THE TRANSLATOR'S (INTER)VIEW: JEAN BOASE-BEIER ON POETRY OF THE HOLOCAUST
This is a new, very innovative anthology, which aims to be more comprehensive than previous publications on the topic. It includes poems about the Holocaust written in many languages -German, Dutch, Polish or Yiddish, but also Greek, Norwegian, even Japanese- and not only those written by Jewish Holocaust victims across Europe but also those written by people who were targeted on other grounds.
Jean Boase-Beier, one of the anthology’s editors, has answered our questions thoroughly to tell us more about this big, very important project, how it differs from previous ones, and what it means, from a personal, human, historical and technical point of view, to translate and study Holocaust poetry.
What makes this new anthology unique, different from previous ones?
I and my co-editor, Marian de Vooght, set out to collect poems that were representative of the broad range of people who became victims of the Holocaust. While it is true that the main targets of Nazi genocide were Jewish people, there were many, many other victims.
Some poets wrote out of a sense of foreboding, as laws were passed in Germany to shut Jews and other sections of society out of everyday life. Some people wrote about being victimised for their political or religious views. Once the transportation of Jews, political prisoners and others to be killed or used as slave-labourers had begun, people wrote about their experiences in camps, ghettos, prisons, or in hiding. We wanted to try and capture these very varied situations and to honour the fact that people wrote under the most difficult of circumstances.
Our research had shown that, when readers think of Holocaust poetry, they think of poetry written in camps, and indeed there are anthologies of the poetry of specific camps or ghettos. But not everyone knows that poems were written by those in prison awaiting execution, or those who were about to be deported, or those who had to come to terms with the loss of their family after the war. Readers will be familiar with some of the well-known Holocaust poets such as Paul Celan or Nelly Sachs but even in these cases they are likely to know only a few poems, because the same poems tend to be collected in different anthologies.
But Holocaust poems were not only written by well-known poets. Some were written by those who perhaps would have become famous if they had not died. Not all Holocaust poems were written in German or Polish or Yiddish. We specifically searched for poems in other languages: in Norwegian, or Greek or Lithuanian.
So this anthology is broader in scope than earlier ones and contains poems that relate to many more aspects of the Holocaust.
How were the poems for the anthology selected?
Besides aiming to select poems by less well-known poets, or relatively unknown poems by more famous ones, we also chose poems that were not too long, so that we could include more. Inevitably, it was easier to find poems in German and Polish, French and Dutch, than in languages such as Japanese or Spanish. So we particularly looked for poems that were from other languages not so often represented in Holocaust anthologies. We also tried to find poems by or about victims whose voices are not often heard: the man imprisoned for being friends with Communists, the Polish Resistance fighter confined to a wheelchair from birth, the contemporary poet with Down’s Syndrome reflecting on the Nazi murder of those with Down’s, the child writing in terror.
It was important to assemble an anthology that worked as a collection of poetry in English. So we chose good poems, and poems that fitted well together. We translated some ourselves and called on very large number of other translators for languages in which we are not competent.
Translator and editor Jean Boase-Beier.
Can you tell us more about the peculiarities, challenges and importance of translating poetry of the Holocaust?
Every translation is a retelling of someone’s story. A translator will always try not to misrepresent the original author’s words, but the words of the translation are different words. Rather than seeing the changes translation brings as a necessary evil, it makes more sense to see them as an important addition to someone else’s way of seeing the world and expressing particular thoughts and feelings. When you translate a poem you are showing that you value it and that you think your readers will value it. You are giving voice to someone who is not able to speak, or not able to speak in your language. You are taking their words and passing them on to a new audience, with your own particular slant, your voice, your interpretation added. This is important, because it’s how stories survive.
We know far too little about the Holocaust. We might know, or easily be able to find, the bare facts. But poems are not pieces of documentary evidence. They might bear witness, but they are not witness statements. They tell us how people felt, how they coped. For all these reasons poetry has an important role to play in our understanding of the Holocaust.
Holocaust poetry has its own particular language and images, irrespective of the language it is written in. Images of snow, stars, darkness, black and white, feature in many of the poems. Images of nature -- sometimes an escape from the dreadful situation of writing -- are common. Perhaps unexpectedly, a certain boldness, almost a flippancy of tone, as in Alfred Kerr’s ‘The Most Afflicted’, is not unusual. It contrasts uncomfortably with the momentousness of the events unfolding, especially as seen by us, later. It is crucial not to smooth over such contrasts. It is also important to keep the details and the way they are described: Catherine Roux’s “I have no hanky”, in Tim Adès’s translation of a poem that describes the process of losing everything on entering a camp (her clothes, her hair, her name) is extremely haunting. You have nothing, so you don’t have a hanky, but what do you do if you need one? And will you need one or are you about to die in a moment?
These details of place, date, time, attitude, are all crucial and present particular challenges. You want to be ironical, if the original poet was, but not lose sight of the subject matter. You have to put yourself in the position of the person writing. This, for me, was the greatest challenge, and it was not a linguistic one. You must imagine you are standing naked on a ramp, or that your child has just been killed. You never must lose sight of the fact that you have not actually experienced those things, whereas others have. But still, it is emotionally draining.
What was your journey to becoming a translator, a poetry in translation editor, and an expert in Holocaust poetry in translation? What motivated you throughout your career?
I now translate mainly from German but I first realised that I loved translating when I had to do translations from and into French at school. When you were translating into French you were trying to be a French person. We had a French teacher, Miss Mitchell, who would put on the different voices of Agrippine and Néron for us when we were reading Racine’s Britannicus. And her voice not only changed with the character, but became French. The idea that you could take on another nationality and voice was exhilarating, and I experienced it again later when I was in the drama group at Regensburg University.
When you were translating into English it was something quite different: you found you could mould and form the English and make it do all sorts of things. I realised this was what I wanted to do. When I went to live in Germany at the age of 19, I both wanted to become a German person and also to stay English. I translated German folk songs into English as part of my first job as a student assistant. You had to try and fit the music as well, an added challenge.
At German universities, at least in the 1980s, you had to choose 5 or 6 topics for your “Magister” oral exams. Most of mine related to poetry, but one was “Translation Theories”. And I made a discovery: the theory showed me things about the practice I didn’t know. By the time I finished my degree I knew I would keep translating.
Then, while I was still living in Germany, I saw an exhibition of Holocaust photographs. There was the main street in Regensburg, there were Jewish people being marched away, there were the nervous citizens watching out of the windows of the flats above the shops I knew so well, many of them the same shops in 1943 as in 1983.
I remembered then how my parents had talked about the Holocaust back in the early 1960’s, when I was a small child in England. Those things – the sense that the people looking out of the windows should do something; the certainty that the people in the street were going to be killed; the feeling that you ought to explain all this to others – led me to research Holocaust literature.
When I had finished my PhD in Regensburg, I taught poetry, stylistics, linguistics, German for foreign students and translation theory, and all were linked by translation. After we came to England in the early 1990’s, and I took up my post at the University of East Anglia, there was enormous pressure to research and publish. At that point I remembered the people looking out of the windows in the Maximilianstraβe in the photo of 1943 Regensburg and began to translate the Holocaust poets Rose Ausländer and Volker von Törne, in both cases together with the theatre translator, Anthony Vivis.
It was a conversation with the late Max (W.G.) Sebald that led to my editorship with Arc. He suggested a series of translated poetry books. I phoned Tony Ward, who had published Ausländer in English, and the series “Visible Poets” was born.
Can you tell us more about your role as Translations Editor at Arc Publications?
Discussing other people’s translations with them is great fun. Over the years I have worked on poetry translated from Norwegian, French, Polish, German, Hungarian. Whether or not I speak the source language, my main concern is with whether the poem in English works. Because I trust the translators I work with to understand the original. That is not my job. Of course, if it’s a language I speak I often think I would have done it differently. But that is neither here nor there. My job is to be a second pair of eyes, a partner in discussion. The things I have learned, and keep learning, about other languages and cultures and other translators’ way of translating are endlessly fascinating.
But working with translators on their translations is only part of what I do, and the degree of my involvement varies greatly. Before we get to this stage I first read what the translator has submitted and look at it together with the original (if I can). Not all translators are equally good or experienced but I trust them all to have done a serious job. Sometimes I don’t like the result. Sometimes it would not fit any of our series (I edit 4) and sometimes I think the original poetry is too weak to carry the weight of a translation. In those cases I suggest to Tony and Angela at Arc that we reject it. Very often I can see the work is excellent but I can also see we have no room in the programme. I hate having to tell people this, but often I have to.
I prefer to deal with the translator, even if the original poet is alive. We are publishing the words of the translator and the translator is a poet who has thought deeply about what the original poet says, and how to say it in English. Sometimes, though, I do discuss things with both the translator and the original poet, and such exchanges are always fascinating. A discussion with Iain Galbraith and Jan Wagner about quince jelly comes to mind. I was sure that, when you cook quinces, the result is jelly rather than paste, whatever some English chefs might say. And, more than this, “jelly” fitted the sounds in the poem so well. But the translator always has the final say.
Do you have a favourite poem from this anthology?
It is hard to speak of favourites when the subject matter is so horrible. Abraham Sutzkever’s ‘To the Child’ is certainly one of the most affecting. I read it recently at the Ledbury Poetry Festival and I could not stop thinking what it must have been like to actually say these words, originally written in Yiddish. Other poems become better the more often you read them. András Mezei’s ‘Gustav!’, in Thomas Land’s translation from Hungarian, describes a brief episode, in which the reader’s perception changes in the final line. But maybe I like the Yiddish poems in particular because the Nazis wanted to destroy Yiddish along with the Jews who spoke it. Translating from Yiddish feels like a little act of defiance.
Are there any other Holocaust poems/poets that could not be included in the anthology that you would like to suggest to our readers?
There are many poems and poets we could not include. Some are well-known and have been translated many times: Primo Levi or Jerzy Ficowski, or Yevgeny Yevtushenko. All these poets are worth reading, and there are excellent translations available.
There must also be poetry we have not yet found. We were expecting more poetry by disabled people or those who had been taken from hospitals by the Nazis to be murdered before the main killing of the Jews began. We have found little such poetry, but it is possible it is still held in Germany or Poland in archives. The planned murder of disabled or sick people was known as the “Euthanasia” or “T4” programme (after Tiergartenstraβe 4 in Berlin, from where it was organised) and we still hope that in the future such poems might materialise. Disabled people have often been forgotten as Holocaust victims, though there were at least 200,000 such victims in Germany, and an unknown number in Poland and Russia. We have also found no poems written by people incarcerated for being gay, though we have included one long poem “The Rag”, about these victims.
Perhaps readers of this interview will have ideas for poems we might not know?
Jean Boase-Beier is a translator and editor of poetry, and an academic writer. Her poetry translations (all by Arc Publications) include the collections by modern German poets Ernst Meister (2003), Rose Ausländer (2014), and Volker von Törne (2017), and she has just co-edited (with Marian de Vooght) Poetry of the Holocaust: An Anthology (2019).
Her academic work focuses on translation, style and poetry, and recently on the translation of Holocaust poetry. Academic publications include Stylistic Approaches to Translation (2006, Routledge; to appear in a revised, enlarged edition as Translation and Style, 2019), Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust (2015, Bloomsbury), and the co-edited volumes Translating Holocaust Lives (2017, Bloomsbury) and The Palgrave Handbook of Literary Translation (2018).
Jean Boase-Beier is Professor Emerita of Literature and Translation at the University of East Anglia, where she founded the MA in Literary Translation in 1992 and ran it until 2015, and is also Translations Editor for Arc Publications.