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It’s Like Arrival

I went this morning to get my Aufenthaltserlebnis or Aufenthaltsgenehmigung or Aufenthaltstitel, my residence permit. They gave me one with flimsy evidence of health insurance or income or institutional affiliation (for the record: I have all three, at least in theory); in any rate, I will be permitted to stay in Germany as a Guest Scientist (is history a science?) for up to one year. I may even work freelance.

To get an Aufenhaltserlebnis, one goes to the Ausländerbehörde für Studenten, Schuler, Au-Pair, und Gästwissenschaftler at 530 in the morning. It closes at 7, no appointments are ever available for those who arrive after 630. They give out appointment numbers, I was 81. The first appointments are at 7, mine was at 9; these are not to get the permit itself but to get another number, randomly generated, that leads to the appointment itself. My number was 16,431,397. I was immediately preceded by 70.

So between 930 and noon, when I got my passport back with new pink stickers and stamps, I waited. There are a few waiting rooms to move between; in one I napped, in another I worked on some transcription of notes from the library the day before, in another I talked to an Iranian guy about international politics, in another I lost the camping stool my landlady nicely lent me to sit on outside. I kept getting distracted by an essay I’d read the week before, one that has kept arriving in my head.

Here it is: Translation as a process of acceptance, itself a translation from the Italian, written by Anita Raja, who in her own words has, for thirty-five years, “had a secondary but constant side job as a literary translator from German.” Raja writes:

Earlier I mentioned the inequality characterizing literary translation. Of course, my friendship with the author was very fruitful, evoking powerful feelings: fondness, admiration, and recognition—in the double sense of gratitude and something more than cognition. But the inequality remained, implicit within the text and in some way rendered even more visible by the personal connection.

A text tethers readers tightly within its web, even if, when we read a book we love, it is difficult to tell where we end and the characters begin, where we submit to the author’s will and where we impose our own. To translate is to accept this inequality, to see the text clearly, and to willingly let ourselves be trapped in its web. A text that inspires our admiration, that influences us, gives us the feeling that the writer has articulated something for which we had no words. While reading, we have the impression that the text grants us voice, that if we knew how to write we would write it exactly as it is written, that the writer seems to have written it with us in mind.

The act of translating must accept and amplify these impressions. To accept that the other’s word is stronger than one’s own is to search for a way to overcome the distance and bring original and translation together as closely as possible.

Raja spends much of the essay talking about translating Christa Wolf, a German author, and so she talks about the nature of the German language a fair bit, as someone who also comes to it as a second language:

Christa Wolf is a writer who acts upon the lexical, syntactic, and grammatical structures of the German language, with its metaphorical capacity and its means of forming logical connections. One characteristic feature of her writing, for example, is the play of pronouns: a person is now unitary, now appears split into an “I,” a “you,” or a “she,” depending on her stage in life. Wolf does not conceal the “I” authoring the written text—it emerges ever more explicitly on the page, it signals the moments of authorial identification with the narrated events or with the characters.

This exists also in personal narration. A story can be told with man (one) or du (you) or ich (I) without class-positionality connotations but with rich connotations of selfhood, of identification. Raja says:

I discovered that the work of translation can challenge the very limits of language. It was therefore particularly exhilarating work because it acted upon my poorer, more common labor of finding words, leading me along paths that I never would have dared to take on my own.

The process of waiting for the Aufenthaltstitel was so protracted and difficult but the appointment itself so quick and easy; I left with everything I’d wanted, having experienced little resistance. There is a daily translation, a linguistic one but also a translation of custom (though that’s more a switch between Western dialects than a wholesale shift). At its most abstract: the translation of continuous personal feelings and impulses into different patterns of culture. I exercise more, I write less; I think more, I see fewer people; I still feel like myself but I live very differently.

At its most concrete: there are dozens of daily choices about whether or not to engage with conversations, advertising, news. All the bombardment of words require active effort to engage with; when I’m tired, when I’d rather not, they flow past. I was talking about this with a British friend, a bookshop owner, who has been here for over twenty years and still doesn’t speak German. “It’s like arrival,” she said, meaning the graphic novel Arrival; I heard a sentence about the process when a person or thing makes an appearance, when an idea or goal is met. Raja writes that “the totality of the original text is not reproduced by a single translation, but by a series of translations: those that preceded the translation and those that will follow,” when everything must be translated and translated again that nourishing work lurks in the background of the everyday.

That same night in the bookshop, a guy named Kim – older, American, gay – told me the story of his Dietrichesque mother in law Ursula, a Nazi widow who managed to slither undisturbed into America in the 1950s. Despite her vicious past, he said, there was something he admired about her; perseverance, style, a kind of courage. I recorded the story on my phone without telling him – Mapplethorpe became involved, couldn’t resist – and listening back there was the pleasure of the story and the pleasure of the broad American voice, vowels gliding across the tops of consonants; familiar but newly gorgeous, like seeing fall or a mountain range or a familiar pet again.

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