Barbara Mooyaart-Doubleday and Susan Massotty: Translating the Anne Frank Diary

Anne_Frankby Nancy Forest-Flier

On October 1, 1995 the small lecture hall at Smit’s Hotel in Utrecht was packed with members of the Society of English Native Speaking Editors (SENSE) and friends eager to hear a talk and discussion led by Mrs. Barbara Mooyaart-Doubleday and Susan Massotty, the two English-language translators of The Diary of Anne Frank. Two members of the Anne Frank House staff, Dieneke Stam and Yt Stoker, joined us and brought several copies of both translations as well as related material published by the Anne Frank Stichting. Also present was David Barnouw of the Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie, one of the editors of the Critical Edition of the Diary, who later also made a short presentation.

In her introduction, SENSE Programme Director Jean Vaughan mentioned that Mrs. Mooyaart had recently been awarded an honorary doctorate from Hofstra University in the United States for her great achievement, a translation made in 1952 which has been used as the basis for all other translations of the Diary except the French and the German editions.

It was a daunting task. Mrs. Mooyaart told us the story of how she got the job — a young woman and the mother of very young children, only recently moved to the Netherlands where the wounds from the war were still fresh. She is a member of a generation that frequently kept its daughters out of university and out of the workplace, and she accomplished the amazing feat of translating a difficult work at her dining room table with a pen and paper, a couple of simple dictionaries, and a four-month deadline while her sons were taking their naps. And all for the princely sum of 100 pounds.

But it was these apparent drawbacks that ended up working in her favour. The publisher of the book, Valentine Mitchell, had been having trouble finding a translator who was both proficient and youthful. In Mrs. Mooyaart they found someone who combined everything they were looking for: a female (and a young one at that) whose lively, fresh style, they explained, had not been deadened by the “university experience”. In addition, she was a native speaker living in the country where Anne Frank had kept her diary. It was only a few years after the book had been written, so the special wartime vocabulary was quite familiar to her. And most important, she was able to make the acquaintance of Otto Frank, Anne’s father, a man whose kindness, elegance and intelligence touched her so deeply that she still speaks of it with difficulty. She recalled their first meeting when he took her to lunch at the Krasnopolsky, and another evening when she tried to reciprocate by preparing a veal roast made with post-war fare that shrank in the pan to a fraction of its original size.

Mrs. Mooyaart’s talk was funny, touching, and still very fresh (certainly a trait of hers that has nothing to do with age). For Susan Massotty, who did a new translation of the Diary of Anne Frank which was published this year by Doubleday, it was indeed a tough act of follow. Why the need for a new translation? Because, explained Susan, language has changed a great deal in the last fifty years. Doubleday’s hope for a new translation was one that incorporated more contemporary language while still remaining true to the period. So part of Susan’s task was to research etymologies for words like “nincompoop” to see if they had entered the language before the forties. Another reason for a new translation was that the Diary is now bigger: it contains 30 percent more material than the first translation, including sections that deal with sexuality and Anne’s adolescent gripes about her mother. And it’s the first American translation. Young American readers, the target audience, might not know that what the Brits call a “vest” is what they call an “undershirt”. And finally there’s the matter of the copyright: the original copyright, which runs for fifty years, will end in 1997, and the Anne Frank Foundation in Basel wanted to protect the material by issuing a new translation (with a seventy-five year copyright) before the old one terminates.

For all her clear advantages (computer, dictionaries, and no small children), Susan’s big challenge was her distance from the subject itself, something which Mrs. Mooyaart did not have to contend with. She was constantly encountering Dutch words that were only pertinent to the wartime experience and that had quickly died out after the war ended. There was no Otto Frank to consult on these points, but fortunately Susan did have a valuable primary source in Mrs. Mooyaart herself, who has carefully kept her archive of Diary-related material. (She brought some of it with her, including neatly printed postcards from Otto Frank that looked as though they were written last week.)

Among the many questions and comments from the audience was disagreement about Anne Frank now sounding so American. Oddly enough, though, some American members felt that since Anne was “European” her English should be European as well. Perhaps. But as Susan pointed out, the idea is to keep the Diary interesting for all the young American readers who in many cases don’t even know what the Holocaust was. Susan and Mrs. Mooyaart produced the kinds of translations that their respective generations needed; what the two have in common, though, is the connection with Anne Frank herself and the experience of penetrating her very private writings to make them accessible to a wider audience.

The Diary of Anne Frank is the Netherlands’ most widely translated book, and Anne Frank has become almost a household word. Of course Mrs. Mooyaart could never have known how popular that book would become, but she must have had a suspicion when the American edition went into its third printing after only two weeks and the New York publishing world proclaimed it a runaway success. Still, to become so intimate with a work like that touches you forever. Perhaps that’s why so many SENSE members chose to come to this particular meeting. We knew that these two women had done the kind of work that very few of us in this country get to do — they had been someplace where few of us get to go — and we had come to sit at their feet. Susan summed it all up when she said, “Something happens in the translation process. It’s a mystical process, really — a source speaks to you and tells you what to write.”

13 October 1995

[written for Fall 1995 issue of SENSE magazine, journal of the Society of Native English-Speaking Editors]

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