My Paternal Step-Grandmother (the Translator) and Her Grandfather (and Some Barker)

At Christmas 2003, my paternal step-grandmother gave everyone in the family a copy of her grandfather's diary, which he kept from 1891 to 1927. This present represented no small feat accomplished on my grandmother's part. I had known of her work on this book for months, and was fascinated by the amount of work she must have been pouring into the task. I have a penchant for tedious projects, and it was a little moving that someone in my family exhibited the same trait, even if they were not related directly through blood.

It might seem strange that I would be interested in my step-grandmother's grandfather's journals, because that makes it sound like I wasn't related to this man. Let me explain. My father's mother died of a heart problem when he was twenty or twenty-one years old, and my paternal grandfather later married a second wife, who turned out to be his first wife's cousin. As a result, even though my grandmother is not immediately related to me, her grandfather was my biological grandmother's grandfather, so the journal-writer in question is still my great-great-grandfather. (Ahem, yes, my penchant for tedium is flashing its dainties...)

This gift of a translation of my great-great-grandfather's diaries was one that made me so proud of my grandmother. For a few reasons, the work she put into creating the volume must have been long and intense. Firstly, there were twelve volumes of diaries for her to read through, and a lot of the writing was about the weather or building things or religious life. It apparently made for interesting reading on her part, because she knew him as a child, but for most other people the repetition of church, work, weather, church, work, weather repeated for thirty-six years of diary entries could become a little like being forced to watch the same scenery passing by in a Flintstones scene for hours on end -- eventually you would just become numb to it. I commend her for her stick-to-it-iveness.

Secondly, all of them were written in Mennonite German, which is a mixture of low German and Dutch with a touch of Yiddish (as far as I understand). Being such a specific dialect to a such a small and culturally distinct group, there are no English to Mennonite German translation dictionaries to help decypher the language, so she slogged through the translation using her own knowledge of the language and by asking other elders of the Mennonite community for finer definitions of terms that were specific to the time of the writing. Some proper nouns and a few other words were left untranslated when no one was old enough to remember them or their usage. This was especially significant with place names, because most of the towns were moved and/or renamed since the time of his writing.

Thirdly, because there were twelve volumes of text over three times as many years, she had to make decisions about which parts she would include and which parts she would decide were expendable for the purposes of her translation. I disagree with some of her choices, because there were some historically interesting bits that she chose to leave out, such as a recipe for homemade shoe black, but overall, I am glad that she left out some of the repetitive weather entries. I come from a long line of farming folk, and their relationship with the weather was stronger and more enduring than any of their social relationships. Some of them kept detailed weather logs from year to year, checking on them periodically to predict the weather. I am positive that my great-great-grandfather used his diaries for this practical purpose as well. (My maternal great-grandfather once predicted at least six months in advance that on my parents' chosen wedding day it would rain for most of the day but clear up in the afternoon, and he was absolutely correct, as usual).

There were likely a few other difficulties for my grandmother on her path to completing this project: eye strain, frustration over her own limitations and a lack of translation resources for Mennonite German, difficulty in tracking down all the volumes in order to bring them together, anxiety over having to be brutal with deciding what would remain untranslated in order to create a volume of reasonable length, and the emotional weight of knowing that she was creating what would become his memory for his descendants out of journals that were very personal to him.

Her self-appointed task was not a light one. It's not one that I think I would have been willing to shoulder under similar circumstances, but I am so thankful that she did. My relationship with my family is bittersweet at best, and so it has taken me since Christmas of 2003 to finally sit down with the single volume she distilled from years of her grandfather's writing and dig in.

At this point in time, I am only a short way into the translated text, and I am hooked. It is at times sad, dry, religious, full of sympathy, jubilant, boring, heartbreaking, culturally and historically informative, stoically realistic, and fleetingly magical. When I am reading his entries, occasionally jotting down notes to keep track of the more poignant moments, I feel like a little girl peeping at him through a keyhole. I am somehow historically transported; in my mind's eye, I find my smaller myself standing in flannel pajamas in the dark, eye pressed to the hole in the door and secretly watching great-great-grandfather Klassen sit at a table with visiting relatives, build stooks, ferry across the river from their small island, mourn the losses of his wives and children, guard a criminal through the night, and plant melons and trees. He becomes so large and I so small, suddenly transforming me into the grand-daughter of a man who died thirty-nine years before my birth and eleven years before that of my father, a man born one-hundred-and-thirteen years before I entered the world.

photo source information

"Grandfather, Grandfather" by George Barker

And, on a completely unrelated note, take a look at 1960s Japanese dating and sex tips.

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