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macht.sprache.: A discussion with Mirjam Nuenning and Dr. Michaela Dudley (part 2)

On 19 May 2021, we got to hear from Dr. Michaela Dudley and Mirjam Nuenning about their thoughts on translating politically sensitive language. You can find recording of the event here. The event was a part of our macht.sprache. project, which is supported by the Berlin Senate, and which you can also check out here.

Mirjam Nuenning is a freelance translator of English-language Afro-diasporic literature, as well as founder of the Afro-diasporic kindergarten Sankofa in Berlin. After spending several years in Washington D.C., where she successfully completed studies at the prestigious Howard University – a Historically Black University), she now lives and works in Berlin. Her translations include “the things I am thinking while smiling politely” and “Synchronicity” by Sharon Dodua Otoo, and “Kindred-Verbunden” by Octavia Butler.

Dr. Michaela Dudley, a Berlin trans* woman with Afro-American roots, is a multilingual columnist, cabaret artist, keynote speaker and a lawyer. In addressing structural problems such as racism, misogyny and homo/transphobia, her focus is on diversity and language.

We’re publishing a transcript of the discussion in two parts. This is the second. You can find the first here.

Please note that, given the nature of the issues discussed, some sensitive terms come up in the course of the conversation.

Lucy of poco.lit. (LG): Michaela, I’ve heard you speak beautifully about the importance of intersectionality, and how this is a significant part of your world view and activism. Could you maybe tell us a bit about what you think an intersectional approach to politically sensitive translation might need to take into account?

Michaela Dudley (MD): Intersectionality gives me insight into so many areas. I didn’t come into the world with intersectional thinking, it’s like my coming out. It occurred in a sequence of different stages in my life, in my own awareness. To give a little historical perspective, I was born in 1961, in the same year in which, here in Berlin, the Berlin Wall was built. I was born in the United States, but it seems that for most of the six decades of my life, I’ve been trying to break through walls myself – using my head sometimes. And you need aspiration to do that (you also need Aspirin). Breaking through barriers linguistically as well. I began learning German at a very early age because my father had – when he was a kid in the States, born in 1917 – when he started school, German was the first foreign language that people learnt.

I spent part of my youth in Germany; had different family members who served in Germany. I was listening to German radio in the States, as I was to the BBC for that matter, with my shortwave. My contact with the German language began rather early.

So, I was born in 1961, and if you look at my birth certificate, it has the name that was assigned to me at birth, including the designation Roman Catholic, and after that, it says: N***o. N***o didn’t bother anyone at the time. It was a normal word Blacks used to refer to themselves. It was not offensive. It was in the names of different organisations, institutions, and activities: The N***o Baseball League, for example, or the concept of N***o spirituals. It was a decent way of referring to Black people – and it’s still on my birth certificate.

Then you have the activism of the 60s and 70s, which I lived through, and you see the emergence of the word ‘Black’. In the 50s, so shortly before I arrived, referring to people as Black was considered not too fine. “They’re coloured” was more likely – because they’re not white. N***o was an accepted name. So, ironically, the German N-word, with 5 letters, was actually based on the English N***o. If a German wanted to, for whatever reason, insult you as a Black person, he would use the English 6-letter word – which is definitely an insult coming from a white person. An insult either way, unless you’re a multimillionaire Black rap musician with entitlement to use that term in every line.

The German 5-letter word for N***o was quite acceptable, and you heard and saw people using that word routinely in the 1990s and the 2000s, and of course, we know, even in the 2020s it comes into play. But it’s very harshly criticized in the meantime. If you say N***o in the United States, people will look at you funny, and they’ll know what you’re trying to communicate, but it doesn’t scar their soul in the same way the 6-letter word does.

In German, you see more deference to politically sensitive language by virtue of people saying, “Let’s not use that 5-letter N-word anymore.” There’s a movement towards that, but wherever there’s a movement, there’s a counter-movement. Those on the right, those who are truly racist, enjoy using that 5-letter N-word because they can essentially communicate the 6-letter N-word – since now the 5-letter N-word in German is taboo.

I’m currently writing an English-language novel about South Africa, and of course, terms like ‘coloured’ in South Africa were very well-established, as a means of distinguishing from Black. ‘Coloured’ was one small step before rock bottom. Then there’s the issue of Afrikaans, the language of the white Dutch settlers, and the Afrikaans equivalent for the N-word, and that’s the K-word. This word appears in my novel. It’s an historical novel; it has an historical context, but also a contemporary one. I briefly asked myself, am I entitled to use that? I’m a novelist, it’s my story, I can say whatever the hell I want. Am I entitled also as a Black person to use that word? Should I not be more conscious of what it can cause? Or should I say: “It’s there, it’s coming out of the mouth of an identifiably racist person – I’m simply portraying the situation that exists.”

In Germany, I write for several papers. I know my white brothers and sisters are quite careful. There was one situation where I wanted to use the 6-letter N-word in an article about racism. The term was ‘house N-word’, to attack people who are Uncle Toms. They said I couldn’t use that; I said, “I’m Black. I’m trying to criticise racism here and I’m trying to reclaim the word and turn it around.” And they said that using that word would get us in trouble, because it triggers something in people. We settled on another word: token. It doesn’t have the same strength. It’s not as ugly. It doesn’t rip away the flesh of your soul.

But I accepted it because I knew there would have been an uproar. Sometimes, as a Black person, I want to use that word because I know how much it hurts, and I want to convey that. And that’s kind of a dilemma.

LG: Mirjam, in the foreword of Kindred, you give insight into many of the considerations that went into your translating decisions. One of the things you describe doing is sourcing input from over 50 people with experiences of racism on how to tackle the use of the N-word in the translation. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about this process, about the input you received and what you learnt from it?

Mirjam Nuenning (MN): In translating Kindred, it was a big issue, because the N-word was used a lot of times throughout the book, and the book was published by a publisher that specifically wanted to not reproduce stereotypes, racism, and discrimination. But here we were: a book written by a Black woman who was specifically using this word, not just to describe Black people – that would have been easy, we could have just replaced it with Black – but she was specifically using this word because she wanted to show the horror and the trauma that racism caused: the physical abuse, the linguistic abuse, the emotional abuse, the sexual abuse. She was using this word as one example of the many horrors that enslaved Black people had to go through.

I wanted to use the N-word. It’s interesting that you talk about the 5-letter and the 6-letter N-word, Michaela, because that’s exactly the issue we ran into. We kept talking about the N-word, and I kept saying, “But there are two.”  We never really resolved that.

We decided to invite some other Black people who were living in the German-language context and ask them: “How would you feel if we spelled this word out, what are your thoughts on this?” We received very different responses. Some people said, “please don’t write it out, it’s just going to retraumatise me.” Some people said we should write it out, there’s a reason why this author chose to use this word and she’s not just using it to describe a Black person, she’s using it to give an example. We got very different responses, also in terms of whether people grew up in Germany, or in the States, or in France. People felt very different about it.

For myself, I can say I also have a very different relationship to the N-word. I spent a lot of time living in the States, living in D.C., which is majority Black, going to a Black university. I have a very different experience when it comes to the N-word – the 6-letter N-word even – than some people who’ve only been in the German context and who’ve had to fight against the 5- and the 6-letter N-words all of their lives.

We got all of these responses; we had long discussions within the publishing company, and we decided to spell out the 6-letter N-word, but leave it in English, meaning we left the lower-case n and we didn’t add the female ending when someone was referring to a woman. We left it in English, that was our solution for the 6-letter N-word. For N***o and ‘coloured’, I left those terms in English, because there is no translation for N***o and there is no translation for ‘coloured’ that is okay. Because N***o and ‘coloured’, as Michaela was sharing, at some point in history, were actually used and embraced by Black people to describe themselves in the States. And in Germany, that never happened. No Black person ever referred to themselves as ‘farbig’ or the other N-word, which I can’t even say in German.

We just had to get creative and think about why she’s using it, what is the history, here and there, associated with different terms to describe Black people.

LG: Given the extremely different discursive contexts that are built around a lot of politically sensitive terminology, it relatively often seems to be the case that keeping the English term in German-language texts and conversations comes up seeming to be the best solution. But are there any problems with it?

MD: I certainly prefer to use certain terms, like ‘woke’ in English. My personal preference is to put them in italics and then to try to squeeze in the approximate German translation of it. I don’t want to appear to be condescending; I want to be inclusive actually. When you start throwing around these terms, you get people who agree with you on the issues, but maybe they don’t know the exact definitions of the terms.

At the same time, as Mirjam has pointed out, there are restrictions, there are limitations there. You can’t import a word, inject it into the other language and just leave it there. You have to think about, as I always do, for whom is this literature primarily intended, and, when it’s journalism, what could it possibly result in.

MN: In terms of leaving certain words in English, and that it also carries the risk of excluding people or even, looking at English as a colonizing language – I agree with that, and at the same time, the reason why I sometimes find myself leaving words in English or preferring to do that, is that there are no better suited words in German oftentimes. The discourse in the German-speaking world on issues like race, gender, intersectionality, diversity, is relatively new. There’s a little bit more history, and a little bit more discourse behind all of these conversations in English, which is why it’s easier sometimes to use the English terms.

Until we find better words, better suited words in German, I would prefer using the English terminology. An added benefit is that if we use a common language, it can also serve as a unifying force in the resistance movements across the world, in terms of fighting the patriarchy and racism, and so on.