Thursday, 28 February 2013

Translation Challenge: Night and The Periodic Table

Elie Wiesel
Originally written in Yiddish, then translated into French and from the French into English by Marion Wiesel

The Periodic Table
Primo Levi
Translated from Italian by Raymond Rosenthal

'The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.'

This month for the Translation Challenge (hosted by Curiosity Killed the Bookworm) I decided to take a turn around Auschwitz. At uni I focused quite extensively on war writing (keeping things positive), so I am already quite well acquainted with Holocaust literature. Primo and I have met before in If This is a Man but I've never got around to reading Night even though the two were so frequently compared. Still, I've read it now and have had so many Deep Thoughts because of it my brain is practically exploding.

Night is Elie Wiesel's holocaust memoir for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize (go Elie!). It begins with Eliezer as a teenager in the early years of the war, completely unaware of the severity of the Nazi rule. We go through a number of years (1941-4) in a couple of pages until, seemingly quite suddenly, Eliezer and his family are deported to Auschwitz. I'm not going to go into the subject matter, I think everyone and their dog knows about the atrocious acts committed in Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

Wiesel has a very particular writing style, not wholly unlike Levi's, I think. The tone is generally quite matter of fact, informative even. He writes in short sentences that seem very impersonal. He tends to imply rather than spell out. But even with all that general lack of hyperbolic emotion, I can't lie, I pretty much bawled my eyes out (so what, I'm a sobber).

I sometimes find these books are difficult to read retrospectively. We know what Auschwitz means and it is hard to see how it didn't ever have that meaning. But for some, it was just an unknown. Elie and the people he is deported with don't know, even in 1944, what Auschwitz means, much to the disgust of another 'inmate': 'didn't you know what was in store for you here in Auschwitz? You didn't know? In 1944?'. Eliezer reads the inscription 'Arbeit Macht Frei' with no knowledge of its meaning which is again hard to comprehend. At uni it was pretty much hammered into us that you can't read history retrospectively, which I totally get, but it is just so difficult to do.  

The Periodic Table is essentially an autobiography that Levi has organised around the elements of, yep, you guessed it, the Periodic Table. Rather than just focusing on the holocaust years, Levi introduces us to life under Nazi rule. He was studying to be a chemist in the early years of the war and the text on his certificate well and truly demonstrates the effect his Jewish identity had on his life: 'on Primo Levi, of the Jewish race, had been conferred a degree in Chemistry summa cum laude'. Understandably it falls into science speak quite frequently which confuses the hell out of me but I generally got the gist of it. I just think there is something about the way Levi writes that grabs me every time. I can't explain it, but maybe it is the way he can be so emotive even when he narrates in a particularly flat and matter of fact voice. I don't know but Primo, I love you man. If anything it really makes me want to pick up learning Italian where I left off in the hope of reading it in the original language one day.

'It seemed to me that I had won a small but decisive battle against the darkness, the emptiness, and the hostile years that lay ahead.' 

So, the second month of the Translation Challenge is over and I've read three books. All of which have been revelatory in varying ways. This month has been particularly, well, let's say somber but I look forward to what I can discover next month. Has anyone else read much Holocaust literature?



  1. I added "Night" to my classics club list and am both excited and dreading to read it. But I'm pretty sure I'll get to it rather sooner than later. Nice reviews.

    1. Thanks! It really is a good read but even now I have mixed feelings about it. I think it's hard to have anything else when it's a book like this. Enjoy reading it when you get to it.


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