Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

The most recent issue of Spolia Magazine includes my translation of Claude Cahun’s “Prison Notes.” This has been one of my most interesting projects to-date and I’m so happy to see it finally published. This was the second of two publications – the first came out in February 2015, her “Prison Letters”, which were letters exchanged between Claude Cahun and her lover/partner/sister Marcel Moore while they were imprisoned on Jersey Island at the end of WWII.

For a quick explanation of this new piece, here is my Translator’s Note for Spolia:

In 1944, the German occupying forces on Jersey Island arrested the French artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore (a.k.a. Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe) for their work in the Resistance and sentenced them to death. Although their sentence was never carried out, the two women spent nearly ten months in jail until they were finally freed upon the liberation of Jersey in May 1945. The following translation comes from 35 handwritten papers stored at the Jersey Archives. Parts of these pages are published in François Leperlier’s Claude Cahun – Écrits (Editions Jean-Michel Place, 2002), and he attributes them to a long letter Cahun wrote sometime in 1946 to the writer Jean Legrand. According to Leperlier, Cahun intended to write a complete narrative of the occupation of Jersey and their time in prison, and she was gathering her notes and letters and papers together with this purpose. What follows is not a complete transcription and translation of the 35 pages, nor is it a strictly a linear narrative; the archived papers begin on page 32 and there are pages missing and abrupt changes of subject. Transitions around those missing pages as well as a few less relevant paragraphs have been redacted.

In these pages she writes about what it was like to be in prison, describing some of the German guards and the other prisoners and her connections to them and feelings about them. What strikes in these descriptions is the depth of her feeling for others—no one is ever a caricature, but a complicated human (why is this so often a synonym for flawed? here I use it this way) individual in the midst of his or her historical moment. She writes of how to find distractions while stuck inside the horrors of war, and she also writes directly of some of those horrors. She also writes about what it felt like the day they got out and where they went to live—the feeling on the island, how the inhabitants re-situated themselves after the occupation.

I hope it inspires a larger project somewhere; her work deserves a broad audience.

The issue of Spolia Magazine can be purchased here. If you don’t know Spolia already, spend some time with the site and sample the back issues. They are all well worth the small price. I hope these included Cahun pieces might inspire a larger project somewhere; her work deserves a broad audience.

And thank you to Scott for mentioning that Cahun’s Heroines can be found in English translation in Shelley Rice’s Inverted Odysseys(Which looks wonderful.)

p.s. Earlier this year, I also wrote a tiny blog post about part of this translation and the story of an undelivered letter between a German soldier and his Jersey lover. You can read that here.

2 Responses to “Claude Cahun – Prison Notes”

  1. Scott W.

    Thanks so much for taking on this project. I’m immensely looking forward to reading the translation; I’ll purchase a copy of the magazine once I’m back home in a week or so. I’m glad for the reminder, too, as I’d intended to look for Cahun’s work while in France (and since I’m still here for a few days, I’ll do just that).

    There is an English translation of Cahun’s collection of short texts, Heroines, in Shelly Rice’s edited volume Inverted Odysseys – available on-line.

  2. Michelle

    I hope you enjoy it, and thank you so much for mentioning Inverted Odysseys! I’ve updated the post to include this, and it looks like a wonderful book.

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