THE BAFFLING STRUGGLE FOR CULTURE.

I had meant to blog this back in March, when it appeared in the NY Times, but forgot; fortunately, it was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, where it is still online, so I can tell you about it now, complete with link. A review by Geoffrey Wheatcroft of The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans includes the following biting remarks on translation:

Writing in a self-confident tone, Evans has a few quirks, like translating every turn of phrase, even those in common currency.
There may be something to be said for rendering Führer as “leader,” but the baffling “struggle for culture” turns out to refer not to some worthy artistic aspirations but to what is well-known in English and German as the Kulturkampf, Bismarck’s repressive campaign against the Roman Catholic Church. And to translate the names of newspapers – Frankfurt News for Frankfurter Zeitung, Berlin Daily News-Sheet for Berliner Tageblatt, Racial Observer for Völkischer Beobachter – is just silly. At one point Evans cites a contemporary article from The New York Times. A German historian might well do the same, but he would call it The New York Times, and not translate it into Die Neuyorker Zeiten.

“Silly” is perhaps too mild; I prefer “bizarre.” Just another example of the havoc wreaked by the inflated egos of overbearing writers who refuse to listen to their editors.

Comments

  1. I’ll say it’s bizarre! It’s like something from a story by Frank Kafka!

  2. John Jainschigg says:

    Grin … I think both Evans and Wheatcroft have some quirks. Why does he think it’s appropriate to translate Fuhrer, which carries a lot more informational resonance than the un-charged term leader?
    Also — would someone with good German mind confirming that ‘Racial Observer’ is a good translation for Volkischer Beobachter? I know the term ‘Volk’ is somewhat charged, but in this context, is the semantic primarily racialist/exclusionary or … I dunno … just mythically self-laudatory (in approximately the same way as the Chinese used to call things ‘The Peoples’ ‘ before they got cell phones and recovered their public sense of irony)

  3. There is a tendency these days to overtranslation which really gets up my nose. I keep meaning to post about it properly, but for now I’ll just say that I think it robs the reader of an important part of the experience, and a significant whack of passive education, as well. One example is currency, which I would like to see always left as original – after all, all Brits (and most Europeans) know the value of a dollar if only from watching TV shows, so why shouldn’t we be allowed to absorb the value of yens or bolivars osmotically as well? And where would literature be without its doubloons and the like? I came across the most ridiculous example recently in the Sun (a journal for which I otherwise profess great admiration, it being much more skilfully written than appears at first glance (and even better illustrated)), where they had translated the value of something from euros to pounds. Fuhkrynowtlowd.
    (In technical translation, the field where I move myself, the situation is even worse, and sometimes downright dangerous. A translator may well be expected to convert, e.g., degrees Celsius to Farenheit, even though he probably has little understanding of the fact that this kind of conversion is only an approximation, and should really be left to engineers who have a better idea about what is required.}

  4. JJ: Actually, I think there’s more excuse for Führer than for the rest — it’s precisely the uncharged nature of “leader” that’s valuable, because we hear the German word and automatically see Hitler, when it’s a perfectly normal word. It’s like using “El Presidente” to refer to a Latin dictator, as if the Spanish word itself were somehow sinister; better to call him the president and describe his bad side explicitly.
    JR: I hope you do that post; I’d be interested in reading it.

  5. Bill Poser says:

    What drives me crazy are people who translate the titles of books and journal articles and the names of journals in bibliographic citations. Providing translations in addition to the originals is fine, but replacing the originals with translations can make it miserably difficult to look them up.

  6. Andrew Conway says:

    LH, why are you so sure that this is a stylistic decision of the author’s, imposed against the wishes of his editor? You may well be right — I have no information on the matter — but it would not surprise me to learn that it was a decision taken by someone at Penguin in a misguided attempt to make the book more ‘accessible’. Wouldn’t it be as well to check this before rushing to condemn ‘the inflated egos of overbearing writers who refuse to listen to their editors’?

  7. You’re quite right — I was jumping to conclusions, doubtless because of my professional pride as an editor. I hang my head in shame.

  8. Admittedly, my right as a Dutch person to speak about things German is limited ( and consists mostly of geographical nearness), but Völkisch does not strike me as “racial”. If anything the connotation could be ethnic; but I would prefer to translate it as
    “The People’s Observer”. If I must, that is.

  9. On the one hand, it’s hard to know exactly what happened to a book if you don’t have access to the primary copy of the manuscript, the one with all the different-colored marks on it. On the other hand, far be it from me to disagree with an editor who’s denouncing pigheaded authors. None of my current authors answer to that description, of course; but I’ve run into more than a few of them in my time.
    I don’t know how much latitude Penguin allows for auctorial and editorial preferences. Still, if we haven’t seen this kind of intrusive translation in other books they publish, I’d assign a fairly low probability to their having been responsible in this case. Also, it seems to me that an editor who’s that over-scrupulous should also know that proper names don’t get the same handling as common text.
    Like LH, I have less trouble with “leader” for “fuehrer” than I have with other translations, because that usage does provide additional information. But reducing other names to their component words has the opposite effect, since it strips them of their accumulated associations. There’ve been many struggles for culture, but the Kulturkampf was the Kulturkampf.
    Calling the Völkischer Beobachter the Racial Observer is just plain bad exposition. I imagine myself reading this book under the impression that a publication I hadn’t heard of before, called the Racial Observer, was being published around the same time as the Völkischer Beobachter. When I finally figured out that they were the same publication, I’d have to re-cast everything I’d read up to that point.
    So, how does it handle lebensraum? I’m passionately hoping to hear that, in this book at least, Hitler invaded Eastern Europe in search of habitat.

  10. John Jainschigg says:

    lebensraum: colloquial for Wohnzimmer, nicht war?

  11. Not a native German speaker, but am an ex-fluent speaker.
    Voelkisch is definitely “people’s”, even in this context. The Volkspolizei were not racial police, they were the people’s (snigger) police.
    The communist overtones of “people’s” are appropriate here too. The Nazis were the National _Socialists_, remember, and I will bet you a Reichsmark to a shiny Euro that the VB was named with that in mind.
    And yeah, Volk is more ethnicity than race. If you want race without overtones of culture, then Rasse (eg “Rassenkunde”, the defunct discipline of racial science) would be more appropriate.

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