Language and Form

by Selina Kraft, Anna Herkelmann, Laura Zimmermann and Sarah Riedel

While translating “Oil”, not only the correctness of the translation was a problem we had to face in the process. “Oil”, a poem by Fatimah Asghar, is about a teenage girl with diverse identities, among them Muslim, South Asian and Middle Eastern, facing an existential crisis following the events of 9/11, using oil as a metaphor to link the events with the speaker’s crisis. The poem is one of many from Asghar’s collection If They Come for Us (2018). The form of the poem is closely connected to the content, so we had to be careful to keep an eye on that while translating. This led to choices such as rearranging German sentences and leaving out obligatory punctuation. The tone of the poem was a task we had to face as well.

While reading Asghar’s poem “Oil”, we noticed the unusual form. While the text needed six pages in total, it could have been printed onto half of the pages by looking at the lines. One part of the text even is upside-down and written almost without spaces between words. In our first meeting, we as a group decided immediately that we wanted to keep the form of the poem since we thought that Asghar wrote it intentionally in that form. It could be because of the torn feelings of the speaker or because of other things; ours is just one of a million ways to interpret the form. We tried to keep the form as close to the original as possible, including learning from fellow students from our group on how to turn a text upside-down in Microsoft Word.

Sometimes this was not as easy as it seems. To keep the translation grammatically correct in German, the line breaks could not be kept word by word. This means that we weren’t always able to break the line at the same words as in the original, e.g. one of the lines breaks at the word “doctor” but due to German grammar, we were only able to break the line at the word sagt because the object could not stand before the verb.

By switching words and lines for the purpose of maintaining formal integrity, we also had to be aware that the German language needs more words to form a correct sentence than English. To keep the form, we had to rearrange the longer German sentences. While writing down the translation, we also had to be aware of the legibility. This was one of the biggest problems to tackle because the English original in some instances only needed half the words to form a proper sentence than our translation. We tried to write in a non-halting German so that the reader could read the translation in a flow, just like the original.

The last important thing while we were thinking about how to manage our translation was word choice and punctuation.

We read through “Oil” again and again, looking at our notes from the session on the poem. We asked ourselves “Who is the speaker in the poem?” The speaker, we agreed, had to be a teenage girl in Middle School or High School. This was crucial for some choices on the language of the translation. We decided to keep an informal style for the translation, appropriate for a teenager. This led to choices like translating “my people” not as “mein Volk” (which also had a slightly strange overtone for us) but as “meine Leute”.

While reading through the first draft of the translation, we noticed something the German grammar loves to bits: commas. Our translation had lots of commas that were necessary for being grammatically correct. That interrupted the reading and poetic flow we tried to keep. We were worried that the poem could be interpreted differently because the reading flow was stopped more often than in the original poem. For keeping this very flow, we decided to leave out some commas. In particular when the thinking speed of the speaker seemed to be faster in our interpretation, we left commas out so the reader can read faster and therefore can understand and feel the speaker’s stress and distress throughout the poem.

The bridge between languages is built by every translation of a text. However, not only the choice of words and the correctness of the translation are important. It is also important to look at the outside form, putting aside syntactical and grammatical correctness. Looking at a poem can have its own effects without reading it. When the work is then read, little things like commas can be changing the whole meaning and the interpretation. If a translator looks at a work to translate, these little details have to be transported from the original to the translation as well.

  • Asghar, Fatimah. If They Come For Us. One World, 2018.