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The problem(s) with Luxembourgish literature
Literature

The problem(s) with Luxembourgish literature

by Tómas Atli Einarsson 3 min. 04.11.2022
Some of the best novels written in Luxembourgish, undeservedly, have never been translated
Guy Rewenig (75) wrote the first-ever contemporary novel in the Luxembourgish language - in 1985
Guy Rewenig (75) wrote the first-ever contemporary novel in the Luxembourgish language - in 1985
Photo credit: Tania Feller

Unsurprisingly, Luxembourgish book stores are awash with French, German and English literature, by virtue of the Grand Duchy’s large expat community. But where are its native authors? They certainly exist, but have been undeservedly underappreciated, because of a range of historic and linguistic twists.

British comedians Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry alluded to Luxembourg’s tortuous history as a nation in their hilarious Treaty of Westphalia sketch. As a nation, Luxembourg only came into existence in 1839, and it was only ten years prior that the first major work in Luxembourgish had been printed: Anton Meyer’s E’ Schrek ob de’ Letzeburger Parnassus. But Luxembourgish was considered no more than a German dialect well into the 20th century.

Luxembourgish literature only underwent a modernising renaissance in the mid-1980s - a remarkably late arrival onto Europe’s literary stage. Guy Rewenig’s 1985 novel Hannert dem Atlantik, to all intents and purposes, marked the beginning of contemporary Luxembourgish genre fiction, trailing decades behind the rest of the continent. 

Roger Manderscheid, who died in 2010
Roger Manderscheid, who died in 2010
TNL

And though Luxembourgish has found its way into novel form since, its late arrival on the literary scene means that writing in the country hasn’t had the chance to gestate in the same way that it has in Germany, France or the UK. It also, quite frankly, means that there isn’t as much of it to go around. The modern Luxembourgish canon include Rewenig as well as Roger Manderscheid, author of the Bildungsroman trilogy Shacko Klack, Papagei um Käschtebam and Feier a Flam. Sadly, no translations of these exist either.

Naturally, people have been writing in Luxembourg for far longer than the modern novel has existed. But given that the country always resided in France and Germany’s spheres of influences, its literature has too. Take the 1920s and 30s, when Luxembourg, like much of Europe, experienced a surge in new poetic forms. With modernism sweeping the continent, symbolism, surrealism and expressionism heavily influenced Luxembourgish poets such as Albert Hoefler (1899-1950) and Paul Henkes (1898-1984).

While undoubtedly Luxembourgish, the two wrote in German. So sifting the authentically Luxembourgish from foreign language writing may best be left to academics. Where French or German literature ends and Luxembourgish begins, may be too blurry.

Rewenig in a photo taken earlier this year
Rewenig in a photo taken earlier this year
Guy Jallay

Luxembourgish literature’s elusiveness isn’t a purely quantitative issue, either. Since second (and third and fourth) languages are so frequently taught at schools, it’d be a tough sell to students to add another novel to read over the course of a school year, just because it was written in Luxembourgish. After all, nothing kills a passion for reading like being forced to do it. 

Yet it’s still surprising that neither Rewening nor Manderscheid have been translated. Imagine a concerted effort to release new editions of classics of Luxembourg’s (still-ongoing) literary renaissance. Better yet, what if the winner of Luxembourg’s own Batty Weber literary prize got the opportunity to have their works translated for a wider audience?

Luxembourgish literature could prove a powerful cultural tool that’s just begging to be utilised. New editions of Luxembourgish novels, translated into French and German - and with reflective and contextual introductions - might prove wondrously useful to expats seeking cultural insights. If anything, it’d be allowing literature to do what it does best: provide unique and valuable insights into collective and individual psyches which otherwise risk going unexplored.

So while it’s a genuinely astounding quirk of history that the modern novel didn’t emerge in Luxembourgish until the 1980s, that doesn’t mean that there’s too little of it to prove immensely valuable to non-Luxembourgers who have made their home here. What better vehicle for cultural integration than to read true-blue Luxembourgish authors’ writings about life in the Grand Duchy? And for those that have gone through the effort to learn the language, what better reward than a new edition of Luxembourgish literary classics?


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