A Different Perspective

Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel "Go, went, gone" deals with identity and identification. Susan Bernofky’s English translation throws a new light on the identities in the original. By

Refugees resist on roof © Montecruz Foto

Gehen, Ging, Gegangen is truly a timely novel. It is not only of its time, dealing with present-day issues facing Germany, Europe and the world, it is also a novel conscious of the effect of time; of the past, and also of time for people who have too much of it – the recently retired protagonist Richard, and the refugees kept in a state of limbo. This quality of timeliness is one that has been extensively praised in reviews of the English translation by Susan Bernofsky, which has been very well received.

The more interesting aspect of the translation, however, is not one of time but of place. Erbenpeck frequently returns to questions of language, identity and borders. She intersperses the refugees’ experiences of life in Germany – learning German, being overwhelmed by bureaucratic paperwork – with Richard’s meditations on being a former East German professor, in one sense also a recent newcomer to West German culture.

In English, this aspect inevitably becomes somewhat skewed. Bernofky’s translation does a good job of conveying the sparse, direct prose of the original, but this tendency has the effect of shifting the reader’s perspective away from Richard and towards the refugees – providing more identifying markers with the characters estranged from German culture. This effect is particularly clear in the moments when Erpenbeck draws attention to word or language choice, moments which are unavoidably altered in the shift from German to English:

Der oder jener begrüßt Richard jetzt schon auf Deutsch: Guten Tag, wie geht es? Und Richard sagt: Gut.
Some of the refugees now greet Richard in German: Guten Tag, wie geht es? And Richard says: Gut.


In the German, the phrases are an unremarkable part of the text surrounding them, flowing smoothly in the same language; English readers, however, are more obviously shown basic phrases in a foreign language, in a way more akin to the refugees learning those phrases than Richard.

This is, of course, an inevitable part of the difficulty of translating a novel in which knowledge of language plays a small but prominent part, and which is so deeply concerned with the methods by which people are included or excluded. Richard’s casual knowledge of the culture around him and the refugees’ corresponding lack is a key part of this. For the most part, Bernofsky chooses to keep explanations of the German references to a minimum. This avoids clogging up the prose with unwieldy explanations, but it often has the effect of leaving English-speaking readers without the weight of the references in the German. When one of the refugees, Rashid, tells Richard about being brushed off by the Senator of the Interior, for example, Richard thinks sadly that ‘a group of refugees is not a Volk [eine Gruppe von Flüchtlingen ist kein Volk]’. Bernofsky’s choice to keep the German term without further context sidesteps the need to find an English equivalent of everything implied by the German – both people and nation – without losing the flow of the sentence, but the lack of context strips the moment of some of its resonance.

There are other points where Bernofsky more adeptly deals with the need to gesture towards the German cultural knowledge implied in the original. When discussing the conflicts in Mali and Niger, for example, Richard thinks back to his own family’s involvement in war:

Richard denkt an seinen Vater, der als deutscher Soldat in Norwegen und Russland war, um Kriegswirren zu erzeugen. Detlef denkt an seine Mutter, die mit der gleichen Sorgfalt, mit der sie als deutsches Mädchen die Zöpfe flocht, dann später als Trümmerfrau Steine klopfte für den Wiederaufbau.
Richard thinks of his father, who was sent to Norway and Russia as a German soldier to produce mayhem. Detlef thinks of his mother, who with the same care with which she’d once braided her hair as a young German girl had later tapped the mortar from pieces of stone as a rubble woman helping to rebuild the country.

Bernofsky changes the focus here, italicising rubble woman rather than the mayhem, which is a less pointed term than the German Kriegeswirren. The work of the Trümmerfrauen is likely unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers; by italicising it, Bernofsky is gesturing towards the context in a way that does not detract from the key point being made. Unlike the use of Volk, the term rubble woman provides enough of an explanation in this context even for those unfamiliar with the concept.

The places where Bernofsky does explain or expand on the context, however, are too few to counteract the insistent tendency of the English translation towards greater identification with the refugees, those also outside German culture looking in. Richard’s own example of alienation, after all, is of a trip to America, where he ‘was beside himself with the foreignness [ganz durcheinander von Fremdsein].’ The translation flags up the use of German, such as the refugees’ Guten Tag, but elides the use of English in the translation in the same way that Guten Tag is hidden in the German:

Er klopft und wartet, Awad macht ihm auf.
How are you?
Wahrscheinlich gut, was soll er sagen.
How are you?
Auch Awad geht es gut.
Höflichkeitsfloskeln in einer Sprache, in der weder der eine zu Hause ist noch der andre.
He knocks and waits, and Awad opens the door.
How are you? Awad asks.
Probably he’s doing well, what else should he say?
How are you?
Awad’s doing well too.
Empty phrases signify politeness in a language in which neither of them is at home.


This is not to say that this switch in identification weakens the translation. On the contrary, it works to counteract one of the potential issues with the original text, that of discussing refugees entirely through the lens of a privileged, highly educated German professor, someone whose response to the stories he hears is to focus on his own somewhat similar experiences. The English readership is ‘at home’ in the language used by the refugees, equally external to the minutiae of German culture. The centre of identification shifts in a subtle but profound way.

The translation may lose much of the impact of the nuanced cultural references, but it gains a more interesting sense of identification with those newly introduced to life in Germany. Whether or not that was Bernofsky’s intention, she had produced something well worth the attention it has received.

Jenny Erpenbeck/Susan Bernofsky: Go, went, gone (German: Gehen, ging, gegangen)

Granta Books 2017 ⋅ 286 pages ⋅ 8,95 Euros


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