Roll back 30 years. University of London, Year 2 German translation class: “Well guys, this week’s translation exercise is only one sentence ….”. Memories fade from this point – I still bear the scars. The sentence turned out to be 6 pages long and I think it came from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain …. so the thought of a 117-page sentence has all kinds of associations. On the negative side, sanitoria, tuberculosis ….. On the positive, clean mountain air and, more to the point, awe for a translator willing to take on such a challenge.
I won’t dwell on the grammatical error on the page one, (line 11 words 2 and 3 for those with a copy), because the translation recovers gracefully on page two and never wobbles again. Cue a standing ovation for the translator, Jamie Bulloch.
Second problem – a hill, not a mountain – the Joycean associations of the title: modernist, stream-of-consciousness. Not usually my cup of tea. However, the splitting of the text into bite-size paragraphs allowed me to read without feeling pressured by a sentence of such inordinate length and there was no chance of even getting lost in it. (I am now curious – is this an innovation of the translator or of the author – what does the original German look like, I wonder? )
And thankfully, this was less unfathomable Joycean stream-of-consciousness, more the internal monologue of an extremely sympathetic young woman as she walks from her lodgings to church. Margherita is in Rome, she’s 8-months pregnant, and she’s conflicted. On the one hand, she wants the war to end so that her husband will return to her from Africa where he is serving with the German army; on the other, that end must come only with German victory. Though in 1943 the tide is beginning to turn. In addition her earlier indoctrination in the League of German Girls has not silenced her conscience entirely. So her thoughts as she admires the beauty of the city her husband loves, return again and again to the discrepancy of German behaviours and attitudes with Christian values. How are the two to be reconciled, if they ever can be? What is a girl to make of the paradox of the Christian view “if the Führer places himself above God and God’s will, then we must not follow him blindly” and the fact that “ GOD WITH US stood on the soldiers’ belt buckles, above an eagle on a swastika, God and Führer were united on every uniform”.
Margherita’s monologue works on many levels. On the personal, as an anxious young wife, and a caring mother-to-be. As a tourist admiring the beauty of Rome for the first time. Missing home, yet naively believing herself to be safe from Allied bombers in the Italian capital. Above all, as an insight into the thoughts of the average German of the time. Like so many, Margherita takes the path of least resistance. She suppresses her conscience and in other instances, she chooses to remain ignorant. Apropos Italian newspapers:
…she was happy that she was unable to read, any of it and did not have to, even in Germany she had not read the papers, it was better not to know too much, not to ask too much, not to say too much, one always heard bad news soon enough…
Indeed, at the end of her walk an approaching thunderstorm suggests that bad news is coming soon enough both to Margherita and to Rome.