Fascism in Translation
Far-right leaders often call for one nation united under one language. At the same time, they have always been good at using translation to spread their politics.
Boston Review, 4 November 2019
A widespread misconception, exacerbated by the English-only bigotry of Make America Great Again and Brexit, is that xenophobic, racist, or oppressive ideologies are always doggedly monolingual—and, conversely, that multilingualism exclusively serves the goals of democracy, pluralism, and open-mindedness. However, the ability to communicate across languages is disappointingly nonpartisan, and history teems with accounts of overtly despotic polyglottery. Legendary is the ancient Graeco-Persian king Mithridates VI, who ruled twenty-two nations with laws in as many tongues, only to “harangue each [people] without employing an interpreter,” as Pliny the Elder recorded. Multilingualism does not come hallmarked with tolerance or righteous dissent.
Related is the misapprehension that the entirety of the far right lives by the rules of “mother-tongue fascism,” equating one nation with one language. Surely this belief has its acolytes, such as the white nationalist U.S. congressman Steve King, who has spent a lifetime promulgating monolingual policies, or the German politician Stephan Brandner, who has waged purist campaigns to extirpate loanwords. But amidst the panoply of present-day right-wing worldviews, “mother-tongue fascism” is unlikely to ever carry the day, as its parochialism makes it far less transportable than the sprawling, internationalist agendas of neo-Nazism or White Power.
Far-right language politics has long been a languages politics, and thus a politics of translation.
Linguistic diversity was not at all antithetical to classic European fascism, either—quite the contrary. Under Hitler and Mussolini, linguist Christopher Hutton explains, endorsements of multilingualism helped both with lobbying for the Volk’s minority rights abroad and with persuading others to join the cause. An arm of the Foreign Office in Nazi Germany, the German Office of Information, even networked clandestinely through independent publishers to translate and disseminate propaganda against the Allies, while Nazi fiction and nonfiction alike would continue to be printed for export in languages other than German despite the direst of paper shortages. As late as fall 1941, notes the preeminent scholar of Nazi translation Kate Sturge, the Reich Chamber of Writers founded the European Writer’s Association to replace the ousted PEN Club and oversee international promotions of translated books. In Mussolini’s Italy, similarly, translation gained traction as a vaunted “instrument of penetration” into cultures, markets, and minds, according to Sturge and colleague Christopher Rundle. Transnational fascism was by necessity translational.
Far-right language politics, in other words, has long been a languages politics, a politics of translation. And in recent years, right-wing politicians have demonstrated increasing savvy with using translation to spread their messages. This spring, when Italy’s notorious Eurosceptic and xenophobe Matteo Salvini (then deputy prime minister) announced a European right-wing parliamentary alliance, the event was simultaneously interpreted into three languages, with slogans in several more flashing in the background. Germany’s far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD)—despite rallying to enshrine German as the Federal Republic’s official language and lobbying against teaching English in primary schools—has publicized its platform in English, Spanish, French, Hungarian, and Czech. The choice of languages suggests not only an overture to global readers and western neighbors, but also an attempt to court allies in countries where right-wing parties have been gaining clout and where centuries of Germanophone dominance left messy, unprocessed, and disparate legacies. Neither are the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, Hungary’s Jobbik, and the Finns Party quite as monolingual as some might picture.
The stance has been a boon for far-right Internet users. In late March, translations of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto from English into other languages appeared on the anonymous board 8chan/pol, a site popular with white supremacists. And on the neo-Nazi website Stormfront, participants have for years convened to debate the relative merits of different translations of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. A conversation from April 2012, for example, opened with the declaration that in a recent translation by Michael Ford, “Hitler’s true message comes thru.” But not everyone agreed. Some wondered if Ford was ideologically reliable, grumbling to “never trust a new translation.” Others rambled semi-coherently about translation methods. And one user concluded that learning German may be best, after all. It is an unsettling image of neo-Nazis giving translation more thought than most of their opponents.
The far right’s instrumentalization of languages in the plural points to a flaw in current discourse: journalists and scholars often speak of a shared or common fascist language, but rarely offer much in the way of detail about what that means. If there is a fascist language, who makes it, how, where, and with what ingredients? It is a catchy term, no doubt, but references to it rarely do more than conjure up a slippery abstraction of uncertain origins and proportions, vested with agency, as though speaker-less. The public is left with an image of a common fascist language as a difficult-to-counter, monolithic, monolingual, unfathomable tool that gives the far right a ready and unfair advantage. Only there is nothing monolithic, monolingual, unfathomable, abstract, or even unpreventable about it. There is no secret fascist-language manufacturing plant where brownshirts sweat over assembly lines in the depths of Mississippi, Southern California, or Oregon. So what, then, is fascist language, and how does it emerge in translation?
The story of former German skinhead and white supremacist Achim Schmid—who is now an anti-racist activist and goes by TM Garret—illustrates the workings of translational fascism vividly, as languages were his gateways into neo-Nazism from the start. Born in 1975, Schmid was a bullied child, asserting himself at school by telling Hitler jokes when laughing about Hitler was still taboo in West Germany. Among his peers, he alone took the risk, and it paid off by earning his peers’ attention, if not their esteem. Meanwhile, English provided an escape. Schmid recalls spending his fifth-grade summer poring over textbooks, in avoidance of bullies and excited to learn his favorite song lyrics properly, instead of mumbling gibberish.
‘Mother-tongue’ fascism is unlikely to carry the day, as it is far less transportable than the sprawling, internationalist agendas of neo-Nazism or White Power.
By 1999 he had discovered that singing white-supremacist rock in nearly fluent English was a reliable path to becoming not only respected but also popular, at least in certain circles. He began collaborating with the neo-Nazi record label NSM-88 and playing at right-wing music festivals across Europe. One night, a gig in Sweden concluded with an unexpected invitation to meet Erik Blücher, a mouthpiece of late twentieth-century Scandinavian neo-Nazism and author (under the aliases Erik Nilsen and Max Hammer) of incendiary propaganda. The two sat down in a tavern in the Danish coastal town Helsingør, and Schmid walked away with a commission to translate Blücher’s English-language screeds and his organization’s website into German.
Banging out the lines by dark, family asleep, Schmid had an unforeseen revelation. The neo-Nazi songs, he came to realize, were little more than piles of disjointed slogans. Attention-hungry youth screamed them without necessarily feeling a deep connection to the words’ meanings. Or they were, in many cases, blather with no real meaning to speak of. By contrast, Blücher’s texts—actionable how-tos—coldly dished out the pros and cons of racist, antisemitic, and xenophobic terrorism.
Translating Blücher’s writings changed Schmid’s relationship to language and jolted him into an awareness of his agency. When I spoke to him recently, he pointed out how translation requires activating “one’s own” idiom for a radicalizing act of coauthorship—translation scholars Christopher Rundle and Kate Sturge speak of the “active intervention” of translation. No doubt, Schmid had thought of himself as a radical: just months earlier, he had left Germany’s well-established National Democratic Party in repudiation of its too-civil self-grooming and joined the skinheads. But was he radical enough to translate an entire manual for violence? He hesitated, in fear—of a police raid, an arrest, a life in prison. Not hesitation borne out of responsibility—not yet. Fear won, and in September 2000 he quietly parted ways with the skinheads and allegedly never contacted Blücher again, although some of his translations were already out there. How many and where exactly, he was not sure, nor did he care to learn.
Schmid may have left the skinheads, but racism and xenophobia did not leave him. If anything, they intensified as Schmid lost patience with nativism’s circumscribed orbit. In early November 2000, he boarded a flight to Mississippi to be inducted into the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). While the KKK had had several active branches in Germany, its propaganda, Schmid says, had not yet made the crossing. Handbooks, including the so-called “Kloran,” or the “white book” of rules, remained untranslated into German, and many German members and potential recruits lacked the English skills to comprehend the abundant ritual convolutions. Fresh from his Mississippi ceremony, Schmid, a newly minted “Grand Dragon,” vowed to change that in his “Realm of Germany.”
Schmid did not kill, this much is true—but what if the words that he translated into German did?
Between 2000 and 2002, the year when Schmid left the far right for good, he did more than mechanically swap English words for their German equivalents. What translator does that, anyway? His new assignment called for elaborate exegetic acrobatics to adapt the KKK’s Christian fundamentalism to the German neo-Nazis’ entrenched paganism. Dictionaries and imagination were not enough, so Schmid embraced online Bible translation tools, tracing the KKK’s favored biblical terms and quotations to their Hebrew and Greek origins, then bending what he found to fit his goal. The result was an inebriating feeling of personal empowerment. True, Schmid was no Mithridates VI, but he had performed quite the somersault for a man who had never gone to university.
In retrospect, his sophomoric linguistics seem risible. Yet at stake, he understands, is tremendous harm: in 2012 Schmid learned that his KKK cell had been traced to the German neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Underground (NSU), which murdered nearly a dozen immigrants and carried out fourteen armed bank robberies. This revelation started him on the journey to penance. Schmid did not kill, this much is true—but what if the words that he translated into German did? He may never know for sure, but he knows he cannot take them back.
Today’s Schmids face a changing reality. While many operations of translational fascism remain spontaneous, the scrappy DIY method that Schmid exemplified increasingly exists alongside structured, centralized approaches plugged into global e-commerce via behemoths such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble—so far, with impunity. These technological advances have allowed fascism in translation to have a wider reach and the veneer of an internationally successful business venture.
A case in point is the Budapest-based publisher Arktos Media, which sells its books through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. On its YouTube channel (Arktos also oversees a website, newsletter, podcast, and a journal with faux-academic flair) the house prides itself on being “the leading English-language publisher of the European New Right” with “more than 150 titles in fourteen different languages.” Its online portal offers one-stop shopping for speakers not only of French, English, Spanish, German, and Portuguese, but also of smaller languages such as Dutch, Greek, Italian, Polish, Croatian, and Czech. Some bestsellers, such as the Austrian-born identitarian Markus Willinger’s Generation Identity, are available in most of these, usually introduced by the translator or staff editor with a semblance of neutrality: their readers aren’t sheeple, so shouldn’t they make up their own minds? The price points also tell a story about the publisher’s eagerness to unlock markets with fewer moneyed readers: while the English-language edition of Willinger, for example, costs as much as $17.50, translations come in at under $12 and, in the case of some Eastern European languages, even under $5. Arktos’s grasp of market forces may rival some giants of the trade.
Global e-commerce behemoths Amazon and Barnes & Noble have allowed fascism in translation to have a wider reach and the veneer of an internationally successful business venture.
Arktos can be coy about its translators. A few are undoubtedly in house, including CEO and founder Daniel Friberg, another influential Swedish neo-Nazi. Others, in contrast to Achim Schmid, show a penchant for genteel intellectual self-aggrandizement that reeks as much of yesteryear’s mothballed academic tweed as of groomed “alt-right” posturing. For example, Arktos’s editor-in-chief and YouTube channel host, John Bruce Leonard, who translates the para-fascist Italian thinker Julius Evola, is unironically introduced as a onetime student of “philosophy, letters, and languages in a university curriculum based exclusively on the great books of the Western Tradition.” According to the website, he resides in Italy to “nouris[h] his ever-living preoccupation with the heritage and the future of Europe.” Meanwhile, chief translator and editor Roger Adwan’s biographical notes—“multilingual since early childhood,” “fortunate enough to live in various countries across several continents,” university-educated with a focus on translation—could apply to a great many language professionals.
But most Arktos translators are not full-time staff, nor are they even clearly identifiable far-right sympathizers. Some may have stumbled into the enterprise for lack of other publishing options rather than out of conviction. They can be difficult to tell apart from an average academic relativist on university payroll. “A wise man learns from everyone,” Michael Millerman, an Arktos translator with a doctoral degree in political theory from the University of Toronto, told me via email. “I see it as the reception of a guest into one’s home for conversation,” he went on, “[but] I do not think that the intimate reception of ideas is equivalent to uncritical belief in those ideas.” Millerman’s early experience with translating one of Heidegger’s most influential modern-day admirers, chief ideologue of Russian Neo-Eurasianism and critic of Western (neo)liberalism Aleksandr Dugin, was pertinent to his research. Allegedly, a mentor encouraged Millerman to publish his translations, but the relationship with Arktos materialized only because Dugin already had a contract with the press.
What if, one wonders, a mainstream publisher had come along, one unwilling to pretend that far-right literature is like every other sort—or that all potential readers possess equal desire and capacity for discernment? What if its editors had asked for a soberly critical framing, complete with detailed footnotes, contextual commentary, or other forms of annotation? What if this publisher’s marketing experts had linked the resulting translations to books with substantive analysis—rather than to a slew of other innocently presented ring-wing screeds? Would this shrink fascism in translation to a smaller size?
Antifascists have frequently carried out translations of fascist texts—Not to ‘learn from everyone,’ but to know whom to fight and why.
It might—and it has. Translation, depending on context, can bolster ideas, but it can just as easily discredit them. And indeed, antifascists have frequently carried out translations of fascist texts. Not to “learn from everyone,” but to know whom to fight and why. German resistance fighter Greta Kuckhoff collaborated with the UK’s first Mein Kampf translator, James Murphy, and opposed Murphy’s attempts to improve Hitler’s prose. “I wanted the book to retain its shameless stirring up of the masses,” she later recalled. In the United States, journalist Dorothy Thompson, fiercely critical of Hitler, blurbed the 1937 U.S. reissue of the book, endearing the author to few readers and provoking the Nazi government’s formal complaints. And when the New York Times reviewed Mein Kampf’s most widely read English translation, it thanked the translator, Ralph Manheim, for serving the country well “by producing the first English Hitler translation which does justice to the author.” “Here, for the first time, you get Hitler’s prose almost as unreadable in English as it is in German,” the paper wrote.
While such efforts must be part of the campaign to combat international fascism, they are inseparable from the work of deradicalization, which requires much more robust and extensive financial and logistical support from authorities at every level, as well as from those who have experienced it firsthand and then turned away. In addition, online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble must be pressured to ban uncritical editions of far-right texts and to de-platform neo-Nazi distributors; similar restrictions on YouTube have set a notable if imperfect precedent. While context and critical reframing are important, we must not delude ourselves into believing that fascism in translation will dissipate without such direct interventions.