I know Donal. I’ve met him a few times at the Edinburgh Book Festival, whirling round Charlotte Square like a human dynamo, full of enthusiasm as he ambassadors on behalf of translated fiction. I couldn’t be more delighted that his latest translation, Urs Widmer’s My Father’s Book, has been longlisted for Three Percent’s Best Translated Book of America and I am, of course, dead pleased that he found some time in his hectic (you’ll see) schedule to answer a few questions of mine.
1) How did you become a literary translator?
Meeting a Swiss writer in a cave in the Karst region of Slovenia in 2001 was to prove to be the crucial moment. Prior to that, I read a lot as a kid and wanted to write; discovered foreign languages and wanted to translate. I then did the university thing. What was at least as important was attending hundreds of readings in Glasgow and Edinburgh in the 80’s and 90’s. Listening to writers read. To what they said about their work. Later, chairing events and interpreting for visiting writers at the Goethe Institute in Glasgow and the Edinburgh International Book Festival also helped. For me, it’s not just about the page, it’s also the stage – in the sense of reaching out to an audience.
2) Is your specialism in translating Swiss Literature self-chosen and influenced by your own reading preferences? If not, how did it come about?
My ‘specialism’ has done just that: come about. I remember reading for the first time that I specialise in translating Swiss fiction. The sentence didn’t come from me but there is a certain truth to it. How did this focus come about? Various factors – or steps along the way. Frisch and Dürrenmatt were among the first writers I read at school and university. Andersch – a German who became Swiss – was the subject of my PhD. His Franz Kien stories were a certain inspiration for my own Liam stories. Fast forward to that cave. I’ve also been attending the Solothurner Literaturtage since 2004 when I had a residency in Berne as a writer. I was later asked to translate over 100 writers for the New Swiss Writing anthologies (2008-2011). That literary exchange between Glasgow and Berne – which later opened up to all of Scotland and more of Switzerland – also meant that for seven years, we had regular Swiss visitors to Glasgow. Including Pedro Lenz whose novel I’m translating into Glaswegian.
3) What are the particular challenges of translating Swiss fiction?
The so-called Helveticisms. Though dictionaries can normally help. If need be, I ask. Also while, at university, I specialised in the Third Reich and the post-war period from a German point of view, translating someone like Urs Widmer requires research on the Switzerland of the same period. The political landscape etc. The actual landscape can be challenging too. Finding the words for it.
4) According to your website, you’re currently translating Widmer books 4-6? What’s the attraction? How did you become his translator?
If I may answer your questions in a different order: I became Urs’ translator because Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books asked whether I’d be interested in translating My Mother’s Lover, My Father’s Book and the Frankfurt lectures on poetics (due out this summer). A good friend and colleague, Katy Derbyshire, drew Naveen’s attention to me. I was thrilled, of course, not least because Urs’ play Top Dogs is an all-time favourite of mine. It’s both hilarious and heart-breaking. A brilliant and necessary take on the world of work.
The attraction of Urs’ writing? How long have you got? The great story-telling. The warmth, the humour, the colour. The historical / political context. The outrageous risk-taking, the things the guy pulls off. In the lectures on poetics too. Not just the fiction.
And yes: books 4-6 are currently happening. And we hope there will be more.
5) Your translation of My Father’s Book is currently long-listed for the Best Translated Book of America? Were there any particular challenges translating this book?
My Father’s Book is long-listed, yes. That might be as far as it goes, of course, but it’s great to get a mention. From memory, three Swiss novels (one written in Russian!) and four German-language titles made the cut – which is encouraging for those who do so much work, both paid and unpaid, to find English-language publishers for books.
Particular challenges? I heard Urs read for the first time while I was working on the Father book – and realised I needed to “up the ante” even more in terms of the energy in the text. I also had this book in particular in mind earlier when I mentioned the need to do research on the historical and political context.
6) Which of your translations gave you the most pleasure and for what reason?
Impossible to answer. I’m a lucky man. I’ve been offered great books. I’ve also managed to find outlets for those I “discovered” through e.g. New Swiss Writing and the festival in Solothurn, or a study trip to the Leipzig Book Fair organised by the Goethe Institute.
Since I’m answering this question in the week of the 98th birthday of the author of my first translated book, I’ll single out Stella Rotenberg and Shards. Born in Vienna, Stella fled to the UK in 1939 and has lived here – divorced from her mother tongue – for over seventy years. Her poems are written in a language she has been aware, for decades now, of losing. I shall never forget how audiences responded to the poems – and Stella – when the book came out.
7) I’ve been trying to catch you for this interview since last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival – but you’re never in one place long enough. What have you been up to? Did you ever think that being a literary translator would be so jet-setting?
I think YOU decided last time that the interview should wait! That I’d enough on my plate!
Editor’s note: This is true. I saw your itinerary. Believe me, it was for your own good.
Jet-setting? I certainly didn’t expect to tour India one day with Urs Widmer. Or to go gigging in the States with Christoph Simon and Zbinden’s Progress. Or to be Tom Leonard’s interpreter when he was awarded the N C Kaser Prize in Lana. For me, that’s what it’s all about, though. Reaching out to audiences. Exchanging ideas with other writers and translators internationally. I am grateful to the LCB in Berlin, who like the Goethe Institute and Pro Helvetia, do so much to bring translators from all over the world together – in a bid, too, to improve the quality of translations. Those workshops / conferences – and translation houses like Looren in Switzerland – also help to foster to a greater sense of community among translators.
8) You’re an author as well as translator. Which role do you prefer? Have you thought of translating your own stories into German? Do you think they are translatable?
If I may answer your questions in the wrong order again.
Editor’s note: I can’t help asking them the wrong way around. I was a breech birth.
Translate my own stories? No way! They’re hard enough to write. I have to dig so deep for the language. Translatable? Yes, by the right person. – Individual stories have been translated into different – often eastern European – languages. I remember listening to a Latvian version of an allergic reaction to national anthems at a festival in Riga. The translation was read by the translator’s husband. Andris is a radio man, and I could tell from his gestures, expressions and intonation that Valda Melgalve’s translation was something special. I knew at all times where Andris was in the story though I have just two words of Latvian. (“Labdien” and “paldies”, if you’re interested.)
As for author / translator and which I prefer: the trick is to get the balance right. To get to do both.
9)Which 3 works of German-language literature would you take to the proverbial desert island and why?
The dreaded question! On the assumption that German-language publishers and authors would find ways of getting their books to me, in glass bottles or via the ethernet, I’m opting for Raymond Carver Where I’m calling from, Bernard MacLaverty Selected Stories (forthcoming) and James Kelman Collected Stories(which will exist one day, I’m sure).
Editor’s note: I’ll allow that answer – we are talking about a fantasy island after all and I know how difficult it would be for you to recommend just 3 works of German lit.
10)You are allowed another book to take for translation purposes. Which would it be and why?
If you force me to choose, it has to be “the one that got away”: Rolf Lappert Nach Hause Schwimmen – an Irish-American novel by a Swiss writer, winner of the Swiss Book Prize in 2008 and shortlisted for the German Book Prize. The readers’ favourite, according to the FAZ. – Why? A translation is already overdue – and surely one day, an English-language publisher will get over the fact it runs to (almost) 450 pages!
Donal’s translations of Abbas Khider’s The Village Indian, Urs Widmer’s Frankfurt lectures on poetics, On Life, Death, and This and That of the Rest (both Seagull) and Pedro Lenz’s naw much of a talker (Freight) will appear in the months ahead. His own new book, beheading the virgin mary and other stories, will be published by Dalkey Archive in 2014.
Hopefully his translation of My Father’s Book will appear on the BTBA shortlist on the 10th of April. Here’s a link to a piece by Tess Lewis on why it should.