Historical tensions

Language is inseparable from its social and political contexts. This truism is never more apparent than during the translation process, when adequate equivalents for seemingly straightforward terms can be elusive. Historical circumstance is often the cause when words resist direct translation. Take the simple German term “Nachrüstung,” for example. While generally used to refer to the “upgrading” or “retrofitting” of something (e.g. a house or car), in the context of the Cold War, it refers to NATO’s plans to “upgrade” (i.e. expand and modernize) its nuclear arsenal in Western Europe, as part of the Double-Track Decision of 1979, which was adopted in response to growing Soviet nuclear strength. In the debate that erupted in Germany about whether to allow the US to station dozens of new Pershing II missiles on German soil, the scheme was soon referred to as the “Nachrüstung” – i.e. “are you for it or against it?”

Three decades later, with the world still fortunately intact and nuclear winter averted, the translator confronts the following sentence: “Anfang 1984 befanden sich die Ost-West-Beziehungen angesichts der Nachrüstung in Westeuropa auf dem Tiefpunkt.”

A direct translation would read: “At the beginning of 1984 East-West relations were at a low point due to the retrofitting in Western Europe.”

For obvious reasons, there is no single term that works as a translation for “Nachrüstung.” The translator must recognize the historical context in order to arrive at an adapted equivalent. “Rearmament” can work as a translation for “Nachrüstung” in other contexts, but here it would be quite misleading. I eventually used “NATO’s deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe” (the Pershing II, with a range of 1000 miles, was designed to replace the Pershing I, which only flew half as far). However, other solutions are possible. “The intensification of the arms race” (or similar) could work as an alternative, but that elides over the fact that the German source text is referring to a specific historical episode, and not the Cold War arms race generally.

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