On 4 June, 2021, we hosted a discussion event with Lann Hornscheidt and Şeyda Kurt in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut. As part of the projects macht.sprache. and Artificially Correct, we were able to learn from the guests about ways of dealing with politically sensitive terms in writing and translating.
Şeyda Kurt is a freelance journalist, moderator and author. Her book Radikale Zärtlichkeit – Warum Liebe politisch ist was published in April 2021 by HarperCollins Germany. Her work focuses on philosophy, culture, domestic politics and intersectional feminism. She also gives workshops on journalistic writing and discrimination-sensitive language.
Lann Hornscheidt works in and with language-activism, with a discrimination-critical focus – in teaching and lecturing, in copywriting and editing, in publishing and in always reformulating. In 2021, Lann Hornscheidt published a practical guide on gender and language with Ja’n Sammla entitled Wie schreibe ich divers? Wie spreche ich gendergerecht?, was published by w_orten & meer Verlag, which Lann co-founded.
Anna von Rath of poco.lit. (AR): You both work with language and think about language. What significance does language have when it comes to social power relations?
Şeyda Kurt (SK): As a journalist in the cultural sphere, the question of representation in language arises for me. How are people represented, how are they characterized and described in the media? Which characteristics are attributed to them and which are denied? But the focus on language in terms of symbolic representation is not enough for me if it does not also include certain material systems – such as relations of production and ownership. That is, I write, for example, not only about the extent to which our language is still saturated with colonial-racist dehumanizations, but also about what purposes this dehumanization serves. Then as now, it is about colonial pursuits such as power, money, and exploitation of bodies and their environments. This requires a justification that the counterpart is not human anyway. Language is thus always linked to struggles for domination. A different language alone does not create a different society as long as this society is still a neoliberal, turbo-capitalist, exploitative one, or as long as racism and sexism are structurally anchored. Similarly, I don’t believe there can be just language in an unjust society. But I am nevertheless convinced that a more just society must also include a different way of speaking about and with each other.
Lann Hornscheidt (LH): I fully agree with you, Şeyda. In lectures and presentations, I often hear the question these days, why we should change language, when we must first change material conditions. I think that the one is not possible without the other. I want to emphasise not only that there can be no just language in an unjust society, but also that a change in language is needed to make society more just. For me, a change in language is not just about symbolic accessories or ornaments. In order for certain things to become imaginable at all, we need the courage to reappropriate language. Discrimination is deeply ingrained in the way we speak and write. When certain terms roll off our tongues quite naturally, it shows how self-evident and how taken for granted many forms of structural discrimination have become, that it is hard to think about them, because “that’s just the way it is”, “what else should I say?” and “but you understand me perfectly well!” That’s why it’s so important to actively re-appropriate language. Moreover, I understand language as action and not as something that is subordinate. We can speak differently, we can speak respectfully to each other, we can ask different questions and set different topics. We can de-normalize normality by naming it. That which is normal is powerful, privileged, and usually de-named – I use de-named on purpose, not unnamed, to emphasize that not naming something is also a linguistic act. Changing something at this point could change perception.
Language has an incredible potential for influencing our conceptions of reality. Robin Wall Kimmerer, an Indigenous botanist from the U.S., wrote in her book Braided Sweetgrass that Western European language systems always distinguish between people and everything else – plants, animals, things, and objects. In the Potawatomi language, a distinction is made between the living and the non-living, also grammatically. Mountains and rivers also belong to the living. This, of course, changes the idea of us as human beings in a larger structure. In German, it is inconceivable that mountains and rivers have the same genus as people. But of course this shapes our worldview, how we encounter other living things, what language we use, and how open we are to the fact that language will always be changing.
Language is incredibly dynamic, as are systems of discrimination. So, to impose rules that there are now ‘correct’ ways of expression is, I think, counterproductive. Linguistic actions always have to adapt to how the discourse develops and how discriminations are practiced.
AR: Thank you very much! I would now like to go into a little more detail about some of the things you mentioned. Şeyda in your book Radikale Zärtlichkeit, the introduction is followed by a little glossary of complicated terms – it includes things like “binary,” “racialized,” or “biologistic.” In my experience, glossaries are otherwise more like forewords or afterwords that aren’t directly integrated into the main text.
Could you explain why you decided to write a glossary in the first place and then give it the role of a real chapter in your book, and how you chose the terms for this glossary?
SK: When I wrote the book, I asked myself who I was writing it for. I first thought of my friends, and not all of them studied at university. That is, they may not yet have come into contact with certain terms, but they may nevertheless have an existential need to deal with these topics, because these topics affect them, because they are affected by racism, queerphobia and other -isms. So the glossary is an offer to take these people along.
I work a lot with terms like “binary” or “racialized” because they serve to expose certain philosophies or logics. To reveal certain patterns in systems, I need these terms. Binaries pervade Western thought, not only in terms of gender, but also in terms of nature and culture – similar to what Lann just described – or body and soul.
AR: Lann, you are, like Şeyda, involved in putting together books. You co-founded the publishing house w_orten & meer, which is committed to language-action that is critical of discrimination. You already touched on language as action earlier, perhaps you could go into it again here in relation to the publishing house’s work?
LH: I founded the publishing house out of the desire for there not to be a need to have a discussion every time about whether language is action, or whether it’s okay to introduce a new form of language, or to use a word like “racialized,” to take an example from Şeydas Glossary. With w_orten & meer, it’s a programmme to use language that is critical of discrimination and to show that this is possible, that this is understandable, that this is not cumbersome, that this does not make the books twice as long. When it comes to understandability, there is always the question for whom things are incomprehensible, and for whom it is necessary for survival to appear in a book and not always feel excluded, for whom it is important not to always have to make themselves read past things because the same racist terms are always used in novels and their translations by large publishing houses. All of these are my motivations. I also felt like I wanted to be able to create something more freely. What distinguishes most of our books is genre-crossing. It’s not so clear anymore whether it’s nonfiction, an essay, or a novel. It’s not just about the individual words that discriminate, but also these very clear genre specifications. It’s absolutely important to us that people who are discriminated against can speak for themselves. Translations are also done by people who have a proximity of experience to the forms of discrimination. What has now come up with the discussion about the translation of Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb was always a prerequisite for us. Our target audience is also always primarily the group of people who are discriminated against. But everyone can take something away from the books. I myself have learned a lot from Audre Lorde, for example, who is a lesbian, Black American and writes in a clearly positioned way. In publishing, experience and positioning are important in everything, including cover design.