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Word for Word / Wort für Wort with German and American Writing Students

By Ariell Cacciola

The initial concept behind Columbia University’s literary translation exchange with Deutsches Literaturinstitut in Leipzig (DLL), now in its second year, was to partner young and talented writing students from the US and Germany to translate each other’s work. This year's program included four fiction writers, two creative essayists, and in lieu of poets, two playwrights. In the fall, the American students traveled to Leipzig, Germany to meet with the other student writers while the DLL students arrived in New York City this Spring for readings and receptions. In between, the students collaborated on their translations via email.

On April 1, a Word for Word / Wort für Wort reading and reception was held at Columbia University's Deutsches Haus. The night's events commenced with opening remarks by Bill Wadsworth, the director of academic administration in Columbia's graduate writing department, Susan Bernofksy, the director of Columbia's Literary Translation program, and Josef Haslinger, the director of the DLL. Each spoke about the importance of having your own work translated. Haslinger emphasized the importance of the program, since prior to the exchange with Columbia there was no permanent translation program at the DLL.


The evening continued with bilingual readings from all the fiction and creative nonfiction writers. Ursula Kirchenmayer and Kevin Magruder read back and forth between their novel excerpts and their respective translations. They explained that it was a challenging experience, at first, because each writer has such a different style. This was followed by Ellen Wesemüller and Rachel Sur, who discussed how they both began their careers writing fiction, but soon realized that they had different goals with their writing. The two creative essayists write about specific places and times that might be foreign to readers from other cultures. Sur explained that with essays it was more about capturing the most appropriate sound or tone even if one must compromise the actual language. Rounding out the reading were David Frühauf and Michael Makowski, who explained that Frühauf's piece had originally been a play that metamorphosed into a work of fiction with the narrators speaking in a first-person plural monologue. Makowski also indicated that he felt it was more important to successfully render the tone of Frühauf's work than to present a verbatim translation, a common conflict for all of the students at the beginning of this translation project.

During the Q&A which followed the reading, the students continued to emphasize how important it was to meet their counterparts. For Wesemüller, the most important aspect of translating Sur’s essay into German was adapting the original writer’s point of view. Sur, who lived for many years in Israel, focused her essay on recent cultural happenings there, whereas Wesemüller's essay was concerned with very specific details about the former German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany. Both Sur and Wesemüller agreed that conveying the original writer's intent and style were top priorities. The fiction writers addressed another important issue:  how much they had learned about their own language while translating from another and how this new “eye” has informed their current work. Magruder elaborated by explaining that with his new fiction, he scrutinizes every word and is more aware of how his own language is working. All of the writers agreed that they now think about how their own work is perceived through the lens of a different culture or language.

The following evening, at the Shapiro Studio, playwrights Bryan Quick and Julianne Stadelmann had their chance to shine.

Quick, from Columbia's graduate theatre program, was not only involved in the translation exchange, but also organized and directed the evening's performances. He rounded up four actors—three of whom had German-language knowledge and/or expertise—to read from the plays, both in English and German. What transpired was a fantastic flowing of languages, one into the other, which the actors performed in their bilingual roles.  In the black box theatre, the four actors read aloud from each play while performing minor blocking. Each play was first presented briefly in German followed by the actors resetting from the beginning and finishing each piece in English.

When the dramatic reading was over, the actors were joined on stage by the two playwrights as well as the fiction writers and creative essayists. Stadelmann explained that the most difficult aspect for her to deal with during the translation process was the act of “giving away” her play to somebody else. She acknowledged that theatre is a collaborative process but giving away her work to be interpreted into another language was rattling at first and made her worry about how the tone and sound would translate into the play's new language. But by the end of the project she was pleased with the adaptation of her work. Stadelmann's short play, Die Kinder sind tot (The Children are Dead), is actually set in the American Wild West. In her original, the language differs from that of Quick's translation: to an American, Stadelmann's play would almost seem void of the Wild West tropes we are used to. With the German, Stadelmann explained, she had initially used the wrong vocabulary when setting the scene. Trying to find the correct term for tumbleweed, a word which is not inherently part of the German language, proved to be a difficult challenge. In the collaborative workshop, Stadelmann brainstormed with the other students about the most appropriate word choice. When collaborating with Quick, the two decided that he should create his own language to productively capture her constructed world. In the English, a vernacular was formed that any American audience member would know the shorthand for, which helped build an image the audience would be familiar with: men in a saloon, tumbleweed rolling by.

The same could be said for Quick's own play, Blue Moon. Stadelmann was tasked with constructing her own version of the title, which would evoke the same melancholic and astrological atmosphere as the original, but for a German audience. She went so far as to change the title to Mondschatten (literally, Moonshadow).

During the Q&A, some of the same points were touched upon as in the previous evening but the topic of capturing sound and musicality while translating was delved into more deeply. Makowski and Frühauf explained that they each recorded themselves reading a portion of their own text and gave it to the other in hopes that even if the same word choice couldn't be made, the sound could still lead to the other language embodying the essence of the work.

Both evenings were a great success and the special edition¹ of the Word for Word / Wort für Wort bilingual anthology (with en face translations), designed and printed by Ugly Duckling Presse, gives the outcome of this project an elegant home.

¹The anthology is not mass produced or included in UDP's catalogue. Please contact Columbia University's Writing department to inquire about a copy.  (212) 854-4391

Published Apr 16, 2013   Copyright 2013 Ariell Cacciola

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