January 16, 2015

The remarkable story of Mein Kampf’s translation into English

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Mein KampfWho would want to translate Mein Kampf? The translator’s grandson, John Murphy, shared the story of the first English language edition with the BBC this week.

In 1934, Dr. James Murphy was living in Berlin and writing criticism of the “garbled Nazi policy” reaching English speakers. He included, in his argument, criticism of an abridged edition of Mein Kampf. Murphy was not a Nazi, but one of the first biographers of Hitler, publishing an exploration of Hitler as a figure and why so many men were attracted to the Nazi party titled Adolf Hitler: the Drama of his Career.

In 1936, the Nazis asked him to complete an unabridged translation. Murphy’s grandson suggests they may have wanted to plan their own English language release. But for reasons that are unknown, they changed their minds and seized control of all copies of Murphy’s manuscript.

Murphy moved to the UK in 1938 and found British publishers interested in a complete translation. Of course, his papers were in the UK, and Eher Verlag, the Nazi publisher, hadn’t sold him the rights. He wasn’t welcome back in Germany.

His wife, Mary, traveled to Germany to meet with Seyfurth, a man in the Ministry of Propaganda. In unimaginable timing, she showed up the morning after Kristallnacht.

“You know a group of Americans is working on a translation right now, so you can’t stop it coming out,” she told him. “You know my husband has done an accurate and fair translation – an excellent translation… so why not hand over the manuscript?”

Seyferth refused. “I have a wife and two daughters. Do you want me put up against a brick wall and shot?” he said.

Mary remembered she had left a copy of a first draft of her husband’s translation with one of his secretaries, Daphne French. She picked up the copy in Berlin and safely returned to London.

There was a U.S. edition in the works. Hurst and Blackett/Hutchinson rushed the first complete UK edition of Mein Kampf to print in March 1939.

Why would a guy who didn’t support the Nazi party go through with a full translation? His grandson, the author of the article, suggests it was a moral imperative. Murphy’s translation assistant, Greta Lorcke, shared a story she felt explained the gravity of the project, and why she and Murphy chose to pull it together. Prime Minister David Lloyd George had read Mein Kampf, but talking with officials from Russia, it became clear he didn’t know about critical parts of the text:

“They had heard from the Soviet Ambassador to London, Maisky, who knew Lloyd George quite well. Lloyd George had said to Maisky, ‘I don’t know why you tell me all these things are in Mein Kampf – I’ve read it and they aren’t.’ It turned out that what Lloyd George had read was [the] abridged version, which was only about a third of the length, and which had been controlled to a certain extent by the Nazis. Some of the worst things were taken out of it. So the Russians had said to Greta, ‘You must help this man – get this into English!'”

Experts estimate that somewhere between 150,000-200,000 copies of Murphy’s translation were sold. Hutchinson wouldn’t pay Murphy royalties, since the rights weren’t technically his and they were still at risk of being sued by Eher Verlag. Though an official letter of denouncement for Murphy arrived in London, the Nazis took no legal (or illegal) action against him. And Eher Verlag even asked for complimentary copies.

Related: in 2010, the book inspired a musical number in English. (Hey, man. It’s Friday.)

Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.

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