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Translating German

By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)

Being very much interested in both the history of ideas and the sociology of knowledge, I take an interest in both the writings of Hitler and the writings of Marx & Engels. So I have a large article about Hitler here and a blog devoted to Marx & Engels here. And to get straight what all three men stood for one has to read crucial passages as they wrote them. Fortunately, all three wrote in German so one has to know only one language to read all three authors.

But German has a lot of words that are not fully translatable into English so the translations of various passages by all authors that I have put online do sometimes require extended comment. It does not help, either, that all three wrote in a rather slangy way from time to time. I thought it might be useful, therefore to gather together here some comments on a few words that do pose some difficulty.


The English word cognate to the German Volk is of course "folk" but the two words have diverged considerably in meaning over the centuries. Volk means both "people" and "race" even though there are also separate words in German for people (Leute) and race (Rasse). And the word is used similarly in other European languages. For instance, it has been much used by the dominant political party in Sweden from 1932 on: The Social Democratic Party. The program and policy of the Social Democrats centred around transforming Sweden into a folkhemmet (Volksheimat in German). This became the dominant Swedish concept of Sweden in 1932 with the accession to power of the Social Democrats. folkhemmet is probably best translated as "a home for the Swedish people". And the ideology of the Social Democrats did originally include racial elements. The folkhemmet was seen as including only a racially defined folkgemenskap (Volksgemeinschaft, people's community) with members being only people belonging to den Svenska folkstammen (Volkstum, Swedish racial group) with minorities such as the Tornedal Finns being excluded.

The racial element need not be prominent, however. On all the products exported from the old Communist East Germany, there was a "brand name"-which was "VEB". And what does "VEB" stand for? It stands for "Volkseigene Betrieb", which translates as "The People's own Enterprise" (though that translation could be argued about too). So if Communist East Germany put the word "Volk" on everything it produced, it is clearly not just a Nazi word. It is in fact an ordinary German word that was in common use for at least 2,000 years before the Nazis came along.

I personally, for instance cannot forget the great 18th century cantata by Vincenz Luebeck called "Hilf deinen Volk" -- and Telemann has a cantata by that name too. "Hilf deinen Volk" is an appeal to God to help his people (Volk).

When used in Afrikaans, Volk is often translated as "nation". Afrikaners see themselves as a separate nation from other South Africans (black and white).


As with Volk, Hitler used Reich a lot and there is NO translation that is at all adequate -- though "State", "regime", "empire" and "government" are some translations. We do have a tattered remnant of the word in English, in the word "Bishopric". Despite popular hilarity to the contrary, that word means the "ric" (Reich) or jurisdiction of a Bishop. And Swedish is again instructive. The very name of Sweden in Swedish is "Sverige" -- meaning the "rig" (Reich, domain) of the Svea -- the Svea being the Southern Swedish tribe from lake Malaren who eventually took over the whole country. And East Germany again is interesting too. The East German State railway was known as the Reichsbahn. So Reich too is far from exclusively a Nazi word.

Perhaps one of the great sadnesses about English loss of the word "Reich" lies in translating Chinese! The Chinese do NOT refer to their country as "China". The dynasty of the Chin is long gone. They refer to their country (really a collection of countries) by an expression that is usually translated into English as "The Middle Kingdom". But China is NOT a Kingdom so the translation is very poor. In German, however, there is no such difficulty. China is clearly the Mittelreich!


Tag is the ordinary German word for "day" but, unlike "day" in English, it can also mean "assembly" -- as in the Reichstag or State parliament -- or "rally" -- as in Parteitag or Party rally.


Contrary to popular belief, "swastika" is NOT a German word and the Nazis never used it. It is an Indian word and describes an Indian symbol that is (usually) the mirror image of the Nazi one. You can see swastikas plastered up all over the place in India -- where it is regarded as a good luck symbol. See here (the cover of a book published in India) for a picture of the Indian symbol. The Nazis called their symbol a Hakenkreuz, or "hooked cross". I do usually translate Hakenkreutz as "swastika" but that is strictly incorrect.


When Hitler was justifying his use of the hooked cross, he said: "Als nationale Sozialisten sehen wir in unserer Flagge unser Programm. Im Rot sehen wir den sozialen Gedanken der Bewegung, im Weiss den nationalistischen, im Hakenkreuz die Mission des Kampfes fuer den Sieg des arischen Menschen und zugleich mit ihm auch den Sieg des Gedankens der schaffenden Arbeit" ("As National socialists we see our programme in our flag. In red we see the social thoughts of the movement, in white the nationalist thoughts, in the hooked-cross the mission of fighting for the victory of Aryan man and at the same time the victory of the concept of creative work").

In German, the word "Victory" (Sieg) begins with an "S". So he said that the two letters "S" that can be seen as making up the hooked-cross (swastika) stood for the victory of Aryan man and the victory of the idea that the "worker" was a creative force.

I have translated "schaffen" above as "create" (as does Ralph Manheim in his widely-used translation of Mein Kampf -- p. 452) but it has the larger meaning of providing and accomplishing things in general. So Hitler was clearly using the word to stress the central importance of the working man. In English, "creative" is often used to refer to artistic activities. That is NOT the meaning of "schaffen".


Have a look at the 1939 Nazi propaganda placard below. The placard promotes one of Hitler's sayings. The saying is, "Es gibt keinen Sozialismus, der nicht aufgeht im eigenen Volk" -- which I translate as "There is no socialism except what arises within its own people".

Hitler spoke a very colloquial German so translating that one was not easy but I think that "arises" is about as close to translating "aufgeht" as you can get there. Hitler was saying that people will be willing to support others only if the others are of the same ethnicity -- a view that seems to be gaining increasing ground today.


I am putting up below a picture of a Nazi propaganda poster of the 1930s that you won't believe unless you are aware of how readily all Leftists preach one thing and do another. It reads "Mit Hitler gegen den Ruestungswahnsinn der Welt".

And what does that mean? It means "With Hitler against the armaments madness of the world". Ruestung could more precisely be translated as "military preparations" but "armaments" is a bit more idiomatic in English.


The only saying for which August Bebel (the founder of the now mainstream German Social Democratic Party or "SPD") is much remembered these days is his description of antisemitism as der Sozialismus des bloeden Mannes -- which is usually translated as "the socialism of fools". Bloed however has more the connotation of weak-mindedness or mental feebleness rather than folly. It is more derogatory than "foolish". "Imbeciles" might be a closer translation. One is reminded of how American Leftists normally describe Republican Presidents.


Engels wrote to Marx in 1856: "Die Lassalliaden haben mich sehr erheitert, der krause Juddekopp muss sich ueber dem roten Schlafrock und in der Marquisen-Draperie, wo bei jeder Bewegung der polnische Schmuhl durchguckt, sehr reizend ausnehmen. Gesehen, muss der Kerl einen hoechst lausig-widerwaertigen Eindruck machen." ("The Lasalle volleys have amused me greatly, the frizzy Jew-head now has to very charmingly distinguish himself in the red nightshirt and Marquis garb -- from which at every movement the Polish kike looks out. Seeing it must give the impression of louse-like repulsiveness.")

Schmuhl seems to be cognate with "Samuel" and was a slang term for Jews at the time. "Kike" would appear to be the nearest English equivalent.


Engels wrote in 1845: "Zunaechst die Bauernschaft, die stupideste Menschenklasse auf Erden, eine Klasse, die, feudalen Vorurteilen anhaengend.." ("Firstly, the farmers, the most stupid set of people in existence, who, clinging to feudal prejudices, burst forth in masses, ready to die rather than cease to obey those whom they, their fathers and grandfathers, had called their masters; and submitted to be trampled on and horse-whipped by.")

I have translated Bauernschaft as "farmers" above rather than as "peasantry" because "peasant" is derogatory and Bauer is the normal German word for "farmer", which is not normally derogatory. Schaft means something like "fraternity". So "farming fraternity" would be a third possible translation. However you translate it, however, it is clear that Engels was referring to the small farmers ("rednecks"?) of his day. I should perhaps note that the Afrikaans form of the word (Boer) IS often used with derogatory intent.


Marx wrote to Engels in 1852: "Die einzige gute Nachricht haben wir von meiner ministeriellen Schwaegerin erhalten, die Nachricht von der Krankheit des unverwuestlichen Onkels meiner Frau. Stirbt der Hund jetzt, so bin ich aus der Patsche heraus." ("The only good news we have received came from my bossy sister-in-law, the news about the illness of my wife's indestructible uncle. If the dog dies now, I'm out of trouble".)

My Brockhaus German-English dictionary tells me that "der Ministeriale" is a sheriff, presumably an official of a court of justice but sheriffs were apparently seen as a bossy lot in Marx's day so it seems that "ministeriell" above should be translated as "bossy".


In 1848 Marx wrote: ,...dass es nur ein Mittel gibt, die moerderischen Todeswehen der alten Gesellschaft, die blutigen Geburtswehen der neuen Gesellschaft abzukuerzen, zu vereinfachen, zu konzentrieren, nur ein Mittel - den revolutionaeren Terrorismus." ("The purposeless massacres perpetrated since the June and October events, the tedious offering of sacrifices since February and March, the very cannibalism of the counterrevolution will convince the nations that there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terrorism.")

I note that the Marxists translate Terrorismus above as "Terror". If Marx had meant "terror" he would presumably have said so. The word is the same in English and in German. In fact what he clearly said was "terrorism". Marx DID advocate terrorism.

I am still rather bemused by the fact that I, as a libertarian conservative with a very imperfect grasp of German, seem to be the first person to put English translations of some Marxian texts onto the net. Fortunately, I do have some helpers but occasional expressions in Marx's German puzzle all of us at times -- probably because the expressions were common at the time Marx wrote but are no longer so.

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