Pierre Jarawan’s The Storyteller is on book tour this week. In it the author builds layer upon layer of story: the experience of Lebanese refugees in Germany, the call of the homeland, memory transformed into fable, a tale of betrayal and reconciliation. Samir narrates his happy early childhood and his troubled journey into adulthood. Yet his father is the master storyteller of the title, with stories that hold everyone in thrall. The Storyteller is an absorbing and moving tale: I read all 468 pages in just 3 sittings! A fact, which is also testimony to the seamlessness and fluidity of the English translation.

In a first, Lizzy’s Literary Life today features an interview with not one, but two translators, Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl, who together created the English translation. Settle down with a cup of your favourite beverage to read this. You’re in for a treat!

(Photo credits: Norbert Seekircher / Fiacc O Brolchain)

Sinéad, Rachel, welcome to the blog.

How did you become literary translators?

Sinéad: I came to literary translation relatively recently. My background is in German Studies; I did a PhD in contemporary German theatre and worked for a few years as a lecturer before making the move to translation about five years ago. I came to live in Hamburg, where I am still based, and worked for a translation agency for a while. I learned a lot from commercial translation, but I began to miss working with literature. I stuck my toe in the water by taking part in a couple of literary translation competitions – the Geisteswissenschaften International Nonfiction Translators Prize and the New Books in German Emerging Translators Programme – and the positive response I received from the judges really boosted my confidence and made me feel like literary translation might be a realistic career option for me. I also learned a huge amount about the industry and the practicalities of setting yourself up as a literary translator from programmes such as the BCLT’s International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School and the Summer Academy for Translators of German Literature at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. Thanks to these initiatives, I’ve developed great contacts leading to interesting translation jobs. My main issue at the moment is time management: combining my translation work with a part-time teaching post at the University of Hamburg.

Rachel: I studied Modern Languages and Literature before there were specific degrees in literary translation. I always enjoyed the translation elements of my BA and MA, but as a career option, it wasn’t really on my radar. Anyone I knew in Ireland who translated fiction or poetry (e.g. a few of my lecturers) did it very much as a sideline, as a labour of love, and rarely to earn money. It wasn’t until I moved to Hamburg that I got to know a few people who translated literature for a living. I was impressed by how German translators often acted as scouts, suggesting good books to German publishers. I soon learned that it rarely works the other way round, because so little literature is translated into English to begin with. My first published literary translation was almost accidental. I’d translated a story by a friend, Yoko Tawada, as a birthday present. Several years later, when she was invited to a university in the US, they asked if she had anything in English, so she gave them my translation of her story (“From Mother Tongue to Linguistic Mother”), and it ended up published in the journal Manoa in 2006.

I had worked in teaching, journalism, publishing and non-literary translation in Germany and Ireland before I went freelance in 2006. Freelancing gave me the freedom to pursue literary “pet projects” between other jobs. I started doing sample translations, attending workshops, building up contacts, learning from more experienced colleagues. The Goethe-Institut and other cultural agencies have been tremendously supportive, and I’ve also had two grants from the Irish Arts Council (one to attend BCLT summer school; one to take time out to develop my translation practice). Joining translators’ associations and online networks is a great way to meet colleagues and feel you are part of the generous translation community out there.

What led to the decision to use two translators for this novel?

Sinéad: It was mainly a question of time. World Editions initially approached me, but I realised that, with my part-time teaching post, I’d be unable to translate the entire novel on my own within the proposed time frame. At the same time,though, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. That’s when I thought of Rachel, whom I knew from translation events back home in Dublin. I had a gut feeling that we would work well together, and I felt I could learn a lot from working with a more experienced translator. I was delighted when Rachel said she was available and willing to take the risk of co-translating such a huge novel with someone she’d never worked with before!

Rachel: It was good that World Editions were willing to work with a co-translation team. Being the English-language imprint of a Dutch parent publishing house, they were more used to working with co-translators than we were. Co-translation has become very common in the Netherlands, I believe, because publishers have to try to get the Dutch edition of a book out almost at the same time as the English edition, otherwise Dutch readers will just buy it in English. This rapid turnaround of translations (out of English) is becoming more common in other European countries too, with translators under increased pressure to meet ever-tighter deadlines. That’s just by way of an aside on the subject of co-translation… Sinéad and I had only met a couple of times before The Storyteller came along, but I had a good feeling from the outset and had seen some of her work. We have some friends and translation colleagues in common, so we weren’t leaping totally into the unknown!

Describe the process of translating The Storyteller.

Rachel/Sinéad: We divided the book into tranches comprising a few chapters each and worked on alternate chunks, reviewing each other’s work as we went along. We thought this would help us maintain a more consistent style and tone than simply splitting the novel down the middle.We sent the first three chapters to World Editions early on so that they’d see a sample of the final quality. Reviewing each other’s chapters ensured consistency of voice and style, and accuracy of historical and contextual details. We set up a spreadsheet where we recorded spellings of names, our house style decisions, etc.

Was the text straightforward, or did it come with challenges, such as cultural references, needing research or the input of others?

Sinéad: Funnily enough, the greatest translation challenges for me weren’t posed by the references to Lebanese and Arabic culture. The chapters that really had me scratching my head were those that deal with Samir’s upbringing in Germany. In Part II, for example, Jarawan evokes a very typical German childhood simply by listing some of the treats that kids used to guzzle at the time. He refers to Leckmuscheln, for example, which are shell-shaped pieces of plastic with a sweet inside, and Schokokussbrötchen (bread rolls stuffed with chocolate-covered marshmallows). Germans of a certain age are filled with nostalgia at the mere mention of these, but of course to the average English-speaking reader, these references evoke nothing. I had long discussions with Rachel on how best to deal with this conundrum: describe these treats? Or substitute them with sweets that were common in the UK or the US in the 1990s? Both approaches have pros and cons. In the end, I compromised by doing both: I decided Leckmuscheln would be far too convoluted to describe, so I instead referred to “flying saucers”, the sherbet-filled wafers I used to love when I was a kid. To retain some sense of the German cultural context, however, I explained what Schokokussbrötchen are.

Rachel: I found that researching Arabic names and checking details of Lebanese history took a lot of time, even though it was very interesting. The romanisation/transliteration of Arabic names is often different in German than in English, and there can be several variant spellings. We used Robert Fisk’s book Pity the Nation, which Pierre Jarawan cites among his sources, as our spelling guide for most of the Lebanese references, and researched others in reliable sources online. When it came to Koran verses quoted in the book, I was amazed to find how many different English translations of it there are!

We did have some questions for the author, which we relayed by email. Pierre was very quick to reply and we were able to find good solutions (we think!). One funny one I remember from the early chapters was to do with his description of Russian TV commentators, whom he described as having “ein Akzent wie ein Unfall”. I wasn’t sure whether this was an idiomatic use I wasn’t familiar with or a metaphor of Pierre’s own making. He said it was his own creation to convey the hard sounds and gave me licence to improvise, so I went with “an accent like crushed metal”.

Assuming you both have preferred vocabularies and styles, how did you ensure that the translation read seamlessly?

Rachel/Sinéad: We’re both Irish, so we both speak more or less the same kind of English – let’s call it “British English”. We decided early on that there was no point in us trying to write “US English” just because the US might be the main market for the book. We’re not native speakers/writers of American English, so we’d surely get usage or nuances wrong. We did try to avoid anything that might sound overly “British” or “Irish”, especially in dialogue, and our copy-editor, Florian Duijsens, was also great at picking up on things that might puzzle an American reader.

What about the nightmare of translating long German sentences? Full stops or semi-colons? Did you agree a method of doing this beforehand?

Rachel/Sinéad: German syntax allows for a lot of subordinate clauses between the beginning and the end of a main clause, and trying to retain this in English can sometimes produce unwieldy or confusing sentences. It can help to break them up or invert word order. Written German is more tolerant in terms of allowing two or more independent clauses to be separated just by a comma, whereas in English a full stop or a semi-colon would be required to avoid a “comma splice”. We agreed with World Editions to keep semi-colons to a minimum (readers either love them or hate them!) and did a bit of splicing and splitting. The main thing was to keep the text flowing and sounding natural.

Would you say that sharing a translation in this way was beneficial to yourselves as literary translators?

Sinéad: Absolutely. I should point out that co-translating a novel entails a lot more work than simply translating half a novel, as you have to invest quite a bit of time into editing and providing feedback on each others’ work, checking for inconsistencies, etc. But for my development as a literary translator, it was well worth it. Rachel is a wonderful close reader, and I learned so much from her feedback, particularly in terms of little linguistic quirks I wasn’t even aware I had! It was also great to have someone to bounce ideas off when I was struggling with a particular word or passage. My discussions with Rachel helped the creative juices flow. And finally, I enjoyed the camaraderie and moral support! Translation is usually such solitary work.

Rachel: Yes, definitely, partly because we had each other as sounding boards, partly because we acted as each other’s first editor/reviewer. We also had complementary skills: I think Sinéad has a fantastic ear for dialogue, for instance, better than mine. As Sinéad says, co-translating doesn’t simply mean each translating half of the total word count (124,640 words in this case). You need a lot of liaison and overlap to ensure consistency of voice, tone, style etc. This was my first co-translation commission, so I reached out to colleagues for feedback and tips (you know who you are…thanks!). There are pros and cons to co-translation for both publisher and translators, but I know I would happily co-translate with Sinéad again if the right commission came along.

What’s next for both of you?

Sinéad: Right now, I’m translating a couple of academic articles for a history journal, which entails grappling with plenty more long, complicated German sentences! My translation of Ronen Steinke’s Fritz Bauer: oder Auschwitz vor Gericht will be published by Indiana University Press next year. And I have my fingers crossed that later this year, I’ll translate a recent German novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. I can’t provide any more details until the contract has been finalised!

Rachel: I don’t have any big translation job on my desk right now, but I’m working away, between editing and teaching, at two pet projects I’d dearly love to see published in English. It’s a case of finding the right publisher in the right place at the right time… A short story I translated a couple of years ago for Florian Wacker’s readings in Ireland is coming out soon in the journal SAND, so I’m really pleased that I found a home for that. More recently, I translated extracts from two books for the Goethe-Institut’s “Books First” programme, which offers substantial subsidies to English-language publishers. The first is a novel by Bettina Wilpert about an alleged rape in a university milieu. The narrative technique is what makes this book stand out. The second is a stunningly beautiful graphic novel, Foc/Feuer by Sebastian Rethner, based on his Romanian grandfather’s WWII diaries. Readers can find reviews of them, and samples in English, at https://www.goethe.de/en/kul/lit/ser/lit/bof.html

Let’s suppose you’re both stranded on the proverbial desert island, which German-language book would you take with you for a) enjoyment purposes, b) solo translation purposes and c) to translate together.

Sinéad: For enjoyment purposes, I’d like to revisit one of the big classics I studied at university but haven’t looked at since, as I now tend to devote whatever free time I have to contemporary German literature. I remember loving Buddenbrooks. It would be interesting to see how I feel about it all these years later! For solo translation purposes, I’d take one of my favourite novels from last year: Hier ist noch alles möglich by Gianna Molinari. It’s quite an enigmatic, allusive book, so I imagine being on a desert island, far away from mobile phones and the internet, would allow me to give it the reflection it deserves and immerse myself in the sparse beauty of the language. To translate with Rachel, I’d go for a 711-page doorstopper to keep us busy: Stephan Thome’s Gott der Barbaren (2018), which I’m really enjoying reading right now. Whereas The Storyteller took us to Lebanon, Thome’s sweeping historical novel would transport us to nineteenth century China. Set during the Taiping Rebellion, the novel shifts perspectives among a large cast of characters caught up in the civil war, including a German missionary, a British diplomat, and a Chinese general. I think these shifting perspectives would make the book ideal for co-translation; perhaps we could divide the characters up between us to ensure that they all develop their own distinct voice.

Rachel: I’m not sure about pure enjoyment, but for (a), I’d pick Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958). I’ve been meaning to read it for a long time and I reckon it’d be good philosophical distraction if I were stuck on an island for some time! I think it was first published in English, so I’m cheating a little with this choice; she was German but living in exile in the US. For (b) I’d pick a children’s picturebook by Sonja Bougaeva which happens to be set on an island: Zwei Schwestern bekommen Besuch (“Two Sisters and a Visitor” (Atlantis, 2005). It’s delightfully subversive and, as far as I know, not available in English. If any children’s publishers out there want to see a sample translation, let me know! For (c), a co-translation with Sinéad, the historical novel by Stephan Thome sounds like a great challenge – and an adventure that would definitely be more fun shared.


The Storyteller is on blog tour until the 16th April. Further details below.