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“At some point, you have to hand in your translation”: An interview with Anabelle Assaf

As part of our macht.sprache. / case.sensitive. project, we’re speaking to various experts who deal with language, translation or artificial intelligence. Anabelle Assaf has been working in the literary sphere since her master’s degree in Applied Literary Studies. She has translated numerous books from French and English into German. In our conversation, Anabelle Assaf offers insights into very specific translation decisions related to gender, race, and different forms of English that she gained through her translations of Washington Black by Esi Edugyan and The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. This much is clear: it’s a constant balancing act.

You’ve translated a whole range of different books. What do you think: when are a translator and a text a good fit?

This is, of course, a delicate issue that goes far beyond translation itself. Fundamentally, my view is that all translators can translate anything. For me, the important thing is that the tone suits me, and since I have a slight penchant for mannered language, I had a lot of fun translating a historical novel like Washington Black. In the process, I was able to use a certain vocabulary in German that wouldn’t work at all for a modern novel and contemporary youth culture. In the case of Vivek Oji, it was fitting because Emezi is of my generation and the novel is set at a time when I was only slightly younger than the protagonists themselves. As a translator, you can’t always meet all the criteria, so it’s always good to know beforehand where or from whom I can get help. Many authors are incredibly helpful and are eager to talk to their translators around the world and explain things. It can also be productive to collaborate with other translators on a translation.

How much expertise do translators need as a basis for their work? Did you have to draw on expertise in gender issues, for example, in order to translate Akwaeke Emezi’s works?

In part, yes, although of course I only translate what is in the source text. Fiction is somewhat different to nonfiction in that respect. If I’m translating a sociological book about racism, I have to really familiarize myself with the relevant discourses and the technical terms in German. For example terms like race and white fragility. There is not necessarily an equivalent in German for these terms, since they originate from the North American context. 

With Vivek Oji, I had a moment of uncertainty at the very end and thought back and forth for a long time about what to do. But there, too, I mainly followed Emezi’s guidelines. Now here’s a huge spoiler: When Vivek dies at the end and Osita carries him through the streets, the pronoun changes from he to she. Osita now only speaks of my cousin, which is gender neutral in English, but in German I had to decide whether to make it Cousine (female cousin) or Cousin (male cousin). The moment the narrative voice used she once in the original text, I started using Cousine. In the end, this change is much more noticeable in German than in English.

I’m in a Facebook group for translators where we exchange ideas about all things translation-related, and I had a very interesting discussion about this translation decision: I was told that I can’t use the pronoun he with a trans person if they define themselves as a woman. But Vivek is a man for most of the book, and a lot of it is about outside attribution. I didn’t want to start changing the original text in that regard. Fiction is fiction. I’m given a story and I don’t want to start writing certain discourses into it that aren’t already in there. The story is set in the 1990s in a context where people weren’t sensitive to trans identities at all. In fact, violence in language is a central theme in Vivek Oji.

Especially in terms of violent language or sensitive terms, I imagine translating historical novels to be particularly difficult. In the context of Washington Black, for example, the racism of the time is expressed very clearly. How do you deal with racist terminology in such a historical text?

It’s incredibly difficult. I took certain English terms with into the German, like master for the plantation owners in Barbados. A translation like Meister would remind me more of martial arts or crafts. But when I think about why master is such a fixed term for me, I realize that when translating, it’s important to question your own sources and influences.

With other words, such as the N-word, I’ve retained it when it is used in the historical context in which it was actually used at the time. At the same time, I belong to the group of people who clearly say that the N-word has no place in Pippi Langstrumpf. With children’s books, I have a very firm opinion on racist language, but with Washington Black, where a racist person in a racist system uses that word, it seems I should keep it. But it’s always a trade-off. In a translation of a historical novel by a Scottish author, I’ve decided against it more often – but that was also from a different time, from the 1970s, where certain people were written about in a vocabulary that just isn’t appropriate to our times. I can still make the colonial attitude of the text clear in translation without having to use the N-word.

In some books I’ve found translators’ notes about their translation decisions. Do you think this is a useful idea?

In principle, yes. I myself read the translator’s afterword in Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates with great interest. The translator explains in detail that all the characters speak perfect German, because otherwise they would seem silly in German. But this way, no belonging or affiliation can be established from the literal speech of the characters, and all the characters, the Black and the white, the enslaved and the plantation owners, suddenly sound almost the same.

In translating Washington Black, I had to make similar choices, and consider each character: their level of education, whether English is their first language or they learned it later – like Big Kit, who was taken from Dahomey.

The thing is, there are simply different forms of English, some of which have evolved for reasons of resistance, and these differences are difficult to map into German. With Vivek Oji, it’s Nigerian Pidgin, and that can’t really be mapped into German either. It also doesn’t work to then have one person speak Pottdeutsch and the other Berlinerisch – but that’s what was done for a while.

There is a lot that has to be considered when translating – here and there you can forget something. I just got the proof copy from Vivek Oji and already when I looked at the first three pages, I discovered things that I would do differently now. But at some point you have to hand in your translation.