„She manages to explore complex political issues through compelling scenes and dialogues“ – Interview with Lucy Jones on her translation of Brigitte Reimann’s DIE GESCHWISTER

(c) Oliver Toth

Almost exactly 50 years ago, Brigitte Reimann, considered one of the most important female writers in the GDR, died of cancer, aged 39. It’s hard to think of a better way to mark the anniversary of her death than the one Lucy Jones has chosen: translating Reimann’s novel DIE GESCHWISTER into English for the first time. SIBLINGS, as it is titled in English, has been recently published by Penguin Classics and Transit Books, and received wide media coverage, ranging from the Guardian to the New Yorker. The novel is about how the division of Germany affected Reimann’s family personally. We are beyond proud that Lucy Jones is going to present and discuss her translation at Lettrétage on 16 April together with the journalist and writer, Alexander Wells. Here is an interview she gave us on translating Reimann’s work.

Lettrétage: I must confess that I hadn’t heard of Brigitte Reimann until you suggested presenting SIBLINGS at our venue. Shame on me! What have I missed out on? Could you summarize what makes her texts worth reading?

Lucy Jones: That’s a comment that usually separates those who are from the GDR and those from West Germany. But it also separates an older generation of East Germans from a younger one. I’ve found that many West Germans haven’t heard of Reimann, whereas she was widely read and very popular in the GDR. This might be because East German literature has not been as widely read in the West up until now – something that I hope the success of translations of a wide range of (post-) GDR writers, ranging from Wolfgang Hilbig to Clemens Meyer and Brigitte Reimann, will change. Probably the most outstanding quality of Reimann’s writing is that she manages to explore complex political issues through compelling scenes and dialogues. Her characters manage to fight a repressive system with humour. I think the reader can imagine these scenarios because the characters’ attitudes and voices are so modern.

Lettrétage: Last spring, construction workers renovating an apartment building in Hoyerswerda discovered the original manuscript of DIE GESCHWISTER, which was officially considered lost. It is of particular interest because it contains the uncensored text. If I am not mistaken, there are three variants of the novel today: the aforementioned manuscript, the first official edition that was published in the GDR in 1963, and the 1969 version stylistically revised by Reimann herself. Which variant is your translation based on? And why?

Lucy Jones: That’s only partially true. Yes, there are three German editions. My translation was finished when the manuscript was found by chance in the spring of 2022. But SIBLINGS is based on the edition published in the early 2000s, in which the parts censored in the original 1963 edition were reinstated. However, the translation does not incorporate her handwritten edits made in 1969, which were largely stylistic improvements.

As I understand, the manuscript wasn’t considered lost; it simply wasn’t known to exist. By pure chance, builders found it in a cupboard under the stairs in her former flat in Hoyerswerda last year. And that typewritten manuscript with her manual edits is the basis of the German edition that has just been published by Aufbau to honour the 50th anniversary of her death. I haven’t thoroughly compared the new edition with the one my translation is based on, but I was relieved to note at a glance that the differences don’t seem central to the book as a whole.

Lettrétage: Were there any passages that were challenging for you as a translator? If so, can you give a small example?

Lucy Jones: Yes, there were a couple of passages that I had to read over and over again to understand. Largely these were situations that were specific to the GDR and its political and social system. Clearly, the story’s point of telling changes when it is translated: whereas Reimann wrote the book for an East German readership, I had to think about what an English-language readership would and would not understand by implication. This is even more true in the case of a novel written in a political system that no longer exists.

I first had to understand these past contexts to translate certain passages. For example, when Uli is describing why he wants to go West, he tells Elisabeth that fellow students claimed he was ‘unreliable’, which meant he wasn’t given a higher-ranking job (and was unlikely to be given any promotion in the future, so he faced a dead-end position for life). Claiming that someone was unreliable meant that they had connections to the West and were considered in danger of defection. In Uli’s case, his brother Konrad who has already escaped to the West would have worked against him. Those left behind were – not always overtly – punished. It was enough to be associated with someone who defected. For an outsider like me who grew up in a different system, it isn’t always easy to make a distinction between things that happened universally in the GDR and things that were specific to this world. This affects how you translate, for example, the tone in which something is said – whether it’s said offhandedly because the readership it was written for understands the context, or whether it was something surprising and unique. And as much of the story is told through dialogue, this was important to get right.

Lettrétage: The novel revolves around a conflict caused by a very specific historical constellation that no longer exists: Elisabeth, the first-person narrator, learns that her brother wants to flee the GDR and she tries to prevent him from carrying out his plan. From your point of view, what is the timeless core of this story?

Lucy Jones: It’s true that the setting and events in the book are very specific to a particular era – the era of the Berlin Wall and the early ideology of the GDR project. But the theme of living meaningfully, of choosing to stay in a state that you feel is home rather than opt for a life with more material comfort is explored here. You may find yourself asking: why did people still choose to live with less comfort – the descriptions of conditions in Hoyerswerda are far from luxurious – over the relative luxury of the West? Obviously, for many, it wasn’t a choice. Nevertheless, I’m interested in how Elisabeth’s feeling of purpose, of meaning in her life is derived from feeling that she belongs where she is and that it is worth much more to her than material comfort. She scorns those who have left in search of a pipe dream – she sees them as selling out. The novel explores how home/ your native country / a feeling of belonging can include the notion of suffering for an ideal – something that is very much out of fashion these days where priority is placed on comfort and individualism. I realised that Reimann and other writers in the GDR must have felt a huge sense of purpose in what they did. And looking for meaning in your work, being critical of how things are run by your government, or how people feel as if they belong together as a society, are all very timeless themes. The story asks: how much are we prepared to sacrifice for our ideals?