Translating Holocaust Lives

Edited by Jean Boase-Beier, Peter Davies, Andrea Hammel and Marion Winters (2017)

London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic [Bloomsbury Advances in Translation Studies], ISBN 978-1-4742-5028-3, pp. 250.

Reviewed by: Paschalis Nikolaou

Who is translating the lives of the title? Is it our cultural-historical expectations? Is it, early on, the survivors themselves, who attempted in their accounts to put into words situations that were in so many ways untranslatable (and one hopes, unrepeatable)? Questions of agency return time and again in this expertly edited volume where ten essays explore mediations of texts already reflective of some poignant relationships between experience and language. A satisfyingly long Introduction attempts to clarify what we refer to as ‘Holocaust writing’: “do we define it by subject matter (texts about the Holocaust), by author biography (texts by those who experienced the Holocaust) or by genre (do novels, poems or philosophical or historical texts count as Holocaust writing?)” (p. 7). Though the term, as adopted, is an effort to encompass testimonies as well as fictional genres, it has “tended to be exclusive, with texts representing the experiences of many victim groups – social democrats, communists, homosexuals and Romani victims, to name but a few – only gradually being included” (p. 8). And until recently, as the editors point out in these first pages, translation was glimpsed peripherally, through ‘scandals’ regarding, for instance, versions of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel, where “an unspoken assumption of the possibility of ‘transparent’ translation meant that criticism of translations could take the form of accusations of deliberate distortions or betrayal” (p. 3). Indeed, there is an additional need to keep a “clear eye” on ethical issues raised by translation: especially when dealing with texts that are the focus “for significant emotional investment” (p. 4). These questions are more insistently explored by Peter Davies in ‘Ethics and the Translation of Holocaust Lives’, the chapter immediately following the jointly written Introduction.

It is beneficial to this book that some of the editors have engaged on their own these concerns before. Jean Boase-Beier’s Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust (2015), investigated the effects of such verse on intended readers, and specific challenges in exactly replicating the nature of this poetry in further languages. A special issue of Translation and Literature on ‘Holocaust Testimony and Translation’ edited by Davies the year before, attended equally to the reception of Celan, or later, Sebald. Both testimonies of, and interviews with, survivors were examined. In the context of an edited volume Translating Holocaust Lives, several directions can again be rapidly suggested, and in relatively small space. And so, there is a chapter on Norwegian authors Aimee Sommerfelt, Tor Fretheim and Marianne Kaurin and their work for children and young adults, exploring the challenges in broaching the subject of the Holocaust in ways that are both honest and appropriate for non-adults. Kjersti Lesbryggen Mork’s research sheds light on the experience and cultural memory of the Second World War for a country like Norway, on later policies for appropriately dealing with the past, as well as on particular problems for individual translators of these works. Other chapters return us to the effect of well-known, canonical texts diffused in other languages, as happens in Marian de Vooght’s investigation of editions and performances of The Diary of Anne Frank. Across the essay, de Vooght broadens perspectives on the gradual fashioning of a phenomenon as it reaches international audiences, she reflects on editorial responsibility, the book’s influence on other writers and the impact of retellings across media. Elsewhere, in Boase-Beier’s chapter, we are faced with possibilities of expression in, and the translation of, Holocaust poetry (she also explores subtleties of categorization when it comes to the multilingual and multicultural origins of Holocaust poetry). We repeatedly encounter fictionalized forms aligning with traumatic memories: chapter 9 is rewarding discussion of novelist Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française (1941-42, but discovered much later, in 2004), her fictionalized autobiography by her daughter, Elizabeth Gille (Le Mirador, 1992) and Gille’s own experiences as a hidden child during the occupation of France and as the orphan of two Holocaust survivors (Un paysage de cendres, 1996). In the course of her essay on these works, Angela Kershaw considers historical distance as involved both in their successive writing and their reception – a distance further extended, and becoming more intricate by translation and various stages of international circulation; Kershaw particularly attends to the concept of ‘belatedness’ as it appears in Lynn Higgins’s study, New Novel, New Wave, New Politics: Fiction and Representation of History in Modern France (2012), whereby “texts and the events themselves are apprehended not simply as coming after but as being understood through and by means of previous ones” (ibid.: 211-12).

And thus ’Holocaust lives’ exist as also a problematization of such writing (and re-writings) –with ‘translation’ here a term, the editors predict, effectively enabling “a many-layered reflection on processes of transmission, mediation and reception” (p. 4). But in fact, language itself and its selection – or deselection – often is part of the act of telling, well before translation further complicates matters. One of the most intriguing essays included in the volume considers works by, and criticism on, certain exile writers, Lion Feuchtwanger, Robert Neumann, Hilde Spiel: their switching (or not) between German and English in their output and associated feelings of ‘in-between-ness’ (Spiel himself termed this, ‘Zwischenexistenz’, see p. 141).

Equally significant in an overall investigative approach is the device of a ‘short response’; increasingly seen in conferences, but here deployed even more poignantly as it affords – in the space of usually just two to four pages – a strengthening of translation studies perspectives while also signaling to us an internal questioning frequently encountered in Holocaust studies: Theo Hermans will thus be able to offer further examples of stage versions of Frank’s Diary, comment on how they represent

a series of interpretations and quarrels about – or adjustments to – interpretations in the border zone between translation and adaptation. The extent to which they respond to each other or to changing circumstances must remain uncertain. Mies Bouhuys’ 1984 version took issue with Hackett and Goodrich’s American play as much as with its 1956 Dutch translation; whether she made these changes in response to a recognition that in 1984 Dutch audiences were better able than in 1956 to appreciate the historical reality of events surrounding the diary is hard to ascertain. (p. 125)

 And Cecilia Rossi, writing after Jeanette Baxter’s chapter (an exploration of meeting points of self-translation and holocaust fiction in Down Below, the 1988 novel by surrealist Leonora Carrington), helpfully extends a discussion of the desires and unique situations driving bilingual and autobiographical writing. Baxter capably argues that the hybrid nature and revisions of Carrington’s text, paratexts and positions of self-translation arrive at an appropriately complicated telling of traumatic experience. Rossi discusses additional critical perspectives that connect life writing and forms of translation and adaptation; wondering, indeed, if there is even a choice involved in such radical re-vising, and as the writer comes to terms with painful memory.

Such embedded dialogues add to the overall command of an emergent field of enquiry that is exhibited abundantly in Translating Holocaust Lives; the book is an essential addition to a growing library of research into impacts of the Holocaust, research where cultural, literary, sociological, and reception angles are increasingly considered. At the same time, there is gradual recognition of acts of translation nearer the consciousness resulting from the camps, occupation, ethnic segregation, mass killings, as well as later lives of exiles, refugees and their progeny. Especially essays like those by de Vooght on Frank’s Diary, help enumerate the ways in which these texts are realigned or diffused into permanence, including some truly insightful comments on the role and responsibility assigned to publishing houses, or to prefatory statements, afterwords and a whole range of editorial decisions. These are far more important, we realize, than previously acknowledged: because several actors proceed to adjust and re-adjust the shape of accounts and narratives that prove instructive for generations to come. Similar concerns are addressed by Marion Winters’s chapter, ‘Α Textual and Paratextual Analysis of an Emigrant Autobiography and Its Translation’, which looks into the amount of recontextualization involved in the German rendering of Edith Foster’s 1990 memoir, Reunion in Vienna. Throughout, Winters observes the ways in the ‘autobiographical I’, as informed by the public narratives of the source culture, is essentially “uprooted through the transfer in another culture where a different set of public narratives may exist” (p. 75). And the extent of this phenomenon, the balances struck, are even more obviously reflected paratextually – including the front and back covers.

Such research into how variously translated and mediated this kind of writing already is, in fact enriches our reading. Translating Holocaust Lives from the very title, is a widening of what translation may signal to us; and in many of these essays – whether they reflect on the words that directly resulted from centres of genocide or engage with dramatizations of memories from the Kindertransport – we encounter diverse translating acts overlapping with forms of witnessing.


Boase-Beier, Jean (2015) Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust: Translation, Style and the Reader, London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Davies, Peter (ed.) (2014) ‘Holocaust Testimony and Translation’, special issue of Translation and Literature 23(2).

Higgins, Lynn (2012) New Novel, New Wave, New Politics: Fiction and Representation of History in Modern France, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

©inTRAlinea & Paschalis Nikolaou (2018).
[Review] "Translating Holocaust Lives", inTRAlinea Vol. 20
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