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Home Uncategorized Our Language, Their Babble

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…

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