Names and their translation in Martin Heckmanns’ “A Man Walks into a World”

Martin Heckmanns’s play A Man Walks into a World (Kommt ein Mann zur Welt) plays on the playwright’s core theme of identity. “Who am I?” is a question Heckmanns never finds himself able to answer, as it always tends to open an even deeper abyss instead of a congruent answer. In A Man Walks into a World (2007), he presents the audience with the curriculum vitae of an emblematic character, who struggles to make decisions and exercise his free-will against the constraints of heritage and genealogy. Heckmanns manages to make this broad philosophical theme theatrically worthy by creating a linguistically witty play with action-oriented scenes. The main character Bruno Stamm is endowed with the common conviction that he is more special than the rest of mankind. During the course of the play, we witness him stumble into all the standard pitfalls of life that disappoint these convictions.

Heckmanns’s choice of names reflects the thematic orientation, too. They are almost exclusively functional and non-individual (father, mother, young socialist, judge, police etc.). The few real names are extremely ordinary German first names (Suse, Ulf, Tina). The only (fictional) one being privileged with a last name is Bruno himself. And consequently, this last name represents the very function of any last name, linking the individual to a larger entity like a family, clan. Bruno’s last name is “Stamm”, which, in German, means both a) tribe and b) (tree) trunk. Heckmanns thus underlines his main character’s meaning as a specimen rather than an individual. Around this word, a cluster of meanings unfolds (here shown with their respective translations as further “branches”), all underlining the theme.


The second meaning of the word “Stamm” (“trunk”) is further varied by Heckmanns’s play on the German compound noun “Stammbaum” (“family tree”) and reversing it to "Baumstamm" (“tree trunk”). By naming his character Bruno Stamm, Heckmanns thus clearly refers to a genealogical meaning. Bruno Stamm is one in a (blood-) line of heritage (of a tribe). The first two characters to appear after his parents are his aunt and uncle. “Stamm” (as trunk) at the same time evokes the notion of something solid, that can be a trustworthy fundament for something else. Even the associative meaning of “Stammhalter” (son and heir) is played out in the recurring scene of “becoming a father” at Bruno’s own birth as well as at his son’s birth, both of which are interpreted by the protagonist as being forced into a responsibility that infringes on the individual(‘s) freedom. With Heckmanns, a linguistically very acute playwright, this term/concept is then converted into theatrical action: first, a father rejecting the idea of being one; in another early scene, Bruno falls out of a tree as a child (out of lineage, a chain again more restraining than supporting Bruno’s notion of free will); and in a later scene, he cuts down trees as a performance art piece, yet later claiming a philosophical identity issue when brought to court.

A few words about the challenges and pitfalls of Heckmanns’s language: except for the very first monologue, the play’s dialogue is seemingly banal. While this first part and its constructed and complex language reminds the reader of his early play/s (e. g. “Kränk”), the remaining scenes are mostly short, their language trivial. But: in steering the spectator/reader into these shallow waters, one might overlook sentences like “life doesn’t live”, which, upon closer look, turns out to be a quotation from the German philosopher T. W. Adorno. While almost all of his plays are based on fundamental philosophical problems from the area of ontology or cognitive science, the playwright doesn’t fail to reveal (with dry irony) the commonplace wisdom, with which philosophers often present us. So the translator needs to be careful: Heckmanns is not always so explicit with quotations as he is with the Italian philosopher in this play, who appears as a character out of the blue. Together with the use of allegories like Time, which appears as a character, too, and the above-mentioned flat jokes (New York scene: “dark alleys-dark folks”), which he seems to have a weakness for, Heckmanns does not shy away from stylistic means unusual and even frowned-upon by his German playwriting colleagues.

These images evoke their thematic relevance through association. When translating this play, one encounters the special challenge of preserving all branches and layers carrying these associative meanings. This is, of course, a standard issue in translating particularly literary texts, as they often employ multiple meanings in one term to bring their point across in an intelligent and poetically worthy manner. In this instance, one finds a perfect example for the translator’s dilemma, as there doesn’t seem to be a satisfying solution. Almost all of the compound meanings as conceived by Heckmanns’ terminological concept would be sacrificed in translation. One rule in translating, of course, is to leave sur- and brandnames untranslated. In this case, where the theme of the play is inscribed into the main character’s name with unusual consequence, one might be tempted to breach this rule. It is necessary, however, to carefully consider all the consequences of doing so. In translating the term, one creates new references in English. All literal translations (trunk, tree, tribe, or even origin) never really open into this web of associations, which unfolds in the German context, among them the almost clumsy groaner in the scene entitled Studies, in which Bruno applies at an arts university.


That’s all well and good, Mr. Baum, what you’re doing here, pretty wild as well, of course, nice, almost pornographic at times.




Beg your pardon?


Stamm is my name. Bruno Benjamin Rafael Stamm.

The German audience will immediately hear this as the compound nouns “Baumstamm” or “Stammbaum”, which are the same image (a tree, as either a plant or a family tree). This equally dense and playful association will work with no translation in English (Bruno Trunk, Bruno Tree, Bruno Tribe …). On the other hand, if we don’t translate the name, the very sense of the small portion of that scene is obliterated, and some if it would convey no meaning.

In general, it seemed a literarily safer solution to leave the main character’s last name untranslated and trust on other theatrical imagery in production to convey these layered and associative meanings rather than to translate it with one of those terms, thus excluding all other interpretative options.


in : The Mercurian

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