Frank Buchman
Translating Frank Buchman and the Germans
Peter Thwaites on his translation of Pierre Spoerri's book
Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Translating 'Frank Buchman and the Germans'

By Peter Thwaites

'It sounds like about a month's work' was my response in 2010 when told by the then head of IofC communications (Mike Brown) that Pierre Spoerri's manuscript, Frank Buchman und die Deutschen, was awaiting translation and might then appear as an 'e-book' on the IofC Publications website. A day later I wrote, 'I'd like to help'.

'Helping' soon became taking on the job. More than five years of sometimes sporadic and sometimes intensive work followed. Earlier this year Frank Buchman and the Germans was published in a print edition by Caux Books. The e-book is still on its way but must appear soon.

'Comment is free but facts are sacred,' wrote a great British newspaper editor. The raw material of history must be presented as accurately as possible. The devil is in the detail but so is the beauty. Chasing up and verifying many details meant slower work, but it could not be avoided and finally led me to many treasures. There may have been some self-indulgence in this, but a translator's first need is to understand in enough depth the text he or she is translating.

Spoerri began his research into the history of Buchman's work in Germany some forty years ago. His papers, now lodged in the "Réarmement moral" (IofC) section in the Vaud Cantonal Archives in Lausanne, include a large 'Germany' collection filling several binders and containing many personal letters to and from Buchman and documents such as Nazi secret police reports about the Oxford Group. Buchman knew German through his Pennsylvania German parents and some of the letters he received are in German, though he usually wrote in English himself.

These documents then formed the basis for Spoerri's narrative. Last year a visit to Caux gave me the opportunity to spend four days exploring them, and another five days consulting the IofC archives in Oxford's Bodleian Library. To my joy, these visits provided the last answers to questions that needed answering in order to produce an accurate English version of the book.

Having to focus intensely on the text also gave an unexpected sense of closeness to many of the personalities in the story, their endeavours and struggles in a period before I was born. Their lives resonated with my own later experiences in Germany and in later phases of Buchman's work.

I hope a German scholar with a passion for history, and an interest in the contribution of faith to human progress, may be inspired to edit and bring to publication Spoerri's original German text.

The book focuses on the period 1920-1950, a time of ongoing crisis in Europe after World War I. Extreme political ideologies of right and left competed to fill the vacuum of belief and offer a way forward, while the Oxford Group emerged with its concept of a new world through people's inner change. It gained international attention, but in Germany Buchman's attempts to reach the Nazi leadership with this message and thus avert a second war failed. After World War II, particularly through the first Caux conferences, he and his team were among the first to welcome Germany back into the family of nations.

Find out more about 'Frank Buchman and the Germans here.