This is an exciting time for German Noir in translation, with more titles than ever making it to the anglophone market. For instance, translations of the entire shortlist of the 2016 Deutscher Krimi Prize have appeared in the last 12 months. (None by UK publishing houses but I’ll let that pass.) You have to hand it to Rachel Hildebrandt. She has a good eye, having translated 2 of the 3 titles; Fade to Black and Collision. (Links to my reviews.) I will be reviewing the actual winner of the prize on Tuesday, but I will reveal the result of my shadow judging here. I would have awarded the prize to Zoë Beck’s Fade to Black.
But enough of the books and onto the translator.
Welcome to the blog, Rachel. How did you become a translator?
I fell into the profession rather unexpectedly. I hold degrees in art history and historic preservation, and have no formal training or certificates in translation. However, while I was living in Dresden during graduate school, I started to do some interpreting and translating for a couple of nonprofits in Saxony. Once I returned to the US, I occasionally did the odd project that involved translation: old family letters, church documents, secondary source materials for graduate students. Although my primary work after completing my master’s degree involved historical research, working with languages always interested me, so I did these side jobs along the way. At one point, I began to do a little more translation work for a language services company, which brought me in contact with legal and medical translation. And then I came across a job posting for a publisher in New York that was seeking a translator for a couple of biographies. I applied and ended up getting hired. That was my first experience with longer translations, and it ended up being a good fit because I have always been very bookish. I didn’t try my hand at fiction until 2016, which is when I came across the New Books in German website. I read several books that were reviewed there, and was especially taken with Andreas Izquierdo’s Das Glücksbüro. After learning how to traverse the publishing space, I eventually found a publisher for my translation of The Happiness Bureau and I’ve just kept going since then.
Do you pick the books you translate or do the books pick you?
It happens both ways. I have found books that I love, which I have gone on to pitch to various publishers. However, I’ve also been hired to translate complete novels by both authors and German publishers. I view each project as an opportunity to hone my translation skills and writing talents. For example, thanks to being hired for books I knew little about from the outset, I now have a science fiction novel and a romance under my belt.
It seems like German Noir is being increasingly translated into English. For instance, the full shortlist of 2016 Deutscher Krimi prize is now available in translation. Is there any particular reason for this, other than the market being saturated with Scandi Noir?
I enjoy Scandi Noir as much as the next mystery lover (which I’ve been since childhood), but I think the German crime fiction space is addressing some topics and themes quite differently from either Scandinavian or British novelists. What I love about the German authors is their willingness to blur the genre boundaries (such as in dystopian crime novels) and to embrace the crime framework in its full potential. By this, I mean that the writers are tackling difficult topics which are often consigned to the literary fiction space: racism, religious intolerance and radicalism, xenophobia, gun violence, sexism, etc. My favorite authors embrace these hard themes while couching them in the fascinating genre that is crime fiction. I would like to think that this approach to creating compelling, issues-driven crime fiction has simply come into its own, and that these books will thrive in the English space as a result of that.
You translated 2 out of the 3 titles, shortlisted for the 2016 prize and even published one as a Weyward Sisters title. Is crime your preferred genre for translation?
As I mentioned above, I have enjoyed mysteries since I was a young girl, starting with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. It is indeed one of my favorite genres to translate, and I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work on some wonderful contemporary works.
How did you come to translate Zoë Beck’s Fade To Black?
“Meeting” Zoë was a rather serendipitous event. I had started my publishing house, Weyward Sisters, and had translated some of Romy Fölck’s wonderfully atmospheric short stories as a mini-collection. Although I had been introduced to Romy by another author, we became connected on Facebook as well. Thanks to FB’s mysterious algorithms, Zoë’s name popped up as a recommended connection, and I just happened to send a friend request to her one day. I then looked her up and discovered her body of work. I contacted her directly via FB to ask if any translators were working with her novels, and learned that none were at the time. I read up on her books and was intrigued by the plot of Schwarzblende. Zoë had retained the English rights to this novel, and this made the acquisition of the English rights fairly simple. I went on to translate and publish the book via Weyward Sisters.
How did you come to translate Merle Kröger’s Collision?
Collision was a book I discovered as a result of another. I read the review of Anna Goldmann’s Lichtschacht on the New Books in German site, and requested a copy of it from the publisher, Ariadne Verlag. Else Laudan, the managing editor and also a very talented literary translator, responded very quickly, and as a result of her encouragement, I skimmed through the rest of her catalog. She personally recommended that I take a look at Havarie and sent along the pdf for it. After reading it, I knew that its timely focus on the refugee crisis would make it a great fit for the anglophone market. I corresponded with Alex about it, and we started pitching it to various publishers. Eventually Unnamed Press in Los Angeles was interested enough to negotiate the rights, and the rest is history.
Did either Fade to Black or Collision require specific research? (I’m imagining a transatlantic cruise with a fortnight in the UK would have been the ideal field trip to help with both.)
I wish! But no. I translated both of these books in my corner of northern South Carolina.
What is your translating process?
I begin by reading a book from cover to cover, and then start translating from chapter 1 and work to the end. I will make one caveat to that. I was hired to do a long sample from a novel last spring, which then led to my being hired to translate about half of the book in question. I didn’t read this book all the way through, but worked through the parts that were samples to begin with. As it turned out, the English rights were purchased by a UK publisher, which agreed to use my full translation. I have now read the entire book, but in three different spurts, so to speak. In a way, this altered process made me look at the book differently than other novels I’ve done, since I examined and processed each the piece as it came to me without viewing the book as an overarching whole.
On a slightly different note, Alex Roesch and I co-translated Merle Kröger’s Collision. That was hands down one of the best experiences I’ve had to date. Alex and I work and write quite similarly, so our styles blended well, and it was wonderful to have someone there to bounce ideas off and who could go back to the original text and challenge those passages that perhaps weren’t quite up to snuff. Since working with Alex, I’ve co-translated one other book, a really long science fiction novel that I worked on with Geoff Howes. Once again, this was a very good and beneficial arrangement, and I would like to encourage other translators to consider collaborating with others if the opportunity arises. As long as you have a strong, single-minded editorial process at the end, having two translators work on the same novel doesn’t present any hurdles.
I have to ask about the translated title of Kröger’s novel. Havarie refers to an accident at sea, and has become Collision in the English. What considerations led to this? Do you think it changes the reader’s expectations of the plot? (I’ve got to admit, I was expecting a maritime disaster, a crash or such like.)
We really debated that. Since a Havarie is specifically a maritime disaster, we wondered about Shipwreck (which was too RL Stevenson) or just Disaster (which sounded like a 1970s disaster movie). We couldn’t really find a single-word title that was a good nautical equivalent that would work as a compelling title. Collision implied both a physical and intellectual convergence tinged with violence, so we opted for that. The cover design showing the sea and the boat (a still from the film) hopefully conveys the watery aspect of the book clearly enough.
Which of your translations gave you the greatest pleasure and why?
That is a really hard question. The Happiness Bureau will always hold special meaning for me, since it was the first novel I worked on and I simply think Andreas writes magical prose. However, I’ve been fortunate to work closely with a number of authors on my translations, and each of them has taught me so much about the flexibility and expansiveness of language. It was nothing short of a joy to work with Zoë Beck, Wolfgang Hermann, and Max Annas. Thanks to their mastery of English and their willingness to correspond with me, I felt like I had a co-creator at my side who was just as vested in creating a quality translation as I was.
Finally, which three works of German Literature would you take with you to the proverbial desert island and why? Would you translate them?
Gosh, I don’t really know! I suspect I might take something I haven’t read yet and that hasn’t been translated to date. I’m always reading with an eye to what I could possibly translate next. If I had to just pluck titles out of the air, I would probably take Max Annas’s forthcoming GDR Morduntersuchungskommission book and Andreas Izquierdo’s Frau Hedy träumt vom Fliegen which I haven’t gotten to read yet and really want to. And I would also haul along the latest books by Zoë Beck and Katja Bohnet, because I have translated both of them (Loved it!) and haven’t read their most recent novels yet. Oh, wait, that makes four novels. And yes, heavy on the crime fiction…