Im Westen nichts Neues [All Quiet on the Western Front].
“Nothing New in the West.” That’s what the title of Remarque’s classic novel really means, and if I ever produce my own translation of the book (after scouring the rust off the German I learned when I lived in Bavaria for a year in the 1970s), that’s what I’m going to call it. The title that the first translator, Wheen, came up with is now enshrined in literary and cinematic history, but Remarque’s title is more accurately descriptive, if for no other reason than because it was not quiet on the Western Front until some time after the Armistice officially began (soldiers were still being killed by enemy fire, because it took a while for the news to get out, and for some military units to accept it).
The title is not the only reason why I’d be tempted to try writing a new translation: In general, the two translations I’ve read (Wheen, center, and Murdoch, right) do not do the original justice, because they obliterate the German voice. Not only are the puns, rhymes and other plays on words that go with the peculiarities of the German language lost entirely, but the characters seem to lose their nationality and become, in effect, just another bunch of “Tommies.” I understand that it can be difficult to take idiomatic expressions from one language and represent them accurately in another, but there’s no good reason for taking the story and anglicizing it culturally as well as linguistically. Perhaps Wheen’s true agenda was to use it for propaganda; by 1929, the winners of the Great War were heavily into self-doubt and second-guessing their victory, with the result that they neglected to enforce much of the Versailles Treaty. Wheen’s translation certainly helped make possible two sympathetic – if not pro-German – cinematic adaptations of Remarque’s story (see my reviews of the 1930 and 1979 films).
Wheen’s translation immediately starts off on the wrong foot, because he uses Remarque’s epigraph to further his own purposes by grossly distorting it with his own opinion, adding words which do not appear in the original:
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war. (Wheen rendering: the words in bold red italics are not Remarque’s words.)
Here is what Remarque actually wrote (followed by a translation from Google Translate, in italics):
Dieses Buch soll weder eine Anklage noch ein Bekenntnis sein. Es soll nur den Versuch machen, über eine Generation zu berichten, die vom Kriege zerstört wurd – auch wenn sie seinen Granaten entkam.
This book is neither an indictment nor a confession. It will only make the attempt to report on a generation that was destroyed by the war – even if they escaped his grenades.
Murdoch’s translation of the epigraph is more faithful to the original:
This book is intended neither as an accusation or as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling.
What Wheen did is inexcusable. I understand that there has to be some latitude for interpretation in translation, but there is no place for interpolation. By inserting his own opinion, Wheen attempted to assume the role of co-author, which puts his entire translation in doubt as to its truthfulness.
If you can read German – even if you need the help of a dictionary and grammar – by all means, tackle the original. Otherwise, look for Brian Murdoch’s version. It’s the lesser of two evils.