Sunday, July 31, 2022

Volunteer Women Interpreters in the Spanish Civil War (1)


The penultimate post on this blog was about interpreters in a recent conflict zone. This one is about an older conflict, namely the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939.

Spanish readers need no introduction to that war. Though it ended 80 years ago, the memory of it is still hot in the Spanish psyche and no day passes without reference to it in the Spanish press, media and parliament. Others,  however, may need to be reminded that it was fought between the elected government, which was very left wing and anticlerical, and a fascist military rebellion led by General Francisco Franco. Both sides sought support from forces outside the country. Franco was reinforced by the fascist regimes in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. The government side was aided by the Soviet Union and also by the motley International Brigades of foreigners impelled by their left-wing sympathies. The most famous of the latter was George Orwell; but we Canadians are also proud of Montreal surgeon Norman Bethune, who pioneered blood refrigeration and transfusion.

The foreign fighters on the government side had another thing in common besides their left-wing sympathies. It was that most of them knew no Spanish, and this generated an enormous demand for translators and interpreters. Here is a story that illustrates how desperate the situation was:

“During the defence of Suicide Hill, in the Battle of Jarama [February 1937], Captain Robert Hale Merriman, commander of the Lincoln Brigades, recalls his anguish when he asked for a stretcher for a wounded comrade at an infirmary where no one seemed to understand him: “Nobody paid attention to me. I then realized that they were French and Hollanders. I tried the sign language and my twelve words in Spanish. They thought I had gone crazy. Finally, a Hollander who could talk English came up to the station.”

Into this inferno of war and incomprehension stepped three remarkably courageous  women: Aileen Palmer, Nan Green and Rajsa Rothman. They came because of their left-wing sympathies, but on arrival it was soon found that the most useful contribution they could make was by their languages.

None of them had any previous training as interpreter, which explains why this post is dedicated to them. 

We only have space here to recount the career of one of the women, Aideen Palmer (1915-1988). For the others, we urge you to read the full article referenced below. There will be more about them in a future post. 

Aideen was born in an Australian cosmopolitan middle class family and was raised by her parents… in a progressive intellectual environment. During her education at the University of Melbourne, Palmer accomplished a competent command of French, German, Spanish and Russian, which was probably the main reason why she was hired as the personal translator of Austrian novelist and socialist activist Helene Scheu-Riesz. In the summer of 1936, [she] was travelling through Europe with her parents when they decided to spend some time in Spain. While her mother and father were busy with their literary engagements, their offspring spent her days trying to disentangle the Spanish political labyrinth through a close reading of Catalan newspapers — which she sometimes translated into English— and meeting young politically active companions, such as Lisa Gedeke, a Finish polyglot. Her knowledge of languages and her left wing political activism, which had drawn her into joining the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in the early 1930s, probably made her an ideal candidate for the job of interpreter at the Popular Olympic Games of Barcelona, when her application was received at the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), the Catalan communist party. Palmer was to have worked at the Popular Games July as an antifascist response to the Nazi Olympics held in Berlin in August of that same year, but the games were never to be celebrated because of the rebellion of General Franco and his comrades-in arms on 18th July. Palmer’s duties were, therefore, dramatically changed to act as an interpreter for the athletes of more than twenty international delegations stranded in the city and to send telegrams to their countries to say that they were out of danger… Following the recommendation of the British consul in Barcelona, who warned her father about the presence of uncontrolled anarchist militia in Barcelona, Aileen… reluctantly left Spain on board HMS London, a Royal Navy warship. However, a month later she was back in the country in her capacity of interpreter of the first British Medical Unit sent to Spain. Palmer arrived in Grañén, a tiny village in the province of Huesca [in the North East], chosen by Peter Spencer, Viscount Churchill, a prominent member of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, and Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, a medical student from Cambridge and administrator of the hospital, because of its strategic position a few kilometres behind the battle front. Palmer was the secretary and interpreter of  Sinclair-Loutit, who would have to deal with an anarchist major who regarded the foreign medical facilities in Grañen as an interference of the Republican government, with the resentment of his working-class drivers and mechanics, and with the confrontation between communists and non-communists.


Palmer’s three months on the Aragon front were full of hard work as interpreter in several languages. She often travelled on ambulances to other villages in search of wounded soldiers as, apart from English and Spanish, there were also French, Italian and German volunteers fighting. On other occasions, her assignments included translating between doctors and patients in hospitals, or “the grim task of packing up and sending home the efectos de los muertos, the pathetic bundles of belongings of those who had died.”


In January 1937, Palmer’s British Medical Aid Unit was integrated into the Service Sanitaire of the XIV International Brigade, the French-Belgian batallions. Together with her companions from Grañén, she travelled to different villages near Madrid in the Sierra de Guadarrama, where a new hospital was set up on 10th January. On the following day, the attack started and a growing number of casualties soon began to arrive. Palmer was called to interpret for two Polish doctors of the unit who spoke French and a little English and were concerned about starting a new hospital somewhere in Madrid: “By the end of January, Palmer was clearly exhausted, having been working on the front lines for five months straight. She was also suffering from having to adapt to a new regime and new people, especially as she was called upon frequently to interpret between French and English-speaking members of the service itself as well as helping to perform triage on the wounded soldiers who came from a variety of countries”


Palmer’s unit was then moved to El Escorial to provide support to the casualties in the Battle of Brunete [24 km West of Madrid] Later on, she moved back to Huete, on the Aragon front, where she became secretary and interpreter of Dr. Leonard Crome, Chief Medical Officer of the 35th Division. In July 1938, when she was already in London and the Republicans tried to cross the river Ebro launching a major attack on the Francoist army advancing over Valencia, Palmer was replaced by Crome’s new assistant, Nan Green, with whom she would keep in touch in England for many years after the war.


The humanitarian work of these women didn’t end with the war. in the aftermath they continued to participate in relief organizations which would help thousands of Spanish civil war refugees, and in humanitarian missions reclaiming fair trials for political prisoners in Franco’s dictatorship, as well as to their ultimate work translating for the state publishing houses of the emerging communist parties in China or Vietnam.

To be continued


Marcos Rodríguez-Espinosa (University of Malaga). The forgotten contribution of women translators in international sanitary units and relief organizations during and in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Current Trends in Translation Teaching and Learning E, 5 (2018), 348 – 394. Available at

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