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From the Magazine

By David Varno

The process of translation is a key element of Turkish-German author Feridun Ziamoglu’s Koppstoff: Kanaka Sprak vom Rande der Gesellschaft (The Knowledge Holder Doesn't Choke on Cleverness), a fictional text of 26 women’s voices, all of Turkish descent and living in Germany. Though composed in a reportorial style, on the premise that he interviewed each of the women, he has admitted that some are based on found correspondence that he translated into German from the Turkish. The translators of the excerpt we published this month have left examples of Zaimoglu’s character’s appropriated German, as well as certain Turkish phrases, untranslated.

The excerpt is headed “Necla Hanım, 63, Cleaning Lady,” and features a woman who, like many other voices in the book, silently plays the role expected of her, as she silently resists categorization.

Mouth-shut-keeping is my usual course of things, with "shutyourmouth" I was reprimanded, and I stayed out of things, I didn't help myself to anything, out of my flesh I made a grunt worker, who is good at clean-making: plunge mop into water, wring mop free of shoe dirt, lay mop around handled broom, drag mop across floors. The dirt sticks to the wet mop, akıllı oğlum, and only because a piece of rag soaked with clear water and because rag piece no thing do except to come over dirt, the apparent and the hidden, like a Scheytan.

Koppstoff is Zaimoglu’s second book. The first, Kanak Sprak: 24 Mißtöne vom Rande der Gesellschaft, was composed of 24 male Turkish voices. The translators, Kristin Dickinson, Robin Ellis, and Priscilla Layne, have shared a note that compares the two works and explains aspects of the translation:

With Kanak Sprak, Zaimoğlu not only insisted on a place for nonstandard German in the German literary tradition, but he also challenged German intolerance and xenophobia by reappropriating cultural stereotypes like the hate speech term “Kanake.”

Written three years later, Koppstoff: Kanaka Sprak vom Rande der Gesellschaft (Headstuff: Kanaka Speak from the Margins of Society) … has often been referred to as a kind of sequel to Kanak. The characters of Koppstoff are nevertheless much more diverse, ranging from leftist students to cleaning women, from freelance writers to prostitutes.

Both Kanak Spraak and Koppstoff integrate elements of ethnographic writing and in doing so parody a very specific tradition of German literature referred to as Betroffenheitsliteratur which is best exemplified by Günter Wallraff’s seminal book Ganz Unten (1985). In Ganz Unten Wallraff, known throughout Germany for his exposé journalistic style, disguised himself as a Turkish guest worker and documented his experiences in then West Germany. Zaimoğlu’s texts work against the kind of “authentic truth” about the migrant experience that Wallraff sought to expose. By constantly drawing attention to the constructed and creative element of his own work, Zaimoğlu undermines the possibility of one single “Turkish-German” experience.

By creating texts that enjoy widespread popular appeal in Germany which simultaneously complicate the very essentializing tendencies that make them attractive, Zaimoğlu positions himself—and his characters—as agents of internal resistance. In particular, Koppstoff challenges readers to rethink conventions of religion, nationalism and femininity, and is globally significant for its contribution to debates on immigration, assimilation and discrimination – issues that resonate far beyond Germany’s borders.

The word koppstoff, literally “head material,” refers both to the Muslim headscarf and to what is going on inside one’s head. Hanım’s self awareness and rich interior life are striking, as is her wisdom:

Güzel Oğlum, bunlar üst perdeden konuşur, ben bunların gözünde paçası düşüğün tekiyim, and the reason that I know about these hate-heaps and keep quiet, without bristling into a cat's hunched back, without standing up against it, is a good one: the knowledge-holder reads safety and the shadows of the scream from all kinds of lips and makes his mouth into a silent grotto. The knowledge-holder doesn't choke on cleverness, he thinks that the signs that get tacked onto others like medals, are actually curse and damnation.

Read the complete excerpt here.

Published Nov 19, 2009   Copyright 2009 David Varno

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