Friday, 6 August 2010

On Translating Hegemann: II

Four literary translators in a beer garden. And what do they talk about? Well, the significance of the year 1866 in German history, why on earth anyone would want to drink Berliner Weisse, children and grandchildren, books - and translation issues.

And quite a controversial discussion ensued. There's one issue in my translation of Helene Hegemann's Axolotl Roadkill that's causing me a few headaches. Fairly often, the narrator or other characters will namedrop German celebrities. And the choice I face then is to leave them "in the original" or to replace them with some other, more international celebrity. So far, I've come up against Beate Uhse, Alice Schwarzer, Uschi Obermaier and Rudi Carell. And possibly others who I can't think of right now. Hegemann uses them as a kind of shorthand - all her German readers will understand what narrator Mifti means when she describes her sister as a blend of Beate Uhse, Alice Schwarzer and Mother Theresa. But will anybody else?

On the other hand, the novel is very much tied in to its Berlin setting. The characters are Germans and their cultural framework is German - although of course, this being 2010, there are huge overlaps, with other famous people cropping up including Madonna, Brian Wilson and Bryan Ferry - just to list a few off the top of my head. So would it not seem odd if the celebrities scattered in didn't include any Germans, for local colour if you like?

Things get really tough when you go deeper into the moral and philosophical side of translation. With whom do my loyalties lie - the writer or the reader, the original or the translation? Is it disrespectful to Hegemann to replace her celebrities with people British readers would be more familiar with - or am I doing the readers of the translation a disservice if I don't help them to get the joke? Because in the case of Rudi Carrell, for example, it's hugely funny that someone would get a tattoo of a deceased Dutch entertainer who once came second-to-last in the Eurovision Song Contest.

In a certain kind of book, translators can work around this issue. Translator's notes, footnotes, building in three-word explanations - there are various options. But when characters are talking crap on Class-A drugs, the translator really can't slip in a quick bit of background detail on Uschi Obermaier. Or at least this translator's not going to. And there's always that tricky question of who's going to read the book in English - what level of knowledge about German society can I assume in the target audience? Who is the target audience? Am I being patronising or dumbing down the text?

I'm fairly convinced I really do have to come up with replacements. So far, so good - but who are the equivalents? Here's what I've come up with to date (bear in mind the translation is for the British market, and it's not finished yet):

Beate Uhse: Ann Summers
Alice Schwarzer: Germaine Greer
Uschi Obermaier: Bianca Jagger
Rudi Carrell: OMG, I have no idea. Terry Wogan? Bruce Forsyth? Dudley Moore? Actually, none of these will work very well - because why would a German taxi-driver get a tattoo of a British television personality? Oh, drat.

Any suggestions gratefully received, while I continue to lie awake at night wrestling with my translatorly conscience over the issue of intervention.

12 comments:

isabo said...

"Why would a German taxi-driver get a tattoo of a British television personality?"
Exactly - and why would a German girl compare her sister to people the average German girl has never heard of? I don't think you can replace the names. Plus I think readers deal pretty well with not exactly understanding allusions. They'll feel there is something to it and if they really want to know, well, let them google. You can't "Britify" the book.

X. Trapnel said...

Hrm, really? I'm not sure when if ever I'd have learned of Beate Uhse-Rotermund if not for this post, but now that I read the Wikipedia entry, I'm really glad I did. It does seem to me a bit of a disservice to the readers to make the substitutions, partly because they'll never know what they're missing. (And is it really so impossible to have a back-of-the-book glossary? Plenty of fantasy novels do it, though I admit that it often comes across as pretentious. And/or have the publisher host a website to collect together the references, with links to Wikipedia?)

I think you're right that this is largely a question of intended audience. But will readers of translated German fiction really be unwilling to look up cultural references they're unfamiliar with? If so, why are they bothering with foreign literature?

Anonymous said...

Leave the names as they are in the original; readers will have to cooperate - German readers do when they read English books, watch English films, etc. Even where an equivalent offers itself, it may be forbidding to actually use it. Joyce's "Ulysses" would never be rendered as "Odyssee/Odysseus" in a sensible German translation! Nor would Bloom become Blum, etc. If your readers want to read a book that originates outside the English speaking world, no translation in the narrower sense will turn it into an English book.

Best,
Dirk Schultze

manan said...

I would echo X.T above and say please don't replace! The Anglo-community can use wikipedia to get the joke. Or you can do a "funny" glossary pointing out such contextual information. Or even (add) your reference within the sentence. Um, who is Ann Summers?

kjd said...

Thanks for your comments, here and elsewhere. I'll talk to the editor about the possibility of a glossary, but I'm not convinced...

I can see the problem with Ann Summers.

X. Trapnel said...

Re: Manan's puzzlement--Americans/Canadians/Aussies/Indians are unlikely to know Ann Summers or other UKish references, and even though, yes, this is a British translation ... shouldn't that factor in at least a little? How likely is it that a second, Americanized, translation is going to be commissioned?

Having now read the Wikipedia entries for both Ann Summers and Beate Uhse-Rotermund, I'm now *firmly* against substituting names--the latter comes across as *so* much more interesting! It just seems like you lose a *lot*, with almost no benefit. When cultural artifacts, whether books or hip-hop songs, are deeply referential, then it's just inevitable that some of the audience misses some of what's there.

Isn't this book's audience the sort of reader *most* likely to google unfamiliar things (perhaps on their ever-present Handy)?

Harvey Morrell said...

Having seen both on television, the person that popped into my mind for Rudi was David Frost, if you were to go the substitution route. That being said, I agree with X.Trapnel on leaving the original names as is, with a back-of-the-book glossary, which even the Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest had.

crumpet0552 said...

I'm with the majority here: leave them in the original, plus a (short!) glossary perhaps. But if you do decide to translate Rudi: it's just possible that a German or even a Brit taxi-driver might have a tattoo of James Last, that icon of German culture well-known to a certain generation of Brits....

Mauvelle said...

I'm also all for footnotes describing who the people are in the German context. It won't do to just insert British celebrities - the whole history of popular culture in Germany is MASSIVELY different from what it is in English-speaking countries. Even sex works in a totally different way in popular culture...
Besides - people should just do an internet search to understand more about the German celebrities.

Mauvelle said...

I find this idea totally wrong-minded.
Popular culture in Germany functions very differently from pop in English-speaking countries. Even sex means something else - Beate Uhse is a perfect example. You efface real, tangible differences, when you simply replace "celebrities" in this fashion. The German celebrities aren't mentioned because of who they are but because of what they mean in a complex and enormously specific way.

Michael said...

I feel very sorry for you having to translate this overhyped crap. But then giving you're posting an avatar holding a copy of Feuchtgebiete, you're probably into that kind of masochism.

Michael said...

I feel very sorry for you having to translate this overhyped crap. But then giving you're posting an avatar holding a copy of Feuchtgebiete, you're probably into that kind of masochism.