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Staff by Day, Traducteur par la Nuit

News Story

University Archivist Ellen Sowchek, here with the French actor/producer Dominique Besnehard, has parlez-ed her love of French into a freelance adventure as a translator and an interpreter.

In a jam-packed office on the second floor of the Henry Birnbaum Library, University Archivist Ellen Sowchek spends her days cataloging and preserving the history of Pace—the minutes of trustee meetings, presidents’ correspondence, yearbooks, student newspapers, and much more.

But during her off hours, Sowchek wears a different chapeau, as a highly regarded French to English translator and interpreter. The distinction, she explains, is that translators work with the written word, while interpreters deal with the spoken one. As a general rule of the profession, she adds, translators and interpreters will render a foreign language into their native tongue but not the other way around. So she, for example, doesn’t translate English into French.

Sowchek came to Pace in 1981, when the archives were established. She had previously been an archivist for the National Board of YMCAs. In the decades since, she has seen the University grow and the archives expand along with it. Today her collection illustrates how quickly media have changed over the years, with shelves and cabinets filled with paper, photographic prints and negatives, reel-to-reel and cassette tapes, LPs, CDs, videotapes, and DVDs. Some recent additions and high-demand items have been digitized and now reside on her hard drive, though that, too, may give way to some other technology in the future.

Sowchek says she sees the role of the archivist as twofold. “It’s not just my job to keep history, but to sell it,” she says. For the last several years she has used the archives to create multimedia presentations for special events, such as the 50th anniversaries of faculty members Nick Catalano, PhD; Allan Rabinowitz; and Sherman Raskin, PhD, as well as for retirement luncheons and other celebrations.

She also fields a wide variety of questions ranging from scholarly inquiries from outside historians to students working on class assignments and individuals seeking information on relatives who attended Pace generations ago. There is also the occasional inquiry about the ghosts alleged to inhabit 41 Park Row, Choate House, and Dow Hall, a particularly popular topic around Halloween time.

In her role as a translator, Sowchek works primarily on commercial and legal documents as well as human rights issues, a longtime personal interest. She also translates and interprets for film, theater, opera, and dance. Among the celebrated artists she has interpreted for are the film directors Claude Chabrol and Jean Luc Godard and the actresses Emmanuelle Riva and Audrey Tautou. She and a colleague, Annie Heminway, just finished the translation for an e-book edition of The Painter's Lover by the novelist and playwright Eduardo Manet, a descendant of the famous French artist Edouard Manet. The book is due out this month.

Asked if she had done any work for The Artist, the French film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2012 and made a star of the Jack Russell terrier Uggie, Sowchek said she had not. It’s probably just as well, she added. “I speak cat, but not dog.”