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Joan Pinkham, the English Voice of Pierre Vallières

Julie-McDonough-DolmayaThe daughter of a writer and translator, Joan Pinkham translated nearly a dozen books over her career, including Pierre Vallières’ Nègres blancs d’Amérique.

By Julie McDonough Dolmaya

The click-clack of an Underwood typewriter was a familiar sound to Joan Pinkham’s ears growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the 1940s.1 The daughter of Anne Terry White, who authored more than a dozen non-fiction books for
young adults and translated several others from Russian to English in the 1950s and 1960s,2 Joan Pinkham learned to love languages at an early age. She studied French at university, earning a BA from Barnard College in 1950 and then an MA from Middlebury College two years later.

Although she had no formal academic training as a translator – translation programs being extremely rare in the 1950s, particularly in the United States – Joan honed her skills while working as a bilingual secretary at the United Nations after graduating from Middlebury. She studied the bilingual documents that inevitably landed on her desk, did some informal translation from time to time and also, on her own, read any relevant books she could find, putting all this into practice by translating Maupassant in her spare time and then comparing her translations with the published versions.

Monthly Review Press

Her first professional project came in 1965, when she translated into English three articles by French Marxist economist Charles Bettelheim for the socialist magazine Monthly Review; these were published in April, June and September of that year. Three years later, she translated her first book for Monthly Review Press: Paul Nizan’s Aden, Arabie.

And so, in 1968, when Monthly Review Press acquired the English translation rights to Pierre Vallières’ autobiography Nègres blancs d’Amérique, they approached Joan with the project. Even before she read the book, she was eager to translate it because it came to her from the editors at Monthly Review, with whom she was friends, and whose work she admired. Nor did her enthusiasm waver after she had read the manuscript: though she found some of the political and philosophical sections tedious and heavy-handed, she liked the autobiographical chapters. Yet she was wary of accepting the project because, at the time, she knew very little about either Québec politics or culture and she worried she would not be able to do a good job. She asked Monthly Review to find a consultant for her and they obliged, introducing her to Quebec City journalist Malcolm Reid, who was preparing The Shouting Signpainters, a book about the FLQ, Parti pris and the left in Québec, for publication with Monthly Review Press. The two corresponded in early 1970, after Joan had finalized a draft translation. As Joan recalls, Malcolm Reid explained the meaning of various Quebecisms, identified Canadian political and literary figures, and helped her choose between various English equivalents for certain words, filling in cultural background. But when Joan proposed adding a translator’s acknowledgement to the English edition of Nègres blancs, Malcolm declined: being associated with the FLQ in the early 1970s was not something he wanted.

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China and India

Over the course of the 1970s, Joan translated three other books, including Aimé Césaire’s Discours sur le colonialisme and Pierre Goldman’s Souvenirs obscurs d’un juif polonais né en France. But when her husband Lawrence, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst,3 was invited to teach journalism in Beijing during his sabbatical year in 1979, Joan’s career took a slightly different turn. From then until 1994, the Pinkhams spent a total of eight years in China, dividing their time between Beijing and Amherst. She continued to translate – her English versions of Henri Troyat’s Catherine la Grande, Alexandre 1er, Ivan le terrible, and Pierre le grand were all published by E. P. Dutton in the early 1980s – but she also revised drafts of English translations prepared by Chinese translators, working first with Foreign Languages Press, and then with the Central Translation Bureau. After returning to the United States, her experience editing these English translations led Joan to write her first book, The Translator’s Guide to Chinglish, with help from Jiang Guihua, the retired Chief of the English Section at Beijing’s Central Translation Bureau. Designed to help Chinese translators perfect their English, the book was published by China’s Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press in 2000.

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In 2001, Joan travelled again, this time to India, where her husband was invited to help develop a journalism program. For three semesters, Joan taught a course on editing designed for Indian speakers of English at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Returning permanently to the United States in 2003, Joan drew on her experience in Chennai to prepare a textbook intended to help Indian writers master English grammar, usage and style, but she was unable to finish this book before her death in September 2012.

Reflecting on her forty years as a translator, Joan noted in 2008 that she continued to translate as long as she could find jobs, despite her feeling that translators were not always respected by book reviewers – who seldom mentioned the translator in their reviews – or by book publishers – who did not always pay a rate that adequately compensated the hours of work a good translation required. So why did she do so? Because she loved the work, believed in her authors, was occasionally praised by reviewers or editors, and was appreciated by many of the authors she translated. Translating was, as she saw it, her way of helping to spread the ideas she believed in; indeed, it was her “justification for being.”

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Joan and Larry Pinkham  Courtesy of Claire Pinkham

  1. The biographic details in this article come from an interview I conducted with Joan Pinkham in 2008. Read the full text of the interview.
  2. Archived materials related to Anne Terry White are available at the University of Oregon and at the University of Southern Mississippi.
  3. A tribute to Lawrence Pinkham, who passed away in February 2010, can be found here.


Julie McDonough Dolmaya teaches in the School of Translation at York University’s Glendon College. Her research interests include political translations, crowdsourcing and website localization. She blogs about her work at www.mcdonough-dolmaya.ca and can be reached at dolmaya@yorku.ca


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