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Othering ~ Andern
10 terms related to identities that require sensitivity in translation

Zwei persons of colour, eine mit Kopftuch und Brille, eine mit Dreads, vor einem beigem Hintergrund, auf denen die beiden Wörter "Empowerment" und "Selbstermächtigung" zu lesen sind.
Identität hat viele Facetten | © Goethe-Institut. llustration: EL BOUM.

Translation is incredibly challenging: translating sensitively demands that historical, geographical, political and social contexts be taken into account. The text to be translated is attached to its own particular discourses, and a good translation needs to be aware of these.
Yet different languages and their different linguistic worlds have developed different discourses around particular issues and problems. As if it weren’t already complex enough, language is constantly changing - especially in relation to political and therefore sensitive terms. In this article, we look specifically at English and German, and discuss 10 terms related to identity constructions that are difficult to translate. Since language is constantly evolving and changing, this list might look very different in a year, in five or in ten years. It is in no way exhaustive.

By Anna von Rath and Lucy Gasser

Due to the existing discourses on some of these topics in English, English terms are often retained in German usage. However, familiarity with such English terms may well be related to people’s educational and class background. What is more, when hearing politically sensitive alternatives for the first time, they can seem cumbersome and unwieldy. These difficulties are symptomatic of the fact that we need to build awareness for these issues, and foster a discussion culture in this subject area. It is important to create visibility for these difficulties, in order to develop discussions which we must have if language and society are to become less discriminatory.
For these reasons, we offer a discussion of some key terms and selected examples which, based on our research, warrant consideration when it comes to sensitive translation. We understand ourselves as being in the process of learning in regard to the translation of sensitive terms, and are fortunate in being able to draw on the important work of the initiators of Leidmedien.de, Audre Lorde, Max Czollek, Ronen Steinke and many more. For explanatory purposes, and in order to deprive the more sensitive expressions of their potentially elitist elements, the following text reproduces individual discriminatory terms. With our explanations, we invite readers to engage with possibly unfamiliar terms and terminology in the hopes of developing more respectful ways of interacting with each other.
The authors of this text are Anna von Rath and Lucy Gasser, editors of poco.lit., literary scholars in the field of postcolonial studies and white cis-gender women.

1. Othering

We speak of othering when a person or group is constructed as an other by being positioned as different to an implicit norm. Othering is a process that ascribes an inherent difference or strangeness to a group or an individual, and makes hierarchical distinctions on the basis of that ascription. This act of demarcation has real consequences, because it happens within existing, unequal power structures: those who do the othering speak and act from positions of power, to mark those they deem unlike themselves other.

Many of the terms on this list as well as those on race, and gender and sexuality, are examples of how language enacts othering: For example, there are racist or homophobic descriptions that have established themselves as negative or offensive in order to sanction identities or behaviours that do not conform to the norm. Othering thus explains that discrimination is an exercise of power that works with labeling and defining groups of people and reducing them to these reductive stereotypes.
Much of the time, German-speakers also use the English term for this, as no corresponding concept has yet been coined. We could, however, consider introducing andern or das Andern, which a few people already do – though it still seems unfamiliar at the moment. After all, one argument against so-called politically correct terminology in Germany is that many of these terms are English and thus pose a challenge for German speakers who speak little or no English. It becomes clear that there are classist undertones in one's choice of words or in the expectation that other people should be familiar with certain terminology.

2. Community 

In Germany, many people use the term community more and more frequently to describe an explicitly political group with particular interests. The terms Gruppe and Gemeinschaft do not convey the political aspects of this.
The term community in this sense originates from contexts in which oppressed groups are in the minority. By uniting within an exclusive majority society, members of these groups can strengthen each other, and in building new alliances, can make political demands.

3. Heimat

The German term Heimat is translated into English as home, homeland or even community, although community in this case has an altogether different meaning than in the last point. The German Bundesministerium des Inneren für Bau und Heimat is called the Federal Ministry of the Interior, for Building and Community in English. In German, Heimat evokes the Nazi regime. The term suggests an understanding of a white Germany in which immigrants, Black people and People of Color are not welcome. In response to rising right-wing movements in Germany, conservative politicians like Horst Seehofer from the CSU have once more put greater focus on the term Heimat. This re-appropriation supposedly serves to win back right-wing sympathizers, but of course it is also a step in that very direction. Common English translations do not carry the weighty baggage of the German concept of Heimat. Community in this case is not something that involves self-organisation or resistance to discrimination.

4. Leitkultur

Leitkultur is a term related to the meanings of Heimat mentioned in the previous point, and also lacks an appropriate English translation. Translation programmes suggest leading culture or dominant culture, which would fit in terms of meaning, but which don’t capture the discourse behind the term Leitkultur in Germany. The political scientist Max Czollek explains that Leitkultur implies, on the one hand, that a hierarchical order is necessary for successful coexistence. Society as a whole should fit into this order, as this would create common ground. According to Czollek, the term Leitkultur suggests that the idea of this common ground develops from a notion of being German that is based on historical continuity. In essence, those in power are demanding assimilation. This specifically German concept is by no means reflected in any comparable way in the English translations.

5. Agency

In German, the unwieldy term Handlungsmacht perhaps best describes the meaning of the English agency. However, agency can be used in a variety of ways, whereas Handlungsmacht sometimes just doesn’t work. When it comes to the Handlungsmacht of political communities, the German translation may not sound very elegant, but it conveys the appropriate meaning. However, the two terms are not identical. If, for example, an attempt is made in a yoga class to suggest to participants that they exercise agency in their yoga practice, the German equivalent would be inappropriate for this context, because it is more about learning to make appropriate decisions for yourself and your own body.

6. Empowerment

Empowerment is in some ways related to agency, but instead of Handlungsmacht it would more likely translate as Selbstermächtigung. Again, the German term is unwieldy and simply unsexy. What sounds more inviting: an empowerment workshop or a Selbstermächtigungs-Workshop? What is more, the concept of empowerment was established in Germany by the feminist Afro-German movement of the 1980s. The African American Audre Lorde was a significant influence on this movement. Lorde is known for her statement “self-care is political warfare”. She helped empowerment become an essential instrument of political self-determination in the Black German Movement.

7. Ossi

Ossi is a pejorative diminutive form for East German, which in English translation becomes neutral. East Germans are those who live(d) in the territory of the former German Democratic Republic. East Germans still experience structural discrimination in Germany, e.g. in the form of social, economic and cultural disadvantages, but also through stereotyping and prejudice, for which the term Ossi stands. 

8. M-Wort ≠ M-Word

For German speakers who are interested in the subject of anti-racism, the M-Wort is probably known as a racist term that can still be found as a remnant of Germany’s, and Europe’s, colonial histories. The fact that this terminology belongs to a racist and outdated form of expression that is no longer politically acceptable was recently confirmed by the decision to rename the so-called M-Straße (M-Street) in Berlin, as well as its underground station.
A direct translation of the German M-Wort into English only works in certain contexts, because there is another insulting M-word in English that is used to describe little people. Members of this community view this term as an insult and objectification. They demand that it be erased from the language of society.
With regard to translations, it should therefore be remembered that first, insults (see also point 7) are very context-specific and, second, especially abbreviations cannot be translated one-to-one.

9. Antisemitic Language

In the German language, many terms have their roots in Yiddish expressions. These should be used with caution, explains author and journalist Ronen Steinke, because they can be antisemitic. The expression to fiddle in English is relatively harmless, perhaps playful, and can also be used to describe playing the violin. Some of its German translations, however, move away from innocent connotation: to fiddle can also be translated as mauscheln, schwindeln or manipulieren. Mauscheln is problematic because it goes back to Mausche, the Yiddish term for Moses. When the white Christian majority society uses mauscheln, it means dishonest or devious behaviour. This behaviour is attributed to Mausche. Therefore, the usage of mauscheln participates in creating an antisemitic stereotype. Fortunately, when it’s not about the violin, to fiddle can simply be translated as schwindeln or manipulieren.

10. The ‘isms’

Similar to the (not quite established) discourses on race in the German language, there are other areas of discrimination where German-speakers usually have to refer to the already existing English terms. Fatism, ableism, lookism, and adultism are some examples. In German there is no word for fatism, the discrimination of fat people. The terms are germanised: Ableismus for discrimination of disabled people, Lookismus for discrimination based on appearance - i.e. the structural privileging of those who are considered to be beautiful by normative standards - and Adultismus for discrimination based on age.
Here too, the English “isms” bring with them a more pronounced discussion culture on which the discourses in Germany are based. With growing attention and interest in different forms of discrimination, the German vocabulary will no doubt expand in the coming years.