(M)other tongues

Two emails in the last week reminded me of my multilingual roots; one from the editor of a volume of essays on colonial Pennsylvania, asking that my quotations from primary sources in my contribution be in the original language (in this case German), and the other from a doctoral candidate in Germany, requesting my help with manuscript materials from the 18th century, also in German.  The editor’s request was unusual for me.  After years of publishing in scholarly venues where the original non-English language was either elided or banished to the footnotes, after decades of translating materials for those who at conferences smile and say, “Oh, I don’t want to do all that work with the German, I leave it to people like you,” the request to foreground the original was refreshing and surprising.

The problem with both requests was that neither source had been published in German  Both reside on my hard drive, carefully transcribed from the German, along with editorial marks to indicate the scribe or author’s deletions and insertions, an editor’s marginalia, re-workings and rewordings.  The hundreds of pages of German (all  supported by healthy grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities) have constituted an interim stage between original manuscript and printed translation.  Occasionally, I have been urged by German researchers to not forget them, but with the pressure to publish in North American scholarly presses (who for the most part abhor the non-English) these requests were answered piecemeal. Until now.

The request for the original German of Margarethe Jungmann’s memoir that I had published in translation nearly 15 years ago in the volume Moravian Women’s Memoirs (Syracuse UP, 1997) spurred me to go back to my transcriptions and decide to make them available on this site.  After a few hasty consultations with our Digital Scholarship Coordinator, Dr. Diane Jakacki, and an equally hasty email to the Archivist of the Northern Province, Dr. Paul Peucker to ask permission to publish original materials housed at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, I entered into a frenzy of WordPress posting; adding a submenu for Moravian Materials, a page for the memoirs, entitled Umgang mit dem Heiland with a linked table of contents, and then making a page for each memoir.  Over the space of 24 hours, I read through each memoir, line by line, checking the formatting and occasionally modifying the old html from the MS Word files.  And posted them.

As I read, the beauty of the authors’ German once again came alive.  For most of these women, their mother tongue was German, but a non-standardized German. Many wrote as they spoke, with dialect spellings, so that when read aloud you can almost hear their accented voice, recognize their origin from the Pfalz (Palatinate) or Sachsen (Saxony).  And some are more filtered through a “Moravian vernacular,” carefully deploying the tropes and styles of the pietistic community in response to the request to write an account of their lives.  How does a woman from LIttle Papaa on the Guinea coast write her life in German?  How does a woman born in York, Pennsylvania or Paris, France, or London, England write about her life in what is not her mother tongue?  Does the language become flattened into what Gayatri Spivak has termed “translatese” (see her classic essay, “The Politics of Translation”)? Does the imposition of an other tongue violate the subjectivity and identity of the author?

My mother was German.  A refugee from the Russian front in 1945, she ended up in Bristol, England as the bride of a British soldier.  Britain in the 1950s and 60s was not a very friendly place to Germans or the German language, and so the sound of her mother(‘s) tongue was mostly silenced, spoken only at home, and emerging in brief moments of linguistic naivety when I, unaware that I was not speaking the common vernacular in Herefordshire, England, would utter a word that marked me as “other.”  And this linguistic otherness intrigued me.  Having multiple words and worlds in which to express myself became a fantastic prism through which to distort and enrich the world around me.  Having only one language world was something I could not imagine, and so I acquired more of them.  The polyphony of the polyglot is sometimes deafening, a Babel of voices, but it is multidimensional, complex, and exhilarating.

Precisely this polyglot place was here in Pennsylvania in the colonial period.  There was English, German, French, Dutch, Swedish, all imported from Europe.  But there was also the polyphony of the Native American languages; Iroquoian and Algonquin language groups, fundamentally different and defining the nations of the “New” world.  These linguistic worlds intermixed in Pennsylvania along the branches of the Susquehanna, up and down the Delaware and the Schuylkill.  As Patrick Erben has examined in his wonderful work, “A Harmony of the Spirits:  Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania” (UNC Press, 2012) this multiplicity of languages was not a threat to the harmony of Penn’s “Holy Experiment” but rather its constitutive moment.  And new work emerging from conferences like “Envisioning the Old World: Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg and Imperial Projects in Pennsylvania” organized by Dr. Bethany Wiggin of the German Department of the University of Pennsylvania, in 2012 show how the field of German studies in North America is changing.  More and more, it encompasses the comparative and the interdisciplinary in its examination of the history and languages of the German Atlantic world.  What was once termed “German-American Studies” and looked on with the slight suspicion that it resided only in the “Wurst and Bier” of a Philadelphia or Texas “Deutsches Brauhaus” has developed into an intellectually sophisticated and legitimated mode of inquiry.  No longer eliding the (m)other tongue, but rather celebrating Babel, I want to thank the visionary scholars and presses that are making this happen!  Prosit!


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