Skip to main content

Translating Holocaust Testimony: A Conversation between Translation and Holocaust Studies

Virtual Conference - Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Our knowledge of the Holocaust has been shaped by texts that come to the English-and French-language worlds largely through translation. The crucial work of translation is rarely acknowledged, and yet the way the collective past is experienced and remembered is dependent on this process of linguistic and cultural transfer. Translation is much more than the mechanical substitution of one language for another: it involves a process of reframing as texts move from their original contexts to new ecologies of reception. Choices of style and tone, terms for historical references — these influence the effectiveness and readability of testimony and involve historical and ethical issues.

Translation is invoked broadly as a reflection on practices of transmission across distances of history, culture and gender and linked to imperatives of contemporary Holocaust education.

The conference is presented by the Azrieli Foundation, in partnership with Concordia University.

Registration: To register, click here.

Please view the pre-conference materials below in advance of the virtual conference. The relevant pre-conference materials will also be streamed via Zoom directly before each session.


9:00AM (EST). Optional screening of pre-conference materials

10:30AM (EST). Memory Across Languages

  • Peter Davies University of Edinburgh
  • Hannah Pollin-Galay Tel Aviv University
  • Naomi Seidman University of Toronto
  • Irene Kacandes Dartmouth College
  • Sherry Simon Concordia University

11:45AM (EST). Optional screening of pre-conference materials

1:00PM (EST). Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and the Mise-en-scène of Translation

  • Dorota Glowacka University of King’s College
  • Francine Kaufmann Bar-Ilan University
  • Rémy Besson Université de Montréal
  • Catherine Person Azrieli Foundation

Organized by: Sherry Simon (Concordia University) and Catherine Person (Azrieli Foundation)

Pre-Conference Materials

Peter Davies University of Edinburgh

Shifting the Focus to the Interpreter

Peter Davies (Edinburgh University) explains how as a Germanist he became interested in translation issues through teaching—as students brought to his attention discrepancies in the translation of Holocaust testimonies. He began to think about the translator as an active agent, fully involved with the production of meaning. Then, he turned to research of trial testimony, specifically the Frankfurt trials, and explored the role played by individual interpreters such as Wera Kapkajew. Peter Davies discusses a potential conflict between Holocaust Studies and Translation Studies in relation to expectations regarding the role of translation. He was filmed in conversation with Sherry Simon.

Peter Davies is a Professor of Modern German Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He has published widely on the relationship between Translation Studies and Holocaust Studies, including essays on authors such as Tadeusz Borowski, Elie Wiesel and Krystyna Żywulska. His work includes Holocaust Testimony and Translation (Translation and Literature special issue, 2014), New Literary and Linguistic Perspectives in the German Language, National Socialism, and the Shoah (with Andrea Hammel, Edinburgh German Yearbook, 2014) and Witness Between Languages: The Translation of Holocaust Testimonies in Context (2018). His current research examines the work of interpreters in Holocaust trials, in particular the Frankfurt trials in the 1960s.

Hannah Pollin-Galay Tel Aviv University

Ecologies of Witnessing: Language, Place, and Holocaust Testimony

Hannah Pollin-Galay (Tel Aviv University) discusses how she began to focus on questions of language and Holocaust testimony— her experience of interviewing survivors in Lithuania and a growing awareness about how geographical and cultural contexts and languages affect survivors’ recollection of the Holocaust. She explains what led her to choose the term “ecologies” when talking about witnessing and her methods of analysis. She concludes with examples from specific testimonies that show different ways of remembering the past. She was filmed in conversation with Sherry Simon.

Hannah Pollin-Galay is senior lecturer in the Department of Literature at Tel Aviv University, where she teaches on Yiddish, oral narrative and memory. Her work explores the connection between language, ethics and historical imagination in contemporary Holocaust testimony. Her book, Ecologies of Witnessing: Language, Place, and Holocaust Testimony (2018), asks how people remember differently in different languages and geographic contexts and, based on oral narratives, focuses on the different memory worlds of Yiddish, Hebrew and English.

Supplementary materials to Hannah Pollin-Galay’s presentation

Interviews of Jack Arnel and Esther Ancoli are from the archive of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. For more information:

Naomi Seidman University of Toronto

The Untranslatable

Naomi Seidman (University of Toronto) discusses her influential article, ‘Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage’ (1996), how she interpreted the implications of Wiesel’s self-translation from Yiddish to French at that time and then again ten years later in her 2006 book Faithful Renderings. She then tells a story about her father as a translator and explains how translation can be a useful lens for Holocaust studies. She was filmed in conversation with Sherry Simon.

Naomi Seidman is the Jackman Humanities Professor at the University of Toronto in the Department for the Study of Religion and the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies. She is the author of A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish (1997), Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation (2006), The Marriage Plot: Or, How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Literature (2016), and most recently Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition (2019) for which she won a National Jewish Book Award. She is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow.

Irene Kacandes Dartmouth College

Remembering Through Language

Irene Kacandes (Dartmouth College) discusses language issues in testimonies related to the Holocaust experiences of Greek Jews, a relatively unknown topic in Holocaust scholarship. She developed an interest in this topic when she was gathering testimony from her own family, who lived in Greece during World War II. Irene has studied the testimonies of Greek Holocaust survivors in the collection that David Boder recorded with displaced persons in 1946, and she analyzes how the language he used in his interviews affected the richness of the testimony. She encourages scholars to add a level of analysis to the study of Holocaust testimonies that takes into consideration a wide range of factors, including interviewee comfort in the chosen language and linguistic switches during interviews, and points to what is lost when these issues are left unacknowledged by interviewers. She was filmed in conversation with Sherry Simon.

Irene Kacandes is the Dartmouth Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. Specializing in narrative theory, cultural studies and life writing, she has written on orality and literacy, feminist linguistics, trauma and memory studies, the Holocaust and Holocaust memoir, and experimental memoirs. Among her publications are Talk Fiction: Literature and the Talk Explosion (2001), Daddy’s War: Greek American Stories. A Paramemoir (2009) and Let’s Talk About Death: Asking the Questions that Profoundly Change the Way We Live and Die (with Steve Gordon, 2015). She is the co-editor of A User’s Guide to German Cultural Studies (1997), with Marianne Hirsch of Teaching the Representation of the Holocaust (2004), with Kathryn Abrams of a special issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly on “Witness.” (2008) and with Yuliya Komska of Eastern Europe Unmapped: Beyond Borders and Peripheries (2018)

Dorota Glowacka University of King’s College

Found in Translation: From False Witness to Co-witnessing in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah

Dorota Glowacka’s presentation focuses on the “Polish” outtakes from Lanzmann’s Shoah, especially on a sequence which shows an exchange between a survivor (Srebrnik) and a Polish witness at the former site of the camp in Chełmno. Against what she perceives as the director’s contempt for the Polish language and his effort to control and even suppress testimony in that language, she refers to some of these exchanges as “co-testimony.” She focuses on the use of Polish in the sequences, the interviewees’ peculiar expressions in that language, and the translator’s efforts to navigate this contested linguistic terrain.

Dorota Glowacka is Professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College, where she has taught critical theory, Holocaust and genocide studies and theories of gender and race in the Contemporary Studies Program. Among her publications are Disappearing Traces: Holocaust Testimonials, Ethics and Aesthetics (2012), Imaginary Neighbors: Mediating Polish-Jewish Relations after the Holocaust (with Joanna Zylinska, 2007), Po tamtej stronie: świadectwo, afekt, wyobraźnia [From the other side: testimony, affect, imagination] (2017) as well as many articles and book chapters, including “‘Traduttore traditore’: Claude Lanzmann’s Polish Translations.” in The Construction of Testimony: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and its Outtakes (2020).

Francine Kaufmann Bar-Ilan University

Le rôle de l’interprète dans Shoah de Claude Lanzmann [The Role of the Interpreter in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah]

Francine Kaufmann (Bar-Ilan University) revisits her experience as a Hebrew-French interpreter during the shooting of Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah in the fall of 1979. She speaks about the constraints imposed by the director that she had to deal with as she translated complex multilingual testimonies to allow for a dialogue between the director and the witnesses. She shares her impressions about the role and placement of the interpreter in the mise-en-scène of the film.

Francine Kaufmann is a researcher and essayist (Holocaust literature, Jewish and biblical translation, translation for the media), conference interpreter (A.I.I.C member) and poetry translator. She received a doctorate in French literature (1976), a master's degree in theatre (1968), a higher diploma in Hebrew ​​(1968) and a diploma in public communication (1984). She taught Hebrew language and literature at Paris III from 1969 to 1974, as well as at INALCO and at the University of Vincennes, before settling in Jerusalem in 1974. Now retired, she was a professor at Bar-Ilan University, where she taught from 1974 to 2011 in the Department of Translation and Interpreting Studies and served as department head twice. She was the Hebrew-French interpreter in Claude Lanzmann's films Shoah and Sobibor, 14 octobre 1943, 16 heures.

Supplementary material to Francine Kaufmann’s presentation

Interview with Yits’hak Dugin and Motke Zaïdel (Claude Lanzmann Shoah Collection. USHMM)

Subtitles: Katherine Radecki

Forced to take part in Aktion 1005 (a Nazi operation designed to destroy evidence of the genocide), they were made to dig up the bodies of Jews shot dead in Ponary, Lithuania.

Rémy Besson University of Montreal

Dites-lui (2020), directed by Rémy Besson, editing: Anne Gabrielle Lebrun Harpin.

Misunderstandings that arise as people speak over one another, disagreements about the translation of a document, tensions surrounding the use of a term, the presence of the perpetrators’ vocabulary in victim testimonies. Dites-lui [Tell Him] highlights the role of translators and translation in the creation of Shoah (1985). It is a short film in which all the sequences were shot by Lanzmann in the late 1970s.

Rémy Besson is a lecturer at the University of Montreal and scientific coordinator of the International Research Partnership, TECHNÈS. His doctoral thesis, completed at the EHESS (Paris), on the narration of the film Shoah, by Claude Lanzmann, was published by MkF Éditions and gave rise to a 2018 documentary directed by C. Hébert called Ziva Postec: The Editor Behind the Film Shoah.

Watch recordings of the conference Translating Holocaust Testimony: A Conversation between Translation and Holocaust Studies which was held virtually on November 10, 2020, in partnership with Sherry Simon from Concordia University. French and English subtitles are available.