Word! The Language Column
“Finding Common Ground in Differences”

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Hauke Hückstädt has previously written about putting together an anthology of easy-to-read literature in plain language. Now it’s time he told us about the reactions, about the feedback from people finally coming out of the hiding – with the help of literature.

By Hauke Hückstädt

Putting together LiES! Das Buch. Literatur in Einfacher Sprache (Read! The Book: Literature in Plain Language) involved breaking new ground. The book is an anthology of plain-language prose written by excellent and successful contemporary writers according to rules they made themselves for this special purpose. They took part in the project not as a charitable act, but in full awareness of engaging in a literary endeavour. This has never been attempted before, at least not in this form. We were faced with a daunting profusion of preconceptions and objections. But everyone involved ran the gauntlet with firm resolve.

The feedback that the writers and I have received at various subsequent events have been real eye-openers, effects coming in from every direction and striking sparks in our collective blind spots.

They get to stay

I remember a 16-year-old boy up on the podium. He had Down’s syndrome and was attending an inclusive class at school. He told the audience why it was important to him to be able to read Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick in plain language (published by Spass am Lesen Verlag). His class had read the book. They’d all read it together with the teacher in the original version. But he wasn’t able to: the original is too long for him, the prose too difficult. The narrative jumps around, and there are colloquialisms, allusions, metaphors, indirect speech. The plain-language version – which may well be devoid of literary artistry, and may be to the original what apple sauce is to an apple tree, a reduction and condensation of the original – this easy-to-read edition was a natural and vibrant way for him to get to stay in the class, not to have to leave and sit in another room, in a special class with a special education teacher specially assigned to him. This boy, whose name is Max, has matured thanks to Tschick  and is now a young man doing an apprenticeship.

I also think about the writer Arno Geiger. His book about his father, Der alte König in seinem Exil (The Old King in His Exile), has been translated into plain language, like Tschick, so that people who, for various reasons, have to fall back on easy-to-read editions can experience this story about dementia and love, father and son, family and loneliness. This is important to Geiger – even though, if I understand him aright, he never warmed aesthetically to this abridgment and translation of his text. So Geiger said he’d like to write something in plain language himself, which he did, a text that now holds a natural place in his oeuvre on a par with his other works: a dreamlike piece about taste, diversity and traditional cuisine all over the world. About finding common ground in differences.

Coming out of hiding

I remember Wortblind (i.e. Word-Blind), a self-help group in Lüneburg. It grew out of courses for functional illiterates to learn to read. They came to one of our readings. They were adults in the middle of their lives who were hiding their disability and who wanted to come out of hiding. They were infused with the stories of Julia Schoch and Kristof Magnusson. They were proud and loud and self-assured. We joked around and conversed with them after the reading. There are some fifteen thousand people like them in Lüneburg county alone, they said, people who can’t read or write well, who are ashamed of and weighed down by that, who keep their heads down and for whom hardly any stories are written. The biggest arena for a book remains the semicircle formed by a podium and an audience.