This article was written for the Goethe Institute’s Artificially Correct project, and first appeared here.
Translation is incredibly challenging: translating sensitively demands that historical, geographical, political and social contexts be taken into account. The text to be translated is attached to its own particular discourses, and a good translation needs to be aware of these.
Yet different languages and their different linguistic worlds have developed different discourses around particular issues and problems. As if it weren’t already complex enough, language is constantly changing – especially in relation to political and therefore sensitive terms. In this article, we look specifically at English and German, and discuss 10 terms related to race that are difficult to translate. Since language is constantly evolving and changing, this list might look very different in a year, in five or in ten years. It is in no way exhaustive.
Due to the existing discourses on some of these topics in English, English terms are often retained in German usage. However, familiarity with such English terms may well be related to people’s educational and class background. What is more, when hearing politically sensitive alternatives for the first time, they can seem cumbersome and unwieldy. These difficulties are symptomatic of the fact that we need to build awareness for these issues, and foster a discussion culture in this subject area. It is important to create visibility for these difficulties, in order to develop discussions which we must have if language and society are to become less racist.
For these reasons, we offer a discussion of some key terms and selected examples which, based on our research, warrant consideration when it comes to sensitive translation. We understand ourselves as being in the process of learning in regard to the translation of sensitive terms, and are fortunate in being able to draw on the important work of Noah Sow, Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard, Sharon Dodua Otoo, Fatima El-Tayeb and many more. For explanatory purposes, and in order to deprive the more sensitive expressions of their potentially elitist elements, the following text reproduces individual discriminatory terms. With our explanations, we invite readers to engage with possibly unfamiliar terms and terminology in the hopes of developing more respectful ways of interacting with each other.
Although the English term race is often translated into German as Rasse, this can be very problematic. The disparity between the two terms becomes clear, for example, when you consider that when talking about race as Rasse, you are using the same word that is employed to distinguish between different breeds of dog. In English, the term breed is used to describe animals, and not humans.
One of the reasons why race and Rasse are simply not the same is that there are evidently different discourses behind these two terms. In German, the term Rasse carries biological associations, as though there were “real” human races. There are, of course, no such human races, and yet we cannot completely do without a word that depicts lived realities structured by racism. People who are familiar with the English-language discourses on race, racism and critical whiteness know that these are supposed to refer to social constructions. This is why some translations also use the term race in German, which in contrast to Rasse is used to describe and analyse social phenomena created by human beings and maintained by institutions.
2. Racial, Racialized, Raceless
English words containing race are sometimes even more difficult to translate into German than the word race itself. Rassisch, rassialisiert, rassenlos: These words sound strange in German and do not really reflect the meaning of the English words racial, racialized and raceless.
An example: Fatima El-Tayeb’s book European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe, which she wrote in English and co-translated into German herself, in the English version describes a European “narrative of racelessness”. This expresses how some self-representations of Europe try to create an image of a continent where there is no race problem, and therefore no racism. The fact that the English version of racelessness has been translated in the German edition as “Rassenlosigkeit oder Rassismuslosigkeit” (literally, “racelessness or racism-lessness”) demonstrates that what in English already functions as a concept that is critical of racism, must in German be explicitly explained as such.
Some racism-critical texts in German now use the terms Rassifizierung, rassifizierte Person or Rassialisierung. Although they are not yet found in all dictionaries or translation programmes, they seem like promising alternatives to the use of English terminology to express an ascribed differentiation that is racist. Occasionally, it happens that translators want to use a “more cautious” term and translate racial as ethnisch (‘ethnic’), which serves to distort the meaning – as illustrated in the next point.
Ethnicity can be translated into German with relative ease: Ethnizität, Ethnie or Volkszugehörigkeit. The difficulty, once more, lies in the different discourses that exist in English-speaking and German-speaking contexts. For example, although Ethnie in German is a term without its own direct colonial history, the anthropologist W. E. Mühlmann introduced it in the 1960s to replace race (Rasse) or tribe (Stamm). Ethnie is supposed to be a neutral, depoliticised term, but it continues the racist terminology of its predecessors. In German, ethnicity is often used to refer only to non-white people, who are generalized and evaluated by people in positions of power.
POC is an abbreviation for Person of Color or People of Color. The English term Person of Color/POC is also often used in German. The obvious translation farbige Person does not mean the same.
The Black cultural worker Noah Sow explains that white Germans often use the term farbig as a “polite” expression to suggest that a Black person is not really black at all – although a well-meaning euphemism is not necessary and of course these terms are not really about colour – they describe socio-political positions.
Person of Color, on the other hand, is a self-designation that people with experiences of racism have developed to describe the reality of their lives. It thus serves as an umbrella term for people of non-white communities, without naming a cultural or ethnic affiliation. It is a strategic term which helps to build alliances between different communities in the fight against racism. Due to other power dynamics that intersect with racism, People of Color is sometimes further differentiated, e.g. Women of Color or Queers of Color.
5. Black & white; Blackness & whiteness
In the German language, it is now possible to speak of Schwarzsein and weißsein as equivalents for Blackness and whiteness. This development has taken years. In Germany, the discourse on the subject of race has long been conducted in biological terms, i.e. scientific racism (“race research”) was actually looking for physical differences that would legitimise the superiority and inferiority of certain people. But the influence of the so-called racial turn has increasingly established itself in Germany too. This shift in dealing with issues relating to race calls into question the understanding of an arbitrary, ideologically motivated historical differentiation. Differences between people are made by people. Black and white are not adjectives that describe characteristics of human beings. Rather, these terms describe social and political positions that stem from a long history of oppression. Everyday practices re-establish and stabilise the white position of power. Numerous researchers and activists in Germany therefore suggest that one capitalise Schwarz and italicise weiß.
6. Darkness & Lightness
Literally translated, lightness in German would be Helligkeit or Leichtigkeit (the latter, in the sense of weightless). In texts referring to race, however, translations often use helle Haut instead. With this explicit reference to a physical characteristic, constructions of race continue to be rendered biological in German. In the English discourse, the previously mentioned racial turn has developed an understanding that a term like lightness describes a socio-political position.
The terms lightness and darkness are directly related to racist notions that have given rise to so-called colourism: Lightness (or helle Haut/Helligkeit) developed into a social currency. Colourism was used deliberately to divide Black communities during the time of slavery. Darker people, for example, were often assigned harder labour. The gradation between light-Black and dark-Black was constructed for the purpose of applying a value classification to people. These are relics of pseudo-scientific biological racism and segregation policies, which current forms of colourism perpetuate in more subtle ways. Lightness, for example, is staged as positive, in that “lighter” Black people are more strongly represented in the media. In this way, a connection between lightness and social privileges still exists today: a closer correspondence to dominant beauty ideals opens more doors.
7. Native American
In German, there are many problematic translations for Native Americans: In***ner, Ureinwohner Nordamerikas, Eingeborene. Particularly the first here – In***ner – serves to re-inscribe colonial violence by using a label imposed by colonisers. These terms are used in German only in relation to non-white people – white people are not Native Europeans (Eingeborene Europas). Thus racism is an immanent part of these terms. Their use reinforces associations with backwardness and primitiveness. So here too, oftentimes it might be best to retain the English term, to use unwieldy expressions such as indigene Bevölkerung Nordamerikas, or to mention the specific ethnic group (e.g. Cherokee).
8. N***o & N-word
It’s definitely a good idea to explain the decisions taken when translating a text in a foreword, epilogue, or footnote. A positive example of this is Malcolm Ohanwe’s translation of JJ Bola’s book Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined. The German version, entitled Sei kein Mann, contains an epilogue in which Ohanwe explains that he uses the term Schwarz as a self-designation of Black people and therefore capitalises the “S”. He also retains the term Race, as it is less charged in German discourse. We would have liked to see a similar comment on translation decisions in the German edition of Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason, in which N***o is consistently translated with the N-word – rather a strange choice.
Although N***o and N-word are both racist terms that should no longer be used, they are words that play a role in historical sources and older discussions of race and racism – and they are not identical. We would suggest marking both as problematic, but doing so should not erase the difference between them.
It is also important to keep an eye to the question of who speaks, which we discuss in closer detail in the next point. Rap and hip-hop culture have in many cases chosen to partially re-appropriate racist language, which historically stems from white supremacy. However, these terms are unacceptable when uttered by a white person.
9. Blackfella & Kanake
Blackfella is a term that many Native Australians use amongst themselves. In German, Blackfella could mean Schwarzer Kumpel or Typ, but this translation does not correspond to the political nuances of the English term. In addition, such a self-designation means that although Native Australians use this language to speak to each other, it would be discriminatory if a white person used the term. In this respect, Blackfella is comparable to the German term Kanake. Kanake originated as a swearword that white people use to insult People of Color who might be read as having a Turkish background. But within the Turkish-German community, a self-empowering appropriation of the term has taken place. Through this appropriation the term becomes a place of articulation and the meaning of one’s own social existence can be renegotiated. A new subjectivity emerges, which resists hegemonic objectification. Just as there is no suitable German translation for Blackfella, there is no fitting English translation for Kanake. The terms are deeply rooted in their respective social contexts.
10. Terms for the “oppressor”
The relevance of certain cultural and historical contexts is by no means limited to the language used to describe marginalised and oppressed groups. For a nuanced understanding of the context in which the text that has to be translated is anchored, it is important to reflect on how political contexts affect linguistic changes. Language can also serve to distance oneself from former atrocities and political attitudes.
The term Schutztruppe, as the German colonial troops were called, is already misleading in German – the only thing these troops really protected was colonialism. In translating the term into English, translation programmes are likely to suggest protection squad. This translation dissociates the term from the connotations of historical guilt that the term implies in German, at least for those who have dealt with German colonial history.
An example from another context would be the term Afrikaaner, which is used in South Africa and is actually Afrikaans and not English. It describes the descendants of white colonial settlers who have Dutch roots. Afrikaaner could be used in the same form in German, but German readers might think that Afrikaner (African) is misspelled. The common translation programmes offer Bure and Kapholländer as additional options (mostly in male form of course). But these terms are in many ways outdated and partly hide the historical and political connotations they actually carry. Translated back into English, Bure would become Boer rather than Afrikaaner. Literally, the term Boer in Afrikaans means “farmer”. Today many of the descendants of the early white settlers who speak Afrikaans might be more likely to identify themselves as Afrikaaners, while the term Boer is associated with a conservative and often racist political ideology, since this group is considered by many to have been the primary perpetrators of apartheid.