Friday, 1 February 2013

The N-word: Preussler, Scheck and the New Yorker

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.


Anonymous said...

Removing the N-word (and others) is like killing the history of a book, the time, in which it was written and the person, who did so for whatever reason he or she had. In my mind, literature and its language has to challenge and - yes - sometimes even offend others, or it will degrade to nothing but idle information.
And: in the former GDR everyone used the word "Neger" - and no one started a discussion like the one we have now.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous

Can you say it directly:

literature and its language have to challenge black children and sometimes offend them (we are taling about the N-Word)

Don't children need something else?

You can't be serious about that

kjd said...

@Anonymous 1: That was over twenty years ago and the GDR was a country in which non-white faces were few and far between. The very few African (and Vietnamese, etc.) students and contract-workers were usually housed separately to white Germans. They were expected to leave after their degree, training programme or contract was completed. Relationships with Germans were not encouraged. I once lived in a special student accommodation reserved entirely for foreigners on the outskirts of Berlin, and I know a man who was put in charge of the foreign contract-workers at his factory - he is deaf, and was therefore considered best capable of communicating with them.

The idea that "no one started a discussion about the N-word in the GDR" because it was not offensive is thus not only irrelevant but also very possibly wrong. That discussion may well not have taken place because so few people of colour who actually lived there were capable of participating, due to their linguistic and social marginalisation.

This is a discussion that the whole of Germany needs to have now, if it is to become a place where people of all origins feel comfortable. One thing I dislike intensely about the debate is that it's largely taking place between white middle-class Germans. Which is one reason why I didn't want to jump in until now.

kjd said...

Or rather, it's the white middle-class Germans who feel the need to defend the purity of literature and whose voices are heard most loudly in the press.

@Anonymous 2: Thank you.

Inge Luett said...

It amazes me how much people seem to need "their" version, i.e. the one they grew up with. Not just changes in "Die kleine Hexe" but also in "Pippi Langstrumpf" fuelled the uproar, but while the changes in the first one were authorised by the author himself, the second one is a translation anyway (and the Swedish from 50 years ago most definitely is not the present day Swedish).
Maybe people need to read more Goethe (to invoke one of the white elephants of German literature). Yeah, he was one of them who constantly changed wordage in his texts, not only hopefully to get rid of any traces of his Frankfort-Hessian dialect (remnants of which still can be found, "Spude dich, Schwager Kronos" insted of the standard German "Spute dich").

This said: Yes, blackfacing does play a part in German "Brauchtum" (traditions and customs) as in the pre-Lent mardi gras festivities (something Otfried Preußler mentions in "Die kleine Hexe") as in the children walking around the parish dressed up as the Three Magi (one of whom tradition "knows" to be black). Some parishes by now refrain from blackfacing, some cast black children.

Usually theatre people (including TV etc.) are abhorred if anybody dares to insinuate that they are closer to "Brauchtum" than art. Blackfacing as an artistic expression? Yeah, right. Try another one, this one doesn't work too well anymore.

Of course everybody and their not further gender defined siblings can try their hands at satire. One would expect Denis Scheck to know what he was doing. What would be worse, if he did or if he didn't?

BTW the discussion does not take place almost exclusively in the white German middle-class. It is only the part of German society which gets the most airtime.

HB said...

It is both dispiriting and relieving that German finally has public discussions about those two all-pervasive signs of backwardness, sexsim and racism. They come late but are necessary. Whenever I get back home, I am shocked and disgusted by the amount of casual racism and sexism that would be, at least publicly voice, unthinkable in the US. I have the suspicion that most Germans' self-image is progressive by default so that doubts about the actual state and offensiveness of their beliefs rarely come up; I hope this leads to at least some change, though seeing much of the news commentary makes me wary it might not be so.

Helen MacCormac said...

Neger is not Nigger
I think that if we want to take a serious look at the debate going on in Germany about new editions of German children's literature now being published, we should understand that this is not really suited to an international outcry. The word Neger is not the same as Nigger - which doesn't mean the word was never used abusively - but above all, NEGER means BLACK. Into the Nineties it was still a term (not just in the GDR)for sweets (Negerküsse) a beer/coke drink (Neger) and the old-fashioned term for people with darker skin. This has to do with the fact that there wasn't a huge black population in Germany. In fact, many people outside of towns had never encountered ethnic minorities other than Turks and Yugoslavians before the Nineties. The names of sweets and co were changed in the last decade as awareness changed. So, why are the Germans so worried about these words being changed in their books? The discourse in the press talks a lot about the word Neger, but actually quite a few words have been taken away in the new editions, old-fashioned words, words that have become sexually explicit, words that are nolonger understood - and so I feel that this shouldn't really be a discussion about one word, but rather about the way language develops. This is bound to be more passionately discussed in Germany, where every day words and phrases are being replaced by English equivalents: sale,city,trend,code,check,style, helicopter,number,hate,love....
Ironically, one reason could be that German people worry about censorship - after GDR and Bücherverbrennung - and about what this might mean for tales of the old. What are the German Classics? Goethe, of course and Schiller. But what do the Germans actually read? Preußler and Ende are surelý classics, also. How much should be changed? Everyone here always thought that Disney would never get to the German brothers Grimm, and now suddenly everything is happening so fast. Where do you start - where do you stop? No Neger; can't say Neger - ok - but what about Chinese (Michael Ende) or Turks (Preußler) or - back to Grimm - heals and toes being cut off, eyes being gouged out. If we want to start worrying about presentation: Der Mohr - shouldn't we ask if a certain German critic may have been referring to Shakespeare's Othello and not (as suggested) to the Black and White Minstrel's Show, which was certainly something Germany didn't have and which is "ein weites Feld" - should e.g. people with disability act poeple with disability?. I feel we need to tread carefully, here. It is a great opportunity for translation -We should take care to do well.

Inge Luett said...

N* is not N*? Think again.
If it were so, the "N*-Musik" would not have been meant as a derogatory term.

In a world of changing brand names ("Raider heißt jetzt Twix", why should it be necessary to cling to the N*-kuss of yore instead of enjoying a Schaumkuss? There simply is no reason based in logic.

And there is no reason based in logic either, why white middle-class persons of whichever genderly persuasions should and could give up their ridiculous priviliges. It is simply common decency.

Inge Luett said...

And BTW: Who says there were no minstrel shows in Germany? Anything goes was the motto for the roaring twenties in Berlin, too. And don't even start to think what people were thinking when staging or visiting the "Völkerschauen" located in - hold your breath - zoos.

kjd said...

@Helen: I think Scheck made it quite clear he was referring to minstrel shows by his white gloves and the music playing in the background. The only way I can interpret it is as a provocation - Scheck exerting his "right" to offend.

I understand your argument about the N-word in German and it being phased out later than in the English-speaking world. But I don't think etymology helps us here. What it used to mean is often irrelevant to anyone reading it today - and especially to children.

I know I've abandoned reading certain books aloud to my daughter in the past because I felt I couldn't adequately explain some of the issues they raised. The one I remember most clearly is France Hodgeson Burnett's The Secret Garden from 1911, in which Mary voices some thoughts about Indians I didn't want my then 8-yr-old to hear. Yes, I could have tried explaining colonialism and of course Mary does become a better person later in the book. But I didn't do that.

Similarly Enid Blyton. I don't want my child confronted with many of the bigotted attitudes presented as normal in the Famous Five series, for example, and so I never gave her them although I enjoyed them myself as a child, as did my mother. What's interesting there is that the Famous Five "brand" if you like has been translated to the present day, with the original characters' children indulging in all the unlikely adventures but none of the sexism and racism. A major success.

On the subject of translation and Astrid Lindgren, Tiina Nunnally's new Pippi Longstocking translation into English, published in 2007, apparently updated the book in a similar way for a new generation.

From "School Library Journal": "Nunnally updates some of Florence Lamborn's old-fashioned phrases and makes other terms more politically correct. For example, the original English translation calls Pippi's father a "Cannibal King," while this one calls him a "King of Natives." In Lamborn's version, Pippi goes for a "morning promenade"; here, she simply goes for a "morning walk." Nunnally's language flows naturally and gives a fresh, modern feel to the line drawings, filled with color and pattern, to create a Pippi who is full of personality."

This seems to me an ideal opportunity to open books up for more readers, none of whom need be offended, rather than abandoning these great stories because of their difficulties for today's children. In the two cases in point, the author or the author's estate have been involved in the alterations. I don't see any problem with that, especially as nobody is going to collect up all the older editions to erase the books' history.

David said...

From time to time there have been misguided attempts in the US to sanitize "Huck Finn" by removing the N-word. Thereby missing the opportunity to read and discuss a text in its historical context.

BTW, I just went to seen Quentin Tarantino's hit movie "Django Unchained" where the N-word was spoken at least 100 times.

kjd said...

You know what, David, I've been thinking about Huck Finn all morning. And I've come to the tentative conclusion that it is read partly as a historical document, where realism is important. So we need to know what language the Huck character used and the book is partly about slavery and racism and their effects on people's minds and lives.
The difference with both Die Kleine Hexe and Pippi Longstocking is that they're not set in any kind of real life, but in an imaginary literary world with imaginary place names, which is already pretty sanitized. Readers aren't being asked to imagine it was fifty or sixty or a hundred years ago, they're being encouraged to imagine they themselves might be part of it.
I'm finding this hard to formulate, you'll notice. But I think what I said about considering each instance separately still holds.

Jake Schneider said...

I nominate your third-favorite critic, at least of this debate (and Die Zeit).

Anonymous said...

Interesting debate, especially since I just this morning bought a copy of Struwwelpeter for my five-year-old. "Die Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben" is, I think, inoffensive in its language and right-on its message - don't at people just because they're different.

As for updates and re-writes, earlier this year I spoke to a publisher who is doing good business with C21 versions of Karl May. Only the Shatterhand books so far, but perhaps he will come to the African/Ottoman adventures as well in time.

Helen MacCormac said...

I've been wondering about which books got to me when I was a child in a way that influenced my thoughts and dreams, and about how they have possibly formed me (unknowingly, in a negative way?); I loved The Secret Garden, I know I really liked The Famous Five, I'm still a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fan. The one book I really hated was Struwwelpeter, so it's interesting to hear that that is actually being read again. I hated his nails, I was terrified of the thumbcutting tailor who suddenly lept into the room, I still remember: "Er wog vielleicht ein halbes Lot und war am fünften Tage tot!" and can see Pauline ( I ended up only ever reading Charle and the Chocolate Factory to my kids...