Working on Texts by Hans Scholl and Willi Graf

Two of this year’s White Rose Project translators, Benjy Fortna and Beth Molyneux, talk about the experience of translating excerpts from the letters and diaries of White Rose members Hans Scholl and Willi Graf.

Why did you want to get involved in the project? 

Benjy: As a linguist, translation features fairly heavily in my work both in- and outside of university, but the chance to work on historical texts, some of which had never before been translated into English, was hugely new and exciting for me. The more I got involved with the project, the more I realised that these documents promised much more than just historical interest – they are highly personal and emotional texts, through which the voices of young people caught up in an extraordinary time are clearly heard. The juxtaposition of the everyday with the exceptional and life-threatening was poignant, and made sure we didn’t lose our focus or sense of perspective during the translation process.

Beth: I had learnt a bit about the White Rose group in GCSE history, but only really as a name you could drop in the exam as an example of Nazi resistance – beyond watching Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: The Final Days we really didn’t go into that much depth. Translation into English is one of my favourite parts of my course at Oxford, and I’ve always been very interested in German history, particularly Hitler’s rise to power and the Third Reich, and so the project seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine these two interests, as well as having the chance to produce a truly original translation.

What translation challenges did you encounter working on the texts? 

Benjy: In general, the texts I worked on (by Hans Scholl) were written in a language which lent itself easily to modern translation – at times it felt surprising when the war was mentioned, since the feelings expressed were generally so relatable. However, as ever, there were some formal conventions (e.g. closing off letters) where English didn’t quite suffice in its capacity for gradations of deference, intimacy and respect. There was also a need to switch regularly between formality (especially in the letters), poetic emotionality and detached documentary style (in the various diary entries).

Beth: Context was really important – we had to think carefully about who was writing, who they were writing to, under what circumstances and where, as this influences tone, style and, ultimately, purpose and impact. Some of the most difficult bits arose because these texts hadn’t necessarily been written for a reading audience, and so (especially in Willi Graf’s journal entries), they didn’t translate into anything which sounded especially pretty! It was getting a balance between retaining the blunt, notated form of the original, without making it sound clunky in English.

Are there any solutions you are particularly proud of?

Benjy: One of Hans Scholl’s more poetic turns of phrase turned out rather nicely:

Eine Kerze brennt unruhig, seltsame Gestalten fließen an ihrer Seite herunter, willkürlich geformte oder auch meinetwegen vom Schicksal bestimmte Wachsgebilde.

A candle is flickering as it burns, strange figures melting down its side, little wax bodies formed by chance, or by fate for all I care.

Beth: It’s quite hard to pinpoint a specific example of a phrase or sentence that we translated well, but reading back over what we produced I’m quite satisfied that we managed to capture the tone of the letters and get across the feeling which comes through from the original German in as authentic a way as possible.

Are there any words or phrases that proved ‘untranslatable’?

Benjy: Not as such, although it proved impossible to convey the pathos and detached irony of the phrase ‘müde vom Nichtstun’ in English. ‘Tired from doing nothing’ got the meaning well, but it lost a bit of its kick.

Beth: I’d love to be able to include a really poetic example here which expresses an entire concept in one neat little German word, but unfortunately the trickiest word we came across, and which I just don’t think there is a perfectly satisfying solution for, was ‘Ostbahnhof’. We spent so much time trying to work out how to keep in all the information in a formulation that would sound neat in English, and not assume too much knowledge of Germany or Munich. It was important that the station was to the east, because that indicated where the men were headed, but including this detail within the name of the station just didn’t have the same effect in English as in German. German really is just a more efficient language sometimes!

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Beth Molyneux (centre) with other members of the White Rose Translation Project.

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

Beth: The difference in styles between the different writers was really interesting; whereas Hans was quite poetic, Willi had a much more pared-down style, but this only made his last few letters to his sister while in prison all the more poignant. You could really see a shift in tone from what he noted in his diary or brief letters home from the Front to the emotionally charged and very religious language he used in his final days. The first time I read his very last letter I actually welled up, because the language is so moving, and doesn’t really seem to have aged at all.

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Benjy Fortna reads from Hans Scholl’s letters at our Voices of the German Resistance concert on 22 February 2020 | © Stuart Bebb

Who do you hope reads your translations? 

Benjy: I think these texts can offer a lot to any English speakers, since their relatability is so universal. I especially hope more young people get the chance to read the translations – it’s not often that the experience of war and totalitarianism is expressed in such a personable way.

Beth: I would love it if our translations were read by people who didn’t know too much about the White Rose, or had maybe heard of them in passing but never really thought much about them as a group. I think the translated letters are a much better way into finding out more about the White Rose group, because they showcase that personal side, they turn it into a human story of brave and real people rather than just another awful Nazi atrocity, and I like the thought that our work could bring that more positive, if still tragic, aspect of what the White Rose did achieve to the attention of readers who don’t otherwise have much experience with German writing.

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

Benjy: I read Hans Scholl’s letters and diaries during the concert. The setting and musical accompaniment could not have been more special. I was especially happy to see how well attended the event was, and to see how visibly affected many people were by these voices which I helped to translate. More than anything, the evening showed that the White Rose is more relevant than ever today.

Beth: I really enjoyed the concert – I thought the location of the University Church was just perfect, and the movement between music and the letters really brought out the more personal, emotional side of them. It was also brilliant to hear the letters being performed, because although it’s a written form, there is definitely something about a letter which appeals to being read out, even if this does pose some difficulties in translating them!

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?

Benjy: I was lucky to learn much more about the White Rose through this project – like most people, my knowledge was hazy and mostly based on Marc Rothemund’s film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. I was particularly interested in how much religion and patriotism featured in their motivations.

Beth: I have found out a lot more about who the White Rose actually involved, beyond the more well-known story of Hans and Sophie Scholl, about the scope of their action and the impact on individual lives which being part of the group had. I feel like I’ve had a much more personal insight into the real people behind the White Rose rather than just a historical account of their actions.

Read excerpts from their letters in English here.