Eileen Hennessy—A personal encounter of the favorable kind 1937 – March 17, 2018

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Photograph by John Sarsgard 2010

Eileen is an unforgettable colleague. Working as a full-time, free-lance translator since 1972, she mentored younger translators while serving as a model for success. At one point she shared an office in Rockefeller Center, stayed at a women’s hotel in New York City during the work week and passed the weekends on Long Island with her mother. She always dressed well, but of course, this was not what you noticed.

Here are recollections of Ms. Hennessy indicative of the great diversity of activities she pursued:

Close to 30 years ago we met when she provided translations for the law firm Shearman & Sterling LLP. Teaching at New York University since 1985, she was known for her brilliant courses on legal translation from French. With a quiet demeanor, her thought was lucid and effective. And joyful. In a translation assignment fictionalized for confidentiality, a company name became Chatquidort, S.A. or Sleepingcat, Inc. Eileen could be described as “old school”, yet she never failed to connect with her students over several decades. Her notion of “professorial safety” involved the pedagogically sound principles of gradual presentation and overlapping repetition, particularly for complex legal texts. She was a master of the comparative law approach, with a keen interest in penetrating the veil of legal procedure. [Jean Campbell]

While always appearing conservatively dressed and even a bit “buttoned up”, Eileen was actually someone who, in response to the word “Let’s” would enthusiastically answer, “Go!”. I had attended the Israel Translators Association conferences for a few years when, in 2008, I suggested to Eileen and another NYU instructor that they come and present – an excuse to visit a beautiful country, and a nice line on the CV. To my surprise, both accepted, and Eileen and I presented a talk on legal translation together. We had a fascinating day touring the Old City of Jerusalem and came back to dinner at our apartment there. I believe that is how I will remember her, because it was a rare intimate setting for someone whose private and public personas were so separate. My primary meetings with Eileen were at the thrice-yearly open houses for potential students in the NYU Translation Studies program, over some 15 years. Each of us would speak a bit about “What it’s like to be a translator”, including how we started out in the profession. Eileen provided an invaluable perspective going back to the days not only before the internet but to the times when an educated, literate and creative woman often limited her aspirations to a job as a secretary at a prestigious firm. But she took that and turned it into a career, or several careers, including translator, poet, author and educator. She embodied the verse “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar”. [Eve Hecht]

I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to contact Eileen to have dinner when I found out about her passing. She emailed me in January that she was looking forward to it. We used to dine a couple of times a year. Eileen did not talk much but her eyes said a lot. She was an intent and active listener and a keen observer. We discussed translation, our program and outside interests and sought the humor in everything.

Eileen was the last remaining instructor of the initial group that founded the NYU translation program. She started teaching in 1985. She had a keen interest in the progress of the program and in its success. The early 2000s were transformational for the program as we transitioned to online delivery and we knew she was “old school”. Eileen faced a challenge. None of us wanted to lose her as an instructor. She was slight of build but strong. She would grab her laptop, go to the office of distance learning and sit with the trainers until she mastered online instruction. I don’t think she installed TRADOS but she never let NYU down. Once we had a Master’s thesis defense online, in live synchronous mode. Eileen was a reviewer. The topic was in the field of French to English legal translation and there was an issue with the student’s terminology. All of a sudden, Eileen started explaining differences between the French and American legal systems, hence terminologies, with detail and authority that I had never heard before. It was an Eileen never before encountered, speaking with the unchallengeable voice of a true expert. If she could read this she would probably say “Eh!” with her characteristic smile. [Milena Savova]

With her long silver hair piled on top of her head, sparkling eyes, direct smile, and restrained elegance, Eileen Hennessy was a woman who quietly blazed trails for others. At every information session for the NYU translation certificate program Eileen told prospective students how she broke into the profession. Back in the day, she was known in the man’s world of the corporate office as “the girl” who knew languages. Any document that arrived in a language other than English was routed to her desk. Eileen was a gifted linguist and hard worker. She transformed herself from “the girl” with languages to a self-made translator and earned the highest credentials and certifications available in multiple languages.

As one of her translation students, the most important lessons I learned from Eileen were taught by example and subtlety. She created a culture in which no student should ever bluff, but be honest and aware of uncertainties, and reach out to collaborate with colleagues to come up with the best possible solutions to bedeviling translation problems. Eileen’s French to English Legal II course was in essence a course in comparative legal systems. She taught new translators that the craft was not cookie-cutter replacement of one word with another, but research and understanding of different societies and different legal systems. That knowledge base then had to be added to an understanding of the American legal system in order to translate the legal transactions of one society into the language of another. Eileen never “winged it.” She came prepared to every class and generously shared her toolkits and lifetime of experience with her students to make them the best professional translators they could be. It impressed me that Eileen rented a separate office space to do her translation work. She told me that she needed that physical division of the spheres of her life so work did not obliterate what else she enjoyed in life, and conversely, so life’s challenges did not obscure the need to go to work. Eileen was an intensely private person. I did not know she was a poet. Saddened by her death, I also feel fortunate that she has left writings that promise a glimpse of the Eileen I did not know. [Alison Dundy]

In April 2015, when I was translation and interpreting studies coordinator at NYU-SPS, I organized a panel discussion entitled “Machine Translation, CAT Tools and the Shifting Landscape of the Translation Industry.” Aside from machine translation specialists, and our resident CAT specialist and soothsayer, Jon Ritzdorf, I asked Eileen Hennessy to speak about the changes she had experienced during her long and distinguished career. Towards the end of the event, Jon stood up and with uncharacteristic gravitas said about Eileen to the more than 70 attendees: “There will never be another generation of translators like yours… once you’re gone, no one will care about quality like you did.” Eileen beamed, and her eyes sparkled after Jon gave her this much-deserved recognition. Now that his premonition has come to pass, I too can sadly report that the hole Eileen’s passing left in our community is massive, aching, and totally unfillable. [Steven Gendell]

I thought I would share what I am guessing are two little-known facts about Eileen. In the late 1980s, when we were both teaching in the NYU translation program, Eileen and I used to meet for dinner. At my apartment on the Upper West Side after one of those dinners, Eileen’s gaze fell on a lighter I had brought as a souvenir from Cognac, France. “That’s my family coat of arms!” she exclaimed. I had never made the connection between Eileen and the famed Hennessy cognac house but at that moment, it all became clear!

Here is another thing: Eileen passed the United Nations translation exam in 1979 but when it came time to accept the job, she turned it down. She wanted the variety she thought the private sector would give her, and time for her own writing. I remember that she felt very strongly about it. How right she was to be true to herself. The many books she translated and her published poetry bear testament to that. I met Eileen as a colleague but now remember her as a supportive and fun-loving friend. Eileen was someone who always built you up and made you feel she was on your side – and she laughed at everyone’s jokes (even if they weren’t funny). Kind, likeable, and unassuming, with a great love of many languages – that was Eileen. Hard to believe she is no longer with us. [Laurie Treuhaft]

Eileen modeled the qualities of honor, dignity, professionalism, ethical imperative, and more importantly high-expectations. As a student in three of Eileen’s master’s in French into English translation courses, I knew I could always count on honest feedback, and that as one of her students I was held to a ‘higher’ standard – it was Eileen’s standard. In her fair assessments of my – and all her students – work, I knew if I did not put the extra effort into an assignment I would pay dearly for it. Eileen was also very humble and approachable. On as many occasions as I was able, I would reach out to meet up when I was in New York City. We had several excellent meals together and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to meet her on those trips. Eileen will truly be missed by NYU MS in French into English translation students! [Chris Queen]

Generally active in the profession, Ms. Hennessy participated in panels at the New York Circle of Translators. She was certified by the American Translators Association in French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish into English.

Diminutive in size, she was grand in stature.

Her academic qualifications included M.F.A., Creative Writing, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, NJ, February 2008; M.A., English/Creative Writing, New York University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, May 1985 and B.A., Philosophy/Psychology/Religion, St. John’s University, NY, June 1958.

Her work was widely published in translation journals. Among books she translated are Braque by Raymond Cogniat, Edvard Munch, XIX Century Drawings and Watercolors, Turner and Odilon Redon, all by Jean Selz, The Nun by Denis Diderot, The French Pocket Cookbook by Ginette Mathiot, A History of the Comic Strip by Pierre Couperie, The Flower Mat by Shugoro Yamamoto, Vasarely by Gaston Diehl, Modigliani by Amadeo Modigliani, Maillol by Denis Chevalier, The Esthetics of the Middle Ages by Edgar de Brayne, as well as A History of Technology and Invention, 2 volumes, edited by Maurice Daumas.

Her volumes of poetry include This Country of Gale-force Winds (2011) and Places Where We Have Lived Forever (2015). Her poems have also appeared in Like a Musical Instrument, edited by Larry Fagin (2014), VIVA LA DIFFERENCE (2010), Whiskey Island Magazine #46 (2003) and By the Light of the Moon (2015), as well as Stickman Review, Crack the Spine, Forge, Artful Dodge, Cream City Review, Sanskrit, The Literary Review, The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Prairie Schooner, The New York Quarterly and Smartish Place.

Her work is her legacy, vivid for her readers, her students and those fortunate to have mingled in her circles. Can we say her poem below is prescient?


About making my home
smaller and clearer:
I am past caring for your
I’m rediscovering my secrets,
changing my views on pissers
in the streets. Have stopped
dressing for your
history, being a victim
of your benevolence.
Now that I’ve drawn a final
line under my vanishing act,
I bequeath to you the chance
to fold my clothes left
hanging on the line.

posted by Vending Machine Press in Poems, 2016 Eileen B. Hennessy

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