Seeing, Reading, Translating
Thank you, President Rose, for this introduction and for the opportunity to speak today. Welcome to Bowdoin, Class of 2020! It is a tremendous honor for me to address you today. It is an honor that I never expected, dreamed about, or even considered possible: not when I began my college studies, in 1986, at the university of Leipzig, in what was then East Germany. Not in 1991, when I arrived in the United States. And speaking to you today still seemed like a remote possibility when I became a faculty member at Bowdoin.
What president Rose does not know: almost to the day 25 years ago, on August 21, 1991, I first set foot into the United States. For the students among you, this day lies in the ancient past, and I suspect at least a few of you may role your eyes now (there we go again…). For you, this day belongs to a time that you know from textbooks or films and perhaps from family tales and that either intrigues you – and becomes an object of study and a period about which you will read veraciously – or a time that bores you, because you are firmly enshrined in the present and future. In any case, for you, 1991 has been relegated to history. For me and for many of your professors, this past is a formative part of our present.
I arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, with a visiting fellowship to the University of Wisconsin, planning to stay for just one year. And then life happened, as they say, and I never really left. The United States has shaped my intellectual, professional, and personal life ever since. On that August day in 1991, I did not know yet that my life would see the many acts of translating that come with being a professor of German. They include the course mentioned by President Rose, which revolves around techniques of translation, as well as my research in which I recently have sought to understand why and how people translated more than ever before into German during the eighteenth century. In 1991, I did not sense that I would live, to this day, in and with translation as an at times unsettling but always rich companion. But what do I mean by this catch-all phrase – “a life translating” – and more importantly, what does this have to do with the here and the now? How does it relate to you being a student at Bowdoin? And what does translating have to do with seeing and reading?
Of course, in the beginning of my life in the United States, there was nearly constant, literal translation, going back and forth between German and English. Those of you coming from bilingual or multilingual households, or do not speak English as their first language, and those of you who study a language (or think about studying a language) can relate to this experience. But I also found myself translating between familiar circumstances and new experiences. I literally had to translate – and not just linguistically – if I wanted to share my experiences with friends and family left behind. Communication about my studies, which had always been difficult in my family where I was the first to attend college, became almost impossible; more often than not, my experiences got lost or I could speak about them only in a distorted or distorting way.
Translation therefore stands for more than linguistic transposition from one language into another. It is also a metaphor, a figure of speech for the ways in which we see each other, read about passed times, and communicate about us, our backgrounds and identities, with people whose experiences and stories are vastly different from our own.
Before I entertain (or bore) you with details from my arrival story, I want to give you a piece of advice that I believe is transferrable to your lives. I invite you to discover how this advice arises from the story that I am going to tell, and I hope you will make parts of it your own: Be open to unexpected experiences. Allow yourself to see people and things differently from what you are used to: include your life’s plan (or your parents plan for your life), your dreams and values in the list of items that now appear in a different light. See these important elements as dynamic not as static entities. As you read texts and as you listen to lectures, discussions, or simple roommate banter, allow different versions of your truth and your expectations to emerge. Do not just watch knowledge grow and accumulate, in you and yet oddly detached from you. But instead, expect the contexts for acquiring and creating knowledge to change. Become a knowledge maker. And in the process, allow your truth to be shaped. Not somebody else’s truth: your truth, as it is altered and refined by you, presenting itself more nuanced today than yesterday, and grown out of comparison and contrast with others, including those who you sometimes may not understand, although you speak the same language. In other words, embrace a life of translation.
There are two experiences or encounters I remember from that August day at O’Hare. (And I’m sure that I misremember many aspects.): I got through immigration and needed to make a phone call, connecting with a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Back then in Germany, you purchased a prepaid phone card to be inserted in a payphone. So, naturally, I wanted to buy a phone card. I saw a woman, standing next to a pay phone, and boldly approached her. I said: “Can I please buy this phone card from you? Can I have this?” She looked at me as if I had grown two horns and said: “Absolutely not.” I was baffled and helpless, convinced that something was wrong with my English (not with my behavior). Only weeks later I learned that most US-American phone cards had a number code with which you could relay all charges to your landline. But in this moment, seeing an object that looked so familiar – the phone card – tricked me into an act of complete misinterpretation and wrong cultural translation. Where I saw a stubborn woman reluctant to help me, she saw her phone bill being racked up by a stranger. But it got worse. I managed to make the phone call, and I learned that I needed to catch a bus. I took my suitcases, and asked a stranger for the bus stop. He looked at me, took my suitcase, motioned somehow (which I could not make out) and took off. I was just horrified. I was convinced my suitcase was gone. (After all, I was influenced by movies and the residual effects of East German textbooks portraying a United States that had little to do with reality.) But I made a mistake. I was merely misreading the signs, because all this man did was dumping my suitcase in front of a bus driver and saying: “You take care of this woman, because she cannot take care of herself.” In this situation, the stranger clearly read me better than I did, and he instilled in me a vague feeling that I would be fine, because I could ask for and receive help from others. Today, I am aware that not only my overly formal command of English, but also misperceptions and naïve ways of seeing – in short: all the psychological, ideological, and sentimental baggage I carried with me in addition to my heavy luggage – co-shaped both of these experiences.
These stereotypical ways of seeing, and the on-occasion shortsighted conclusions we draw, shape our ways of translating experience. And my recollection also signals how translation – how participating in an exchange and moving from one language into another – can fail us. Impressions and personal experiences often conflict with what we read in books, in academic texts, in accumulated bodies of knowledge – which we call academic subjects and disciplines – and that we seek to explore and advance; conversely, these authorities and entire traditions often eclipse important voices. So, how then, should we translate and communicate?
Please follow me, briefly, into eighteenth-century Germany and into what was a prolific, all- consuming translation culture. People translated mostly from English, French, and Spanish into German: in journals and newspapers, theater and prose, translators worked obsessively. They wanted to gain access to information and knowledge. On occasion, they just wanted to show off, trying to best their competitors for money, influence, and prestige. Whose language – that is grammar, syntax, word choice and style, but also intention – would prevail as the new proper form? But amidst this chaos – and chaos it was – patterns of translations emerged: there were translations that preserved the sound and structure of the foreign voice, often at the expense of perfect, proper German. Sometimes, these translations gave rise to secondary use, as scholars and writers based statements about foreign cultures on these translations, falsifying or embellishing truths in the process. A second group of translations eradicated anything foreign, in an effort to stabilize and affirm what was still a fragile German-language community and tradition. Clearly, each group had its shortcomings. But there was more, a mode of translation that we might call aspirational and inspirational. Increasingly, translating was accompanied by a call for an unambiguous language, high degrees of efficiency, and clarity. The best translation had to capture the essence of the very thing it named or the process it described, leading the translator into unknown territory. She had to go beyond the original text: in seeking to capture nuance, translation began to invent and to create. From this moment on, it was imbued with innovation and growth, the flexibility to adapt, and indeed the ability to facilitate communication. And soon, older concepts of translation became superfluous; they were replaced by the idea of an original, innovative text. The author who created pushed the traditional translator aside.
And so, I hope that you will embrace a comparable path, one that resonates with these past experiences. In the next four years, you’ll move through the application of rules, the acquisition and affirmation of knowledge, and towards new ideas and projects. In shaping your truths, your knowledge and your life, listen actively. Allow that which seems strange and unfamiliar to unsettle your beliefs. Seek more than mere affirmation. Do so by weighing the familiar with risks and the promise that the yet-unknown – that innovation – holds. Be aware of the fear and uncertainty that decision-making involves, but decide. Be prepared to explain, mediate, defend, and question the decisions you make. Advance and amend your thinking, be bold and – use active verbs! And as you prepare to turn in your first college paper in a few short weeks, re-read its title and revise, which is what I should have done to “seeing, reading, and translating.”