Translations and the representations of war

In very general terms, the narratives of the Great War translated until 1939 can be divided into four main groups:

  • (1) the narratives that convey a romantic point of view of the Allies by showing how fair and glorious the war is and by helping in the construction of the myth of the hero;
  • (2) the narratives that, although the same previous objectives are pursued, highlight the atrocious aspects of the war. Nevertheless, such atrocities are meant to emphasise the bravery and the courage of the Allied soldiers;
  • (3) the narratives that convey the perspective of the Germans, meeting similar objectives of military propaganda and emphasising the courage of the German soldiers. However, these are also intended to obtain some pedagogical effect and encouragement from defeat and to find reasons to explain or justify that defeat;
  • (4) the narratives that simply depict war as atrocious, thus deconstructing the myth of the hero.

In 1915 and 1916, two years which were particularly difficult for the Allied troops, military censorship and propaganda sought to keep the morale among the soldiers and the civil population, through “opinion making”, according to Jean Galtier- Boissiёre, author of L’Histoire de la guerre, translated into Portuguese by Adolfo

Coelho in 1936.[1] Military censorship was originally intended to control military and diplomatic information but it eventually controlled the press and other publications.

It was explicitly forbidden to show the war in all its horror. On the 1st August 1915, for example, the photo of General Maunoury, who had been wounded and lost his sight, was ordered to be suppressed from all the newspapers, because that image could “cause a depressing effect” (Galtier-Boissiere 266).

Personal letters of the soldiers, the press, even literature could only convey optimism, so that the population in general should be spared to unnecessary anxiety. In Fussell’s opinion, The First Hundred Thousand by Ian Hay Beith, published in 1915, is paradigmatic of this fictitiously optimistic atmosphere:

It gives a cheerful half-fictionalized account of a unit of Kitchner’s Army, emphasizing the comedies of training and the brave, resourceful way the boys are playing the game and encountering the absurdities of army life with spirit and humour. (...) Hay finally mentions trench casualties, but in such a way as to make them seem no more serious than skinned knees. (Fussell 28)

Thus, Os silencios do Coronel Bramble [Les silences du Colonel Bramble] by Andre Maurois provides a good example of the first group of translated narratives. The English fight the war with all fair-play, as true gentlemen, unlike the German soldiers, who are mean and brutal.

  • - On account of the Hun - the Colonel said sadly - the war is no longer a gentlemen’s game.
  • - We could not imagine - the major resumed - that such coarse species could exist in this world. Bombing open cities is almost as unforgivable as catching trouts with worms or killing a fox with a shotgun.

[- Por causa do Huno - disse o coronel tristemente - a guerra ja nao e mais um jogo de gentlemen.

- Nao podlamos calcular - recome^ou o major - que pudesse haver no mundo gros- seiroes dessa especie. Bombardear cidades abertas e quase tao imperdoavel como pes- car trutas com minhocas ou matar uma raposa a tiro de espingarda.] (Maurois 5-6)

Fussell refers that even in real life, “people were so innocent that they were embarrassed to pronounce the new stylish word camouflage” (29).

In another French novel, translated in 1938 by Alice Ogando (1900-1981), the only female translator of novels about the war - Sylvette e o seu ferido [Sylvette et son blesse] by Charles Foley - the war is only suggested through the sound of far-away bombings, through the idea of German soldiers approaching, through the hiss of a bullet or through the sight of a wounded soldier. What prevails is the romantic perspective of the conflict. Sylvette, the main character of this novel, says:

How romantic it is what is happening to me! The war has changed life in such a way that we, poor bourgeois, are experiencing the most sensational adventures of the most incredible novels. After this tragic night here I am, as in a fairy tale, lulling a giant. If only I could give him beautiful dreams, my poor blue soldier!

[Como e romantico o que me acontece! A guerra alterou de tal forma a vida que nos acontecem hoje, a nos, pobres burgueses, as aventuras sensacionais dos mais inverosimeis folhetins. Depois desta noite tragica, eis-me como num conto de fadas, a embalar um gigante. Se ao menos lhe pudesse dar bons sonhos cor-de-rosa, ao meu pobre soldado azul] (Foley 49)

In the second group we can point out, among others, Os quarto cavaleiros do Apoc- alipse [Los cuatro jinetes del Apocalipsis] by Basco Ibanez or O carrasco de Verdun [Le boucher de Verdun] by Louis Dumur. They are representative of the narratives that promote the Allies’ ideology, that clearly support the “glorious French fatherland” against the abominable “boches” but without hiding or disguising the brutality of war. Blasco Ibanez describes:

Long and narrow wooden fences limited these holes full of meat. The soil was becoming white as if it had been covered with snow or salt. [...] The cross displayed the indication that the tomb contained German soldiers, followed by the number: 200... 300... 400...

These numbers forced Desnoyers into an effort of imagination. They could be quickly pronounced, but it was not easy to evoke the image of three hundred piled corpses, three hundred wrappers of human livid and bloody flesh [...] put in layers as if they were tiles at the bottom of a pit which will be closed for ever...

[Cercas formadas de paus, longas e estreitas, limitavam estas covas repletas de carne. A terra alvejava, como se estivesse coberta de neve ou de sal. [...] A cruz tinha na tabua a indica^ao de que a tumba continha alemaes, e em seguida, o numero: 200. 300.. 400.

Estes numeros obrigavam Desnoyers a realizar um esfor^o de imagina^ao. Diziam-se rapidamente, mas nao era facil evocar com exactidao a visao de trezentos mortos juntos, trezentos envoltorios de carne humana livida e sangrenta, [.] dispondo-se em camadas, como se fossem ladrilhos, no fundo duma fossa que vai fechar-se para sempre...] (Blasco Ibanez 383)

In these cases, the righteousness of war is never questioned, although it is described as “really stupid” [“uma verdadeira estupidez”] (Dumur 54), “cursed war”

[“maldita Guerra”], “madness” [“loucura”] (Maurois 47) or as an “awful slaughter” [“horriveis carnificinas”] (Boursin 98).

Such violent descriptions of the combats highlight the courage and the spirit of self-sacrifice of the Allied soldiers. They believe that dying for their country is a sublime act and that killing for the fatherland is a moral duty. This sort of patriotic elation is experienced by all sectors of the population, including the women. While the men fight in the trenches, the women bravely defend their home against the enemy to the last consequences, because to defend the home and care after the wounded are also noble ways to contribute and to make history.

The German narratives of sea battles can be included in the third group of war narratives. Although they depict the perspective of “the other side”, their objectives are similar to those of “this side”. But more importantly, the racial superiority of the Germans is stated, the past that made the German people proud and strong is remembered, the pride of being German and a sailor is reinforced. Death is not feared, it is rather considered as glorious.

Like the English and the French, the Germans also praise the military pride and ethics and behave like gentlemen. An excerpt of von Luckner’s O ultimo corsario [Seeteufel] is paradigmatic of such an attitude:

It would have been easy to blow the officer up with a bullet or a grenade, since he was the only one carrying a fire gun; the indigenous soldiers had only bayonets; and we didn’t lack determination. But, as officers and seamen of the Imperial Army, dressed in ordinary clothes, what could we do? Our military pride didn’t allow us to behave like snipers. A man in ordinary clothes should never attack a man in uniform.

[Teria sido facil estoirar o oficial com uma bala ou com uma granada, pois era ele so quem levava arma de fogo, os cipaios apenas iam armados de baioneta; o esplrito de decisao, tambem, nao nos faltava. Mas, como oficiais e marinheiros da Armada Imperial, apanhados assim a paisana, que poderlamos nos fazer? O nosso brio militar nao permitia que nos conduzlssemos como franco-atiradores. Um paisano nao deve nunca atacar um homem fardado.] (Luckner 279)

Most of these books concerning sea battles include the picture of their authors - officers of the Imperial Army in solemn attitude -, as shown in Figure 1, either on the front cover or on the front page, which shows how deferentially they were treated by the Portuguese publishers.

Fig. 1: Photo of Graf von Luckner

In the fourth and last group we can include the German pacifist narratives. They condemn war and destroy the myth of the hero. For example, in Os grilhetas do Kaiser [Des Kaisers Kulis], Theodor Plivier describes the sea battles under a perspective that radically opposes the perspective of the previous group. Patriotic elation is no longer seen as a way to cope with defeat, nor are the Germans seen as victims of the enemy and unfair propaganda. On the contrary, the enemies are to be found within the military hierarchy or among those who benefit from war and those who are more concerned about material goods than about human interests. “We are not fighting for our fatherland or for the honour of Germany. We die for the thugs and millionaires” [“Nao combatemos pela Patria nem pela honra da Alemanha. Morremos pelos pulhas e pelos milionarios”] (Plivier 99).

The real enemies, by the same token, share the same misfortune. A German soldier reflects:

Today I only see behind them [the enemies] the anonymous pain of the living beings, the terrible melancholy of existence and the lack of compassion that characterises men.

An order turned these silent people into our enemies; an opposite order could turn them into our friends.

[Mas, hoje, so vejo por detras deles [os inimigos] a dor anonima do ser vivo, a terrivel melancolia da existencia e a falta de piedade que caracteriza os homens.

Uma ordem fez desta gente silenciosa nossos inimigos; uma ordem contraria poderia converte-los em amigos.] (Remarque 205)

  • [1] This translation itself was attentively read and commented by the Censoring Board in1936 (Report 272/1936). It is said that Adolfo Coelho added excerpts to the translation which are far from dignifying Portugal. However, the translation was authorisedsince, according to the censor, it did not make any sense to suggest any cuts 19 yearsafter the war.
 
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