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Making Translation Visible: Interpreters in European Literature and Film


This dissertation examines interpreter figures in European literature and film since the Second World War, from the implementation of simultaneous interpreting at the Nuremberg Trials to the growth of the European Union and the rise of a global information economy. I approach interpreting as an embodied act of translation, and the works I analyze explore the frictions that arise when an embodied subject is employed as a supposedly neutral medium of communication. In contrast to fantasies of instantaneous transfer and unlimited convertibility enabled by digital translation technologies, the interpreter’s corporeality attests to the material and culturally specific aspects of linguistic communication within larger processes of international exchange. Working against a tradition of effacement, I investigate aesthetic representations that render the interpreter’s body visible, audible, and even tangible, and thereby offer new possibilities for conceiving of translation as a multi-directional encounter rather than a form of hermeneutic extraction and transfer. This approach also highlights the gendered nature of interpreting as a form of intimate, affective service work, which is further figured in relation to traditional discourses of translators as potentially duplicitous women.

Both Ingeborg Bachmann’s short story “Simultan” (1968/72) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1979) employ female interpreter figures to stage the ongoing relevance of Germany and Austria’s National Socialist past to the historical moments in which they originated. While the protagonist of “Simultan” experiences historical and linguistic fragmentation as an instrumentalized “language machine,” Maria Braun attempts to exercise agency through sexual, economic, and linguistic exchanges that are nonetheless constrained by larger social forces. In Yoko Tawada’s novella Das Bad (1989) and novel Das nackte Auge (2004), the dangers of translation as hermeneutic violence are inscribed upon female bodies, yet these bodies also hold the potential for alternative forms of translation as a shared experience of encounter. Finally, Hans-Christian Schmid’s film Lichter (2003) positions interpreters as key points of facilitation, friction, and intimate exchange within an unstable border zone.

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