Translating GDR Authors: Jana Hensel’s Zonenkinder

Figuratively, I’ve been spending a lot of time with GDR authors recently, and I thought I’d share some musings on the subject. My two MA assignments due this month have been on the subject, one a sample translation and commentary of Christoph Hein’s Glückskind mit Vater (2017), and the other a study of how Anglophone translators have distorted GDR auto-fiction to suit Western ideas about the former USSR. I focused on Jefferson Chase’s translation of Jana Hensel’s Zonenkinder, published as After the Wall in 2004. His translation was drastic, to put it mildly. The overarching Western interpretation of the former USSR in general, and the GDR more specifically, remains: everything must have been bad, and if anything wasn’t bad, we’ll leave it out or make it bad.

Anything published in English on the GDR, whether translated or not, therefore tends to focus on the oppression, the Stasi, mass surveillance, restrictions, deprivations, imprisonment, or a lucky escape to freedom in the naturally superior West. Nobody is arguing that the GDR was a worker’s utopia, but after a while this interpretation starts to feel a little one-dimensional, overdone and flat. However, complicating this view is that the most outspoken critics of the former GDR are often those who suffered at its hands. They were often dissidents themselves who were unfairly imprisoned or led extremely restricted lives under strict surveillance. The current interpretation of the GDR is not solely one constructed by the West, but it certainly supports and validates Western neoliberal ideals of individualism and free market capitalism.

Jana Hensel’s hugely successful Zonenkinder was the first GDR autobiography to cover fairly apolitical topics: the author wanted to recapture her lost childhood and search for traces of her homeland, which had been rapidly assimilated into the FRG (West Germany) after 1989. It wasn’t a particularly complex or well-written memoir, but it has turned out to be both hugely popular and rather controversial. Her explicit intention was to resurrect the GDR away from larger geopolitical issues, and to assert that, even in a dictatorship, people hold on to memories which are both private and warm. This has ruffled a few feathers in both East and West, as critics have reacted largely negatively to her ‘lack of analysis’ (‘Verzicht auf Analyse’: Arndt, writing for Freitag in Berlin). As a GDR author, she clearly didn’t fit the mould. Contrast this with the hugely warm reception of Claudia Rusch’s Meine Freie Deutsche Jugend (2005). What was the main difference here? Rusch’s family were dissidents, and suffered accordingly. This perfeclty fit the Western vision of how the GDR ‘really’ was, and therefore how it should be remembered.

Hensel didn’t want to touch politics or detail GDR oppression, but unfortunately, her American translator didn’t seem to get the memo. Jefferson Chase’s translation explicitly places Hensel’s work back into a framework she was doing her best to avoid. He includes a timeline of political events of the GDR sprinkled with dates which only an American would expect to see, such as when JFK proclaimed himself a ‘Berliner’ and when Ronald Reagan entreated Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’. He also includes a translator’s note which shouts GDR oppression from the rooftops, labouring his points about the GDR’s dictatorial nature, Stasi oppression and food shortages which are not even mentioned in the book. It seems as if he decided that, even though Jana Hensel’s work does not neatly fit into the “East = bad, West = good” dichotomy, he just decided to make it fit- shoehorning her auto-fiction into a frame of oppression it was trying to transgress. If Hensel had a point, Chase missed it.

Check out these examples from the book:

This is a caption which came with a picture of a GDR kitchen in the original. Hensel admits they were small and windowless, but her caption also focuses on the opportunities for childhood play through the window hatch which could be turned into a stage (Theaterbühne) or a shop (Kaufmannsladen).

And the translation:

It kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Here’s an example of how Chase explicated Hensel’s work, adding political references where there were none in the source text:

here, Hensel is talking about her school newspaper’s reporting. In this case, the Agitator was writing a report about “the men (working) on the (pipe)line”. ‘Trasse’ is an extremely vague word- it can mean pipeline for oil or gas, railway line, or even just a route of some kind. Hensel is often intentionally vague in her work in a concerted effort to steer away from political themes. She makes it clear she was writing about her childhood, her own subjective experiences. She was only thirteen when the Wall fell, and doesn’t pretend that she had an ability to analyse geopolitics at that age.

In translation:

Why was this even necessary?

Now, I don’t usually like to ‘diss’ other translators’ work. The vast majority of translators try to do their best by both the authors they are translating and their target audience. But sometimes I feel as though distortions and manipulations are not just stylistic or even unconscious choices, but they start to feel like more of a conscious and concerted effort to support a particular narrative at the expense of maintaining the source text author’s personal subjectivity and authenticity. That’s when I start to get a little frustrated.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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