Political correctness has gone insane

Politically correct? How translators deal with controversial terms

The debate about political correctness in literature has been going on for years. One of the most famous examples in Germany is the story of Pippi Longstocking, written by the Swedish children's author Astrid Lindgren. In the book "Pippi Longstocking in the South Seas", published in Swedish in 1948, Pippi's father is referred to as the "Negro king". In the new German translation from 2009, the term was changed to "Südseekönig". The first English translation had already made use of the term "cannibal king", which in turn also had racist connotations.

The politically incorrect Huckleberry Finn

Another example: In 2011 a new English edition of the literary classic "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain was published. This new version dispensed with the word "nigger", which appears 219 times in the original text. An understandable action, wrote the Mark Twain expert Peter Messent in the newspaper "The Guardian" at the time. Nonetheless, it would "falsify a great anti-racist novel".

Original book cover of "Huckleberry Finn" from 1884

Translator Andreas Nohl came to a similar conclusion. He kept the expression "Nigger Jim" in the new German translation he published in 2010. He points out that he does not just let such terms stand for themselves, but explains them: "I have a relatively large annotation apparatus in my books - these are carefully edited classic editions - and the term is clearly defined as racist explained."

Nohl also points out that the choice of words in "Huckleberry Finn" was already politically incorrect at the time the book was published in 1884. Despite this provocative use of racist terms, Mark Twain's work is considered anti-racist among scholars.

Gone with the wind: a cultural and historical monument

Andreas Nohl is currently working - together with his partner Liat Himmelheber - on the new translation of another classic: "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which was first published in 1936, is set in the US state of Georgia during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the subsequent reconstruction phase, ie the reintegration of the southern states into the Union, until 1877. The A book of more than 1,100 pages, the film version of which won several Academy Awards in 1940, is the second most popular book among US readers according to a 2014 survey - right after the Bible.

Andreas Nohl

However, several critics attest the work a nostalgic, glorified representation of slavery in the southern states. The debate on how to deal with such a "monument to culture" has been going on in the USA for years.

For Andreas Nohl it is neither an anti-racist nor a racist book. "It describes an era of racism - and that is something completely different." For him, the novel is a work that deserves a new translation into German, since it is "without a doubt one of the most influential books in international entertainment literature" to this day. In this new translation, however, he adjusts the language: the word "nigger" is translated as "black" or "slaves". However, according to Nohl, the historical context in which such books were written cannot be changed. "We are not George Orwell's language police - we are not reinventing the world." If that were the case, he adds, even the Bible would hardly be recognizable after a politically correct new translation.

Dealing with the word "negro"

With James Baldwin, the translator Miriam Mandelkow has re-translated one of the most powerful voices in African American literature. Including Baldwin's debut novel "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (in German: "From this world") from 1953 and "The Fire Next Time" (in German: "After the flood the fire"), Baldwin's 1963 influential essay Collection on the role of race and religion in US history.

In contrast to the first translation from the 1960s, Mandelkow avoided using the word "Neger" in German - except in those places where Baldwin himself gives the term a political meaning when he describes it as an offensive term used by whites. She explains her approach in detail in the afterword of the book. "Every contemporary translation that is confronted with the N-word cannot avoid the translator's comments," Mandelkow told DW.

Translator Miriam Mandelkow

Despite her reflective approach, the translator was heavily criticized for even mentioning the N word at a public event in Berlin about how she approached her translations. Such reactions prompted her and her colleague Ingo Herzke to hold an event at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair entitled "N-Word and Gender Gap: How Politically Correct Are Translations?" to organize. Obviously there is a need for discussion.

The problem with the "race"

There are terms that can be used in English, but which are extremely problematic in German. The term "race" is one of them. "People are always a little suspicious in Germany because they have had experiences with this type of classification that are one hundred percent negative," says Ingo Herzke. Only recently, German scientists from the University of Jena demanded that the term "race" no longer be used, as there was no biological basis for classifying people into races.

The German term "Rasse" can therefore not simply be used as a translation without being discussed in italics, with a hyphen or in a footnote, says Miriam Mandelkow, who was involved in the translation of Ta-Nehisi Coates' bestseller "Between the World and Me "(in German:" Between me and the world "), which deals with racial relations in the USA, also had to deal with the topic.

Pippi Longstocking - a classic children's book that also caused controversy

Dealing with gender politics

Another crucial issue is the appropriate translation of terms that describe groups of people. While the English version of a text can speak of "activists" without having to think about who is included and who is not, the German translator has to decide what this word should look like in order to include people of all genders.

There are currently several ways to do this. Some feminize terms that would otherwise normally be written in the masculine form; then there are publications that capitalize the "I" in feminine form (activists) or add an underscore (activists) or an asterisk (activists) to include non-binary people. "This is something that moves the literary scene in Germany very much," says Ingo Herzke. Whenever the Translators' Association VdÜ discusses this topic, it evokes "very intense, almost physical reactions". In official contexts, the use of the asterisk is understandable for democratic and social reasons, but in literary texts it is unthinkable for many "because it is ugly".

But obviously, adds Herzke, "there are no clear answers to any of these questions, it is a process of mutual understanding that is constantly developing. I am a friend of gray areas, not of rules and prohibitions," says Ingo Herzke. After all, this is literature - you can't start using industry standards.

The discussion "N-word and gender gap: How politically correct are translations?" takes place on October 17th at the Frankfurt Book Fair.