Jana I. Grohnert: On harmless wrong-way drivers and language once-dwellers

Oct 2022 | Small craft

When I started translating literature in earnest three or four years ago, I had no idea that what I was doing was considered a big no-no in the Anglo literary tradition: instead of translating into what would traditionally be considered my ‘mother tongue’, which is German and which I prefer to call my language of origin, I chose to translate into English, which is my ‘second’ language or, as I like to call it, my ‘dominant language’. To be completely honest, I had never even considered the direction of translation to be an issue up until that point. If you understand, speak, read and write in two languages (or three, or four), then should you not be able to also write and translate freely between the two (three, four) of them? Nabokov wrote Lolita in English, Beckett wrote some of his novels in French before self-translating them into English; what was the big deal?

The big deal, I was told by a number of very white and very male English-speaking Translation Studies scholars, was that my texts would always fall short of sounding ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ like they were written by a native speaker, no matter how many years I had lived in the language of my ‘adopted’ country. Translating literature, they said, was best left to the ‘experts’, the ones who ‘own’ the target language in their own (birth) right.

This argument fell pretty flat on me. After all, English is a global language used by millions, if not billions, of non-native speakers every day. Anyone who continues to believe that it still ‘belongs’ to a certain group of people or geographical location clearly did not get the memo about the Empire Writing Back.

I decided to turn my curiosity into a PhD project investigating translation out of the (so-called, still called) ‘mother tongue’ on a theoretical and practical level. It was not, however, until I discovered self-translating writer and translator Anne Weber that my project began to take shape.

Anne grew up as a monolingual speaker of German, but moved to Paris at the age of 18, where she continues to live and work. Not only does she write all her books in German and translates them into French herself, but she also translates other people’s work into and from German into French. Those who go against the current and translate out of their ‘mother tongue’, she said in her acceptance speech for the Eugen Helmlé Translator Prize in 2016, could be considered harmless wrong-way drivers, and in the case of Anne, they can be very successful. A harmless wrong-way driver: does that mean that for readers a text translated by a non-native speaker spells disaster, while for the driver – irresponsible, outright mad or under the influence? – it is the equivalent of an adrenalin-fuelled ride? Or does the emphasis on harmless mean that the translator is skilled enough to avoid collision driving straight into on-coming traffic?

Coming across Anne’s work and her quote encouraged me to dig a little deeper.

Almost two years into my thesis (which consists of a theoretical and translation component that consists of excerpts from Anne’s early work translated from German and French into English), I am learning as much about the politics of literary translation as I am about my own practice. After 15 combined years of living in South Africa and New Zealand, translating ‘out of’ or ‘away’ from my ‘mother tongue’ into the direction of my ‘chosen’ language seems only natural. For me, it is an ethical practice, an intellectual pursuit and an expressive back and forth with my identity as an emi-/immigrant. I am taking, in the words of German-Brazilian translator and PhD scholar Lúcia Collischonn, ‘an artistic linguistic performance, (…) an active, performative [and] creative stance’1.

Often, I feel like an outsider looking in on both languages and this is where the work has the most value to me. Geographically speaking, I am as far removed from the German language as possible, which makes the reading of a German text an intimate experience of rediscovery and genuine wonder. Who knew that the language which dragged you through thirteen years of primary and secondary education could unfold in such new ways. In an English-speaking forest, the German echo is louder and a lot more clear. It is also entirely familiar.

Then, there is the re-writing in English. My daily life, my dreams, my emotional ups and downs, my entire adult identity, really, are all firmly rooted (yes, rooted) in English. Although the language is definitely a habit, it is also still a search and a choice, a balancing act between passing for an English speaker and ‘owning’ a piece of that language.

Rather than going down a well-trodden path or following a roadmap that was handed to me by my parents (‘my people’, ‘my culture’, ‘my canon’), I am following a map I began drawing almost 25 years ago – a map that, even if it might never be complete, can lead to unexpected new turns in my translations. As such, it is always a conscious act, never an automatic reflex.

To re-write a translation in English, the translation is actively created, shaped, moulded to suit the original, not the other way round. For translating a text like Anne’s – which itself emerges from a place of bilingualism and biculturalism – I find it almost optimal.

Which brings me to another beautiful thing about translation out of the mother tongue: it complements a literary text migrating (from Latin migrare, ‘to change dwellings’) into another language and culture. ‘Translating into a second or ‘foreign’ language facilitates the actual motion of translation: to carry across the original to foreign language ground,’ the scholar and translator Eduard Stoklosinski writes2. In this way, rather than being a raid of a foreign culture, literary translation into the direction of English becomes a cultural offering. It is not literary tourism – but a form of literary migration – of the original text and the translator. It is offering you, the reader, a way into the original from someone who is able to go into the language of the original with a memory of that language and interpret what is being said from within, as a once-dweller, so to speak. In this way, I move as a translator as a current-dweller and a once-dweller: re-writing what is being said and, more importantly, how it is being said for you in the English language as I have come to learn, understand and finally live in it.

An excerpt from Anne Weber’s third book, Erste Person / Première Personne
(with the author’s permission)

Contrary to what many continue to believe, language is not a means of communication, nor is it an instrument that allows us to say what we think we have to say. The violin is an instrument, the pen is too. Music and language are oceans. You do not communicate by means of an ocean.

To write, you have to sit in silence for a long time, to give words the time to rise to the surface. You have to clear the way for them, reassure them, call them silently, patiently. You have to know how to lose them and find them again when time comes. You have to listen to what the words have to say. You have to know how to swim. You have to know how to drown. 


1. Collischonn, Lúcia. 2022. ‘Freed from the Monolingual Shackles: A Mongrel Crônica for the Mutt Translator’. Violent Phenomena: 21 Essays on Translation, edited by Kavita Bhanot and Jeremy Tiang, Tilted Axis Press, 2022, pp. 151-165.

2. Stoklosinski, Eduard. 2013. ‘Directions – Beyond the Mother Tongue Dictate’. Zwischentexte: Literarisches Übersetzen in Theorie und Praxis, edited by Claudia Dathe et al., Frank & Timme, 2013, pp. 47-56.

Jana Grohnert is a bilingual writer, published literary translator and PhD candidate in Literary Translation Studies at Te Herenga Waka – University of Wellington. She holds a BA in Linguistics and Spanish from the University of Cape Town, and a Master of Intercultural Communication and Applied Translation from Te Herenga Waka. She spends most of her days translating, reading or researching in Wellington, Kāpiti and Levin.


Anne Weber is an award-winning writer, self-translator and literary translator living in Paris. Her latest book, Epic Annette: A Heroine’s Tale (tr. Tess Lewis), which won the German Book Prize 2020, is available from The Indigo Press (UK). 

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