Poetry, Robert Frost famously said, is what gets lost in translation. But as “L’Allemagne Disparaît,” the newly issued French translation of Thilo Sarrazin’s “Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab,” reminds us, demagoguery survives translation all too well.
While the translation of the French title, “Germany Is Disappearing,” transforms that of the German title, “Germany Does Itself In,” from the active to the passive, the author’s bleakly Spenglerian warning remains constant. No less constant, unhappily, is Sarrazin’s habit of playing fast and loose with statistics and with the plying of combustible claims. His argument that Germany will be dumbed down by the cultural practices and, yes, genetic inferiority of its large Turkish community sounds no better, and makes no more sense, in French than it did in German.
Against a flaming red background, the cover of the French edition trumpets: “With two million copies sold, the book that convulsed Germany.” This is one claim that is beyond dispute. When “Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab” appeared in 2010, the effect was seismic. While the publisher, Verlags-Anstalt, frantically churned out copies to meet popular demand, politicians on the right and left scrambled no less frantically, in search of a response to the extraordinary public reaction. The Christian Democrats feared that Sarrazin, a Social Democrat who had served as an economist in a number of administrative positions before joining the central board of the Bundesbank, had handed them a poisoned chalice, while the Social Democrats couldn’t decide if they should ignore or attack their colleague. The only decisive response came from the Bundesbank, which promptly dismissed him.
But Sarrazin no longer needs to punch the clock: He has become a wildly successful writer. While his success was unexpected, it is not at all accidental: Book sales had already been sparked by a number of incendiary assertions. Most startling, perhaps, was his attempt to explain the scientific, artistic and professional predominance of Jews to a specific “Jewish gene.” Though Sarrazin seemed surprised by the outrage — after all, wasn’t this a compliment, not a criticism, of Jews? — he eventually apologized and retracted the claim.
Yet, as Sander Gilman, a renowned historian of German culture and literature, observed recently, the recycling of 19th-century racial theories in regard to the Jews is just the opening gambit in Sarrazin’s book. Sarrazin’s clumsy philo-Semitic gesture serves as both cover and justification for his phobia toward the 4 million men, women and children who constitute Germany’s Muslim, and in particular its Turkish, population. This community, in Sarrazin’s telling, holds Germany’s future hostage. Turks presently represent about 5% of the German population and, Sarrazin argues, will soon outstrip the declining “German” population. Moreover, the lowest rung is home to those with the lowest intelligence — and since intelligence, as Sarrazin claims, is hereditary… well, only a Turk would need to have that spelled out.
The French can now imbibe “en version Française” this same “very, very bad science,” as Gilman put it. Since the book has been translated into French — no English edition has, for now, been announced — Sarrazin is allowed, in televised interviews, to fob off on a new audience the claim to scientific soundness (a claim, moreover, that went uncontested by the newscaster on the Gallic equivalent of CNN, France 24).
More disturbingly, the translation’s appearance reflects that similar fears simmer on both sides of the Rhine. In his concluding chapter, Sarrazin writes that the rise of sea levels worries him less than the decline of Germany’s cultural legacy (and genetic makeup, one assumes) — a fear, he continues, that also haunts Germany’s European neighbors, including the French.