The Coalition of Women in German Conference

Friday, October 31, 2014

WIG 2014

Panel: Translation and Gender

Paper Title: Dissonant Chords: Translation as Activism

Presenters: Michelle Eley (NC State), Corinna Kahnke (Duke University), Steffen Kaupp (Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies), and Priscilla Layne (UNC-Chapel Hill)


At the end of October 2014, Michelle Eley (NC State), Corinna Kahnke (Duke University), Steffen Kaupp (Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies), and Priscilla Layne (UNC-Chapel Hill) attended the annual conference of the Coalition of Women in German in Shawnee on Delaware, PA, where they co-presented a paper. In their talk “Dissonant Chords: Translation as Activism,” they introduced their collaborative translation project, Poetry in Motion: From Durham to Berlin, for which the four of them co-translated lyrics for Shirlette Ammons, a queer, African American hip hop artist, activist, and educator based in Durham, NC. In anticipation of performances in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland as part of the “Purple Velvet International Female Hip Hop Tour 2014” with prominent Berlin based artist and friend Sookee, Shirlette wanted to have German translations of her lyrics that she could pass out at shows to make her songs more accessible. The reason Shirlette’s music can cross boundaries is not just because of its musical appeal, but her lyrics’ focus on topics of interest to queer audiences around the world, themes like gender, sexuality and desire. The co-presenters argued that translating the songs’ meanings required not only knowledge of social codes in two local contexts, as well as an understanding of Southern and Black American English, but also the ability to create new codes if there was no equivalent in the target language. In the first part, they discussed the unique decisions they were faced with in resolving the challenges of translating Shirlette’s lyrics into German in a way that stays true to the musicality and poetic imagery of her songs, conveys their meaning adequately, while at the same time making their message comprehensible within a German, Swiss, and Austrian language and cultural context. Examples of such challenges included but were not limited to double entendres, and the lack of certain words in the target language. In the second part of the presentation, the co-presenters engaged with the question of activism by talking in more detail about the Purple Velvet tour’s explicitly activist goals, as well as the activist nature of their translation project, in that it can help connect queer audiences and performers across the Atlantic. They ultimately argued that due to the very activist nature of the project, it is important for the form and content of the translations to work together to convey the songs’ musical and political appeal, rather than offering translations that merely appropriate the original lyrics on the level of content.