Lost and Found in Translation
Doing the translation on the statements for Identity Tapestry at the Vögel Kulture Zentrum outside of Zurich is a very tricky process, one which is pushing against the cultural identity of the place and the German language. It is doubly hard because I don’t know German and must rely on how well I can convey what I’m after to translators.
There are always problems in translation, and even in English each word must be chosen very carefully. I have a very small space on the labels to get an idea across and I make use of the double meanings, ambiguity or clarity of certain words in English. “I just want to have faith” could mean religious faith or faith in oneself or faith in other things in English, but there is a leaning towards religious faith. In German it seems it is one or the other. The statement “I get attacked for my beliefs” is doubly difficult, first because in English “beliefs” is very ambiguous. The beliefs could be religious, political, personal, whatever, but apparently in German religious beliefs and other beliefs are different words. Secondly “attacked” in English can mean verbally or physically attacked (and I appreciate the ambiguity), but in German they seem to be more separate.
In this case, there were potentially two languages in play, Swiss German and High German (the Swiss speak French, Italian and German depending on where in the country you are). Swiss-German is spoken, but it is the casual intimate language, not the written one… until very recently. In the past few years it has shown up in text messaging, but as my translator put it “only to a friend you would invite to your wedding”, no one else. Originally I thought it would be wonderful to use Swiss-German for the statements, because it is the language inside people’s minds and more intimate but the problem is there is no standardized way of writing it, so it is very confusing to read. There are other problems; Swiss German is shocking to see written in a way that might overshadow the piece because it comes across as very grade-school and unprofessional, something people are very unused to seeing in that context and might change the meaning and focus of the piece. The thing that finally convinced me not to use it (after my poor translator struggled through all the statements in Swiss-German with me) was that it would just be too hard to read.
The final thing was that the specter of WWII kept rearing up. It is completely ingrained in the German language. Translating “I like to follow a good leader” becomes an issue when “leader” always carries meaning of “The Leader” (Hitler). Likewise “I have fought in a war”. There is only one war apparently, or that is the connotation. Ideas of cultural or racial identity are similarly thorny with the war (as if that weren’t bad enough here!).
Right now I have my first translator’s second pass at going from Swiss-German into High German which has been marked up by the very helpful curator for the show in red ink. We will have to talk on the phone at what will be 1AM for me tonight so I get a better idea of the thoughts behind her changes. The simple, literal translation of the words aren’t always the thing that gets at what I mean. In English I think of the statements more like poetry: carefully selected words arranged in a way that hits the mind a certain way and can contain layers of meaning. In translating to a language I do not know I feel like I am feeling around in the dark. At the same time I am finding a new understanding of the Swiss-German culture and language.