Now that I’ve been reading and writing a lot about translator’s notes over the past few weeks, I thought I’d write my own. I’ve translated an extended extract of Christoph Hein’s 2017 novel Glückskind mit Vater for a recent project, and the process threw up questions about the representation of GDR literature in English. Christoph Hein is an older GDR author, and his works often sit at an intersection of history, politics and auto-fiction. Whilst Glückskind mit Vater is clearly a novel, it also contains marked autobiographical elements which reflect his GDR experience. The book follows narrator-protagonist Konstantin Boggosch as he attempts to navigate growing up in the GDR in the shadow of his deceased Nazi father.
The GDR Context
Translating GDR authors into English has never been a straightforward matter, and continues to cause controversies thirty years after the Wende, or reunification. Translation practices have been marked by an idea of Western sociopolitical superiority since the rapid assimilation of the GDR into West Germany after 1989, which Claire Hyland has termed ‘Western triumphalism’. Anglophone discourse has authorised a narrow interpretation of the GDR as an Unrechtstaat (unjust state), and as a result, translations tend to politicise and even belittle GDR texts. Jefferson Chase’s translation of Jana Hensel’s Zonenkinder, published as After the Wall in 2004, can be seen as a prime example of this. In my translation of Christoph Hein’s work, I was distinctly writing against this tendency and practice. I did not want to write from a place of perceived moral and cultural superiority over the socialist experiment of the GDR, and attempted as far as I could to see past my own ingrained biases as an Anglophone, Western translator. I did not mention ‘GDR’ more often than ‘DDR’ appeared in the source text, as this could be seen as overly explicating the novel’s cultural and historical setting behind the Iron Curtain. The reader never once loses sight of the fact that they are in East Germany, so there was no need to patronise the audience in politicising the work.
1) Multiple Narrative Voice
There are discernible layers of narrative voice in the text. The tale of the young Konstantin Boggosch is told through the perspective and memories of the older, retired Boggosch. Translators can often fall victim to the ease with which narrative voices can be altered and ‘filtered’ in translation, so bringing the variations in tone and register across without obstructing or interfering with the interplay between the Boggoschs was a challenge. A lot of the young Boggosch’s speech is fairly low-register, reflecting his age, such as the use of ‘immerzu’ (still- colloqualism). In other places, high-register words remind the reader that the story is being reminisced by a former headteacher: ‘Willkür’ (caprice) is one example of a word a sixteen-year-old would probably not use. Where I noticed these register changes in the text, I have attempted to preserve them in translation, making use of programmes such as Google Ngram and dictionaries which record register.
2) Politically Loaded and Culture-Specific Vocabulary
Some of the vocabulary used is specific to the novel’s historical GDR context, and some is specific to the division of Germany. I have preserved these forms unchanged in the target text where possible in order to signal difference. The foreignness of such a text should be nothing to shy away from. I expect most readers willing to pick up and buy a GDR-specific translated novel to have at least a rough knowledge of contemporary German history and more than a passing interest in either the GDR or the German context. A lot of the foreign words I included in the translation are also near-cognates, meaning a switched-on reader will be able to figure the meanings out without consulting Google. I did not want to underestimate my readers.
The term ‘Volkspolizisten’ is one example of a GDR-specific term, referring solely to the East German national police force, which disintegrated after reunification. An initial draft of my translation included ‘State policemen’, yet at a later stage I replaced this with the source text word in italics, preserving it for the readers to understand or research at their own leisure. Translating Volkpolizisten as ‘State policemen’ would have constituted what Venuti terms a ‘domestication’ of the source text for a Western target audience. Had I translated the word ‘Volk’, I would have destroyed its manifold significations and connotations in the original German. The word is highly loaded, and was used both by the Nazi and GDR regimes: it was intrinsic to their nationist ethos, purportedly describing a patriotic and homogenous populace, making it extremely difficult to translate. Conversely, the term was essential during the Leipzig uprisings which spelled the start of the end of the East German state in 1989, under the slogan “wir sind das Volk” (we are the people). However, the word also has darker, xenophobic connotations from the Nazi era and before, such as during the ‘Völkisch-Nationalist’ movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was distinctly antisemitic in nature. A few decades later, the GDR army was known as the ‘Nationale Volksarmee’, and citizens were being urged to do their socialist duty to support their Volk. Overall, the word Volk was fairly ubiquitous to both German dictatorships, and worrying echoes are still being felt today, as right-wing fringe groups such as Pegida and AfD are recycling and reusing the slogan ‘wir sind das Volk’ to falsely connect their motives with the struggle against GDR oppression and to create the illusion of a popular mandate. The term is better left untranslated.
There are other near-cognates which I decided to keep in the target text in italics. Words such as Ostzone, Ostberliner, Westberliner, Ostgeld and Westgeld are all specific to the era of a divided Germany yet, fortunately, unnecessary to translate due to their readability in English. Sample readers understood most of the foreign words through a mixture of guesswork, context and shared language roots.
‘Die Blockade’ was another example of a historically and culturally specific term. In my initial drafting process, I used the term ‘the Berlin Blockade’ in the target text, with ‘Berlin’ acting as a clarifier. But then I had a rethink. I decided that the narrator would be highly unlikely to clarify ‘Blockade’ with ‘Berlin’ so I decided against it in the final version. Having grown up in the GDR and lived through the Berlin Blockade and subsequent Airlift, Boggosch would be highly familiar with the historical event in question and therefore highly unlikely to refer to it as ‘die Berliner Blockade’ in his thought or writing process. Deciding against this clarification helped to preserve the authenticity of Boggosch’s narrative voice. Although Anglophone reader may not be as familiar with these events as the average source text reader, and may not immediately grasp what is meant by ‘the Blockade’, I do not want to underestimate my audience or negate the foreignness of the source text.
Ultimately, it is no mean feat to translate GDR literature in today’s political and publishing climate. History is written by the victors: the West, particularly the USA and the UK, have enforced a particular narrative onto literature coming from ex-Soviet authors. There is a sense that literature from (ex-)GDR authors has to be ‘bad’, it has to portray the GDR in a negative light to be accepted as ‘authentic’ by Western audiences. Therefore, the translated texts often end up politicised, with exaggerated references to the political structures of the State and negative aspects of the GDR dictatorship, from censorship to Stasi terror. Hein certainly does not paint a rosy view of the GDR through this novel, and the main character remains privately critical of the regime throughout, yet the GDR is only tangible and relevant at pivotal moments in the story. Boggosch is by no means haunted by an existential fear of the State. The State has intervened in his life and reduced his chances and opportunities through no fault of his own, due to the war crimes of his father, but at no point in his story is he bundled into a windowless van and tortured in Stasi basements. In short, Hein presents us with a much more nuanced and well-rounded picture of East German life through Boggosch’s role as narrator-protagonist, spanning the entire existence of the GDR from its conception in the late 1940s to its death and dissolution in 1989-1990. Boggosch is not burning to emigrate to capitalist freedom and indulgence in the West. After all, he does return ‘the wrong’ way over the border after living in France. He feels a duty to his mother in the GDR, and it certainly wasn’t an easy choice for emigres and exiles to leave the country they were born in. As with any historical narrative, the story of the GDR and the West was not black and white. We need to translate GDR authors beyond stories of heavy-handed oppression, although survivor’s testimonies are also important to building a picture of the former regime. We need to realise that most ordinary people’s lives just continued, and they made the best they could out of the situation.