During the First World War, Australia interned around 7000 people in camps throughout the country – of these, 4,500 were “enemy aliens” and British nationals of German heritage. While some had arrived from overseas, most were born in Australia; almost all were civilians who had committed no crime.
According to Department of Germanic Studies Chair Dr Cat Moir, detainees were allowed to have visits from family, and correspondence was allowed in and out but was heavily censored and had to be written in English.
“Anything found written in another language was confiscated,” she says.
“Despite this, many prisoners did keep diaries and letters in German, they produced newspapers, and a lively parallel society grew up in the camps, with shops, cafes and theatres.”
Each of Dr Moir’s students had the opportunity to select the text that interested them, from military reports, letters complaining about life in Australia and the misconduct of British guards, personal diaries, poems, and journal articles from camp magazines.
For Giulia Ara, an Italian international student studying German translation, the project was a unique opportunity to move beyond her textbooks and gain valuable real-world translating experience.
“It was a breath of fresh air to be able to work on materials with yet no translated correspondence in English. It made me acknowledge the crucial role of the translator and allowed me to work outside that often appears in translation theory textbooks,” she says.
From carefully handling hundred-years-old handwritten papers to seeing the final digitalised documents exhibited at the State Library, Giulia says translating the stories of German internees was a deeply touching experience.
Each story became a tiny, satisfying discovery that revealed how German culture, language, and world history work together.
One poem was particularly special to her.
“The anonymous poem Was sie sagen (What they say) stood out from all the papers I translated as it wasn’t a conventional poem. Instead, it carried a political message, simplifying the complex relationships between Germany, England, France and Russia, the main actors of World War One, into a witty conversation between the countries.
“Even in poetry, the internees’ language was simple and approachable to any reader, with no wish to be pretentious. Words were sagaciously chosen and used by the internees as the most powerful weapon they had to leave a mark and prevent the stories of that aching part of the German population from being wiped away by the merciless passage of time.”
After the war, the camps were gradually closed and the Germans - including those who had never set foot in Germany - were ‘repatriated’.
The letters eventually became one of six collections with UNESCO Memory of the World status held by the State Library.
It has been an important project for Dr Moir.
“It is very rewarding to see the contribution our students’ work has made. By cooperating with the State Library, bringing these new records into the public domain will expand our collective knowledge about Australia’s First World War experiences.”
The letters and their translations will be presented in the exhibition Voices from the Archive: German Internees in Australia, 1914-1920 at the State Library of New South Wales until March 2019.