publication Students Translation

Translating the White Rose Pamphlets

The student translators of the White Rose resistance pamphlets introduce their experiences and approach.

Over the course of eight months, from October to May 2019, we worked together to produce a new translation of the White Rose resistance pamphlets. We approached this project from a number of different backgrounds and perspectives. Some of us had studied the White Rose at school, through Marc Rothemund’s film Sophie Scholl — Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl — The Final Days, 2005), while for others it was a name and a story that had been encountered only vaguely. Few of us had read the pamphlets, and this project offered the opportunity to approach the White Rose from a linguistic, as well as an historical, perspective. Here, we outline our response to the texts and the approaches we took as translators.

Our translation was a collaborative project. This proved to be a fruitful and exciting way to work. ‘As well as mirroring the way the leaflets were originally written’, Amy Wilkinson writes, ‘translating in a team meant that there were always several solutions we could pick from, resulting in the best translation possible’. The result was that frequently, the process of exchange and peer review made us think about the texts in new ways. As Pauline Gümpel comments: ‘Especially when bearing in mind that the White Rose itself was a group of students, working together on these texts, I feel very grateful for this opportunity to discuss possible phrasings for our translation with my peers and hear their thoughts.’ Our experience translating this material necessitated reflection on the kind of texts the pamphlets are, and how we as students approach them in a unique way. For example, Ro Crawford emphasises the affinity between student activism in the past and the present: ‘A lot has changed in the seventy-five years since the White Rose group was active, but the social and political activism concentrated at universities is still a big part of the student experience for many of us.’ Unlike the White Rose members, however, as Madeleine Williamson-Sarll points out, ‘we could work on the leaflets without the fear of discovery and return to our studies knowing that we were in no danger’.

Translating as a group meant we had to come to decisions collectively, which included agreeing on standard terms for words that recur throughout the six pamphlets. This sometimes proved difficult. Ilona Clayton writes: ‘I loved going over the pamphlets with everyone, but sometimes it felt like we were going in circles because everyone preferred different things.’ Even the word ‘Flugblatt’ was disputed, as Emily Rowland explains: ‘The publishing of ‘Flugblätter’ is an established tradition in the German-speaking world, but the word does not have a direct English-language equivalent.’ Although ‘leaflet’ is often used to refer to the White Rose’s ‘Flugblätter’, we finally decided to use the word ‘pamphlet’ because of its political connotations.

We were also aware of the very particular context in which the pamphlets were written and disseminated. This was not like doing a translation in a tutorial, where we usually work on an extract from a text, complete a version individually, and receive feedback (principally) from a tutor. Gümpel writes that she felt ‘a particular kind of responsibility to try and convey the historical reality as accurately as possible, which was different from all the translations I had done before.’ Similarly, for Crawford,

one of the most striking aspects of the language of the originals is how jarring it is; it’s easy to dismiss the drama of their work as proof of the White Rose members’ youth, passion and idealism — and they certainly represent all of those things — but there’s also the crushing reminder that for these young people, their activism really was a matter of life and death.

Sophie Bailey adds: ‘When translating the White Rose, I felt very strongly the weight attached to their words and the importance of translating them as accurately as possible, whilst still preserving their original beauty and power.’

The language of the pamphlets threw up several challenges. The style changes, as Williamson-Sarll notes, ‘partly due to who wrote them, but also due to the increasing sense of urgency’. We can also discern the influence of other individuals in the wider circle of the White Rose.[1] Williamson-Sarll adds that we were faced with a ‘text-book’ translation problem:

if we wanted to stay completely true to the originals, our versions might also sound bizarre and jarring, and might look like a ‘bad’ translation. But if we succumbed to the temptation of over-correction, we would be producing something different, which was not our intention.

We aimed to produce an equivalent effect in our English translation as was created by the German. This applied to individual words and phrases, and to the overall style of the texts. Zoë Aebischer explains:

Sometimes we translated a sentence, but when spoken out loud it didn’t carry the same ring as the German, or ended weakly, or lost some of its emphatic nature, which then required less literal translation solutions.

We also had to agree on the kind of style and register we wanted for our English versions. Crawford explains that we had to decide whether ‘to put the English versions into today’s vernacular or attempt to make the language authentic to the time of writing.’ We had a choice: to aim our translations at twenty-first-century readers, or for the audience for which the group was writing in the early 1940s. We prioritised what Finn Provan summarises as ‘voice, nuance, and raw intention’ and tried to ignore ‘our privileged position of hindsight’. We had to bear in mind too that as Timothy Powell notes, ‘The elevated language the group used conveys their idealistic view of humankind’s capacity for good as well as for evil.’ We did not want to lose this aspect of the texts. Eve Mason writes: ‘it was important to us as a group to convey the vigour, the emotion behind the words of the pamphlets. These were students who wanted more than anything to provoke action, to inspire resistance, and this meant we prioritised tone and emotion over pedantic linguistic accuracy.’

Another challenge was dealing with the intertextuality embedded in the original pamphlets, especially biblical references. Crawford explains that such references ‘often required research to find both the sources and the wording of these other texts where they appeared in existing translations that would be familiar to an English-speaking audience’. The pamphlets also quote from a range of writers and philosophers. Gümpel writes of the second pamphlet,

the translation of a passage by Laozi sounded very awkward and old-fashioned in German and it was therefore difficult to make a decision about the extent to which this should be ‘improved’ in English.

Indeed, the quotations made us more aware of the ‘group’s desire to draw on authors and philosophers who had influenced them, but this often came across as out-of-place, as if they were desperate to make use of anything and everything they had read and studied’ (Williamson-Sarll).

One of the most significant challenges was to translate especially ‘German’ terms which do not have straightforward English-language equivalents. The word ‘Geist’, for example was problematic. Powell explains that it is ‘a highly complex philosophical and religious concept deeply rooted in German philosophy, particularly Enlightenment discourse’ and that ‘it was difficult to find an equivalent in English philosophy (intellect would probably be the best word we have but it’s not perfect for a number of reasons)’. Zoë Aebischer adds that even a word like ‘Staat’, used particularly in the third pamphlet, was tricky, because ‘in English “state” can have a different meaning; sometimes we used “government” to make it clearer.’ On the difficulty of translating ‘Staat’, Williamson-Sarll adds

In some places, the translation as ‘state’ was unproblematic and made sense, but in other paragraphs the implication seemed to be ‘government’ rather than ‘state’. This led to a discussion of the difference between the two, and we had to consider whether leaving it in the German would in fact be less misleading. ‘Unstaat’ was of course even more problematic, given that there is no obvious English equivalent.

Another challenge was posed by words which had been part of Nazi propaganda. The word ‘Volk’, as Tim Powell explains, ‘has been rooted in German philosophical/political/religious discourse since the late Middle Ages’. Gümpel adds

It is hard to express the role it took on in the context of Nazi society, and also, how it has changed throughout history, for example by being included in the 1989 reunification slogan ‘Wir sind das Volk!’.

The authors’ use of such terms also reflects their understanding of the regime, as Powell points out: ‘they demonstrated a high level of awareness and understanding of the failings of National Socialist ideology by using the regime’s own ideological language against it.’ This is particularly clear in the second pamphlet, when the Nazis are referred to with the word ‘Untermenschentum’ (‘sub-humanity’), a term they themselves were using to refer to those they considered racially inferior.

We encountered some instances where we had to resign ourselves to ‘loss’ in translating the texts from German to English. Crawford notes that the word ‘Verführer’, which appears in the fifth pamphlet, ‘seems much more powerful than the English “corruptor”, and echoes the Nazi term “Führer” used for Hitler; there was no way for us to preserve the relationship between the words that the German manages so neatly.’ Zoë Aebischer writes:

we had to decide where it would be more appropriate to use a more literal translation or to use a more interpretative translation to make our version more accessible. One example in the third pamphlet is the simile of guilt rising ‘gleich einer parabolischen Kurve’ (literally: ‘like a parabolic curve’) — it is as if they had been studying parabolic curves in class. I’m proud of our solution of ‘guilt growing exponentially’, as it is still linked with maths, but conveys the meaning in a clearer way.

We also wanted to address the fact that existing translations did not seem to go far enough in conveying the gender inclusivity of the texts which, as Mason points out, is not insignificant. For example, the sixth pamphlet addresses student readers with the words ‘Kommilitoninnen! Kommilitonen!’ (literally: ‘fellow female and male students!’). Mason adds that the White Rose group was ‘genuinely calling out to “alle Deutsche” (“all Germans”)’ and adds that ‘where German can employ the gender neutral “man” (“one”) or “Mensch” (“human”/“person”), we have tried to translate this wherever possible using “they” rather than “he”.’[2] This also struck us as a way of emphasising the importance of women’s role within the resistance, including Sophie Scholl’s contribution. Mason argues:

Within a university context where female students were being attacked by Nazi leaders as ‘well-bred daughters’ who were shirking their war duties by studying at university, and being told that ‘the natural place for a woman is not at the university, but with her family, at the side of her husband’,[3] Sophie Scholl’s bravery not only to further her education, but to resist the tyranny of the Third Reich, must be celebrated. Neither should the work of many women within the periphery of the White Rose group, who supported the six core members, be overlooked.

We decided to include a brief glossary of terms with recur throughout the pamphlets, and endnotes so that readers could access further information but could also read the pamphlets as stand-alone texts without further commentary if they wished. We hope that readers who do not speak German may find a way into the language through out translations, using the parallel text and the supporting materials as a guide.

We hope our translation will reach a wide audience, including new readers who have perhaps never heard of the White Rose, or only have vague ideas about what it was and did. Bailey writes: ‘Now, more than ever, the words of the White Rose are relevant and necessary, and I hope that our translation can give them a new lease of life.’ Rowland adds that ‘In times of growing uncertainty and tension, it is important that these texts are not forgotten, and that they continue to generate meaningful discussions.’ For some of us, reading the pamphlets so closely over a considerable period of time, gave us a new perspective on this period of history. Gümpel writes of the emotional connection she developed with the material:

I am deeply moved by the thought that Sophie Scholl was the same age as I am now when she made the decision to become part of the resistance against the Nazis — a decision that she paid for with her life. I hope that especially students will read these translations and that these translated texts will have a similar effect of bringing this part of German history emotionally closer to them, just as it brought the texts closer to me.

The translation project also led to some fascinating insights into writing and resistance more broadly, as Adam Mazarelo explains:

During the Arab Spring, disabled mobile and internet networks meant activists turned to leaflets as a means of highlighting and railing against the current and historical abuses of dictatorial regimes. In the Egyptian case, many of these leaflets were scanned and made available as part of a collection called the Taḥrīr Documents. Reading these leaflets now, eight years later and with the White Rose in mind, it’s impossible not to hear the echoes across time. Drawing, as the White Rose did, on cultural and religious heritage they saw themselves as defending against perversion and erasure, the printed ephemera of the revolutions of 2011 are just as rich in satire, irony and anger. In both cases, moreover, the words ring just as true for the leaflets’ contemporary readers as they do today.

Finally, the process of translating this material has led to important reflections on the power of the written word and the potential young people especially have to stand up against injustice. As Mason concludes,

In an age in which young people are constantly being accused of apolitical cynicism, I hope our translation of these pamphlets can provide an example to the youth of today of the political action our generation can achieve and of the true potential we have to make a change in the world.

[1] One example is the writer and translator Theodor Haecker (1879-1945), whose influence is traceable in the fourth pamphlet. It draws on theology and metaphysics, presenting Hitler as the Antichrist.

[2] There was one instance where this didn’t work, in the sixth pamphlet: ‘Even the most dull-witted German has had his eyes opened by the terrible bloodbath, which, in the name of the freedom and honour of the German nation, they have unleashed upon Europe, and unleash anew each day.’

[3] Paul Giesler, 13 January 1943, University of Munich, cited in Russell Freedman, We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler (New York: Clarion Books, 2016), p. 65.

© Taylor Institution Library, 2019. Permission to quote must be sought via

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