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The ‘Life-World’ of Translation

Some words escape translation—a fact Stephen Barlau discovered quickly when he set about translating Rudolph van Thadden’s novel, originally published as Trieglaff. Eine pommersche Lebenswelt zwischen Kirche und Politik 1807-1948. Barlau brought the work into English as Trieglaff: Balancing Church and Politics in a Pomeranian World, 1807-1945, which was published this month by Berghahn. Below, the translator shares the importance of care and nuance when translating five generations worth of stories to English.




The breadth and depth of meaning of German Lebenswelt, used in the original subtitle of Trieglaff, escapes capture in English.


It refers to the world of daily life in all its elements. Setting is immanent, environment is conjured; life extends beyond daily to happenings for an extended period with its characterizing features; both dynamic living and graphic life are encompassed. All these elements are denoted, not connoted; meaning fails if any are absent—or perhaps the word is all connotation, all shadow implication of meanings.


In the reach for all-encompassing terms to use in translation things like world, universe, way of life, world and life, life and living, and circumlocutions up to a paragraph in length present themselves, unsatisfactorily. “This world that was Trieglaff”—or similar—can be used only a limited number of times in a limited number of contexts. The choice is loss of the richness of meaning of the German word or contrived and unnatural English. At bottom, English analyzes semantically, finding new lexical items for unpacked meanings with greater specificity; German readily extends lexical usage to cover another part of the semantic world or, as here, recombines morphemes for what is needed. If a single word is required that encompasses reference to all of life (Leben) and to a whole world (Welt), Lebenswelt is available.


English is not just unequipped, it revolts.


Every occurrence of the word called for fitting it to its context. It is probably impossible to discern a common underlying form from the translations. Another style of translation could utilize other methods, of course. So Lebenswelt could not anchor the subtitle as it did for the German edition. Still, a pale world had to be retained somehow. It is what the book is about.


The outline of Western history from 1800 on would incorporate, as major topics, the demise of feudalism and autocracy supplanted by capitalism and democracy, rebuff of Napoleonic France, American expansion westward, unification of Germany under Bismarck, mechanization and industrialization, worldwide depression, two world wars, the Iron Curtain and its displacement by the EU. The Lebenswelte (pl) that exist at the termini of development of the threads of history are too numerous for historians to treat, and lead to thematic diffusion such that historical coherence is lost.


Presenting major themes of history as subtext to the Lebenswelt of a single family makes for unique treatment. This is what Trieglaff does. Leading actors on the stage of national or world history are not its points of departure—though a small number of them appear in it. Nor are movements of worldwide scope, though they play in.


The parade of generations—five of them—supplies the actors in their respective acts. But the larger setting is uniformly present nevertheless; Trieglaff and Berlin or Trieglaff and Geneva are comfortably juxtaposed. Von Thadden’s credentials as historian—longtime and emeritus professor at Göttingen University in Germany—assure mastery of major themes. His knack is to remain dispassionate and enlightening about a Lebenswelt that is his native milieu. The importance of discriminating between memory and historical fact is a conscious theme; it attests perhaps to vigilance against relying upon his own recollections of quite historical events.


Patriarch of the family Adolph von Thadden’s participation in the Battle of Waterloo found him in command, “on the right wing of the 1st corps, the 1st division, the 1st brigade, the 1st regiment, the 1st company, the 1st platoon, and we marched right.” He was therefore first to meet up with the British. History didn’t notice.


Thadden, future aristocratic lord of Trieglaff, was a thread in history’s web, for the parochiality that so characterized him was not myopic; it opened to wide horizons. Did Reinold von Thadden’s bold assertions to his Nazi jailer Chantré deflect Hitler to a new course? History isn’t written that way, so it seems not. Did they contribute towards influencing the course of Nazism? In (dis)proportionate measure, surely. Latter day Junkers may have been out of fashion, they still got respect, and von Thadden laid claim to human dignity in a way that needs sorely to have a place in the historical record.


Postwar reconciliation between Germans and Poles took a step forward with the “Pax vobis” plaque attached at the door of the church in Trieglaff. World history didn’t footnote the Potsdam Conference about it. A tremor, however slight, went out from reincarnated Trieglaff, Trzygłów, earmarking a chapter in history. Here it is noted. Soviet strategy at the end of WW II and Rokossovsky’s moves towards taking Berlin played out locally. History tells about the armies and battles, but not about individuals and occurrences like those at Trieglaff, where people lived at the whims, favorable and unfavorable, of a succession of commandants in their home after it had been commandeered by the Russians to be used as a local headquarters at the rearward front. Trieglaff departs from such details.


The Pomeranian Lebenswelt of Trieglaff rises above the obscurity of the ordinary, probably, but typifies its kind in many ways, and thus serves up a rewarding portion of what is, ultimately, the raw material of history. Exploiting family archives of uncommon richness and depth (some 200 years), this work fleshes out the framework of history profitably and appealingly. It is presented with Trieglaff singlemindedly at its center; it is embedded in an expansive matrix:


“The wide world encountered a diminutive universe in the east of Pomerania.”


The Lebenswelt Trieglaff, that is.





Stephen Bernhardt Barlau holds a BSEd, emphasis history, from Concordia College, Seward, NE (CUNE), a BSEd in German from the University of Minnesota, his home state, and a PhD in Germanic historical linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. He taught at elementary and college levels and is now retired, living in north central Wisconsin.