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Hitler’s prose

23 January 2015


IT IS a dilemma that translators must face with some frequency: what to do with a piece of bad writing. Make it sound better, and save the author's blushes; or present the text, warts and all? But when the text in question is Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, the dilemma is that much more acute.

For James Murphy, the first translator of the Führer into English, the challenge of rendering such tortured prose into something intelligible proved almost overwhelming, as his son Patrick recounted in Mein Kampf: Publish or burn? (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week).

Mein Kampf comes out of copyright at the end of this year, and the Bavarian regional government, who effectively own the German copyright and have prevented any new editions since 1945, are in a quandary what to do next. While publication in Germany might constitute a breach of the law against incitement to racial hatred, some argue that German readers should be able to engage with the text, albeit accompanied by commentaries and apologias indicating all the ways in which the text deviates from reality.

Elsewhere, Mein Kampf is readily available, and English-language publishers report steady sales.

Publishers such as Random House are keen to make clear that any profits from such sales go to anonymised academic charities. One of the most remarkable artefacts dug up by Chris Bowlby in this documentary was a copy of Mein Kampf in serial form, with all profits going to the British Red Cross Society. The illustrations of "typical Jewish types" that adorn the pages are all the more chilling when they appear in association with such an august British institution.

The slippery nature of language and its translation was at the heart of an excellent edition of Beyond Belief (Radio 4) last week. What does it mean to be a fundamentalist? It is a term that has been batted around the news and opinion columns with increasing enthusiasm recently; but are we giving fundamentalist a bad name?

Ernie Rea's academic guests certainly thought so, as did the gentleman interviewed, who proudly described himself as an Islamic fundamentalist when it came to issues of compassion and tolerance.

The term "Islamic fundamentalist" entered Western consciousness in 1979 with the Iranian revolution, where it was associated with intense religious devotion and anti-modern, anti-Western cultural politics. But, as the experts here argued, it is the expression of Sunni Islam found in the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia which more properly deserves the term fundamentalism.

Finally, Witness (World Service, last Friday) told the story of Raoul Wallenberg. "An angel in hell" was how this Swedish diplomat was described by one grateful survivor of the Holocaust in Hungary; for Wallenberg is credited with saving thousands of lives by distributing fake IDs. His fate? In 1945, he disappeared into the Soviet prison system, perhaps on suspicion of spying for the United States - which only goes to show that it is rarely good enough just to do the right thing.

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