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The use of literary translations by foreign language learners has been and still is immensely popular. In the following contribution it will be shown that translations are not without problematical features. By concentrating on one example the students may find out by themselves what possible shortcomings are like and how they may be improved.

Der Report der Magd (Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale): the Use of a Literary Translation in Foreign Language Teaching

Willi Real


The use of translations is necessary in many fields. In economics and politics of our globalized world, translators fulfil important functions, which people may see every day when watching the news on TV. In the literary field, translations are also very popular.
In Foreign Language Teaching (FLT), students often think that original texts in L 2 are very or even too difficult to read; perhaps they also use translations in order to save time. If an English or American novel is recommended for foreign language purposes, a German translation, as a rule, will also be available on the market. However, translating a text from one language into another is both a complex and a demanding task. Normally no translation is satisfactory in every respect. It is never like an original text: it can never equal it, and therefore it always implies many risks to rely on the text of a translation only. To quote a few examples from different types of fiction and their German translations (printed in italics), which have more or less been chosen at random:

(1) "If they walk out of here alive, they are going to jail for a long time. And we all know about that, don't we? What they do to you in there. These poor, crazy boys. Maybe the jocks have tormented them here, but it will be a thousand times worse in jail ... And that's when I had an epiphany."
"Falls sie hier lebending rauskommen, werden sie für lange Zeit ins Gefängnis müssen. Und da kennen wir uns doch alle aus, oder? Was die anderen im Gefängnis mit einem machen. Kann ja sein, dass die Sportler sie hier gequält haben, aber im Gefängnis wird es noch tausendmal schlimmer sein. Und da ist mir plötzlich etwas aufgegangen."

(2) "He [Hercule Poirot] accepted many cases in which he had little interest owing to the first instinct being predominant."
"Vieler Fälle, die ihn nur wenig faszinierten, nahm er sich an - einzig aus dem spontanen Gespür, der Überlegene zu sein." (2).

(3) "I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee."
"Ich habe meinen Söhnen gesagt, daß sie unter keinen Umständen an Massakern teilnehmen sollen und daß sie die Nachricht von einem Blutbad des Feindes nicht mit Befriedigung oder Freude erfüllen soll." (3).

With the help of this evidence, different problems of translation may become noticeable. In the first example, which is taken from a paradigm of young adult fiction, there is no counterpart in the German text for the statement underlined. This contains an important value judgement, and it is left out without any recognizable reason. Thus the translation is characterized by a substantial loss. The rest of the text is a good idiomatic translation; however, it does not express that "epiphany" is a key term in stories of initiation which, as a rule, ushers in a basic transformation of a major character and a change of attitude towards life in general. Therefore it would be better to say: "Und es war in dem Augenblick, dass ich eine Erleuchtung/Eingebung/grundlegende Einsicht hatte."

To some degree, the second example points into the opposite direction. Apart from the fact that the German translation "wenig faszinieren" is much stronger than "to have little interest", it is true that Hercule Poirot feels superior to others in general and to the police in particular. Yet in this case the translator seems to be influenced by her knowledge of the detective, which means that she adds something that is not in the text; a faithful translation should run: "bedingt durch das erste Gefühl, das ihn beherrschte".

In the third excerpt, the message in the American original and its German translation differ in a crucial aspect. In the German text, it is the enemy who is responsible for the massacre, which obviously does not make sense. It is important to realize that this statement is an integral part of Vonnegut's educational principles and his pacifist attitude. In other words, the reader should become aware of the fact that Vonnegut speaks of massacres which are not done by but to the enemy. Therefore the translation should run: "Nachricht von einem Blutbad unter dem Feind/unter den Feinden", which implies that fighting in wars is basically absurd whatever the result may be. In any case the translator does not pay attention to the difference, which is expressed by the concepts of genitivus objectivus and genitivus subjectivus in Latin grammar.

Such deficiencies may partly be accounted for by the fact that translations are often produced rather quickly after the publication of a literary original, which may be on its way to becoming a bestseller. This is also true of Margaret Atwood's famous dystopia The Handmaid's Tale (THT): the novel by this Canadian writer was originally published in 1985. Its German translation by Helga Pfetsch came out as early as 1987 and was reprinted in 1998. It is this translation which will now be analysed more or less systematically.
To begin with, my procedure will be practical: it is based on a comprehensive comparison of the English original and the German text. Many examples will be given: references to the English literary work follow the didactic edition by Porteous-Schwier and Ross (introduced by p.[age] [x]) , quotations from the German edition are based on the pocket edition by btb books (introduced by S.[eite] [y]), which may be bought from the Goldmann publishing house.(4). It will be shown that the translation of THT is characterized by an uncommonly large gamut of problems, which refer to the morphological, lexical, semantic and syntactical levels.


Some problems in the translation by Helga Pfetsch are visible at first sight: there are quite a number of cases where English terms and expressions are taken over directly or partially translated at best, that is, the translator takes the line of least resistance, and superfluous anglicisms are the result.

When the term "connections" first occurs in the text (p. 23), it is rendered by "Verbindungen" in German (S. 34); in that case, "Beziehungen" (in colloquial German "Vitamin B") is preferable since it is slightly negative; later on "connections" goes untranslated: "Hab eben meine Connections" (S. 84). There are many more examples like that: "skulls" in Atwood's novel is also "Skulls" in German (S. 51), which could easily be replaced by "Ruder" or "Riemen", "Bubble Gum" could become "Kaugummi" (S. 216), and for "Holy Rollers" in the translation one might say "Heilige Walzen" (S. 228). "Eyeliner" is possible in German, yet it could easily become "Augenbrauenstift" (S. 315); for "Eyeshadow" the technical term in German would be "Lidschatten" (S. 328); "Gaze-Maske" belongs to the wellness business and is obviously known in German (S. 89), although the combination of German and English elements is not very nice.
The term "Freeway" (S. 122) goes untranslated, too, it is just capitalized. In English the term is applied to a wide road for quick travelling; so the easiest translation would be something like "Autobahn/Schnellstraße". The English term "kingsize bed" is literally taken over as "Kingsize-Bett" (S. 346), which is probably understandable, yet it is not really idiomatic in German. The collocation "extensive publications" is rendered by "extensive Publikationen" (S. 396), yet I wonder whether the expressions in the two languages really correspond to each other. The English term "somnabulent" is slightly changed into "somnambul" (S. 359). Although this term exists in German, I do not think it is very current in our language, and certainly "schlafwandelnd" is a better translation. Similarly, Atwood's thesis that in Gilead the handmaids are to form "no loyalties" is taken over by the translator as "keine Loyalitäten" (S. 379); this, of course, is just an echo of the English text again; "keine emotionalen Bindungen" would be a better solution.

Another aspect of the problem has to be considered if you come across expressions like "Tentakel" (S. 125) or "Libertheos" (S. 44) or "Agent Orange" (S. 159): the latter two appear in the same form in Atwood's novel and are integrated into the German translation irrespective of the fact that they may cause comprehension problems for the German reader. Unless you are a biologist, you are unlikely to know that a "tentacle" is one of the long thin parts of a sea creature such as an octopus which it uses for holding things ("Greifarm einer Qualle"). I suspect that the term "Libertheos" does not make much sense both to English and German readers; anyway, a different term for it is widely used in German, namely "Befreiungstheologie". This is an unorthodox religious movement which, more than in official doctrines, is interested in human sufferings and in the fate of the poor especially in Middle and South America. With this kind of knowledge in mind, it is easily imaginable that such a nation is at war with the so-called republic of Gilead. As to "Agent Orange", I am pretty sure that it is not familiar to many German readers: it is a chemical weapon used by the U.S. army in the Vietnam war, which did a lot of long-term damage to human beings.

In all these cases, the translations do not really help the German reading audience. I don't know whether the abbreviation "Gyn Ed" is familiar to the majority of native speakers. I am quite sure, however, that its German correspondent "Gyn Erz" (S. 162) is not a standard one. The English abbreviation stands for "Gynaecological Education", yet this collocation seems to be as ununsual as its literal translation "gynäkologische Erziehung" in German: anyway, I have not been able to find out what it stands for in our language. Of course, it is difficult for a writer, a translator, and also for editors of didactic editions to decide what may be supposed common knowledge and what calls for a brief explanatory note. However, in cases of doubt it would be desirable for them to add a footnote or a commentary for the information of the reading public, which may certainly facilitate understanding.(5). On the other hand, a translator is not authorized to omit aspects from the original text since this would imply a substantial loss.

Problems caused by denotation and connotations

Apart from the occurrence of anglicisms in the German text, there are many other lexical problems, for which textual evidence will be quoted and discussed in the following. Rather early in the novel, the narrator speaks of "the color of blood which defines us", which is rendered in German by "die Farbe des Blutes, die uns kennzeichnet" (S. 21). This solution is not strong enough. Since almost everything in Gilead is subject to very strict rules and since the handmaids have hardly any rights, the verb "define" should be understood in its etymological sense: "die unsere Grenzen festlegt"; in Gilead, colours are indicative of social classes.

A few pages later, the narrator speaks of the "miseries of our bodies", which becomes "Wehwehchen" in the German text (S. 24). This translation is both one-sided and negative since it reduces the handmaids' problems to little pains and aches. A translation corresponding to their sufferings would be "Schmerzen" or "Leiden". On the same page in the novel, the adverb "tantalizingly" is used, which is translated by "verlockend" (S. 24). It would be better to say "quälend" in German, particularly if you think of the etymology of the term and the mythological figure of Tantalus. Similarly, "matronly" does not correspond to "würdig" (S. 359): the German word has too many favourable associations. A better translation would be "matronenhaft". The compound term "birth control" is translated by "Familienplanung" (S. 243). For what happens in Gilead, this expression is not drastic enough: the literal translation "Geburtenkontrolle" would be much more appropriate. Thus all these translations are either not expressive enough or too positive.

There are also examples testifying to the opposite. To render "appealing" by "unwiderstehlich" (S. 192) is too strong; a better solution would be "anziehend". The same is true of the expression "being miserable". This is no idiom like the German translation "das heulende Elend haben" (S. 192): it may be replaced by "sich elend fühlen", which would be more appropriate to the English text. Similarly, "God's device" becomes "Gottes Trick" (S. 198): again this is somewhat too negative, and it should be replaced by "Gottes Kunstgriff". Besides, to translate "juvenile" by "unreif" (S. 322) means to replace a descriptive term in English by a negative value judgment in German; to use the term "jugendlich" would be much better. It may be concluded that translations may either be too weak or too strong, not precise enough/too vague or too expressive, which may be accounted for by the associations in the target language. Therefore any translator has to take into careful consideration both the denotation and the connotations of his solutions.

Problems of free translation

Sometimes the translator seems to feel that a word-by-word translation is insufficient, and therefore she adds textual elements in German. Thus the noun "cuttings" in the English text is freely translated as "Selbstverstümmelungen" (S. 91), which is a good interpretation by the translator. In addition, this is the first time where one English noun is translated by two semantic elements in German. Of course, in such a context, there exist several other possibilities: the translator may use either a compound noun, or a noun + noun, or an adjective + noun. Yet this does not always imply a change for the better. The term "willow" is translated by "Trauerweide" (S. 26); for this, the English term would be "weeping willow". Therefore here the German word is too specific. In a different context, for "repentance" the German solution is "reuiges Getue" (S. 178f), which conveys a negative value jugdment not expressed in the original text. Terms like "Reue, Bedauern" would be more appropriate. The same procedure becomes obvious in the following example. An official salvation is supposed to be "dignified" (p. 276): the participle is translated as "feierliche Zeremonie" (S. 369); on the one hand, to add the idea of a "ceremony" does not detract from the sense, on the other hand, this lexical item is not indispensable. In a similar way the simple noun "franchise" becomes "Franchise-Geschäft" (S. 227): so the English term is rendered by a compound term which is partly English partly German. I would suggest avoiding such combinations of two languages; in this case one could use a compound term completely German, for example: "Lizenzgeschäft". Moreover, the simple term "control" is translated as "Herrschaft und Macht" (S. 187): the literal translation "Kontrolle" would be perfectly sufficient.

Sometimes there is also evidence to the opposite technique, i.e. to make one simple noun out of a compound. For example, "breast milk" in the English text becomes simply "Milch" (S. 292) in the German version, which is clearly not precise enough: the translation "Muttermilch" would be much better. The following mistake is a serious one: the term "Torahs" has been simply translated as "Schriften" (S. 274). This again is too general since "Torahs" refer to the first books of the Old Testament, i.e. the books of Genesis ascribed to Moses, which have a very high religious significance for the Jews. Therefore the translator had better speak of "alttestamentliche Schriften" and possibly add a commentary. There is a similar case when the expression "scriptural precedent" is rendered by "Präzedenzfall in der Schrift" (S. 31). In order to avoid misunderstandings one had better speak of "Heilige Schrift"; in that way it becomes clear that, in Gilead, the Bible is often used as a pretext to justify most questionable practices.

And there are also clear mistakes in the translation. For example, "circular" does not mean "halbmondförmig" (S. 158) but "kreisförmig". The game "Chinese chequers" is translated by "Mensch, ärgere dich nicht" (S. 312); in reality it means "Halma". In the first case the players have to rely on pure luck while in the second case, they may use more or less effective strategies in order to win the game. In the text of the novel, the reader also comes across the statement: "Nobody's heart is perfect" (p. 28). The German version: "Niemandes Herz ist erhaben"(S. 39) is not really plausible; the literal translation "vollkommen" would make much more sense.

Problems caused by semantic L2 peculiarities

False friends
A typical example of a false friend is provided by "to rationalize" , which cannot be translated by the corresponding German term "rationalisieren" (S. 234): this term refers to the reduction of costs in any economic context. In English the basic meaning of this term is to find arguments, pretexts in order to diminish a problem; thus, "beschönigen" would be a good translation.
Moreover, Margaret Atwood describes the Commander as "genial", for which the translator again uses the corresponding German term "genial" (S. 123); however, the English meaning of this false friend is "friendly". This error does not only testify to the translator's limited knowledge of English but also shows that she does not think about her translation as a whole. Elsewhere the reader learns that the Commander could serve as a vodka ad (p. 93), or as an ad for rural democracy (p. 187); thus humorous elements are used to characterize him, but Commander Fred is certainly no man of genius. In the "Historical Notes" the translator uses the noun "Genialität" (S. 409) in order to render "ingenuity"; this is much too strong: "Erfindungsreichtum" would be sufficient. It has to be concluded that such deficiencies detract from the value of the translation.

With English idioms a similar problem exists: their literal translation often does not make sense. But sometimes there is a similar phrase in German. In a certain context, the well-known idiom "to teach somebody a lesson" occurs in the text three times. In each case, the translator chooses the German version "daraus etwas lernen (S. 105), although the idiom "jemandem eine Lektion erteilen" is well-known in our language. In the translation, then, the slightly negative meaning of the idiom is lost.

In the next example, the translator uses a literal translation: "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs", for which she writes: "Man kann kein Omelette machen, ohne Eier zu zerschlagen" (S. 288). Apart from the fact that the collocation "Eier zerschlagen" is not very common in German, its meaning should be understandable for native speakers of German. However, the following idiom in our language would certainly be preferable: "Wo gehobelt wird, fallen Späne".

The next example is even more serious: "I smell a rat" does not correspond to its literal translation "Ich rieche eine Ratte" (S. 34), which does not make sense in German. Its meaning is: "to suspect that something is wrong" ("Verdacht schöpfen, dass etwas faul ist"), and it is used in the same context with "it smells fishy", which should run in German "es riecht seltsam" rather than "es riecht nach Fisch" (S. 34). The problem is that the first idiom is alluded to again, and now the collocation "decaying rat" refers to a process of putrefaction, to bad smell which could become "verfaulende, sich zersetzende Ratten" in the German translation. In this case the translater makes comprehension unnecessarily complicated for her German readers.

Proverbs/slogans and rhymes
There is hardly any language in which proverbs or slogans do not occur. As a rule, they are an integral part of everyday speech, but they can also be traced in literary texts. To quote a few examples from THT:

Rather early in the novel, the reader comes across one of the standard moral principles in Puritan-influenced Gilead: "Waste not want not", which is thus rendered in the German translation: "Nichts entbehrt, wer der Verschwendung wehrt" (S. 19). Although the rhyme occurs in the translation only, the procedure is acceptable, as it may be regarded as a substitute for the alliteration in the original text, which also facilitates memorization.

There is textual evidence for at least two more examples where the translator turns prose into poetry so to speak. The statement in the orginal text runs: "Blow, and you tell the time", which is thus expressed in German: "Löwenzahn, ach sag mir doch, wieviel Jahre leb ich noch?" (S. 290), which is quite a good idea and, in my opinion, an improvement of the original text.

Elsewhere the narrator states that "what you don't know won't hurt you", for which the translator uses a slightly modified version of the corresponding well-known proverb in German: "Was du nicht weißt, macht dich nicht heiß" (S. 80). Again this is an example of a successful translation.

Sometimes there are rhymes in the original text. On one occasion, it is stated from Nick's perspective: "I get paid, you get laid", which runs in the German translation: "Geld für Nick, für mich der Fick" (S. 355) so that you have got rhymes in both languages. Yet the translator uses a slang word in German which is not in the novel so that the level of language is not the same. It would not be too difficult fo find more appropriate alternatives such as: "Nick hat sich das Geld genommen, dafür hab ich Sex bekommen"; or: "Nick hat man das Geld gegeben, so muß er sich zu mir legen". Translation, then, also includes problems of register.

Problems caused by stylistic devices

In Atwood's text there are three examples of neologisms which play a crucial role in her description of the fundamentalist republic of Gilead. The first term coined by her is "particicutions" which consists of the Latin adjective "particeps" ("taking part in") and "execution". The translation "Partizikutionen" (S. 373) is quite a successful imitation of this procedure: again it indicates that the handmaids may take an active part in the public execution of political criminals.
The novelist uses a similar technique in inventing the term "prayvaganza" which consists of the elements "pray" and "extravagance". Again the translator's version "Betvaganzen" (S. 39) is successful: like particicutions, prayvaganzas are public events during which prayers are used in order to manipulate people: thus the terms in both languages possess a negative tinge.
Another example is provided by the term "salvaging" which becomes "Errettung" (cf. e.g. S. 357, S. 366) in the German text. The native speaker of English will probably have associations with things as different as "salvation" and "savage", whereas "Errettung" in German has a positive connotation only: it may be used for victims in a life-threatening situation or for sinners in a religious context. However, I cannot think of any alternative, thus I would say that this neologism is untranslatable. Since the victims are savagely executed in the novel, the German translation may be an acceptable way-out if it is understood in an ironic sense. Again a comment might draw attention to this problem.

Margaret Atwood is very fond of using puns. Basically, they are a great challenge for the translator. Some of them may be imitated in German, others cannot easily be translated; more often than not, it is well-nigh impossible to express two meanings by one phrase. Sometimes imperfect translations call for a comment in order to guarantee understanding. Here are a number of examples:

The narrator describes a handmaid's behaviour as "acting rather than a real act" (S. 53), which is rendered in German by "mehr Theater ... als wirkliche Tat". This is an acceptable solution because the pun on "act" and "acting" can hardly be imitated in German, but the message of the statement is the same in both languages. Problems start with the following distinction: the narrator differentiates between "sitting room" and "standing room", which even on the literal level expresses a contrast. When the narrator uses the standard expression "Wohnzimmer" and the literal translation "Stehzimmer" (S. 113) the pun has gone, and probably the meaning is not clear to the German speaker. However, it must be admitted that the translator has hardly any alternatives at her disposal.

Elsewhere the writer uses a pun on "date rape" and "date rapé". The term "date rape" refers to a common type of sexual aggressiveness, to an assault of a girl you have a date with or whom you know. This is often said to happen in the U.S.A. at parties after taking drugs. The term "date rapé" designates a dessert involving fruit (salad) and cheese. Of course, the translator realizes that this is a pun, yet she uses a version of her own to have a pun in the German text. She translates "date rape" by "Computermenues" and "date rapé" by "Kochbuch" (S. 60). Thus she has a pun in her translation as well since "menue" and "cooking" refer to the same level, but the sexual dimension, the allusion to the handmaids' fate and to the so-called monthly 'ceremony', is altogether lost.

The next example is very interesting. During a prayvaganza, a hymn which is entitled "There is a Balm in Gilead", is contrasted with the rebel Moira's version: "There is a Bomb in Gilead" (p.221). In the translation the text runs: "Gilead, gib dich zufrieden" - "Gilead, laß mich in Frieden"(S. 298). Thus, there is a pun in the German translation as well; however, it is not correct. In American English "balm" ("Balsam") and "bomb" are homophones, yet their meaning is completely different. So if you use the idea "comfort/peace" for the first part, it should be contrasted by something like "bomb", "war", or "violence" for example: "Es gibt Trost/Frieden in Gilead" – "Es gibt Gewalt/Krieg in Gilead". This translation does justice to the fact that Moira is a rebel; only at the end of her life, when she works in Jezebel's, has she resigned and wants to be let alone. Anyway, in this context, it is more important to focus on the message than to imitate the stylistic device only.

The most interesting evidence in the whole novel is provided by the following puns on the lexical item "chair", which will be quoted in full: "I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is also the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others" (p. 115f).

The text in the German translation runs:
"Ich sitze auf dem Stuhl und denke über das Wort Stuhl nach. Es kann auch Vorsitz über etwas bedeuten: der Heilige Stuhl. Es kann auch eine Hinrichtungsform bedeuten: der elektrische Stuhl. Es ist der erste Teil des Wortes Stuhlgang. Keines dieser Dinge hat mit den anderen etwas zu tun (S. 152)".

Suggested alternative:
Ich sitze auf einem Stuhl und denke über das englische Wort dafür ("chair") nach. Es kann sich auch auf den Vorsitzenden einer Versammlung beziehen ("chairman, chairwoman, chairperson, chair"). Es kann auch eine Art der Hinrichtung bezeichnen (im Amerikanischen Englisch: "der elektrische Stuhl"). Es ist auch die erste Silbe in dem Wort für Nächstenliebe ("charity"), und es ist das französische Wort für Fleisch [this statement is missing in the translation]. Keines dieser Dinge hat mit den andern etwas zu tun.

The translation of the puns on "chair" is unsatisfactory. First of all, the reference to the Pope is not in Atwood's text, and his position in the Roman Catholic Church is much more influential than that of being a chairman in official meetings. Therefore this part of the translation is beyond the borderline of acceptability. In the course of women's emancipation, the term "chairman" was supplemented by "chairwoman", "chairperson", or simply "chair". Insofar the narrator is correct. The same is true of the allusion to the electric chair which is still in use in several states of the U.S.A. However, the narrator is clearly mistaken if she thinks that the first part of "charity" is also connected with the term "chair": "charity" is derived from "caritas" whereas "chair" is etymologically connected with "cathedra". The statement about the French word "chair" (cf. the phrase "ni chair ni poisson") is missing in the translation; perhaps the translator wanted to replace it by the statement about the German term "Stuhlgang", which obviously has quite different associations. Just like the novel, the translation shows that the narrator reflects on language: the translator tries to imitate the stylistic devices used by the writer; for her, however, form seems to be more important than meaning. Therefore, in this case, the meaning in the translation is completely different from the English text.(6).

Problems caused by the novel's interpretation

In the following examples, the text or the context of the novel has been clearly misunderstood. The phrase "geschlagene Frauen" (S. 72) for "defeated women" will probably lead to misunderstandings since it is reminiscent of women who are beaten by their husbands or partners. In the novel, however, it refers to the low social status of women in the patriarchal theocracy of Gilead. Therefore it would be better to speak of "unterworfene Frauen". An example of another lexical problem is provided by the term "matrix" which has been translated by "Mutterboden" (S. 170). However, in this context, it does not refer to fertile ground but to the living tissue in which an embryo grows; thus one had better say "Fruchtblase/Gebärmutter".

On one occasion, the narrator says: "I know I lost time", which for the translator means: "Ich weiß, daß ich ein Stück Zeit habe" (S. 61). In the novel, however, the narrator had a shock after being separated from her husband and her daughter so that she lost orientation concerning time. Thus one might say in German "ich bin in der Zeit verkommen". Later on, she also says it is difficult for her to remember the past (p. 238; S. 321), since she suspects to have been drugged and to have become the victim of strong medication.
The next passage is an interesting example because two sentences in the German version contradict each other. In it, first the narrator says: "Wir sollen ... Haß und Verachtung empfinden" (S. 55), but a few lines later she states: "Ich spüre, daß ich keine Empfindungen haben darf". This contradiction is not in Atwood's novel. The problem is that Offred does not feel what she is expected to feel: she feels relief that her husband Luke is not among the victims to be executed. Therefore a better translation for her statement concerning Luke would be: "Ich spüre, was ich nicht empfinden soll."

There is still more evidence in which the context of the literary text is not given careful consideration, which may mean that English and German readers may produce different associations when reading the literary work and its translation respectively. The very first chapter takes place in the Red Center, where twice a day the handmaids are allowed to go for "walks", for which the translator uses the German term "Spaziergänge" (S. 14). However, it should be well to bear in mind that the Red Center is a prison-like institution, and this is the reason why the term "Rundgänge" is certainly more appropriate. In a similar way, the translator uses the lexical item "Invaliden" for the English term "disabled" (S. 37). I would argue that the German term is almost exclusively applied to soldiers whereas the English term is more general and also refers to children for example. Therefore the term "Behinderte" is certainly preferable in our language.

To my mind, it is also questionable to translate "functionaries" by "Funktionäre" (S. 316). Of course, the term has come to stay in our language, and consequently one cannot argue that it is a superfluous anglicism. Yet German speakers will often have negative connotations with it since it is often associated with totalitarian countries for example. In Atwood's novel it is essential for the commanders and the handmaids to fulfil their functions; this is why I would suggest the translation "Funktionsträger" (S. 316), which is certainly less negative.

It has been shown above that not every translation fits into the novel's context. Moreover, Atwood's work is more than one-dimensional: it is not only a report which lists a series of fictitious events. This becomes clear when the narrator writes for example: "I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born" (p. 72). For this passage the translation runs: "Ich sammle mich. Mein Ich ist ein Ding, das ich jetzt sammeln muß, so wie man Fakten für eine Rede sammelt. Ich muß ein gemachtes Ding präsentieren, nicht etwas Geborenes" (S. 97).
For Offred, then, telling her story is also an attempt to form a coherent story out of seemingly heterogeneous elements, to define her own personality and identity, to come to a conclusion concerning her own ego. In this context the verb "to compose" seems to possess a key function which, in the novel, is used several times and which obviously possesses different meanings.(7)

In the above quotation, "I compose myself", the verb may well be ambiguous. It may either refer to the narrator's state of mind or to the writing process itself: on the one hand, she wants to put her life story together, possibly like the elements of a puzzle, on the other hand, she wants to gain or to keep control of herself. In this case the translation "sich sammeln" (S. 97) or perhaps even better "sich fassen" is certainly acceptable. In the next sentence ("My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech"), the verb "to compose" is not the same as "to collect". Therefore "sammeln" should be replaced by "zusammenfassen/verfassen/abfassen" since collecting facts is the first step only in order tell a tale or to make a speech: it has to be supplemented by the process of composition in which a shaping principle has to be applied. Thus if you use "sich fassen" and "zusammenfassen", there are two verbs of the same origin in order to render the different meanings of "to compose".

The last statement in the above excerpt is clearly an allusion to the aphorism "Poeta nascitur non fit", which goes back to commentators of Horace.(8) The first part of this statement may well be thought to be an allusion to the handmaids' duty whose babies are dutifully conceived during the monthly ceremonies: thus they may be understood to be "something made". The second part of this statement ("not born") does not really fit into the same context. The statement as a whole is more convincingly understood on the meta-literary level of Offred's telling her own tale. Unlike the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, who claimed that all good poetry is the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings", (9) for Offred, writing implies effort and self-discipline: she confesses to not possessing a poet's inspiration. Generally speaking, then, the narrator's report also deals with the genesis of the novel, which is typical of postmodern literature.(10). Although the translator does not comment on this concept of the creative process, her translation of the last sentence is appropriate.

To conclude: It is the context of an ambitious literary work that implies many serious problems for translation since it presupposes an appropriate interpretation of original texts. As a rule, this is worked out by literary scholars, and this process may last a considerable period of time. If the translator has to produce his/her work a few months after the publication of the original, s/he will suffer from considerable handicaps, particularly if there is a deadline for the publication of the translation. In other words, some deficiencies may be accounted for by pressure of time as well as by a lack of critical distance.

Problems caused by English grammar

So far only lexical or semantic problems of the translation have been discussed. But there are also grammatical problems involved in it. Sometimes the translator's work is characterized by a certain carelessness, for example when she does not pay attention to the distinction between singular and plural. Thus the phrase "promotion to the Angels" becomes "Beförderung zum Engel" (S. 40). In the next example, it is the other way round: an English singular becomes a German plural for no obvious reason; "alarm system" becomes "Alarmsysteme" (S. 53). It would be easy to find more textual evidence of this (cf. S. 83, S. 328). In general, the translator should always pay attention to morphological details since they obviously determine meaning.

Another aspect is that the translator is not careful enough about the use of tenses. With reference to Janine the narrator finds that "she is not doing badly" which becomes in German: "sie hat es nicht schlecht gemacht" (S. 162); what is supposed to be going on now, in the translation has already become a thing of the past. When speaking about Moira's flight the statement occurs: "Aunt Lydia had to admit it was a little foolish of her", which runs in the German text: "Tante Lydia mußte zugeben, daß das ein bißchen dumm von ihr gewesen war" (S. 180). Thus the Simple Past in English becomes Past Perfect in German, which cannot be justified since the Past Perfect expresses a past action which took place before another event in the past. There is a similar error in the following example. At the beginning of chapter 25 it is "Cora, dropping the breakfast tray", which in the translation becomes "Cora, die das Frühstücksbrett hatte fallen lassen" (S. 205). Elsewhere the narrator states concerning her meetings with Moira: "I didn't know it would be the last time", which is thus expressed in German: "Ich wußte nicht, daß es das letzte Mal war" (S. 343). It would be more appropriate to use the form "sein würde" in German: the translator does not pay attention to the fact that the conditional basically expresses future events seen from the past. To conclude: " ... her heart would have melted" becomes: "... dann schmolz ihr Herz" (S. 201). In this case, both the mode and the tense are wrong.

Mistakes in German

Shortcomings which are caused by the peculiarities of the original language and by the incompatibility of such languages as English and German seem to be unavoidable in a translation, at least to a certain degree. However, any translator, in the interest of the German reading public, may be expected to make a very careful use of his/her mother tongue. Even in this respect the achievement under consideration is far from being perfect.
First of all, it is disturbing that in the translation the English exclamation "oh!" is spelled either "o" oder "oh" (cf. e.g. S. 174 and S. 175) The same happens again on S. 179, S. 181 and S. 288. And elsewhere the religious hymn "Amazing Grace" and the popular song "I feel so lonely, baby" occur in the novel. For the first, the translator offers a (rather free) translation in rhymes while on the same page the song is quoted in English (S. 81).
Similarly, the term "Eye(s)" is sometimes translated by "Auge(n)", and sometimes the same term is printed in block capitals ["AUGE(N)"; cf. S. 34, S. 49, S. 274]. To my mind, the last version is preferable since it suggests that they represent a particular social group in Gilead for which a good solution would be "Spitzel". However this may be, the translator's procedure is not always consistent.

In addition, there are some uncommon collocations or uncommon lexical items. For "drowned hair" the translator suggests "ertrunkenes Haar" (S. 151), which sounds either mysterious or even metaphysical to me. I would recommend changing it to "durchtränktes/durchnässtes Haar." In the following plea, Aunt Lydia advises the handmaids: "Modesty is invisibility ... To be seen - to be seen - is to be ... penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable". (p. 34). For this brief quotation, the German solution is: "Bescheiden sein ist unsichtbar sein ... Gesehen werden, gesehen werden, bedeutet, ... penetriert zu werden. Und ihr, Mädels, müßt undurchdringlich, unpenetrierbar sein." (S. 49). In my opinion, the foreign terms "penetrieren" and "unpenetrierbar" are not commonly used in German. Since there is only one adjective in the English original, it would be possible to use a shorter alternative such as: "Gesehen werden ..., bedeutet, dass man in euch eindringt. Und ihr, Mädels, müsst undurchdringlich sein." Apart from the fact that this statement is somewhat ironic considering the official function of handmaids, the translation would contain a pun similar to the one in the English original.

But there are also clear errors in the use of the German language. In the translator's text, you find for example: "Sie machte uns schwindeln" (S. 184). If you take this sentence in isolation, it will be misunderstood as "she made us tell lies". However, "schwindeln" is used as a translation of "to feel dizzy" ("schwindelig sein"), which is definitely inappropriate.

In addition, the translator does not differentiate between "seit" and "seitdem". Sie suggests: "Seit ich sie zum letztenmal gesehen habe ... (S. 368); since "seit" is a preposition (used + noun) and "seitdem" is a conjunction (introducing a subordinate clause), there is an obvious mistake in the German text.

Another grammatical mistake could easily be avoided: "Sie wissen, wo mein Kind ist. Was, wenn sie sie holen?" (S. 382). Even if the reader remembers that Offred has a daughter, the text should run: "Sie wissen, wo mein Kind ist. Was, wenn sie es holen?/Sie wissen, wo meine Tochter ist. Was, wenn man sie holt?" There occurs a similar mistake, when in the German text "das gestohlene Gut" is taken up again first by "es", then by "ihn" twice (S. 115). Again, gender is wrong in the translation for no intelligible reason.

The next type of grammatical mistakes is a recurrent one, as it occurs in the translation at least six times: "... wie wenn ein trockner Zweig bricht (S. 109)". "Es ist wie eine Verabredung mit einem Jungen. Wie wenn man sich nach Stunden zurück ins Studentenwohnheim schleicht (S. 193)." "Der Geschlechtsakt ... muss für ihn weitgehend ein unbewußter Vorgang gewesen sein – so wie wenn er sich gekratzt hätte" (S. 218). Three more examples of the same pattern may be found on S. 229, S. 275, and S. 371. In correct German, the subordinate sentences would be introduced by "als" rather than "wie". This type of mistake corresponds to the tendency to use "wie" after a comparative. This usage, which is increasingly common in daily speech, to my mind, is not to be recommended for literary texts.

Didactic Consequences

I am well aware of the fact that I have drawn attention to many errors in this translation of a full-length novel.(11). And as already hinted by the examples in my introduction, there exist many translations which have to cope with similar shortcomings. However, I would like to emphasize that I do not want to advance criticism for its own sake. Rather than that, I would like to argue that a critical analysis of translations in the foreign language classroom involves some didactic chances which are very valuable in themselves.

First of all, such a project could be realized on many occasions. Of course, a critical approach to translations could be applied not only to novels, but also to other literary genres, such as drama, short stories or to pieces of expository prose as well. Even more, this procedure may be transferred to all situations where translations are used. Since now entire films have become obligatory teaching subjects which, on DVDs, often have subtitles in different languages, it would be possible for example to have the students compare a film script or the actors' actual speech in a film to its German subtitles. I am sure (and I hope to show this in a later study) that such a project will be a very productive task, which will lead to many rewarding experiences on the parts of the students since they are likely to find out many differences and deficiencies in the L 1 versions. Therefore I would like to encourage teachers and students to experience this for themselves and analyse sections of German translations in FLT.

Besides, it may be educationally valuable to make the students realize such differences by a contrastive analysis: it would be a motivating procedure to have them find errors like that by inductive teaching. This is a challenging task which is suitable for a long-term homework assignment. There are about a dozen models for film teaching on the market.(12). To the best of my knowledge, there is no single example in which a comparative critique of an English film and its German subtitles has been recommended so far. This may also be a revealing experience for teachers who are inclined to use German subtitles whenever English films lead to problems of understanding in the classroom. Worksheet 1 (see below) refers to THT again and could be used in class as a useful lead-in activity: the students may develop an awareness for translation problems and arrive at some tentative conclusions.

This phase in class could be supplemented by work in pairs and groups. For reasons of feasibility, it would be wise to have the students analyse a number of scenes/chapters only rather than the complete film/text. Worksheet 2 could be used by them as a practical help. They will realize that linguistic problems are often closely intertwined with problems of interpretation. The students have to reflect on both L 1 and L 2, on the problems of denotation and connotation, in other words, on many practical language problems, which will ultimately add to their proficiency in the use of the English language.

In a third phase, the groups may have to report their findings back to the members of a particular class or course: they could prepare a worksheet with questionable translations and ask their fellow students to comment on them and to find more appropriate alternatives. This would be quite a good opportunity for practising learning by teaching.

Moreover, there is one particular problem in the text of the English edition of THT and its German translation. This concerns a Latin slogan for the translation of which Helga Pfetsch uses considerable ingenuity and which may lead to interesting classroom results. The material to be found on worksheet 3 may be studied as homework, which also means that the students have to do the tasks given on it. However, the worksheet may also be prepared by a team or group of two or three students, one of whom will give a talk on it in class. It may lead to one of the major problems of translation theory and practice, namely how many liberties the translator is allowed to take or to what degree s/he has to be faithful to the original text. Suggestions for expected answers are also offered below.

Additional material

Worksheet 1
It consists of examples of problematical translations which may be discussed in class. The page references refer to the didactic edition by Porteous-Schwier/Ross (cf. note 4 below) so that the students can look up the original context of the lexical items if they want to. They may criticize the German suggestions, modify some of them or find alternatives for others. This task may be used as a warming-up step in order to prepare different assignments, such as an analysis of different chapters in group work or a preparation of worksheet 3.

Original text German translation Alternative(s)
jutting nose (p. 123) Himmelfahrtsnase ?
sacrilege (p. 137) Sakrileg Schandtat
uncouth (p. 165) plump ?
an Eye (p. 24) ein Auge/AUGE ein Spion/Spitzel
searchlight (p. 261) Flutlicht ?
transparent voice (p. 135) durchsichtige Stimme dünne Stimme
It seems impossible (p. 282) Es könnte möglich sein ?
to memorize (p. 271) memorieren sich einprägen
to be miserable (p.144) das heulende Elend haben sich elend fühlen
to teach s.b. a lesson (p. 77) sorgen, dass j. Etwas lernt j. eine Lektion erteilen
Petticoat (p. 68) Halbunterrock Petticoat
to pass the buck (p. 255) den Schwarzen Peter zuschieben ?
in Solitary (p. 223) in Einzelhaft ?
goddamn soldier (p. 248) blöder Soldat gottverdammter Soldat
labels (p. 302) Labels Etikettierungen
propaganda use (p. 304) Werbezwecke Propagandazwecke
breast milk (p. 218) Milch ?
a glossy men's mag (p. 143) ein Herrenmagazin ?
This is like a business transaction (p. 21) Dies ist eine geschäftliche Transaktion ?
to study (p. 49) auswendig lernen ?
the pungent scent of sweat (p. 9) der säuerliche Schweißgeruch ?
catgut (p. 118) Catgut Darmsaite

Worksheet 2: helpful tasks/assignments/questions
  • Are there any striking features of the translation?
  • Are there literal translations which are uncommon in our language, such as anglicisms?
  • Are there idioms in the English text? Does the translator use corresponding idioms in German?
  • What about slogans/proverbs/false friends/telling names/puns?
  • What about metaphors and comparisons?
  • Are there any passages in the translation which are ambiguous, difficult or even impossible to understand?
  • Try to classify the different mistakes: lexical, semantic, grammatical or syntactical ...
  • Try to explain how mistakes/errors/shortcomings may be accounted for: by the translator's limited knowledge of English/by peculiarities of the English language? Try to find more appropriate or more convincing solutions or simply better alternatives.
  • Are there any problems because of the English and German readers' limited knowledge of the world?
  • Are there any passages in the original/in the translation which make a comment necessary? For example: political, historical, cultural, literary, biblical ... allusions?

Worksheet 3: The Latin slogan in the German translation

The following list contains all the textual evidence concerning one particular Latin slogan which you can find in the German translation:

(1) " ... und da war es, in winziger Schrift, ziemlich frisch, wie es schien, eingekratzt mit einer Nadel, vielleicht nur mit dem Fingernagel, in der Ecke, in die der dunkelste Schatten fiel: Hirundo maleficis evoltat" (chapter 9, S. 79).

(2) "Ich bete still: Hirundo maleficis evoltat. Ich weiß nicht, was es bedeutet, aber es klingt richtig, und es wird ausreichen müssen, denn ich weiß nicht, was ich sonst zu Gott sagen könnte" (chapter 15, S. 129).
"O Gott, bete ich. Hirundo maleficis evoltat.
Hattest du dir das so vorgestellt? (chapter 15, S. 131).

(3) "Nach einer Weile vergeht es wie ein epileptischer Anfall. Da sitze ich nun im Wandschrank. Hirundo maleficis evoltat. ... Es klingt in meinem Kopf jetzt weniger wie ein Gebet, sondern mehr wie ein Befehl. Doch was tun? ... Warum hat sie es geschrieben, warum hat sie sich die Mühe gemacht? Kein Weg führt hier heraus" (chapter 24, S. 202).

(4) "Hirundo maleficis evoltat. Hier, in dieser Umgebung, ist es weder Gebet noch Befehl, sondern ein trauriges Graffito, einmal hingekritzelt und schon aufgegeben. [...] "Das ist kein Latein", sagt er. "Das ist nur ein Witz." [...] "Es ist ein bißchen schwer zu erklären, warum das komisch ist, wenn du kein Latein kannst" [...] "Aber was hat es bedeutet?" frage ich ... "Ach so, es bedeutet: 'Die Schwalbe entflieht den Bösewichtern'" (chapter 29, S. 254-255).

(5) "Hirundo maleficis evoltat. Hat ihr mächtig was genützt. Warum kämpfen?
Das wird niemals ausreichen" (chapter 35, S. 306).

(6) "Aber ich fühle mich heiter und gelassen, friedlich, von Gleichgültigkeit durchdrungen. Die Schwalbe entflieht den Bösewichtern. Ich sage es mir immer wieder, aber es drückt nichts aus. Genausogut könnte man sagen: Entflieht den Bösewichtern. [no italics this time] Oder: Flieht.
Ich nehme an, dass könnte man auch sagen" (chapter 46, S. 389).
"Ich könnte zum Kommandanten gehen, mich auf den Boden werfen mit aufgelöstem Haar, wie man so sagt, ihn um die Knie fassen, gestehen, weinen, flehen: Hirundo maleficis evoltat, könnte ich sagen. Kein Gebet" (chapter 46, S. 390).

The students are asked to do the following tasks:

  • Try to find the corresponding passages in your English editions. Try to contextualize them all, in particular the quotations from chapter 29!
  • Compare the text of the English novel and the German translation of the Latin slogan (cf. Worksheet 3)! Certainly it will strike you that the translater has replaced one Latin slogan by another (rather than merely quoting it). What do you think of this procedure? Does it bring about a similar/the same effect as the slogan contained in Atwood's text?
  • Is the slogan a solution which is successful in easing the comprehension of the text for the German readers?
Additional information
The translator wants to express the sexual ambiguity in the language of the schoolboys (cf. the context of chapter 29). Therefore her version of the Latin slogan Hirundo maleficis evoltat is meant to evoke a second meaning which you may discover by reading it in a different way.
  • Imagine it is a statement in German which has to be divided into more than three words, "Hirundo" may be read as "Hier und do/da ..." Can you go on with the rest and find the solution?
Moreover, to her mind, the Latin meaning corresponds to the fate of the protagonist: "Die Schwalbe entflieht den Bösewichtern."
  • Do you think that the German translation is in accordance with
    a) the mentality of the schoolboys?
    b) the mentality of the handmaids/of the narrator?
  • Is the translator authorized to replace the Latin slogan in the text by another one of her own making?
  • Would you say this is an example of a successful/imaginative/ingenious translation?
  • Or do you think that this translation is a failure since it is not faithful to the writer's intention?

Solutions to worksheet 3
The numbers of the chapters in the English edition and the German translation are the same. In addition, the Latin slogans are as a rule printed in italics. Therefore it should be easy for the students to find the textual evidence in their English edition.

The Latin slogan in the English editions

(1) "... and there it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (chapter 9, p. 58).

(2) "I pray silently: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. I don't know what it means, but it sounds right, and it will have to do, because I don't know what else I can say to God" (chapter, 15, p. 97).
And again: "Oh God, I pray. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Is this what you had in mind? (chapter 15, p. 98).

(3) "After a while it passes, like an epileptic fit. Here I am in the closet. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. ... It sounds in my head now less like a prayer, more like a command; but to do what? ... Why did she write it, why did she bother? There's no way out of here" (chapter 24, p. 152).

(4) "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Here in this context , it's neither prayer nor command, but a sad graffiti, scrawled once, abandoned". [...] "That's not real Latin", he [the Commander] says. "That's just a joke". [...] "It's sort of hard to explain why it's funny unless you know Latin. [...] "What did it mean?" I say ... "Oh. It meant, 'Don't let the bastards grind you down' (chapter 29, pp. 190-191).

(5) "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Fat lot of good it did her. Why fight?"
That will never do (chapter 35, p. 228).

(6) "But I feel serene, at peace, pervaded with indifference. Don't let the bastards grind you down [this time - for no intelligible reason - there are no italics – perhaps this is just due to the printer's carelessness]. I repeat this to myself but it conveys nothing. You might as well say, Don't let there be air; or, Don't be. I suppose you could say that" (chapter 46, p. 293).
"I could go to the Commander, fall on the floor, my hair dishevelled, as they say, grab him around the knees, confess, weep, implore. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, I could say. Not a prayer. (chapter 46, pp. 293-294).

In Atwood's THT the narrator-protagonist Offred lives in very reduced circumstances since there are so many things in the fictitious dystopian state devised by the author that women are not allowed to do. For example they are not allowed to read and to write. Thus it must have been fascinating for the narrator when, one day in examining her room, she finds an inscription in a dark corner of her wardrobe (1): this must have been written by her predecessor in Commander Fred's household. Immediately her search for the meaning of it sets in: is it a prayer (2), or more like a command (3), a graffiti/a joke (4), or is it senseless to believe in the possibility of resistance or escape? (5). Eventually she is dominated by indifference (6): she probably is on the verge of apathy: in the last chapter she does not know where the black van will take her.
As to chapter 29, it is made quite clear that the schoolboys are very much interested in sexuality.

Solutions to the other tasks
What will strike the students at first sight, is that in the German translation by Helga Pfetsch the Latin slogan has a different wording: Hirundo maleficis evoltat (in correct Latin it should run evolat), which, of course, also corresponds to a different German statement: "Die Schwalbe entflieht den Bösewichtern". This is consistently used throughout the novel so that there are obvious differences between the English editions and the German translation. How can this be accounted for?

I was told by the translator Helga Pfetsch that she used the Canadian first edition of Atwood's novel, which is identical with all other editions of THT that I was able to get hold of (cf. bibliography). Thus it is the German translator who is responsible for the change of the pseudo-Latin slogan. I would like to thank her for her e-mail sent to me on 3 June, 2008 and for her permission to quote from it:

Obviously the translator refers to the Latin slogan "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" in the context of chapter 29, where it is translated and explained to Offred by Commander Fred. In this chapter there are some aspects which clearly have sexual overtones, so that the Latin slogan in question is supposed to have a slippery dimension as well. Yet this is a questionable assumption.
First of all, it has to be pointed out that the slogan would be wrong in Latin. The form "carborundorum" (genitive, plural) is reminiscent of a noun like "carborundum" or "carborundus", from which it might have been derived. However, neither of the two does exist in Latin. Moreoever, "carborundorum" does not fit into the context since in Latin grammar, "nolite" always has to be followed by an infinitive.
In addition the term "bastards" is a general term of offense particularly if it is used by schoolboys for their teachers. Thus the joke made by the schoolboys lies in the fact that, probably in a very deliberate way, they use their own wrong code of the Latin language in order to defy their educators, which means that this slogan in the context of the novel makes sense without any sexual overtones. Besides, it is introduced in the novel much earlier, and it is also referred to several times after chapter 29. The crucial question, then, is what it means to the handmaids in general and to the narrator in particular.

In chapter 9 it becomes clear that the slogan was scratched with a pin or a fingernail by Offred's predecessor in the darkest corner of her room. Thus, the reader has to realise that, for the handmaids, any attempt at written communication has the charm of the forbidden (even if, eventually, it turns out to be nothing but a rather poor joke) since in fundamentalist Gilead they were allowed neither to read nor to write. Thus the slogan has to be associated with defiance/opposition, resistance ... right from the beginning. In the same way, to tell the tale of her life for Offred is an act of resistance. In this sense, the schoolboys' joke and its translation given by the Commander may be applied to Offred as well as to the handmaids.

Therefore it is completely unnecessary to replace Atwood's pseudo-Latin slogan by another. To begin with, one should well bear in mind that Gilead is a prison from which escape is well-nigh impossible (one might refer to Moira's failure as well as to that of Luke, Offred and their daughter; some information on this problem may also be derived from the "Historical Notes"). In addition, two handmaids commit suicide: on the one hand, it is Offred's predecessor in Commander Fred's household. On the other hand, the handmaid Ofglen, who has been active in the underground movement Mayday, puts an end to her life in order to escape torture. So there is not much hope for escape left in Gilead. After all, one may refer to the last chapter in which the narrator's flight seems to be successful: in this case the translator's slogan may be understood as a kind of foreshadowing.

However, there are two more arguments against the translator's solution. First of all, there is no example in the text of the entire novel where the writer uses puns referring to two languages (e. g. to English and Latin). Secondly, the sexual meaning which the translator ascribes to the pseudo-Latin slogan may well be in accordance with the mentality of schoolboys, but it certainly contradicts that of the handmaids: since they are sexually abused and exploited, such a recommendation would imply mockery and derision for their social group.
Therefore this solution is a failure rather than a particularly successful translation. Even if it is certainly both inventive and ingenious, one cannot but conclude that it corresponds neither to the text of the novel nor to the novelist's intention. It shows that a translation depends on interpretation, yet the one by Helga Pfetsch is highly debatable. To my mind, it is a translator's task to keep to the text and to be faithful to the writer's intention as much as possible.


(1) Morton Rhue, Give a Boy a Gun, Herbert Geisen (ed.), (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2003), pp. 127-128. Morton Rhue, "Leseprobe aus: Ich knall Euch ab!", in: Asphalt Tribe (Ravensburg: 2005), p. [255]. -
I would like to thank my dear friend Graham Wilson (now teaching at Bamberg University), who has once again been most liberal with time and advice in order to improve my English in this article. Of course, responsibility for any possible errors is entirely mine.

(2) Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and ... (3 Whodunits). Deutsch von Angela Uthe-Spencker. DTV: München, 1. Auflage 1984, 9. Auflage, 1995, pp. 6-7 (zweisprachige Ausgabe).

(3) Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), (London: Triad Panther Books, 1979, repr. 1983), p. 20. Kurt Vonnegut, Schlachthof 5 (1972). Deutsch von Kurt Wagenseil. Reinbek bei Hamburg: rororo, 1982), p. 24.

(4) Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, Gunthild Porteous-Schwier/Ingrid Ross (eds.), Berlin: Cornelsen, 2005, second impression 2006. Their text is identical with that of the first Canadian edition on which the German translation is based.
Margaret Atwood, Der Report der Magd (1987). Deutsch von Helga Pfetsch. Goldmann Verlag, btb Taschenbücher, 2. Auflage, 1998.

(5) The Cornelsen edition, of course, has linguistic annotations as well as a commentary. However, neither in the novel nor in its translation are any explanatory notes to be found.

(6) It would be no problem to quote more English evidence in order to show that sometimes puns are very difficult or even impossible to translate: "Pen is Envy" which becomes "penis envy" (p. 190); the pun on job and the Biblical book of Job (p. 177); in the "Historical Notes": Denay, Nunavit (= Deny none of it; cf. p. 299), the pun on "tale" and "tail" (p. 300f): in the translation, the allusion to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is lost.

(7) The verb "to compose" also occurs after the narrator's reflection on the different meanings of "chair" (cf. above): "These are the kinds of litanies I use to compose myself"; cf. p. 117. One may also draw attention to p. 152: In a state of great emotional excitement Offred says she must try "to compose herself". In both cases "to compose" is translated by "sich fassen"; cf. S. 152 and S. 202.

(8) William Ringler, "Poeta nascitur non fit: some Notes on the History of an Aphorism", Journal of the History of Ideas 2 (1941), pp. 497-498.

(9) William Wordsworth, "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" (1800). Another allusion in the novel shows that Wordsworth's concept of poetry is obviously familiar to Margaret Atwood; cf. Porteous-Schwier/Ross (eds.), p. 303.

(10) Cf. Peter Freese, "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)", in: Peter Freese/Liesel Hermes (eds.), Der Roman im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II. Theorie und Praxis (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1977, 2. Auflage, 1981), pp. 414-443. [ISL 11]
Cf. also Hubert Zapf, Kurze Geschichte der anglo-amerikanischen Literaturtheorie. München: Fink, zweite Auflage, 1995. (cf. Kap. 23)

(11) No book is without printing errors. The translation in question is no exception from the rule, though I found very few of them. On p. 207 the reader comes across the collocation: "eine murrische (rather than mürrische) Bemerkung"; the same type of mistake occurs once again: there is "suchtig" rather than "süchtig" (S. 309). It is funny somehow that a German publishing house does not pay attention to this umlaut. And there is confusion of conical and comical: in combination with "paper hats" the first refers to form whereas the second clearly expresses a value judgment. Sometimes even formal errors may cause changes of meaning. Consider for example the following sentence: "Wenn sie etwas sagt, wird er es kommentieren? (S. 96) If you omit the question mark, uncertainty is replaced by certainty.

(12) Cf. my survey: "Teaching Models for Filmed Fiction. Critical Remarks and Suggestions for Improvement", which will soon be published; cf. Praxis Fremdsprachenunterricht 5 (2009), pp. 28-32.


Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1985. (Hard cover edition; copyright 1985 by O.W. Toad Ltd.)

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Fawcwett Crest, 1986. (Pocket book edition; copyright 1985 by O.W. Toad Ltd.)

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid's Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986. (Hard cover edition; copyright 1986 by O.W. Toad Ltd.)

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid's Tale, Gunthild Porteous-Schwier/Ingrid Ross (eds.), Berlin: Cornelsen, 2006. (Annotated edition; copyright 1985 by O.W. Toad Ltd.)

Atwood, Margaret, Der Report der Magd (1987). Deutsch von Helga Pfetsch. Goldmann Verlag, btb Taschenbücher, 2. Auflage, 1998. (Copyright 1985 by O.W. Toad Ltd.)

Christie, Agatha, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and ... (3 Whodunits). Deutsch von Angela Uthe-Spencker. DTV: München, 1. Auflage 1984, 9. Auflage, 1995. (zweisprachige Ausgabe)

Freese, Peter, "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)", in: Peter Freese/Liesel Hermes (eds.), Der Roman im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II. Theorie und Praxis (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1977, 2. Auflage, 1981), pp. 414-443. [ISL 11]

Ringler, William, "Poeta nascitur non fit: some Notes on the History of an Aphorism", Journal of the History of Ideas 2 (1941), pp. 497-504.

Rhue, Morton, Give a Boy a Gun (1999), Herbert Geisen (ed.), Stuttgart: Reclam, 2003.

Rhue, Morton, "Leseprobe aus: Ich knall Euch ab!", in: Asphalt Tribe (Ravensburg: 2005), pp. [246-255].

Vonnegut, Kurt, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969). London: Triad Panther Books, 1979, repr. 1983.

Vonnegut, Kurt, Schlachthof 5 (1972). Deutsch von Kurt Wagenseil. Reinbek bei Hamburg: rororo, 1982.

Zapf, Hubert, Kurze Geschichte der anglo-amerikanischen Literaturtheorie. München: Fink, zweite Auflage, 1995. (cf. Kap. 23)

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