The land of in-between

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This is an exclusive Indigo Express essay published by The Indigo Press

The land of in-between

Anne Weber and Tess Lewis

Introduction by Susie Nicklin

I was living temporarily in Berlin in the autumn of 2020, awaiting the birth of a new step-grandchild and visiting German publishers, editors and booksellers. Many people I met talked to me about a wonderful novel in verse which was sure to win the German Book Prize, an epic poem about a great French heroine which was written by a German writer now living in France. Readers commented on this state of being ‘entre deux langues’, between two languages and countries, and how a native German speaker had written of the Nazi occupation of France and the French colonisation of Algeria through empathy and compassion for the life of Annette Beaumanoir.

We are lucky that the outstanding Tess Lewis undertook the project of translating Anne’s text, originally written in both French and German, and making an English version of it for us. 

This Indigo Express essay is therefore, appropriately, also in two parts: one is the author’s explanation of her feelings of duality, and the other is the translator’s description of how she created a single English text from two originals. And, to continue the theme, one is translated by me from French, from a Le Monde article first published in 2008; the other is written in English by Tess but refers to an article entitled ‘Zwei Seelen’, ‘Two Souls’, which was first published in the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung, in German. Each article contains the same paragraph but with slightly different emphases, as you can see from the two translations. 

Finding your tongue, finding your place by Anne Weber

Translated by Susie Nicklin

First published 29th May 2008 in Le Monde

There is a language which you don’t find, which you don’t look for either, but which you breathe when you enter the world, which you eat and drink. Absorbing this baby food is like posting a letter: you open your mouth and swallow, without thinking about it. However, does your mother tongue provide you with a place, even ‘your’ place?

It gives you a place in a community, or at least in a collection of human beings who have been nourished at the same breast. You might well exclaim that you have nothing in common with all these people, but you are connected to them by a link at least as strong as blood. To have the same language means to live in the same world, to be a prisoner of the same territory, since the languages of the world, if we wanted to superimpose them on each other, would only partially match, and to speak your own language is not only to use different words from a foreigner to signify the same things, but it is also, and above all, to have something different to signify.

The place that your mother tongue assigns to you is therefore highly circumscribed. As you learn it you are enclosing yourself within it – henceforth you will see the world through its lens, it is part of you, like a second skin. Try to undo this! It would be as easy to tear off a limb. 

But this doesn’t apply only to your contemporaries. Poets who have written in your language speak to you from the depths of time, from the lively interior of their books. They are speaking to you, you who alone are capable of hearing them, since the alloy which flows from their pen is unique, since sound and sense have blended together, and since all attempts at translation collide with the impossibility of disentangling the various elements of this incandescent lava. 

And then there is the language we seek out, and which, with a lot of perseverance we find, the ‘foreign’ language. At first this foreign language is just noise; it sings, whistles, rolls, slices, slams, hisses, without making any sense. As soon as it manages to pass on a vague message, to transmit any meaning, it loses its music; we are so busy trying to grasp what it has to tell us that we don’t hear it any more.

French is a language that I looked for, that I wanted, and which has never stopped eluding me. Each time I think I have grasped it I’m given to understand that I’m just an upstart, that I will never know how to wield it as it deserves and as only those of French stock can. With my big old German clogs I trample all over the flowerbeds laid out in the formal French style, straight as a die. 

‘But you speak French better than many French people!’ people say nicely to me, to console me. I know I do. But nothing about it is natural to me, nothing flows unbidden from within me, nothing comes out of my mouth either reflexively or instinctively. We are two separate beings, French and me, we always have been and always will be. There is no chance that this situation will change. All it takes is for me go abroad for a while, to stop talking it, to stop reading it and bingo, out of sight out of mind, my French lets me down. Far from being a second skin, French is a designer frock which wasn’t made for me. First of all it is too elegant, and secondly it is too big, it slips off my shoulders at  the slightest movement. 

But precisely because I haven’t ‘mastered’ it, because I am over here and French is over there, I managed, at a certain point in time, to leapfrog into writing prose. Because for literature to be created, for it to be something more than a sort of babbling or unpacking, you must first establish a distance. A distance from your subject (if indeed you have one, of course, a subject distinct from the form itself of what you are writing), a distance from its personality, its life, its suffering, its state of mind, basically a distance above all from the language in which you write. To write in a foreign language is of course a somewhat radical way of ensuring a distance, but it does have the merit of being effective. Moreover, I warmly recommend it to all those who are starting out on a writing career: try first of all in Finnish, or why not in Chinese? At least you won’t run the risk of deploying platitudes or hackneyed puns. 

When I think of my first forays into writing – in my mother tongue, in German – it seems to me that I marked the paper straight from my hand, without the help of a pencil or pen, that the words simply flowed from my fingers of their own accord. I do remember being stuck for a long time, waiting for the words to come. But when they did, I couldn’t view them objectively, or at least only in the way you see your own knees or arms. Later, coming back to my mother tongue after a detour into French, we in turn had become two separate beings. The distance which separates us now is only a millimetre or two: from afar we continue to be one entity, but since I was familiar with us both in the past I know I’m not mistaken. 

The place where I stand is unstable, it is the in-between, and this suits me. Between two languages, two stools, two literatures and two histories. I don’t feel I belong entirely to one world or to another, nor completely at ease anywhere, nor to have a ‘home’. This is the place from which it is possible for me to write. 

The Rhythm of a Life – Translator’s Note by Tess Lewis

One of the most compelling aspects of Anne Weber’s retelling of Annette Beaumanoir’s remarkable life is its dance between distance and intimacy. On first meeting Beaumanoir, Weber was struck with a coup de foudre for this lively, diminutive woman with a larger than life past. Indeed, the more she learned of Beaumanoir’s story – of her lifelong struggle for justice in the French Resistance, in global and local health as a neurophysiologist, and in the Algerian National Liberation Front and of her experiences as a lover, a wife and mother of three children, a convicted terrorist and an exile – the more Weber wanted to recount her life. She did not want to write a novel and invent scenarios or dialogues to fill in the empty spaces in what she knew of Annette’s life, nor did she wish to write an historical account that would adhere to established facts. Instead, Anne Weber realized that the ancient, disused form of the heroic epic would allow her to find a fruitful distance from her subject’s real life.

Telling Annette’s story in free verse allowed Weber to exploit the tension between the sweeping historical panorama of the epic and the unusual heroism in the ordinary, individual life of a woman from a humble background. The rhythm of the variable lines offered an opportunity to accentuate the artifice of her telling. There is, in this narrative poem, a variety of linguistic registers and tones: at times the diction is elevated, as befits an epos, at times it is colloquial, particularly when Annette’s words are quoted, and occasionally it is wry, even sardonic, especially when the narrative voice intrudes on the tale. 

Capturing these shifts in tone, the rhythmic flow of the language, and the emphases and dramatic pauses of the line breaks was challenging enough, but my task as a translator was further complicated (yet at the same time enriched) by the fact that I was working from two versions of the work. As a teenager, Anne Weber left her native Germany for France, where she has lived ever since. She wrote her first three published books in French, then returned to German, and now writes in both languages. She wrote the first version of Annette in German and, rather than translate it into French, she wrote a new version in her second language. There are some discrepancies, a few extra lines here, a few lines omitted there; cultural markers or historical events that German readers are familiar with are given an explanation or additional context for French readers and vice-versa. 

In triangulating between the German, French, and English versions, my first priority was rhythmic consistency. Each language has its particular rhythm and its rules governing word order and my aim was always to maintain a rhythmic and syntactical flow in English that reads as naturally as both the French and the German versions do. In more than one passage, I took elements from each version and fused them into the English lines. In the following, for example, the caustic allusion to the Resistance’s insistence on double-blind codenames in the German edition (‘this So-and-so, who probably doesn’t even exist’) is left out of the French edition, which is in turn supplemented with a reflection by the narrator on the vagaries of memory and the way fleeting thoughts, like minor coincidences or snap decisions, can alter one’s fate. In the German edition, Roland simply knows someone in Clermont-Ferrand. In the French, it occurs to him that he does have a Resistance contact there. And this chance remembrance ultimately results in Annette losing her great love, Roland, forever.

Ihr einziger Kontakt in Lyon

ist dieser Soundso, den es vermutlich gar nicht gibt,

doch kennt Roland in Clermont-Ferrand noch einen

aus der Résistance. (54)


seul contact lyonnais était celui qui finalement 

n’est pas venu mais Roland se souvient 

qu’il connaît aussi quelqu’un à Clermont

(quelqu’un de la Résistance, s’entend). Et c’est

le genre de petite pensée de rien du tout qui peut

changer le cours d’une vie, c’est bien connu, mais 

pourtant on l’oublie et, grâce à cet oubli, on vit. (60)

Their only contact in Lyon is this So-and-so, 

who probably doesn’t even exist, but Roland remembers 

someone he knows in Clermont-Ferrand, someone 

from the Resistance, of course. It’s such fleeting thoughts 

that can change an entire life, we all know this, 

but we usually forget, and by forgetting it, survive.

Trying to stake out this middle ground between the two versions was both daunting and liberating. It gave me the confidence to allow myself a greater distance from the ‘source’ text than I might normally take. This shifting ground, I later learned, is one where Anne Weber herself found her voice. In a short essay entitled ‘Two Souls’, she describes living between French and German: ‘The place where I stand is unstable, it is an in-between, and this intermediacy suits me. Standing between two languages, between two stools, between two literatures, between two histories, I am conscious of not entirely belonging to one or the other of these worlds, of not feeling at home anywhere. This is the place from which writing is possible for me.’ 

In my translation, I have sought to create a new – English – rhythm for this epic life that contains echoes of the rhythms in Anne Weber’s French and German narrative voices and I hope readers will be as captivated as I was by both of those voices.

About the author

Anne Weber  is a German-French author, translator into both French and German and self-translator. She studied in Paris and worked for several publishers.

Anne Weber started writing and publishing in French, but immediately translated her first book Ida invente la poudre into German as Ida erfindet das Schießpulver. Since then she has written each of her books in French and German.

Her self-translations are often published at the same time in France and Germany. In 2005 she received the 3Sat award at the Festival of German-Language Literature. For her translation of Pierre Michon she received a European translation award, the Europäischer Übersetzerpreis Offenburg. She was awarded the 2020 German Book Prize for Annette, ein Heldinnenepos which has sold more than 200,000 copies.  

Epic Annette: A Heroine’s Tale is available to pre-order now.

Author photograph © Hermance Triay

About the translator

Tess has received many accolades and awards including two PEN Translates grants and has been shortlisted for British prizes including the Schlegel Tieck award (2019, for Lutz Seiler’s Kruso, published by Scribe) and the Oxford/Weidenfeld Translation Prize. She has been involved with PEN in the USA, and New Books in German, and has held many positions of responsibility and curation as well as writing and moderating. 

Author photograph © Sarah Shatz

Our gift to you…

This essay is part of a series of Indigo Express works exclusive to The Indigo Press. Our authors have written moving, insightful and entertaining pieces in conjunction with and in celebration of the publication of their books with the press.

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