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Our Language, Their Babble

Michael Cronin

Interpreting in Nazi Concentration Camps, by Michaela Wolf (ed), Bloomsbury, 192 pp, £24, ISBN: 978-1501313257

On January 18th, 1943 at about 9pm, two boozed-up kapos by the name of Schmuck and Wyderka burst into one of the buildings housing deportees in Majdanek concentration camp, situated in the southeastern suburbs of Lublin in Poland. They were accompanied by a small boy they called “Bubi”, who was to act as their interpreter. The point of the drunken incursion was to announce the rules and regulations of the camp. Bubi was soon forcefully struck by one of the kapos for an apparent translation error and threatened with immediate execution. Another interpreter was summoned, Antoni Wolf, and Wolf in his memoir describes the subsequent exchanges with his captors:

I put a lot of effort into interpreting as simply and as comprehensively as possible … I presented our “Lords of life and death” and summarized the provisions of the rules and regulations. They accused me of making the sentences shorter than they actually were in German but I answered that we, the Poles, do not need long explanations, we are quick to understand our situation and automatically adapt to the prevailing conditions.

The kapos may be lords of life and death, but even terror needs mediation. They needed to get their message across to the Polish inmates to make fear an effective tool of administration. There is little point in slave labour if the slaves do not know what to do. From this necessity is born the deeply ambiguous figure of the interpreter, both a tool of the authorities and a potential site of resistance. In an age when it is often assumed that supra-national bodies (UN, WHO, EU) are designed to enhance the collective well-being of their members with translators as benign angels of linguistic intercession it is worth remembering that there are darker supranational histories where the role of communication is more troubling. Many of the labour and extermination camps scattered across the Nazi Reich held up to thirty or forty different nationalities, most of them speaking different languages. For life and death to proceed as smoothly and as efficiently as possible, it was necessary that his master’s voice be clearly understood. Conversely, no resistance was possible without mutual intelligibility. Like the Nazis’ occupied territories the camps were inherently multinational and multilingual. There were three responses to the communicative challenge of terror.

The first was to use or learn the language of the master. For Primo Levi, this was the primary means of survival in the bounded inferno of the death camps. In The Drowned and the Saved (1989) he recounts how knowing German in Auschwitz was a matter of life or death:

The greater part of the prisoners who did not understand German – that is, almost all of the Italians – died during the first ten to fifteen days after their arrival: at first glance, from hunger, cold, fatigue, and disease, but after a more attentive examination, due to insufficient information.

This insufficienza d’informazioni is a perverse reversal of the curse of Caliban. If Prospero’s subject exclaims, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse / The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!”, the tragedy for Levi’s compatriots is that no one has taught them the language of their masters. They are cursed by their linguistic vulnerability. They cannot get access to the information they need to live. Jorge Semprun, a Spanish writer and politician who wrote primarily in French, was equally persuaded that it was his knowledge of German that allowed him to survive internment in Buchenwald. In Literature or Life (1994) he laments the sour irony of the geographical proximity of the camp to the literary and philosophical arcadia of Goethe’s Weimar. Like Levi, Semprun was drawn to German by the lure of its philosophical and aesthetic pre-eminence only to find that it was this very knowledge of the language that would allow him to survive the genocidal transgression of the German cultural legacy.

The second response to the novel linguistic conditions of the camp was not so much to adopt the enforced lingua franca of German as to develop a lingua franca made up of a mixture of German words and borrowed words from other languages. This language was commonly known as lagerszpracha. It was created out of Polish, Yiddish, Hungarian, Silesian dialects, and other languages spoken in any given camp. Thus each camp had its own dialect of lagerszpracha. German-speaking prisoner-functionaries and even some of the SS troops employed lagerszpracha expressions, but it was used primarily by inmates to communicate with each other. The creation of a shared language of communication under conditions of extreme duress is amply documented in the case of slavery. The deliberate dispersal of different ethnic and language groups by slave traders to minimise the risk of organised rebellion meant that slaves had to compose their own pidgin that would allow for the minimum of intelligible human contact. Through a process of creolisation the children of slaves would introduce grammatical structure to the pidgins; creole languages are widely spoken in many parts of the world today, from Haiti to Mauritius. The survival rates in the camps were so low, however, that no such process of creolisation took place and the lagerszpracha remained a provisional pidgin of subsistence.

The third response, and this is the primary subject of the book under review, was to use language intermediaries or interpreters. These were usually inmates who had a knowledge of German and either became part of the camp administration or were conscripted on an ad hoc basis. Opinions of the role and nature of these interpreters vary in the accounts of survivors. Primo Levi, for example, talks about a young man from South Tyrol who, not content with reproducing the threatening tone and language of the SS officer, added to the vehemence of the officer’s words with additions of his own in Italian. Ramón Bargueño, a Spanish inmate in the Steyr sub-camp, speaks of a Spanish interpreter who shouted at him and struck him when he reported the theft of his boots to the camp registrar. The desire to curry favour, acquire food privileges, avoid certain work duties, meant that certain interpreters would use their linguistic capital to ingratiate themselves with the German authorities and come to identify with their camp oppressors. On the other hand, there are more examples of interpreters who used whatever room for manoeuvre they had to make the lives of their fellow inmates slightly more tolerable. One such example was Jean Gavard, who was made an interpreter in the Steyr sub-camp. He was rewarded with two extra ladles of soup, one of which he regularly gave to his comrades. He would also get the prisoners to repeat their prisoner numbers again and again until they could pronounce them smoothly in German. These interpreters used the temporary opacity of the foreign language to their Nazi tormentors to ease the hardship and suffering of their fellow inmates either through deliberate mistranslation or imparting vital information on appropriate ways to respond to orders. There were, of course, limits to what they could do. The camp guards were not always interested in the niceties of mediation and in Mauthuasen the guards’ nickname for their bullwhip was the dolmetscher or interpreter , whose language, as Levi noted, was understood by everyone.

In considering the question of translation in Nazi translation camps one of the immediate difficulties is the limits to translation itself. How does one interpret, translate, represent experiences that may by their very nature resist any attempt at interpretation, translation or representation? Francine Kaufman, who worked as an interpreter on Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah (1985), sees translation as a way of capturing the dual possibility and impossibility of giving voice to the unspeakable:

Some critics noted … that the main language in Shoa is the language of translation. Interpretation, with all of its shortcomings (errors, omissions, hesitations, additions), is a metaphor for any testimony: one sees and hears, but one’s memory cannot reproduce faithfully all that was said: it always selects, interprets, and misrepresents.

Claiming that whereof we cannot speak we must remain silent can, of course, become a form of complicity in crime. Stressing the uniqueness of the experience of the camps runs the risk of exempting the order of terror from analysis both as a way of understanding the past and as a prophylactic for the future. To this extent, examining the role of interpreting is to not only look at the functioning of the camps as social institutions with their own communicative regimes, however asymmetrical and perverse. It is also to probe the capacity of human witness to account for human depravity. The overwhelming mass of Holocaust literature. from the writings of Primo Levi to those of Imre Kertész, reaches the English language world, where it has been most influential, in translation. There is a double layer of interpretation: firstly, putting form on the inarticulacy of terror and secondly, carrying these multiple, fractured meanings across to a language that did not partake in any way of the original experience. Most of the information or the knowledge that reaches Anglophone audiences about the world of the Nazi camps reaches us in this mediated or translated form but the fact of translation is rarely commented upon. It is little wonder then that in Don Delillo’s novel White Noise (1985) it is possible to have a character like Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies, who knows no German, as if the very success of the translation enterprise had effaced the primary violence of language contact.

Though they may have been levelled in death, not all inmates in the camps were equal in life. There was a distinct hierarchy related in no small degree to language groupings. Jean Améry, who like two other writers/camp survivors, Primo Levi and Paul Celan, would take his own life, commented on the toxic link between speech, nationality and treatment:

In the lager there was … a strict hierarchy, imposed on all of us by the Nazis. A Reichsdeutscher [German from the Reich] had a better standing than a Volksdeutscher [Ethnic German]. A Flemish Belgian was worth more than a Wallonian. A Ukrainian from the Generalgouvernement [eastern Poland under Nazi occupation] ranked higher than his Polish countryman. An Ostarbeiter [forced worker from Eastern Europe] was looked down on more than an Italian.

In other words, there were assumed degrees of proximity even if in the death camps, these would all ultimately be undercut by the murderous logic of extermination.

A common thread between the survival value of German and the differential handling of national groups depending on their linguistic closeness to the language of the camp authorities is a routine association between language and difference. As Primo Levi points out, in an essay translated here for the first time into English, “On Translating and Being Translated”, there “are many people who believe, more or less consciously, that a person who speaks another language is an outsider by definition, a foreigner, strange, a stranger and, hence, a potential enemy, or at least a barbarian”. If the word “barbarian” is connected etymologically with the Greek reaction to the stuttering, incomprehensible other then this staggered difference is seen more often as a cause for alarm than a reason for celebration. The implications of this are far-reaching. It was noticeable in the recent Brexit campaign in Britain how much populist xenophobia was driven not by more traditional colour-based racism but was motivated by migration from Central and Eastern Europe. These migrants were not visibly different from the members of the Herrenvolk who were so keen to depict them as welfare spongers. The primary difference lay in language and one can only speculate to what extent this language difference fed into the paranoid political fantasies of barbarians scrounging at the gates. If human speech is commonly seen as what differentiates us from animals, then if I cannot understand what other humans are saying, their speech is more like the incomprehensible cries of the animal, the barbarian utterances of non-persons. In the absence of translation, the language of the other becomes either the broken idiom of a fallen humanity or the opaque sub-language of conspiracy, a shared code among deviants who would subvert the lifestyle of the decent majority. Sometimes, the proximity of animal metaphors can take on a horrifyingly literal truth in the badlands of slaughter. Francine Kaufmann describes an interview with Yehuda Lerner, a survivor from the Sobibor camp. She was not sure she had heard correctly when Lerner informed her that the Nazis routinely used the noise of flocks of wild geese to drown out the cries of dying Jews. On checking back the translation, Lerner confirmed to Kaufmann that this is what had happened. In this final murderous fusion, all language had merged into a continuous crying, the untranslatable residue of the non-persons.


Michael Cronin teaches in Dublin City University. His most recent work is Eco-Translation: Translation and Ecology in the Age of the Anthropocene (2017).