Interview with Priscilla Layne

NBG speaks to Priscilla Layne about her career – about Rude Girl, Indiana Jones, Feridun Zaimoglu’s Koppstoff and the relationship between translation and academia


Sarah Hemens: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us! Where are you at the moment and what are you up to?


Priscilla Layne: I’m in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I live and teach at the university. In July, I took on a new role as the Director of the Center for European Studies. We receive funding from the US State Department and the EU to create programming around Europe and support faculty and students’ teaching and research about Europe. So we have a lot of events each semester and I’ve been pretty pre-occupied with that. But I still have my research to attend to and I’m happy to take on new translation projects when I get the opportunity. I have a book on Afro German Afrofuturism that will be coming out soon. And I just finished translating the graphic novel Rude Girl into English. That should be out next spring.


Yes, Rude Girl. There can’t be many translators working on books where they have also provided inspiration for the main character. What has this experience been like?


There were definitely pros and cons. The positive thing was, it felt rather easy to translate because I could easily put myself in the character’s shoes since the book is based on my life. I often just had to ask myself, “What would I have said?” in certain moments. The negative thing was, it reopened a few wounds about past trauma and conflicts I’ve had. Birgit and I worked on Rude Girl over a long period of time and I had forgotten a lot of things I told her. There were moments in the texts that when I got to them I thought “Did I really tell her all of that?” I had to be really vulnerable with the project and equally vulnerable with the translation. But I’m just happy that the book will be available for English-speakers to read.

There were moments in the texts that when I got to them I thought “Did I really tell her all of that?” I had to be really vulnerable with the project and equally vulnerable with the translation. But I’m just happy that the book will be available for English-speakers to read.

Priscilla Layne


You studied German as part of your undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago. What drew you to German language and literature?


I started learning German when I was ten. I heard it in a movie, Indiana Jones to be specific, and I thought it sounded interesting. I idolized Indiana Jones and wanted to speak many languages like him. I tried several using instructional tapes: Hebrew, Russian and French. But German was the only one I had a knack for. Also, a friend of mine at school, a kid from Romania, had some German books at home because his sister took German back in Romania. So he gave me two books: German in Ten Minutes a Day and Emile und die Detektive, so that’s what I started with. But I couldn’t read the Kästner book, because it was in Fraktur.

Translation is definitely related to my academic work, because I often choose books to translate based on how closely they align with my research or I end up writing an academic essay about a text because of the intimate knowledge I’ve gained through translating it.

Priscilla Layne


Did you always want to be an academic? How does academia tie in with your translation work – do they feel like separate careers or mutually supporting endeavours?


Translation is definitely related to my academic work, because I often choose books to translate based on how closely they align with my research or I end up writing an academic essay about a text because of the intimate knowledge I’ve gained through translating it. But translation is also my “happy place,” because it’s the place I can be creative and just relish in the fun of language. So whenever my academic work gets stressful, working on a translation is a fun alternative.


Could you tell us a little bit about Feridun Zaimoglu’s Koppstoff. I know you co-translated this text with a couple of colleagues. How did this come about?

Kopstoff features several different voices of Turkish women reflecting on what it’s like to live in Germany and deal with issues like racism and Islamaphobia. And the women are all different ages and professions and have quite different backgrounds.

Priscilla Layne


Yes, I co-translated it with Robin Ellis and Kristin Dickinson. When we first translated the text, we were all in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. We were taking a class on translation with Professor Winifried Kudszus. For the final project, each student had to translate an excerpt of a text. Robin, Kristin and I decided that since we all had similar research interests in Turkish German studies and each of us knew some Turkish, Kristin is fluent, we should attempt to translate an excerpt of Koppstoff together, because it is such a difficult text. We chose Koppstoff over Kanak Sprak, because we felt it was the more complex, interesting text. Kopstoff features several different voices of Turkish women reflecting on what it’s like to live in Germany and deal with issues like racism and Islamaphobia. And the women are all different ages and professions and have quite different backgrounds. Then we submitted our excerpt for consideration for the Susan Sonntag Prize in Translation and we won! Winning that prize provided us with summer funding to translate the rest of the book. We divided the sections up by three, but there were a few more complicated sections that we wanted to translate together.


The book first came out in 1995, but I know you think the issues discussed in the book are highly relevant for today’s audiences. Could you say a little more about that and why you think it’s such an important book to be translated into English?

There’s everything represented from an anarchist punk to a devout Muslim law student to a middle-aged cleaning woman. I don’t think we get a lot of representation of Muslim women in English-speaking literature.

Priscilla Layne


I think Koppstoff could be a really interesting book for the English-speaking market, because of the way it deals with issues like Islamophobia, racism and sexism – issues that all continue to be current. In Koppstoff, Zaimoglu presents us with several different constructed “voices” of Turkish women living in Germany. But they are not homogenous, each woman has a very different personality and background. There’s everything represented from an anarchist punk to a devout Muslim law student to a middle-aged cleaning woman. I don’t think we get a lot of representation of Muslim women in English-speaking literature. Nowadays, one could problematize the fact that Zaimoglu is a male author, attempting to write from a female perspective. But I think it’s an thought-provoking exercise that has produced texts that are not just politically interesting, but aesthetically interesting due to Zaimoglu’s multilingualism, neologisms and creative metaphors. Koppstoff would definitely provoke some great conversations about what Western assumptions about Muslim and Middle Eastern women are and encourage readers to move beyond stereotypical thinking.

To read a sample of Koppstoff in English as translated by Kristin Dickinson, Robin Ellis and Priscilla Layne please click here.


You’ve translated a sample of Yandé Seck’s White Clouds. What do you think of the book?

I have really enjoyed it so far. I’m still working my way through it and translated a few pages from the beginning. It immediately appealed to me. I found the different characters relatable (possibly because several are gen X/Millennials like me) and believable. I love that the different Black women represented are so different. I love that there is representation of what it’s like to be a middle-aged Black woman, struggling to balance childcare and marriage. I love that it discusses controversial topics like interracial dating or class and citizenship differences within the Black community.

Honestly, I could even relate to one of the white male characters, Simon, in some respects. At the start of the book, he is established as a father with little time for his family, because he works too much, and he shows his love for them by buying them gifts – gifts they don’t really need or care for. And that is me to a tee! I am clearly way too busy, trying to balance administrative work, teaching, research and translating. I am always buying my sons and my husband gifts – toys, books, clothes – because that’s how I show love. For me, those little details in the psychology of the characters just show how well-written the novel is.

To read more about this book in English, including an English sample translation by Dr Layne, please click here.


How did you become involved as translator for Olivia Wenzel’s 1,000 Coils of Fear? Did the experimental form present any particular challenges to the translation?


I knew Olivia before the book was published. I first met Olivia about 8 years ago, when I began working on Afro German Afrofuturism. A colleague, Jamele Watkins, recommended her work to me and put us in touch. I wrote about two of Olivia’s performances in my book: Mais in Deutschland und anderen Galaxien and We are the Universe, which will be published next fall. And I invited Olivia to visit my university for a few days. Back then, she gave me the heads up that she would be publishing a novel soon. And when it came out, another translator friend, Susan Bernofsky, let me know it had been published and wanted to know what I thought. I was blown away by how creative it is and I love the aesthetic choices Olivia made. These did sometimes pose a challenge while translating. I think my first, rough translation of the book wasn’t consistent enough. Olivia employs certain literary techniques, like repetition and multiple, distinct voices, and I initially wasn’t conveying that in my translation. Thanks to her notes and several conversations with her, including many voice memos on What’s App, I finally struck the right notes and I’m extremely happy with how the final product turned out.


Finally, what books are you reading at the moment?


I’m currently reading Christoph Meckel’s novel Bockshorn (1973), which was made into a film by Frank Beyer for DEFA back in 1984. I’m writing a short paper about the film, so I wanted to read the novel to get a sense of what changes were made in the film. And the second novel I’m reading is Graue Biene (2018) by Andrey Kurkov, which has been translated into German from Russian. The reason I’m reading it in German is because it’s for an independent study I’m doing together with a student of German who’s interested in stories about migration.

Thanks Priscilla!

To read a sample of Koppstoff in English as translated by Kristin Dickinson, Robin Ellis and Priscilla Layne please click here.

Priscilla Layne is Professor of German and Adjunct Associate Professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her book, White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of Black Popular Culture, was published in 2018 by the University of  Michigan Press. She has also published essays on Turkish German culture, translation, punk and film. She recently translated Olivia Wenzel’s debut novel, 1000 Coils of Fear, from German into English. And she is currently finishing a manuscript on Afro German Afrofuturism and acritical guide to Rainer Maria Fassbinder’s film The Marriage of Maria Braun.

Co-translators on Kopstoff

Robin Ellis is Assistant Professor of German Studies at William and Mary, received her Ph.D. in German Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Her research considers issues of migration and intercultural communication from 1945 to the present, with a particular focus on translation. Her current book project examines representations of interpreters in European literature and film, drawing on performance and gender studies to explore translation as a embodied act of encounter and exchange. Before coming to William & Mary, Professor Ellis taught at Oberlin College, Davidson College, and the University of Virginia. She teaches courses on topics such as Germany as a multicultural society, urban life in Berlin, European borderlands, and postwar literature. She has published articles on linguistic rebellion in Feridun Zaimoğlu’s mock ethnography Kopfstoff (1998) and the consumption of ethnic identity in Joe May’s film The Indian Tomb (1921).

Kristin Dickinson is Associate Professor of German Studies at the University of Michigan. Her book, DisOrientations: German Turkish Cultural Contact in Translation (1811-1946), appeared with Penn State University Press in May 2021. Focusing on the legacies of three main figures—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Friedrich Schrader (1865-1922), and Sabahattin Ali (1907-1948)—it shows how German and (Ottoman) Turkish histories of translation were inextricably linked across a nearly 150-year time frame. Together with Yopie Prins, Kristin Dickinson manages the site Translating Michigan, which serves as a dynamic multilingual archive for stories of migration from across the state. She is also the co-curator of the photograpahy exhibit Visualizing Translation: Homeland and Heimat in Detroit and Dortmund.  Featuring photography by Theon Delgado Sr. and Peyman Azhari this exhibit prompts us to consider the many meanings of home and homeland from both a visual and a multilingual perspective.


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