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 ⋅ £8,99


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