Brigitte Sauzay—cultural agent?

She became an interpreter by chance and determination, and later a proponent of a European identity based on cultural wealth rooted in diversity.

Brigitte Sauzay grew up at a time when women were educated to ensure that they could provide stimulating company for their future husbands, and that they could support themselves if their husbands died. She wouldn't accept that, and quietly set about acquiring an independent profession. Almost by chance - she got the idea from a girl she met on the Paris metro - she became a conference interpreter.

Some 25 years on, she can claim to have become one of the most influential women in Europe. She has had the ear of Presidents Pompidou, Giscard d'Estaing, and Mitterrand; she has worked with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and is now a personal advisor to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. She has written books on Europe that have sold well; she collaborated with Mitterrand on his book, L'Allemagne de la France; she set up an institute aimed at stimulating dialogue between civic groups in Europe, inviting speakers like Lionel Jospin and Gerhard Schröder. (They came.) And she is involved in projects like the Voltaire programme, a Franco-German initiative run by the Franco-German Youth Organisation which lets French and German students swap countries for their fifth school year.

It reads like the CV of a committed and single-minded European-a cultural agent on a mission. Yet Brigitte Sauzay is in no way the stereotype pro-European. There's nothing messianic or Machiavellian about her. Her attitude to Europe is one of pragmatism, shot through with affection, and perhaps more than a touch of Romanticism.

Being an interpreter helps. Her career has made her all too aware that culture and communication rest on practical as well as philosophical foundations. At a time when there is a good deal of soul-searching about what it means to be European, and how the global economy is chipping away at our identity, Brigitte Sauzay seems to be homing in on what matters. She has no time for the notion that we should create an Identikit European; nor is she persuaded that Europe needs to be in any way defensive about its cultural place in the world. Interpreters tend not to agonise-well, you can't when someone is rattling away in your ear in one language, and you're communicating their thoughts to an audience in another. Nor does Brigitte Sauzay. She focuses on the practical issues of how Europeans find their place in a New World; then she sets about dealing with those practicalities.

Don't let that fool you thinking she is a mere technician; there's nothing remotely prosaic or mechanistic about her ideas or methods. But they are located in the real world, as she explained when I spoke to her last week in her Berlin office.

How did you become an interpreter?

By chance. We lived in Paris when we were young. Both my parents were French, and my father was very ahead of his time-he was very European. I was quite bright, and would have taken my Bac at 15. He felt that was too young, and suggested I spend a year in England. So I went to St Mary's school in Folkestone, Kent. Even in the 1960s, that was very unusual. I was the only French person in the school. It made me realise that what you believe depends on where you're from, and that you have to adapt to survive.

In 1967, I came back to France to do my Bac, and went to Toulon. It was assumed I'd marry after two to three years, and that, like all girls, I was just studying to make myself more interesting, and to make sure I could survive if my husband died. I went to Nice to study German, and met some students who were doing company law, which gave me a focus for my language studies.

Was that the last port of call for your studies?

No. It was at Nice that someone asked me why I was studying German in Nice? It was a good question. And my answer was to go to Freiburg to learn German. I still needed a French diploma if I was to work in France. Luckily, I had an understanding professor on Nice who said he only wanted to see me at exam time. So I graduated, and started to look for a way to earn my living.

Had you thought of becoming an interpreter?

Not at all. I was just determined that I would be independent and have a career. I wanted to write, but I knew it would be almost impossible to support myself from writing alone. Then I happened to meet a girl in the metro who had studied translation. I had the idea of teaching in the daytime, and translating in the evening, so I enrolled in a school run by the local Chamber of Commerce. And it was there that I discovered the profession of conference interpretation.

One of the interpreters teaching at the school had worked for De Gaulle, and he took me to the Elysée. So in 1971, there I was, sitting behind President Pompidou. I started going to all the Franco-German meetings. I met Giscard d'Estaing, who was then Minister of Finance, and he asked me to interpret between him and his German counterparts, Herr Schiller, and then Schmidt.

Then it happened that Giscard d'Estaing was due to make a state visit to Germany, and wanted to brush up his German. And so I taught him German.

When he left power, Mitterrand came along, and I worked with him for both his terms of office. A combination of circumstances changed my career again: German reunification altered the whole nature of Franco-German relations; plus the Socialists were less hierarchical. They realised I had a good knowledge of Germany. Mitterrand's advisor, Védrine, was among those who helped me assert myself. I started writing briefing notes on Germany. Not just the dry data about GDP, and other economic statistics, but about how you live and breathe in places like Hamburg.

So this is really when you became more than an interpreter-when you became a sort of cultural agent? Was this a new mission for you?

Yes, I suppose so, although like most interpreters, I'd always been interested in more than just the mechanics of language. In 1985, I wrote a book called Vertige allemand, which looked at the relationship between Germany and France. And like everyone else, I was involved in the whole debate about national sovereignty, and the role of the nation state in the global economy.

How did you see it developing?

It seemed to me that the choice was between ceding sovereignty in a way that was constructive, and just watching it drift away. The key task was to work out what we had in common with our neighbours, and work out ways of exploiting those areas of common interest. And to try and make sure this penetrated down to all levels of society. That's why in 1993, I created the Institute for Franco-German Co-operation in Europe, in Genshagen near Berlin. I had the help of the French Foreign Ministry, but the idea was to get all the groups within society involved in this debate. The Institute organises dialogues on subjects relating to European identity. Jospin and Schröder have been keynote speakers, addressing audiences made up of academics, journalists, intellectuals, industrialists and the media. We cover subjects like the concept of public service, or nationhood. This was particularly relevant because it focused on whether it's possible to have a nation that is not based on ethnicity.

You've talked a lot about a European identity. How would you answer a question about your nationality? Do you feel European?

Oh, I'm French. I feel French. I think the nation state will become less important, not the nations themselves. We can see how factors like technology, economics, commerce are all changing the function of the state. Our concept of justice is becoming more to do with European and universal standards. The state's role in education is being usurped by television and the Internet. So instead of simply yielding to these forces, why not cede sovereignty to an entity we can control?

That sounds defensive, as if European culture is besieged by global culture-which is a polite way of referring to US or Anglo-Saxon culture.

I don't see it like that. I enjoy global culture. And, like most people, I'm attracted to the USA because it's so fascinating and innovative. I wouldn't reproach the USA at all. The problem is with us. We're not European enough.

What do you mean by that?

We should be offering what I call the Nabokov world as an alternative to the global world. We should be stressing our cultural wealth and showing how that wealth has its origins in our diversity. Global culture can't take account of this at all. European culture is built on it.

And I do sense that we are beginning to realise this. Young Europeans are realising that we do some things much better-such as the relationship between men and women. The USA refers to the battle of the sexes, while we see the dichotomy behind this concept as a false one. I think there are more women in positions of influence and power in Europe than there are in the USA precisely because we have avoided that notion of a battle. But, I repeat, the problem is not the USA; the problem is us, and our lack of commitment to being European.

Would you have had these ideas if you'd had a different, less cosmopolitan upbringing?

There's no doubt my upbringing helped. It gave me an understanding of how rich the world can be, and how one's own perspective can change.. And yes, it was unusual. Yet today, that kind of upbringing is available to more and more people. The European Commission's Voltaire programme, for example, will bring young people from France and Germany into contact with each other; they'll learn about other cultures, other languages, other ideas. It's not just the province of a privileged elite any more.

So you're now a full-time cultural agent? What about your career as an interpreter?

Well, I don't interpret anymore. I spent eight years as a freelance interpreter from 1971 to 1979, and then ended up running the interpretation and translation service for the French government from 1991 to 1997. I worked very closely with President Mitterrand, especially when he was working on his book, L'Allemagne de la France. Now I see myself as having a wider role, perhaps as the "cultural agent" you refer to. I wrote another book recently called Retour à Berlin, which looks at how Germany has changed since reunification. The aim of the book was the same as the aim when I wrote those briefing notes for President Mitterrand: to explain Germany to the French.

So there's still a need for this, after all these years of European unity?

Oh yes, It's a process that's only just starting, and perhaps will never stop. Schröder is the first post-Post-War Chancellor. His Germany will be very different from Kohl's, while Kohl's was perhaps not that different from Adenauer's. Schröder is linked to the western tradition of Social Democracy; this is what makes him well-placed to integrate the Easterners into the new Germany.

You talk about Europe strictly in Franco-German terms.

Well, these two countries represent the whole range of what you might call European orientation. Southern Europe is European by nature. The Dutch and the British are a bit more distant. The British especially like to identify with the global society, and the might and wealth of the global economy. But they are Europeans, and they can make a powerful contribution to this new European identity through their libertarian traditions. We in Europe tend to see the state as the protector; we could do with showing a touch of Anglo-Saxon irreverence towards our rulers.

What about your family? Are you bringing your children up as Europeans?

Yes-but not in the way the question implies. My children are from Provence, then from France, then from Europe; and they'll be spending a year in the USA as part of their education. That's what I mean by being European. It has nothing to do with trying to impose some kind of false identity. It's much more a matter of exploring your own local culture as a foundation for getting to know and absorbing others.

And the rest of the world?

My family has a military past, and we have close links to Europe's colonial history. In fact, my grandfather has many items of Asian and African art work in his home-including, for example, tapestries from the Queen of Cambodia for helping her give birth to twins. So I'm very aware that Europe is part of a global society-but you can't be everywhere at the same time. When you are sure of your own identity, then you can explore the world.

Recommended citation format:
AIIC. "Brigitte Sauzay—cultural agent?". December 1, 1999. Accessed October 23, 2019. <>.