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What’s in a foreword? On translator’s notes

Translators make decisions that have an enormous impact on how texts arrive in linguistic contexts beyond the language they were written in. Especially in literary translation, many of these decisions are related to questions of aesthetics and style. But these are also, as our macht.sprache. project is making increasingly clear, decisions with political undertow and ramifications. The translator’s note is often a moment that allows translators to communicate to their readers the considerations that went into their decision-making. For the majority of translation work that happens, the translator’s note is likely a luxury that isn’t granted – there’s no time, there’s no space, the work of translation is perhaps not viewed as ‘important’ enough to be granted this opportunity or this prominence – or publishers might even be reluctant to draw attention to the fact that readers are gaining access to a text through such mediation.

Yet translator’s notes can be an incredibly enriching contextualisation of a given translated work. Not only do they allow translators to ‘explain’ the choices they’ve made in translating a text, but they allow them to frame the considerations that went into their decisions, and the broader discussions of which those considerations form a part. By articulating the difficulties they faced, they can contribute to their readers’ understanding of the oftentimes sensitive issues at stake. For instance, in the foreword Mirjam Nuenning and Sharon Dodua Otoo wrote for the new German translation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which came out with w_orten & meer in 2016, they articulate a number of complex questions that went into their considerations for how to translate what is arguably one of the most influential works of African American literature.

Nuenning and Otoo discuss the problem of how to deal with terms used to describe Black people – especially harmful and discriminatory language – and the difficulty this poses as an important part of an historical text that represents lived experiences of racism, but which is wholly inappropriate to current-day discourses. As such, they use their foreword to argue for the importance of positioned writing, positioned translating, and positioned reading: keeping in mind the positionality of all involved in these complex interactions, and the particular contexts to which they attach. In describing the methods by which some of their translation choices were made (numerous discussions within the publishing house, many of which entailed disagreement and remain unresolved; as well as reaching out to hear a variety of voices on the subject), they frame their considerations and decisions as collaboratively rather than unilaterally produced, and as a part of work in progress and of ongoing discussions.

In the recent German translation of Stuart Hall’s Familiar Stranger, which came out with Argument Verlag in 2020, the editorial board of Natasha Khakpour, Jan Niggemann, Ingo Pohn-Lauggas, Nora Räthzel and Victor Rego Diaz similarly situate their decisions in regard to the translation of ‘racial’ language as a part of important ongoing conversations. In this instance, they use their foreword to frame questions of translation as components in a necessary wider critical reflection, as well as to call for further developing the relevant discourses and possible approaches to, for example, gender-inclusive language. They too take on the work of familiarising their readership with the discussions that surround politically sensitive language. This includes articulating the reasons why, for instance, ‘farbig’ is not an acceptable translation for ‘of Colour’, as well as why the English word ‘racial’ might require further qualification when translated into German – they opt for ‘rassistisch’ in some instances and ‘rassisiert’ in others.

A translator’s note can function as a key for typographic choices made in the text, as in both Nuenning and Otoo’s and that of the Stuart Hall editorial board. Both make specific decisions about italicisation, capitalisation and gender markers – the reasoning for which they are able to clarify in their forewords. Nuenning and Otoo’s note, moreover, even acts as a how-to for dealing in the classroom with a novel in which they have opted, after careful consideration, to maintain the original use of the N-word: they suggest preparing readers for what is coming, and indicating that this word on the page should not be spoken aloud as it is. In this way, their translator’s note functions both as instruction and as sensitisation.

In short, the next time you find yourself tempted to skip a translator’s note – maybe give it a second thought. There is a great deal to be gained from learning more about the thinking that went into translation decisions, especially when it comes to politically sensitive language.

With thanks to Argument Verlag for a review copy of Vertrauter Fremder.