Decoding the past

Recently, while I was on holiday in Quebec, I bought a book by some one who worked as a government translator.  In the introduction, he stated that he thought it was healthy for a translator to write something of their own once in a while. So I decided to reverse the principle.  How would it be if I were to do some translation for a change?

My daughter and I have a riding companion who had a German grandfather. We generally have a good old natter while we’re out on our horses, and she has told me about this grandfather and the fact that he was a prominent art historian and member of the Bauhaus movement, that he had a Jewish wife, and that the family left Germany when the Nazis came to power.  Finally, she mentioned that she had some of his diaries which had never been translated, so I told her I’d be happy to cast an eye over them.

The other day she brought to the stables two very plain, buff coloured notebooks with 1934 and 1935 printed on the covers, and I can’t tell you how excited I was when I opened them.

Then I saw immediately why they had never been translated.

The diaries are written in a kind of shorthand, and it’s obvious that the author never intended them to be read by anyone else, let alone published. Furthermore, just supposing I could make sense of it all, the footnotes would take up far more room than the actual text, and it wouldn’t make for easy reading. The diaries function more like a memo to self, perhaps sometimes a reminder to follow something up and at other times a note of money owed or received.

But I hate being defeated so I spent some hours pouring over the handwriting. Eventually I cracked the code to the shorthand, and that made life a lot easier. Then I realised that there was a very brief summary of events at the end of each month – people who had visited the family in exile, illnesses suffered by various family members, books the author had read, and oblique references to events unfolding in Germany, including the Night of the Long Knives.  The author was also extremely keen on long lists of people, generally those who he felt had been influential in the development of art and music.  My friend was delighted to hear that her grandfather had shared her own father’s love of Bach and Rilke.

So gradually a picture is building up.  A full translation still doesn’t look viable, but, in the course of researching various leads in the diaries, I have discovered that my friend’s father wrote a book in German about his own father and that it was published in England.  However, when I mentioned this, no one seemed to know about it, presumably because it was a long time ago when my friend was still a child.  The plan now is to try and find a copy of this book with a view to translating it, and I’m on the trail. The British Library has confirmed that they don’t have a copy, but they have told me that there is one at the Getty Research Institute in California.  Now, I’m not expecting to go to California to continue my research (what a shame!)- I’ll have to find some other way – but I feel now that I’ve embarked on a real intellectual adventure and I can’t wait to bring this project to fruition. In the meantime, I’ll keep dipping into the diaries in the hope of unearthing more clues to this fascinating and enigmatic past.

And perhaps one day I’ll reveal who this mystery person is, but, just for now, I’ll take a leaf out of his own book and merely call him “O”!

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Filed under Art Historian, Bauhaus, British Library, Getty Research Institute

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