“Try Simply to Tell”
Translation, Censorship, and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is the most influential novel about World War I. In its original German, Im Westen Nichts Neues (Nothing New on the Western Front) was first published as a serial in 1928 in Vossische Zeitung, a Berlin newspaper. Ullstein A.-G. published the book in Germany in January 1929, where it sold 200,000 copies in three weeks and nearly half a million copies in three months. The text was quickly translated into twenty-three languages, and these editions sold at a similarly brisk pace. Despite the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, sales had reached “a million in Britain, France, and the United States together” by the end of 1929. As of 1975, more than 3,425,000 copies of the novel had been sold in the United States. Today, All Quiet on the Western Front is considered a classic and remains continually in print. The novel is frequently taught at the high school and college levels and is often the sole representative of war fiction written by a veteran on students’ curricula.
Readers have long admired the novel for its unflinching description of combat and for its criticism of war. However, the English-language novel venerated today is in many ways remote from the original German-language text as well as the translation that early readers would have encountered. Moreover, the new and used texts currently on the market differ dramatically from one another, with variants ranging from punctuation to diction to the excision of lines, paragraphs, and whole pages of text. Troublingly, these variants are invisible to most readers. Two primary forces have left their mark on the text available to English speakers today: its translation into English and its censorship in the United States. Here I trace the origins of the textual complexity of the English translation and show why the widely disparate versions available today point to an urgent need for a scholarly edition of All Quiet on the Western Front. I begin with a contextual overview of the novel, author, and translator. Next, I provide brief publication and reception histories to show why the original translation into English remains so important today and is the most appropriate copy-text for a scholarly edition. In the fourth section, I provide an overview of the major textual differences across four editions commonly available today. I then show how some of these differences may influence the novel’s interpretation by critics and casual readers alike before concluding with criteria for a satisfactory scholarly edition of one of the most studied and celebrated war novels of all time.
The English-language edition of the novel is divided into twelve chapters, each told in the first person by protagonist Paul Baumer. Paul and several of his classmates enlisted in the German Army upon the exhortations of their schoolmaster. The novel opens in media res the day after a bombardment caused extreme casualties to Paul’s company. The rest of the narrative moves generally in chronological order through another year of their military service. Paul relays past events, including the men’s basic training, as narrative flashbacks. The novel concludes with a shift in narrative voice. The last two paragraphs, which describe Paul’s death, are written in the third person by an unidentified narrator. The conclusion includes the phrase that gives the novel its name: “He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.” Although often interpreted as a reflection of Remarque’s personal experience, Paul’s extended tour of duty differs significantly from Remarque’s military service.
Born in Germany on June 22, 1898, Remarque was conscripted on November 21, 1916. By June 12, 1917, at eighteen years of age, he was fighting on the Western Front. His time at the front was shortened by a shrapnel wound—or two, or five, depending on which report is to be believed—at Passchendaele on July 31, 1917. He served on the front for approximately six weeks. He spent most of the rest of the war convalescing in the hospital and was not discharged until October 31, 1918, less than two weeks before the end of the war. In 1928 he submitted to his publishers the text that would alter his life dramatically: Im Westen Nichts Neues.
Following its serialization from November 10, 1928, through December 1928, the text was issued in book form in late January 1929. The book’s early success was due in part to a thoughtful media campaign. As A. F. Bance notes, Ullstein-A.G.’s publicity efforts included facilitating the novel’s translation into fourteen languages and sending out “enormous numbers of review copies” as well as 2,000 Braille editions for blinded German veterans. Capitalizing on the novel’s unprecedented success, the German-born president of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle, acquired the rights to adapt the novel to film. The film was put into production under the direction of Lewis Milestone that fall and released in 1930. John Whiteclay Chambers notes that the “powerful anti-war film . . . played to packed houses around the world in 1930 and 1931 and was re-released in 1934.” The novel and Hollywood film adaptation made Remarque an international sensation. Given the influence of the English-language edition on the reading and moviegoing public in the late 1920s and early 1930s through today, All Quiet on the Western Front deserves a closer scholarly look.
The original translation, by Arthur Wesley (A. W.) Wheen, remains the best known and, I argue, a key copy-text for a scholarly edition. Wheen was an almost exact contemporary of Remarque. Born in New South Wales in 1897, Wheen enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) in October 1915. He completed his basic training in Australia and was transferred by troop ship to Egypt for an additional six months of training with the First Battalion AIF. He was then transferred to the 54th Battalion AIF and served as a signaler in France beginning in June 1916. During his two years on the line, he was awarded three military medals and injured twice. The first injury he described in a letter to his mother as “a very slight flesh wound in the right hand. A fragment (infinitesimal) slid through the muscle. . . . Nothing whatever to worry about.” He was seriously wounded by a German bullet in September 1918, after the capture of Péronne, and was treated first at a convalescent camp near the front and eventually at London General Hospital at Wandsworth. His medical treatment was lengthy, and he was not recommended for discharge until July 1920.
Wheen admitted that he was chosen to complete the English translation of All Quiet on the Western Front as a result of his shared experience of war rather than his skills as a translator. In a draft of an article entitled “War Among the Children,” Wheen notes that his military service qualified him for translating the novel. “The manuscript was sent to me as being one able to understand it, and on reading I found that I understood it less by reason of my knowledge of German, which I have but imperfectly, than by virtue of having made the experience recorded in it.” Indeed, according to Brian Murdoch, who prepared a second translation into English, Wheen was fairly loose in his practice, prioritizing the sense of the words over their literal translation. Murdoch wrote, “The first translation of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front . . . is marked not by any inaccuracy in the sense (in which respect it is excellent), but precisely by a failure to imitate the style of the narrator, or (worse) the carefully differentiated speech-forms of his fellow-soldiers. Wheen tended to impose his own elevated literary style even on the demotic of North German peat-diggers.” However, if Murdoch’s 1993 translation is more accurate, even “definitive” as Andrew Kelly contends in Filming “All Quiet on the Western Front,” its influence appears limited, and Wheen’s translation dominates American markets. Therefore, I suggest we do not need a scholarly edition to bring English speakers closer to Remarque’s text—Murdoch has already done this—but to give us access to the complex reading experience of postwar America and England.
Not So Free and Easy: All Quiet on the Western Front’s Publication History
G. P. Putnam’s Sons first published Wheen’s translation in England in March 1929. Despite its rapid publication in England, Remarque had a difficult time finding an American house to publish his novel. Obscenity was a chief concern for one of the two publishers who turned down the novel (the other had recently printed a German war book) before Little, Brown chose it. Ultimately, the Boston-based publisher Little, Brown, and Company won the rights to it. However, Boston was governed by Suffolk County’s strict obscenity laws. The terms of publication were further complicated by the Book-of-the-Month Club’s interest in the novel. In anticipation of offering All Quiet on the Western Front to the Book-of-the-Month Club, Little, Brown made some revisions. Judges for the Book-of-the-Month Club selected the novel unanimously for distribution to its 100,000 members, but some judges still thought “some of the words . . . were distinctly too Elizabethan, too much on the old free and easy Anglo-Saxon order” for their readers. As Janice A. Radway has noted, the Book-of-the-Month Club “never formally articulated the set of values that underwrote their framework for evaluation.” Nonetheless, she suggests, “the Book-of-the-Month Club judges may well have worried a good deal about what their subscribers could tolerate.” In the case of All Quiet on the Western Front, at least, judges for the Book-of-the-Month Club made additional “suggestions” for words and passages to be cut before adopting the book for publication. Little, Brown accommodated the club’s suggestions, a decision Richard Arthur Firda describes as “on the borderline of sound publishing practice.”
Little, Brown, and Company defended its changes to the text by citing federal law and stringent Boston book laws. For example, a June 2, 1929, article in the New York Times addressed the social cause for the revisions. The headline, “Feared Boston Ban on German War Book,” was accompanied by the subheadline, “Publishers Say Changes Were Made Because English Edition Would Have Been Barred.” However, the publisher and the Book-of-the-Month Club alike were reticent to describe precisely what changes they made. The publishing company’s president, Herbert F. Jenkins, said the changes affected “some of the words and sentences” which were “too robust for our American edition.” Larry Sherman, vice president of the Book-of-the-Month Club, was less clear about the changes made to the text and dismissive of their effect: “the changes made by the American publishers themselves [prior to presenting it to the Book-of-the-Month Club] were slight,” he said. Moreover, he claimed, “the changes wrought by the [Book-of-the-Month Club] judges’ suggestions were ‘trivial.’” Sherman further insisted that Little, Brown made “a few changes of words and phrases in the translation, but not changing the sense of the original German in the slightest.” The Book-of-the-Month Club distributed 60,000 copies of the altered edition to its members in June 1929 while Little, Brown distributed the novel through its regular channels to great success. Within the first six months of its publication in America, from June 1929 through December 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front ran through at least seventeen printings with Little, Brown and its associated publishers.
The novel’s publication history is shaped not only by translation and censorship but also by the competing copyrights of the British and American editions. Wheen’s translation has been published under four copyright dates in America: 1929, 1930, 1957, and 1958. The 1929 copyright was an ad interim copyright based on Wheen’s translation published in Great Britain. In July 1929, Little, Brown sought protection under their ad interim copyright against sales of the British edition in Chicago. In a sensationalized turn of events, the Collector of Customs seized some twenty-five copies of the British edition of the novel. The novel was put under new copyright in 1930. The 1929 and 1930 copyrights were renewed in 1957 and 1958, presumably to prevent the book from falling into the public domain. Therefore, in 1930, less than a year after Remarque’s serialized novel appeared in Germany, there were already three distinct English-language versions of the text in mass circulation: the English edition, the American edition for the Book-of-the-Month Club, and the American edition with expurgated content restored. Changes made to the text were purposefully obscured in 1929, and many remain hidden to readers today.
Firda suggests the text of the edition published in America was eventually restored to its British predecessor, claiming that the novel “remained censored until 1975, when Little, Brown, and Company published an edition based on the original German text of 1929.” However, as we will see, later publications have complex relationships with the original German text, the text published in England, and the texts published in America under the 1929 and 1930 copyrights. Murdoch’s 1993 translation has its own copyright. Subsequent editions published in the United States all appear to take some version of Wheen’s translation as their copy-text.
Censored and Sensational: Reception of All Quiet on the Western Front in the United States
Although the discussion is muted today, the novel’s censorship was widely debated upon the book’s American release. The New York Times announced the book’s issuance with the headline “Volume Expurgated on Book Club Advice.” The journalist underscored his displeasure in the subheadlines: “German War Story, Issued Today by Little, Brown & Co., Toned Down for Americans,” “Changes Termed ‘Trivial,’” “Only ‘Suggestions,’ Says Club Official, Denying Choice for June Depended on Them,” “Language ‘Too Robust,’” and “Publishers Declare Question of Censorship by Wholesale Buyer ‘Did Come Up.’” Moreover, the journalist pointedly avoided using the publisher and book club’s preferred word, “robust,” in describing the changed words. Instead, he insisted, “The sensational German war book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ will be issued for American perusal today, minus some of its stalwart words and starkly realistic episodes.” The debate over the novel’s censorship lasted well into the 1930s. In his article “The Practice of Censorship,” published in the Atlantic in January 1930, Edward Weeks took up the “obscene literature” laws of Suffolk County, home to Boston and Little, Brown, and Company. Citing the potential fine and punishment for “obnoxious” books, Weeks championed for a more tempered examination of books facing suppression. Reflecting on All Quiet on the Western Front in particular, Weeks nonetheless understated the effect of the expurgations on the novel. “In few instances verbal refinements were substituted for the ‘jargon of the latrine,’ but the only notable mutilation was the cutting out of a three-page hospital episode,” he claims.
The media attended to the effects of censorship on the text, both at the time of its release in the United States and since, but no journalist or critic has yet provided a catalogue of the changes; indeed, the extent of the revisions have been consistently underestimated. A June 1, 1929, article in the New York Times noted that three words had been changed from the British edition for the Book-of-the-Month Club edition. Writing in 1999, J. H. Willis Jr. lists five words that were “converted” between the same editions.
Perhaps as a result of the attention to the questionable elements of the novel, early reviews, whether positive or critical, focused on the novel’s realism, often to the exclusion of its literary merit. In an early review based on the English edition, Richard Henry Little insists in the Chicago Daily Tribune that “It’s the realest, most terrifying, most gripping novel of the war we’ve ever read.” Edith Weigle, writing for the same paper’s “Books” section, assures readers that “because of its unvarnished truth, its ghastly, unrelenting, torturing realism, it will do more than ten books such as ‘The King Who Was a King’ to prevent another war.” In a review tellingly titled “War’s Horror as a German Private Saw It,” Louis Kronenberger of the New York Times writes, “In Germany it must have recreated the war for a multitude of men; but it has an extraordinarily vividness for men who never saw the trenches. It is not a great book; it has not the depth, the spiritual insight, the magnitude of interests which make up a great book. But as a picture, a document, an autobiography of a bewildered young mind, its reality cannot be questioned.” Writing a few months later, a writer in South Australia’s Recorder asserts that the novel has been hailed as the “greatest book of the war” and “is certainly the frankest. The author’s portrayal of wounds, suffering and death is not only pitifully graphic, but anatomical. No aspect of life in the trenches is too sordid for revelation, and in terms which came naturally from the lips of men, but look unsavory on the printed page.” However, this writer suggests Remarque goes too far, at least “so far as the post-war reader is concerned, by seeming to overstep the credible” with his emphasis on the realism “of the eye more than the mind”—in other words, his attention to imagery and description of events rather than the soldier’s interiority or failing to use the war or experiences of the soldier metaphorically. Sir Ian Hamilton makes a similar critique of the novel’s perceived realism, insisting that “it is not a perfect war book, for war, as well as life, holds something more than realism.”
Today All Quiet on the Western Front remains in popular consciousness as a realist novel. Even Harold Bloom argues, “Remarque had portrayed life in the trenches as he observed it, in harsh realism and cryptic neo-documentary sentences.” From its serialization in 1928 through today, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front has been placed upon a pedestal of representational realism—a reception more easily understood when the conditions of its publication are laid bare.
Neither Trivial nor Totally Understood: Highlighting Some Textual Differences
The differences between the editions printed in England and in the United States range from punctuation and diction changes to the excision of lines, paragraphs, and pages of text. Of course, as G. Thomas Tanselle declares, “different editions (that is, different typesettings) of the same work are different physical objects and almost certainly exhibit different texts.” However, these differences, when unknown and unwittingly promoted through mass market editions, push readers further from Remarque’s novel, Wheen’s translation, and the reading experience of the postwar public. In the textual history that follows, I trace how dramatically different the editions available today are from Remarque’s work as envisioned by the author, as rendered into English by the translator, or as experienced by readers in England and America in 1929. My archive for the novel’s textual history is four editions that I have examined closely.
- 1. An edition published in London by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in December 1929. This London edition serves as my copy-text for purposes of identifying the revisions and censorship implemented by Little, Brown, and Company in the novel’s first years of publication.
- 2. An edition published in Boston by Little, Brown, and Company in January 1930.
- 3. An edition published in Boston by Little, Brown, and Company in February 1930. These two publications, issued just a month apart, demonstrate the rapid changes reshaping the text available to American readers.
- 4. An edition published in 1982 by Ballantine Books in New York. This Ballantine edition serves as an example of the mass market paperback available to many American readers today and is the successor to the ubiquitous tan-covered paperback published by Fawcett.
Two major expurgations were made to the text released by the Book-of-the-Month Club. The “verbal refinement” of soldiers’ latrine jargon pertained to a three-page passage describing veteran soldiers’ preference for open-air latrines and how they pass time there playing cards together. In this episode, protagonist Paul Baumer reflects on the changes “enforced publicity” has wrought on the soldiers and offers an analysis of the greater appreciation for life that their near-death experiences have given the soldiers. In the London edition, the 806-word passage begins: “To-day is wonderfully good. The mail has come, and almost every man has a couple of letters and papers. We stroll over to the meadow behind the billets. Kropp has the round lid of a margarine tub under his arm.” It continues with a detailed description of the makeshift latrine in the meadow (Appendix A). The January 1930 edition begins similarly. “To-day is wonderfully good. The mail has come, and almost every man has a couple of letters,” Paul notes. However, instead of describing where the men read their mail and spend the rest of the afternoon, the passage immediately continues with the lines that conclude the latrine scene in the London edition: “Kropp pulls out a letter. ‘Kantorek sends you all his best wishes.’ We laugh. Müller throws his cigarette away and says: ‘I wish he was here.’” The second passage that was cut entirely was a four-page description of a woman’s visit to her husband in the hospital (Appendix B). In this scene, the other men in the room give the couple privacy, care for their baby, and guard the door so that they might have an intimate moment together.
In addition to the latrine and hospital scenes, Little, Brown, and Company made five smaller expurgations to the January 1930 edition as compared to the London edition. The first of these is Paul’s description of his friend Leer’s “preference for prostitutes from the officers’ brothels” because “[h]e swears that they are obliged by an army order to wear silk chemises and to bathe before entertaining guests of the rank of captain and upwards.” In the second, the American edition eliminates the veteran Katzinsky’s (Kat) comfortable self-expression in front of his comrades. In the London edition, “Kat turns his eyes to heaven, lets off a mighty fart, and says meditatively: ‘Every little bean must be heard as well as seen.’” The incident and Kat’s comment do not appear in the January 1930 edition. As a third example, Little, Brown, and Company redacted a simile describing Mittelstaedt’s revenge on his former teacher Kantorek. In the London edition, Paul notes, “In this way the squad has merely made the turn-about and a couple of paces, while the squad-leader [Kantorek] dashes backwards and forwards like a fart on a curtain-pole.” The January 1930 edition eliminates the comparison and simply concludes, “dashes backwards and forwards.” The first American edition also suppresses a description of the physical devastation suffered by the Russian prisoners of war. This issue is given greater treatment in the London edition: “But now they are quite apathetic and listless; most of them do not masturbate any more, they are so feeble, though otherwise things come to such a pass that whole huts full of them do it.” By contrast, in the January 1930 edition, the sentence ends at “listless.” In a fifth revision, the gastrointestinal effects of a windfall meal including fresh pork are eliminated. The London edition treats the effect in some detail. “Two, three men with their pants down are always sitting about outside and cursing. I have been out nine times myself. About four o’clock in the morning we reach a record: all eleven men, guards and visitors, are squatting outside.” The January 1930 edition omits these three sentences entirely.
My review of the January 1930 edition against the London edition revealed more changes in the first chapter than were acknowledged by early media reports to have affected the novel as a whole. For example, the London edition describes one soldier as a “locksmith” and another as always thinking about his “farm-yard.” In the January and February 1930 editions, however, the use of hyphens is switched. The first soldier is a “lock-smith” while the other thinks always of his “farmyard.” Later, the narrator, Paul Baumer, explains their diminished numbers waiting at the cook-house in the London edition thus: “But on the last day an astonishing number of English heavies opened up on us with high-explosive, drumming ceaselessly on our position, so that we suffered severely and came back only eighty strong” (emphasis added). In the January and February 1930 editions, the text does not reflect the British slang, but instead reads, “But on the last day an astonishing number of English field-guns opened up on us with high-explosive, drumming ceaselessly on our position, so that we suffered heavily and came back only eighty strong” (emphasis added).
The February 1930 edition appears to be printed with the same typesetting as the January 1930 edition, based on my comparison using a Lindstrand Comparator. The February edition reinstates much of what had been expunged from the January 1930 edition. However, given the differences between the text restored to the February 1930 edition and the London edition, it is not clear whether the London edition was the source text for the revisions to the February 1930 edition. Some of these differences, especially those made to the latrine scene, might be an attempt to Americanize the translation, but Americanizing the text does not explain all the changes nor is Americanization consistently applied throughout the text.
Several differences in the latrine scene differentiate the London and February 1930 editions. While the London edition has the soldiers passively “want” something better than the general latrine, the February 1930 edition has them actively “look for” it. In the London edition, the men sit down in a circle and Paul predicts, “And it will be two hours before we get up again.” In the February 1930 edition, Paul unsettles the temporality of the scene. The men still “move three together in a ring,” an action described in the present tense. However, the immediateness of this action is promptly recast as Paul says in the present perfect continuous, “For two hours we have been here without getting up.” In discussing the “business performed in the open air,” the London edition treats it in the plural (“these things”), while the February 1930 edition treats it in the singular (“it”). The men’s transition from modesty to comfort in performing open-air business differs between the editions as well. The London edition places a greater emphasis on the significance of their transition, infusing it with a kind of latrine gnosticism, to play on James Campbell’s term. In the London edition, Paul declares, “We might perhaps have paid no particular attention to them had they not figured so large in our experience, nor been such novelties to our minds—to the old hands they had long been a mere matter of course.” In contrast, in the February 1930 edition, Paul simply states, “We did not properly appreciate these boxes when we first enlisted; they were new to us and did not fill such an important rôle—but now they have long been a matter of course.” Furthermore, although the February 1930 edition Americanizes the spelling of rumor, it leaves the “u” in flavor. Lastly, Paul’s description of their game of skat differs between the two editions. In the London edition the men play by the rule, “After every misère ouverte we have a round of nap,” whereas in the February 1930 edition, “After every throw-in the loser pays into the pool.”
Although there are fewer differences between the London and the February 1930 editions, it is still not clear that the London edition was the source text for restoring the American edition to its uncensored version. Indeed, there remain significant variants between the London edition and the partially uncensored February 1930 edition. For example, Lewandowski gives away “sausages,” plural, in the London edition, and “sausage,” an uncountable noun, in the February 1930 edition. Lewandowski’s wife is a “tousled little thing” whose handbag is embroidered with pearls and contains “some” good sausages in the London edition. In the February 1930 edition she is a “tousled little woman” whose handbag is embroidered with beads and carries “a couple of” good sausages. In a final example, the stakes differ for the men who help Lewandowski be intimate with his wife. In the London edition, at the most “one of the sisters might come in,” while in the February 1930 edition, at the most “there couldn’t be more than one sister left in the ward.”
The source text for the reinstatement of the five censored phrases in the February 1930 editions is similarly unclear. First, Leer’s rationale for preferring prostitutes from officers’ brothels differs slightly. In the London edition the prostitutes must bathe “before entertaining guests of the rank of major and upwards” while the February edition references the rank of captain and above. Kat speaks “meditatively” on passing gas in the London edition and “apologetically” in the February 1930 edition. Mittelstaedt’s punishment of Kantorek and the effects of the pork dinner are textually identical between the two editions. However, the feebleness of the Russian prisoners of war is reinstated in different terms. The London edition reads, “though otherwise things come to such a pass that whole huts full of them do it,” whereas the February 1930 edition states, “though occasionally it is so bad that they do it barracks fashion.”
The Ballantine edition reinstates the seven pieces of expurgated content and describes the Russian prisoners of war in keeping with the London edition. However, it also introduces a number of interesting textual changes that diverge from the London, January 1930, and February 1930 editions. Many are minor, such as the “few” letters and papers that arrive with the mail in the Ballantine edition, versus the “couple” of letters and papers that appear in the London, January 1930, and February 1930 editions. Later, in the London edition, as well as in the January 1930 and the February 1930 editions, a soldier named Josef Behm is wounded outside the trench and the others see him “outside creeping toward us” after the attack. In the Ballantine edition, his name is anglicized to Joseph, and the men see him “crawling about in No Man’s Land.” Lastly, Paul S. Boyer claims that the original translation of the odors the soldiers encounter when they visit their friend Kemmerich in the dressing station was changed for American audiences. However, the London, January 1930, and February 1930 editions reflect the same text as the London edition: “carbolic, ether, and sweat.” In the Ballantine edition, however, the men smell “carbolic, pus, and sweat,” in keeping with Boyer’s claim for Wheen’s original translation.
Interpretive Stakes: Minor Differences with Major Implications
Inconsequential as some of these differences might seem, they can have significant implications for interpretation by literary critic and lay reader alike. As Tanselle notes, “One’s response to a work is obviously conditioned by the text of it one encounters.” The major changes put into place for distribution by the Book-of-the-Month Club were popularly known, as evidenced by the media’s prolonged interrogation of the changes. However, as Peter Shillingsburg points out in From Gutenberg to Google, “for most texts, the acts of censorship, like the acts of revision, are glossed over and disappear into the web of displayed text, leaving the reader in blissful ignorance that anything sinister or useful lies in the history of the text in hand.” Indeed, I have seen no recent edition of All Quiet on the Western Front that acknowledges the major purges made from the English translation in its original publication in the United States or that indicates whether the text at hand includes or excludes the major censored scenes or the five principal controversial phrases, not to mention any of the dozens of smaller changes I have discussed. Although the paperback edition of Murdoch’s translation does not acknowledge the expurgated material, Murdoch does acknowledge, delicately, the ramifications of Wheen’s style. In a prefatory translator’s note, he writes, “The familiar English title of Remarque’s novel . . . was provided by A. W. Wheen in 1929. Although it does not match the German exactly (there is a different kind of irony in the literal version, ‘Nothing New on the Western Front’), Wheen’s title has justly become part of the English language.”
Wheen’s translation was and remains fundamental to readers’ response to the novel. A scholarly edition that draws attention to the variance across the many versions of Wheen’s translation since its publication in 1929, many of which remain in circulation today, would help alert readers to the instability of the text and situate both the translation and the revisions to it within a variety of historical contexts. The effects of textual variance on interpretations of All Quiet on the Western Front are almost limitless, but for brevity’s sake I focus on three key areas: military service, masculinity, and intertextuality.
The latrine scene is one opportunity for the reader to see training’s “assault on privacy,” which Richard Holmes, a military historian, describes as an invasion “many soldiers find hardest to bear.” It further serves to distinguish Paul and his friends from the new recruits and helps explain some of the disconnect Paul experiences when he goes home on leave. According to Weeks, Christopher Morley claimed that the hospital scene “made even war seem momentarily human and tender” while Boyer makes two distinct claims for the hospital scene’s interpretative effect. First, according to Boyer, “In a book abounding in scenes of agony and gore . . . this [the hospital scene] is one of the few episodes in which the prevailing mood is of love and tenderness.” Second, Boyer insists, “In the structure of the novel, it stands in contrast to an earlier episode . . . depicting a furtive front-line encounter between German soldiers and French girls willing to barter sex for bread.” The intimacy in the hospital also provides a complement to Kat and Paul’s scene of emotional communion while roasting the goose in a previous chapter. The excised passages eliminate some of the novel’s rich exploration of the realities of military service; questions of innocence and experience; the challenges of homecoming; and of young men’s exposure to love, sex, and intimacy.
However, censorship is not the only cause of textual changes that influence interpretation. As I have shown, the various editions of Wheen’s English-language translation manifest a number of textual departures from one another. One method of understanding the influence of these changes is to ask whether they are authorial or editorial, but most readers are unaware of the issues raised by textual criticism, and the agent behind such changes never comes to mind. Instead, the words on the page in hand, regardless of the individual or social force that put them there, direct most readers’ interpretations. For example, depending upon the text one chooses, Paul’s lament of the encouragement he and his friends received to volunteer for military service can have widely different implications. In all the editions that I have examined, Paul feels that authority figures have violated the young men’s trust in their “greater insight.” In the London, Ballantine, and other mass market editions, this insight is associated with “a more humane wisdom.” However, in the January and February 1930 editions and other midcentury editions, it is associated with “a manlier wisdom.” Especially in the context of war, the distinction between humane and manly wisdom is a provocative question.
Moreover, textual changes in one edition can affect a reader’s interpretation of an entirely different work. In all the editions that I have examined, Paul recalls his and his friends’ frustration with training yet credits it for their survival in the trenches: “without this period of training most of us would certainly have gone mad. Only thus were we prepared for what awaited us.” The London and Ballantine editions continue, “We did not break down, but we adapted ourselves.” However, the January and February 1930 editions instead read, “We did not break down, but endured.” Philip Caputo’s Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War, is heavily intertextual, employing epigraphs from the Bible, Shakespeare, Wilfred Owen, Ernest Hemingway, and Siegfried Sassoon, among others. Caputo’s work ends on a disillusioned note: “We would not return to cheering crowds, parades, and the pealing of great cathedral bells. We had done nothing more than endure. We had survived, and that was our only victory.” Reading Caputo’s use of “endure” as an echo of All Quiet on the Western Front reinforces a sense of the wasteful nature of conflict and Caputo’s argument that writing about war cannot convey the experience of combat. However, the possibility of this intertextual interpretation is withheld from those readers who only experience the texts in the London or Ballantine edition.
As a final example of the textual changes in All Quiet on the Western Front that influence interpretation, I turn to perhaps the most subtle and insidious kind, a sophistication that appears near the end of the novel. I draw on Shillingsburg’s definition of sophistication, a change that is “not immediately palpable as error because it creates a new plausible reading, even though an erroneous one.” Toward the end of the novel, after volunteering to go out on a night patrol, Paul gets lost in no-man’s-land. He hides in a shell hole during the French attack and stabs a French soldier who inadvertently falls into his hole, wounding him mortally. In the morning, the French soldier falls silent, prompting Paul to suppose he has died, before he again opens his eyes to gaze back at Paul “with a look of utter terror. The body lies still, but in the eyes there is such an extraordinary expression of flight that for a moment I think they have power enough to carry the body off with them.” These phrases occur exactly this way in each of the texts I investigate here, except that the word “flight” becomes “fright” in the Ballantine and other mass market edition. Lectio difficilior lectio potior (the more difficult reading is to be preferred) and a comparison to Murdoch’s translation indicate that “flight” is Wheen’s intended word and the correct reading. The appearance of “fright” instead of “flight” will likely be inconsequential to most readers. However, “fright” is a simpler and more reductive expression of the French soldier’s emotions. Furthermore, “flight” suggests a desire to be above and out of the current situation, a desire echoed in Paul’s subsequent consideration of the role of spatiality in the “fate of all of us: if Kemmerich’s leg had been six inches to the right; if Haie Westhus had bent his back three inches further forward—.”
Such interpretive possibilities affect more than casual readers. As I have suggested, the dominant reception of the novel as realistic, rather than modernist, is likely shaped in part by its issuance through the Book-of-the-Month Club. Bloom’s commendation of its “neo-documentary sentences” neglects Remarque’s use of symbolism, metaphor, and other figures of speech that reject or upend conventions of realism or documentary form. In addition, many critics and scholars in a variety of fields, including literary criticism and philosophy, have made interpretive claims presumably without awareness of alternative versions. David MacFadyen, for example, cites the “adapted ourselves” version of Paul’s estimation of his and his comrades’ resilience and adds his own assessment that “[t]o adapt, however, is not the same as to win.” In Levinas and Kierkegaard in Dialogue, Merold Westphal employs the “expression of fright” version of Paul’s encounter with the Frenchman. Lastly, Yuval N. Harari refers to the “more humane wisdom” of Paul’s elders in the article “Martial Illusions: War and Disillusionment in Twentieth-Century and Renaissance Military Memoirs.” Although I stop short of calling for a return to Wheen’s translation, greater awareness of its historicity would help alert readers, critics, and philosophers to the complexities of its significance and impact.
Scholarly Edition: Some Proposed Criteria
As one of the most studied and discussed war novels of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front is a powerful literary tool for providing readers and students a sense of the experience of war. However, interpretations of a war novel are complex and multifaceted. Unfortunately, Remarque’s effort to “try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war,” as the novel’s epigraph states, is complicated by the kinds of textual differences I have shown. This complexity affects lay readers and critics alike. Therefore, a satisfactory scholarly edition of All Quiet on the Western Front should function as a reading and research tool for students and scholars across the world.
To promote access and use, I propose a digital edition that follows an ethics of digital scholarship in examining the interplay among text, producer, and user and takes responsibility for accessibility and transparency of orientation, sources, and interpretive tools. The interface should anticipate the user experience and be simple, accessible, and intuitive. Ideally, users would make an informed choice as to base text (the original German, the British or American edition of Wheen’s translation, or Murdoch’s translation). They would also select whether to view a scan of the page as it was originally printed or a transcription of the text. Users would have an option to view two images side by side; for example, Wheen’s British and American editions, image and transcription, or any combination thereof.
Clearly labeled toggles should provide the user with options to view editorial annotations or editorial commentary as desired. These should be relatively nonintrusive markings on the image or transcription that alert the user to the placement of annotations or commentary. The annotations, like a print scholarly edition’s apparatus, would ideally be limited to comparisons between the base texts. By contrast, the editorial commentary could provide definitions of foreign, archaic, military, or unusual terms and offer interpretive assessments of the source and significance of the textual differences between the base texts and current mass market editions. An ideal version would also implement an annotation feature or other stand-off, user-controlled markup system associated with a mapping feature that allows the user to make comments at specific points on the text or image at hand and export the text or image and markup combination for use offline or in other programs. Such a thoughtfully designed edition has the potential to be a sustainable, accessible, and meaningful contribution to the discourse about the novel’s significance—then and now.
In a review based on publication proofs of All Quiet on the Western Front, Christopher Morley observed, “The War was not expurgated for those who went through it.” Nor, indeed, should the book that readers encounter today. A scholarly edition that acknowledges the complex textual history of the novel would honor its legacy and reward the reader, teacher, and scholar alike.
Excerpt (pp. 13–17) from A. W. Wheen’s translation of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1929).
To-day is wonderfully good. The mail has come, and almost every man has a couple of letters and papers. We stroll over to the meadow behind the billets. Kropp has the round lid of a margarine tub under his arm.
On the right side of the meadow a large common latrine has been built, a roofed and durable construction. But that is for recruits who as yet have not learned how to make the most of whatever comes their way. We want something better. Scattered about everywhere are separate, individual boxes for the same purpose. They are square, neat boxes with wooden sides all round, and have unimpeachably satisfactory seats. On the sides are hand-grips enabling one to shift them about.
We move three together in a ring and sit down comfortably. And it will be two hours before we get up again.
I well remember how embarrassed we were as recruits in barracks when we had to use the general latrine. There were no doors and twenty men sat side by side as in a railway carriage, so that they could be reviewed all at one glance, for soldiers must always be under supervision.
Since then we have learned better than to be shy about such trifling immodesties. In time things far worse than that came easy to us.
Here in the open air though, the business is entirely a pleasure. I no longer understand why we should always have shied at these things before. They are, in fact, just as natural as eating and drinking. We might perhaps have paid no particular attention to them had they not figured so large in our experience, nor been such novelties to our minds—to the old hands they had long been a mere matter of course.
The soldier is on friendlier terms than other men with his stomach and intestines. Three-quarters of his vocabulary is derived from these regions, and they give an intimate flavour to expressions of his greatest joy as well as of his deepest indignation. It is impossible to express oneself in any other way so clearly and pithily. Our families and our teachers will be shocked when we go home, but here it is the universal language.
Enforced publicity has in our eyes restored the character of complete innocence to all these things. More than that, they are so much a matter of course that their comfortable performance is fully as much enjoyed as the playing of a safe top running flush. Not for nothing was the word “latrine-rumour” invented; these places are the regimental gossip-shops and common-rooms.
We feel ourselves for the time being better off than in any palatial white-tiled “convenience.” There it can only be hygienic; here it is beautiful.
These are wonderfully care-free hours. Over us is the blue sky. On the horizon float the bright yellow, sunlit observation-balloons, and the many little white clouds of the anti-aircraft shells. Often they rise in a sheaf as they follow after an airman. We hear the muffled rumble of the front only as very distant thunder, bumble-bees droning by quite drown it. Around us stretches the flowery meadow. The grasses sway their tall spears; the white butterflies flutter around and float on the soft warm wind of the late summer. We read letters and newspapers and smoke. We take off our caps and lay them down beside us. The wind plays with our hair; it plays with our words and thoughts. The three boxes stand in the midst of the glowing red field-poppies.
We set the lid of the margarine tub on our knees and so have a good table for a game of skat. Kropp has the cards with him. After every misère ouverte we have a round of nap. One could sit like this for ever.
The notes of an accordion float across from the billets. Often we lay aside the cards and look about us. One of us will say: “Well, boys. . . .” Or “It was a near thing that time. . . .” And for a moment we fall silent. There is in each of us a feeling of constraint. We are all sensible of it; it needs no words to communicate it. It might easily have happened that we should not be sitting here on our boxes to-day; it came damn near to that. And so everything is new and brave, red poppies and good food, cigarettes and summer breeze.
Kropp asks: “Anyone seen Kemmerich lately?”
“He’s up at St. Joseph’s,” I tell him.
Müller explains that he has a flesh wound in his thigh; a good blighty.
We decide to go and see him this afternoon.
Kropp pulls out a letter. “Kantorek sends you all his best wishes.”
We laugh. Müller throws his cigarette away and says: “I wish he was here.”
Excerpt (pp. 288–92) from A. W. Wheen’s translation of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1929).
The oldest man in our room is Lewandowski. He is forty, and has already lain ten months in the hospital with a severe abdominal wound. Just in the last few weeks he has improved sufficiently to be able to hobble about doubled up.
For some days past he has been in great excitement. His wife has written to him from the little home in Poland where she lives, telling him that she has saved up enough money to pay for the fare, and is coming to see him.
She is already on the way and may arrive any day. Lewandowski has lost his appetite, he even gives away red cabbages and sausage after he has had a couple of mouthfuls. He goes round the room perpetually with the letter. Everyone has already read it a dozen times, the post-marks have been examined heaven knows how often, the address is hardly legible any longer for the spots of grease and thumb-marks, and in the end what is sure to happen, happens: Lewandowski develops a fever, and has to go back to bed.
He has not seen his wife for two years. In the meantime she has given birth to a child, whom she is bringing with her. But something else occupies Lewandowski’s thoughts. He had hoped to get permission to go out when his old woman came; for obviously seeing is all very well, but when a man gets his wife again after such a long time, if at all possible, a man wants something else besides.
Lewandowski had discussed it all with us at great length; in the army there are no secrets about such things. And what’s more, nobody finds anything objectionable in it. Those of us who are already able to go out have told him of a couple of very good spots in the town, parks and squares, where he would not be disturbed; one of us even knows of a little room.
But what is the use, there Lewandowski lies in bed with his troubles. Life holds no more joy for him if he has to forego this affair. We console him and promise to get over this difficulty somehow or other.
One afternoon his wife appears, a tousled little woman with anxious, quick eyes like a bird, in a sort of black, crinkly mantilla with ribbons; heaven knows where she inherited the thing.
She murmurs something softly and stands shyly in the doorway. It terrifies her that there are six of us men present.
“Well, Marja,” says Lewandowski, and gulps dangerously with his Adam’s apple, “you can come in all right, they won’t hurt you.”
She goes the round and proffers each of us her hand. Then she produces the child, which in the interval has done something in its napkin. From a large handbag embroidered with beads she takes out a clean one and makes the child fresh and presentable. This dispels her first embarrassment, and the two begin to talk.
Lewandowski is very fidgety, every now and then he squints across at us most unhappily with his round goggle eyes.
The time is favorable, the doctor’s visit is over, at the most one of the sisters might come in. So one of us goes out to prospect. He comes back and nods. “Not a soul to be seen. Now’s your chance, Johann, set to.”
The two speak together in an undertone. The woman turns a little red and looks embarrassed. We grin good-naturedly and make pooh-poohing gestures, what does it matter! The devil take all the conventions, they were made for other times; here lies the carpenter Johann Lewandowski, a soldier shot to a cripple, and there is his wife; who knows when he will see her again? He wants to have her, and he should have her, good.
Two men stand at the door to forestall the sisters and keep them occupied if they chance to come along. They agree to stand guard for a quarter of an hour or thereabouts.
Lewandowski can only lie on his side, so one of us props a couple of pillows against his back. Albert gets the child to hold, we all turn round a bit, the black mantilla disappears under the bed-clothes, we make a great clatter and play skat noisily.
All goes well. I hold a club solo with four jacks which nearly goes the round. In the process we almost forget Lewandowski. After a while the child begins to squall, although Albert, in desperation, rocks it to and fro. Then there is a bit of creaking and rustling, and as we look up casually we see that the child has the bottle in its mouth, and is back again with its mother. The business is over.
We now feel ourselves like one big family, the woman is rather quieter, and Lewandowski lies there sweating and beaming.
He unpacks the embroidered handbag, and some good sausages come to light; Lewandowski takes up the knife with a flourish and saws the meat into slices.
With a handsome gesture he waves toward us—and the little woman goes from one to the other and smiles at us and hands round the sausage; she now looks quite handsome. We call her Mother, she is pleased and shakes up our pillows for us.
Earth with thy folds, and hollows, and holes, into which a man may fling himself and crouch down. In the spasm of terror, under the hailing of annihilation, in the bellowing death of the explosions, O Earth, thou grantest us the great resisting surge of new-won life. Our being, almost utterly carried away by the fury of the storm, streams back through our hands from thee, and we, thy redeemed ones, bury ourselves in thee, and through the long minutes in a mute agony of hope bite into with our lips! (Wheen, All Quiet [London], 64–65)
With this turn to the highly constructed language of prayer, Remarque invokes both Paul’s status as a fledging poet and playwright and upends any claims to Remarque’s realist form reflecting his realistic content. In a subsequent scene, as his unit advances to the front, Paul surveys the scene in terms that invoke the medieval romance: “Guns and munition wagons are moving along a cross-road. The backs of the horses shine in the moonlight, their movements are beautiful, they toss their heads, and their eyes gleam. The guns and the wagons float past the dim background of the moonlit landscape, the riders in their steel helmets resemble knights of a forgotten time; it is strangely beautiful and arresting” (Wheen, All Quiet [London], 67). Here again, the writing is symbolic and formalistic rather than realistic or documentary. [back]