On the Bookshelf
Translators, Nazi mutants, and Germanophilia
From the Germanophilic perspective of British editor Simon Winder, one of the unfortunate consequences of the Nazi era is that the Reich’s crimes get in the way of contemporary appreciation of German culture’s finer points: you know, “great battles, enormous castles, fairy princesses,” beer and sausage, that sort of thing. No surprise, then, that Winder wraps up his eccentric survey of all things German—Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History (FSG, March)—in 1933, just as Hitler got going, or that he suggests, as one of the book’s British reviewers phrased it, that nothing in the “German character … led inevitably to the catastrophe of 1933–45.”
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A scrupulously historical outlook poses challenges not just to bratwurst fanciers like Winder, of course. A number of German-Jewish philosophers in the early 20th century argued against the prevalence of a secular historicism that undermined belief in a transcendent God and Jewish experience. Newly available in paperback, David Myers’s widely praised 2003 study Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought (Princeton, March) examines the varying ways in which four such minds—Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, and Isaac Breuer—rejected or adapted the principles of modern historical study.
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Another means of resisting history: rewriting it as genre fiction. In Bitter Seeds (Tor, April), physicist and first-time novelist Ian Tregillis serves up a Third Reich replete with superpowered mutants, squaring off against Brits wielding magic powers of their own. The result? What Publishers Weekly calls a “fun take on WWII” and presumably less taxing reading than Thomas Pynchon’s classic insertion of occultism into the major military conflict of the 20th century, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Given the robust popularity of superhuman Nazis—whether zombies, frozen zombies, female werewolves, or the wacky creations of the SS Paranormal Division—one wonders why butchering plain old Nazis by hand, a la Inglourious Basterds, is no longer sufficient.
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Some authors enthusiastically embrace history, or at least their own personal histories, rather than resisting or transforming them. Debbie Levy and Fern Schumer Chapman, for example, both imagine themselves into their mothers’ childhoods under Hitlerism and as young refugees in the U.S. in two new books aimed at an elementary-school readership. In Levy’s book, The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family, and Farewells (Disney/Hyperion, March, 10+) the author responds in verse, and in her mother’s voice, to her mother’s preserved and reproduced diary and autograph album. Chapman likewise writes from her own mother’s perspective in Is It Night or Day? (Melanie Kroupa, March, 10+), a biographical novel describing a Jewish child’s escape, in 1938, from the small town of Stockstadt am Rhein, halfway between Frankfurt and Mannheim, to the safe haven of Chicago.
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Should Jews feel responsible for the inconvenience of it being illegal, to this day, to buy a bottle of wine on Sunday afternoon in New Haven? A little, according to Tablet contributing editor Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time (Random House, March). The author, a founding editor of the magazines Lingua Franca and Slate, and the guest of this week’s Vox Tablet podcast, meditates upon the idea of a weekly day of rest and traces the history of the concept from its Jewish origins to its embrace by the Puritans, while exploring her own ambivalent Saturday practices.
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The intensity of Jewish diglossia throughout the centuries has meant that at least for much of history, an educated Jew has always been a translator in some sense—and Jewish critics, from Walter Benjamin to George Steiner, have set the standard for modern considerations of the art. Still, few Jews have attained the prominence as practicing translators that Edith Grossman recently has with her acclaimed renderings into English of Latin American boom novelists including Gabriel García Márquez and, most famously, of Don Quixote. In Why Translation Matters (Yale, March), this daughter of Eastern European immigrants muses on her theory and practice, as well as on all the challenges facing translation in the American literary market.
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Occasionally translation just isn’t practical, or even necessary: The text of Yona Tepper’s picture book for 2– to 5-year-olds, Passing By (Kane Miller, March) has been translated from its original Hebrew into English, but street signs that appear in the illustrations remain in the original Hebrew. (Likewise, in the English edition of Rutu Modan’s excellent graphic novel Exit Wounds, one panel contains an Israeli box of Corn Flakes.) That doesn’t stop Tepper’s charming tale of an inquisitive child, watching traffic on the street and waiting for her father to return home, from being accessible: It simply serves as a reminder of our multilingual world.
Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask and Noah Baumbach’s movie Greenberg breathe new life into the figure of the shlemiel
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