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Illustrative: A German edition of Adolf Hitler's 'Mein Kampf' ('My Struggle') on display at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, December 11, 2015. (Matthias Balk/dpa via AP, File)
Illustrative: A German edition of Adolf Hitler's 'Mein Kampf' ('My Struggle') on display at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, December 11, 2015. (Matthias Balk/dpa via AP, File)
How do you translate 'völkisch' or 'Lebensraum'?

Why ‘Mein Kampf’ was published in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, but not Hebrew – yet

A new book examines the trials and tribulations of translating Hitler’s toxic tome, which one MK in ’95 demanded be banned by the Health Ministry. Things may be about to change

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israel is the world leader in Holocaust research. There is no aspect of Nazi Germany’s systematic annihilation of the Jewish people that Israeli historians have not delved into in great depth. And yet, no complete edition of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” which laid the ideological foundation of Nazism and was arguably one of the most influential books of the 20th century, has ever been published in Hebrew.

The book was translated into at least 16 languages — including Arabic, Persian and Turkish — and in 1933 Chaim Weizmann, who would later become Israel’s first president, was instrumental in rendering parts of it into English. But 94 years after it was first published in Germany, Hebrew speakers have never had the opportunity to read the hateful screed in its entirety.

“Israeli Holocaust and German Jewry researchers have included a number of excerpts of ‘Mein Kampf’ in their textbooks, and of course referred their students to the relevant chapters in the English version of the book in courses discussing Nazism and the Holocaust in Europe. But nothing further,” historian Oded Heilbronner notes in an article for a new German anthology about various translations of the Nazi manifesto.

“To this day, no attempt has been made to translate and distribute a Hebrew version of the entire book,” he writes — though he himself is currently planning to publish precisely such an edition in the coming months.

In the mid-1990s, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem released, in a very limited edition, a partial translation. Members of Knesset from across the political spectrum promptly denounced the decision to publish parts of the book in the holy tongue, with more than one lawmaker wanting it to be banned lest the text harm the “spiritual health” of the nation.

That Hebrew University venture came to life after Holocaust survivor Dan Yaron, who had spent years translating the book on his own initiative, approached Moshe Zimmermann, who at the time headed the university’s Institute for German History.

“Zimmermann was glad to take part in the publication of the book. However, for political and academic reasons, as well as concern over a ranging response from the Israeli public, it was decided that only certain portions of the book would be published… and that this version would only be used in classes and seminars,” writes Heilbronner.

Heilbronner, today a senior lecturer in cultural studies at the Shenkar College of Design and Art in Tel Aviv and a research fellow for history at the Hebrew University, joined Zimmermann in publishing the edition and co-authored its introduction.

Over 12 million copies of 'Mein Kampf' have been sold. (photo credit: dccarbone/CC-BY, vi Flickr)
A copy of Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ (dccarbone/CC-BY, via Flickr)

Together, they selected portions “that best convey Hitler’s version of the historical events related to post-World War I Germany, his life in Munich, his early political activity, and his interpretation of the early days of the Nazi Party in Munich,” Heilbronner writes in the new anthology, which was published in Germany last week.

“In addition, the editors chose to publish the parts that had an ideological-political dimension and that dealt with propaganda, race, the communist problem, and the Lebensraum [need for living space, a justification for territorial expansion] in the East, as well as chapters that regarded socialists, the structure of the German state, and Hitler’s worldview.”

The anti-Jewish segments of “Mein Kampf” were added as an appendix to the 300-page Hebrew version, together with footnotes and explanations putting these statements into historical, ideological and semantic context.

“Despite our collective revulsion, and following difficult personal hesitation, I came to the conclusion that there is a need to enable practical access to this painful subject, which has become a historical document, in the Hebrew language,” Dan Yaron, the translator, wrote in his introduction to the 1990s book.

“We must become familiar with the background of the tragic events, with the thoughts and methods of the Nazi tyrant, in order to ‘know our enemy’ and prepare for a time when, or if, dangerous vicissitudes should occur in one society or another.”

Banning the ‘book of abomination’

Rendering Hitler’s convoluted German into any language is a challenge — many have struggled with the very title of the book, but more about that later — and translating “Mein Kampf” into language of the Bible was of course especially tricky.

“The main obstacle was the German expression völkisch, which was popular among the German right at the time and among members of the young Nazi movement. Hitler uses this expression frequently, and the translator and editors found it hard to find a suitable parallel in Hebrew,” recalls Heilbronner.

“I utterly negate the title Maavaki. It defiles the Hebrew language.”

The editors eventually went with עממותי — amamuti —  a word that has been used by Hebrew writers since the early 20th century. In Hebrew, this term is associated with “nationalism and ethnicity, much like the English term folkism,” Heilbronner explained.

The book itself, of which only 500 copies were printed, was entitled “Chapters from ‘My Struggle’ by Adolf Hitler” (Prakim Mitoch “Maavaki” shel Adolf Hitler). Translating the words “Mein Kampf” into Hebrew, rather than using the German title, “was the fruit of a calculated decision that took into account a potential public turmoil following the appearance of such a title on the cover of the book,” writes Heilbronner writes.

The cover of the 1995 partial translation of ‘Mein Kampf’ into Hebrew (courtesy Magnes Press)

However, some Israeli politicians took offense at translating the name of Hitler’s noxious work.

“First of all — the title of the book. I utterly negate the title Maavaki. My Struggle? It defiles the Hebrew language. The phrase ‘Mein Kampf’ should be used instead,” thundered Labor MK Yoram Lass during a February 22, 1995, Knesset meeting on the topic.

Likud’s Shaul Amor agreed that the title should remain “Mein Kampf,” demanding that the Hebrew translation be made available only for academic purposes. “But God forbid, it cannot be allowed to circulate among the public,” he said. “Anyone who claims that there is no chance of a Nazi movement rising here is wrong. Extreme anti-national elements that strive to destroy the State of Israel and imitate, God forbid, the greatest tyrants and murderers of the Jewish people, exist even here.”

MK Yigal Bibi, from the National Religious Party, pointed out the irony in that the publication of Hitler’s work was forbidden in Germany but available in Israel. (In Germany, a new scientifically annotated edition of “Mein Kampf” was published in January 2016, shortly after the copyrights held by the state of Bavaria expired.)

A copy of ‘Hitler, Mein Kampf — A critical edition’ stands on a display table in a bookstore in Munich, Germany, Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. This annotated edition is the first version of Adolf Hitler’s notorious manifesto to be published in Germany since the end of World War II. (AP/Matthias Schrader)

“I believe that we have a talent of making the most serious self-destructive mistakes,” Bibi said.

It is possible to study history without translating “Mein Kampf” into Hebrew, he maintained, noting that very few scholars do not know either English, French, German or any of the other languages in which the book was available.

“I want to ask the minister of health, for the sake of the health of the people, the spiritual health of the people: Ban it,” he went on. “I think it is also a book of abomination. Delving into this matter, I’m also considering going to the police and filing a complaint against the university for printing these obscene books.”

MK Avraham Ravitz, from United Torah Judaism, worried that some people “from the margins of our population would read the book, God forbid, and absurdly, out of masochism — often expressed in Israeli society, unfortunately — would identify with some of the messages that such a despicable book conveys.” Therefore, he insisted that the book be printed “under the conditions and restrictions determined by the minister of health.”

Hebrew speakers’ aversion to “Mein Kampf” is also a “testimony to the complex and problematic position of the memory of the Holocaust among the Israeli public.

Likud’s David Magen proposed that any researcher who would need “to glance at this abomination” should be given access to it free of charge. Not charging any money for this “despicable text,” he argued, has “symbolic, emotional and important value.”

The lawmakers eventually voted to refer the issue to the Knesset Education Committee, though no further discussion appears to have taken place.

“The book went out of print quickly and was not reprinted. Over the years, the price of the book soared; secondhand bookshops now offer it for hundreds of shekels,” Heilbronner writes.

Several translations of “Mein Kampf” (Institut für Zeitgeschichte/Alexander Markus Klotz)

What about today?

Today, Israeli historians and publishers are still debating the merits of having a full Hebrew translation of “Mein Kampf.” Some argue that a seminal work of history, one with tremendous importance for the study of Jewish history, should be easily available for scholars. Other note that Hitler’s anti-Semitic tome is poorly written and boring, and that the handful of historians who need to read it can consult translations into other languages.

According to Heilbronner, the absence of a Hebrew version of “Mein Kampf” is “yet another remnant of post-establishment Israel, in which boycott of the German language and culture was one of the signs of an insecure Israeli society.”

The era of boycotting Wagner’s music and Hitler’s writings “has passed in Israeli history,” he postulates. At the same time, Hebrew speakers’ aversion to “Mein Kampf” is also a “testimony to the complex and problematic position of the memory of the Holocaust among the Israeli public.”

Thus Zimmermann and Heilbronner, who published the partial Hebrew translation in 1995, are currently planning to publish Yaron’s translation in its entirety, together with new annotations, later this year or early next year.

Historian Othmar Ploeckinger, who compiled the new German anthology containing Heilbronner’s article and others on the various translations of “Mein Kampf,” said he is principally in favor of providing the public with a complete translation of the book, as it gives readers a “greater insight into Hitler’s brutal and inhuman thinking than extracts.”

Othmar Plöckinger (courtesy)

Translating only a selection of the text inevitably makes it look better than the whole thing, he argued in a recent interview with The Times of Israel. To support his point, he cited a letter British-Jewish politician and author Leonard Stein sent to Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in July 1933, together with excerpts of a translation of “Mein Kampf.”

“In the nature of things any kind of selection from Hitler’s book involves an improvement of the original,” Stein wrote to the Zionist leader at the time. “In making any extracts on whatever topic and from whatever angle, the selector is inevitably led to choose the most concentrated and effective passages, but in doing so he of necessity conveys an entirely wrong impression of the literary character of the book.”

“But,” Ploeckinger added, “of course it is up to the society and scientific community of each country how to deal with this challenge, as Hitler’s book still is not only a historical source but touches the past and present in many various ways.”

How did two Zionists come to translate Hitler?

Stein was frustrated by the limited content of the extracts of “Mein Kampf” that had been published shortly before in the British press.

“It is most regrettable that the passages reproduced in the ‘Times’, especially those on the Jewish question, tend to give the impression that they represent a continuous text,” he wrote to Weizmann, who was born in the Russian Empire and had moved to Britain in 1904.

Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, pictured in 1949. (Photo: Hugo Mendelson / Wikipedia)

“As you will observe from the enclosed extracts, the most damaging statements which reveal the true character of the argument in its entirety — much as the megalomaniac self-adulation of the Nordic race or the truly satanic misrepresentation of Zionism — have been entirely left out,” Stein lamented.

Weizmann passed Stein’s translation — 28 pages containing containing excerpts from various chapters, such as “The Aryan,” “The Jew,” and “The Objects of German Foreign Policy” — on to the UK Foreign Office. It was never published.

This translation initiated by Weizmann, who would later serve as Israel’s president from 1949 until 1952, was not the only one whose goal was to warn the world of Hitler. Other versions, however, were appreciative of the Fuehrer and his anti-Semitic vision.

“From the 1930s up to today we can find all kinds of motivations behind the translation of ‘Mein Kampf.’ Of course, the Russian translation from 1932/33 was motivated by warning and condemnation. On the other hand, the Spanish and Dutch translations were strongly supportive,” Ploeckinger said.

“We have both approving and adversarial translations into English and French in the 1930s and 1940s. And motivations changed sometimes.”

The first Turkish translation, for instance, was meant to warn readers of Hitler, while other Turkish versions portrayed the book in a positive light, he said.

In 1934 — less than a decade after “Mein Kampf” was first published in Germany — a partial Arabic version appeared in the Beirut-based newspaper al-Nida. The translation, which was based on an English version of the book, approved of Hitler’s message, but many Arab intellectuals were critical, “especially concerning Hitler’s racism,” Ploeckinger said.

Additional translations into Arabic followed, mostly viewing Hitler’s “personal career and his political attitudes” in a positive light but skeptical of the racial ideology he espoused, according to the veteran historian.

Arabic version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf on sale in Amman, March 26, 2015 (Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

In 1938, the first Persian translation of “Mein Kampf” was published in Tehran. “It was a very approving translation — or rather: re-narration — by an avowed fascist who even agreed with the concept of Aryan racism,” Ploeckinger said.

Working on his anthology about translations of “Mein Kampf” granted Ploeckinger new and deeper insight into Hitler’s style, wording and the overall structure of his book.

“And it shows how influential the work of translators is on the perception of Hitler and National Socialism outside German-speaking countries,” he said.

“For example, in German we take the title ‘Mein Kampf’ as given. But a translator has to think about variants and has to make a decision — My Fight? My Struggle? My Battle? Not to talk about more difficult terms like völkisch, Lebensraum or Weltanschauung. Such words have very specific linguistic and ideological implications in German, which cannot be simply ‘translated.’”

Hence, he went on, translators have the power to create an impression of Hitler that corresponds with their own views: “sophisticated or witless, ruthless or vigorous, reasonable or dangerous.”

Othmar Plöckinger (Hg.), Sprache zwischen Politik, Ideologie und Geschichtsschreibung: Analysen historischer und aktueller Übersetzungen von “Mein Kampf.” Steiner Verlag, 2019, 244 pages.

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