Im Regen stehen, Zoran Drvenkar’s autobiographically informed novel about growing up in Berlin in the seventies, comes from a place that doesn’t exist any more. The hermetically sealed West Berlin of pre-unification days, full of young men fleeing military service in West Germany proper, Gastarbeiter (guest workers) from Turkey, Yugoslavia, Italy, and Morocco, and avant-garde musicians like the Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings) coaxing sounds out of industrial fixtures and fittings, provokes its own nostalgia. A Westalgie to match East Germany’s Ostalgie. These days, even the formerly blue-collar Kieze (districts) of West Berlin are bourgeois, and if they’re not yet properly bourgeois, they’re gentrifying. The socio-cultural topography of both halves of the city is profoundly altered.
The Gastarbeiter are still there, of course, but now they are ausländische Mitbürger (foreign co-citizens) or naturalized Germans, the children and grandchildren of those who came to work in Germany’s booming post-war economy. Many guest workers—Zoran Drvenkar’s parents among them—returned to their countries of origin once they had saved some money, and when the political and economic circumstances at home allowed. But most stayed. Germany’s landscape—the urban one, at least—has undergone a fundamental shift since the fifties and sixties, when Italian guest workers were mocked as Spaghettifresser (spaghetti gobblers) and my Czech parents-in-law, ’68 asylum seekers, found they were unable to buy garlic, and wondered why they had swapped cosmopolitan Prague for the coal-miney grime of a provincial town in the Ruhr valley. A more complex German identity is nicht mehr weg zu denken—“it can no longer be thought away,” i.e. it is now firmly part of German culture.
Zoran Drvenkar’s Berlin of the seventies is metonymic of a mode of living that no longer exists, at least not in a middle-class American or British childhood. Middle-class children aren’t allowed to wander the streets unsupervised, the way immigrant kids Zoran and Karim roam Berlin, trying to earn a bit of pocket money and stave off the boredom of the slow Christmas season. Children are dropped off, picked up, monitored by ever-watchful “helicopter parents.” My overwhelming memory of several recent Halloweens spent in the United States is of vigilant parents tailgating their children down the street in boxy SUVs, almost like the Secret Service following the President as he works a rope-line. Working-class kids’ experience is different, but on neither side of the Atlantic is the middle class comfortable engaging with the working class these days.
As I tried to think myself into Zoran and Karim’s pre-teen conversational patterns, I thought of the way my Mancunian dad might have talked to his brother in the sixties, or how my own brothers might have spoken to each other in the nineties. I filtered Zoran’s Berlin through (what I remember of) my own Manchester. So Zoran isn’t “bothered” about his relatives at Christmas, Karim refers to Zoran as his “mate” (still a street form of address in Manchester for people of both sexes), the boys are asked if they “fancy” making a bit of pocket money, Karim tells Zoran to “stop messing around,” and when Karim spots his traumatized brother on the bridge, I imagined him calling Joskan “our kid”—the Northern way of referring to a younger sibling. And beyond this thinking about language, I thought about the story my granddad had told his enraptured grandchildren many times. Of being fished by a policeman from the Manchester canal in which he had been swimming without his clothes on, and of being marched home in his birthday suit through the inner-city streets, accompanied by the nine O’Sullivan brothers who had been party to the adventure, to have “his hide tanned” by my great-grandmother.
Much of the Mancunian flavor of Zoran’s thoughts, and his dialogue with Karim, was softened during the editing process. Words Without Borders, although an online publication, is still primarily produced with the American reader in mind, and the editors felt that the language should reflect this. We had a respectful dialogue and were able to compromise somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. But the process made me reflect on certain issues. When I received the initial edits to the piece, much of the language had been Americanized in a fashion that alienated me from my own piece of writing. My gut reaction was rejection: I didn’t recognize this as something that had come from my pen or that “my” Zoran and Karim would have said. I have translated quite a few books for children, and I am used to my translations being “localized” for a North American readership, but in those instances, the American versions exist alongside the British versions, rather than replacing them. This emotional reaction brought home to me something that, on an intellectual level, I had long accepted, that all translations are filtered through the person of the translator, and that his or her subjectivity and the context—geographical, historical, readerly—that he or she brings to bear during the act of translation is nicht mehr weg zu denken. I also thought about the number of translation reviews I have read in which Brits complain that the language is too American, or Americans complain that the language is too British, and I suspect that this is because the presence of that other English prevents us from owning the text completely, from pretending it comes from our time and space. Translations are never from our time and space, and although there is a growing acceptance these days that readers should be aware of this und das ist auch gut so—that’s a good thing—nonetheless when that other time and space is filtered through a different English (which could also be an Irish, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, or Indian English) then this can all too often lead us to put the brakes on acceptance, even though an unfamiliar English makes us even more aware that we are reading a translation, which should be a good thing.
One of the reasons that I love Zoran Drvenkar’s books is because they show working-class, immigrant childhoods. They deal with really difficult stuff: teen sexuality, violence, unreliable parents, hormonal confusion. Yet the kids depicted in them also enjoy the wonderful freedom of discovering the world on their own terms. This is why Drvenkar is one of Germany’s best-loved and bestselling authors for children and young adults. It may also be the reason why, up until now, only one of his young adult books has been translated into English. His books’ reality doesn’t align easily with the prevailing Anglo-American imagination of childhood; it comes from another time and another place.