Some 30 years ago, I got called to do a deathbed translation of a will. The will was written in complicated Spanish. The man, who still needed to sign it, understood only English and French.
I translated the part I read into English. My co-translator, legendary Marjory Mattingly Urquidi, could have translated it into either.
It was a long, complicated, and many-paged will, suiting the drama in the home of the dying man. Marjory and I divided up the pages. I’d translate one page, she’d translate the next. I was relieved when she received a page listing the bottles of French wines. She pronounced everything perfectly. I’d have been lost.
That event has been a memory that has stuck with me. I’ve often wondered if Marjory’s memories would coincide with mine, even whether she would remember me.
Last week, Carol Hopkins and I enjoyed a long interview with this fascinating, beautiful, and articulate woman who has lived nearly a century (b. 1922) and been part of Mexico since coming here as a young 21 year old.
Marjory got her first taste for international adventure as a 16 year old when she traveled to France as part of Vermont’s famous Experiment in International Living.The French military mobilization forced her home, sailing to New York on the last passenger voyage of the S.S. Normandy “with only a rucksack, but with a taste for international living and culture that has lasted my lifetime.”
After studying French in college Marjory planned on doing graduate work in France but the war was still on. She met a young Mexican diplomat at a State Department sponsored meeting at West Virginia’s Greenbrier Hotel. He invited her to travel to Mexico. The relationship didn’t last but her life was never the same after that.
She was very good with languages. Spanish came easily and she was soon immersed in the Mexican National Archives working on her Columbia University master’s thesis, “Origins of the Mexican Labor Unions.”
“Mexico was a gorgeous, exciting, city when I arrived in 1943. Carlos Fuentes described it perfectly,‘Where the air is clear and transparent.’ Beautiful Porfiriato mansions lined Reforma. I lived in a basement apartment of one of them. Art was happening everywhere.”
Marjory met Víctor Urquidi (Víctor Luis Urquidi Bingham 1919-2004) while doing research in September, 1945. They were married in November. Marjory described Víctor as “brilliant, of high integrity and ambitious; though never for himself, only for Mexico. He was already a well-known economist and a bright star in Mexico’s constellation; these were exciting times in Mexico.”
Victor worked for the National Treasury. “I drove him to work at the National Palace each morning and picked him up in the afternoon. We lived in San Angel and the drive took only 20 minutes. Imagine!” At that time Diego Rivera was working on the murals at the National Palace. Marjory described walking past his scaffoldings with her son Joaquin in tow. “He’d look down and greet me with, ‘Que niño tan bonito.’ Rivera was not attractive but had the charm of a man who knew he was something very special.”
Marjory translated books throughout her professional life. Most are in the field of economics. For skilled translators like Marjory it’s not enough to translate the information into another language, they transform a book into a readable account that flows as if it was originally written in the second language without deviating from the content of the original.
Perhaps her most impacting translation followed being called to Mexico’s presidential residence, Los Pinos, on Aug. 31, 1982. Marjory and three other translators were sequestered in a locked office suite without telephone contact to the outside but with plenty of food and coffee. They were not allowed to leave until their assignment was completed.
It was a literal, word-for-word translation into English of President López Portillo’s 65-page, single- spaced, state-of-the-nation speech to be delivered the following morning. On page 57 he announced the nationalization of the banks and the imposition of currency exchange controls. The translators were released at 5 a.m., but it was not a banking day and there was no way Marjory could use the information she’d acquired to protect even her own finances. Later that morning the president read his speech to a full session of Congress.
Some of Ms. Urquidi’s favorite memories are of traveling alone throughout the world. Her memories of Afghanistan, Iran, India, and Pakistan pre-date today’s conflicts.“I saw amazing sights … sadly some no longer exist.”
We were struck by Marjory Urquidi’s lack of affect. Though she’d been in the heart of Mexico’s power elite she remained in touch with her roots and continues to live a simple life. She’s outlived most of her old friends but continues to make new ones.
Marjory’s recall of events of the past seven decades seemed so amazing that I confess to fact-checking some of them. I needn’t have bothered. Unfortunately the one thing she seems to have forgotten is meeting me. She remembered the signing of the will, the translation, many other details; my presence wasn’t one of them. Oh well. I guess I didn’t exude Rivera’s charm.