Making "The Reader": Translating Love And The Unspeakable

01/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • New York Times

The Germans have a word for it: Vergangenheitsbewaltigung -- more or less, "coming to terms with the past." It's not an easy concept to translate into English; even less so, perhaps, into the American idiom.

When Bernard Schlink's novel "The Reader" was first published, it was hailed as an important addition to this distinctly German genre. Turning it into a film -- by the British director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare, and backed by some heavy American movie muscle -- required a series of increasingly complex translations over the course of more than a decade: from German to English, from a book to a film, from Europe to America, from a solitary meditation to something that could fill theaters, and from its original cultural context to something international -- ultimately to return it home, the same, and yet changed.

The first and most literal translation was a cinch. It was already a sensation in Germany, where it has subsequently been added to high school curriculums, with the result that today, as Mr. Daldry says, "you can't find a German who hasn't read the book."

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