Nora Krug, Belonging – A German Reckons with History and Home
Heimat – A German Family Album
‘It’s out of stock. I’m so sorry. Try again on Thursday!’ I’m in Lambiek in Amsterdam, ‘Europe’s first comic shop and probably the oldest existing comic shop worldwide’, according to the proud claim on their website, and the graphic novel that the contrite shopkeeper is talking about is Nora Krug’s Heimat: A German Family Album.
I spotted the book on a recent visit to the UK and was captured by the title and drawn in by the subject matter, an autobiographical account of a German-American expatriate who returns ‘home’ to investigate her family’s past, particularly their experiences during the Second World War.
Rather than weighing down my luggage, I photographed the cover and made a mental note to buy the book when I was back home in Amsterdam. I hoped to find a German copy of the book, Heimat: Ein deutsches Familienalbum, but it wasn’t proving easy. Lambiek wasn’t the only bookshop that had sold out of Heimat (‘It’s flying off the shelves!’). However, it turned out that they’d only had the Dutch translation on sale – and that Nora Krug, who lives in Brooklyn and is a professor at the Parsons School of Design, originally wrote the book in English. Aha.
So off I went to Amsterdam’s American Book Center, where I confidently headed for the extensive graphic novels collection. There, in the K section, was a familiar-looking book by Nora Krug! The same book, but the American version, with a different title: Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home.
Two English books. Two different titles. The translator in me was intrigued by the discrepancy. Where did this book belong? Heimat is such a charged word, with all its Romantic – and nationalist – connotations. It’s a word that, for me, captures the essence of Krug’s book and the notion of finding one’s place in both geography and history.
Different US/UK titles are nothing new, of course (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/ Sorcerer’s Stone, for instance), and I’ve had interesting experiences with titles myself, such as when I translated Drüben!, Simon Schwartz’s graphic novel about his parents’ decision to leave the DDR. That title was beefed up for the US version to The Other Side of the Wall, more descriptive but perhaps losing some of the impact of that one-word title with its longing exclamation mark.
When I translated Drüben! from German into English, its format, with speech balloons and text boxes, resulted in a common challenge for the translator of graphic novels: will the translation fit into the same space as the original text? And, a particular issue for translators of historical graphic novels: how do I deal with the terminology? In a prose translation, a quick explanation can help, but there’s no such leeway in a typical graphic novel.
The beauty of Krug’s artistic, collage-like approach to Heimat is that it has allowed her to add layers by incorporating original documents, maps and photographs. For non-German speakers, these provide an intriguing backdrop to the English text, while German speakers are given extra routes into the narrative.
At one point in the book, Krug finds the location of her grandfather’s old driving school in Karlsruhe in an attempt to establish how much he might have seen of the persecution of the local Jewish community. Looking at the book, I realised that I once worked on that same street when I lived in Karlsruhe, and that my own path had crossed that of Krug and her family and, unwittingly, the locations where the grim scenes she described had taken place.
Having read Belonging, I’m still keen to become acquainted with its British relative, Heimat, and to see how the story has travelled. Translating your own work back into your mother tongue and working with two different varieties of the same language must involve a fascinating combination of compromises, freedoms and restrictions.
This German-American author has a home and a history in two countries, and her book too belongs in more than one place, as do so many of us and our stories. Ultimately, we’re all looking for Heimat.
Laura Watkinson is a literary translator with a particular interest in travel, languages, children's books and graphic novels. She lives in a tall, thin house on a canal in Amsterdam with her husband and two cats.