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Author meets Translator with Sharon Dodua Otoo and Jon Cho Polizzi

Author meets translator: a conversation with Sharon Dodua Otoo and Jon Cho Polizzi

On 07 March 2024, we held our Author Meets Translator event with Sharon Dodua Otoo and Jon Cho Polizzi. Together we talked about the novel Adas Raum (Ada’s Room/Ada’s Realm), narrative perspectives, dialect and humour.

Sharon Dodua Otoo is a novelist and a political activist based in Berlin. She writes prose, essays, edits the book series “Witnessed” and curates the German-language literature festival “Resonanzen”. Her debut novel Adas Raum has been translated into many languages. Otoo won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2016, a major international literary award in German speaking countries.

Jon Cho Polizzi is an Assistant Professor of German at the University of Michigan, USA, and a literary translator. He has translated literature from German, including works by Sharon Dodua Otoo, Max Czollek and Fatma Aydemir.

Anna: Sharon, what made you write this book? What inspired you and where did it grow from?

Sharon: I’d like to begin by thanking you for the invitation to be part of this event. It’s wonderful to be in conversation with you and with Jon about my book. Thank you both for the support for my work.

The reason why this book was written begins with the short story that I won the Bachmann prize for back in 2016. And that short story was written in 2014. Actually, I’d been asked to write a text, and it was supposed to be an essay or an article about privilege and about whiteness and what it means, for example, to be a white person in a predominantly white society where you have certain privileges that you don’t really realise you have, because everything just goes according to plan. When I received this request, I found it interesting, but I felt that there have been many texts already written about this subject in German. I asked if I could write a short story, and the editor said yes. And then I came up with this story, which is called Mr. Gröttrup Takes a Seat.

That story didn’t get published for reasons to do with lack of funding, which was frustrating for me at the time. But it turns out that this was a very good thing that it didn’t get published, because when two years later, I was asked if I would be interested in participating in the short story competition I only had that one text. I sent the jury member my text, and then I did the research about what kind of competition it is. It’s good that that happened that way around, because if I had known about the competition before, I would not have submitted this short story. This text is very absurd. When I researched the short story competition, I thought: Well, most stories are very serious, and they have a literary quality that my short story just didn’t have. Anyway, it turns out in 2016, the jury members enjoyed reading my text and enjoyed discussing it.

So, the story won the competition, which was completely unexpected for me. And with that came the privilege of having a literary agent and having access to a major German language publisher in Germany. From there, I was encouraged to write my novel. Originally, it was going to be straight from the short story. People who know both the short story and the finished novel will recognise that there are links, but in the end, the short story has very little to do with the novel. I decided that the short story had taken on a life of its own, and it didn’t really fit with what I actually wanted to write about. So, that was the genesis of the novel. It came from the short story.

Anna: And Jon, can you tell us how you became the translator of Adas Raum and what it meant for you to translate it?

Jon: I would also like to begin by just thanking all of you for the organization, for the opportunity, and obviously Sharon for writing the novel. The immediate answer is that Sharon wrote me on Twitter and asked if I would like to write a sample translation. And that sample translation eventually evolved into a book length manuscript.

But I guess for a little bit more context: during the pandemic lockdown, I helped organize a team of translators and also edit the translations for an open access English translation of the essay collection Your homeland is Our Nightmare. And this work sort of provided me with a lot of contacts for my favorite German authors and formed the basis for a lot of later collaborations.

The even longer story would be that beginning when I started graduate school, I started to volunteer at this literary festival in southern Germany each summer, the Hausacher LeseLenz organized by José F. A. Oliver. Several years prior, Oliver had put me in contact with Max Czollek, who was going to be a guest at the festival, and asked if I could translate a couple of short essays by Max that were going to be made available for international festival guests. During the course of that festival, Max and I became friends. We started to collaborate on other projects, and he provided some of the initial points of contact for what became this project, to translate Your Homeland Is Our Nightmare, which is how I first met Sharon.

Now, in terms of what it meant for me to translate the book, to be perfectly honest, it meant everything. At that point in my career, I had been translating for quite a while and I had placed small translations in different places, but most of the work that I had been doing had been very DIY. The whole concept of translating Your Homeland is Our Nightmare was something that we organized on our own, that we then published through a university online platform. I’d never worked with a big publisher, I’d never translated a big book. I was already a really big fan of Sharon’s work. When she reached out to me in this very informal manner, I felt very overwhelmed at first. I was also really intimidated by the fact that Sharon is also a published author in English and that she writes in British English, which has always been a challenge for me. There was a lot of anxiety that went into this, but also a tremendous amount of hope and gratitude and mutual trust. This was really the start of my career, both as an academic and as a translator, that has come out of this project. For me, it’s very central to everything that I’ve done since. I still have this sort of flutter of joy every time I see the book somewhere, especially when I’m in Germany and I see both the German version and the English version, side by side, there’s always a sort of feeling of butterflies where I think: “Wow, I can’t really believe that I was part of it.” It’s meant a lot.

Sharon: I was so grateful that you said, yes, Jon! Of course, being somebody whose first language and strongest literary language is English, people kept saying to me: “Why don’t you just translate the book yourself?” It was clear to me that it needed a translator. But I do not underestimate how scary it must be to take my German and try to put it into English and then show me what you’ve done and think: “What does Sharon think of that?”

Anna: In the novel, the narrative perspective is constantly shifting, so that readers experience the world of fiction not only from the perspective of human characters in different historical, geographical and cultural contexts, but also from the perspective of objects such as a broom, a brass doorknocker in the shape of a lion’s head, a room in one of the barracks in the concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora, a passport. Sharon, how did you come up with this idea and what does it enable?

Sharon: This story again begins with the short story. In the short story, partly it’s narrated from the perspective of an egg that refuses to go hard when it’s boiled. It took me a few days to come up with that because I’d reached a dead end. Often when I write, I set myself up. I write something that I think: “Oh, this is impossible! How can I resolve this?” Then I have to sleep on it. In this case, I had described an older German married couple. In the way that the story is told, you realise that every morning they have the same morning routine. Everything is pretty down to the second, in which order it happens in and what the timing of it happens. They always argue about how long it takes to boil an egg. And then at a certain point in time, something completely unexpected happens. Although the man is a scientist, and he knows for a fact that if you boil the egg for seven and a half minutes exactly, it will have the perfect consistency. And he sits down to eat the egg and it’s still soft and it splatters all over his tie. That was the cliffhanger. Then I thought: Wow, why is this egg not coming out the way that had been planned by this?” He’s a scientist, he knows that the egg is going to be perfect. I thought maybe that the woman had done something to it, but that didn’t really fit logically. In the end came up with the explanation that it was the egg itself that had decided it. It refused to be hard boiled. Then I had to explain, how it comes that an egg has a consciousness and makes decisions like this?

As you continue reading the story, you realise this being has been forced to stay in this realm where we all are, before we are born and to which we return when we die. And it really wants to become a human, but for some reason it doesn’t. In the short story, there’s an allusion to the fact that this being is kind of impatient and it gets annoyed with the male character and decides to punish it by not becoming hard boiled. That’s the reason why it doesn’t pass the test to become a human being. Ada’ Realm, the novel, gives that character, this being, much more space and takes it through different incarnations over different time periods.

Anna: Jon, in the translation, it must have been challenging to deal with these various perspectives and all these different contexts. How did you approach this challenge?

Jon: This is a novel with so many different perspectives, different voices, different temporalities. And to be fair, I almost felt like this inanimate object narrator was one of the easier voices to render. I think, despite its physicality and its sort of limitations, or maybe its special abilities or perspectives, depending on how you see it, it remains fairly consistent. It has the overview. It’s in direct contact with God. It knows what happens in Asamando, this place where people wait before they’re born and where people return after death. The different Adas were much more difficult and the various characters with whom they come into contact with, because their own positionalities are so specific, whereas this being transcends time and space. Reading a lot of other works and trying to kind of find works or stories set in different time periods, trying to shape the discourse and the voices and the overlays onto other literary contexts was very helpful. I would assume that in writing it, Sharon was probably also reading a tremendous amount to create these different literary worlds. Basically, I tried to recreate what might have been in Sharon’s mind at the time. Of course, there are little things that I can do as a translator. Things like use of contraction or lack thereof, to which extent a particular character would use slang or dialect or jargon, how often this would sort of impact the register of the narrating voice versus the register of the dialogue and the reported speech. It was, in many ways, a very imperfect process. But I think it’s one that I was generally happy with the outcome of.

Sharon: This is such a brilliant translation. Of course, it’s not perfect, but what is perfect? I would like you know how much I value the work that you did put into it. For example, I say in German:”Er war weder obdachlos noch kinderreich”. And you translate that as “…he was neither without home nor with child”. And I think that’s such a brilliant solution. That illustrates why I didn’t translate it myself, I would have stopped at that line and given up. It’s a specific skill being a translator that transcends being able to speak the language, I think.

Anna: I had to laugh when God spoke Berliner Schnauze. Sharon, would you comment on that choice? And Jon, you turned this into a Northern Irish dialect, so maybe we can come to that afterwards.

Sharon: I use quite a few different languages. You’ll see some Polish, some Portuguese, some French, a couple of languages from Ghana and the point I was making with putting these languages in the novel was to say, for many people, being able to speak multiple languages is an everyday thing. Somebody who speaks Polish and German will read the novel and see the polish sentence and maybe have a little special connection to that part and feel even more drawn into that part of the story. I also wanted to make the point that we tend to think of language as something that’s kind of very tightly boundaried. This is English and this is German, and never the two shall mix.

But at home with my children, we speak both languages and we mix a lot. I think that’s legitimate, because language is about communication. If we’re trying to bring across a certain idea, when you’re talking about what you did today, then you have to use the word “U-bahn” or “Kita”, because that’s the word that you attach to that everyday thing. I wanted to introduce the idea that languages are much more fluid than the dominant society would have us think. In the German language original, I really tried to avoid writing something in a language that wasn’t German and then translating it into German. That didn’t feel natural. I tried that the context gave that sentence meaning, so you can understand what’s being said, even though you don’t understand each specific word.

I haven’t really learnt what exactly the difference between a language and a dialect is, but one thing I did realise is that there are lots of accents and dialects that are considered to be linked to a specific class and they have a lower status. If you speak a certain way, then you’re considered to be not as intelligent or not as educated, or maybe not have as much money. I was kind of concerned about that, to be honest. And I remember somebody advising me not to use this specific accent for God, or not to use the specific Beliner accent at all in the novel because of its connotations, which I just do not share. When I came into contact with this dialect in the mid 90s, it was honestly exclusively attached to people I was completely in love with. Really close friends of mine would speak like this, and that was my association with this dialect. When I was writing, I meant it absolutely from a place of love and admiration. I was surprised to hear other people have a completely different association with this dialect.

Anna: Thank you. It is as you say, dialect can be interpreted in different ways – as a marker of class, but also just as regional marker or to express emotions. Dialect can have very different functions, which makes it so difficult to translate. Jon, can you comment on your translation of it?

Jon: Firstly, as native English speakers, we are accustomed to hearing many different forms of English. Of course, there are associations and nuances, and regionally we have different associations with different forms of English. But it is a fairly standard notion that there are different forms of English spoken in the world, that these, at least in their specific contexts, are also right and also normal. We are used to consuming media from North America, the UK, from Ireland, maybe Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa.

I don’t speak with a dialect. In the United States, the Californian accent is one of the main if not the definitive regional accent, because it’s the language of Hollywood, it’s what we associate with TV, with music and pop culture. Maybe the New York accent would apply in many of these contexts, too, but I have my own strong west coast bias. I can’t convincingly reproduce a different regional accent that is not my own, much less a dialect. Initially, whenever I’m asked what would be the English equivalent of this dialect, I always feel vastly unprepared to answer that. That’s often a situation where I feel like I need to speak to friends, I need to speak to people from different parts of the world, and ask them if my take tracks with how they view the same accent or the same dialect in an English context. This is already something where I’ve been used to feeling a lack of authority in terms of speaking to what would be correct here. Initially, when I translated the manuscript, I did not have any notion as to how I wanted to translate God.

I marked the text with weird spelling, like odd word choice, but it was more an indication for me than for anyone else. These passages still needed work, and I had already submitted the initial manuscript with a note to the editor, this is going to look different. Then Sharon and I were both part of a hybrid conference at Cambridge University and we heard a presentation by Dr. Aine McMurtry, who is herself originally from Northern Ireland. She read a short excerpt of the text that she’d translated for her paper, and she rendered one of these passages in Berlinerisch in this very strong Northern Irish dialect. She even had, a slide where you could see how she’d written it and some of the odd spelling choices that she’d made to really mark the text as being specific, not just to an Irish accent or dialect, but to her own. There was this moment for both Sharon and myself, where we heard this happening, we saw what was being presented and kind of our eyes lit up.

I remember talking to Sharon about it immediately after the conference, because, for me at least, it checked a lot of boxes. It reinforced the sort of Irish English subplot in the victorian orbit of the novel, it introduced a different aspect with this specificity of being Northern Irish. I think it resonated for me with associations that I’d had in my childhood, seeing things about the troubles on television, but also with these ongoing questions of Brexit. At the time of the translation, there was this so called Northern Irish question of how they were going to reinforce those borders. Already in the 21st century orbit in the novel, there was this question of Brexit and what was going to change. It could be read in so many ways as having resonance with the story, although they were serendipitous. Immediately I thought, this has to be the way God speaks, but I am not qualified to do this. I sent Aine an email and I said: “I can put together all the passages where God speaks. Could you possibly translate these for us? And we would put them in the novel.” Luckily, for all of us, she was very into the idea, acquiesced, sent them back to us within a day, and then we worked them into the novel. I think that was this wonderful solution to the problem. It evolved completely by chance.

Sharon: I was super grateful to Aine for that. It’s just brilliant. May I just quickly also add one thing, because I forgot to say it when I was talking about languages. There is also a character in the novel called Alfie, who’s deaf and communicates with sign language with Lizzie. That was also a challenge, because writing that part of the novel in German, but it’s set in the UK, so the characters actually are communicating in English. But I’m writing in German, and I thought: “What am I going to do with the sign language?” I don’t actually use sign language myself to communicate. I haven’t learned it. What I decided to do was to sort of work it by describing Lizzie. Mostly, I focused on Lizzie signing and made it that she questioned whether she’d made the right choices, because that’s not her strongest way of communicating. So sometimes Lizzie would sign something and then think, was that the right sign? That’s how I got around it. What I tried very hard to do, also in those sections, was not to describe something and then say, comma, Alfie signed. I wanted it to feel like an additional language, like any of the other languages that I’d introduced into then. That’s one of the major differences, in the UK version and the US version, how that turned out in the editing.

Jon: I believe in one of them it’s put into quotation marks, and in the other, it’s not.

Sharon: I I think the US version wanted to make it absolutely unambiguous that Alfie was signing, and would include these different elements to make sure that at any part of the page, everybody knew that Alfie was signing, whereas in the German original, that didn’t happen, because for me, it was a language like any other language, and I didn’t write: She said in French, so why should I write Alfie signed? I think in the UK version, they went along with your original translation.

Jon: Yeah, that’s how I believe. And I remember there being a lot of back and forth about this in the different edits, that at first it was always, Alfie signed, Lizzie signed, and we removed those again, and then they were remarked in a different way on the page.

Anna: Maybe we can talk a little bit about humour. I read your novel, Sharon, as very humorous. People who argue for politically sensitive language or for deconstructing discrimination are often portrayed as being humourless and accused of being incapable of taking a joke. And I think, for me, your novel demonstrates that this is untrue and I would love to hear your thoughts on humour.

Sharon: I think it’s a shame that people who are politically correct and woke and all those words which now mean something negative have the reputation of not being funny. Some of the funniest people I know come from Black German movements, queer feminist movements. One of the things I bring to the table with my literature is my socialisation as a British person. I think laughter, comedy and humour is much more of an everyday thing than it is in Germany in general. This is a huge generalization, but I think humour is a way for people who experience discrimination to be able to get some kind of control back over what they’re experiencing and what’s being done to them is to put a humorous interpretation on the events and to make fun, perhaps, of the people who are being so horrible to them. I find humour really important. Important for me, just generally, I enjoy laughing and I think it also can be a method of resistance. Yeah. But I would like to stress at this point, because the danger is then that people say: “Oh, why don’t you be like Sharon? She just laughs it off.” I’d like to stress that this is not the answer and it’s definitely not always the response. I’ll have days where I’m super angry and then I’ll say it or show it or walk away. I think humour and anger are very tightly linked. I can be like this because I’m entering the stage after loads of people have been shouting and screaming and burning things, right? I can come and say, oh, it’s all very funny. And that’s okay. That’s my strategy. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t need people to have other forms of protest as well.

Anna: Maybe we can now come back to the different contexts. Humour is, as you already mentioned, Sharon, context specific. There are different forms of humour in the UK, in Germany, and in the US. Jon, you had to translate into two different English-speaking contexts. What kind of considerations had to go into this?

Jon: I have spent a lot of time in the UK. I was an exchange student there when I was younger. I have a really good friend in Manchester whom I try to visit as often as possible. But at the same time, I really do not feel like I am an expert in any way in a specifically British form of humour, or in anything British, for that matter. The truism is that we’re two cultures separated by a common language. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to that entirely, I do feel that there are certain moments in the novel where I felt like I translated something in a particularly clever way, and then I would reread it and try and read it in my mind with a different accent and think: “I don’t know if that works in the same way when I say it with my American accent versus when I try to repeat it in my mind with a British accent.” Then I think: “What about the sort of larger global English readership?”

Reading or engaging with the English language is not a specifically British or American activity. There is a global readership for English. But at the same time, I do feel like humour can also be quite universal. Joy is universal in the same way that pain and suffering are. There are, of course, culturally defined parameters or specificities. We all share in the experience of both joy and pain. I think in a lot of contexts, particularly in the US, we are really conditioned to think about Black pain or Black suffering. But, of course, this has always come hand in hand with expressions of Black joy. I think that this novel really makes this visible, that both pain and sorrow and joy are intertwined, and it is impossible to experience one without the other. This is something that I really tried to make legible in some way. I hope that these moments shine through, because I think that is one of the really important interventions that the novel makes, is to say: Yes, there are these moments of absolutely profound sorrow, and we are still going to make it through an expression of joy. That is something that is very present in the German and I hope is also present in the various English iterations.

The event was supported by the German Translators’ Fund (Deutscher Übersetzerfonds).

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