Following our meeting with the publisher and book designers, let us now focus on one of the 3 V&Q launch titles – Paula, written by Sandra Hoffmann, translated by Katy Derbyshire, who both join us for today’s Q&A.

Photo credits: Sandra Hoffmann – Peter Hassiepen, Carl Hanser Verlag, Katy Derbyshire – Anya Pietsch

Paula is a novel about silence, an intriguing theme for an art form totally dependent on words! Over to the author …

Paula is marketed as a piece of autofiction, or fiction based on personal experience. Why did you choose this form over autobiography?

SH: The autobiographical elements came to the fore during the writing process. I’d given up on 180 pages of a novel because I felt the material had too much inherent ambivalence, cast too many questions in my direction. In the end I had the feeling I had to abandon the brittleness and fragility left behind in me by Paula and her life, just leave it on the page and tell the story as the words came. That’s how I decided to stop thinking about the form and just let the dual portrait come about – it turned into the story of a grandmother and a granddaughter. That’s when I stopped asking what category of literature it is.

At the heart of this work is a secret that is never revealed, Paula’s silence is never broken. Yet the text is loaded with intimate familial detail. How did your own family react to that? Does this way of life remain typical in Swabian villages?

SH: A literary text is always subjective, and Paula always relates that part of it as well – that is, it’s always clear that I’m telling the story, me as a writer, subjectively. If I talk in real life about my family’s reality, that’s something different to literature; if I do that I divulge intimate things, so I want to protect my family here and not talk about their reactions.

But to get to the silence: I don’t know if it’s only typical of Swabia – a whole generation kept silent about what the Second World War did to them. Especially the women. And my grandmother was one of them. So the book is very symptomatic of that generation and yes, perhaps of the Swabians as well, because they do tend to be quite taciturn when it comes to their emotions. Or that’s what people say, at least. By symptomatic, I mean: I think that’s the political aspect of the book, that it has a universal validity, that we grandchildren of the war generation or children of the post-war generation are the ones who sense that silence never gives rise to redemption or realisation. And that’s why we want to track down what’s behind it.

Paula’s granddaughter (your literary alter-ego) struggles with the thwarted sense of identity that results from the keeping of the secret. Has the writing of “Paula” proved cathartic?

SH: It wasn’t cathartic in the therapeutic sense. Unlike psychoanalysis, which thrives on the power of association and on saying everything that comes into your head, literary writing subsists on its form, and also on what isn’t said and isn’t told. And yes, finding a form for Paula and for my grandmother and all she left behind, telling the story of her effect and after-effect – all that led to my picture of her changing. The book talks about that too, in the scene at her grave very near the end. But I probably could never have written it, not with as much nuance, as much forgiveness, in the same mental depth, if I hadn’t been in psychoanalysis for years.

Thank you, Sandra for your personal responses. Turning now to matters of translation …

Katy, now that you’re in the enviable position of being able to choose the books you translate, has that affected your relationship with the books you read. Can you still read books for pleasure, or are you always subconsciously assessing their marketability / translatability?

KD: I suspect all translators read with an eye for translatability, but when I find myself forgetting that aspect very quickly, reading with urgency and passion rather than cool calculation, I think that’s a good sign. The first few pages are always an assessment – and after judging a couple of literary awards, I’ll happily give up on books that don’t grab me. Equally, the language of the first few pages can thrill me enough to carry on even if the plot’s not all that driving. I definitely still read for pleasure, though, to blank out the world around me or immerse myself in other lives and ideas.

It’s not often that a translator’s first impressions are recorded, but here’s your review of Paula on Love German Books. It appears that you started identifying potential translation challenges at the offset. Others will have come into view when the translation was a work in progress, When did you actually decide to fully translate Paula and how long did it take? How did you solve the issues of translation?

KD: As you can read in that review, I invited Sandra to be writer-in-residence at the British Centre for Literary Translation’s summer school in 2018, and it was after that experience that translating the book became a pressing need. We’d spent a week working on short extracts with summer school participants, which is a really intimate way to approach a book. But the challenges were far from resolved – that came, as far as it’s ever possible, over the long haul. The workshop was almost like a test run; now I had to put the book into my own words. It took about five delightful months, plus of course a thorough edit. It’s hard to say exactly how I solved the issues; a mix of instinct and trial and error, I suppose. Writing something down, seeing what it sounded like, deleting it again. I often compare literary translation to sudoku – all the factors have to work together, and the only way to find out is to pencil things in. There’s one very drastic intervention in the very first line, which I asked Sandra to approve, and then things did fall into place. (No spoilers, but there’s an enlightening translator’s note in the actual book. Ed.)

Has your relationship to Paula changed now that you have translated it?

KD: Now that I’ve translated the book I’ve slipped into the role of its publisher, which I’m surprised to find is a little more distanced. I want people to read it, obviously, but now it’s not just because I think it will change readers’ perspectives the way it did mine. Now it’s one of three books we’re putting out, all of which might soar or sink, and I have to lavish equal attention on all of them. It feels strange, I feel like the old woman who lived in a shoe – all these children at once!

Katy Derbyshire and Sandra Hoffmann at the V&Q launch event

For those who speak both English and German, I recommend watching the official V&Q launch event during which both author and translator spoke in further detail about the novel, Paula.

This post is part of the V&Q Launch Blog Tour. Further details below.