Tag Archives: Great War

Review: Im Westen nichts Neues [All Quiet on the Western Front] (Remarque)

im-westen-nichts-neues-remarqueall quiet wheenmurdoch

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.





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Review: The Real War, 1914-1918 (Hart)

The Real War, 1914-1918.

The cover shown is of a later reprint of the 1931 reissue of B. H. Liddell Hart’s 1930 History of the First World War, the quintessential Great War history. It’s organized like an academic textbook, with a Preface and two introductory chapters that prepare the field of study; units dedicated each year of the war, within which chapters labeled as “scenes” provide detailed analyses; and an Epilogue that functions as an overall summary.

Because it was written in the middle-interwar period, it avoids the speculative baggage of post-Second World War hindsight. Hart also stays out of the 1917 Russian revolution, a topic into which many modern historians digress.

Despite its thoroughly methodical organization, it doesn’t read like a textbook. Liddell Hart writes with the engaging voice of a true storyteller, which may have much to do with his book’s enduring popularity with several generations of readers. He hits his stride at the middle of the book, in “The Growing Pains of the Tank” (‘1916 – The “Dog Fall” Scene IV’), a chapter I can only describe as the most eloquent writing I have ever read on the topic.

The copy I read was the 1931 printing (obtained from the public library), and its being such an old copy with fragile pages, all its maps had been torn out and lost, so I can’t evaluate them. Each chapter is given its own bibliography, and the back matter also includes a very detailed index.

It cannot be considered to be the last word in the accuracy or impartiality that’s generally expected to be exhibited by academic historians, but its authenticity can’t be questioned. It’s available in many reprints, and I will be adding a copy to my own Great War research library. Recommended.

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Review: The German Offensives of 1918 (Passingham)

The German Offensives of 1918: The Last Desperate Gamble.

This is the second book by Passingham that I’ve read, and in it he persists with his sometimes puzzling use of vocabulary which makes the reader do a double-take and re-read the sentence, wondering if what was written was what the author really meant to say. He also adopts a breezy, slangy style that casts the pall of “pop history” over the topic, obscuring what would have been better presented as a serious analytical work.

It’s a slim volume that seems to have been generously padded to increase its length: The chapter titles are printed in an enormous font size, although it’s not a “large print” book. The author frequently interrupts the narrative with lengthy, large bold-print subtitles (often labeling only one paragraph of text), which are also listed in the table of contents, where they do little good because they tend to be “catchy” rather than helpfully descriptive. And how often do we really need to have a commander identified by his full title, full name (including additional birth names), plus his nickname, when the experiences of the forces under his command again become the topic of discussion? Some of those names take up most of a whole line of text. Occasional use of “gray space” also extends the length of the book, in boxes of text that purport to highlight technical or biographical information that break up page flow in the manner often seen in academic textbooks of much larger size.

The line maps are no better than most I’ve seen in all my reading. The relatively few end notes refer back to inline citations that, for the most part, are irrelevant enough to make the reader wonder why the author bothered to interrupt the text with them. The numerous appendices consist mostly of order-of-battle listings, with a table of German ranks and a redundant essay about German tactics and weapons thrown in for good measure. There’s a lengthy bibliography, but the index is superficial and inadequate.

The dramatic front cover photo of German troops in action and the high quality hard cover binding make an excellent presentation on the shelf, but what’s found within doesn’t match; indeed, the text points up the hyperbole in the back-cover description.

The book’s only redeeming feature is its nicely reproduced glossy center section of photos and other illustrations, although they’re not all unique. The photos of German children in uniform (dead as well as alive) may be disconcerting to some readers (discretion is advised for homeschool use).

I can’t say that I won’t refer to it again while doing research for my novel-in-progress, but there are better history books out there that cover the last year of the Great War.

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