Friday, 16 January 2015

Greta Kuckhoff

Moby Lives alerted me to a fascinating article on the BBC website by the grandson of James Murphy, the translator behind one of the first unexpurgated English versions of Mein Kampf. John Murphy writes about his grandfather's motivations, which were essentially to assure that people understood the threat that Hitler presented. He also mentions Murphy's assistant, Greta Lorcke, who in 1937 became Greta Kuckhoff. As the article reveals, Greta was a member of the resistance organization the Nazis dubbed the "Red Orchestra", and had her own reasons for getting involved in the translation. You can read a brief biography here.

I was excited to read the English side of the story, because I've long been interested in what happened at the Berlin end. I have Greta Kuckhoff's 1972 autobiography, Von Rosenkranz zur Roten Kapelle, although it's been years since I read it. But one page is turned over in my edition, and that's p. 180, in case you're interested – it was a hit in the GDR and second-hand copies are available cheap. Anyway, on that page Greta Kuckhoff introduces the Irish translator "Mr. M." She gives us some detail on his previous work:
I knew that Mr. M. has translated Planck into English. He was said to have a rare ability to bring shine even to such dry texts through his unusually abundant vocabulary and linguistic beauty.
Mr. M. was looking for someone to help him with his translations, preparing rough drafts that he would finish and polish. She began with articles and speeches, which she tried to translate in such a way as to make them less impressive:
No one could hold it against me that my English was not as good as my Irish client's, who made even stupid nonsense sound good. Who could have blamed me that the endings were usually lifeless and not the climax like in the original?
She used the work to gain insights into Nazi institutions, and shared the information on political tendencies she reaped from them with her friends. Then Mr. M. asked her to help him with Mein Kampf. Greta went to Arvid Harnack (not exactly a "Soviet contact" as described in Murphy's article) to talk her decision over. She writes that Harnack, one of the key figures in the resistance group, wasn't initially convinced the translation would further their cause. Kuckhoff writes:
Although I could understand that further distribution of this terrible book, which Hitler wished to be "the bible of the German Volk", was certainly not our task, our friends had to appreciate that all decent people would summon up only disgust for this awful piece of writing, unabridged.
"No one," I argued, "will forgive us if we don't do everything to make the full truth available."
Could anyone believe it would be fun for me to spend my time with this book dripping with toxic racism, with hate for other peoples?
There followed, coincidentally or not, a tea party at the Harnacks' apartment with a man from the Soviet embassy, whose identity wasn't revealed until he'd left. Not a word was spoken about politics, apparently.
Kuckhoff began work on Mein Kampf shortly after that, according to her memoir.
The material Mr. M. had prepared, which I had in front of me, was of such excellent quality that one could only sense the semi-literacy if one compared it with the original. Mr. M. was not only a well-read natural scientist; his knowledge of history was also broad, and there was barely any literary work from which he, gifted with a phenomenal memory, could not quote. All this, however, aided a bad thing. I tried to convince him that the work would lose its "primitiveness", its "common touch", if he put too much of his knowledge into it. I wanted it to be understood in its shameless demagoguery. My objections were not always effective.
In her autobiography, Kuckhoff puts events in a slightly different order to Murphy's version – although we shouldn't forget that it was written in the GDR, or that people's memories can be unreliable. According to the book, at any rate, she read the Soviet ambassador to London Maiski's memoir at a later date and found the anecdote Murphy mentions about Lloyd George being unaware of Hitler's true intentions due to reading an abridged Mein Kampf. The Red Orchestra's contacts to the Soviet Union were fairly limited, I believe, although the Nazis claimed otherwise, so Murphy's father's line "So the Russians had said to Greta, 'You must help this man - get this into English!'" doesn't quite ring true to me.

Whatever the case, Kuckhoff's motivations are clear – like James Murphy, she wanted the English-speaking world to understand Hitler's intentions and the threat he presented. She doesn't seem to have known whether the version she worked on was ever published, at least not in 1972. Presumably she wasn't credited in the publication (female "helpers" rarely were, in many cases). One of the things I find most interesting is that she argued, for political reasons, for what we might now call a "foreignizing" translation. She wanted to retain the book's rough character rather than adjusting it to the English readership's perceived tastes by adding explanations, as Mr. M. seems to have preferred. Perhaps I'm stretching the point, but to me Greta Kuckhoff has always been a quiet role model. She was courageous and stood up for her ideals, and she tried to translate faithfully a hateful piece of demagogy so that the world would see its true nature.  

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