Found in Translation: A specialist session with translator Tanja Handels


Event report by Esther Zitterl about AR "Black Feminisms" taught by Sylvia Mieszkowski this summer term

This summer term, the Department of English and American Studies offered a Cultural and Media Studies course entitled "Black Feminism", taught by Univ.-Prof. Dr. Sylvia Mieszkowski. Even before the term officially started, the places for this course were highly coveted, and not without cause: its description promised that we were going to intertwine contemporary literature, history, and theory as well as engage with the contemporary context, such as protest movements like Black Lives Matter. Bernadine Evaristo's Booker-Prize winning novel Girl, Woman, Other (2019) was going to serve as a literary basis for our analyses and discussions, giving structure to the course like a backbone, with one or two chapters discussed every week. As one of the lucky ones who managed to get hold of a place, my expectations were pretty high – and yet this course exceeded them.

Our course as a whole was organised around so-called 'specialist' sessions: for every week, two or three students had signed up to guide the discussion – rather than simply present –, by offering examples for analysis taken from the assigned chapter/s of Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other, combined with set critical articles on different aspects of black feminist theory. Each week, we read and debated excerpts, chapters, or whole articles by renowned scholars such as Barbara Smith, bell hooks, Ngozi Adichie, Reni Eddo Lodge, the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde. What set our specialist sessions apart from traditional presentations – and arguably made them both more engaging and more challenging – was their highly interactive and student-centred nature: The key ingredient to a successful session was to get everybody involved in the discussion, which is not an easy feat. However, given that we were an exceptionally lively and interested group, our specialist sessions soon gained momentum and consequently, some of us stayed behind after class to finish talking about intersectionality, hyper(in)visibility, or neoliberal feminism.

A special guest: Tanja Handels

While I enjoyed all of our specialist sessions, my favourite has to be the one in which Tanja Handels, who translated Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other into German, joined us. For us, it was of course very exciting to have an award-winning (e.g., the Bavarian translator grant 2018 for her translation of Zadie Smith's Feel Free, and the Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowolt-prize 2019) professional in our midst. Instead of merely presenting content, Handels actively created a productive and friendly atmosphere, inviting us to share our questions, comments, and thoughts on translation in general and on the language of Evaristo. Personally, I was genuinely impressed and pleasantly surprised by her down-to-earth approach: She explicitly encouraged us not to be afraid of making mistakes, but to show her what we have got and work from there.

An introduction to the world of literary translation

To begin with, Handels explained the general literary concept of Evaristo's work and presented important aspects concerning what Umberto Eco calls 'translation proper'. As an introduction to her craft, she provided us with five basic principles of translating and highlighted the most important differences between English and German. In addition, Handels also had asked us to prepare our own translations of individual passages out of Evaristo's "Megan/Morgan" chapter beforehand, so that we could learn about translation not only in theory, but hands-on. Using our own contributions to discuss the basic criteria for translating literature, we had a lively discussion about the peculiarities of Evaristo's style and language use and how we could best convey them in German. Handels was very appreciative when dealing with our translations: instead of pointing out the differences to her own work, she invited us to discuss the stylistic choices we had made and explained that there is never only one way to translate a text. What was arguably most remarkable in the Megan/Morgan chapter, from a linguistic point of view, was the switching of pronouns, halfway through. We discussed at length what the implications of this were for the original text, but also for the German translation. I thought it was such an interesting experience to approach the text through a translator's lens, and personally, I had the impression that as we were analysing and translation the "Megan/Morgan" chapter, we were unlocking new dimensions of meaning in Evaristo’s writing. Put differently, Handels's input and guidance allowed us to look at Girl, Woman, Other from a completely different angle, discovering it all over again.

"The Hill We Climb" & Who is allowed to translate it?

In the second part of the session, we joined the controversy that had been keeping journalists, translators, publishers and cultural commentators busy for weeks earlier this year: Janice Deul's protest that Amanda Gorman's inaugural poem "The Hill We Climb" should not be translated by a white woman, inspired Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, the poet originally chosen to translate it into Dutch, to hand back the assignment and provoked a flood of comments and statements – see Süddeutsche Zeitung 56 (9th March 2021), p. 11.

Together, we reflected on the importance of representation of people of colour in the publishing industry, the connection between language and culture, as well as on questions such as: who is allowed, expected, and able to translate Gorman's text and what power structures guide these decisions in the publishing business? This, in turn, led to questions on (white) privilege and the extent to which translation might be influenced by personal and collective experience. Handels had provided us with five different articles discussing the issue at hand, which turned out to be a great basis for our discussions. [Note: one openly accessible article is appended below] What fascinated me most about our exchange with Handels was that she helped us to take on a fresh perspective. Seeing that I, like many others in the course, had not given the role of translation in literature and literary creation much thought, I was not sure what to expect. However, I feel that after this lesson, I now not only have a basic understanding of translation, but I approach texts slightly differently. For me, the translator’s lens that Handels' equipped us with works almost like a kaleidoscope when used on a text: it reveals colours and shades of meaning that, in most cases, are invisible to the untrained eye.

It speaks volumes that due to our many questions and comments as well as the ensuing discussions, Handels did not manage to use all of the material she had prepared. Her session was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the highlights of this course – and an event to remember. If there is one thing I learned from Handels, it is that in order to translate a text, we need to understand its language and style first, with all of its semantic nuances. Developing a more profound understanding of a text like Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other does not only require in-depth reflection on (white) privilege, intersectionality, and power structures, but it consequently also showcases the intricacy of social and cultural constructs and differences.

Tanja Handels (© Anja Kapunkt)
Tanja Handels (© Anja Kapunkt) (transl.), B. Evaristo, _Mädchen, Frau etc._