(RNS) Will we come to see Anne Frank differently now that her iconic diary is in the public domain?
Already scholars in Europe are posting it for academics — and maybe new translations, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It’s the result of a court battle by the copyright-holding foundation, which ostensibly wanted to extend copyright to give royalties to charity. The foundation lost. And it lost more than control over money.
It can lose control of a carefully honed image of the young girl, universally mourned after dying in the Holocaust.
Haaretz quotes one of the first to publish the diary, Isabelle Attard, a French Parliament member whose grandparents died in the Holocaust. Attard said in a statement on her website: “Seventy years after the author’s death, the whole world can use, translate and interpret these works, and use them to create new ones.”
New ones. Think about that. Translation has power.
Consider the knockdown, drag-out battles over biblical translation. Centuries ago, a translation out of sync with the view in power could get you burned at the stake. There are messages packed with theological meaning in every word choice in a Bible translation. A few years ago, there was a word-by-word showdown over a contemporary language version of the New International Version of the Bible. “Today’s NIV” was an epic bust.
The diary of Anne Frank isn’t religious holy writ but it is cultural scripture in a way.
And the translations have long been subject to debate.
The Anne Frank House official site details three major texts that have been the basis of translations worldwide. The first, Anne began at age 13 when the family moved into a cramped annex over a warehouse in Amsterdam. At 15 she began revising to reflect her more literary and mature voice in the months before the Nazis drove the family members out of hiding and dispersed them to concentration camps. The final, and best-known, text was a selectively edited melding of the two by her father, Otto Frank, the sole survivor of the family.
In her 2009 book “Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife,” Francine Prose observed that Otto Frank had originally excised Anne’s barbed remarks about her mother and another family hiding with the Franks. Those entries, which Prose said also reveal “the extent of Anne’s curiosity about sexuality and about her body — don’t substantially change our perception of her.” However, Prose said, the battle over the diary obscured Anne’s “considerable skill as a writer.”
And there also have been lengthy battles over perceptions of Anne’s Jewishness arising from the Otto Frank text, which served as the basis for Broadway and Hollywood versions.
The version that became the Tony Award-winning Broadway play in 1956 was excoriated by Jewish novelist Cynthia Ozick. According to Jewish Week, Ozick said the script “infantilized, Americanized, falsified, (and) kitschified” the diary to the point that “it would have been better for the diary to have been burned.”
Frank Rich, writing for The New York Times, said it “did remove much of the diary’s modest Jewish content in the interest of ‘universalizing’ its story — and this was in line with Otto Frank’s wishes that his daughter be memorialized as an affirmative figure of hope rather than a grim Nazi casualty.”
Should we fear for our idea of Anne — seven decades after her death in Bergen-Belsen in 1945?
What happens when new translators — with a viewpoint of 2015, and with no fatherly or financial investment of the image of Anne Frank — delve into the Dutch?
Would her death matter less if she were not the universal saint of the Broadway and film version? Would we forget our internalized ideas of the big-eyed girl, writing that she still believed in human goodness, even as we, the readers, knew the horror closing in on her?
New translations can only make her more real. We will come to know her as a complex, acerbic, defiant teen with literary dreams. And we may know her more as a Jew at heart who understood that to be driven to look with questioning eyes is one of God’s holy gifts.
So, translate away, find depth and richness and maybe foibles and the crankiness of a 15-year-old no matter how intellectually precocious. Give the world new perspectives on Anne Frank.
She’ll triumph still.
Her text is foundational to our way of grasping the import of the Holocaust — 6 million faces, seen in one.
(Cathy Lynn Grossman is a senior national correspondent for RNS)