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A rare skill: Sütterlin script

Over the past months, I’ve been making use of a skill I acquired as an undergraduate for one very specific university module, thinking afterwards that I would probably never need it again. This is the ability to read (and write, if necessary) a special kind of German handwriting called Sütterlinschrift that was widely used in the late 19th and early 20thcentury, eventually falling out of use following the Second World War.

I first re-used my Sütterlin skills shortly after I set up my translation business, when I was asked to translate some letters written to and by a German prisoner of war who was interned in a camp in Lincolnshire after the War. These letters provided a fascinating insight both into the POW’s life – his experiences, hopes and dreams for the future after his release – and into life in post-war Germany. The POW’s family had been forced to move from formerly German territory in what then became Czechoslovakia, and the letters included some very telling comments to the effect that the Czechs were now treating the Germans “like Jews”! (Germans were subject to a curfew and had to wear symbols on their clothing.) One wonders to what extent this treatment opened some people’s eyes to the dreadful injustices of Nazi Germany.

Last year, I started to work on a longer ongoing project that involves transcribing and translating the correspondence between the Austrian modernist composers Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. These letters are publically available in PDF format in the database of the Vienna Schoenberg Center. Once again, they provide fascinating insights, this time into a slightly earlier period. Some of the statements I found most intriguing (besides the information on musical compositions and performances) concerned the outbreak of the First World War – for example, on 11 August 1914 Webern writes: “What terrible events. There is no way of understanding it all. [..] Where has all of this terrible hatred been up till now? And what will happen? […] I pray to heaven for the victory of the Austrian and the German army. It cannot be that the German Reich will perish, and we with it. A steadfast belief in the German spirit, which created the culture of mankind nearly on its own, has awakened within me.” Little did he know what was to come!

Last month I got to use Sütterlin again for some more personal correspondence, this time written by a family who found themselves on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain following the Second World War: the son, taken prisoner during the War, in England, and the rest of his family in the GDR. The letters revealed the difficulties faced by these individuals in simply trying to stay in touch under these adverse circumstances; this made particularly poignant by the information supplied by my client that they in fact never saw each another again.

Working on personal historical documents such as these always gives me a particular thrill; it is almost like being there at a given moment in time, seeing it through the eyes of those who experienced it. At the same time, it always also feels a little bit like eavesdropping; after all, these are intimate letters written for the eyes of one or two people, certainly not for mine. This makes the whole translating experience a particularly intense – and often moving – one.

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