translate for your life: Marcel Reich-Ranicki

Known as the “pope of literature” to Germans, and self-styled as “Germany’s literary hangman”, Marcel Reich-Ranicki was not an easy critic. He unapologetically followed Fontane’s maxim that “Schlecht ist schlecht und muß gesagt warden” (Erst leben, dann spielen. Über polnische Literatur. Wallstein 2002, p.183).
His life was not easy, either – but translating saved it.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki was born in 1920 in Włoclawek near Toruń/Thorn to Jewish parents, a Polish father and a German mother, and moved to Berlin aged 9. He was expelled from Nazi Germany to Poland in 1938, and 20 years later, after a stint in the army, he left Communist Poland for West Germany. There he continued his incisive and often controversial commentary on German literature until his death on 18 September 2013.
In Warszawa he worked as head translator for the “Judenrat”, the Ghetto’s administrative council. He was responsible for translating the deportation orders in July 1942. This work saved his life and that of his wife. While translating the text, he saw that translators’ wives were exempt from evacuation and he married his girlfriend Tosia that same day. Because of this, the couple was able to escape, and went into hiding in 1943. Marcel’s parents and brother were not so fortunate.
His autobiography Mein Leben is very readable and was a best-seller in Germany. The English title is apt: The Author of Himself. It opens with his neat comment to Günter Grass that he is “half Polish, half German, and wholly Jewish.” He retracts this statement immediately.
He knew that the truth is always more complicated than that.
Hear Reich-Ranicki speak to the Bundestag on Holocaust Memorial Day 2012 about translating the deportation orders in July 1942 (speech video starts at 22 min here, full text here, both in German).

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Posted in history, language, literature, translation
2 comments on “translate for your life: Marcel Reich-Ranicki
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