Translating the Hamburg anthem into my native language made me think about my first girlfriend in Germany. She was from Hamburg, the genuine article as she used to say, although I didn’t really understand what she meant at first. Because I was always asking her about her city, at one point she said to me, "Behzad, there’s also a city anthem, the Hammonia. She read it to me and I was moved. The pride the people have in their city shines through. It's about free citizens, prosperity, the old Hanse period.
I was also a refugee once. I arrived in Hamburg in the mid-eighties from Iran. In the first two years I muddled through with my English. I didn’t want to learn German. But then I had to register at the job centre and no-one in the office spoke English – or at least no-one wanted to speak English. All week I was passed around from office to office like a football. I needed some sort of document, I had no idea which one and no-one could tell me. One Friday afternoon the head of the department pulled me into her office. She asked me in English if I knew what I needed. I said, "no." She said, "you need form number 301 II. " Just one form! At that very moment I said to myself, "Behzad, you’re gonna learn to speak such good German, that the Germans will be asking you to explain all these terms."
I'd go to the docks, listen to lawyers, kids on the street and one thing stayed with me: how they all talk. It’s like they were all characters in a theatre production. I lived with an old lady on Schlump (a street in Hamburg) for about two years. I used to call her "grandma" and she only spoke Low German. Even she had a part in my play which was called "Learning German."
After five years I started work as a translator. At first I worked on short theatre productions and biographies written by Iranians in exile. My first novel was Die Schatten (The Shadows) by Mahmood Falaki, an Iranian author living in Hamburg. Also, I've just translated Homo Faber by Max Frisch into Farsi, which I completed in my free time. It took me eight months. Unfortunately, It's extremely difficult to publish him in Iran. Five publishing houses have already rejected it. The content is too provocative.
The German language and me - it's like a relationship between two people who fight to start with but as they get to know each other they become best friends. German is a very precise language. When I translate texts from Persian into German, the German texts are about a third shorter. I find this fascinating as a language is always related to a way of thinking. Take the word "stellen" (put) - you can make all these different words from it: abstellen (switch off), umstellen (move), vorstellen (imagine), nachstellen (adjust), aufstellen (draw up.) It's like you put it through a junction box! And they all have completely different meanings!
Farsi is very different. It's a very flowery language. Iranians are a people of poets. Words often have two or three meanings and the numerous contexts they can be used in makes them even more difficult to translate. This is due to the fact that the people lived under dictatorships for centuries. They were often not allowed to speak openly with each other and so they tried to use code words.
During my walks through Hamburg the last few weeks I've often heard people speaking Farsi. Once again a lot of people are fleeing their countries and coming to Germany and I try to help them. In my job as a psychiatric counsellor I work with people who have mental health issues. A lot of the refugees are traumatised. I accompany them to doctors and translate for them. It's particularly important for the specialised medical vocabulary.
I recently went to the doctor's. One of the women working there said to me, "you speak absolutely perfect German." I thanked her and said, "It's not quite perfect but I've lived here for several years." We then started talking and when I left she called out, "you're opening the door for those who are coming over." I stopped and asked her what she meant. She said it describes someone who's a source of hope. Another new German phrase I'd learned to add to the list.
Recorded by Kilian Trotier