Interview with Visiting Lecturer and Translator Hans-Christian Oeser

2021-11-02 The literary translator Hans-Christian Oeser is a visiting lecturer at the Institute of History and Literary Cultures in the winter semester 2021/22. He teaches on aspects of translation theory and practice. The lectureship is funded by the Deutscher Übersetzerfonds (German Translators Fund) as part of the NEUSTART KULTUR programme of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.

Translator and editor Hans-Christian Oeser ©© Hans-Christian Oeser
Translator and editor Hans-Christian Oeser
Mr. Oeser, from a translation perspective, what is the key difference between English and German? What is unique to each of the languages?
Let me give you a specific example: German differentiates more strongly between foreign words and everyday words. In medicine, for example: the doctor uses a German word with the patient, but apart from that there are medical terms. In other words, we are dealing with separate linguistic spheres. In English it's all mixed up, even in everyday language. English draws on a much larger vocabulary. It draws on a wide variety of sources, including Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Greek, Latin and French.
Please give another example.
German is more flexible in its syntax. This poses a problem for the translator: Where do I put which part? What will be highlighted, emphasised, stressed - without distorting the original meaning. The German sentence structure offers a lot of freedom. You can say, for example, "Morgen fahre ich nach Hause" (Tomorrow I am going home). By changing the word order you can stress different parts of the sentence. And each time there is a different emphasis: that you are going tomorrow and not today; that it is you who is going; that you are going home and not somewhere else. English does not offer these options. You have to make a new decision about meaning for each sentence during the translation. And by the way, you also notice this in bad German translations - that the English syntax is retained or imitated too much.
Are there words that cannot be translated?
Every language has words - and not only words, but also phrases, expressions, idioms - that exist only in that language and for which there are no real equivalents elsewhere, for example the highly romantic German word "Waldeinsamkeit": "After this stressful year, I now need a week of 'forest solitude'." It is difficult to express the deeper meaning, the underlying concept in a single word in other languages. Some kind of paraphrase has to be found.
Which English word is particularly difficult to translate into German?
Let me quote something very simple: "Are you all right?" All Germans now say "Sind Sie ok?" (Are you ok?). But actually they would have to find a different translation to convey the meaning. A German translation for "Is anything wrong with you?", "Can I help you?", "How are you today?" and so on. So this terse expression - just as English is much more terse in general - is quite difficult. However, I do think it's a pity that in literature, too, so much is now simply imported and no longer translated in the true sense.
Do anglicisms bother you?
No, I am quite relaxed about that. Anything for which there is not yet an expression in German can be introduced from English, and why not? English words are often given a new meaning; that shows how creatively new expressions are dealt with in German - as with the very useful word "Handy" instead of “mobile phone”. It's quite another thing when, for example, politicians can't find a German word at all, even though it exists. Consider the terrible German phrase for “Da haben Sie einen Punkt" (You've got a point there). This is not so much a question of anglicisms then, but of linguistic inertia. However, I am not in favour of linguistic purism. We should seek a balance there, too. Iceland is very strict with language. There is a commission that translates foreign-language terms into Icelandic. The "computer", which is identical in almost all languages, is called "tölva" in Icelandic - a neologism from the words for number tala and fortune teller völva.
Ok, let me move to the next question...
... if I may add one thing first: In the context of politically correct language, anglicisms can sometimes be confusing. A while ago, I translated "Days Without End" by Sebastian Barry, a historical novel in which words like "Indians" and "tribe" occur frequently, which we are more socially sensitive about today. How do you deal with such an original? Instead of writing "Indianer" (Indians) and "Stämme" (tribes) like I did, a translator colleague kept the word "tribe" in the German version - which doesn't solve anything, in the end.
Since you mentioned the computer earlier: Can translating be automated?
At this stage, a machine can't do it. For example, the machine cannot yet recognise ambiguities. It has no sense of style and register. I anticipate yet another danger in the tendency to translate literature with Google Translate or DeepL, and to subsequently only do post editing, not least for reasons of time and money. It blocks human creativity and makes us mentally dependent on the machine's template. At some point, you will no longer be able to follow any other paths than the ones the machine has given you.
Why do you prefer translating the literature of Ireland?
That has to do with my personal circumstances. I have lived in Dublin since 1980 and therefore early on had immediate access to the Irish literary scene and the Irish literature business. And I also developed a soft spot for Irish literature itself.
What is the difference between novels from Ireland and other English literature?
Irish literature, apart from its setting and themes, is often more powerfully eloquent, more playful, and sometimes more humorous. And of course it is also an intriguing social phenomenon that such a small island has produced so many important writers, just think of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats or the poet Seamus Heaney. Additionally, it has just had a surge in young, emerging female writers like Sally Rooney, Eimear McBride or Caoilinn Hughes.
When you talk about powerful eloquence, who do you think of?
I mentioned Sebastian Barry, of whom I have translated six novels by now. He, like many of his fellow Irish writers, plays with language and uses a very metaphorical idiom. It's a lot more daring than the usual use of language.  And in this he differs from many authors who have taken creative writing courses and often remain within the framework of what they have learned. Exactly this framework is what an author like Sebastian Barry breaks away from time and again. “Days Without End“ is about two young Irishmen in the US who fight in the wars against the indigenous peoples of America and in the American Civil War and fall in love. The story is told in a way that abandons all the rules of English grammar and speeds along at whatever pace the narrator's memory or imagination dictates.
Thank you very much!

Further Information

Besides Irish literature, Hans-Christian Oeser has also translated key works of American literature such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" or "My Secret Autobiography" by Mark Twain. He has also retranslated George Orwell's "Animal Farm". As an editor, he was responsible for an English-language edition of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea", among others. The visiting lectureship is a cooperation between him, the German Translators Fund and Prof.n Dr. Emer O'Sulllivan from the Institute of English Studies.