Translating and Keeping the Respect

by Annalena Steffens, Renee Czyganowski, Michelle Chiru and Audrey Heimann

Translating a piece of writing from one language to another can lead to several difficulties, many of which we encountered during our project with Fatimah Asghar’s “Oil”, a poem in Asghar’s poem collection If They Come For Us (2018). “Oil” deals with a speaker with diverse affiliation, among them them Muslim, South Asian and Middle Eastern, who struggles with their cultural identity, both socially and politically, particularly in the wake of 9/11 and uses oil as a metaphor that brings their identity together.

As we set out to translate “Oil”  from English to German, we came across problems concerning foreign expressions, metaphors and underlying meanings.

How does one handle non-English words in a multilingual text? When looking at “Oil”, we decided to stay as close to the original as possible, and thus keep foreign words as written in the original. While translating a word such as badam, a tropical tree known as country almond, Indian almond, Malabar almond, as well as  a few other names in English and Katappenbaum in German, would make it easier for the reader, the author had an intent in intertwining languages, and thus cultures. An intent that we, as translators, decided to keep in order not to change future interaction with the poem.

However, sometimes we were forced to intervene in this relationship between the original and the reader of the translation.

One difficulty we came across was the difference in grammar between English and German, especially when the grammar includes meaning. While “no one heard” is grammatically correct in English, the German language forces you to include an object, and thus we had to deviate from the original and write down an interpretation of who or what could have been meant, instead of sticking to the openness of the original.

Mixing interpretation into translation doesn’t stop there, but continues throughout the entire process. Especially in a genre such as poetry, where literal and metaphoric meaning are woven together, one cannot bypass making interpretational decisions in the translation. Very few words have the exact same meaning in two, or more, languages. Those cases become even rarer upon trying to navigate metaphors and double-meanings and in the end the translation shows our interpretation of what we have found in the original.

Upon starting this project, we set ourselves the task to be mindful of the original, not to change words and meaning if we didn’t have to. And while we managed to do so for the most part (or at least we hope we did), there are always instances in translating where the translator has to step into the role of the interpreter as well, changing the original a little to bridge the gap between languages.

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