When Harvard University Press editors sought a translator for the massive five-volume "A History of Private Life," they settled on Arthur Goldhammer, who has a Ph.D. in algebraic topology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The connection? Vietnam.
"I was drafted while I was in graduate school, and they needed interpreters. So I used my French," Goldhammer said.
He greatly expanded his knowledge of the language he had learned in school and eventually made his way to Paris, where he tried to write a novel. He got some more translation work there and turned his attention away from mathematics.
Group of Translators
In the last 10 years, he has translated about 40 French scholarly works into English, and is among a small group of regular free-lance translators for publishers.
He spends much of his time working alone, hunched over a word processor and measuring much of his life in paragraphs. "There are people who say this is boring. But that's an insult. It is often very satisfying and interesting. For me, it sure beats teaching math," he said.
Goldhammer is engrossed in "A History of Private Life" for Harvard Press. The first volume in the five-book series was recently published, but he has thousands of pages to go on the remainder of the writings about how people lived through the ages.
Never Met Contributor
One of the main contributors to the series is Paul Veyne, a man whose work Goldhammer has admired for years. But as is so often the case with translators, Goldhammer knows Veyne only through correspondence.
"The work does get a little lonely at times," the 40-year-old translator said.
Goldhammer's ability to capture the style of four French writers in the first volume of the work has received initial praise. But a translator always runs the risk of devastating reviews, both public and private. And there is sometimes a misunderstanding as to the significance of a translator's work.