Katy Derbyshire’s name is not unfamiliar to those of us with Germanophile literary tastes. Her blog Love German Books is a treasure trove for those seeking their next German-lit read or those wondering what literary life would be like should sticks be uplifted to Berlin, where Katy has lived for – well, a long time – establishing her career as a literary translator. Having met her briefly at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2011 (pictured), I thought it was time to catch up with her to see how things are going.
1) How did you become a literary translator?
I didn’t fall into the career like the previous generation, and nor am I married to an editor. I genuinely wanted to become a literary translator. So after starting out as a commercial translator I built up a body of publications like an aspiring writer, submitting pieces to literary magazines and doing sample translations for German publishers. I went to the summer school at the British Centre for Literary Translation and met other people like me. And gradually the hard work (and good practice) started to pay off and I began to get my first commissions.
2) Has your blog “Love German Books” been useful in establishing your career?
Not directly but it has meant that a few interested editors knew my name. I live in Berlin, which has a lot of professional advantages like being close to the writers I work with, but also means I can’t go to many literary and publishing events in London. So I suppose the blog has been an alternative to networking in a more traditional way. And of course it’s motivated me to read a lot of books and discover many that I love.
3) I do try to keep up with German literary fiction but, when I look at your catalogue, it’s full of new-to-me authors. How do you find your authors?
I go to a lot of readings here in Berlin and I keep up with German literary news, who’s winning prizes, that kind of thing. Some publishers send me their catalogues, which I put on the kitchen table for dull moments. A bit of browsing in bookshops I like, a bit of gossiping with friends and colleagues – it all adds up.
4) When you read a book you absolutely adore – I’m thinking of Clemens Meyer’s Im Stein – how do you set about persuading/cajoling/commissioning a translation?
Oh, that’s really hard. I write a review on my blog, for starters. Then I send out a translated sample chapter – or better still, I make sure a translated extract is available somewhere online, preferably in a literary magazine. That makes it look like someone else likes it too, I hope. And I send the chapter or a link directly to editors I think might be interested. Sometimes that involves worming their email addresses out of other translators (it’s a very supportive community). Once that’s fallen flat (as it usually does) I resort to telling everyone I ever meet from the publishing industry about how much I love the book. In the case of Im Stein, this was particularly ineffective for about a year. It’s a long book so it’s expensive to translate. At some point I wrote a short piece for New Books in German magazine about my two favourite untranslated books, and then in the end an editor read that, and had been told about the book by someone I told about it, or maybe someone else told him about it or he picked up on the excitement in Germany, I don’t know. Anyway, after all the propaganga I spread made its way to Fitzcarraldo Editions, they approached me and said they’d like to take the risk. I was very happy indeed.
5) When you gain a commission, do you have to work to deadlines? If so, can this sometimes affect the translation, or are you so disciplined that deadlines never loom?
Yes, deadlines are important for everyone in the process. I need a deadline to plan out my daily routine and I am quite disciplined, but of course they do loom. Sometimes publishers set a very tight deadline; I’m never sure why, because people are rarely gagging to read translated books in English. Presumably that does make for a rushed job that might have been better given more time. But equally, I often negotiate my own deadlines and set them too tight, underestimating how long I’ll take. So I’ll excuse the tight deadline phenomenon by saying it makes me work more intensely. And I hope that good editing makes up for it.
6) When do you decide a translation is finished?
When I’ve done at least four drafts and the deadline has arrived. There’s always the editing process…
7) As Christa Wolf Week is part of this year’s German Literature Month, let’s discuss August – short, thoughtful and moving. The material is nowhere near as edgy as some of your other translations. How did you come to translate Wolf’s final piece of fiction and did you enjoy doing so? Were you aware of the standard set by Wolf’s previous translators as you worked? Did this pressure you in any way?
I got the job by being in the right place at the right time – the Seagull editorial office in Calcutta, while on a reading tour of India with Inka Parei and Dorothee Elmiger. The publisher Naveen Kishore told us he’d obtained the rights to the book and I said, “Ooh, can I translate it?” He might have offered it to me anyway, though. I was more aware that readers would be potentially critical than of the standards of previous translations, at least before I started work on August. I suppose because Christa Wolf is a big name (although it’s a little book) and much read and discussed. So I asked an Anglophone writer friend to read my translation before I sent it to the editor, just for moral support. That helped me feel more secure about the quality of the end product. Then while I was working on the translation, I read both the original Kindheitsmuster and Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt’s Patterns of Childhood. I know that Wolf’s other recent translators have done an excellent job – I particularly admire Damion Searls’ City of Angels – but August is closely related to Kindheitsmuster. And I have to say that translation quality has improved enormously since Molinaro and Rappolt’s work in 1980. We have much easier access to resources and communication now, and we’ve also been thinking and talking about how to translate literature well for an extra 35 years. So that also reassured me. I wrote more about my translation process in The Quarterly Conversation. Since then I’ve also translated Wolf’s Ein Tag im Jahr im neuen Jahrhundert – a diary that wasn’t really written for publication – and I’ll be working on Nachruf auf Lebende next year, an early piece of writing that evolved into Kindheitsmuster. All for Seagull Books.
8) I recently enjoyed your translations of Rusalka Reh – The Secret of the Water Knight (I’m still a kid at heart ….) and This Brave Balance (…. and a teenager with attitude). How did you come to translate these and were there any particular challenges? For example: American English and the specialisms of parkour – though no challenge at all if you are a closet American traceuse.
I was contacted by AmazonCrossing when they had just launched, when things there worked differently than they do now. They knew I’d previously translated a young adults’ novel (Learning to Scream by Beate Teresa Hanike) so they asked me to do these two books. I’m not a closet American traceuse, but American English wasn’t a huge problem – the editors had to get rid of any Britishisms that slipped through, and did so, I hope. Parkour was trickier, though. I watched a couple of movies and researched online, but the most useful thing was visiting Rusalka Reh in Leipzig. We’re still good friends from that very first meeting, where she explained a couple of the moves and how she’d found out about parkour in the first place. It’s often tricky to translate descriptions of body movements, be it sex scenes or martial arts or simply someone opening a door in a specific way. And I’ve found the best way to deal with it is to get together with the writers and ask them to show me (within reason).
9) Which of your translations gave you the greatest pleasure and why?
Right now that has to be Im Stein. I’d probably always say that the book I’m working on is the most pleasurable, though. I absolutely love immersing myself in Meyer’s streams of consciousness, I love the playful references and quotes. I love researching obscure facts and terms and finding equivalents to some of the songs and citations he uses that will strike a chord with Anglophone readers. My desk is littered with reference works; an East German book of English songs, a dictionary of Marxist terms, a police dictionary, an encyclopedia of nursery rhymes… And there’s so much variety because every chapter is different. I love it.
10) And finally, which three works of German literature would you take with you to the proverbial desert island and why? Would you translate them?
That’s an impossible question to answer! I’m very committed to contemporary writers, so my answer will probably only apply on the day I write it. I’m just looking across the room at Frank Witzel’s Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen mannish-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969. It won this year’s German Book Prize and is dauntingly thick and apparently very good indeed. So that would give me plenty of distraction and also something heavy for cracking coconuts. Speaking of coconuts, another book I haven’t read is Christian Kracht’s Imperium (tr. Daniel Bowles). It’s set on a desert island of sorts and I heard Kracht reading from the English version recently and admired Bowles’ work. I suspect I might hate it because I have a lot of problems with the author’s persona and fascinations. But that might motivate me to get off the island. And thirdly, my edition of Goethe’s Faust from student days, including my annotations from the time. I re-read Kafka’s Die Verwandlung/Metamorphosis not long ago and had a good laugh at my old comments in the margins. Apparently it’s all about sexual frustration. Re-reading a classic with the benefit of life experience is a wonderful thing to do – you get all these different layers and you can reflect on yourself and the book in a new way. I suppose I might consider translating Frank Witzel, although I’m not sure how I’d go about an 800-page translation on a desert island. Goethe and Kracht, not so much