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Primo Levi and ‘Lagersprache’

Zaia Alexander


Though he did not always write about Auschwitz, Primo Levi never stopped using the strategies of the translator to decode a wide variety of “sectorial languages”, and it remained a defining feature of his narrative style. In the same measure that his stories, regardless of genre, cannot help but bear the imprint of Auschwitz, the theme of translation continuously appears in all his books, fiction and non-fiction alike. In this talk I will focus on Levi’s chapter, “The Canto of Ulysses” (in: If This Is a Man / Se questo è un uomo) wherein he not only reenacts a moment of language acquisition in Auschwitz, but also shows us literally and metaphorically the connection between translation and survival.

Linguistic terror in Nazi concentration camps: ‘Lucien’ and ‘Gilbert’ – two portraits of interpreters

Heidi Aschenberg


In the closed world of Nazi concentration camps, social life was completely subject to the order of terror, as Wolfgang Sofsky has pointed out in his excellent study Die Ordnung des Terrors (1993). The organization of the camps was aimed at the destruction of the prisoners’ individuality and dignity; at the same time, their work capacity was maximally exploited in deadly work processes. The barbarous and depraved social situation in the camps produced depraved forms of communication. German, the official language of administration and communication in the extremely polyglot society of the camps, was imposed as “high variety” upon all prisoners regardless of their nationality. They were not allowed to use their native languages, but forced to speak German. Being able to understand the language of the torturers was often a condition for survival for the prisoners.

Against this background, the role of those who exercised the function of “interpreters” was far from unambiguous. Collaboration with the torturers or solidarity with other prisoners denote only the extreme points on a scale of possible patterns of behaviour. Following the development of the portrait of an interpreter - Lucien - in Robert Antelme’s L’espèce humaine and referring to other comparable texts treating of the subject of interpretation, I shall outline the impact of translating in everyday life in Nazi concentration camps.

The illusion of the “Authentic”: The translation of video testimonies with survivors of National Socialist terror for use in educational work

Sylvia Degen


As we move on in time, away from the era of National Socialism, the number of survivors who are able to directly recount their own memories of NS terror is greatly diminishing. Accompanying this transition of the remembrance of NS and the Shoah from a communicative to a cultural memory, videographic survivor interviews are becoming increasingly important in academic and memory culture contexts. Furthermore, their usage as a tool for transmitting the history of National Socialism has become increasingly significant. In a German-speaking context, the usage of translated material is widely common – but often without sufficient awareness of the effects that the translation process has on the text: instead, readers tend to unquestioningly perceive the material as being “authentic”. In my presentation, I will take a closer look at the translation of this specific type of text; including the tension caused by ethical considerations surrounding Holocaust testimonies on the one hand, and the particular functionality required of current education materials on the other.

Interpreting as an act of alienation/humanization in the Nazi concentration camps

Xoán M. Garrido Vilariño


Communication in the Nazi concentration camps was one of the keys to survival. In this context, this paper discerns between inmates who spoke Romanic languages and those who spoke Germanic and/or Slavic languages. This distinction is proposed by Primo Levi in his trilogy of Auschwitz: he attributes the Italians’ high death rate in the camp to their inability to understand the orders being shouted around them and highlights the prisoners’ communicative, moral, and psychological disintegration as a result of the linguistic chaos in the Lager. At the basis of this paper my research of survivor accounts draws on the assumption that SS guards used the act of interpreting as the first step in the process of annihilation of human beings. Ultimately, such alienating processes resulted in inmates becoming Muselmänner. On the other hand, the interpreting activity among the prisoners in many cases helped inmates to feel like human beings and to physically and psychologically survive the concentration camp. In my presentation, the analysis of various survivor accounts of Spanish Republican prisoners (including Mercedes Núñez Targa) will be the basis for the discussion of these questions.

The ambiguous task of the interpreter in Lanzmann’s films ‘Shoah’ and ‘Sobibor’ – Between the director, the survivors of camps and ghettos and the eye of the movie camera

Francine Kaufmann


Shoah and Sobibor are films mostly made up of interviews by the director, Claude Lanzmann, using interpreters for the 3 languages he could not understand (Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew). The aim of the director was not to create an ordinary documentary but a work of art, a “fiction of the real”, using deliberate “manipulation” in order to make the survivors relive their experience in the present, and not just tell the story of what happened to them. But it seems that he was also “manipulating” his interpreters in order to make them hear for the first time – discovering while translating – the horrors of the camps and the ghettos. He asked the Hebrew interpreter not to exchange any word with the witness.

The protagonists of the films are of three categories: perpetrators, by-standers and victims. Lanzmann chose interpreters from the victim’s side, so that the witness could trust them and speak to them intimately. Being the Hebrew interpreter, I was standing very near the movie camera so that the witness, while answering me, was looking at the eye of the camera: I was the first listener of part of the future film.

In these circumstances, what was the real task of the interpreter in these films? Another kind of protagonist? A words technician chosen for her experience of media interpretation and her knowledge of the vocabulary and context of the Shoah? To illustrate, I will use extracts of the rushes and of the dactylogram of Sobibor, to be compared with the final film and the book made from the soundtrack.

Interpreting under pressure: From collaboration to resistance

Piotr Kuhiwczak


The role of interpreters is perceived as ambiguous at the best of times, and two sets of incompatible standards are often imposed on them. One day an interpreter may be expected to function as a self-effacing, invisible and technically accomplished language professional and a day later the same interpreter is asked to act as a committed, compassionate and pro-active individual. In order to gain a more balanced perspective on interpreting it is perhaps useful to look at situations when interpreting takes place under extreme social pressure, and interpreting in Nazi concentration camps can serve as a good example of the ‘laboratory’ condition from which we can develop new perspectives.

In this paper I shall be asking whether we can reconstruct the situation in which interpreting functioned in the Nazi concentration, and if so what can we learn from this reconstruction? I shall address the methodological difficulty of retrieving this fragment of the concentration camp reality and placing it within the framework of sociological accounts of concentration camps (e.g. Anna Pawelczynska 1973 and Zygmunt Bauman 1989). Then I shall look at a witness account of actual interpreting situations in Mauthausen and Gusen concentration camps in order to establish whether the lessons from the past may be of any significance for interpreting and interpreters in our times.

“L’écrit reste. L’écrit est une trace, tandis que les paroles s’envolent”: On the hermeneutics of Holocaust survivor memoirs

Peter Kuon


Nazi concentration camp survivors have shared their memories in hundreds, if not thousands of accounts in all European languages. Most of their texts have been published, yet few of them are well-known. The lack of scientific interest in survivor memoirs seems to prove Hannah Arendt’s early dictum that they are “remarkably monotonous”. However, the perceived monotony may simply be the result of superficial reading. While the accounts might give the impression that they contain inherent truths and undeniable experiences, they are in fact nothing more than “traces” that need to be interpreted.

In my presentation, I will develop – both theoretically and methodologically – a hermeneutical concept for working with survivor accounts. From creating a corpus to analysing a text, what steps need to be taken in order to highlight individual experiences, memories and the representation of the various testimonies, compare them to other testimonies and put them into the context of collective narratives? How can we reveal what is untold, suppressed or traumatic between the lines? It is my aim to suggest a mode of reading that makes it possible to extract subjectively perceived realities from memoirs written by concentration camp survivors.

Interpreting in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp through the lens of survivor accounts

Verena Maier


The aim of my research is to expand the scope of already existing research results on interpreting in concentration camps in general and interpreting in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in particular.

Based on the analysis of several Auschwitz survivors’ narratives and memoirs, such as Wieslaw Kielar, Primo Levi, Lore Shelley, Shlomo Venezia and Krystyna Zywulksa, I will discuss the characteristics of the interpreting task in the camp. My main question is whether interpreting in concentration camps, and particularly in Auschwitz, can be seen as a form of interpreting which cannot be compared to any other form of interpreting known until today, or whether one can draw – at least on an exclusively abstract and theoretical level – certain parallels between known forms of mediation, such as community interpreting. After all, although interpreting in Auschwitz was performed in situations of unprecedented brutality and terror, the interpreters who performed mediating tasks were mostly ad-hoc recruited interpreters who acted in intra-social settings, which in turn were marked by an extreme imbalance of power between SS guards and inmates on the one hand, and among camp prisoners, on the other. Against this background it is my claim that interpreting in Auschwitz death camp can be seen as a unique form of mediation in its own right.

Interpreters in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps: Tormentors, helpers, or “just” mediators?

Viktor Milosevic


World-War-Two prisoners of war (POW) in the USSR make up an important chapter in the history of Europe and the Soviet Union. An under-researched issue in this chapter is the interpreting activity in POW camps. In this paper, I will shed light on this issue and will discuss the following questions: How did the prisoner-of-war-camp personnel and the inmates communicate? Were there any interpreters in Soviet prisoner of war camps? In what way did interpreters shape everyday life in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps? To what extend can the analysis of the role(s) of interpreters in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps contribute to a better understanding of the role(s) of interpreters in more general terms?

These questions will be discussed by means of an in-depth analysis of various memoirs of former German and Austrian POW who had spent many years in Soviet captivity during and after World War Two. Since these POW were mostly Wehrmacht and SS officers who were considered perpetrators by the Soviet regime, the social dynamics inherent in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps were very complex. The accounts of the former POW will be analysed with Erving Goffman’s concept of social interaction. This will help to “unmask” the roles of interpreters in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps.

The camp society. Approaches to social structure and ordinary life in the concentration camps

Alexander Prenninger


Internment in the concentration camps has been often understood solely from the perspective of death and survival. Analysing the accounts of survivors, however, reveals a broad picture of social life in the camps. In my presentation I will explore different approaches for the understanding and interpretation of the camp society. Sociological, psychological and philosophical analyses of the concentration camps are giving different answers concerning the question if societal structures did exist in the camps. One line of interpretation, ranging from Hannah Arendt to Giorgio Agamben, denies any social quality of living together in concentration camps and prefers a vertical total power approach reducing the prisoners to a serial mass. A different approach, in contrast, is interpreting the social space in the camp as characterized by structures which resembled by and large those of the societies of the time. Besides the classification of prisoners imposed by the SS, social life in the camp was also shaped by divergent cultural, social, religious, ethnic and political backgrounds of the prisoners. Camp life, therefore, was structured not only by the total power of the SS but included manifold and often ambivalent social relations between ordinary prisoners, capos, guards and the outside world.

Interpreters in the concentration camp in Majdanek (1941-1943)

Małgorzata Tryuk


The concentration camp in Majdanek (October 1941 – July 1944), located in the suburbs of Lublin was initially conceived as a camp for Soviet prisoners of war – Kriegsgefangenenlager der Waffen SS Lublin – commonly known as Russenlager. This means that from the very beginning of the camp’s existence interpreters from German into Russian were needed. The first interpreters were sent to Majdanek from other camps such as Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen or Neuengamme during the winter of 1941/1942. Apart from the Russian prisoners of war, there were numerous other representatives of about 30 different nationalities, among which Jews from Poland, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. These formed the largest groups of inmates. My paper is based on archival material and recollections of former inmates and investigates the function and the work of the camp interpreters in KL Majdanek.

“...whoever did not understand or speak German was barbarian by definition”: Interpreting in the concentration camp of Mauthausen

Michaela Wolf


As a strategy of survival in inhuman circumstances, interpreting in Nazi concentration camps can be viewed as one of the most violent of non-professional communication practices. In my paper I will present some preliminary research results from an on-going project which encompasses the interpreting practice in the concentration camp of Mauthausen. The central questions underlying this research are: What is the role of interpreting in mapping the life in concentration camps? In which way have the knowledge of languages and, accordingly, certain communication skills contributed to the survival of camp inmates? And in which way does the study of communication mechanisms in concentration camps like Mauthausen enhance our understanding of the ambiguous role of translation and interpreting in more general terms?

In my paper, I will draw the attention to the communication problems in Mauthausen among the multiple (up to 40) nationalities, on the one hand, and the camp’s inmates with the SS staff, on the other. I will discuss the various communication forms practiced in the camp and will lay a particular emphasis on the interpreting activity mainly as manifested in the accounts of Mauthausen survivors. My focus will be on the metaphors which tendentially help to describe the interpreter figure in the concentration camp. I will draw on Cynthia Roy’s definitions of such metaphors to depict interpreters’ roles in face-to-face interaction.

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