Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - September 1, 2017

Vive le francais

One of the benefits of writing this column is it requires me to look a bit deeper into subjects and so to learn a bit more than I otherwise would. But sometimes when I think I’m done, a new door opens. Recently, one such door was opened by California reader Vicki Paul.

After my recent “Moral Clarity” column, Vicki wrote, mentioning Léon Dostert. I had never heard of him, but a quick Internet search made it clear I should have.

Dostert was born in 1904 in Longwy, a village in northeast France. This French lad was a boy of 10 when the Germans swept through his village in 1914. Suddenly, he had to learn in a different language. I love languages and am currently struggling to expand my meager French. So, I was envious when I read he quickly became so proficient in his new language that he became the translator for a German officer.

Then the Americans joined the war and the Germans were pushed back. Soon Dostert became fluent in English - so fluent that Henri St. Pierre, an American soldier, made arrangements for the orphaned teenager to return with him to St. Pierre’s home in California. There, Dostert attended high school, but was dismissed from English classes due to his proficiency in his third language.

Dostert spent two years at Occidental College in Los Angeles and then moved on to Washington, D.C. to attend Georgetown University. He earned two bachelor's degrees and a master'degree while teaching French at the university to support himself. He married and the couple had four children. Dostert eventually became the chairman of the foreign language department. One of his close friends was Thomas Watson, later the head of computing giant IBM.

When World War II began, Dostert’s abilities in French, English and German made him very useful. After a brief stint in the French army, he became an American citizen, joined the U.S. Army and eventually served as interpreter for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.

But an even bigger job lay ahead. After the war, he was tasked with communications at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. It presented a unique and difficult challenge. Traditionally, a translator listened to a speaker who would say a sentence or two and then pause while the translator converted what had been said into another language. But the chief judge felt this process would make the trials too long and confusing. Four languages - English, German, French and Russian - were needed and witnesses would find it awkward to keep pausing and waiting until all four conversions were complete.

So Dostert suggested using interpreters. An interpreter must first be a fully-capable translator. Additional training began by having the interpreter repeat exactly what the speaker said in the speaker’s native language and doing so as the speaker speaks. After weeks of becoming proficient at parroting the speaker’s words, the interpreter then spends weeks practicing rephrasing the speaker’s words based on the interpreter’s understanding of what is being said. This too is done in the speaker’s native language and without pausing. Finally, the interpreter spends more weeks simultaneously repeating the speaker’s words, but in the target language, again with no pauses.

Dostert created four groups, one each to produce English, French, German and Russian. Each group worked independently. Each was made up of teams with at least two teams on duty at any time in each group. One member of one team would work for a few minutes and then switch with his or her partner. After 10 or 15 minutes, the pair would switch with another team and rest until it was again time to alternate. Because of the nature of the testimony, teams worked for two days and then had the third day off.

Each court official and the witness had a microphone. Each person in the courtroom could listen on headphones to any of the four groups or the original conversation. The communication equipment was provided by IBM - Dostert friend Tom Watson’s company.

This scheme worked so well that Dostert was later tasked with creating a similar system for the fledgling United Nations. It is the system used today.

Dostert later returned to Georgetown and spent years working with Watson in an effort to create a computer that could translate and interpret the way humans can. But, as we know, that task has proven to be more difficult.

But why did Vicki write about Dostert? Dostert once commented that first impressions are often the most lasting and he always thought of "Oxy" as being his home. So in 1963, he returned home - to the very school where Vicki was a student.

After mentioning that my earlier column had filled in some blanks for her, she wrote:

My French instructor at Oxy was Leon Dostert and what a remarkable, quiet gentleman ... His childhood was in the midst of the events you describe. I'll never forget his rendering of the moment that his favorite schoolmaster was replaced by a German one. The boys had many class members who spied and reported so all were extremely careful of what one said. As the German committee waited, the French teacher wrote his farewell on the board: "Vive le francais." Then they were all German school boys.

I often marvel at the ideas and people who rise like bubbles from a spring. I'd not known until recently that Mr. Dostert was an orphan, a discovery that expanded the impact of his stories on me. The French schoolmaster was probably the father in his mind.

...Studying wth him for a year also taught me that real heroes do not usually have red capes. They are just quiet, hard-working people around us who do the best they can despite difficulties.

... Thanks for sharing this.

This was a wonderful opportunity to add to what I had previously learned and therefore I am also thankful! So on this, the anniversary of Léon Dostert's 1971 death, may we all say, "Vive le francais" - Long live the French language.

Dostert, leaning, explaining contents of a book to General Eisenhower. Photo: Occidental College.

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