I am especially delighted to welcome Charlotte Collins to Lizzy’s Literary Life today. It’s not everyday that you get to interview the co-translator of a book that is one of my top 10 reads of all time AND the winner of the 2020 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, is it? (I interviewed co-translator Ruth Martin in 2018.) We’re not here to chat about The Eighth Life though, but about Charlotte’s career and her translation of Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone/Homeland. I picked this one because Kempowski was born in the city of Rostock, was therefore a native of Mecklenberg-West Pomerania, the subject of Lizzy’s latest German scrapbook entry.
Marrow and Bone is my second road-trip novel of GLM X. The traveller, Jonathan Fabrizius has been employed by a luxury car company to travel through the People’s Republic of Poland to make notes about a proposed test-drive route. He is not particularly enthusiastic about the job, but sees it as an opportunity to track down the places where he lost his parents during WWII – his father in action, his mother fleeing west from the Red Army. The trip takes us to the lands that were formerly East Prussia, and Jonathan appears to be taking the same route as a homeland association (former East Prussian refugees returning to the area that they never want to forget was once Germany) and a student group from Bremen who view the old people as ultra-reactionaries. The landscape itself is steeped in the terrible events of WWII, and Jonathan finds it is impossible not to remember them. Yet his press adviser tells him not to mention this or that in his test-drive trail. It won’t help the firm’s purpose! The whole scenario enables Kempowski to examine questions of complicity in the Nazi past in a cynical, satiric way. Jonathan’s deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend, Ulla (no spoilers) is a surprise a minute, and perhaps touring in a luxury car through this particular landscape not such a good idea! Whether this blend of comedy, satire and seriousness is successful I shall leave to the individual reader. Personally, I enjoyed the novel, but found it ambiguous. Ultimately I am unsure of what Kempowski wanted to say.
Not that this detracts from the translation one bit. Let’s talk to the translator.
It’s not every translator who wins the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize with their first full-length translation, but such is your history. Before we come to that though, tell us something about your pre-literary translation career. What precipitated your move into literary translation?
I studied English Literature at university, then trained at drama school and went on to work in theatre and voice-over. My second job was one of those depressing six-month winter tours of European schools: me and two blokes driving around France and Germany through snow and ice in a van that kept breaking down, performing Pinter to bored fifteen-year-olds at ten o’clock in the morning. The glamour… But I met a nice chap along the way, so when the tour finished I stayed on in Germany – first in Munich, then in Cologne, where I ended up working for DW Radio for several years. Eventually I came back to the UK, where I continued to juggle acting, radio journalism and translation for a while, but 2010 put a stop to all that when I was diagnosed with cancer in my spine. Acting and radio shiftwork were no longer possible, and I thought I might enjoy the translation more if I could somehow get involved in the literary side of things. So in 2012 I enrolled for the summer school at the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT), which is where it all began.
And so to Seethaler. How did you discover A Whole Life, and how did you get the gig?
After the summer school I slowly felt my way into the literary world over the next couple of years by doing samples for German publishers. I was lucky enough to be selected for the New Books in German Emerging Translators Programme, and we were mentored by Shaun Whiteside, who was also the tutor for the Birkbeck summer school in 2013. He recommended me to Macmillan as a potential reader, and when A Whole Life was doing the rounds they contacted me to ask if I could take a look at it. I didn’t really have time, but I loved the first few pages, and the editor – Kate Harvey – said a quick report over the phone would be OK to start with. I read it, raved about it to her for half an hour and, without really thinking what I was saying, asked her if I could translate it. To my astonishment, she said she didn’t see why not as I was so enthusiastic, though of course they would need to see a sample… It was an incredible piece of luck. A wonderful book happened to come my way at exactly the right time, and it had a kind, intuitive editor who was prepared to take a chance on an unknown.
I’m assuming that win means that you’ve never struggled for work since, and are able to choose the work you translate. Does reading a Charlotte Collins translation always mean reading a book loved by Charlotte Collins? Does the act of translating a novel change your relationship with it in some way?
I’ve had just the right amount of work for me, though I still need to do other things (journalistic translation) to make ends meet. In order to live from literary translation alone, I reckon I’d need to translate at least four books a year. I have colleagues who are able to do that, but I would find it too stressful. I think I’ve worked on between one and three books a year since A Whole Life was published, though it’s hard to say exactly: between signing the contract and editing the proofs the work covers quite a long period, so projects tend to overlap.
It’s not really the case that I’ve picked one project over another. There’ve only been a couple of fish I’ve tickled and had to let go, reluctantly or otherwise. I’ve been a freelancer for too long (25 years, on and off) not to just be glad when someone offers me work! But I definitely wanted to do all of the books I’ve worked on so far, so in that sense, yes, I did choose them. I’ve been very lucky with “my” authors. Does the act of translating a novel change my relationship with it – yes. As a rule, the better I get to know it, the more I’m involved with it, the better I appreciate the work and the more I come to like it.
I have set myself a goal of reading one book per Bundesland for GLM X. Mecklenburg-West Pomerania is represented by Walter Kempowski – born in Rostock – and his novel Marrow and Bone (NYRB Classics) / Homeland (Granta). (Which ironically doesn’t take place in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania at all!) At the time of translating, you said that you were finding Kempowski’s style challenging to translate. What were those challenges, and how did you overcome them?
Ha, yes; for Mecklenberg-West Pomerania, you should have been reading Kempowski’s autobiographical debut novel Tadellöser & Wolff, which is set in Rostock during World War Two. But that hasn’t been translated yet, although I hope the NYRB will do it.
Kempowski has a very distinctive style; it’s often deliberately awkward, bumpy, or odd. The main challenge for me was trying to be faithful to the original and convey a sense of that style, without it just coming across as an awkward translation, or being too distracting for the reader.
Apropos the US/UK titles: Marrow and Bone is the literal translation of Kempowski’s Mark und Bein, and I can see how that fits. In addition to some very visceral images running throughout the text, there is the theme of deep connection with the East Prussian lands that Germany lost at the end of WWII. I understand that Homeland was your choice of title. What made you feel it was a better fit for the British edition?
The title Homeland wasn’t actually chosen by me, but by the editor, Bella Lacey, along with Anthea Bell. Anthea was originally attached to translate the book, but she fell ill, so Granta had to bring in a new translator.
Mark und Bein is a familiar, stock phrase in German. Rather than saying that something “chilled you to the bone”, you would say “it went through my marrow and bone”. We don’t say that in English, so the phrase doesn’t resonate in the same way. It comes from Luther’s translation of Hebrews 4:12, which is included as an epigram at the front of the book. But there isn’t actually a bone in the original Greek – Luther was presumably being a bit creative – so English translations of the Biblical verse have “the joints and marrow”. The feeling at Granta was that, out of context, without either the Biblical echo or the associations the phrase automatically conjures up in German, “marrow and bone” – or indeed “joints and marrow” – had too much of the butcher’s shop about it, whereas of course it’s intended to suggest something that goes to right to the core of you, is part of your identity, perhaps something bone-chilling that cuts you to the quick. (“To the Quick” was also considered as a possible alternative.) “Homeland” immediately gives an anglophone audience a sense of the book’s main themes and tensions. But it wasn’t a good choice for a North American audience because of the popularity of the Homeland TV series, so the NYRB decided to go with a direct translation of the original title. I’d be curious to know how readers have reacted to it!
Confession time – I was surprised by how much I laughed. At one point I even had a flash of Basil Fawlty’s “Don’t mention the war”, though I hasten to add that the text isn’t meant to be that hysterical. Wry and satirical, for sure, though. How did you approach capturing the tone?
Yes, Kempowski has a very, very dry sense of humour, at times quite shocking. He really skewers his characters’ absurdities. In conveying tone, I just try to pay attention and make sure that the feel of the English is as close as possible to what I feel when I read the German. Tweaking punctuation can be helpful. For example, an exclamation mark that comes across as spirited and casual in German can be heavy-handed if you reproduce it in English, like digging the reader in the ribs to ask if they got the joke.
Let’s talk place names. You have included an enlightening translator’s note about the politics of using German or Polish place names. I assume, though, that the glossary of places required some research to complete. Did you require a specialised atlas or did good old Google turn up trumps?
I’m an excellent deep Googler. All that journalistic training. Seriously: yes, I did have to do some research and cross-referencing, but it wasn’t finding out what these places were called in different languages at different times that was tricky, it was deciding which to use, when, and why, without overburdening the text with explanation.
Had I not challenged myself to read only new-to-me authors during GLM X, I might well have been reading your recently published translation of Bernhard Schlink’s Olga. Can you tell us something about that?
The landscape of Olga’s story is actually the former German territory of East Prussia, just slightly east of the region Jonathan Fabrizius is exploring in Homeland. Olga is an intellectually curious young woman at the turn of the last century. She falls in love with the son of the local landowner and their lives become entwined, but she is from a modest background, and the inequality in their social status makes it almost impossible for them to be together. As a woman, Olga’s life and opportunities are extremely limited; she has to fight hard for her education and independence, and she’s forced to live below her capabilities, while her beloved is able to live above his. Over the course of the book, the vicissitudes of 20th century German history take their toll …
In addition to reading my way around Germany, I have started putting together an online scrapbook of my German travels. It’s an attempt to determine where I am going, just as soon as it is safe(r) to travel. Where in Germany would you make a beeline for, and why?
I’ve probably seen more of Germany than I have of the UK – there were other theatre tours, and we travelled around a lot. One region I’ve never been to, though, although I wanted to, is Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania! I’d like to drive around the countryside, and go to the island of Rügen in summer; both look very pretty.
Realistically, though, the places I’ll make a beeline for as soon as travel is possible again are the cities where my friends live, and which feel like a home from home: Cologne and Munich. Berlin, too – it’s several years since I was last there. Then there’s Bamberg, which is a gorgeous, laid-back medieval town and UNESCO World Heritage Centre. I spent a few months there in 2007, playing Portia in The Merchant of Venice (in German), and the walk through the old town across the river to the theatre was a daily delight. Finally: when I lived in Munich, I used to love hiking in the mountains. There’s a trail in the Swabian Alps – up the Fellhorn, near Oberstdorf – that takes you along a ridge like a dragon’s back. There are breathtaking views on both sides, and I’m told that in spring the mountain is aflame with alpine roses.
You recently compiled a list to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Translators’ Association. It is fascinating. How did you choose the books on it, and which are your three personal favourites?
I casually suggested to the TA Committee that I might tweet a “classic translation” for each year of the TA’s existence, highlighting the #namethetranslator campaign at the same time.But the project quickly became a lot more complicated and time-consuming. Some years had so many great translations that I felt obliged to list several, and it was taking me a couple of days each week to research the translators’ histories, the histories of the translation(s), write more detailed posts for Facebook, which turned into a blog, which meant I could link to other stuff, but that meant researching that properly as well…! I have tremendous admiration for bloggers; I honestly don’t know how you find the time. I got a bit overwhelmed, which is why the blog is still incomplete. I did manage to keep up the weekly tweets, so the full list IS on Twitter, under the #TA60 hashtag! And I do intend to finish the blog one of these days.
In compiling the list, I took a pretty broad view of what might constitute a “classic” novel. Perhaps it had been very popular in English, or was highly revered in its country of origin, or had been in some way influential, or the basis for a well-known film… The aim was to find works in translation that might, for whatever reason, ring a bell with an anglophone public, and say: hey, did you know that that was a translation? Well, this is the person who made it possible for you to read it. I also tried to include books from as many different countries and languages as possible, even if they weren’t necessarily well-known in English. My own knowledge of world literature wasn’t going to be anything like enough, so I put out a call on translation forums asking for suggestions, then went and researched them all online. The more rules I imposed on myself, the trickier it became! Correctly establishing the year in which the first-ever English translation of a work had been published proved to be a particular minefield.
As to which are my favourites: I’m not sure I can answer that properly, because so many are still on my reading list! But I was delighted to be able to include Elias Canetti’s The Tongue Set Free (tr. Joachim Neugroschel, 1979); I love Dreams of My Russian Summers (Andreï Makine tr. Geoffrey Strachan, 1997); and A Tale of Love and Darkness (Amos Oz, tr. Nicholas de Lange, 2004) is simply outstanding.
The full list of 60 titles can be found here.