Monday, August 22, 2022

Volunteer Women Interpreters in the Spanish Civil War (2)

In the previous post we drew on excellent research by Prof. Marcos Rodriguez-Espinosa of the University of Malaga which restores from oblivion the role of some of the women volunteer interpreters in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). He picks out three of them and gives interesting information about their educational backgrounds. We summarised the career of one of them, Aileen Palmer. Her story illustrates the inspiring influence of the Communist Party in the 1930s not only in Spain but also in faraway Australia. (In my student days it was strong in England too.) In conclusion, we turn to the other two.

Nan Green (1904-1984)

Nan Green was born in an Anglican family whose middle class standards of living declined when her father lost his job and fell ill in the early stages of the First World War. This process of proletarianisation would be the basis of her future left-wing sympathies, which made her join the BCP, together with her husband George…

In February 1937, George took the decision to travel to Spain as a driver of the ambulances in the convoy of the Spanish Medical Aid, with nurses, doctors and stretcher bearers. Nan, who also agreed that it was the best contribution they could make to help in the international war against fascism, followed his steps in July as a member of the administrative personnel attached to the medical units.


Green’s first responsibility was to be Assistant Secretary to Peter Harrison, a polyglot who spoke five languages, in an English hospital for wounded soldiers in the province of Cuenca, where the administrator, the surgeon, the theatre and war nurses and ambulance drivers were initially mostly from Spain, England and New Zealand… Much work was done in collaboration with the local women whose experience with nurses was limited to those nuns who mainly ran Spanish hospitals in those days… Green’s close contact with native civilians and soldiers was probably the main reason why she decided to receive Spanish lessons during the scarce free time her other responsibilities left her… “my first lessons in what later became almost a second language to me and contributed to my subsequent history…” Her growing command of Spanish was probably the reason why she was given the responsibility of escorting an Australian lady, sent by a railway organization which had raised a large sum of money for her trip. During the summer of 1938, Green was engaged as secretary to Leonard Crom, Chief Medical Officer of the 35th Division Medical Corps, where her main duties were to translate the doctor’s dispatches into formal Spanish, to keep the divisional medical records and to turn them into usable statistical information.


Crom was soon replaced by a Spanish-Gibraltarian, Enrique Bassadone, a professional and efficient doctor who did not approve of women and always addressed Green in Spanish “in the third person” [the formal person of verbs], to which she replied in the second [familiar] person, more usual in Republican Spain. This gives some idea of her character.

After the Battle of the Ebro (July-November 1938) the longest and largest battle of the war, all members of the International Brigades were ordered to withdraw from their military and sanitary duties, Nan among them. Unfortunately her husband, infantry sergeant George Green, died during the withdrawal. After the war, she kept contact for many years with Aileen.

Kajsa Rothman 

Kajsa Helin Rothman (1903-1969) was born in Karlstad, Sweden. After completing school, she moved to Paris, where she made her living as a nanny and a journalist. At twenty-two, she toured Europe and North Africa with a competitive dance group. Later on, she travelled to Romania, were, once again, she found a job as a nursemaid. In 1934, she started a travel agency in Barcelona. After the Fascist insurrection in 1936, despite her lack of medical background, she volunteered for the Red Cross and for a Swedish charity. Later in October she joined a Scottish Ambulance Unit in Madrid, contributed to Radio Madrid’s broadcasting services in Swedish and sent articles on the Spanish Civil War to a liberal Swedish newspaper... In December 1936, she approached Canadian Dr. Norman Bethune with the purpose of interviewing him for a book she was writing about him. A few days later, he hired her as secretary and interpreter at the Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit, which, with the funds provided by the Canadian Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy (CASD), he set up in a spacious apartment in one of the most affluent districts in Madrid. It was in these premises where Bethune’s team of doctors, nurses and technicians would work hard in the laboratories, fresh blood storage rooms and transfusion wards with the aim of providing blood along the front. Bethune soon figured out the relevance of propaganda in his plans to establish a blood transfusion unit in Spain. While Sorensen, his Canadian interpreter, did not share Bethune’s enthusiasm for such activities, Rothman happily engaged in short-wave radio programmes in several languages, and her close ties with influential foreign correspondents reporting from Madrid proved to be of great value as the unit’s innovative nature and the Spanish conflict began to be known in other countries... Rothman’s connections in diverse departments of the Loyalist government and her capacity to communicate in many different languages made her an essential asset in Bethune’s pressing need to find suitable blood donors. Her detailed knowledge of Spanish maps and her familiarity with the exact situation of strategic country roads, bridges and crossings also turned out to be crucial to gather information about the medical demands of the numerous mobile hospitals and the frequent trips transfusion units had to make on powerful vehicles to distant battlefields.


Rothman,, maintained a difficult relationship with her colleague Sorensen, as he resented her invading his translation duties, and also with the Spanish doctors at the transfusion unit, who thought her love affair with Bethune interfered with their work. Her outspoken confidence, her dubious political affiliations and her overt sexual behaviour would make her the perfect scapegoat of the Trotskyist spy hunt set up by communist run Servicio de Investigación Militar, the Republic’s intelligence secret police.


Later, Rothman joined the International Commission which helped Republican refugees to find a new life in Mexico, where her language skills and large scale organizational skills had made her an essential component. Rothman stayed in Mexico working as an interpreter guide and a teacher in the city of Tequisquiapan, until her death in Cuernavaca in 1969


The three women were drawn to the conflict and to one another by an affinity. Not the kind of affinity we see in literary translation (for that, enter affinity in the Search box on the right)  but an affinity of ideology and of adventurism. In conflicts that are ideological as well as military it is unrealistic to expect interpreters to be neutral. These women were not.


None of the them had trained as an interpreter, yet they were all able to function usefully. That was because all bilinguals can translate within the limits of their other cognitive abilities, experience and education. However, the translation ability has to be triggered. For this we may adapt an old saying and say, “Necessity is the mother of interpreting.”



Marcos Rodríguez-Espinosa, M. (2018). 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, 348 – 394, 2018. Available at cttl_e_2018_12.pdf. Apologies for the wrong link address in the previous post

The above is only a selection from the wealth of information to be found in the article.


Battle of the Ebro. Wikipedia, 2022.

Norman Bethune. Wikipedia, 2022. 

There are photographs of the three women on Google Images. 


By happy coincidence an article in today’s The Guardian (25 August) relates something closely connected with the topic of the above. It’sSpanish civil war book reveals hidden history of female journalists” by Stephen Burgen. However, the book reviewed will not be publshed until the autumn.