That first sentence of a book, including non-fiction books, may set the tone for what’s to come. For my memoir, it’s a translation of Brave meisjes komen in de hemel, brutale overal: good girls go to heaven, bold ones go everywhere.
I had read a book with that title some 25 years ago. It was originally written by Ute Ehrhardt in 1994 and translated from German to Dutch and published a year later. For the memoir, I had translated the Dutch title of the book into English myself: the brutale translates to ‘bold’ according to me, my dictionary (a Prisma Woordenboek hard copy), and an online dictionary. Bold means “(of a person, action, or idea) showing a willingness to take risks; confident and courageous.” according to the Oxford dictionary (and similarly here) and it’s in the same league as audacious, daring, brazen, and perky. It has a positive connotation.
What I, perhaps, ought to have done last year, is to find out whether the book also had been translated into English and trust that translator. As it turned out, I’m glad I did not do so, which brings me to the more substantive part of the post. I wanted to see whether I could find the book in order to link it in this post. I did. Interestingly, the word used in the English title was “bad” rather than ‘bold’, yet brutaal is not at all necessarily bad, nor is the book about women being bad. Surely something must have gotten warped in translation there?!
I took the hard copy from the bookshelf and checked the fine-print: it listed the original German title as Gute Mädchen kommen in den Himmel, böse überall hin. Hm, bӧse is not good. It has 17 German-to-English translations and none is quite as flattering as bold, not at all. This leaves either bad translations to blame or there was a semantic shift in the German-to-Dutch translation. Considering the former first, it appeared that the German-Dutch online dictionary did not offer nice Dutch words for bӧse either. Getting up from my chair again to consult my hard copy Prisma German-Dutch dictionary did not pay off either, except for one, maybe (ondeugend). It does not even list brutaal as possible translation. Was the author, Dr Ehrhardt of the Baby Boomer generation, still so indoctrinated in the patriarchy and Christianity – Gute vs Das Bӧse – as to think that not being a smiling nice girl must mean being bӧse? The term did not hold back the Germans, by the way: it was the best-sold non-fiction book in Germany in 1995, my Dutch copy stated. Moreover, it turned out to be at second place overall since German book sales counting started 60 years ago, including having been a whopping 107 weeks at first place in the Spiegel bestseller list. What’s going on here? Would the Germans be that interested in ‘bad’ girls? Not quite. The second option applies, i.e., the the semantic shift for the Dutch translation.
The book’s contents is not about bad, mean, or angry women at all and the subtitle provides a further hint to that: waarom lief zijn vrouwen geen stap verder brengt ‘why being nice won’t get women even one step ahead’. Instead of being pliant, submissive, and self-sabotaging in several ways, and therewith have our voices ignored, contributions downplayed, and being passed over for jobs and promotions, it seeks to give women a kick in the backside in order to learn to stand one’s ground and it provides suggestions to be heard and taken into account by avoiding the many pitfalls. Our generation of children of the Baby Boomers would improve the world better than those second wave feminists tried to do, and this book fitted right within the Zeitgeist. It was the girl power decade in the 1990s, where women took agency to become master of their own destiny, or at least tried to. The New Woman – yes, capitalised in the book. Agent Dana Scully of the X Files as the well-dressed scientist and sceptic investigator. Buffy the vampire slayer. Xena, Warrior Princess. The Spice Girls. Naomi Wolf’s Fire with Fire (that, by the way, wasn’t translated into Dutch). Reading through the book again now, it comes across as a somewhat dated use-case-packed manifesto about the pitfalls to avoid and how to be the architect of your own life. That’s not being bad, is it.
I suppose I have to thank the German-to-Dutch book translator Marten Hofstede for putting a fitting Dutch title to the content of the book. It piqued my interest in the bookstore at the train station, and I bought and read it in hat must have been 1997. It resonated. To be honest, if the Dutch title would have used any of the listed translations in the online dictionary – such as kwaad, verstoord, and nijdig – then I likely would not have bought the book. Having had to be evil or perpetually angry to go everywhere, anywhere and upward would have been too steep price to pay. Luckily, bold was indeed the right attribute. Perhaps for the generation after me, i.e., who are now in their twenties, it’s not about being bold but about being, as a normal way of outlook and interaction in society. Of course a woman is entitled to live her own life, as any human being is.