Der Führer and I: misinterpretation as a smart career move

Unprofessional Translation, one of the most interesting translation blogs out there, has introduced me to a wonderful anecdote, which apparently comes from the German original of Dolmetscher der Diktatoren (1963), the memoirs of the Eugen Dollmann, the protagonist. Here‘s the late American investigative journalist, Robert Katz:

Dollmann had spent the past decade in Italy. As a young scholar he had come to Rome in 1927 with a grant to do research on a Renaissance pope. The grant ran out. The world changed. Hitler came to power. But Dollmann managed to stay in Italy, pursuing his studies. By now he spoke the language flawlessly and was known to his many friends as “Eugenio.” [In 1937] his rather obscure existence had been completely transformed. He had come face to face with Hitler. They took a liking to one another. It happened this way: Hitler was to address an assembly of Italian Fascist youth. His interpreter was suddenly taken ill. Dollmann was pressed into service and summoned to Hitler’s room. “Mein Führer,” snapped the stiff adjutant who introduced them, “Doktor Dollmann ist da.” One can still hear the heels clicking.

A figure stepped from behind a screen. It was Hitler. He extended his hand.

“So, you are Doctor Dollmann from Rome?”

“Hitler held my hand for several seconds,” Dollmann remembers. “He stared at me intensively with those famous eyes… it seemed as if he were trying to hypnotize me.”

Dollmann has never worked as an interpreter, and, believing that Hitler will just say a few words, it doesn’t occur to him to take notes. However, the boss rants on for half an hour, and when it’s Dollmann’s turn he can’t remember anything and decides makes up his own speech, which, according to UT, receives an excellent reception:

So Dollmann thought his ordeal was over, but no. To his dismay, he was told he would be driving back in Hitler’s own car. He got in, wondering whether Hitler realised what had happened, and after a while, sure enough, the Führer said to him sternly, “Herr Doktor, it seems to me you didn’t say quite what I said.” Dollmann’s heart sank to his boots. And then Hitler continued, “But never mind. They liked it.”

Katz or virtually anything else available on Dollmann will leave the average interpreter virescent with envy, although Michael Salter’s Nazi War Crimes, US Intelligence and Selective Prosecution at Nuremberg, which uses some archival sources, seems (page bottom) to suggest that the official involved was actually Himmler.

But se non è vero, è ben trovato, and Dollmann’s memoirs sound like a marvellous read, and I’ll happily report back if someone sends me a copy. (Years ago, recovering from hangovers in a bedroom in Freiburg full of diplomatic memoirs, I waded through chunks of the recollections of Paul Schmidt, who ran the German Foreign Office’s translation service through the 1930s to the end, but they were dreadfully dull. Life is short.)

The contemporary interpreter-to-superhero whose tale everyone wants to hear is of course José Mourinho, who worked in that role at Barcelona for Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal before being reincarnated as Beelzebub. With Robson dead and van Gaal … absent, it is difficult to imagine José taking a humble view of his role, but I doubt he will come out with any revelations as startling as Dollmann’s “Hitler was gay.”

A German interpreter once told me that Churchill once said that leaders most feared interpreters and dentists, which I can’t substantiate but which sounds about right.

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