Translating Christoph Probst’s Letters

One of this year’s White Rose Project translators, Luke Cooper, talks about the experience of translating Christoph Probst’s letters. Christoph was a member of the White Rose resistance and wrote a draft of what would have been the group’s seventh pamphlet before he was arrested, tried, and executed in February 1943.

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Why did you want to get involved in the project?

This project has much appeal; translating letters of a student resister as a student, translating collaboratively, delving into the Nazi era through such a personal perspective and above all the challenge and satisfaction of bringing the letters and their writers to life in English.

What translation challenges did you encounter working on the texts?

One unexpected challenge that Christoph Probst presented was the fact he was a married father of three, not ‘just part of the student resistance’. Sheer elation for his new-born daughter and memories of boarding school sit beside war-based worries and subtle yet scathing critique of the Nazi regime. Some of his most moving, lyrical flourishes are made chilling by the context they were written in. The joyous notion of his daughter being born into a good time is one of the most moving: his daughter was born straight into the Nazi regime and within weeks would lose him to it. We had to be careful not to translate the letters with too much hindsight, even though we knew Christoph would be dead within weeks, he was overjoyed by his baby girl who to him was a brilliant new dawn, regardless of his imminent death.

The materiality of the 1930s was also problematic. When we think of permission to travel or holiday leave, it is not in terms of an official piece of paper issued by the state, even the concept of hard borders in Europe seems far flung today. Capturing the bureaucracy, materiality and scale of the Nazi state was a challenge. The Urlaubsschein for example is not simply permission to leave home, but a card that has been stamped by an official representing the state, it has to be collected and then checked throughout the journey – not that Christoph got as far as the station on the day of his arrest. In the end we settled for a ‘leave permit’ which we think captured the controlling state and its materiality without feeling needlessly out-dated or laboured.

Are there any solutions you are particularly proud of?

Here’s an example from Christoph’s letter on the birth of his daughter. He writes: ‘Nun ist also doch ein Mäderl da, ein kleiner neuer Schmetterling ausgekrochen, wie freut mich das! Das Geburt einer Tochter bedeutet für mich ganz Besonderes! So viel Liebe, Freude und Hoffnung verbindet sich schon jetzt mit dem kleinen Wesen, wo ich es noch gar nicht kenne! Mag es doch in eine gute Zeit hineingeboren sein, einen neuen Aufstieg, dessen Morgenröte jetzt in seiner Geburtszeit aufsteigt’ (letter to Elise Probst, 22 January 1943).

Once we realised how the dawn was conceived, this metaphor became a highlight of the letters to me: ‘So it is a girl after all, a little butterfly has crawled out into the world – how happy I am! The birth of a daughter is such a special thing for me! Already so much love, joy and hope are bound to this small creature, and I do not even know her yet! May she be born into a good time, a new sunrise, whose first light is now shining in the moment of her birth.’

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Luke Cooper performing at ‘Voices of the German Resistance’ on 22 February 2020. ©Stuart Bebb

What impression did the letters, and the language used in the letters, make on you?

Christoph’s letters were surprisingly engaging, so much so that I found myself translating bits of his unabridged letters beyond the assigned excerpts. His writing finds a balance between flowery images, irony, understated risks of war and revelling in the joy of his young family. Personal letters are seldom written with the intention of finding a wide readership, this meant it really felt like we were delving into the individuals in question and their relationships to partners, siblings, family and friends. We often think of the students as a resistance first and as humans second, but their letters put this right. Christoph too was a child; his motivation to get through the winter term at boarding school was Christmas and hopefully plentiful snow, he boasts about how well his grand old tea with Reinhard has gone and raves about the Feurich biscuits he has been sent, hinting that his sister might take the opportunity to replenish his now depleted supply of birthday goodies.

As a father he moves on from often ironic yet well-meaning boastfulness and talks more and more about nature; the sky, the Tirol, skiing in Bavaria, he remains aware of the war, the rising tide of sin as he calls it but it is his moments with his family that really stand out. To pick a single example, his ‘Mischa episodes’ (about his eldest son Michael) are witty and warming stories of his son’s latest experiences, for example his attempt to use the potty unaided at night. ‘[The next morning] he wanted to empty the pot’s contents into the pail as usual, but to his amazement there was nothing in it! The combined layers of underwear and pyjamas had thwarted his praiseworthy intention.’

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Adam Rebick reads from Christoph Probst’s letters, translated by Luke Cooper, Jonah Cowen, and and Thomas Lyne. | © Stuart Bebb

Who do you hope reads your translations?

Ideally as many people as possible, especially beyond the Oxford bubble. If the letters go some way to helping spread the extraordinary stories that come with them and getting people engaged, that would be great.

You were involved in the White Rose Project’s concert with SANSARA on 22 February 2020. What were your impressions of the event?

I think it was an imaginative and effective way to launch the translations and to give them voice, face and dramatic weight with some brilliant music. I enjoyed being Fritz [Hartnagel], but more importantly think it was moving and engaging for the audience, it was after all a performance.

Has anything changed in your understanding of or approach to the White Rose as a result of translating, or as a result of the project more broadly?

The process of translating and performing has given the White Rose a face. While it brings with it a story of atrocity it is a resistance packed with warming humility and humour. This is made all the more moving as the atrocious, the warming and the witty are often side by side to quite some effect.

Hear an excerpt from one of Christoph Probst’s letters here.