Translator: Vanessa Weller | Author: Julia Franck | Work: Der Hausfreund | Original language: German | Genre: Short story
…Am Alex steigen wir um. Hanna und ich würden gerne dableiben. In dem Brunnen baden Kinder, und wir wollen auch baden. Aber unsere Mutter sagt, wir würden erst zu Thorsten gehen, da gebe es auch den Stabilbaukasten, den wir so mögen. Wir wollen lieber mit unseren Fahnen zu der Musik und da sein, wo alle anderen Menschen sind. Unsere Mutter verspricht uns, dass Thorsten bunten Puffreis zu Hause hat. […] Thorstens Wohnung ist klein, und es riecht. Das sind die Mülltonnen, erklärt Thorsten und zeigt nach unten in den Hof. Ich glaube, es ist Thorstens Fellweste, aber das will er natürlich nicht zugeben. Hanna und ich bekommen eine Schale mit Puffreis auf den Küchentisch gestellt. Wir teilen sie nach Farben auf. Rot ist meine Lieblingsfarbe, Grün ihre. Thorsten nimmt meine Mutter an die Hand und zieht sie in sein großes Zimmer und schließt die Tür…Wir können hören, wie meine Mutter und Thorsten kichern. Da hätten sie gar nicht die Tür zumachen müssen. Hanna ist langweilig, sie hat keine Lust zu spielen. Wir wollen endlich los. Ich gehe zu der Tür, hinter der Thorsten und meine Mutter Verschwunden sind. Sie klemmt, ich versuche mehrmals die Klinke, aber die Tür will nicht aufgehen.
…At Alexanderplatz we change trains. Hanna and I want to stay there. Children are swimming in the fountain, and we also want to swim. But our mother says we have to go to Thorsten’s first, where there is the Stabil construction set we like so much. We would rather be here with our flags and the music, where all the other people are. Our mother promises us that Thorsten has colored Puffreis at home. […] Thorsten’s apartment is small and it smells. Those are the rubbish bins, Thorsten explains and shows us in the back of the courtyard. I think it is Thorsten’s fur vest, but of course he would never admit that. Hanna and I take the bowl of Puffreis placed on the kitchen table. We sort it by color. Red is my favorite color, green is hers. Thorsten takes my mother by the hand and leads her into his big bedroom and closes the door […] We can hear my mother and Thorsten giggling. They definitely should not have closed the door. Hanna is boring, she doesn’t want to play. At last we want to go. I go to the door, where Thorsten and my mother disappeared. It sticks. I try the handle many times, but the door will not budge.
Nostalgic and bitterly ironic, Julia Franck’s short story of a child forced by her mother to confront an adult world is charming, shocking, and utterly 20th century. In German, the title is a double entendre, meaning both the obvious and platonic “family friend” and the more secretive lover of the mother. This relationship between the mother and Thorsten, seen through the eyes of the young narrator, deals with the necessity to confront her allegiances: both to her father and to her Fatherland. “The ‘Family Friend’” is a story about innocence and betrayal. A German reader would immediately identify that the action takes place in East Berlin, with the mother and her lover trying to escape with the children to the West. Certain markers, such as the flags the children pasted in school, Erich Hoenecker, and the layout of Berlin’s public transportation, are all too obvious. How do these nuances that need no explanation in the original remain without hitting the reader over the head with a footnote or other heavy-handed articulation, especially for an English-speaking audience with few contemporary clues to the Cold War and the GDR? I chose to keep as many words as I could to squarely root the story in 1970s East Berlin. Although the theme is universal, the story must be represented as it was intended. The mother and her lover would speak Russian, not French or another Western language, to keep secrets. The girls would play with a Stabil rather than an ERECTOR set. They would eat Puffreis, not Rice Krispies. Even Thorsten’s dreaded fur vest is a men’s sartorial habit from the 1970s that arguably should have stayed there. The little girl has a command of her words that seemingly derives from her emulation of her mother. Of course, she is precocious, but parroting her mother—and her father—gives her a certain edge, a wisdom beyond her years that almost guesses what her mother and Thorsten are really up to. The subtlety of language in the German forces us to question just how much the girls really know. Metonymically associating Thorsten’s ugly vest with his character, and the knowledge that a secret is being kept from our narrator by her mother illustrates an instance of precociousness, but also of learned behavior, of playing the adult to shield the child from the necessity of seeing what the mother really is. Grammatically, the subjunctive case is far more common in German than in English, for example in: Da hätten sie gar nicht die Tür zumachen müssen. Readers of both will notice that I favored the indicative in English to realistically portray the narrator’s precociousness. My aim in translating was to keep the essence of the story’s time and place, and of the narrator’s character by retaining the elements of simplicity and sophistication which Julia Franck has powerfully established in her German prose.
Vanessa Weller earned her Bachelor’s degree in French and German from Lawrence University in 2009 and is currently a candidate in the Master’s program in Cultural Translation at The American University of Paris. She has been writing creatively for several years, receiving honorable mentions for her poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Young Writers contest in 2004 and for her creative nonfiction in the Columbia College-Chicago’s Young Writers Workshop in 2005.