Outside Verdun is Fiona Rintoul’s translation of the German war classic Erziehung vor Verdun. It narrates the story of Private Bertin, a Jewish soldier who, following an act of compassion towards a French war prisoner, is ostracised by his anti-Semite superiors. As a consequence, he is buffeted between various danger zones on the western front, as well as unlikely safe havens, such as Fort Douaumont, a particularly infamous fortification of high strategic importance. Bertin is saved by his friendship with Eberhard Kroysing, the fort’s commander, whose younger brother’s death reveals the corruption of high-ranking officers. Enthusiasm for the war and naiveté are replaced by disillusionment as the insignificant private stands witness to the ensuing political war between those who support him and those who wish to harm him. They nearly succeed when the fort is taken, and Kroysing goes missing. Bertin later finds him at a field hospital, where his acquaintance with a nurse gets him the support of an unlikely ally.
As Outside Verdun is a translation, it is necessary to be aware that it is always hard to capture the original, as subtleties of language are lost either by mistake or because they are simply untranslatable, such as the word ”Schadenfreude”. Such difficulties show in every translation, and the most ostensible example in Outside Verdun is its title: “Erziehung“, which means education in German. This is important since Zweig’s novel is for all intents and purposes a Bildungsroman, and “Bildung”, that is to say, education, is crucial to it. However, literal translations often seem awkward because they seldom convey the original meaning. “Outside Verdun” circumvents that problem by emphasizing the fact that the Germans were unable to take Verdun; moreover, it reinforces the idea that the novel is a commentary on the circumstances of the war. A less obvious example is “It had all turned to vinegar”. “Essig sein mit etwas” is German vernacular for saying something has failed or will not happen. While the expression originates from viticulture, the English equivalent – “to blow up in one’s face” – would have been an option, despite or indeed because of its inherent cynicism in the context of World War I. Despite the ticklish business of finding translations that fit perfectly, Rintoul finds some that do: “truncated trees” contains a pun that would be untranslatable into German.
Overall, the translation is excellent, not only because subtleties are for the vast majority retained, although this will most likely only be apparent to readers fluent in English and German. Outside Verdun is also because it is highly enjoyable to read. The pace of the novel is controlled excellently, moving fast enough to keep the reader invested but slow enough to set the general tone. The novel is bleak and cynical but not without charm; grand and grave historical events are contrasted with small but striking acts of humanity, and so there is no question of cliché. “It showed what had happened clearly and pitilessly, shaking the world from its sleep so that it could not just snore on as a French shell dispatched the writer’s recently won friend.”
It is true that some of the circumstances that allow Bertin to avoid persecution may seem overly convenient, yet as the narrator writes: “Was that plausible? Could I put that in a fictional story? No. But it’s true.” The author takes great care to move between victories of both Bertin’s supporters and his enemies. Whenever one of his friends manages to set in motion a plan that will remove him from the front, one of his opponents dashes that hope and sets up a countermeasure. The result thereof is that Bertin not only stands on the front of the actual war, but also between two internal fronts. This adds depth to the novel and militates against objections of convenience.