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macht.sprache. & Artificially Correct: Diskussion mit Lann Hornscheidt und Şeyda Kurt (Part 2)

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

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): Through macht.sprache. and Artificially Correct, we have a lot of exchanges with translators who translate into or from German. One topic that comes up again and again is gendering. In German, a gender ascription is also grammatically anchored. This attribution is particularly relevant when it comes to words describing people. What would you recommend to these translators? Would your recommendation be different for different types of text? Journalistic texts, novels, poetry…

Şeyda Kurt (SK): For my book, I partly translated song lyrics from Turkish into German and totally reached my own limits doing so. I realized that translating can completely alienate a text when you translate it from a gender-neutral language like Turkish, where at least the pronouns and nouns don’t have a specific gender assignment, into a strongly gendered language. So much that is somehow hybrid in the Turkish song, or ambiguous in a pleasant way that allows listeners to fill in certain blanks with their own imaginations, is lost.

What comes to my mind as a positive example is a text by the author Nadire Biskin, who in her text in the anthology Flexen und Flaneusen consistently uses the Turkish pronoun o, which is gender neutral, to describe the person acting. I find it a very nice and creative idea to draw from other languages and integrate them into a text that I, as an author, write in German.

I think it’s more difficult to experiment in this way in journalistic texts, because journalism is beholden to market constraints to a greater extent. That’s why, for example, I was so happy to be able to write this glossary for complicated terms for my book and to work with terms that are often cut in journalistic texts.

Lann Hornscheidt (LH): Translation, for me, is always an act of interpretation. It’s always a matter of being clear about why I choose which interpretation. In our publishing house, this has led to almost every book having an afterword by the translator and sometimes also by the publisher, to make decisions and interpretative interventions in the text transparent. For example, we published a book by Sherri Mitchell, an Indigenous US-American person, in German translation. In the book, we did not use the terms that are used in the U.S., but rather “Indigenous.” In the German context, anti-Indigenous racism is very much characterized by romanticizing images and Karl May novels. We are looking for other forms of expression.

In terms of gender, I would like to add that I think it is always important to consider when there is actually a subtle gender-text and whether it then make sense to translate it gender-neutrally, or if this is making sexism or genderism invisible. So I suggest three different strategies that can be considered: Gender-neutral forms, which often works well via action forms (“student” becomes not “Student” (“masculine student”), but “human who studies” or “person who studies”). Gender-inclusive forms, so asterisks or colons or other – and here I think it’s important to say that there can be a variety of different options. We don’t need a new, uniform set of rules. My favourite option, but the most unpopular, is to name the form of discrimination (so instead of saying “jokes about women” say “sexist jokes”). Which form is chosen is always highly dependent on context. But I agree with Şeyda, it should be understandable. For me, though, preferably without a glossary.

SK: Now that Lann has mentioned these translators’ afterwords, I can think of another example where exactly something like this would have helped me a lot – the poetry book of the activist Semra Ertan. Ertan composed Turkish poetry, and her sister and niece put together a book in which the Turkish original appears on the left and the German translation on the right. This works really well for the most part, but sometimes there are problems: In Turkish, the term “Volk,” or “halk,” is used a lot by the left-wing activist-poet Semra Ertan because it is a left-wing political category that speaks of solidarity. Quite different from the German “völkisch.” The translators seem to have been reluctant to translate it as “Volk” in German, because in this language it’s associated with a very different meaning and a very different history. Instead, they used “group of people,” which in some moments depoliticized the text. Maybe it would have been good if the translators had sometimes used “Volk” and explained their decision in a short paragraph.

LH: I would like to add something. So, Sherri Mitchell’s book is very binary, there are only women and men. Translating is not about making books different from what they are, but we made it clear in the afterword that an activist reading is always possible. People who are queer read a lot of things activistically anyway and don’t repeat heteronormative bisexuality over and over again in their reading. I’ve also long been practicing how to read texts differently. We invite people to do this in the afterword, so that they don’t have to feel excluded, but can read activistically.

AR: Lann, in addition to afterwords on translation, you work with creative neologisms at the publishing house. Could you briefly introduce what that looks like or give some examples?

LH: In our book Wie schreibe ich divers?, we introduced a new gender form because I think there is a need for courage to actively change language. Language systems and grammar are in fact constructions, extremely powerful, hegemonic normalizations of a particular use of language. It’s what a society has agreed upon, and of course those are patriarchal language norms. So in addition to masculine and feminine gender forms, we proposed the suffix -ens as a gender-free form, which is the middle part of “Mensch”, e.g. “Lehrens” for “Lehrer” – a person who teaches. This is short and simple and ens can also be used as a pronoun.

Another variation we use is that when we gender words, we place the special character such as the asterisk or underscore directly after the root of the word, and not between the conventionally masculine and feminine forms, because otherwise they would reappear as poles. In writing, it would in principle be enough to use the root of the word with an asterisk. But I also attach importance to the fact that everything is easily pronounceable.

A third example would “beHindert.” This is not an invention of ours. We adopted that from the Disability Community. This makes it clear that there are obstacles for people – people are “hindered” by obstacles, not “behindert”. 

We capitalise Black and write white small, with an italicized w, to make it very clear that it is not an identity designation, but the analytical category of a privileged position in relation to racism. We keep explaining these spellings in footnotes, but they’ve actually been commonplace since it was introduced 20 years ago in the book Mythen, Masken, Subjekte. We don’t use correct grammar, we change grammar, and to me that makes total sense. Since language is a discriminatory system, systemic choices have to be made as well. Language change is what people who are discriminated against do to survive. These changes are always offers to connect with others. It is a beautiful gesture that says, I want to be present.

Language has to change continuously. There will always be another struggle.

AR: Thank you very much. I think this appeal for more openness to language change is a good note on which to end.