MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury native Olivier Knox spends a lot of time doing translation.
It’s not really language translation — although he is a correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP), the oldest and third-largest news agency in the world. He has worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., since 1996, and writes his stories in English.
But the translation he does is cultural — explaining what goes on in Washington from an international perspective.
Knox, a 1988 graduate of Middlebury Union High School, returns to his hometown this Wednesday to deliver a lecture at Middlebury College about his experiences as a White House correspondent during the Bush Administration.
Knox, 39, came to the AFP in 1996 after completing the graduate program in international studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he worked as an assistant to the Washington correspondent of a French newspaper. He applied to work for the AFP and was soon covering Congress and the political scene. In December 2000, Knox was assigned to cover George W. Bush’s presidency, which he did for the next eight years.
This meant traveling a lot — taking Knox from Bush’s ranch outside Waco, Texas, to the press conference in Baghdad where the Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at the American president.
These days Knox is back on the Congress beat. The transition to covering politics at a calmer pace, he said, has been startling.
“It is like going from trying to drink from a fire hose to trying to fill a canteen from 50 dripping taps,” he said of the transition during an interview in Middlebury last Friday.
Reporting for a French news agency is not quite the same as reporting for an American one. Knox has to cover news differently than many in the Washington press corps. He focuses especially on the international policy aspects of the administration, and he always has to be especially attentive to his international audience.
"You are more aware of some of the built-in attitudes and beliefs that you come across in the United States — we would be sure to say, ‘According to the U.S. government this is true,’ while American colleagues would say, ‘This is true.’”
The ability to explain other cultures was not a skill that Knox had to learn when he got to Washington — he got his start doing just that while he was growing up, when he spent much time in both Middlebury and Paris, France. His parents, Ed and Huguette Knox, alternated between teaching French at Middlebury College and running the college’s school abroad in Paris, so Knox’s childhood was split between the two places.
“I spent a lot of time trying to explain the U.S. to my French friends and trying to explain ‘not America’ to my American friends,” he said.
The transitions between Middlebury and Paris were especially difficult because email, Facebook and cheap long-distance calling were not yet available.
“It was hard to stay in touch with friends,” Knox said. “One thing that 10-year-old boys don’t do well is sit down and write out longhand letters.”
But the half of his childhood that Knox spent in Middlebury ended up contributing to his future career, though he didn’t know it would at the time. At MUHS, he worked on the Tiger’s Print student newspaper for a couple of years, writing about everything from the student teacher in the Spanish class to the tennis team (a conflict of interest, he admitted, since he played on the team).
He speaks warmly of his teachers at the high school, including his senior year English teacher, Charles Sabukewicz.
“He tore down my writing style to build it back up again,” Knox said. “If you’d asked me in real time I probably would’ve said he was a humongous pain in the neck, but he helped me become a better, more precise writer and I’m eternally grateful.”
These days Knox lives with his wife and four-year-old son just outside of Washington, but he enjoys any opportunity to come back to Middlebury. After arriving back in town late last week, he played in the leaves, looked for bugs and ran around on the college campus.
And whenever he gets the chance to recommend places to visit to his French colleagues, he puts in a good word for Middlebury. Sometimes, he said, it’s difficult to explain his hometown.
“I always start by saying, ‘It’s a beautiful little town in Vermont,” and then go from there,” Knox said. “The French like beautiful little towns.”
Olivier Knox will give a lecture titled “What I Saw at the Shoe-Throwing and Other Reflections on Covering the Bush White House” at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 7 in Room 103 of Middlebury College’s Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest, located on College Street. The event is free and open to the public and will include time for audience questions.