You may remember, back in the day of my very first meet the translator interview, I tried to persuade Sally-Ann Spencer to translate Uwe Tellkamp’s German Book Prize winning behemoth, Der Turm, an examination of the last years of the German Democratic Republic. Two years later and the English translation has actually appeared! Published today, in fact. (Allen Lane, ISBN 978-0241004579). Now as chance and Monica Cantieni’s event in Glasgow would have it, the translator, Mike Mitchell, found himself in the same room as Lizzy, who, shall we say, pounced! (I’m not one to miss an exclusive.) Here are the results. My review of the book will follow on Sunday, 9.11.2014, the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.
How did you become a literary translator?
Literature was one of my main interests at school and I enjoyed translating from then onwards (just for myself). I taught German at university for 30 years; one attempt to get a book translated in the early 70s brought such a discouraging response from John Calder that I and a colleague, who was to edit it, just dropped it. However, by chance a US professor I’d written articles and a couple of chapters for decided to set up a publishing house for Austrian literature, culture etc and asked if I’d like to do a translation for them (Ariadne). I jumped at the chance; just as that appeared I saw the Dedalus series in the university bookshop and one of my favourite postwar novels seemed to fit; it did, but not only that, they were actually looking for a translator from German! In 1995 there was the opportunity of early retirement; I grabbed it and have worked as a translator ever since. As I’ve since learnt, especially when I was editor of Dedalus’s Europena series, I was incredibly lucky; there are so many people out there who’d like to be translators
“The Tower” is a 1000+ page literary extravanga of a novel. What persuaded you to take it on?
I was commissioned to do it — as a freelancer one is hesitant to refuse commissions but, anyway, it sounded like a challenge and I like that.
How did you manage to fit it into your schedule? How how many hours did you spend on it? (It took me six weeks just to read your translation!) Are you entirely happy with the published product or are there pieces you’d like to finesse?
When I’m asked to do something, I work out how long it’s likely to take from past experience, add a few months so I don’t put myself under pressure and give the publisher a date. I think I’m happy with the final result — though I’m sure I could find something I’d change if I were to read it with a fine tooth comb. I couldn’t say how many hours it took now.
There are many literary references in the Tower, perhaps most obviously to Thomas Mann in the opening family gathering and the long, complex sentences. You have chosen to retain these. It’s quite fashionable these days in English translation to break long German sentences down into shorter English structures. Why did you chose not to take this approach?
I did break them down slightly but I felt that Tellkamp was aiming at a Mann reference in the opening section and it seemed appropriate to the kind of social group he’s portraying as the ‘Tower-dwellers’.
Did you collaborate with the author on the translation?
I sent him questions — some in particular about those early complex sentences — another reason for trying to retain them in English was the parallel between those sentence structures and aspects of the architecture, furnishings of the ‘Tower’ district he’s describing.
Do you have a favourite section in the Tower?
I did really enjoy the section about the East Germans at the Leipzig Book Fair. It’s supposed to be written by Meno, who’s a publisher’s editor and a writer, but he trained as a zoologist and he describes the East Germans attending the Book Fair as giant insects about to descend on the Western stands like a plague of locusts; then the way it’s planned like a military exercise and the special clothing Barbara makes, with pockets the exact size to conceal the paperbacks of the Western publishers they like; I found it a brilliant and funny little sketch but it’s also an indirect way of showing the East Germans’ hunger for anything from the West, especially books and that kind of thing.
Another episode that is amusing in itself but also shows the togetherness there could be in East Germany is the scene in the communal bath house.
You’ve translated well over 60 works in all genres from German to English. Which of these gave you the most pleasure? (Am hoping you’ll mention my favourite – The Great Bagarozy)
I did really enjoy Bagarozy — I was disappointed it didn’t make a greater impact here. Among my favourites it the first one I recommended to Dedalus: Rosendorfer’s Architect of Ruins. Another more recent one if Roblès’ Where Tigers are at Home. I also particularly enjoyed translating a long poem by Helmut Krausser: ‘The Denotation of Babel'; I never managed to get the whole thing published, though I think someone put it on the web after it was commended for the Stephen Spender prize.
You can take 3 works of German(-language) literature with you to the proverbial desert island. Which would they be and why?
I suspect it would be something like Goethe’s poetry; a favourite book is likely to pall but you can read poetry again and again and get different things out of it. (That’s a cop-out really) (Editor – not really. Stefan Tobler chose to do this too. Must be something in it. :) )
You may take 1 more work to translate. Which would it be and why?
Again, that’s awkward to answer. One book I’ve tried to interest publishers in (so far without success; if I’m resting, as actors say, I’ll translate it and publish it myself) is Carl Amery’s fantasy about a Papal attempt to put the Catholic Stuarts back on the British throne: Das Königsprojekt. It would have been nice to do it for the Scottish referendum debate, but I had too much on to make much progress. As you’ll see, my tastes are more for the fantastic than for earnest realism.