One Way Translation Matters


A German court recently ruled that Nazi slogans translated into a language other than German would not necessarily run afoul of that nation’s anti-Nazi laws. According to the article, the court’s argument was that “that translating the words represented a ‘fundamental change’ in the slogan, meaning its use was no longer punishable under German law.” The fact that the words were in German mattered to these judges, and taking them out of that language took them out of the context that violated the law.

It’s interesting to me in part because of the American resistance to the kinds of speech laws that Germany and other countries with a more immediate history of Nazi-ism have. Mind you, most US citizens don’t really understand what “freedom of speech” means in the US, especially not our politicians–they tend to argue that freedom of speech means freedom from criticism. Of course, if we criticized our politicians in a language other than American English, we’d probably be accused of anti-Americanism.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →