Texts by victims and survivors of Nazi persecution have been produced, translated, rewritten, remediated, lost, recovered, and received in a bewildering variety of languages and cultural contexts, and have taken extraordinary border-crossing journeys. Texts that have undergone dramatic transformations are read as if they are original, unmediated expressions of the writer’s experience, and canons of Holocaust testimonies are constructed from translated texts: indeed, many texts have had a more significant influence in translation than in their original language. The essays presented here show that the reluctance of Holocaust scholarship to address issues of translation is beginning to fade. Although taking a variety of perspectives and approaches, the contributions to this collection are united in their concern to make translation visible in studies of texts arising from the Holocaust, and to demonstrate how new possibilities can open up when Translation Studies and Holocaust Studies are brought together.
The claim is sometimes made by scholars interested in the issues raised by the translation of autobiographical texts by Holocaust victims that translation is one of the great unspoken issues, with scholars’ attitude towards translation characterized by what Alan Mintz has called ‘principled indifference’.1 I would argue that where translation is discussed at all, it is discussed in a way that betrays understandable anxiety about what is happening to these important texts, but without adequate appreciation of the contribution translators have made to our knowledge and understanding, or of how far-reaching the effects of translation are.
The creation, conservation, and transmission of knowledge about (including memory of) the Holocaust form one of the most significant translation projects in Western history. Without the work of translators, there would be no Holocaust in the sense that we understand it, that is, no international, border-crossing, interdisciplinary concept that can be employed in historical, ethical, and philosophical arguments, and no common stock of literary reference points for discussion and re-use. The central Holocaust texts, such as Anne Frank’s diary or works by Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, as well as the myriad lesser-known autobiographical writings that have contributed so much to our knowledge about the Holocaust, are read and received – not invariably, but most usually – in translation. Yet the work of the translators, and the issues raised by the translation of Holocaust texts, are rarely, if ever, acknowledged.
Where it is discussed at all, translation is mostly seen as a problem, rather than as an achievement; it is a source of anxiety about ‘loss’ or distance from the original – one thinks of Primo Levi’s anxiety about the translation of his work, for example2 – or seen as a scandal, falsification, or ideological distortion, as in debates about the translation of Elie Wiesel’s work, or the translations and editions of Anne Frank’s diary. These discussions have exemplary value, since they are conducted in the context of texts that have now become canonical, and they tell us a lot about the status of translation and translators, but if we want to understand more directly how translators view their role and task, we will need to adopt other, less fraught, approaches.
Critical analyses of translations of significant texts have sometimes presented the effects of translation as a product of deliberate distortion on the part of translators and editors. For example, Naomi Seidman has suggested that the translation of Elie Wiesel’s Yiddish memoir into the very different French text La Nuit – the form in which it reached a worldwide readership – was a deliberate attempt to defuse the anger of the Jewish victim and to present an image of victimhood which would be more palatable for non-Jewish readers.3 By contrast, the heated debate provoked by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners featured allegations that the author had produced tendentious translations of his sources in order to support his argument.4 In these cases, the scholar presents him/herself as an agent acting in the interests of the pure original, and thus of the integrity of the witness and the original experience. This is a flattering image, giving scholarship a key role in the defence of truth against distortion, but the question remains whether it is an attitude that helps us to understand and describe translation processes beyond these high-profile examples.
Less ideologically charged discussions of interlingual translation tend to present it in terms of loss and distance from an original, non-communicable experience: part of a continuum of loss that starts with the first formulation of the experience in words, and which is always in some way a betrayal. Theories that proceed from the idea that representations of Holocaust experience are necessarily a distortion, appropriation, or act of violence (as propounded by, for example, Emanuel Lévinas) cannot but see translation as a further act of violence, appropriating the experience from the linguistic context of the Jewish victim group for the purposes of the non-victim majority, and thus as an act that is not substantially similar in nature to the betrayal inherent in communicating a traumatic experience in language in the first place.
There seem to be significant consequences for translation if it is the case that, as Susan Rubin Suleiman has argued, ‘all Holocaust memoirs are essentially homeless’, or, as Imre Kertész has suggested, survivors ‘borrow’ a national language in which to write their story, since the Holocaust itself has no language.5 Alan Rosen writes that ‘every language is going to be unfaithful to the camp experience, taking what existed only in fragments and rendering it in a medium that is intact. What one sees (or reads) then is the Holocaust filtered through civilized discourse, the Holocaust as it were, according to the coherence of a single cultured tongue.’6 Drawing on these ideas, Dorota Glowacka has argued that a Holocaust testimony is ‘always a translation into another language’, and that conveying the experience of the witness always entails encountering a ‘translation differend’, that is, a moment in which the victim experiences the impossibility of conveying the injury inflicted on him/her in the terms allowed by the medium of communication between two parties. Making the injury comprehensible, or even visible, in the terms offered by the discourse into which it is to be translated entails sacrificing the ability to prove the damage.7
Glowacka goes on to suggest that the ‘translation differend’ ‘is an instance of conflict that occurs in the process of translation between languages, resulting in a sense of wrong when an utterance has been grievously mistranslated or when it intractably resists translation’. Thus, the interlingual translation of texts must be considered as a similar case to the concern expressed by survivors that communication of their experiences, their ‘translation’ into a language comprehensible to those who have not shared their experience, inevitably somehow entails a betrayal.
To suggest, however, that the problems encountered by a translator in rendering an already existing text into another language in a concrete context and for concrete purposes bear any comparison with the difficulties of articulating a terrible, incomprehensible experience is problematic for two reasons. First it is ethically dubious, and second, these are not merely quantitatively different phenomena. It is, in fact, a category error, an attempt to view the interlingual translation of texts in inappropriate terms. The complexity and specificity of translation as a skilled activity that takes place in a particular context for particular reasons is obscured by this kind of approach. Discussion of translation is here caught up in the concerns of post-Holocaust theories of language and communication; but as a mode of writing that must be predicated at least on the possibility of rendering a text in another language (otherwise what would be the point of translating?), translation will clash with thinking that stresses impossibility.
If a Holocaust testimony is considered to be an ‘embodiment of memory’ (Glowacka, p. 3), that is, is more than simply a text, then the effects of translation as a representation of a text in a new language cannot be anything but problematic. The idea of the inevitability of failure is built into the reading, imbuing the discussion with a sense of melancholy in which the ‘losses’ associated with translation are equated with the inaccessibility of the experience or the mourning of the dead. Theoretical approaches like these have certainly produced useful insights, but at the same time they tend to treat translation as a proxy for something else, namely the status of the witness, the cultural shock of the Holocaust, the theories of linguistic disruption and crisis that have arisen from the Holocaust, and most importantly, the commemoration of the dead and anxiety about forgetting. Translation is hence seen as an imperfect means of staving off silence and ensuring survival.
Discussing the translation of testimonies in terms of the theories and methods of Holocaust Studies will inevitably lead to translation being treated with suspicion: as a problem, rather than as an achievement or an opportunity. It also implies that texts arising from the Holocaust are a unique case, not only in terms of the extremity of the experience, but also in terms of the generic features of the texts they have produced and the methods that are appropriate in order to understand them.8 This might explain the reluctance to bring to bear the theoretical armory of Translation Studies on a body of texts in which so much is at stake in terms of emotional investment and reader identification, and over which so many complex and vital battles have been fought.
However, a critical, theoretically informed understanding of the work that translation has done, and is still doing, is vital precisely because of the significance of such texts for our historical understanding of the Holocaust, for the definition and self-assertion of victim groups within and across cultures, for their descendants and for the descendants of perpetrators, for controversies over history and identity in the countries where the Holocaust took place, and in countries where it did not. Thinking the Holocaust using the conceptual armory of Translation Studies adds to our understanding of the processes involved in the mediation of knowledge and allows us to ask new questions and approach old ones in new ways. For example, translation research offers ways of understanding the dynamics of the relationship between translation and broader cultural and political discourses, exploring whether translations affirm or challenge received views of the nature and meaning of the Holocaust, and how translation processes are in turn affected by the developing discourse of ‘Holocaust memory’.
Study of translation can also provide a way of exploring the range of different cultural contexts in which knowledge about the Holocaust plays a role, and of making explicit the different, and sometimes clashing, assumptions that are at work here. We are also able to investigate potential power imbalances, for example in the relationship between minority and majority cultures, or in the assimilation of texts by non-German victims into postwar modes of German identity-formation ‘after Auschwitz’, or in the increasing international predominance of an English-language discourse on the Holocaust that shows little awareness of the foreignness of the texts that are used to support its premises.
This work is only just beginning. One of the first tasks is to explore how translation has been addressed in previous studies of texts arising from the Holocaust. I would argue that much discussion apparently about translation is very often a displaced discussion about something else entirely: the act of bearing witness or of reconstructing memory or trauma, the ethics of reading, the status of the Holocaust and the victim, the uniqueness or otherwise of testimonies as texts, or the propriety of particular approaches to ‘understanding’ the Holocaust. All of this tends to obscure the distinctness of translation as a set of practices that take place in a particular sociological context, with its own traditions, constraints, possibilities, and conditions of agency. The reading required for translation may well be a different kind of reading to that required by theories of trauma or of witnessing: in one sense, it is a less respectful form of reading since it has to treat the text qua text, not as a proxy for the writer, and it has to take into account target culture requirements as well as the intentions of the witness.
Naturally, the translator’s reading may include an approach related to theories of reading as an act of witness, and it may also emphasize particular aspects of a text under the influence of such a theory, but it cannot be limited to this if a translation is to be successful. Reading for translation will always be a reading in excess of any interpretation based on theories of Holocaust testimony, and it may even be necessary to read against the grain of such interpretations. If one accepts the idea that testimonies are unique documents arising from a unique experience, then translation involves a scandalous form of reading: to a great extent, the text must be read for translation like any other text.
What this means for Translation Studies is that a critique of translations of testimonies using theories drawn from the traditions of Holocaust scholarship may be seriously misleading. It can overlook the specificity of the translation situation, and can turn translation into a mere proxy for other concerns. Let us therefore approach the issue from an entirely different angle, by asking what translators have achieved. What is missing from the discussion of translation is a sense of the far-reaching achievement of the almost innumerable translators who have made testimonies, diaries, documents, literary works, and other kinds of text available across cultures and through generations, making a vital contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust and shaping the discourse around it in ways that are rarely acknowledged. If we move beyond melancholy reflections on loss, we are able to shed a much fuller light on the role that translation and translators have played. For example, it was the work of translators that broke the often narrow national focus of remembrance of war and genocide across Europe in the immediate postwar years by introducing the perspectives of victims across national and linguistic boundaries. In particular, texts by Jewish victims were relayed into the cultural and political mainstream, and could be viewed together, rather than simply as part of a broader, non-Jewish discourse of national suffering, thus drawing attention to the specificity of Jewish experience. Translators contribute to the visibility of different victim groups in different contexts, participating in struggles over recognition and legitimacy, and they help to pass on knowledge within those groups.
I would suggest that there are three key areas in which the activity of translators has been of defining importance: establishing the visibility of victim groups; drawing attention to the international nature of the Holocaust, beyond individual nations’ experience of war, and thus making it possible to conceive of an ‘event’ called the Holocaust in the first place; and allowing victims to be presented across cultures as individuals, with complex biographies, rather than as a faceless mass. There are, however, potential flipsides to all these key areas of achievement. For example, the introduction through translation of the experiences of victims into a particular memory culture may not in fact transform that culture; instead, the translation may simply incorporate individual experiences into local memory traditions by following standard patterns or genre expectations, or by playing down cultural difference for the sake of easier understanding. Translators have been able to provide evidence for the unique aspects of the experiences of Jewish victims from different backgrounds, ensuring that they have emerged from the general background of individual nations’ wartime experiences, and have been able to build a public identity as a victim group. Yet even as this happens processes of translation have often been downplayed or erased completely, ensuring that other aspects of individuals’ cultural identities, as reflected in their texts, are not always visible.
Translators are subject to the same power structures and imbalances that affect all forms of knowledge, including knowledge concerning the Holocaust, and are thus implicated in the transmission, affirmation, or challenging of hegemonic discourses. Translators help to create knowledge, as well as simply transmitting or mediating it to new audiences; making this process explicit and visible is a way of taking the discussion beyond ideas of faithfulness or betrayal by acknowledging the full complexity of translation. The attendant anxieties about truthfulness and authenticity can be addressed by tackling the issue of translation head on, rather than ignoring it: the study of potential tensions around how translation is interpreted is as important a contribution to Holocaust research as is the study of processes of translation themselves.
The activity of translators has, of course, not been limited to the interlingual translation of published prose texts. Once one begins to look, translators are involved in almost every context in which knowledge about, or memory of, the Holocaust is created, discussed, or passed on. Transactions within victim communities, for example between generations or groups with different cultural backgrounds, or between victim groups and their societies, are facilitated and shaped by translators; historical and other scholarship about the Holocaust frequently relies on translated evidence; oral testimony is given in many languages, and is subtitled or transcribed in translation; educational materials, texts for exhibitions and monuments, and tourist information are made available to international visitors; legal evidence is translated, whether by simultaneous interpreting or in written form, and is made available in contexts well beyond the original courtroom.
A key task of translation scholarship is to make this activity visible, to understand the conditions under which translators have worked, and to uncover the traces of translation in the texts that we rely on and in the systems of knowledge through which we interpret the Holocaust. I suggested above that the Holocaust is literally inconceivable without translation and translators; but this understanding is not useful unless the processes of (re-)creation and mediation involved are also reflected on in ways that acknowledge the specificity of translation as an activity.
The essays presented here deal, for the most part, with literary texts by survivors and with autobiographical testimonies, but they also include work on other kinds of document, demonstrating some of the varied contexts in which translation shapes our responses to the Holocaust. All the scholars represented in the present collection are, in their different ways, concerned to show not only that translated texts are marked by the presence of the translator and the circumstances of translation, but also that this has significant consequences for reading and reception.
Angela Kershaw, Sue Vice, and Peter Davies explore general theoretical issues using a range of texts: Kershaw on the treatment of intertextuality in the English translations of French texts, Vice on the issue of false testimony, and Davies on genre shifts in translation. Other contributors deal in detail with the translation of individual works. Some of these are well known internationally, but how far their reception has been conditioned by translation is less well recognized (Edward Timms on Sebald, Simone Schroth on Anne Frank). For other texts, the interventions of translators and editors have as yet hardly been contemplated: Ingvild Folkvord on Ruth Maier’s diary in Norwegian, and Beate Müller on David M. Boder’s transcriptions of oral testimony by survivors, are pioneers. Sharon Deane-Cox shows that the translation of audioguide material can have a profound effect on the experience of a visitor to a memorial to Nazi atrocities. By contrast, Jean Boase-Beier discusses the rich possibilities of translation and mediation in Paul Celan.
Three unconnected reviews round out this number. They appear here by reason of their likely interest to readers of the rest of this issue, for whom it is hoped they will represent a bonus, but they were prepared as ordinary review contributions to Translation and Literature, not for the purposes of this special number.
University of Edinburgh
1 Alan Mintz, Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America (Seattle, WA, 2001), p. 5. The contributors to this volume are indebted to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, without whose generous support this project would not have been possible.
2 See the essay ‘Tradurre ed essere tradotti’ in L’Altrui Mestiere (Turin, 2006). The essay is not included in the English translation of this work (Other People’s Trades). See Lina N. Insana, Arduous Tasks: Primo Levi, Translation and the Transmission of Holocaust Testimony (Toronto, 2009), for a discussion of Levi’s views on translation.
3 See further Naomi Seidman, ‘Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage’, Jewish Social Studies, 3 (1996), 1-19.
4 See further Karyn Ball, Disciplining the Holocaust: Traumatic History as an Object of Inquiry and Desire (Albany, NY, 2008), pp. 1-44.
5 Susan Rubin Suleiman, ‘Monuments in the Foreign Tongue: On Reading Holocaust memoirs by Emigrants’, Poetics Today, 17 (1996), 639-57 (p. 644); Imre Kertész, ‘Die exilierte Sprache’, in Die exilierte Sprache: Essays und Reden (Frankfurt a.M., 2003), pp. 206-21 (p. 215).
6 Alan Rosen, Sounds of Defiance: The Holocaust, Multilingualism, and the Problem of English (Lincoln, NE, 2005), p. 6.
7 Dorota Glowacka, Disappearing Traces: Holocaust Testimonials, Ethics, and Aesthetics (Seattle, WA, 2012), p. 63.
8 See, for example, Robert Eaglestone’s attempt to define the uniqueness of the genre ‘Holocaust testimony’ using postmodern narrative theory: Robert Eaglestone, The Holocaust and the Postmodern (Oxford, 2004), pp. 15-41.