Stefan Tobler is quite well known these days as the founder of the publishing house And Other Stories. He is also an active translator of novels, poetry and non-fiction from German and Portuguese. I came across his translation work earlier this year when I read Charlotte Link’s The Other Child. Since then a second novel by Charlotte Link, The Watcher, has appeared. He also co-translated All Dogs are Blue from Portuguese. It would appear from the bookshelves in the background of his profile picture that he is also a prolific reader. Does the man ever sleep? It would appear not because he also found time to answer my interview questions. Thanks, Stefan.
1) How did you become a literary translator?
I became a translator driven by the cannibal’s need to devour other people’s words and make them mine! (A loving cannibal, you see.) Let me explain: I wanted to read, in my own language, some German poems I’d been shown by the owner of the bookshop I frequented in Dresden.
2) Does the material you translate reflect your preferred reading matter or is it commissioned?
A bit of both. I could say beggars can’t be choosers, but actually the pleasure of translation doesn’t always correspond to how much I love the text as a text. I sometimes think I can more easily be creative (indeed, better?) as a translator when I don’t worship the text I’m translating.
3) How did you come to translate Charlotte Link?
Orion had bought the rights to The Other Child and was looking for a translator. I was looking for some translation work. Perfect timing!
4) Where there any particular challenges in translating her? Where did that tremendous Yorkshire dialect in The Other Child come from?
That’s very kind of you! Yes, the dialect was terrifying. But it was also fantastic to be able to a translate a book into English that was set in England. More satisfying than wondering what the hell to do with, say, Bavarian dialect in English!
5) What are the particular challenges of translating poetry?
Too many to list them all! But the crux of it tends to be that in poetry the sound means as much as the dictionary definition kind of meaning. And you have to translate both, into a language where they won’t correspond in the same way that they did in the original language. So you spend days thinking about the translation of single poems.
6) What’s the most difficult German piece you’ve ever translated and why?
Oddly, now I think about it, the most difficult piece I ever translated might not have been a poem. But it was by a poet: the fantastic bilingual exhibition catalogue Neo Rauch (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz) contains the essay ‘Hermes’s Shipyard: Synchronizing Watches with Neo Rauch’ by the poet and novelist Uwe Tellkamp. I seem to translate a lot of prose writers who take delight in subverting the usual grammatical and syntactical practices (eg Clarice Lispector, Rodrigo Antonio de Souza Leão too), but this essay was perhaps the biggest challenge.
I’m very pleased that Uwe Tellkamp’s powerful novel The Tower (Der Turm) will be published by new Berlin-based English-language publisher Frisch & Co next year.
7) What’s your favourite piece of German poetry and why? Have you translated it?
Impossible to have one favourite, I think, but today it’s ‘Gedicht’ (‘Poem’) by Volker Sielaff. And yes, as it happens, I have translated it. It was one of the first poems I translated, here in Ambit.
8) Do the challenges of translating from German and Portuguese differ and, if so, how?
German and Portuguese differ from English in different ways, so yes, you have to pay attention to different things, but there are no major differences in approach: the same things need to be worked on any translation: the rhythm, the sound, any dialect or colloquial language, and so on.
9) Which 3 works of German literature would you take to the proverbial desert island and why? Would any of the three be edged out by something in Portuguese?
Let’s pretend the library I’m snatching my three books from only has German-language books, because otherwise I might end up with an American, Argentinean and Russian book! (For example.)
And taking ‘literature’ to mean Belletristik here, or even just fiction and poetry:
Can I cheat and for the first of the three say Peter Kurzeck’s cycle Das alte Jahrhundert (The Old Century), because all his volumes are really part of it? If I can’t cheat, then let’s say the volume Oktober, und wer wir selbst sind.
Because of his unique voice and the way he draws on his life in his writing he’s often compared by critics to writers like Proust, Bernhard and Robert Walser. But once you read him, you know he is very much his own thing. His writing is warm and bluesy, full of love for the everyday details of what has gone, which – heart-wrenchingly – also includes the end of the relationship to the mother of his child.
Secondly, Herta Müller’s Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel) because she is an incredible writer and I haven’t read this one yet.
Thirdly, Goethe’s collected poetry, because it is so incredibly diverse, including his Roman Elegies to his West-Eastern Divan. Well, both those collections have plenty of erotic love poetry, but in other ways they’re pretty different.
10) You are allowed to take another work for translation purposes? What would it be and why?
Well, if I don’t get to take Kurzeck’s whole cycle as one of my three choices above and only have Oktober…, I’d like to take Peter Kurzeck’s Als Gast because I haven’t translated either one and he’s a writer where I know I’ll be aching for the next book if I only have one! (And I think I’ll need a big translation project on a desert island.)