Translating the horrors of war

Though it remains one of the most widely written about subjects, words will never fully illustrate the atrocities of the First World War. However, the closest links we have to this darkest of periods are retained in the letters of the time.

These letters were written either in the blood, filth and fog of the trenches, or from towns destroyed and afflicted with the fear of imminent death. They provide personal insights into lives plagued by war; lives that seems alien to many of us in today’s Europe.

Watching and reading about the First World War centenary commemorations brought to mind a unique project that Today Translations was commissioned to translate earlier this year. An acquaintance of the firm came to us with a portfolio of letters his grandmother had written and sent from war-torn 1940s Germany to her family exiled in London. She, like millions of other Jews, later perished in the horrors of the Holocaust.

Because her now elderly children, among them our acquaintance’s father, had been living in the UK for the past eight decades, they had forgotten most of their German. Our acquaintance therefore requested that the letters – a most cherished family possession and one of the few remnants of his late grandmother’s voice, her emotions and her unconditional love for her family – be translated into English as a gift to his father.

This made us wonder how many other families still own letters sent by their ancestors from the periods in which Europe was devastated by war. As millions lost their lives, millions more were uprooted and displaced from their homes. And over the last 100 years, as borders; political systems and official languages have changed, many of us no longer speak the language of our ancestors.

The project we delivered for our acquaintance a unique example of reconnecting a man with his late mother during one of Europe’s darkest period. Reading first-hand accounts of the fears and horrors she endured made this one of the most difficult projects we have ever worked on, a project that put everything else into harsh perspective.

There will be many events throughout Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East over the next four years commemorating the battles that tore Europe apart, such as the Battle of Verdun and the Somme. We should all take this time to honour those who lost their lives.

But let us also be mindful of and celebrate the work of historians, archivists and linguists whose work means that the atrocities lived by ancestors can still have a place in our consciousness. As they saying goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.