I've been trying so, so hard to ignore this debate going on in Germany right now, but when the New Yorker reports it gets too much. Basically, as far as I've followed it, a concerned father of colour wrote to the German children's book publishers Thienemann and asked them to change some of the racist words used in Otfried Preussler's 1950s classic Die kleine Hexe. The publishers passed the letter on to the elderly author, who had apparently resisted making such changes in the past, but who now agreed to the alterations in the next edition.
Cue rather more excitement than I think this is worth. Censorship, some critics called it. And then one prominent critic whom I'd previously admired thought it would be a wheeze to comment on the issue on his TV show. In blackface. Words fail me.
The Germans are still arguing about whether blackfacing is an OK thing to do, after various stage productions embarrassed themselves last year. It's not my area of expertise but for what it's worth: in a globalised world you are going to offend people if you paint yourself black. It's also slightly ridiculous to argue that you're doing so because there aren't enough black actors in Germany. And if you're commenting on racism, it will obscure your argument if you paint yourself black to present it. You will knock yourself off your pedestal as love german books' second-favourite critic, Denis Scheck, if you use cheap and offensive provocation to try and add a note of - what, actually? - satire?
The linguistic aspect is a difficult issue. Many Germans seem far less sensitive to the offensive aspects of the N-word than English-speakers. There is only one word in German - Neger - which translates as both negro and that other thing. I've been having arguments about it for years, because people seem to confuse considerate use of language with that catch-all bad thing, "political correctness". And they seem to confuse freedom of speech with freedom to offend and upset. My least favourite argument is that "it was a perfectly normal term in the GDR and it wasn't offensive at all". That was twenty years ago, and the GDR was far from free from racism.
In my work, I've come across this issue a couple of times. Some German writers use the N-word, presumably innocently, in a way I feel will simply shock when rendered in English. So yes, I have "censored" one of my translations to remove the N-word. The idea being that I want to recreate the original reading experience as closely as possible, and that won't include a big fat unmotivated insult in the middle of the page. Even if it is in a character's voice, even if that character is not likeable or has his or her own reasons to use the word in German. Part of the translator's work is easing a book's path into another culture, and this is one instance of where I've intervened with the original to do that. Obviously, though, we have to look at each instance in its own right, and in historical contexts or when expressly intended as an insult it may well be legitimate to retain the N-word in translation.
So, who has taken up Scheck's crown as love german books' second-favourite critic? Ijoma Mangold, of course, who according to Sally McGrane in the New Yorker and other sources has been calm and rational and cool all the way through. For a view from the other side of the trenches - if you read German - you could also read Noa Ha's response (to the pre-Scheck debate) from the forthcoming Freitext magazine.