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July 4, 2018
Three instances of “Gesellschaft” and other untranslatable terms and concepts

The World At Your Back Word Cloud Luhmann
© Goethe-Institut Korea

By Sabine Müller. Almost every day, Thomas Melle and the ten translators of the Merck Social Translating Project meet on the e-Book platform Lectory. Although their exchange normally isn’t accessible to outsiders, here we decided to give you some insight into the questions and the many creative solutions that are proposed and discussed on the platform.

“Kohlenkellerkindheit” (a coal cellar childhood), “Berghain” (a nightclub in Berlin), “Sauna und doch so fern” (pun on: so near and yet so far), and the “Luhmannvervollständigung” (the Luhmann completion). Thomas Melle’s novel “The World at Your Back” is rich in neologisms, puns, and linguistic ambiguities. It contains a diverse repertoire of references to the German-speaking and international literature and theater scene as well as to personalities and events from politics, art, and culture. This rich repertoire draws from the author’s experiences, which overlap with the experiences of German-speaking readers to varying degrees. Age or certain interests alone can lead to different associations with the film titles or places mentioned in the book, for example in the context of visiting a trendy club in Berlin or of the author’s memories of his childhood and adolescent years in Bonn in the 1970s and 1980s.
As a result, the translators face the daunting task of translating the novel into languages that are much farther away from the experiences and way of life in German-speaking countries. Each translator is not only required to be a linguistic bridge builder by translating the work into another language, but also to be a cultural intermediary. They must question whether they have really grasped and comprehended the text in all its depth and with all its references or whether there might be references that they and/or future readers may not recognize. What is the author’s style and what is a linguistic convention in the source language? How much “unfamiliarity” do they expect and want the reader to be able to handle? Which passages require additional explanations for the references? How true to the text can puns and neologisms be translated? Whereas names and places might be familiar to one reader and conjure associations that illustrate the text passage accordingly, they might be unnecessarily confusing for other readers and limit access to the text and its intention, or even completely alter the meaning.

Lectory In the case of ambiguities, translators can mark the terms in the e-Book and insert their comments and/or questions next to them. This way the author immediately sees which passage the question refers to. | © Goethe-Institut Korea via lectory.io
Of course every translation runs this risk. And as a translator, you wish you could bombard the author with questions ― provided they are still alive ― and be able to eliminate any doubts and ambiguities.
The digital exchange on the e-Book platform Lectory not only makes it possible for each translator to ask the author questions about the current translation project at any time and from anywhere, but also allows colleagues to interact and discuss thoughts, ideas, and questions they may have. In the digital edition of the book, a marking on the left and a comment on the right side of the screen make it unnecessary for translators to elaborately refer to passages in the book and describe the problem (for example via e-mail) before the author can respond. Another major advantage of the digital exchange is the option to directly add links, photos, and videos to the specific spot in the text so that they are visible to everyone.

Conversely, the author can specifically anticipate questions, draw attention to references, and add background information to accompany the text. The questions from the translators have been consolidated by the time they reach Thomas Melle, thus preventing duplicate questions since they are commented on for all members to see at the same time. In this closed forum the author also follows comments and suggestions from the translators themselves, such as creative solutions for translating a neologism or a pun. This also provides a completely new way for him to gain insight into the work of the translators, who are translating his novel into languages that he does not master. He also learns about questions about his text and beyond that arise from intercultural differences. Thanks to the author’s immediate responses, questions and comments from translators, and additionally added materials, this results in a pool of sources and information that the individual translators would have otherwise had to come up with themselves through time-intensive research.

The platform and the exchange that takes place here provide a space to gain the greatest possible clarity about the text, to come to a sound understanding, and to delve deeper into the linguistic and cultural nuances of the novel. Only then is it possible to produce a worthy translation.

Exchange on the term “Luhmannvervollständigung”

Under the year 1999, Chapter 3, at the beginning of the manic phase. From the author’s notes, September 17-21, 1999, during the first hospitalization. Each section of the notes is preceded by the time with the hour and minutes. In a list of titles that the author is reading during this time, the name Luhmann is also mentioned.
Lectory Luhmannvervollständigung© Goethe-Institut Korea via lectory.io

I’m reading: “Lichte Gedichte,” “Abfall für alle,” “Preacher,” “Catull und Horaz,” a little Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein is a bit too crazy for me. A Luhmann completion: Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft das Gesellschaft.

Translator 1
Is this a theory by Luhmann? And why is Gesellschaft written three times?
Thomas Melle
This is explained in the comment also attached here: a malapropism of his book “Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft”
Translator 1
Got it, thanks

Lectory Luhmannvervollständigung© Goethe-Institut Korea via lectory.io

A Luhmann completion: Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft das Gesellschaft.

Translator 2
That’s hard to translate.
Thomas Melle
Yes, it’s basically the title of the book by Niklas Luhmann “Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft” (“Theory of Society”), here foolishly and Dadaistically completed with “das Gesellschaft”, “der, die, das” ― which in fact probably can’t be translated. With regard to Luhmann you could come up with an optional counterpart that is also Dadaistic and crazy, and slightly TOO funny.
Thomas Melle
Translator 3
That’s even more difficult because there is no “der, die, das” in Bengali.