An Irishman’s Diary about the Corkman who translated ‘Mein Kampf’
Translation was rushed into print, with ominous timing, in 1939
The German copyright on Mein Kampf is about to expire. Photograph: Roger Viollet/Getty Images
It will be 70 years in April since Adolf Hitler died and the German copyright on Mein Kampf is about to expire. This means that Bavaria’s regional government, which assumed the rights upon Hitler’s death, will no longer be able to suppress the work, as it has done since 1945.
The resultant soul-searching in Germany was the subject of a documentary recently on BBC Radio Four. But as the programme also explained, translations of the book abroad have never gone away. And a fascinating subplot of the story concerned the first full English-language version of Hitler’s diatribe, which was the work of an ex-priest from Cork.
Born in 1880, James Murphy was by the late 1920s a married journalist and translator working in Berlin. As such, in 1934, he wrote a book about Hitler’s rise, The Drama of His Career. This sufficiently impressed the Nazis that they then asked him for a full translation of Mein Kampf, which had previously made it into English only in much-abridged form.
Some time later, however, they changed their minds. After a trip to London in 1938 to secure a publisher, and having left the full manuscript in Berlin, Murphy learned he was no longer welcome in Germany. But he badly needed the money an English publication would bring. So his wife, who was able to travel to Berlin unnoticed, volunteered for a rescue mission.
First she tried to persuade an official from the ministry of propaganda to release the manuscript, arguing that a US version was imminent, and that her husband’s work was a fair interpretation of Hitler’s words. The bureaucrat was unimpressed. “Do you want me to be put up against a brick wall and shot?” he asked her.
But then Mrs Murphy tracked down a former secretary of her husband’s who had a copy of the manuscript. So albeit without official approval, she was able to bring this back to London.
The translation was rushed into print, with ominous timing, in early 1939. And a short review of it in this newspaper offered qualified admiration, viz: “While one may not share the enthusiasms of the author [...] and may even condemn much of the doctrine on international relations, it is hard not to feel some sympathy with his personal struggle.”
In fairness, the critic also took issue with a suggestion in Murphy’s own preface that much of the book’s bitterness should be seen in the context of “conditions now past”. The review concluded, tellingly: “The translator is entitled to his opinion, but not a line of the Mein Kampf has ever been withdrawn.”
The English version went on to sell an estimated 200,000 copies. But Murphy never received any royalties, in part because of doubts about copyright and also because the publisher argued he’d already been paid a fee for the original commission. Then in 1942, German bombs destroyed the company’s presses, along with the book’s plates. After which, an American translation became the standard English-language version.
In the meantime, those who did benefit from sales of Murphy’s work included the British Red Cross, which garnered proceeds from a version published in 18 weekly instalments, with anti-Semitic illustrations, at sixpence each.
The book was of course a huge commercial success for Hitler himself, although not immediately. His appalling verbosity and bad German at first failed to woo readers. Then the book received the sort of sales boost than can only happen when the author becomes a dictator with supreme power.
From there on, it was a bestseller by government order, with promotions ranging from free copies for all married couples, to enormous, expensively bound editions for the Nazi supreme leadership, which was expected to read it on lecterns, like a Bible.
But even among people who didn’t have to, the book has found willing audiences. One of the steadiest overseas markets, according the documentary, is India, where Mein Kampf has always sold well. As interviewees explained, the text is seen there as everything from a work of anti-British history to a kind of “self-help” manual on the rise of a small man.
The programme – Mein Kampf: Publish or Burn? – which was produced by John Murphy, the translator’s grandson, is still available on the BBC website. Back in Germany, meanwhile, the first post-copyright edition is already being prepared, with suitable annotations. There are misgivings, but historians have defended it as a necessary pre-emptive against the work’s revival by “charlatans and neo-Nazis”.