurd poetry, and was in the minority of teachers generous enough actually to demonstrate simultaneous and consecutive interpreting in class for his students. This formality is, I suggest, as it should be; in fact ESIT was - still is - an extremely tough school, and the pass-rate low.  

These published interviews abound in passages where this reserved, almost severe personality is shown to be in marked contrast with the man in more private settings: this of course makes him much more sympathique! His Irish ancestry belongs, for me, in this category, as do the childhood love for toy trains, thinking that Jacques was equivalent to Jack, his enthusiasm for cars, knowledge of mechanics, camping on roadsides & Mediterranean beaches, fondness for snorkelling, the splendid Mediterranean sailing stories… The mask of reserve even slips sufficiently at times for the reader to perceive that CT's own politics are distinctly liberal: there is unconcealed joy at Mitterand's election, support for causes such as pedestrians' rights and the plight of AIDS patients; and, in retirement, volunteer work in the field of human rights… Also tantalising references to a taste for writing plays and poems.

Toward the end of the book is an essay in which CT records his slightly surprising position on Brexit, for the attention of his children. Spoiler: the Brits “n'auraient jamais dû y entrer.” Also a highly prescient reference to Ukraine.

Hopefully your reviewer may be allowed a more personal reference in closing. Very shortly after passing the ESIT diploma (which threw wide open the doors to a highly satisfying career) he enquired of CT in his office what the breakdown of his grades per exam was. In an initial attempt at obfuscation, CT told me, “Monsieur Poulet, ne cherchez pas à comprendre.” I don't know if he did it on purpose, but as it dawned on me later, this was an amusingly ironic last word from the birthplace of the famed “théorie du sens”!

You may see and hear Christopher Thiéry talking here about “ESIT, les années Dauphine”