Welcome back to the blog, Jamie. Last time we spoke, we discussed Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, a translation that went on to win the 2014 Schlegel-Tieck prize. Your latest translation is of Robert Menasse’s 2017 German Book Prize winner, The Capital. I’ve lost count of how many Jamie Bulloch translations have appeared in the meantime. How many translations is it exactly?
Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be back. So far I’ve translated thirty-three books that have been published or will be by the end of this year. I’ve translated a further half dozen that are still waiting to find a publisher.
When you started your career as a literary translator, did you ever think you’d be this busy?
How did you become a literary translator?
My undergraduate degree was in modern languages (French and German), after which I did an MA and PhD in Austrian history. The original plan was to stay at university as a historian, and I did teach for several years, but only ever filling in people’s sabbaticals. When it became apparent that I might have to wait for a long time before getting tenure I abandoned thoughts of an academic career and returned to languages. I was fortunate to have a couple of contacts in the publishing industry via my wife and was asked to translate a sample for an Austrian psychological crime novel, ‘The Sweetness of Life’, by Paulus Hochgatterer. The editor liked the sample, and things took off from there.
How did you become the translator of The Capital?
Some serendipity here. I happened to be at the 2017 Leukerbad literary festival in Switzerland, appearing at an event with an international group of translators. On the Saturday night I attended an event where Robert Menasse entertained a substantial audience by reading the prologue of his forthcoming novel: ‘Die Hauptstadt’. Through a Croatian colleague I met Menasse afterwards and he suggested I get in touch with his publisher, Suhrkamp, for an advance copy of the book. After reading it I recommended the novel to my wife, who already had it on submission, and MacLehose Press bought the book just before it won the 2017 German Book Prize
I’m assuming that translating gets easier with practice. Yet each book will have its own peculiarities and difficulties. What were the specific challenges of translating The Capital?
Indeed: over time you develop strategies that can be transferred from book to book, even though each one is different. The major challenge of working on The Capital is that the novel is a collage of many different styles, incorporating satire and political thriller, as well as history and philosophy. So one moment I could be breezing through some witty dialogue, while the next tackling a chunk of essayistic prose.
Let’s talk acronyms. Torture or fun?
It really depends. In this particular book, the acronyms were largely provided for me because the organisations involved have their official names in all languages.
How did it feel to be translating Menasse’s biting satire of the EU at this time of political tumult in the UK?
On the one hand it felt cathartic and thrilling to stick two fingers up at Brexit and be involved with a novel with such a pro-European message at its heart. On the other there was a lingering sadness that we as a country were chucking in our membership of this extraordinary project. It was always the plan to publish on the eve of Brexit (a month before, to be precise), and we’re anticipating that the novel and the author will make a big impact when he visits at the end of February.
Pro-European? Really? I struggled to find a positive message about the EU in this – apart from the idealism in setting it up, a core mission of peace which seems to have been lost in the overbloated bureaucratic organisation of today.
I’m an optimist by nature, and what stayed with me from this book was the overwhelmingly pro-European message at its heart. Yes, Menasse ridicules the competing ambitions, at both personal and national level, of the actors within his Euroworld, but I don’t believe his novel calls into question the validity of the European project as a whole.
Which of your translations gave you the greatest pleasure and why?
Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back was enormous fun to work on. Translators of this book were all given licence by the author and publisher to do whatever was needed to make the novel work in their own language. This gave us the freedom to be as creative as we liked, inventing where we saw fit. I think it’s very important for translators to take risks at times; to be given express permission to do so was liberating.
Which of your translations posed the greatest challenge and why?
It has to be Ricarda Huch’s The Last Summer. This is an epistolary novella, containing letters written by around half a dozen characters. We only ever see one half of the correspondence, which meant a considerable amount of intelligent guesswork was needed when a vague reference is made to something in a letter that the reader never sets eyes on. The complications were compounded by the fact that the author is long dead, so there was no chance of consulting a higher authority!
Finally, which three German-language works would you take with you to the proverbial desert island and why?
The first would be a novel I translated and is very dear to my heart: Steven Uhly’s Kingdom of Twilight. This epic narrative, stretching from Nazi-occupied Poland in late 1944 to 1980s New York, is one of the finest novels I’ve ever read, exploring the universal issues of identity and dislocation, which are still very relevant today. The writing is so beautifully lyrical, but the novel is also a complete page-turner. Which makes it all the more disappointing that, like so many great translated works of literature, this book has failed to make the impact in the English-language market that it deserves.
The other two are both classic works of 20th century German literature that have been on my radar for ages, but I’ve never yet got round to reading them: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Both are very hefty tomes, so I imagine I’d be kept occupied for quite a while.
Thank you, Jamie. Until the next translation … 😉
This interview is part of The Capital by Robert Menasse blog tour.