Translating Stein’s murder mystery Blood on the Dining-Room Floor was very much a case of transleaping. I had to leap into a language, German, that gives every noun, article and personal pronoun one of three possible genders: feminine, masculine, neuter. There is no genderless equivalent in German. So what was I to do with Stein’s “everybody”?
“Everybody” in Stein’s writing regularly refers to the narrator who, of course, is Stein herself. Her strategy of writing made use of the handy English capacity to hide gender in words like “one, someone, anyone, everyone, anybody, nobody, none,” etc. I am convinced Stein used this non-gendered strategy with a clear purpose. As I pointed out before: if at the beginning of last century, you wanted to compete with the best, and these were of course all men (Joyce, Henry James, Proust, Pound, etc.) — you’d better keep your identity as a woman, lesbian, Jew out of the picture as much as possible. Stein did this brilliantly. She went so far as to call her second autobiography “Everybody’s Autobiography.” Talk about chuzpe. Talk about genius.
Alas, “everybody” could not be rendered in German if you wanted to avoid the literal translation as “jedermann” (every man) or “jeder” (every man) — certainly not terms Stein would have wished to be identified with. I had no choice but to transleap over the obstacle and invent. I came up with gender-bending composites, a sort of he/she’s. “Everybody,” instead of every man, jeder, became jede jeder. Nobody, instead of no man, keiner, became keine keiner. The feminine form came always first.
This repetition-combo of both genders happened to fit into the musical rhythms of the text, into the many rhymes and alliterations Stein used in the book. I already mentioned the numerous times a woman in the story “tried and cried,” “cried and tried.” This was the author herself, hiding her difficulty writing behind the murder (or was it suicide?) victim; and it was the author, too — until I found my transleap out of the pickle.
A happy leap, as it turned out as the publisher, the renowned Arche Verlag, chose the experimental word creation as the title of the book: keine keiner. Ein Kriminalroman.
Now that there was a title for the translation, the publishers decided that everyone had to go to Bilignin and look at the places where Gertrude and Alice had lived and done their sleuthing — everybody, that is: jede jeder, the two women publishers and I.