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4th of May speech by Arnon Grunberg translated into twelve languages

Mireille Berman – 3 July 2020

By Mireille Berman

Every year the National Committee for 4 and 5 May asks a writer to give a speech at its Remembrance Day gathering. This year it chose Arnon Grunberg, who read an impressive essay entitled ‘No’.

Update September 2020: Arnon Grunberg’s impressive commemoration speech continues to resonate; ever since Judit Gera initiated ‘Translating for a Better Society’, more and more translators have contributed to the project to make the text available to as many readers as possible. In the second week of September, EuroZine published the English translation of the speech. The text was translated by Sam Garrett with the support of the Dutch Foundation for Literature. You can find the translation here.

Grunberg appeals in his essay for meaningful commemoration, out of a conviction that the past is never over and done. He examines the much repeated phrase ‘never again’ and explicitly names the horrors concealed behind that cliché. In concrete and far from standard terms, he describes what murder involves, what crimes we are actually talking about, what exactly it is that we commemorate on 4 May. Grunberg also stresses that there is always, for each of us, the option of saying ‘no’, of refusing to be complicit, and claims it is something today’s politicians all too rarely do. Grunberg’s essay ends with a call to politicians to ensure that their words are not poison. Because, he says, massacres often begin with words, the words of those in power.

Renowned translator from Dutch into Hungarian Judit Gera was moved by the speech and it struck her that it ought to reach as many people as possible. She asked eleven fellow translators to take it on and thereby contribute to a project she named ‘Translating for a Better Society’. ‘Literary translators should sometimes make their voices heard, whether through their translations or in other ways,’ she says.

Remarkably, each of the translators Gera approached expressed an immediate willingness to translate the speech, and it is striking how quickly many of them found ways of getting their translations published. Grunberg’s essay will now be translated into twelve languages, by Gheorghe Nicolaescu (Romania), Veronika ter Harmsel-Havlíková (Czech Republic), Rainer Kersten (Germany), Goska Diederen-Woźniak (Poland), Maria Encheva (Bulgaria), Judit Gera (Hungary), Irina Michajlova (Russia), Mateja Seliškar Kenda (Slovenia), Gioia-Ana Ulrich Knežević (Croatia), Aleksandar Djokanovic (Serbia) and Claudia di Palermo (Italy). It has already been published in four countries, with more to follow.

All the translators who have worked on Gera’s project recognize the point she makes. Every one of them feels Grunberg touched a sensitive spot, although in each country it is found in a different place. Judit Gera’s call for translators was accompanied by an indictment of developments in her native country. ‘In Hungary a government is in power that is systematically dismantling freedom, democracy and the rule of law,’ she wrote. ‘The Hungarian government owns ninety per cent of the media. It has manipulated the voting system to such an extent that it’s now virtually impossible for the opposition to win parliamentary elections. The government is corrupt, has a horrifying policy towards migrants, engages in misogynistic politics, discriminates against and segregates Roma and Sinti, is homophobic and does not shrink from anti-Semitism. Many people are protesting, but not loudly enough. Fear has been instilled in them. Others support the government’s far-right policies, which call to mind the darkest period in twentieth-century history.’

Irina Michajlova, who translates into Russian, remarks that the things Grunberg says about the persecution of the Jews touch upon her own history, since ‘countless Jewish friends and relatives of mine (and I myself) recall all too well from Soviet times what discrimination is, from the anti-Semitism under Stalin and Brezhnev.’ In Serbia too, memories of recent violence are never far away, writes Aleksandar Djokanovic. ‘In the Balkans people know better than anyone in Europe how thin the dividing line is between agitation by those involved in politics and the eruption of conflict.’ Maria Encheva says that ‘the refusal to accept the other is so deeply rooted in us Bulgarians that the problem Grunberg brings to the fore in his speech isn’t even seen as a problem.’ In Germany, says Rainer Kersten, ‘a frighteningly large number of people have no wish to be reminded of the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans, or call the Third Reich “mere bird shit in German history”.’ Claudia di Palermo watches the rise of the right with horror. ‘When it comes to racism and discrimination, Italy still has a long way to go,’ she says. Veronika ter Harmsel-Havlikova sees that politicians in the Czech Republic are again attempting to win support by ‘pointing to a guilty party, an enemy, an external threat. The creation of fear in the masses is a way of manipulating them. Czechs were supposed to be afraid of refugees, of Muslims, and now they are meant to avoid everybody who comes from abroad.’ In Poland, Goska Diederen-Woźniak points to the profound gulf between different factions within the population; the country is completely polarized. She endorses Grunberg’s words of warning, but she can already hear the voices of his opponents, as it were. ‘They may frame the speech very differently: “There, you see, there’s anti-Semitism and racism even in a country as liberal and progressive as the Netherlands. So there must be something wrong with the Jews.”’ She goes on to say that part of the population will believe that. Gheorghe Nicolaescu from Romania calls the introduction of racial and anti-Semitic legislation in Romania in 1938 a low point in history, the ‘catalyst of the catastrophe’. But, he adds, ‘Eighty years later, in 2018, the Romanian parliament approved a law that makes engaging in anti-Semitic acts a punishable offence.’ Gioia-Ana Ulrich Knežević from Croatia also sees a ray of hope and stresses the social importance of Grunberg’s argument. ‘Texts by literary greats like Arnon Grunberg are taken up into the public memory and make our society better and more human.’

By translating Grunberg’s speech, translators from twelve different language areas demonstrate that translation can be of social significance and contribute to the creation of a more democratic Europe.

Arnon Grunberg has given permission for his lecture to be translated, and both the National Committee for 4 and 5 May and the Dutch Foundation for Literature will publish the translations on their websites. The Foundation has also taken on responsibility for remunerating the translators involved.
  • Click here for the Romanian translation.
  • Click here for the Bulgarian translation, or read it online.
  • Click here for the German translation.
  • Click here for the Czech translation, or read it online.
  • Click here for the Hungarian translation, or read it online.
  • Click here for the Russian translation, or read it online.
  • Click here for the Slovenian translation, or read it online.
  • Click here for the Croatian translation, or read it online.
  • Click here for the Italian translation, or read it online.
  • Click here for the Serbian translation, or read it in Politica.
  • Click here for the Polish translation.
  • Click here for the Slovak translation.
  • Click here for the English translation.

The Dutch Foundation for Literature asked the translators for their response to Grunberg’s essay in the context of their own countries. Here are their comments:

Romania

Gheorghe Nicolaescu: ‘It took a long time for the truth to come out about the extent of the extermination of Romanian Jews, and of Sinti and Roma, during the regime of Marshall Ion Antonescu, which collaborated with the Nazis. Some 400,000 people were killed. The catalyst for the catastrophe was the introduction of racial and anti-Semitic legislation in 1938. Eighty years later, in 2018, the Romanian parliament passed legislation that made engaging in anti-Semitic acts a criminal offence. In recent decades, further anti-discrimination laws have been put in place, mostly under pressure from the European Union. The need for such laws shows that many people remain susceptible to manipulation and unable to shake off their prejudices.’

Left: Gheorghe Nicolaescu, right: Maria Encheva.

Bulgaria

Maria Encheva: ‘The refusal to accept the other is so deeply rooted in us Bulgarians that the problem Grunberg brings to the fore in his speech isn’t even seen as a problem. If the other is a Westerner, then arms are opened wide in welcome, but marginal groups such as Turks, Roma and Sinti are subjected to contempt or even hatred. It will take generations of effort to change that. The Bulgarians are passively non-accepting. If aggressive behaviour towards these marginal groups ever develops in the West, then it’s quite possible that passive non-acceptance will turn into aggressive rejection there too. A large part of the Bulgarian population is not ready for the message in Grunberg’s speech. First Bulgarian society needs to be made receptive to the idea that the problem exists.’

Germany

Rainer Kersten: ‘In a time in which, in Germany too, certain population groups are increasingly spoken about ‘in a way that brings to mind the darkest times of the twentieth century’ – although in Germany they are less likely to be Moroccans than Arabs, Turks, Muslims as a whole and/or refugees – in a time in which, in Germany, a frightening number of people have no wish to be reminded of the atrocities committed by the Germans (think of parties like Alternative für Deutschland, which has called for a ‘180-degree turn’ away from the culture of remembering and atoning (Björn Höcke) and has described the Third Reich as ‘mere bird shit in German history’), this essay by Arnon Grunberg seems to me relevant in every respect, to Germany in particular. Anyone who wants to avoid a repeat of the crimes of the past in the present day, whether or not with new groups of victims, simply must commemorate them. Fortunately many people in Germany today share that awareness. The kinder among us in this country will take heart from the speech by Arnon Grunberg, which is both explicit and nuanced.’

Left: Rainer Kersten, right: Veronika ter Harmsel Havlíková.

Czech Republic

Veronika ter Harmsel-Havlíková: ‘In the Czech Republic, as in other post-communist countries of Central Europe, we have witnessed undemocratic practices in politics more and more frequently in recent years. The populist politicians who are currently in power or trying to come to power have a habit of pointing to a guilty party, an enemy, an external threat. The creation of fear in the masses is a way of manipulating them. Czechs were supposed to be afraid of refugees, of Muslims, and now they are meant to avoid everyone who comes from abroad. Political campaigns increasingly assert that Czechs do the right thing while non-Czechs represent a latent threat. The media are being bought up by oligarchs, the cultural and intellectual sector is continually being cut, and constraints are being further and further eroded. It is the fear sown in the masses that is producing great electoral successes for these politicians.’

Hungary

Judit Gera: ‘In Hungary a government has come to power that is dismantling freedom, democracy and the rule of law step by step. The Hungarian government owns ninety per cent of the media. It has manipulated the electoral system to such an extent that it’s now virtually impossible for the opposition to win parliamentary elections. The government is corrupt, has a horrifying policy towards migrants, engages in misogynistic politics, discriminates against and segregates Roma and Sinti, is homophobic and does not shrink from anti-Semitism. Many people are protesting, but not loudly enough. Fear has been instilled in them. Others support the government’s far-right policies, which call to mind the darkest period in twentieth-century history.’

Left: Judit Gera, right: Irina Michajlova.

Russia

Irina Michajlova: ‘In Russia the Second World War is known as ‘the Great Patriotic War’ and commemorated on a grand scale every year. While in the Netherlands commemoration of the victims of the war and celebration of the country’s liberation take place on two separate days, in Russia we have only a ‘party with tears in the eyes’: Victory Day on 9 May. The further we get from the war, the less people think of the victims. Nowadays there are many Russians who idealize the Great Patriotic War as a time in which our country showed how strong it can be. According to the official figures, 26,600,000 Soviet citizens, both soldiers and civilians, died in the Great Patriotic War. It is those victims most Russians think about. Attention is also paid to the tragedy of the Jewish people in Europe, but it’s overshadowed by that massive number. Countless Jewish friends and relatives of mine (and I myself) still remember all too well from Soviet times what discrimination is, from the anti-Semitism under Stalin and Brezhnev. I therefore endorse Arnon Grunberg’s assertion that any form of discrimination, no matter what population group it may be against, can have extremely dangerous consequences.’

Slovenia

Mateja Seliškar Kenda: ‘The old wounds of the Second World War are far from healed in Slovenia. These days, at the very moment when we are about to celebrate thirty years of our independence, we are confronted with a new intolerance and it is becoming clear that Slovenia is once again divided. Arnon Grunberg’s message is so important for our small country because the Slovenes want politicians finally to take responsibility again and devote themselves to uniting the Slovene people, rather than creating new conflicts and social inequality.’

Left: Mateja Seliškar Kenda, right: Gioia-Ana Ulrich Knežević.

Croatia

Gioia-Ana Ulrich Knežević: ‘The Jewish community in Croatia is small, made up of no more than a few hundred people. Although statistically insignificant, its voice can clearly be heard. The Croatian public listens attentively to this voice and politicians pay homage to the victims, especially those on Croatian soil. They understand the shadow of the past and value the contribution of the Jewish community to the truth and to the collective memory. The ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ live in Croatia too, heroes who stood up against evil. Texts by literary greats like Arnon Grunberg are absorbed into the public memory, making our society better and more human.’

Italy

Claudia di Palermo: ‘When it comes to racism and discrimination, Italy still has a long way to go. Far too many Italians still harbour distrust, at the very least, if not outright hatred of various population groups, the Roma and Sinti for a start, who are regarded as the foremost intruders in our country, closely followed by the Muslims, Africans, certain Eastern Europeans and – although to a lesser degree – the Jews, who are still often seen as less than fully Italian. Even some apparently ‘fully’ Italian people are not spared. First of all the southerners, who in the north are still regarded as inferior citizens. Then the homosexuals, who often still have to fight for equal rights and especially for equal treatment, while far too many women (last year one every three days) are killed by a partner, former partner or family member, because they are seen as property by men who think restoring their honour is more important than a woman’s life. Grunberg’s exhortation to politicians ‘not to let the word be poison’ ought to be repeated to our parliamentarians daily. The Lega should be the first to listen – with ethnic and geographical discrimination as the main point on its political agenda – but other right-wing parties too make intemperate use of poisonous words to sow fear. Italian writer Primo Levi, sixty years after he spoke the words quoted by Grunberg in his speech, would look on his fellow countrymen with a profound sense of outrage.’

From left to right: Claudia di Palermo, Aleksandar Djokanovic, Goska Diederen-Woźniak.

Serbia

Aleksandar Djokanovic: ‘Grunberg’s speech is well timed, now that right-wing and populist movements are on the rise all over the world. It’s of great importance that Grunberg points to the responsibility of politicians. In the Balkans, people know better than anyone in Europe how thin the dividing line is between agitation by those involved in politics and the eruption of conflict. The civil war that raged in what was then Yugoslavia during the Second World War was repeated in a terrible form in the 1990s, with the persecution and murder of people of a different ethnic or religious background. Grunberg’s essay shows the importance of constantly reminding ourselves of the senseless acts of violence that take place during wars. I hope his emotionally charged speech will make readers think and contribute to a realization that diversity enriches humanity and must never be a reason for stigmatization and exclusion.’

Poland

Goska Diederen-Woźniak: ‘How will this essay be received in today’s profoundly divided Poland? Over the past thirty years, Poland has become a country split in two. The rift grew deeper in 2010, when ninety-six Polish members of parliament, along with President Lech Kaczyński, died in a plane crash. The president’s brother and his supporters led many people to believe that the plane was brought down deliberately. On one side of the divide are the progressive Poles, people who embraced freedom in 1989 and grasped their opportunities. They want to make their country a modern, secular and tolerant society. They would see this essay as an appropriate and urgent warning. They might even repeat the warning themselves during the many commemorations that take place in Poland. They know their history and the dangers of the past, and they fear that the past is returning. You can already see the signs: anti-Semitism; hatred of feminists, homosexuals and foreigners. They see this as a threat to their freedom, and they are prepared to fight for that freedom. On the other side are people who have not been able to benefit from the tempestuous changes of the 1990s. They feel betrayed, lost and humiliated. Under communism everything was arranged for them by the state, whereas now they have to manage by themselves. How? In Poland, Catholicism is not merely a faith, it’s an extremely powerful tradition, an identity, bound up with the history of the country. A true Pole is a Catholic. Yet suddenly everything you believed in turns out to be wrong. You are supposed to be a liberal now, to accept that women have equal rights, LGBT people too, that foreigners are coming to live in your country, people with a different faith. All this feels like an attack on your ‘unshakable identity’. That sense of insecurity is extremely useful to the current conservative-nationalist government, supported by the Church, which is afraid of losing its power. They too may see this speech as a warning. Or they may frame it very differently: ‘There, you see, there’s anti-Semitism and racism even in a country as liberal and progressive as the Netherlands. So there must be something wrong with the Jews.’ And part of the population will believe that.’

Slovakia

Marketa Štefková and Benjamin Bossaert: ‘As in many other European countries, in Slovakia there are two opposing tendencies, Extreme right-wing nationalism as against support for the collective memory, non-violence and tolerance. Grunberg’s message is highly topical in this Slovak political climate. When Grunberg says that claiming to know the past is a refusal to learn about it, he immediately brings to mind the extreme nationalist People’s Party – Our Slovakia, whose representative in the European Parliament refused to express an opinion about the Holocaust. Several of its members have tried to deny the Holocaust took place. At the same time, there are priests, devout Christians, who, with their uncompromising faith in the Church, instead of preaching tolerance let fly at a so-called gender and LGBTI ideology and look to the extreme nationalist party for political support. During the refugee crisis it was Muslim immigrants above all who were demonized and abused in the terrifying, inflammatory rhetoric of several prominent politicians. A number of Syrian refugees were ostentatiously given refuge purely because they were Christians. There are, however, important signs of a contrasting attitude in the form of protests by university students against extremism and a wide range of projects commemorating the Holocaust. In Bratislava the Stolpersteine project has found support. For several years now the Holocaust museum in the former concentration camp at Sered’ has been a lieu-de-mémoire, and every 8 September the victims of the Slovak Holocaust and of racial violence are actively commemorated. Just as the Holocaust knew no bounds, the construction of the collective memory should have no limits. We are convinced that reciprocal presentation of the acts of commemoration that take place in different countries and cultures helps to ensure that the testimony of Alfréd Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba, the Slovak Jews who escaped Auschwitz, or of the Slovak Jew Filip Muller, whom Grunberg quotes, will continue to resonate.’

Mireille Berman

Non-fiction specialist

international

Mireille Berman is responsible for the international promotion of non-fiction.

m.berman@letterenfonds.nl

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