Translation by Amanda Gorman: A “miracle” that lacks magic


The young poet Amanda Gorman has probably already secured a small place in world history. Your poem is a masterpiece. Nevertheless, it is still a long way from the Olympus of world literature – especially if you take the German translation as a yardstick.

Oprah Winfrey seems to be into pathos. Her preface to the poem by Amanda Gorman, which the 23-year-old recited on January 20 at the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, reads extremely solemn – and thus entirely to the taste of her compatriots. Tens of millions of people around the world perceived their appearance as a feast for the ears and eyes. It was she, a young black woman, and not Biden, an old white man, who gave hope to reunite the divided states of America. It was Gorman who, with her poetry, put a symbolic end to the ugly language of Donald Trump.


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In her – like the book – religiously charged foreword, Winfrey not only lifts her compatriot on a pedestal, but also elevates her, declaring her the Redeemer. “An image of gentle grace” has shown the country “where it has to go,” writes the billionaire and does not even shrink from the day on which Gorman “stepped up to the microphone in her radiant presence, a sign in this moment of truth continued “to refer to as a” miracle “.

The miracle is still waiting to be completed. Meanwhile – parallel to the corona flood – a marketing wave is running through the USA. The revolution doesn’t eat its new favorite child there, it sells or buys it: there is everything from mugs and socks to T-shirts, diaries and notebooks as well as bed linen with Gorman’s portrait on or on them, sometimes printed, then woven or branded , often so bizarrely bad that one can only assume from the red hairband that it may be the figure of light that Winfrey sung about.

Business and salvation have enjoyed going hand in hand in the United States for ages. Those who are politically left in the states do not have to be an anti-capitalist, money scorn and redistributor. So now a book. It was launched worldwide on March 31st. In the English edition it only contains her poem “The Hill We Climb”, which the young woman recited in Washington in January. It comprises 32 pages. The German version is titled “Den Hügel hinauf”, was published by the Hamburg publishing house Hoffmann und Campe and – since it is bilingual – twice as thin.

Translation lacks “literary courage”

Its appearance in Europe is accompanied by a debate on identity politics. The Dutch Marieke Lucas Rijneveld returned the translation assignment after her suitability was called into question because of her white skin color. In Spain, the publisher gave notice to the already engaged translator because he is a white man. Hoffmann and Campe avoided the risk of being drawn into the discussion by wisely and with foresight allowing three women to do the translation: the experienced translator Uda Strätling and the writing activists Hadija Haruna-Oelker and Kübra Gümüşay.

Anyone who wants to assume that the German publisher obeys the Twitter mob ahead of time should consider that the decision to hire a trio had been made in Holland before the debate and that he gave the writer Monika Maron a new publishing home, which Fischer Verlag is responsible for had put the alleged hang on the New Right in front of the door. It is rather strange that the choice fell on Gümüşay. On her website she defends herself against various allegations. For example, she writes: “In my book ‘Language and Being’ I mentioned a famous Turkish poet whose ia anti-Alevi, anti-Semitic and other statements incompatible with my convictions were not known to me.”

This may be. But anyone who writes a book on “Language and Being” should know the power of the word. And do better research in times when every word lands on the gold scales. Apart from that: A single woman would have been completely sufficient for the Gorman translation, namely Strätling – although she is white. In discussions about equality, it is always emphasized that it does not depend on the color of the skin. But should it play a role in literature? From statements made by the trio, it is clear that many lines are a compromise. Art as a search for consensus – a terrible thought.

In his ARD program “Druckfrisch”, Denis Scheck said: “Reads well, the commentary is plausible.” Anyone who knows the literary critic knows what is meant: It would be much better. Check further: The translation “unfortunately lacks the most outstanding quality of the original: literary courage”. And on the identity-political controversy, he said: “Literature is the medium that allows us to literally get out of our skin and slip into the skin of others.” Anyone who insists on the equality “of the worlds of experience and experience of the author and translator has, I fear, not fully understood the beautiful game of literature”.

The danger of discord is great

Scheck named as an example of what would be lost to the literary business, the strong translations of the works of the American James Baldwin, a black, by Miriam Mandelkow, a white, born in Amsterdam and living in Hamburg. The author of this text immediately thought of Frank Heibert, who sensationally translated the absurdly difficult to translate novel “Lincoln im Bardo” by Georges Saunders into German and recently published a highly acclaimed new translation of George Orwell’s “1984” in the present tense (!). Although the Berliner is a white man, he knows from his own experience what it is like to be discriminated against: He is gay and makes no move to hide it from the public.

Heibert recently wrote an article for “Die Zeit” in which he cleverly and vividly presented the difficulties that the transmission of “The Hill We Climb” brings and must bring if one wants to meet all requirements. He says: “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.”

So the risk of discord is great. And so it happened promptly that the translation is wooden in some places and does not come close enough to the sparkling original, which you notice even if you don’t speak perfect English. An example: “We are striving to forge a union with purpose” means in the German edition: “We rather strive for solidarity, common perspectives and goals.” That sounds like a coalition agreement between parties who pretend to harmonize in the interests of the country – but less like poetry.

With her work, including the appearance of the earth, Gorman gave a magical moment and in a few minutes perhaps secured a small place in world history. Your poem is a masterpiece. It is still a long way from the Olympus of world literature – especially if you take the German translation as a yardstick.

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