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Is Woke broke?: B small or big, that’s the question here – politics

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Pieke Biermann lives in Berlin as a writer (“Berlin Quartet”) and translator from English and Italian. He received the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2020 for his translation of the novel “Oreo” by Fran Ross. An expanded version of the following essay appears in the TOLEDO TALKS series “Fear of Contact.” The programme, curated by the German Translators Fund, asks what issues translators are currently concerned about.

Lately, some publishers seem to have too much money. Unfortunately, not for decent translation rates, but for so-called sensitive readerswhich must ensure that no one feels hurt.

Curiously, the desired “sensitive language” always appears in the singular, dealing with issues as complex as post-colonialism or diversity, identity, wakeism or gender. It is no coincidence that they have English names: they come from the USA, and with them the corresponding political, social and cultural conditions and movements.

Penalty fee! First of all, cultural transfer is an enrichment. You don’t have to invent each wheel yourself if you’ve been rolling somewhere else for a long time. Also, you can usually rely on the dynamics of the story: upheavals are always initially accompanied by nagging for and against, exaggerations, new injustices, new contradictions, and also with violence. Not beautiful, but probably human. And – said peaks become rounder and more socially acceptable and peaceful over time.

Dissolution of the postwar order

There is no doubt that we are living in a troubled period. It does not affect “only” social injustice, but all our communication, increasingly digitized, and the climate crisis of the entire planet. Not to mention the dissolution of the post-war political order as a result of Putin’s war and viruses fighting for world power.

I don’t know if we’ve reached the top yet. I only observe a growing disposition to despise and hate, a fatal yearning for a Manichaean good or evil, a desire to be a victim and a parallel desire for rituals of mea culpa.

Behind all this are fears, such as the fear of becoming unpopular and being punished for it. It especially affects professions that deal with linguistic sensitivity. If you don’t want to get lost in it, you need an open and clear view, a cool head and knowledge. I owe some of this, including the title of this essay, to black New York linguist John McWhorter and his newsletter for The New York Times.

So I know As is well known, in the beginning was the word, let’s take it woke up. stay awake is a catchphrase from black slang, supposedly incorrect English, that was adopted by mainstream white American English some years ago. Anyone who uses it wants to point out: I’m a progressive, so with the good guys; and woke up doesn’t sound as academic as progressive or politically correct, but down to earth.

Bad manners of self-proclaimed good guys

A Bourdieu distinction at its best, which unfortunately suffered the same fate as the aforementioned predecessors. Unfortunately, it’s a bad habit for self-proclaimed “nice guys” to blow bubbles and despise everything outside of their bubble.

Woke is the past tense of (awake and demands social vigilance, vigilance. “But it’s a small step from a new way of looking at things, to the assumption that this is the only sensible and moral way to look at things,” writes McWhorter, “and that was still the ball for the reactionaries, who use the PC moniker for political correctness discredited the entire political posturing.”

We know the mechanism in this country, too: “Woke, once popular among leftist pundits on social media as a call to stay awake in the face of systemic racism, first became an acronym for today’s leftist orthodoxy and then a phrase to emphasize the pretentious, obsessive nature of that very person orthodoxy.” But at the latest in the skirmishes over whether the Democrats will lose an election in November 2021 due to too much or too little awakening, this most recent terminology battle was also lost: “Awakening is screwed. ” In Trappatonese: Woke is over.

In this country, awakening is considered the latest fashion, including rules that some dogmatically declare as the standard. Why? I guess because here in Germany we hardly know that and how it is discussed in the US, and we don’t know the historical underside or we don’t take note of it.

elaborate philanthropy

What we understand here as wakeism or awakening and consider human-friendly is in no way “closer to people and their real problems”, but rather an “elaborate jargon” that, according to McWhorter, “imposes itself as almost sacred”.

And especially among German speakers who don’t even dare to translate English terms into usable German. We talk about diversity without realizing it: anyone who requires it in the US or announces it (for example, companies in their personnel policies) generally only means “not only whites, but also enough blacks and Latinos”, said one again McWhorter. Of real diversity, of all kinds of “otherness” – in relation to religions, physical, gender, sexual practice: not a trace.

Most of the time, we chatter about postcolonialism and dismiss it with indifference: American academics understand it primarily as an internal political battleground term. In the fight, however, he is not the last, and rightly so! – for reparations for centuries of deportation, slavery, exploitation, violence perpetrated by whites on black Americans.

But for the Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch and French, colonialism has a much broader meaning, also for the Germans, and that is even more intricate and complex.

Tolerance to cinematic carnage

Linguistic regulations from above inevitably lead to semantic narrowing, distortion and neglect, that is, the language itself. And with it your own story. An example of the latter: gender. It derives from the divide between sex and gender initially in the vocabulary of US universities, which has spread surprisingly quickly into the mainstream, possibly only due to the extremely sex-eager American culture, where carnage is tolerated bloody in the movies, but alas, somewhere certain body parts are flashing!

We’ve had a good common word here for eons: gender. We are familiar with gender struggles, gender roles, venereal diseases and we also use it to express that what is defined biologically and socially, culturally, politically and even grammatically is connected.

So semantic turns. For example Career. Why is no one in the English-speaking world propagating a split, let alone abolition? It is one of the three central terms that have been used to critically analyze real power relations for centuries. Sex and Class are the other two.

The use of the word race is currently the litmus test that reveals the acidity of society. Race, as defined by Black New York sociologist Crystal M. Fleming, “is a concept that can be used to denote politically and culturally significant identity.”

What would become of critical racial sociology?

He teaches Critical Sociology of Race. It is unthinkable that someone in this country calls himself a “critical racial sociologist”; Aside from the fact that “Race” has an echo chamber in which industrialized mass murder always roars to socialized German ears.

Can academic thought ignore the fact that the concept of race in relation to humans is simply wrong? “There is no biological reason for this, and in fact there never was. The concept of race is the result of racism and not its prerequisite.” (2019 Jena Declaration)

With a little more cultural transfer in the other direction, this idea could perhaps enrich academic anti-racism in the United States. Or strengthen emotional and psychological resistance to the insulting potential of certain “bad” words that should be banned.

The matter is more complicated when it comes to the words used to describe and, above all, insult black people in American English: there is not just one, but several, they have their historical contexts and different degrees of malice, it is i.e. potential for injury. , which in turn are individually different, note. And all of them have always been disputed.

The rise of the Black Power movement

In the first half of the 20th century, black was the general term for people of African descent, they also used it themselves, and during the first flourishing of black culture in the US, the Harlem Renaissance after World War I World War actually had positive connotations. in the form of a New Negro that had to be created socially, politically and culturally.

The word black – previously considered as offensive as it should be – only became popular in the mid-1960s with the Black Power movement, celebrated with slogans such as: “I am black and I am proud” or “Black is beautiful”. as through Motown Records. Now the Negro was considered backward, even racist.

The first black presidential candidate, Jesse Jackson, propagated the term African-American in 1988: Black reduces the complexity of a race to skin color, and that’s too narrow. The advantage of the new designation was that it was automatically spelled with capital initials. The downside: The trauma of being kidnapped and enslaved also resonated in Africa.

In the current battles for the lowercase or uppercase B –while “white” opinion-forming media such as the New York Times also bet on capital letters– the debate about Afro or African Americans is somewhat revived: the greeting with a word written in capitalized means a perceived appreciation, Black is perceived as more respectful than black. This is logical in a language that basically writes everything in lowercase, including nouns, and only marks geographical terms, institutions, proper names or especially prominent elements with large initials.

False friends

When translating English texts, shouldn’t one first know how, when and why which words were considered “good” and which were considered “bad”? For example, not to fall in love with false friends and turn a black American into a “black”? no tone deaf be responsible for the fact that this word was always tinged with racism? And shouldn’t one also consider that nouns are always capitalized in German, while adjectives are lowercase?

What gain of respect is there if we write about blacks making black music, not blacks? Would that be powerful enough to upset a well-established grammatical system? And with it the habits of writing, reading and understanding?

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Currently, the capital S for the adjective black is also used in Germany as a decisive criterion for “sensitive language”. As if translating wasn’t always sensitive to how language is used to do politics. Translating means making informed decisions over and over again. But that is exactly what broadens the horizon, sharpens the eye and refreshes the head.

The old adage applies: “He who only understands some art, understands nothing about art either!” Applied to writing and translation: Those who only pay attention to “sensible language” do not pay attention to it either, but reduce their gaze to a tunnel, as if the light appears at the end of a chimera that is not taken seriously or sensitivity or language.


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