Monday, April 5th, 2021
Identity Political Debate
“The Gorman dispute starts in the wrong place”
Frank Heibert is one of the most important translators of American literature. Here he tells how difficult it is to translate Amanda Gorman’s poem into German, what he thinks of the identity-political debate and why he translates as a gay straight person.
n-tv.de: Mr Heibert, first of all: what did you think when you first heard the poem by Amanda Gorman?
Frank Heibert: Mixed feelings: A little discomfort with so much patriotism, biblical fervor and moral pathos. Then joy about her sweeping, encouraging swing. And all the time at the same time enthusiasm for the musicality of this rap sermon and the language magic of the word and sound games. Politically, I was happy with the performance of a young black woman at the inauguration of the President of the racist United States.
Are you surprised that of all things “The Hill We Climb”, a poem that aims to connect, sparked an identity-political dispute?
Yes. The argument started in the wrong place. Participation and equal opportunities for all less privileged people, wonderful! However, literary translation is not one of the platforms of influence or interpretative power in society: So why fight here of all places?
They are openly gay, so they know about discrimination. Nevertheless, you have been translating the works of American straight people first-class for decades. Did that ever matter to you?
This is the even more important point where the debate started wrong: literary translation is always empathy with the other. If you want to translate, you have to have all the necessary language skills as well as this talent and desire to empathize with often strange worlds and people. A closeness of personal identity and experience can help, but it can also get in the way and should not be required as a prerequisite.
It is said again and again in the debate that whites cannot empathize with the emotional world of non-white people who have been discriminated against. Is that so? How do you proceed?
I think, in principle, we whites can try to understand other people’s experiences of discrimination. The distance to be bridged can consist of a different experience of discrimination, a different personality or a different epoch with their world and mentality. The greater the distance, the more research it takes, both factually and emotionally. After reading James Baldwin or Toni Morrison in depth, someone has also done some emotional research. And in addition, you have to talk to people, for example with scientists in historical novels.
Would you have liked to translate the Gorman poem?
The language tinkering that would be necessary to recreate Gorman’s Spoken Word Poetry in German has always been fun. Empathy with a rebellious and at the same time conciliatory attitude too. But I don’t have the sound of the 20 to 30 year old German spoken word poets, not in the cool credibility. So much for the question of competence, which in my opinion should always be the most important. Then there is the political significance and positioning. I am one of the privileged, and for me this would have been a nice example of how we have to learn to give up in order to contribute to greater equality of opportunity. So for two reasons: no.
What is the challenge in translating the Gorman poem?
A work in which rhythm, linguistic sound and message – here also a political one – with a culture-specific background are so intertwined and equally important, poses the greatest challenges for the translation. It has to free itself even more from the original and its wording than it already has. Often the word translated close to the original does not produce the desired sound because alliteration would be nice or the rhythm is not right. In the currently charged situation, such a free version could only be worked out in close consultation with the author, which would mean a lot of time despite the brevity of the poem.
Brief explanation: Alliterations are two or more words with the same first letter in quick succession. We know it from “at night and in fog” or from “with insult and shame”.
Gorman’s poem is full of it. And also the many religious references. Let’s take “We’ve braved the belly of the beast”. This is a biblical allusion to Jonah in the belly of the whale as a metaphor for great, threatening, but mastered challenges. Rhythm and sound magic make the verse a good example of what speaks in Gorman’s text. In German, in addition to the whale-Bible allusion, the “belly of hell” or the “cave of the lion” is also available. In order to ensure sound magic in German, this would have to be built into the context in terms of rhythm and sound. In this respect, “We have looked deep into the abyss”, as the German translation just published, is understandable in terms of content, but cannot be compared to the original in terms of sound and rhythm.
“To compose a country committed / To all cultures, colors, characters, / And conditions of man” was translated into German like this: “A country for people of all kinds / every culture and location, every type.” It is surprising that the important word “color” has been dropped.
When people speak of “color” or “skin color” in German or, somewhat awkwardly, of “colored people”, other evaluations resonate than when they say “color” in English. Since the translation team’s explicit intention was to find words “that don’t hurt anyone”, I suspect that the elimination of “color” was preceded by a corresponding discussion. But it also surprised me. The a-sounds have replaced the c-alliterations in German, a little less concise and again less rhythmic. In this translation, political sensitivity has clearly been given greater priority than the art of language, despite all the individual examples of successful chimes or individual rhythmic passages. Therefore, unfortunately, the magical effect of the original does not materialize.
Thomas Schmoll spoke to Frank Heibert.