Professor Jean Boase-Beier, University of East Anglia

 

Most people know something about the Holocaust, the destruction of the Jews and other communities by the National Socialists before and during the Second World War. Historians have recounted in both popular and scholarly historical works the appalling facts about the mass-murder, large-scale theft, degradation, and annihilation of whole communities which was the aim and reality of the Holocaust. But facts, especially when coupled with figures of such magnitude – the murder of many millions of Jews, countless thousands of Sinti and Roma people, gay men, the politically active, the mentally and physically ill – can leave us aghast, frightened, stunned and at worst unable to engage with the reality behind them, or to think through their consequences.

Eye-witness accounts go some way towards ensuring that the lived experience of a concentration camp, the feeling of being hunted, the empty grief of losing one’s family, can be shared by those who were not there. Translations of such accounts ensure that others – for example today in England – can engage with this experience and try to understand how it could have come about. Fictional accounts, both original and translated, though controversial, certainly have an important role to play in educating people about what it might have felt like to be affected directly by the Holocaust. Like documentary accounts, they can help readers to question their own motivations, prejudices, and feelings. Poetry, however, is different. It is both different in the way it works and very different in the way it needs to be translated. Poetry leaves far more to the reader than do most documentary accounts. More than prose fiction, it employs gaps, silences, fragments, ambiguities, suggestions, leaving much open to the reader’s mental engagement. Such poetry is hard work to read, and can affect readers profoundly. It can change minds. How, then, can we translate such complex poetry, the real essence of which can often seem to reside in what it does not say as much as in what it does?

Such poetry must cross over into other languages and times and still maintain its effects of provoking the reader to think, to re-think, to feel, to act, and so we need to study exactly how this can be done, or an important resource for our engagement with this world-changing series of events will be lost. ‘Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust’ is on the one hand a book that examines the central role of translation in re-creating the poetic effects of the original poetry, mainly but not exclusively written in German, as well as providing guidelines that will help future translators of Holocaust poetry. On the other, it is a collaborative programme of academic and public events that helps to educate researchers, translators and readers. The public events (discussions, workshops, readings and an exhibition) undertaken together with Writers’ Centre Norwich and several other local organisations, ensures the research serves the purpose of increasing public engagement with the Holocaust.

 

 

Newcastle University research seminar event webpage

The problems of translating a Holocaust poem

Lectures, talks, and readings in Oslo, Edinburgh, London, Norwich, Cardiff, Maribor

An exhibition on translated Holocaust poetry

Published Outputs: book and article