Featured Member: Anneleen Spiessens

Featured Member: Anneleen Spiessens

Featured Member shines a spotlight on the diverse research interests of, and the exciting projects undertaken by, those affiliated with the Cultural Memory Studies Initiative. In this fifth instalment of the series, we speak to Anneleen Spiessens, who has studied testimonies delivered by perpetrators of mass political violence during the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda. Anneleen has also published on testimony and memory in literature, film, and photography, with a special focus on translation. She is the author of Quand le bourreau prend la parole: Témoignage et fiction (Droz, 2016) and a co-editor of the Handbook of Translation and Memory (Routledge, forthcoming). Anneleen’s current research further examines translation in conflict situations, more specifically its role in the construction of cultural and political identities.

How did you develop an interest in memory studies? 

I finished my studies of Romance Languages and Literature in Leuven with a dissertation on Jacques Derrida and his political writings. Although the link with memory studies is a bit far-fetched, in one chapter on Apartheid I briefly discussed Derrida’s thoughts on memory, language, and (non-)translation.

It was a few years later, when I started doing research for my PhD, that I really started taking an interest in memory studies. I examined the memory of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, not by focusing on testimonies of survivors, but by drawing on perpetrator accounts instead. Back in 2006, the publication of Jonathan Littell’s novel Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), the memoir of a fictional SS officer, stirred debate in France on the ethical role and literary possibilities of this new ‘memory subject.’ I was fascinated by the issue, but rather disappointed with the often moralizing responses. The reason why some editors, reporters, writers, and translators decide to give a platform or a voice to the génocidaire is not because they are out for scandal. Equally, the idea is not to devaluate, or even challenge, the survivor’s story. Rather, these initiatives spring from a genuine curiosity to get to know the people ‘on the other side.’ We can try to understand what happened by tracing the crime back to the men who were willing to execute it. In other words, by exploring the human possibility of genocide.

I decided to collect a corpus of fictional and non-fictional perpetrator stories, and analyse them not as trauma texts but as examples of ‘extreme’ discourse: ‘extreme’ in the sense that they are at the limits, not only of what is morally acceptable to many, or even credible, but also at the limits of a genre. The genre of testimony is traditionally connected to the experience of trauma. Witnesses are defined by their experience to the point that they ‘incarnate’ their story; they become a ‘living memory.’ That is the truth of testimony, that is what makes a story a testimony, and not just a document, a report, a transfer of information. I’m not arguing that perpetrators in general cannot experience trauma; they can, and their traumatic memories can be represented in very complex and interesting ways (Waltz with Bashir serving as a case in point here). But the génocidaires in my corpus clearly did not suffer from traumatic rupture. I therefore wasn’t sure if I could label their accounts ‘testimonies.’ What are these texts then, I wondered, and how do they function in society? Which kind of memory do they convey? How are they constructed, read, received? Which agents or ‘mediators’ intervene to make them available, and meaningful, and how do they position themselves ethically with regard to the texts they are relaying?

For translators especially, who have to adopt the ‘I’ from the speaker even if they fundamentally disagree with his viewpoint, this is not an easy task. I borrowed from Theo Hermans the idea of an ‘ironic translation,’ where translators do not merely reproduce the killer’s discourse, but at the same time create the necessary distance to inscribe their own subject position into the text. Translating with an attitude, so to say. I investigated the various strategies translators, but also reporters and editors, can resort to in order to inject their own voice into the perpetrator’s account, thereby producing a critical counter-discourse that possibly undermines the original speaker’s key positions.

The focus of my PhD was on the role of language in the construction and mediation of memory. Of course it is on the language level that the non-traumatic nature of the perpetrator’s story is revealed. The emptiness of their discourse is remarkable, disconcerting even: the absence of profound emotions, of regret or remorse; their guilty unconscious and thoughtlessness, during and after the genocide; the tone of their voice, monotonous, imperturbable; the mannerism, also, since they keep lapsing into bureaucratic jargon and propaganda talk. These stylistic features can be considered the most important aspect of the killer’s testimony and constitute a major challenge for translators who re-interpret his voice for a new audience.

Surprisingly, fictional characters such as Max Aue in Les Bienveillantes or Niko in Le passé devant soi (The Past Ahead, by Rwandan writer Gilbert Gatore) do not resemble the historical perpetrators at all. Littell’s homosexual, incestuous, Flaubert-loving Nazi and Gatore’s mute and misshapen child killer prove to be an eloquent speaker and great philosopher respectively, torn by regret or suffering from psychosomatic disorders. I explored the consequences of this resolute choice for fiction, both for literature itself and for our understanding of reality.

Your PhD dissertation examined the complexities associated with representing perpetrator testimonies of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. How do your discoveries in this work inform the focus and path of your research today? 

There are a few motifs that keep returning in my research. Maybe they are questions that I struggle to answer, or that need to be considered from a variety of perspectives. One of them is the relation between memory and language, and the role of translation in memory work that I just outlined.

Another is the political use of memory, which was evident in the Rwandan case in my PhD. Memory became an ideological weapon in post-genocide Rwanda under Kagame’s presidency. If you consider memorial practice today, you cannot but notice that the past is spectacularly present in Rwandan public space – memorial sites are often open graves filled with skulls and decomposing body parts – and that the official version of events is imposed by means of repressive memory laws. The memory work is taken out of the hands of the Rwandan people and politically recuperated to legitimize the government in place. These issues – of memory, ideology, and politics – still inform my research today.

But the distortion of memory does not always happen intentionally. The Rwandan genocide, for example, was often interpreted, by writers in Europe and Africa, but also by survivors, through the lens of the Holocaust. The comparison was fruitful in many ways: Holocaust studies helped us to understand what had happened in that faraway African country, and Rwandans were able to initiate their work of morning using insights from trauma studies. ‘Auschwitz’ will always remain a powerful symbol, a laboratory for theories about the limits of the (in)human, in spite of its obvious blind spots. Yet the comparison can also become highly problematic. Before the genocide, parallels were already drawn between Jews and Tutsis in Rwanda, with an emphasis on physical characteristics such as the shape of the nose, and they formed the basis of a pseudo-scientific discourse on race. After the genocide, Western reporters would set off the ‘modern’ European genocide against the ‘rural’ one in Africa, completely ignoring the filthy ‘Shoah by bullets’ in the ‘bloodlands’ so accurately portrayed by Timothy Snyder, and also leaving aside that the Tutsis were murdered by machetes and by guns and grenades. Turning the exotic machete into a symbol of the Rwandan genocide really comes down to depoliticizing the events and evoking the idea of a spontaneous, tribal killing instead. A final example of the confusion that arises from hasty comparisons: when Western media covered the humanitarian crisis in the refugee camps of northern Zaire in April 1994, a photo circulated of a bulldozer of the French army transporting piles of bodies after an outbreak of cholera. The photo mirrored that of the bulldozer of the British army in Bergen-Belsen that pushed bodies into a mass grave after the liberation of the camp in April 1945. Western audiences would therefore identity the bodies in Zaire as victims of the genocide, while in fact many Hutu militia members were among the refugees and tried to restore their former networks, causing humanitarian organizations to leave the camp. All these examples show the need for a critical (use of) memory.

Could you tell us a little about the project that you are currently working on? 

I am finishing a project with Piet Van Poucke, a colleague from the Russian department, on Russian news translation during the Ukraine war. Translation in Russia became a privileged arena to reconfigure and reframe existing discourse on Ukraine. It performs ideological memory work and caters to domestic nationalist agendas. Again, the focus lies on the instrumentalization of memory, and the role of language and translation in the process. We demonstrated that the memory of the Russian Empire and World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Russia) is mobilized in translation to justify the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and to delegitimize opposition forces. It is remarkable to see how, in the Kremlin discourse and in news translation, memory politics is grounded in a new temporality where elements of past and presented are fused together. Obviously, we are talking about a very selective type of memory here, one that activates simplified narrative schemata with a strong emotional impact. Today, Russian ‘patriots’ are (again) fighting against Ukrainian ‘fascists.’

Another project, one that I launched last year, is a Handbook of Translation and Memory that I’m co-editing with Sharon Deane-Cox (University of Strathclyde) for Routledge. Both Sharon and I have been frustrated with the striking absence of dialogue between memory studies and translation studies, but there is clear evidence now of growing research momentum. The idea of the handbook is to chart the intersections between translation and memory as they operate together in the reconstruction, retransmission, and repurposing of the past. We hope that the volume will orient future research agendas and stimulate interdisciplinary collaborations.

Are there any specific texts, concepts, or methods from memory studies that you have found particularly useful?

There are so many, but let me limit myself to two pioneering volumes that offer a framework for studying the conjunction of translation studies and memory studies, since this is my main research focus at the moment. The first is Bella Brodzki’s Can These Bones Live? Translation, Survival, and Cultural Memory from 2007. In it, the author links translation to the concepts of survival, mourning, and memorialization, emphasizing its crucial role in processes of intergenerational transmission. Her approach is informed by deconstruction, gender studies, and postcolonial studies, with a particular attention to the ‘otherness’ produced by translation. Translation is indeed not imitation, but entails a critical and dynamic displacement. Also, Brodzki decidedly situates translation in a network of language relations, cultural practices, and perspectives, considering not only its poetics but also its political and ethical dimensions.

The second work is Siobhan Brownlie’s Mapping Memory in Translation (2016), which explores concepts from the field of memory studies and applies them to translation studies. Although Brownie’s approach is the exact opposite of Sharon and mine’s for the Routledge Handbook (we take our cue from translation studies) and her scope is rather restricted (only English and French), I find her detailed case studies particularly illuminating.

How would you describe the relationship between memory studies and translation studies?

In memory studies, the concepts of ‘travelling,’ ‘transnational,’ and ‘transcultural’ memory are quite established and remind us of the movements and entanglements of collective memory across and outside the borders, of its ‘flow’ but also of the blockages that mark the limits of understanding and solidarity. Translation is taken into account but usually conceptualized as a metaphorical ‘transfer’ that allows memory to traverse space and time. Cultural memory itself can in a way be considered a ‘translation,’ since it entails the transmission and remediation of a particular collective knowledge. Autobiographical writing can be understood as the translation of lived experience; literature, and especially the canon, as a form of cultural memory; intertextuality as a form of literary memory; and the city as a topographical translation of multiple memories.

However, in order to understand the intricate mechanisms and implications of these various displacements, I believe it is essential to examine how broader concepts of translation are embedded in the textual practice of interlingual translation, or ‘translation proper’ as we call it. We need to know exactly how, when, where, why, and via whom acts of remembrance travel. I feel that the ball is in the court of translation studies. There is so much expertise in the field regarding the role of the translators in the mediation of testimonial accounts, for example. Sociological and cultural approaches to translation further draw attention to the agendas, expectations, needs, and potential future behaviour of ‘end-users’ of translated memory, such as readers or museum visitors. Other scholars focus on the various ways in which (re)translation can be utilized as a corrective measure against biased, incomplete, or inaccurate histories and archives, especially by the oppressed, the marginalized, and the invisible (including the translator). On the opposite side, translation and non-translation are studied in relation to forgetting, in contexts of institutionalized censorship.

Much of your recent work examines the role of translation in the media’s dissemination of information about ongoing conflicts in Syria and Crimea. In regard to these contexts, what does focusing on translation reveal about our current media climate, particularly when it comes to international conflict?  

I looked at Russia the past few years, which is of course a very particular case. The majority of the media is steered by the government; they are either state-owned or owned by oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin. The similarities between Soviet and post-Soviet information culture are quite shocking, really.

But if we consider news media more generally, we see that contemporary political conflicts are almost by definition ‘globalized,’ in the sense that they are reported, and therefore discussed, framed, and experienced to a large degree in translation. Global news on international conflict relies heavily on translation of local news. This is especially true at a time where news outlets cut foreign correspondents and close their bureaus abroad. Selection of sources is now crucial. Moreover, translation in the news room is usually not done by trained translators but by editors who integrate pieces of foreign news into their stories. They do not even consider this work as translation; for them it is just a form of re-writing. Translation and editing are intertwined to the extent that various scholars speak of ‘transediting’ to indicate that grey area. Clearly, the current media climate has a large impact on practices and conceptions of translation.

You have conducted interviews with a variety of artists and scholars working with memory—including, among others, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, whose work explores the aftermath of the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia; Herman Van Goethem, the curator of Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen; and Daniel Hernández-Salazar, who works with the visual memory of the Guatemalan genocide. Sensitive as you are to the role of the mediator and editor, how do you approach such interviews, and what are your aims? 

I enjoy these type of interviews immensely. Whether the interviewee is an academic or an artist, I’m always interested in the intellectual path that led them to what they do today. At a certain point in the interview, I will also zoom in on ‘technical’ or ‘formal’ questions: how does the photographer construct his image, how does the documentary filmmaker approach his ‘characters,’ or how does the museum curator select the objects for exhibition and organize the scenography?

But mainly, I want to know how they understand their own role as memory mediators: how do they position themselves with regard to the story they are transmitting, and how does this specific position allow them to shape the memorial landscape? What medium do they use and why? What type of memory do they feel needs to be transmitted? And how exactly do they contribute to promoting a memory that leads to a more peaceful or just society? The goal of these interviews is to stimulate reflection on the often strenuous process of memory construction and on the importance of archival work.

I was very touched by both Hernández and Oppenheimer, two human rights activists who vacillated between hope and despair, and tried to catalyse change in countries that are completely disrupted on a political and social level. That is painful to see, and at the same time it shows the relevance of art today. They were both concerned with exposing oppressed memory, with opening up the necessary discursive, democratic space to discuss the past in a fair and productive way. They were not only trying to document, but also to communicate, I would say. That was also the case for Herman Van Goethem, an academic who became chief curator of Belgium’s Holocaust and human rights museum, and was forced to think about strategies of memory transmission, about pedagogical tools and how to mobilize them to reach and inspire large audiences.

Are there any recent or forthcoming conferences, exhibitions, or other events that you are particularly enthusiastic about?

I marked two dates in my diary for next year: one is the 9th congress of EST (the European Society for Translation Studies) in September in Stellenbosch; the other an international conference on ‘Translating Cultural Memory in Fiction and Testimony,’ co-organized by my colleague Désirée Schyns, in October in Innsbruck.

Interview conducted via email by River Ramuglia.