Welcome to 2015! I’m back after a bout of cancer and am starting the New Year off with an interview with Hidden Like Anne Frank co-author Marcel Prins and translator Laura Watkinson. The book includes 14 oral history narratives of Jews hidden through the Netherlands during the Holocaust years. Arthur A. Levine Books published Hidden Like Anne Frank in English in 2014.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Marcel, let’s start with you. What inspired you to talk to hidden Holocaust survivors?
Marcel Prins (MP): I wanted to make a documentary film on the “hiding history” of my mother. The more I researched her story and the more I researched the subject in general, it became clear to me that it would be nice to do a broader project then just my mother’s story.
I also realized that every one is familiar with the story of Anne Frank. Her story is world famous. The reverse side of that fame is that people think that Anne Frank’s story is exemplary for any hiding story, which of course is not the case. All stories are unique and they differ hugely from each other.
People hid at one or 42 addresses. They were received with warmth or with beatings. They hid in the country-side or in towns, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. Some were separated from their families, others stayed together.
Some had to pay large sums of money, others nothing at all. Some were treated as equals, others as slaves. Some had to stay in their hiding places, others could move about freely. Some were betrayed others were kept safe. I wanted show some of that diversity in my project.
TWM: How did you find these people? How did you go about collecting these oral histories? Did you have a standard set of questions? How did you record them? Did you speak to each narrator once or more than once?
MP: A lot of survivors were brought to my attention by the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. And the more people I interviewed, the easier it became to trace others. I did not have standard questions. The interviews were more like very long conversations. I filmed all interviews and recorded the sound.
I edited the sound of the interviews into the collection of animated films for the website. All interviews were transcribed so Henk and I could work on the text. In some cases I interviewed a second time to resolve some un clarities. I always went back a second time to take the portrait pictures and to digitize pictures or documents from personal archives.
TWM: How did you process the information? Did you create topical indexes and/or create transcripts? If transcripts, did you do these yourself or hire someone?
MP: I did not create topical indexes. The transcripts were typed out by someone else. I am a hopeless typist (two fingers).
TWM: Were there others you spoke to whose stories didn’t make it into the book?
MP: Yes. I spoke to 23 people. In the book are 14 stories. But I used all stories for my website. The reason for not using some stories are very different. In one case (Max Leons) there already was a book.
In some cases the interviewee was so young during the war that there was only one vivid memory I could use for the website, but too little content for a story in the book.(Lous Steenhuis). In one other case I worked with the Anne Frank Centre on a story they wanted to use for one of their publications (Betty).
TWM: What were the challenges involved?
MP: The biggest challenge I faced was to do right to the stories that were trusted to me. In some cases people had never shared their stories before. I was always very nervous to send them the text and show them the little animated films for the first time. Fortunately they were always very happy with the results. Of course I always got some facts or details wrong but those were easily changed.
TWM: What were the satisfactions?
MP: The fact that the interviewees were happy with the result. And the fact that these stories can now be shared with many people.
TWM: What tips do you have for writers interviewing Holocaust survivors?
MP: Listen, listen, listen. That sounds a bit insipid. But I do think in these interviews it is very important not to be to rigid with a list of questions. I consider the interviews more to be long conversations. Most of the time the questions generate themselves from the given answers.
Memories are particularly driven by association I think. So its important to go with the flow. Things you want to know and are missing can always be picked up later. And genuine interest of course.
TWM: You co-authored the book with Peter Henk Steenhuis. How did you two work together?
MP: Henk is a friend and colleague. He is the one that suggested to write a book and not only develop the website the way I did. As I’m not a trained author but a filmmaker and photographer that possibility had not yet occurred to me. He offered to write the book together. He is very experienced and has written a lot of books articles and journalistic work. So together we approached a publisher, who immediately was very enthusiastic about our the whole idea and our co-authorship. In practice he wrote the first draft, which went back and forth a lot of times between him and me until finished. It was a very nice way of working. Henk is responsible for the fact the book reads well!
TWM: Laura, of course, I remember your awesome work as translator of The War within These Walls by Aline Sax and Caryl Strzelecki. What languages do you speak/read?
Laura Watkinson (LW): That’s a tricky question, as I know a number of languages to different levels. I translate mainly from Dutch, and also from German and Italian, but I also studied Yiddish at university and at summer school in Jerusalem, and I keep coming back to Hebrew, but don’t seem to be making much progress… I read a few other languages, too, but I wouldn’t attempt to translate from them – or even to speak some of them!
TWM: How did you come to know them?
LW: I studied German and French at school and then later at university, eventually dropping French so that I could study medieval German and Old High German as well as the modern German language and literature. I picked up Italian and Yiddish during that time, too, and later lived in Milan, Italy, for a year, teaching English and translating, and spent four years living in different places in Germany, also teaching and translating. I later studied literary translation from Dutch into English as a postgraduate student on an evening course at University College London. I’ve now been living in the Netherlands since 2003. Travelling and living in different countries is a great way to pick up languages.
TWM: What inspired you to become a translator?
LW: Well, you’ve probably guessed that I love languages and literature, and also living in foreign countries. Translating offers a perfect combination of those interests and it’s also something that you can do wherever you are in the world, as long as you have a laptop.
TWM: How do you go about translating?
LW: I like to work with a quick first draft, which I then polish over a period of several months. That allows me to spot any translation problems at an early stage and to think about them for a while, rather than finding a nasty challenge in the last few pages of the book when I only have a few weeks to go until the deadline. I work through the text a number of times, trying to iron out the creases, and I like to leave a little time before a few final read-throughs of the text and sending it to the editor. Then a new phase of polishing begins, with input from the editor and the publisher.
TWM: What are the particular challenges?
LW: Puns and word play can be fun to work with, particularly in situations where you also have an illustration to take into account. I’m currently working on a book that contains a number of poems as well, which often require more thought than straightforward text. Luckily, though, they’re in a medieval style, which takes me back to my undergraduate days as a medievalist… Knights and horses and maidens fair!
TWM: What are the satisfactions?
LW: It’s very satisfying to be able to present a great book to a whole new readership. The titles I translate have often been tried and tested for a long time in their home countries and it’s lovely to be able to introduce such stories to English-speaking readers.
In the case of a book such as Hidden Like Anne Frank, it’s also vital that these experiences are communicated. I’m so pleased to have played a part in connecting young readers in America to this older generation of Dutch survivors, and to have helped Marcel and Henk to convey their message to other countries.
TWM: How long does it take to translate a book like Hidden Like Anne Frank?
LW: It’s a matter of months, if not a year or more. It’s not easy to spend all day translating, so I tend to work in bursts of a couple of hours before taking a rest. Then I like to give the text a rest so that I can come back and read it with fresh eyes. Literary translators who have been in the profession for longer generally find that it takes them more time to translate books as their experience accumulates. That’s because you start to recognize the value of “slow but steady” and repeated reading and polishing.
TWM: How does the work come to you – through the publisher, an agent?
LW: Most translators have little contact with agents, unless it’s to translate a sample text for the agent to take along to a book fair or to send out to publishers. Most of my work comes directly from the publishers or from organizations such as the Dutch Foundation for Literature, which promotes literature in general and produces sample translations. When I’m working with a publisher, I may be translating a book, a sample, or a brochure, or perhaps writing a report about a book that they’re thinking of acquiring for translation. Writing reports can be a good way to build up a working relationship with publishers.
TWM: What tips do you have for anyone wishing to become a translator?
LW: I’d recommend establishing a good network of friendly translators who can give you advice and pass extra work your way – and, of course, reciprocating. Contact the publishers you’re interested in working with and introduce yourself to them, perhaps offering to write reports. Book fairs can also be a good place to make contacts, but try to get appointments with publishers, maybe even just for a coffee, rather than simply turning up – although that, too, can sometimes result in interesting encounters. I’d definitely recommend that aspiring literary translators should join the Emerging Translators’ Network https://emergingtranslatorsnetwork.wordpress.com/ and/or the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America https://emerginglittransnetworkamerica.wordpress.com/ , which offer great advice for anyone hoping to get into literary translation.
Thanks, Barbara, for talking to me!
TWM: My pleasure! Thanks to both you and Marcel for participating in this interview.