French Revolution catches Army psychiatrist’s fancy
August 1, 2005
HANAU, Germany — By day, Dr. William Peterson helps soldiers deal with life’s everyday challenges.
Come night, and the Army psychiatrist is still immersed in the triumphs and troubles of troops — only these are French soldiers who lived and fought more than 200 years ago.
It’s in this world, the world of Napoleon and the French Revolution, that Peterson slips into the role of a linguistic sleuth.
For two years, Peterson has been translating from French into English the 15-volume “Les Guerres de la Révolution” by Arthur Chuquet (pronounced shoo-kay). Published from 1902-1911, Chuquet’s work is one of the most detailed accounts of the battles fought during the French Revolution.
Already, Peterson has four volumes in print, and he’s well into translating a fifth. With a routine in place and a publisher in the fold, there is every indication he’ll get through the 15 leather-bound books.
His wife “would call it an obsession,” said Peterson, who lives in Hanau. “I would just call it an interest.”
Peterson’s interest in the French language took root when he was 5. At the time, his father, an auto engineer, had taken a job in Geneva, Switzerland, where French is the dominant tongue.
“Ever since then,” Peterson said, “I’ve been in love with the French language.”
Children of primary school age tend to have an easier time learning a foreign language, and Peterson was no exception. His family spent seven years in Geneva and, during that time, Peterson became fluent in French, later studying it in college.
Peterson arrived in Hanau a year ago, the third time the 51-year-old has worked for U.S. Army Europe. He had previously hung out his shingle in Frankfurt (1987-94) and Würzburg (1997-2002).
In the summer of 2003, while he was still living in Oregon, Peterson came across an advertisement that piqued his interest.
G. F. Nafziger, an Ohio-based publisher, was seeking an English-French translator to tackle Chuquet’s tome on the French Revolution. Peterson raised his hand and got the job.
After work, he usually retreats to his apartment to work on Chuquet. With Peterson’s family back in the States, the French historian has become a sort of pseudo roommate. On weekends, Peterson will sometimes travel to old revolutionary battle sites to absorb the surroundings and take photos.
“I have the impression that virtually all of his free time is devoted to this avocation,” said Joseph Simons, an Army psychologist who works with Peterson.
Translation work isn’t easy. That’s especially so when the body of work being deciphered is from several generations ago.
In “Les Guerres de la Révolution,” Chuquet tended to ignore indigenous place names, quoted Latin and Greek classics and used archaic 18th-century French. But Peterson said Chuquet also had a “no holds barred” approach to writing, “capturing the principals” in moments of glory and gloom.
“Chuquet is very good with personalities and quirks,” Peterson said.
Perhaps that’s because Chuquet was fluent in French and German, having been educated in Paris; Metz, France; Leipzig and Berlin, both in Germany. In his lifetime, Chuquet held several academic posts and his writings on the battles waged during the French Revolutionary are among the most authoritative in circulation.
“The thing about history,” Peterson said, “is that the more you know, the more interesting the next thing becomes.”
For Peterson, an intriguing issue raised by Chuquet’s writings is the arrogance of ideas. There are, he said, “some uncomfortable parallels” between the French Revolution and the war in Iraq. Like the French of the late 18th century, he said, the United States can have an inflated opinion of itself, acting as though its policies and intentions are unassailable.
Peterson “shares what he has learned, and how it relates to current events,” Simons said. “I’ve learned quite a bit about the cultures [of Europe] because of my conversations with him.”