Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

The Translation of Anne Frank

Having last read it six years ago, I have been rereading Anne Frank's diary, the 2003 definitive edition of Het Achterhuis in the original Dutch, which includes the most recently rediscovered pages, and also comparing it page by page with the classic English translation of 1952, The Diary of a Young Girl. I have found some things that really surprised me. I was sufficiently intrigued to also get hold of Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, by Francine Prose, which has a lot of useful detail on how the Diary came to be written and published (and also some unedifying details about the creation of the Broadway play, the movie, and its use by revisionists, but I recommend it as a book anyway). I'm assuming below that you have read the book and have at least vague memories of it; if not, go and get it now.

The life of the diary

There are three published versions of Anne Frank's diary, each of which has been translated. The best known, and the one you have probably read, is the 1948 edition, translated into English in 1952, which I'm referring to below as the "classic text". However, that text was itself constructed from the original diary entries, partly by Otto Frank and his editors, but mainly by Anne herself.

When the Frank family went into hiding in July 1942, Anne had already started keeping a diary (the "a" text). In early 1944 several things happened which kicked her creativity up a gear. On 6 January she wrote of a vivid dream about a schoolfriend called Peter (who she starts to identify with her housemate Peter van Daan), her two grandmothers and (not for the first time) her friend Lies (real name Hanneli, who the following year actually met up with Anne and Margot Frank in Belsen shortly before the sisters died). The dream marks the starting point for a lot of things in her inner life, including her romantic interest in Peter van Daan.

On 28 March the household heard the Dutch education minister in exile, Gerrit Bolkesteijn, making a radio appeal for people to keep their letters and diaries after the war; by Anne's account, everyone in the room immediately thought of her diary. Anne returned to the "a"-text and started to revise it with a deliberate view to publication, producing the "b"-text. She was averaging 11 large manuscript pages a day over the summer, as her infatuation with Peter van Daan cooled off and she invested her emotional energy into her own work. By the time of her last entry on 1 August, the "b" text was complete from June 1942 to March 1944.

That came to an end on 5 August when the eight fugitives were taken away, seven of them to their deaths; Anne's diary was preserved by their helper Miep Gies, but one of the "a"-text notebooks, covering the entire year of 1943, was lost and has never resurfaced. So for June to December 1942, we have both "a"- and "b"-texts; for December 1942 to December 1943, the "b"-text only; for December 1943 to March 1944, "a"- and "b"-texts again; and for March to August 1944, the "a"-text only.

After the war, Miep Gies gave Otto Frank the diary on the day that he learned his daughters had died in Belsen; though aware of its existence, he had not read it previously. It must have been pretty gruelling for him, but he decided to try to publish it, as that had clearly been Anne's own intention. The "c"-text, which is what we now know as the classic version, is therefore ultimately his choice of material largely from the "b"-text, though he apparently included several "a"-text passages that Anne had deleted in her revisions. He was also constrained by length and by the desire not to give offence to the living. (There remains even now a 24-word section that has never been published, presumably relating to someone who is still alive.)

The 1991 "definitive edition" (subsequently updated to include five new pages) edited by Myriam Pressler, claims to include pretty much everything. Of course it doesn't; where a passage was thoroughly revised by Anne between the "a"- and "b"-text, only one is used, and Pressler doesn't indicate which (though I assume it's usually the "b"-text). Anne's use of Dutch has been tidied up - everyone in the annexe had been born in Germany, and all were native speakers of German, and though they tried to keep to Dutch even at home, the adults in particular often slipped into their native tongue, and it had a bit of an effect on Anne's writing style too.

There is also a "critical edition" from 1989 which presents the "a", "b" and "c" texts in parallel. I am now sufficiently obsessed that I may have to go and buy it, if I can be sure that it has been updated to include the latest findings.

The bakvis and her development

The first thing to say is that, as so often, it is much more rewarding to access the text in the original language. Nine times out of ten, if there's a poorly formed sentence in the Englsh text it's an artefact of the translation. Having said that, Anne's Dutch was fluent and effective but does occasionally veer into stream-of-consciousness, which is tricky to capture, or slang, which is even trickier. One very concrete example of the latter: she refers to herself ten times as a "bakvis", a slightly pejorative word for a younger teenage girl, now I think a bit dated, meaning the kind of fish you would fry for a quick meal. There is no elegant English equivalent. For example, from the 27 March 1943 entry:

Definitive edition (Dutch):    Ik ben dol op mythologie en wel het meest op de Griekse en Romeinse goden. Hier denken ze dat het voorbijgaande neigingen zijn, ze hebben nog nooit van een bakvis met godenappreciaties gehoord. Welnu, dan ben ik de eerste!

Classic English translation:    I’m mad on mythology and especially the Gods of Greece and Rome. They think here that it is just a passing craze, they’ve never heard of an adolescent kid of my age being interested in mythology. Well, then, I shall be the first!

"bakvis" -> "adolescent kid of my age" isn't brilliant but probably the best of a bad set of options (there are a couple of other odd choices in the passage too, "neigingen" -> "craze" and "met godenappreciaties" -> "being interested in mythology", neither of which quite hits the mark).

The received wisdom (because it's more or less what he said he did) is that in the editing process, Otto particularly suppressed Anne's conflicts with her mother, and her thoughts about her own developing body. Actually the main points of her tension with her mother are perfectly fairly represented, and the omitted details of individual quarrels do not always represent Anne's best writing. More titillating is the 24 March entry about exploring her own body, which is really very sweet but perhaps the market wasn't ready for it in the 1950s. ("ik dacht dat de urine uit de kittelaar kwam. Toen ik moeder eens vroeg wat dit doodlopende ding betekende, zei ze dat ze dat niet wist, hè die doet nu ook altijd zo dom!" / "I thought that urine came out of the clitoris. When I asked mother what it was for, she said she didn't know - yeah, right!" I paraphrase that last bit for tone rather than content.) Even so, the 5 January 1944 passage about her friend's breasts was always in the classic translation; I remember reading it as a teenager. There are some less comprehensible but minor editing choices, one of which I will mention later.

The dentist and the boyfriend

My big finding is this. I haven't seen mentioned anywhere else in my (admittedly not very thorough) research that the one person whose reputation really was protected by the original editors of the Diary was the dentist, Alfred Dussel (real name Fritz Pfeffer), who joined the van Daan / van Pels and Frank families several weeks after they had originally gone into hiding, and uncomfortably shared a bedroom with Anne. The sanitisation of his reputation starts with the very first reference to him on 10 November 1942:

Definitive edition (Dutch):    ...een tandarts genaamd Alfred Dussel. Hij leeft samen met een veel jongere en leuke christenvrouw, waar hij waarschijnlijk niet mee getrouwd is, maar dat is bijzaak.

Classic English translation:    ...a dentist called Albert Dussel, whose wife was fortunate enough to be out of the country when war broke out.

My translation:    ...a dentist called Alfred Dussel. He lives with a much younger, very nice Christian woman, who he probably isn't married to, but that doesn't matter.

The English version (and I suspect the first Dutch published text, which I haven't seen) simply lies about Dussel's family situation, and the lie is probably Otto Frank's. The reason is obvious: the "much younger and very nice Christian woman" was still alive after the war, and actually retroactively married Dussel/Pfeffer in 1950 (with effect from 1937 until his death); it's entirely understandable that Otto Frank toned down the references for the sake of her feelings and those of Dussel's son from his first marriage. (Edited to add: See also my later post expanding on this point.) Here's another passage (from 13 June 1944, so Anne never had a chance to revise it herself) where her disparaging references to Dussel, who had living relatives, but not for Mrs van Daan, whose family had all been killed, were simply removed for the first publication:

Definitive edition (Dutch):    Mevrouw Van Daan en Dussel, m’n voornaamste beschuldigers, staan alletwee bekend als volkomen onintelligent en, laat ik het maar gerust uitspreken, ‘dom’! Domme mensen kunnen het meestal niet verkroppen als anderen iets beter doen dan zijzelf; het beste voorbeeld daarvan zijn inderdaad die twee dommen, mevrouw Van Daan en Dussel.

Classic English translation:    Everyone knows that Mrs. Van Daan, one of my chief accusers, is unintelligent. I might as well put it plainly and say “stupid”. Stupid people usually can’t take it if others do better than they do.

My translation:    Mrs. Van Daan and Dussel, my most vigorous accusers, are both known to be completely unintelligent, I might as well put it plainly and say “stupid”. Stupid people usually can’t take it if others do better than they do; the best example of that is indeed those two fools, Mrs. Van Daan and Dussel.

She also mocks Dussel's accent, most memorably copying his pronuniciaton, "oitschtekend", of the Dutch work "uitstekend" meaning "excellent" (14 and 27 March 1944). Anne's intense dislike of Dussel did not always bring out the best in her, and on the whole suppressing her remarks was a sound editorial decision (one that she probably started herself).

The other plot line that I found the Definitive Edition bringing to light is the start of Anne's relationship with Peter van Daan. It's sparked by a dream, sure, but several very entertaining conversations - about sexing the cat (24 January 1944), about contraceptives (23 March 1944), etc - were dropped from the classic version, and while I can see why this made sense in marketing to the parents of 1950s teenagers, I must say I find it personally much more satisfying to see the detail of how the romance started; and it also helps explain how quickly it fizzled out when Anne realised that actually, Peter wasn't all that bright, and they didn't have much in common apart from being cooped up together.

Changing tone

There are some other odd bits of editing, where the paragraphing is different between the original English version and the Dutch. I've worked on enough manuscripts myself to know how tricky this can be, but in almost every case I find the Dutch version better. Sometimes this leads to a real change of meaning, as in the discussion of Hanukkah presents:

Definitive edition (Dutch):    ‘Wil je Anne voor Chanoeka een bijbel geven?’ vroeg Margot wat ontdaan.
    ‘Ja... eh, ik denk dat Sint-Nicolaas een betere gelegenheid is,’ antwoordde vader.
    Jezus past nu eenmaal niet op Chanoeka.

Classic English translation:    “Do you want to give Anne a Bible for Chanuka?” asked Margot, somewhat perturbed. “Yes— er, I think St. Nicholas Day is a better occasion,” answered Daddy; “Jesus just doesn’t go with Chanuka.”

The words are the same, but the punctuation and paragraphing are not. In the Dutch definitive version, that final sentence is Anne's own reflective afterthought to herself; in the English classic text, it's her father's quip to Margot. Perhaps he simply remembered the incident differently to the way she wrote it.

Another example, in a particularly grim context, is of a real change of text between the two versions in the 9 October 1942 entry about the concentration camps, Anne here reporting what she has heard via Miep Gies and from English radio:

Definitive edition (Dutch):    Westerbork moet vreselijk zijn. De mensen krijgen haast niets te eten laat staan drinken. Er is maar een uur per dag water en een wc en een wastafel voor een paar duizend mensen. Slapen doen ze allemaal door elkaar, mannen, vrouwen en die laatsten en de kinderen krijgen vaak de haren afgeschoren. Vluchten is haast onmogelijk. De mensen zijn gebrandmerkt door hun afgeschoren hoofden en velen ook door hun joodse uiterlijk.
    Als ’t in Holland al zo erg is, hoe zullen ze dan in de verre en barbaarse streken leven waar ze heengezonden worden? Wij nemen aan dat de meesten vermoord worden. De Engelse radio spreekt van vergassing, misschien is dat wel de vlugste sterfmethode.
    Ik ben helemaal van streek.

Classic English translation: Westerbork sounds terrible: only one washing cubicle for a hundred people and not nearly enough lavatories. There is no separate accommodation. Men, women, and children all sleep together. One hears of frightful immorality because of this; and a lot of the women, and even girls, who stay there any length of time are expecting babies.
    It is impossible to escape; most of the people in the camp are branded as inmates by their shaven heads and many also by their Jewish appearance. If it is as bad as this in Holland, whatever will it be like in the distant and barbarous regions they are sent to? We assume that most of them are murdered. The English radio speaks of their being gassed.
    Perhaps that is the quickest way to die.
I feel terribly upset.

My translation:    Westerbork sounds terrible. People get almost nothing to eat, let alone drink. There is only one hour of water a day, and one washing cubicle and one lavatory for a couple of thousand people. Men, women, and children all sleep together, and the women and children often have their hair shaved off. It is impossible to escape. The people are branded by their shaven heads and many also by their Jewish appearance.
    If it is as bad as this in Holland, however will they live in the distant and barbarous regions they are being sent to? We assume that most of them are murdered. The English radio speaks of their being gassed, maybe that is the quickest way to die.
    I feel terribly upset.

These are small but puzzling details. It's probably fair enough to finesse the original description of the sanitary facilities, which were surely bad but not yet quite as bad as the rumours Anne was hearing. The line about immorality and pregnancy in the classic text has no counterpart in the definitive text, and frankly strikes me as unlikely to be by Anne; I look forward to finding out the truth if I get the critical edition. But the most jarring change is that Anne's morbidly sardonic remark about gassing being the quickest way (horrendously ironic, given her own lingering fate in Bergen-Belsen) is disrupted by the classic text, not only into a separate sentence but actually into a separate paragraph, badly breaking up the original flow of her thoughts.

Erasing Anne's feminism

I'm nearly finished, but here's one more surprise. On 13 June 1944, the day after her last birthday, a very long entry was heavily trimmed down for the classic edition. One change, the elimination of mentions of Dussel, has already been noted. The classic edition ends the day with a remark about her period being two months late - which has actually been shifted for some reason from 3 May 1944. The definitive Dutch edition has another two and a half pages for the day (in my Dutch paper copy), one page of love for nature which really powerfully conveys he emotions at being confined to the Achterhuis, and then a page and a half of reflection on the situation on women in society, inspired by reading a book about how antiseptics saved women in childbirth (the first chapter of Men Against Death, by Paul de Kruif, about Ignaz Semmelweis). The bit about nature appears in the classic edition shunted to the following day (which has no entry in the definitive edition); the proto-feminist essay is simply omitted. It's not deep stuff, but it is interesting, and Anne hits a number of nails on the head:

Definitive edition (Dutch):    Het is aan te nemen dat de man door zijn grotere lichaamskracht van begin af aan de heerschappij over de vrouw gevoerd heeft; de man die verdient, de man die de kinderen verwekt, de man die alles mag... Het is dom genoeg van al die vrouwen geweest dat ze tot voor enkele tijd dit maar stil zo door hebben laten gaan, want hoe meer eeuwen deze regel voortleeft, hoe vaster hij ook voet vat.

My translation:    It can be assumed that men dominated women from the very beginning because of their greater physical strength; it’s men who earn a living, beget children and do anything they want… [ellipses in original] Until recently, women silently went along with this, which was stupid, since the longer it’s kept up, the more deeply entrenched it becomes.

It's amazing what you can pick up from a diet of classic literature (mainly by men) and magazines about film stars; and it's a matter for regret that these thoughts, unformed as they may be, were kept from two generations of readers.

In conclusion

Otto Frank had no experience of publishing books and was coming to terms with unspeakable events. If one judges him as a historian, he may not match perfect academic standards. But he was not trying to be a historian; he was trying to commemorate his daughter's memory by completing the work she had started and which he had always encouraged her to do; and there he clearly succeeded. Between them, the meticulously written notebooks have been transformed into something that is still pretty amazing, no matter what language you read it in. Go and check for yourself.
Tags: bookblog 2015, history: wwii, world: netherlands, writer: anne frank

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