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Sensitivity Readings: taking a diverse readership into consideration

Our project macht.sprache. had us thinking about sensitive translation. But even within one language, there are many reasons to strive for sensitive expression. Sensitivity Readings support authors in taking a diverse readership into consideration.  

More and more publishers and authors are deciding to have sensitivity readings done on their potential publications. They are usually performed during the revision process of a manuscript and mean that the text is checked for potential discrimination – for discriminatory terminology, stereotypical portrayals of people or certain groups, of countries or continents, and careless errors in logic that can become microaggressions for some readers. Sensitivity reading allows authors to see their text from the perspective of someone positioned differently. However, it is up to the author to decide which recommendations to accept.

At the beginning of her recently published non-fiction book, Die Schönheit der Differenz: Miteinander anders denken, Hadija Haruna-Oelker mentions that because she herself cannot represent all perspectives, she has had three different sensitivity readings done, each focusing on a different form of discrimination. Writing is the craft of the journalist and author Haruna-Oelker. She explains to her readers that she wants to use her tools responsibly, to represent and describe in a diversity-sensitive way, and to express herself aesthetically and authentically.

Now, Haruna-Oelker explicitly deals with discrimination and a constructive approach to difference in her book, so it’s not surprising that she is a proponent of sensitivity readings. Other voices speak out against it clearly. Just recently, for example, a gloss in the FAZ made fun of too much sensitivity. The differing opinions regarding sensitivity readings are also unsurprising, as the debate surrounding this practice ties directly into an already more familiar topic: discrimination-free language, i.e. gender-inclusive or gender-neutral forms of expression, and avoiding racist or ableist terms.

As I understand it, authors who choose to engage in sensitivity reading demonstrate a willingness to empathize with others and an openness to engaging critically with their own views. However, this is only partly about the hurt feelings of individual readers – it is also about acknowledging that one’s own acts of language can uphold or challenge social norms that contribute to structural oppression.

Writers, activists, and scholars have long emphasized the power of language. In Speaking and being, Kübra Gümüşay explains how language fixes things and people. Gümüşay speaks of the named and the unnamed. Lann Hornscheidt expresses it quite similarly in Sprachhaltung zeigen! and emphasizes the violent dimension even more: “Violence begins in most cases with words. First, people are divided into groups. This is done linguistically: ‘us’ and ‘the others’. Then these differences are evaluated: Us, the normal, and the Others. The weird, the strange, the conspicuous, the ill-fitting.” Those who want to help reduce discrimination can start with their own language use.

Sensitivity readings are not only relevant for nonfiction texts like Haruna-Oelker’s, which pursue critical examinations of a diverse society, but also for other genres, such as travel writing and science fiction. I’ve often been advised in writing workshops that a character from another country or a journey could enrich a text. Something like this: “Take an atlas (hopefully you still have one) and flip it open somewhere. Then create a character from that country, do some research online.” This sounds like a harmless writing exercise, but it can very quickly lead to the reproduction of stereotypes and to exoticization. In both, what is at stake is that making into the Other that Hornscheidt describes. Exoticization, in particular, may at first seem like a useful narrative device for building suspense. But authors thus reinforce existing hierarchies, and the price is paid by those at the bottom of these hirarchies.

When writers engage with them, sensitivity readings can be valuable for a wide variety of texts, and for many reasons: Sensitivity readings help shake up established social relationships. They are a practice of greater respect. They express the desire to take as many readers as possible into consideration. In this way, they contribute to a broadening of the readership, which is quite attractive for the book industry, where ultimately entrepreneurial thinking is required. I’m excited to be able to read more of the kind of literature that is bursting with creativity, that captivates me, that challenges me intellectually, and that doesn’t have to exoticize or defame discriminated groups to do so.

At poco.lit., we offer Sensitivity Readings for German Texts (see Services).