Translating the Holocaust: The Ethics of Memoir

Paper delivered at the conference, “Holocaust Writing and Translation” Institute of Advanced Study, University of London, Feb. 2011.

In his provocative 1998 study of the theory and practice of translation, critic Lawrence Venuti makes the following claim for the power of translated texts to disrupt the target culture’s literary and ideological hegemony.  Although “foreign literatures tend to be dehistoricized by the selection of texts for translation, removed from their foreign literary traditions where they draw their significance”(Venuti 1998, 67), translation, he asserts, “simultaneously constructs a domestic subject” (Venuti 1998, 68) who can be transgressive or conservative.  Translation possesses for him “an identity-forming power” that can change canons and concepts of self-identity by forming new domestic subjects through “a process of “mirroring” or self-recognition: the foreign becomes intelligible when the reader recognizes himself or herself in the translation by identifying the domestic values that motivated the selection of that particular foreign text and that are inscribed in it through a particular discursive strategy.” (Venuti 1998, p. 77)  In other words, translated texts, although removed from their historical context in the source culture, retain a transformative power in the target culture because that which was seen to be relevant to the target culture is identified by the new audience.

Venuti takes as case studies two canon-changing translation trends in Classical and Japanese literature.  However, I would like to test this claim on perhaps the far thornier literary and historical phenomenon of Holocaust memoir.  To what extent could Venuti’s insight help us to understand the complexities of reception of the translated text of personal testimony in Holocaust literature.  To what extent does a target culture recognize itself in the translation of the text of witness?  To aid me in this inquiry, I will draw on the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, in a brief examination of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, and the publication history of Ruth Klüger’s weiter leben (1992) and its English version Still Alive (2001).

Recent critical studies of Holocaust memoir have made, what is euphemistically known, as the “linguistic turn”, using either speech act theory, or recent trends in linguistic pragmatics to examine the implicit and explicit assumptions about the truth-value of the utterance of witness and testimony in Holocaust memoirs.  Such an approach can be found in Ruth Franklin’s A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, newly issued from Oxford University Press, in which she bravely points out that even “the canonical work of Holocaust literature, involves some greying of the line between fiction and reality.” (p. 11)  Alan Rosen in his Sounds of Defiance: The Holocaust, Multilingualism and the Problem of English (Nebraska UP, 2005) problematizes the use of English, both within the camps and in immediate post-war texts of testimony as well as in the proliferation of Holocaust memoirs now written with English as their first language.   Piotr Kuhiwczak’s “The Grammar of Survival.  How do we Read Holocaust Testimonies” (in Translating and Interpreting Conflict, (2007) pp. 61-73 examines the fascinating phenomenon of using how English, with its status of non-Native language, can access memories of trauma that remain inexpressible in native tongues. (P. 67)  All these studies problematize the use of English in critical literature on the Holocaust as well as, for Rosen, examine the potential liberatory value of English in the camps.  However, as Franklin’s title would suggest, what is also at stake here is the question of authenticity; the authenticity of the speaking and writing “I” in testimony, the authenticity of the memoir (most famously disproven in the scandalous case of Wolfgang Koeppen’s “ghost-writing” of Jakob Littner’s first-person account “Journey through the Night”) and the examination of the power of, what critic Philippe Lejeune has famously termed the “autobiographical pact.”  This pact, he has theorized, is the necessary agreement between reader and author that the grammatical, speaking “I” of the autobiographical text is the same as the experiencing “I” who is the principal character of the memoir.  This equation constitutes the classical autobiography.  There are variations: where the speaking “I” is not the experiencing “I” and the text, therefore, becomes a “biography in the 1st person;” in other words, a homodiegetic narrative of witness, approaching what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben  posits in his examination of the impossibility of writing the testimony of the “Muselmann” in his brilliant study of the ethics of witness and the Holocaust Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (Zone, 1999).  Or, the writing grammatical subject can be referred in the second person but still be identical with the writing subject, in which case we have an autobiography in the second person, such as we find in Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster.  The choice of grammatical speaking and witnessing subject is crucial to the testimonial nature of Holocaust memoir.  Given that many critics, from Adorno to George Steiner, consider Holocaust testimony to reside outside the realm of aestheticization or fictionalization, we arrive at a demand for a kind of “radical authenticity” in Holocaust memoir that, as Agamben argues, carries the impossible and tautological burden of bearing witness to the gas chambers, an experience that one cannot survive.  For Agamben, “ the value of testimony lies essentially in what it lacks; at its center, it contains something that cannot be borne witness to and that discharges the survivors of authority.” (Agamben, 1999, p. 33)  If then, one cannot bear witness to an event, such as being inside a gas chamber and survive it to write of it, the meaning of testimony has to be sought elsewhere. For Agamben, that meaning is to be found in the ethical decision to write of the (untranslatable) Muselmann, the state of simultaneous being human and non-human.

Let us return momentarily to Venuti’s claim with which I began this paper, namely that the potential for cultural disruption that the translated text possesses lies in its ability to “enable a process of self-recognition”.  Now, Venuti here is arguing for a model of [re]cognition that stems from the German Romantics and has been most thoroughly examined in terms of translation studies by Antoine Berman in his work, L’épreuve de l’étranger: Culture et traduction dans l’Allemagne romantique. [Paris: Gallimard, 1984] .  Berman identifies in his work the twelve deforming tendencies of translation

  • Rationalisation,
  • Clarification,
  • Expansion,
  • Ennoblement,
  • Qualitative impoverishment,
  • Quantitative impoverishment,
  • the destruction of rhythms,
  • the destruction of underlying networks of signification,
  • the destruction of linguistic patternings,
  • the destruction of vernacular network or their exoticisation,
  • the destruction of expressions and idioms,
  • the effacement of the superimposition of languages

Of these tendencies, the ones that might prove to be of most conceptual use to the study of Holocaust memoir and translation are the “destruction of underlying networks of signification” and those deforming tendencies that deal directly with the inter-lingual translation as also an inter-semiotic one.  For example, what would be the linguistic patternings of the source text, the vernacular network, expressions, idioms, the multi-layering of language in Holocaust memoir?  In Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, the author makes frequent reference to the “Babel” of the carbide tower of the Buna works, built with its “Ziegel, briques, tegula, cegli, kamenny, mattoni, téglak”, (p. 73) the ziggurat of linguistic brickwork preserved in Stuart Wolf’s translation.  German in the camps is a language of survival, English the language of potential liberation, signified by the grinning English POWs in their fur-lined jackets, clandestinely giving the extra-linguistic Victory sign as they pass the lines of slave workers.

But what must also evade deformation in translation is the untranslatable, the sign that cannot be deciphered, to which no equivalent may be found in any target language:  the Muselmann.  Again, avoiding the deformation of the loss of vernacular networks, Stuart Woolf lists the labels one could assume within the camp system, the “Organisator, Kombinator, Prominent” and if one cannot become one of these, one soon “becomes a musselman” (p. 89)  Strangely, Woolf decides to attempt a translation of Muselmann and produces a deformed term—“musselman”, what is this, a collector of mussels? Not even using the lexical equivalent of the German term “Muselmann”=muslim, Woolf produces a neologism, perhaps to exoticize, to alienate, to make the reader stumble over the term.  But, I would argue this is not satisfactory, which also seems to be Woolf’s judgment as he switches on the following page between his newly coined and deformed term and the German original.

The “Muselmann” provokes much discussion in both Holocaust literature and criticism.  For Agamben, Levi’s account embodies the paradox of witnessing the “Muselmann” in that the ethical moment of Holocaust memoir comes in self-recognition of the witness in the human/non-human whose gaze has now become milky, whose skin has developed sores and whose body displays the edema of severe malnutrition: that gaze of self-recognition that produces the guilt of the survivor and the exhortation to witness.  The subversive tendency of translation in this perversely Lacanian mirror-moment would then consist of a disruption of the radical anti-semitism of the Nazis that pro- and re-duces the human to the non-human, that translates the Jew into the “Muslim”, the “Muselmann.”[1]  What is left, as an act of permanent restitution, in the sense of Steiner’s fourth hermeneutic motion, would then be to give the “drowned their story” to quote Primo Levi.  The untranslatable “Muselmänner” of Auschwitz, etymology better left unknown, present themselves as “the anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer.  One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.” (Primo Levy, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 90)

The ethical question that Agamben poses, and on a much wider cultural plateau that Venuti echoes, is how to bear testimony to “this inhuman impossibility of seeing.”  (Agamben, p. 54) Is then what is recognized as the “tohu-bohu” of preconscious existence?  The chaos of the existent world before God moved upon the waters?  That state of non-being of which each of us is capable, that is beyond the ethical, the moral, the conscious? And what does that then make of the witness? Not only one who recognizes that this state is present in the other and the self, but also that the presence of this state radically disrupts the moral fabric of those who survive, of the world that continues on after the “non-death” of the Muselmann.

How, then, does the survivor “weiter leben”?

In 1992, Ruth Klüger published her Holocaust memoir, weiter leben.  Wildly successful in Germany, selling over 250,000 copies and on the bestseller lists, the book actively engaged the German reader in an interrogation of the Nazi past.  Immediately translated into Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese, the book did not appear in English until 2001, after the death of Klüger’s mother.  However, as Caroline Schaumann has pointed out, Klüger’s English Holocaust memoir was an act less of textual self-translation than a substantive cultural translation.[2] Schaumann has already painstakingly traced many of the linguistic and stylistic changes from the German version to the English and has linked the changes to specific events in the ensuing years after the appearance of the German volume.  For example, Klüger’s mother dies, new facts arise as to the actual end of Klüger’s father (in fact from a reader of the German version), Klüger writes the English version in America and not in Germany.  There are multiple places within the work where Klüger performs deformations à la Berman of either expansion or clarification, whether dealing with German terms, Jewish, or allusions to American parallels.   Schaumann examines the comments made by the author that are specifically targeting her audience, either in Germany or in the US and comes to the conclusion that Klüger’s text is “the first Holocaust testimony devised as a specific dialogue with a culturally specific readership.” (p. 336)  Putting the question of primacy aside, I would like to focus on one culturally specific change to the Holocaust memoir that caused Klüger to rewrite the whole work as an English memoir and not as a translation of a German memoir, bearing in mind Venuti’s claims for translation’s potential to form cultural identities.

Klüger was also in Auschwitz.  The argot of the camp produced, from nowhere, the term “Muselmann” as referenced above in Levy’s work.  In the German text of her memoir, Klüger writes of the importance of not giving up hope in order that one did not become like the Muselmann:

Es gibt eben außer der Hoffnungslosigkeit, die Mut macht und die Borowski über die  Hoffnung stellte, noch die apathische Hoffnungslosigkeit, verkörpert in dem Phänomen “Muselmänner”, Menschen, denen der Selbsterhaltungswille im KZ abhanden gekommen war, und die nun wie Automaten reagierten, fast autistisch.  Sie galten als verloren, kein Muselmann könne lang überleben, versichterte man mir.  (weiter leben, p. 106)

Echoing Primo Levy, Klüger defines the Muselmann as the non-living, the autistic, non-communicative existent, soon to be memorialized in her “aalglatte[r] Kindervers” Der Kamin, which follows, transcribed from memory as the poet had in Auschwitz, of course, neither paper nor pencil.

In the English version, as though suddenly faced with the ontological paradox of translating the phenomenon of the Muselmann, Klüger omits the remembered children’s verse, and writes the following:

Maybe there are two types of despair, the kind that enables you to take risks, as Borowski thought, and which he held in higher esteem than hope, and then the kind of despair that makes you listless, sluggish, impassive.  There was a type of prisoner who had given up, whose will to live had been destroyed, who acted and reacted as if sleepwalking.  I don’t know the source of the moniker Muselmänner, Muslims, which was used to describe them, but no racial slur was implied, since Islam wasn’t an issue either for the Nazis or for the inmates of the camp.  The Muselmänner were walking deadmen who wouldn’t live long, I was told. (Still Alive, p. 90)

Bearing in mind her politically sensitive American audience, Klüger removes the reference to autism, and performs a quantitive and qualitative deformation by substituting “listless, sluggish, impassive”  (hardly a PC way out for the readers who knew the German as well as the English!).  Faced with the “épreuve” of translation, of the foreign, Klüger (like other prisoners in Auschwitz) denies knowledge of the source of the term “Muselmann,” at the same time as she assures us of its non-racist intentions, removing from its conceptual grid the very irony commented on by others (Mansoor et al).  Klüger’s  American version has been deformed, with the destruction of the underlying networks of signification, of the vernacular network of the KZ and its idioms.  Schumann has identified the places in the American text where Klüger has drawn sometimes uncomfortable parallels between the experience of anti-Semitism and American racism, places that she, Schaumann elevates to the status of a direct interrogation of the target audience.  I would disagree.  To return to Venuti: the phenomenon of racial discrimination may well be that which the target audience (of which Klüger herself has become one, as an American not German author) sees reflected in the translated text and recognizes as the reason the text speaks to them.  But, the ethical moment of translation, is to endure the “épreuve” of the foreign, the gaze of the slave worker, the non-death of the Muselmann.

[1] See Parvez Manzoor “Turning Jews into Muslims: The Untold Saga of the Muselmänner” Islam21 (April 2001) pp. 8-12.  Accessed on 2/5/11 at

[2] Caroline Schaumann, “From weiter leben (1992) to Still Alive (2001):  Ruth Klüger’s Cultural Translation of her “German Book” for an American Audience” in German Quarterly 77 (Summer 2004), pp. 324-339.


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