Translation and connection: an interview with Marion Kraft
As part of our macht.sprache. project, we organized a workshop at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin in early September 2022. This gave us the opportunity to speak with German and American studies scholar Marion Kraft about her translation work. We discussed Audre Lorde, linguistic changes, new translations and team translations.
How did you get into translation? And which of your translations to date were particularly close to your heart?
Being a translator is not my main occupation. I came to translation through a friendship for which I am still very grateful today. I mean my friendship with Audre Lorde, whom I met in Berlin in 1986. I first translated individual poems of hers for use at readings. We rarely read the translations aloud, but brought them as handouts for participants who didn’t speak English very well. When Audre read, there was really no need for a translation. It was even said in the local newspaper in Osnabrück: “The voice alone is enough!” That’s not entirely true, of course, because the content is important. But no matter how good a translation is, it’s just not the original. (That’s a general problem with translations, no matter how good they are.) I had a guest professorship at the University of Osnabrück at the time and Audre came for a reading and everyone was thrilled. She was supposed to be awarded an honorary doctorate, but unfortunately she passed away shortly beforehand. So a special bilingual edition [of her poems] was published together with students.
Shortly before that, however, another friend – Dagmar Schultz, who was running Orlanda Frauenbuchverlag at the time – had asked me if I could translate somewhat longer texts by Audre, including essays written with Adrienne Rich, which the publisher wanted to publish in German for the first time. The volume is called Macht und Sinnlichkeit (Power and Sensuality).
Audre herself had asked me if I could translate a whole book of hers: poems that she wanted to choose herself. She had put them together just before she died and the book, Die Quelle unserer Macht (The Source of Our Power), came out posthumously six months later. That was actually the first book I translated, and it’s one of my favourites.
Then I ended up translating a number of essays, mostly by other African-American writers, but also by an Afro-Swiss woman who wrote in English and French. My translation work has developed slowly, but I’ve only ever translated on the side and only texts that were close to my heart. So I didn’t do any commissioned work and didn’t earn anything from it – although you don’t earn much in this business anyway. I always translated for fun.
I translated Sister Outsider, again by Audre Lorde, together with Eva Bonné, and that was my first heavy tome. Somehow it set a ball rolling without my intending it to. The Swiss publisher Kampa Verlag then asked Eva Bonné, Mirjam Nuenning and me if we could translate another volume, A Burst of Light or Ein strahlendes Licht. Suddenly Audre Lorde was en vogue and only a few people took note of the fact that she had already been published in Germany 30 years ago. But that’s another story… Then came all sorts of requests, for example Emma Dabiri, Buchi Emecheta and Amanda Gorman. At the moment I’m sitting on a translation which is proving quite challenging: Tara M. Stringfellow’s Memphis. Again and again, I ask myself how I can get certain terms into German so that they reflect the context, without discriminating against or harming individuals or certain groups.
You always seem to choose a particular type of text. What do you think are the different factors that contribute to a good fit between a text and a translator?
I was recently asked if I would translate Agatha Christie. My answer was no. Firstly, thrillers are not my genre at all and secondly, that’s not the kind of translation I enjoy – and, as I said, I translate because I enjoy the authors and the texts.
I think that a certain positioning is very important. I know that some translators understand themselves as adapting to every text and that they are able to translate every text. Of course they can, but the question is from which position they do so. Last year there was this nonsensical debate about Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb. The issue was never whether you necessarily have to share an author’s lived experience. But it can be helpful to avoid unintentionally putting one’s foot in it or, without knowing it, using language that is hurtful or ignores historical context. If the lived experiences are not shared, it is all the more necessary to be open to other perspectives.
I only translate certain texts – i.e. Tara M. Stringfellow, Audre Lorde or Buchi Emecheta and not Agatha Christie – because the worlds I encounter in these texts are much closer to me. They are not my worlds either – I am German and not African-American or Nigerian – but I feel more connected to them. By way of certain collective experiences, I know the countries, the people and the feelings that are evoked in them.
You’ve been translating for a while now. Has the publishing world changed over time? I would be interested to know, for example, how editors react to certain terminological decisions.
A lot has changed, but not yet enough. If we look at the book market, it’s clear that US-Americans are still translated the most. After that comes Great Britain. French texts are translated somewhat less frequently, and I have the impression that the African continent is only now slowly coming into focus. I am very happy that Margaret Busby’s anthology New Daughters of Africa will soon be published by Unrast Verlag in an abridged version in German translation. I am writing a foreword for it right now. But the market for African literature is not really there yet here.
As far as language sensitivity is concerned, a lot has happened – or a lot is changing these days. I haven’t had any problems with editors lately when I wanted to gender texts, for example. It’s now much more about questions I ask myself: How do I gender so that it still reads well and doesn’t cause me discomfort when I read it? Even when I’ve used the term Race, I haven’t had any problems. It simply doesn’t work to translate the term with Rasse, because the German word’s connotations are too negative, and it has grown historically in a completely different way. Race, for example, can also be used positively in English. My experience with publishers is that I can say, “This has to be done this way!” and then it is done that way. It seems to me that this has to do with the fact that many publishers now have younger female editors and no longer – to put it nastily – members of the patronizing old boys’ club who know everything, and always know better.
You have already spoken specifically about the term Race. In the German translation of Sister Outsider, it’s also noticeable that Schwarz (like Black in the original) is written in capital letters, weiß (white) in small letters and italics and amerika in lower case. Could you explain why?
Writing amerika in lower case we took from Audre Lorde. She uses this as a way to critique the USA’s claims to hegemony.
Black has been capitalized for a long time, not only in English. It has also become accepted in Germany, at least in Black and BIPOC communities, because it does not mean skin colour, but a political position.
With regard to white used in relation to people in a socio-political context, I switched some time ago to writing it in lower case and italics, because white is the frame of reference for everything in our society. white is the norm and everything else has to be defined and labelled. This is also a certain claim to hegemony, which is what the typography aims to express.
If I understand correctly, Sister Outsider is a new translation. Are there any specific catalysts that made it time for a new translation? What were the particular challenges in dealing with this text?
In the case of Sister Outsider, the new translation made sense because the German language has changed a lot in the last 30 years – I don’t know how many spelling reforms I’ve witnessed. But what we have just discussed has also changed. The translators, but also the people concerned, were not aware of certain terms a few years ago. I don’t think the earlier translation was bad, but it is simply no longer up to date, for example, there was still talk of Farbige, the N-word was used, and it hadn’t yet occurred to anyone to gender. Besides, when you work on a text, you realize that it can always be improved. I often notice this with my own publications as soon as they are printed. That’s why a new translation was overdue for Sister Outsider, and it’s the same with Buchi Emecheta.
You have already worked with other translators several times, e.g. you translated Sister Outsider with Eva Bonné and the poetry collection The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman with Daniela Seel. What does such a collaboration look like? What challenges does it bring to work in a team? What is enriching?
The collaboration was different because I worked with different people. Eva and I didn’t know each other before and now we are friends, but we discussed a lot and we also argued once. We didn’t always agree. Especially about terms we still discuss today. A few days ago I called Eva because, as I said, I was struggling with the translation of this novel Memphis and wanted to hear her opinion. I was also able to help Eva with one of her projects.
With A Burst of Light, there were three of us [Eva Bonné, Mirjam Nuenning and I] and we divided the text between us and then did a kind of pre-proofreading. That worked out very well.
Cooperation always varies, but I’ve only had good experiences so far. And with the projects I’m working on alone, I’ve often wished I had someone to discuss them with.