Translating Sophie Scholl and Alexander Schmorell

Two of this year’s White Rose Project translators, James Cutting and Amira Ramdani, talk about the experience of translating excerpts from the letters of White Rose members Sophie Scholl and Alexander Schmorell.

Why did you want to get involved in the project? 

James: Inge Scholl’s Die weiß​e Rose was one of the first German books I ever properly read and thoroughly moved me — I thought it would be a very worthwhile experience translating some of their letters into English to help spread awareness of their struggle.

Amira: Having grown up in Germany, I had learnt about the White Rose in school, but I never really looked at any of their own writings. Since this year the project’s aim was to translate excerpts from the members’ diaries and letters, I thought this was a great opportunity to have a glimpse into their personal lives, something you don’t typically read about in school books.

What translation challenges did you encounter working on the texts? 

James: It was difficult to try to understand the tone at some points in the letters, whether they were being falsely optimistic, sarcastic or just fearful. Conveying these sorts of emotions was one of the more difficult aspects of translating the letters.

Amira: I think the most challenging part was rendering the tone, the “voice” of the person who had written these deeply personal texts — Sophie Scholl, in my case. In her later letters, she writes with a more mature style. This stylistic complexity is definitely something we wanted to express with our translations, but without making her writing sound antiquated or stilted.

What impression did the letters, and the language used in the letters, make on you?

Amira: I was most impressed by how, looking at Sophie’s letters in chronological order, one can get a real feeling for how she matures intellectually throughout the years — how her convictions become more defined, more concrete, and how her need to play an active role in society grows stronger as she becomes older.

James: The letters themselves were very much a rollercoaster of emotions, from the first few reciting amusing or touching anecdotes to the last ones being written in the face of their untimely deaths. It was very saddening to feel like you were getting to know them and to have them ripped away from you so suddenly and really brought home just how difficult it must have been to live in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, even if we only got a minute glimpse of it.

Are there any solutions you are particularly proud of?

Amira: I can’t pinpoint an exact bit of the translation, but what I am most proud of are the little changes in syntax or lexis that we came up with when we re-read our translation as a team — once you’ve got different ideas going, it is a pretty amazing feeling to find a small word or a slight alteration in the phrase structure that just makes the text flow more naturally.

James: Several more unfamiliar concepts were particularly troublesome, especially in letters sent from the Russian border where they mentioned particular traditions and items that required a little research.

James Cutting and Rachel Herring at one of the translation seminars in February 2020.

Are there any words/phrases which proved ‘untranslatable’?

Amira: It’s not quite untranslatable, but I wasn’t aware of how difficult it would be to translate the tone of the syntagma man… eben (“Man hat uns eben politisch erzogen”) — it sounds  very matter-of-fact, a bit dry, but also quite defiant — it sounds a lot like Sophie.

Who do you hope reads your translations? 

Amira: I hope that our translations will enable anglophone readers to not only get to know about the White Rose, but also to peak into the more “hidden” parts of its members’ lives: what kind of people they were, what motivated them, what spurned them on in life, what they valued, what distraught them…

James: I hope that our translations will be useful to anyone who is interested in studying German history of the mid-twentieth century, and that they will be able to help bring the thoughts and feelings of such an inspiring group to a new audience.

Has anything changed in your understanding of or approach to the White Rose as a result of translating, or as a result of the project more broadly?

Amira: I think the close readings we did on the texts made me realise just how ordinary and also how very not ordinary the members of the White Rose were: Sophie likes to make little snide remarks, crack a joke here and there, talk about a powerful dream that she had, tell her boyfriend how much she misses him — but a lot of her insights prove that she was also extremely sensible and thoughtful; she analyses the world around her in a very perceptive manner.

James: It has definitely deepened my understanding of the group to hear their thoughts in their own words, in particular their ties to each other and to their family and friends external to the group. It also has made me appreciate their dedication to their ideals, having been through so much and refused to submit to a ruthless government even in the face of death.

What should the White Rose Project do in its future work?

Amira: I think that exploring the personal writings of the White Rose members is really worthwhile — I ended up reading more of Sophie Scholl’s diary and her letters, and I believe there’s a lot there that could make people reflect not only on life under the National Socialist regime, but also on more timeless questions: what it means to be political, to want to change the status quo, and to search for one’s path in life.

James: The White Rose Project is doing amazing work and should definitely keep up its translation of letters, diary entries and other documents of the White Rose, and maybe hold more concerts and public events to further make known the story behind the group.

You can read and/or listen to excerpts from Sophie and Alexanders’ letters in English here.

Translating Sophie Scholl’s Letters

One of this year’s White Rose Project translators, Lydia Ludlow, comments on the experience of translating Sophie Scholl’s letters. Lydia is an undergraduate student at the University of Oxford.

I was excited about taking part in the White Rose Project, though I didn’t really know what to expect. My knowledge of the White Rose was limited to a foggy memory of something mentioned in a long-ago GCSE history class;  I certainly hadn’t read anything they’d written.

We began by learning about Sophie’s biography and I think everyone was quickly struck by what an impressive figure Sophie was, even long before her execution. Like the other White Rose members Sophie was astonishingly well-read, and her reading material (Aquinas, John Henry Newman) shows her keenness to engage with serious questions of theology and morality at a time where the distractions of her own life, and the oppressiveness of the political climate, might have made it easy to shy away.

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Lydia Ludlow (left) and Millie Farley (right) at one of the White Rose Translation Project seminars in February 2020.

Sophie’s thoughtfulness comes across strongly in her writing. She demonstrates a  clear-sightedness about the nature of the Nazi regime, describing the political situation as ‘confused and evil’, but she also writes sensitively about how it affects her: the pain of dedicating energy to a cause she doesn’t believe in, and how she feels oppressed by an uncertainty about the future, which prevents her from making any plans. I think it is easy for us to look back on the White Rose, or on Nazism, with the end always in mind, so the uncertainty and fear that runs through Sophie’s writing is particularly forceful. It’s another reminder of the realness of the texts, which is in contrast to the translation we do in classes, which is more often fictional.

Fear doesn’t dominate Sophie’s writing, however. Her letters also demonstrate her earnest hope and how she draws inspiration and motivation to do good from her religious faith.  As well as religious hope, there is powerful humanity in her letters, especially in the affectionate and playful way she addresses her fiancé Fritz.

There is something very compelling about engaging with a text by someone so close in age to yourself: Sophie Scholl was only a little older than me when she died, and we’re also both female students. These similarities made reading her even more powerful; some of it felt familiar, for instance her reflection on the difference between being in her parents’ home and living alone. But these small aspects of relatability also go to highlight the enormous differences in our situations. Almost every one of Sophie’s thoughts and actions are touched by the regime she lives under: this was a stark reminder of how fortunate I am, and how brave she was.

A highlight of the project was Elba Slamecka reading our translation at St Mary’s. Hearing the words we had spent so much time staring at on paper read out loud made them so much livelier and more intense.

I leave the project feeling rather awe-struck by the figure of Sophie Scholl who comes across as not only brave, but eloquent, thoughtful, and formidably intelligent.

Reading Sophie Scholl

Elba Slamecka, one of the student members of the White Rose Project, reflects on reading from the letters and diaries of Sophie Scholl at our concert with SANSARA on 22 February 2020.

Before joining the White Rose Project, I had only briefly studied Sophie and Hans Scholl at school. I knew vaguely of some university students who distributed pamphlets, but had never read any of these or investigated this further. I certainly did not expect that in such a short period of time I would become so engrossed in these people’s lives, particularly that of Sophie Scholl, whose letters and diaries I had the privilege of reading.

When reading a stranger’s personal writings, one usually still feels quite remote from them, especially if they are important historical figures whose reality was worlds away from our own. However, knowing that members of the White Rose were university students around my own age really allowed me to empathise with them, and to imagine what it would be like if my life were transposed to Germany in the 1940s.

Elba Slamecka reads from Sophie Scholl’s letters | © Stuart Bebb

Having never read translations of the diaries and letters, and not speaking German, I was impressed by how lucid and alive the translations felt, and I felt extremely lucky to be working alongside Dr Lloyd and the students who helped to bring these texts to life. The writing itself is so eloquent, and more than bringing me to a closer understanding of Sophie and her peers it also struck me how calmly and with what resolution they wrote, even when faced with the prospect of imminent death.

Our performance on February 22nd coincided with the trials and executions of Christoph Probst and Hans and Sophie Scholl exactly seventy-seven years previously, and in our rehearsals during the week leading up to the performance we all got a sense of just how quickly the situation would have escalated for them. There was a real feeling of gravity in reading out the texts, as even the lighter ones are tinged by the tragic fate we now know awaited their writers. Nevertheless, I felt like I was honouring their efforts, and reminding people of an unfortunately often overlooked part of history, as many still believe that there was no opposition to the Nazi regime within Germany. Especially when reading the pamphlets, there was a sense of rekindling the flame of resistance, of the fight for something better, which then as now is important for all society and deserves to burn bright inside all of us. It felt transcendent, like touching the invisible string of history that connects us all to the past.

Listen to Elba reading from Sophie Scholl’s letters in English here.