It was an honour to see my translation of an extract from Karin Kalisa's Sungs Laden selected as a Finalist in the Gabo Prize for Literature in Translation.
Berlin was one of the first cities I ever visited in Germany, and since then, I’ve been fascinated by its East/West history and the legacy of that period. I was immediately captivated by Sungs Laden because it touches on a less-known aspect of East German history. This extract places Berlin’s history in a wider context. Through Hiền, a former contract worker from Vietnam, Kalisa connects the hip, modern-day Prenzlauer Berg district with its East German past and former socialist counterparts in Asia. The story also creates a link, albeit indirectly, with the USA, as Hiền echoes the Vietnam War in a performance involving a traditional Vietnamese wooden doll. Translating this extract meant searching for the right tone to convey what initially appears to be a magical world presented by Hiền, but which gradually turns into her personal experience. The character’s voice is enthralling, yet simple in style, as she speaks in a language that never fully becomes her own. The almost fairytale-like performance on the stage contrasts with the harsh reality of history, just as the naivety and enthusiasm of the children listening to the story contrasts with the growing unease of the adults around them who are reminded of their own past. I enjoyed the challenge of ensuring the translation recreates the atmosphere and tension of the original.
Only a couple of second graders whispered in a huddle as Minh and his grandmother hurried down the hallway towards the auditorium with the doll. They weren’t staring at Minh, who they already knew from the playground, or the doll, which just looked like a lump of wood from a distance. No, it was Hiền’s ankle-length, sea-green silk dress with the broad, silver hem that caught their attention. The seven-year-old girls’ expert eyes immediately realized it wasn’t a regular dress from a department store, but rather a princess’ gown. But even that couldn’t hold their attention for long before they too were swept up by the noisy crowd streaming towards the auditorium. Teachers, students, and a few parents here and there were all far too busy to give the odd-looking trio a second glance. And, anyway, most of the children had grown up amidst a whirlwind of big city cultural activities and were extremely hard to impress. Every year, they could attend over a thousand events hosted by the German Center for Fairy Tale Culture at 350 different venues. They also usually went to a couple of birthday parties a month, which meant treasure hunts, visits to the MACHMit interactive children’s museum, or trips to soft play centers, magicians included. And on weekends, their parents planned all sorts of special activities: brunch at the planetarium, beach volleyball in a heated hall with a hotdog stand, or popcorn at the movie theater. And the young film buffs didn’t expect anyone to actually step off the big screen and appear inside the yellowing walls of their school, and they certainly weren’t expecting a wooden heroine in green silk. So, Minh and Hiền sat down unnoticed in the fourth row, right at the edge, taking up three seats because they’d placed the doll between them. They held its wooden hands tightly and looked straight ahead.
Read the full extract alongside the original at Lunch Ticket here.