Archive for the ‘interviews’ Category

Today we are celebrating the IFFP shortlisting of Birgit Vanderbeke’s very fabulous Mussel Feast with a 3-course menu charting the book’s progress from author’s brainchild to finished product. I did think of including part 4: Meet the reader but the idea of interviewing myself felt too weird.  However, you, dear blog readers, may interview me (in comments) if you so wish. 

For now, though, please enjoy the starter and scroll down/follow the hyperlinks to the main course and dessert.

The Mussel Feast Menu

Starter: Meet the Author (Birgit Vanderbeke)

Main Course: Meet the Translator (Jamie Bulloch)

Dessert: Meet the Editor (Meike Ziervogel)


Birgit Vanderbeke answers:

What was your starting point?

The Mussel Feast came into being in August 1989 during an extraordinary historical situation.  No-one knew that the wall would fall but everyone knew that “”something” was on the way and that “something” was about to happen.  As I was writing  The Mussel Feast, the television constantly broadcast pictures of increasing numbers of East Germans travelling via Austria, Prague and Budapest to the West German embassies.  The Monday demonstrations in Leipzig began around that time and people were worried that the East German government might emulate the behaviour of the Chinese government in Tiennamen Square.  I also remembered what it was like to move as a 5-year old child from East to West.

Let me add to that a little literary theory.  For my thesis I had been thinking about the relationship between metaphor and metonymy. (By the way I was intending to study for a PH.D but The Mussel Feast and other literary pursuits changed that plan.)  I really enjoyed putting theory into practice with the mussels.  A metaphor loses its power when it becomes part of a metonymy.  To this day readers are puzzled by my mussels and wonder how they “work”.  That amuses me.

Describe the creative process from that point until it achieved its final German form.  

At the beginning of August 1989 I started with the first sentence and wrote quickly and sequentially to the end in one pass, without considering composition, style or aethetics.  I believe that I had the material for this first book inside me for a long time and that it, in fact, was part of my inner life – both consciously and subconsciously.  Thus, I only had to turn something inside out and transform it without scruple or hesitation. The whole thing took about a month.  The following April  I spent two days discussing the text with my editor during which we removed one or two redundancies.

Did the fact that it took so long to find an English publisher frustrate you in any way?

It took more than 20 years to find an English editor.  Thank you, Meike.  However, it didn’t frustrate me. It’s a well-known fact that only a small number of books are translated into English.  I did think it a shame though.  However,  I’m all the happier now. Also slightly amused  because it is delightful to watch English readers interpreting the book as if it had just been written, while, in fact, it is nearly 25 years ago.  This historical “gap” seems to be one of the distinguishing features of the critical appraisal.

What does the IFFP shortlisting mean to you?

The IFFP shortlisting is a great pleasure and an honour. It is also quite exotic, because England – until recently – was as  physically removed from my life as the creation of The Mussel Feast is timewise. And yet, unimaginably I have enjoyed, both physically and mentally, four trips  to London in the space of one year.



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Today we are celebrating the IFFP shortlisting of Burgit Vanderbeke’s very fabulous Mussel Feast with a 3-course menu charting the book’s progress from author’s brainchild to finished product.

The Mussel Feast Menu

Starter: Meet the Author (Birgit Vanderbeke)

Main Course: Meet the Translator (Jamie Bulloch)

Dessert: Meet the Editor (Meike Ziervogel)

Jamie Bulloch answers:

How did you come to be the translator of The Mussel Feast?

I had already translated two titles for Peirene Press: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by F.C. Delius, and Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe.

Describe your working method. How long did it take, how many drafts until you handed your translation to the publisher?

Birgit famously wrote this book in three weeks; I wasn’t able to match that tempo! I’m not always working full time, so it’s difficult to tell exactly how long a translation takes. I like to work through a first draft relatively speedily, then edit slowly and carefully, with minimum reference to the German original. In this way I can best satisfy my principal aim, which is to produce good English prose that doesn’t read like a translation. The publisher always receives my second draft, therefore, though the final text will involve further corrections/amendments after both the copyediting and proofreading stages.

What were the specific challenges of translating the text? How did you resolve these issues?

The style of Mussel Feast is quite particular, with very few breaks and sparse punctuation. In consultation with the publisher I took the decision to add more commas, semi-colons and full stops to ensure clarity and allow the text to read more elegantly. Because of its highly structured rules regarding word order, German as a language remains intelligible with minimal punctuation. English does not work in the same way, so the challenge was to find a solution which recaptured the breathlessness of the original without confusing the reader.

I take the view that everything is translatable; sometimes you just need to think laterally. For example, if a joke (especially a pun) in one sentence seems to defeat your creative powers, perhaps it’s possible to invent a different joke in the next sentence, or even paragraph. Cultural and historical references can be an issue, but I’m firmly of the belief that the (hopefully curious) reader should make an effort to find out about things they may not be aware of – no ordeal these days with the internet constantly at our fingertips. After all, one of the joys of literature in translation is the way in which it introduces the reader to new worlds.

What does the IFFP shortlisting mean to you?

The IFFP is the premier, most high-profile disctinction for our profession, and unique in that it places equal emphasis on the writer and translator. The competition is very stiff, and the judges all extremely well read and erudite. So it’s a thrill for any translator to find themselves on the shortlist.

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Today we are celebrating the IFFP shortlisting of Burgit Vanderbeke’s very fabulous Mussel Feast with a 3-course menu charting the book’s progress from author’s brainchild to finished product.

The Mussel Feast Menu

Starter: Meet the Author (Birgit Vanderbeke)

Main Course:  Meet the Translator (Jamie Bulloch)

Dessert: Meet the Editor (Meike Ziervogel)

Meike Ziervogel answers:

When did you decide to add The Mussel Feast to the Peirene catalogue?

In the autumn of 2011, just after the Frankfurt Bookfair, I was approached by Rotbuch Verlag, the German publisher of Das Muschelessen (The Mussel Feast), with the request for Peirene to publish the book. I felt honoured, yet surprised. I had read the book back in the early 90’s, shortly after publication. When I set up Peirene in 2008 The Mussel Feast was one of the titles I checked out straight away. I googled it and for some reason I came away convinced that the book had already been translated years ago. I was wrong. So, when Rotbuch approached me, I reread the novella to make sure that my present day judgment reconciled with my memory. Needless to say, it did.

How long from that decision to the finished book arriving at Peirene HQ? What are all the stages in between?

As soon as I had negotiated the English rights for The Mussel Feast, I asked Jamie Bulloch if he wanted to translate the book. Jamie and I had already collaborated on two other German novallas – Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman (Peirene No 3) and Sea of Ink (Peirene No 9). We work well together and have similar ideas of what a good English text should read like. He delivered his translation in early summer of 2012. I then edited it. This process can take up to a month, because I go through the story a number of times. In early September it went back to Jamie. He made a few more changes. Afterwards I sent the text to Lesley Levine, Peirene’s line editor. She checks for grammatical mistakes, unnecessary repetitions. And it is quite amazing how many sneak in without either the translator, in this case Jamie, or I spotting them. Once that was done, The Mussel Feast went to our external reader. His job is to mark up anything that still jars and sounds awkward in English. Usually at this stage it’s a mere couple of phrases that still need changing. Then I sent the text to Alex at Tetragon, our setter. And once the text is set, it’s again printed out and subjugated to a final proofread by a new proofreader. The Mussel Feast eventually headed to the printers in late October 2012. The finished book arrived in November in time to be mailed to our subscribers in December. It’s official publication date, though, was in February 2013, when bookshops replenished their stocks.

You personally act as editor of the translated text. Describe that process. Were there any significant decisions/changes made during the editing of The Mussel Feast? Do you have executive rights on this or do you collaborate with the translator?

In my view editing literature in translation is just as important as editing a novel written in English. When a text arrives on my desk my job is to make sure it works in English.

With all the Peirene books I either know the original story or a German/French translation of it. So I have a very good sense of the overall structure, rhythm and soul of the story. The best translators – such as Jamie – know that the original merely serves as springboard to create an English book. The translator needs to be creative writer and their work will go through a number of editing rounds. In my view, editing translations is like peeling an artichoke. Each round of revision brings us closer to the essence of the original and improves the English text.

Moreover, editing translations involves similar work as editing an original text: rewriting what doesn’t work, thinking of structure (should this sentence/paragraph come first or do we need to change the order), making sure that images make sense and come alive, language register etc.

With The Mussel Feast, we faced a number of challenges: Firstly, the sentence structure that Jamie already alluded to. Secondly: Birgit Vanderbeke is an author who creates many of her images via language association. Das Muschelessen is filled with German colloquialisms and metonyms. Indigenous metonyms often lose their sense when translated into English, nor does the English equivalence calls forth the same association. So we had to find ways of rewriting without jeopardizing the flow of the narrative. And sometimes Jamie came up with ingenious rewordings. Haushaltsgesicht – household face, i.e. the face the mother makes when she is at home being a good housewife – is now ‘wify mode’. And thirdly: There are a lot of repetitions in the original. In the German these repetitions give the text a sense of breathlessness. In English they serve the same purpose. However, we had to carefully balance them so that they wouldn’t tip the reader from breathless excitement into sheer boredom.

What does the IFFP shortlisting mean to you?

I am absolutely thrilled that Peirene is on the short-list. Since we started publishing in 2010, a Peirene book has been long-listed each year. Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (Peirene No1) in 2011, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (Peirene No 4) in 2012, The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul in 2013 and in 2014 Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast. As Jamie has already said, The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is extremely prestigious and the competition very tough. So being long-listed four times in a row and now on the short list is a huge credit to our authors, translators – and The Nymph of course.

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So German Literature Month readers, I was half-way through the chosen readalong title, Anatomy of A Night, and my first full-length e-book read, when I recognised two things.  1) I was reading a masterpiece and 2) I was missing paper, ink, my post-it notes and the whole tactile experience far too much.  My whole process was thrown out of kilter and I began to feel incapable of writing a review that would do the novel justice. So I thought I’d enlist the help of E J Lanen, founder of e-book publisher, Frisch & Co, and someone who is obviously not as shackled as myself to the physical object. The resulting interview naturally covers much more ground than Anna Kim’s novel but fellow readalongers will be particularly interested in questions 6-9.  I intend to add my own thoughts in comments later today.

1). How did you come to found Frisch & Co?  How did the company get its name?

Well, I founded Frisch & Co. because I wanted to keep working in translated fiction, and I felt I was in a position where I could conceivably start something on my own. By which I mean, I felt I knew enough about each of the constitutive parts of publishing–acquiring, editing, production, publicity, etc.–and about the particularities ofpublishing translated fiction, that I could give it a go. And there are so many truly fantastic books that just need a little help to make their way to English. If I could help make that happen…

As for the name, it’s just after Max Frisch, who is one of my favorites.

2) Why e-books and only e-books? Business imperative or personal choice?
There’s a really long answer to this, which I wrote more about here: http://frischand.co/34/

But the shorter answer is that it’s expensive to print and distribute physical books. It’s also limiting: If I’m a publisher in the UK, it’s almost always the case that I only distribute my books in the UK. This is especially problematic for translated fiction, which traditionally has had a smaller audience (with notable exceptions). So if you publish a translated book in the UK, most of the time you’re reaching a fraction of a fraction of the market: a fraction of the UK market for fiction and a fraction of the overall English-language market for these books.

Ebooks can, potentially, change that calculation. There are no printing costs, and you’re only charged for distribution when you make a sale. And your audience is readers of translated fiction all over the world–not only readers in the US, UK, Canada, etc., but also in Europe, Asia, and so on (we seem to have a mini-following in Taiwan, for example); for better or worse, English has become the lingua franca. So for translated fiction you can combine the small markets that exist in all of these places, if you can reach them, to create a much bigger pool of potential readers.

But that’s just the business end of it. Readers of English are shut out of a lot of great fiction that’s published worldwide. It’s simply not something that’s well-published in English. There are many reasons for this, but ebooks create the potential for more of these books to be published. As a reader, I find that really exciting. It’s cool, I think, that I can be reading a book at the same time as someone in Seoul. A book that was just published. This wasn’t possible before.

3) What are the specifics that must be considered in e-book design and distribution?
Thankfully, our books are pretty straightforward from a technical standpoint; they’re mainly long blocks of text. It’s not difficult to design something that will read well across the many ebook-readers and devices. One of the more interesting challenges, for me, was the covers. They answer to a wholly different set of demands than print book covers. They’ll only ever exist online, and they need to be legible in many places and in many sizes: on phones, tablets, browsers, etc. It seemed to me that they needed to be made simpler and bolder–many of the details that are worked into print covers just don’t translate to, say, a set of thumbnail-sized cover images on the iBookstore. I hope I’ve hit on something that appeals and that works online.

Distribution could be very complicated. It’s possible to do it yourself, but there are so many retailers and you’d have to manage your relationships with each of them individually. So I work with Faber Factory, and they distribute my books to twenty-seven online retailers, many of whom have outlets in several countries. I send the books to Faber Factory, and they take care of making sure that they’re online, that the money goes where it needs to, etc. And because they represent many publishers, they have access to promotional opportunities that I wouldn’t have on my own. For anyone that isn’t reached by these retailers, they can buy the books directly from me.

My books are truly available everywhere.

4) You’ve chosen to specialise in translated fiction. Another niche market. Won’t that make life more challenging for you?
Yes and no. On the one hand, yes, the market for translated fiction is smaller. On the other hand, if you’re a general publisher you’re competing with all the other general publishers, both for authors and for readers. And you’re also faced with competition from self-published authors as well, who seem to be taking over certain genres. These aren’t necessarily my problems. The market I’m in is competitive, but there are so many great books available from countries all over the world, and the original publishers in these countries have already done much of the legwork in choosing fascinating writing already, that it’s relatively easier to build a list of first-class writers. In English, a translation publisher can, as it were, punch above their weight class simply by publishing. My authors are well-established, respected, award-winning writers that have been translated into many languages, in some cases they’ve sold hundreds of thousands of copies in their countries–this isn’t
something that most new publishers can say about their list. So, yes, it’s a niche, but the writing you can find there is deeply, deeply rich.

5) How do you decide which titles to publish?
That varies from book to book, so it’s difficult to say exactly. I partner with my publishers closely, so we meet and discuss their list; I talk to their editors; I talk to other publishing colleagues, translators, etc.; there are sample translations. By now, I’ve been working with my partners for a long time, and they have a sense for the kinds of books I’m interested in publishing, that helps enormously. That’s the mechanical part, anyway. But in the end I’m looking for something that I would be excited to read myself. I follow my interests, that’s all.

6) How do you commission your translators?
This also varies. Occasionally, a translator will already be attached to a project–perhaps they’ve done a sample translation for a publisher, or they’ve translated something from this author in the past. Sometimes you have a project but you need to find a translator, which was the case with Anatomy of A Night. I heard Bradley read something else he had translated, and it gave me the feeling he would be good for this book. It can be a little bit like matchmaking: you bring a book to someone and hope it sparks something in them. Generally speaking, translators don’t take on projects for the money–there isn’t much to be had–so it’s important that the book mean something to them as well.

7) Why did you decide to launch with Anatomy of the Night?
In the first case because I thought it was a special book. It makes demands of its readers, and I find that to be exciting. It’s brave and brimming with well-earned confidence. There’s something about the writing in the book that is at once compelling and mysterious, though I’ve never been able to put my finger on precisely how that happens. It’s stretching itself both structurally and stylistically to describe an intriguing and perhaps unexplainable phenomenon. That was more than
enough for me.

But it also makes a statement about what Frisch & Co. is up to. Ebooks don’t necessarily have the best reputation, and I thought Anatomy of A Night could make a strong case that literary fiction has a place in the ebook world, and that readers could find great books, challenging books, beautiful books that were published in ebook-only editions too. To me, it felt like an exceptionally strong place to start.

8) Do you have a favourite section or quotation from Anatomy of A Night?
Just one? This is part of a much longer section that I particularly love, but for brevity’s sake here’s the end of a passage that
describes the landscape in which the novel takes place:

“But perhaps Amarâq’s landscape has to be restrained, so it can show that the earth isn’t the opposite of the sky, but its counterpart: at the end of the world the distinction between sky and earth disappears, the sky is a vast ocean just as the ocean is a vast sky, and the mountains green-seamed clouds, perhaps it’s possible to climb that mirror image, and not only the mirror image but the actual firmament, where you wait for the last drop of rain, the first ray of sun, and the rainbow, for the lowermost sky, and then climb slowly from rainbow to rainbow, from hue to hue, in the winter, when everything is frozen,
every step confirming that the earth continues into the heavens, and that the end is really nothing but an illusion.”

I read that section aloud at a reading and it gave me goosebumps!

You can see some of my other favorite passages here: https://readmill.com/books/anatomy-of-a-night

9) What are the outstanding characteristics of Bradley’s Schmidt’s translation?
I’ve spoken with Anna Kim about the structure of Anatomy of A Night a lot, about what she’s trying to do with the language, and the book takes advantage of the structure of German grammar in a way that’s difficult to translate into English. She said she would write a sentence, then pull this sentence apart and put another sentence or thought in the middle of it, and then pull that apart and put another thought in the middle, to build image upon action upon description, which is something, apparently, that you can do to great effect in German. English doesn’t work this way, however. What impressed me about
Bradley’s translation is how he captured the feeling of this accumulation in English. Of course, it could never be as beautiful as in the original, but it’s still beautiful, and that’s no small accomplishment.

10) Anatomy of A Night  is to date the only German title on your list. Are there more to come?
Oh, many others. In the spring, we’re publishing The Tower by Uwe Tellkamp, which is an epic story about the last years of the DDR and was hugely debated, discussed, and read in Germany a few years ago; then the first book in a series of novels by Andreas Maier called The Room (Maier’s The House and The Street, from this same series, are forthcoming from us as well); and a novel by Anna Katharina Hahn called Shorter Days, which was long-listed for the German Book Prize
in 2009. That’s just to start!

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I couldn’t resist asking for a post-event interview, when I spotted Meike Ziervogel perusing the short story shelf (what else?) in the Edinburgh Book Festival Bookshop. Happily she agreed.

LS: You chose to write Magda in English – can you explain your reasons for that? Was it simply a marketing consideration?
MZ: The creative process doesn’t work according to marketing rules. In the first draft, some scenes were written in German but they took the form of a stream of consciousness. Transferring them into English helped me to gain the necessary artistic distance and tackle a very sensitive subject. I’ve lived in Britain all my adult life so English comes naturally. I love it’s straight-forward syntax. English forces me to write in a more focussed way. It’s a language which allows you to be simple but rich in vocabulary and voice.

LS: At the Edinburgh Book Festival you said you considered Magda to be a novella (although it is marketed as a novel) and your passion for the art of brevity and the novella is well-documented. However, did you find writing a novella restricted you in any way?
MZ: Not at all. I consider the novella closer to poetry than prose as there is a definite art in saying something short and precise. The novella form also forces the author to ask is every sentence really necessary? Has it already been said? If not explicitly, then implicitly? A good novella should allow the reader to add their own experience and make up their own mind. (Editor’s note: The 1st draft of Magda was 160,000 words. Just imagine the heap of words that landed on the cutting floor as Meike edited her own work!)  Yet within the finalised 30,000 words that Magda became, I found space for 3 narratives and 3 generations. This, in turn, allowed a complex expression of the relationships and the infusion of the necessary emotional charge.

LS: Is there a market for Magda in Germany?
MZ: By writing ‘Magda’ I allowed myself to look at my own German history critically but with understanding. I wanted to access the mind of an intelligent woman who became a Nazi in order to comprehend my own cultural background. But I am aware that I could only write this story in English. Magda Goebbels is a challenging subject for Germans and it would take a courageous publisher to tread on this particular minefield. In ‘Magda’, Magda Goebbels is portrayed as a human. For Germans she is a monster. Moreover, I portray maternal love as a destructive power. Since the 19th century, however, the figure of the mother in Germany has been an untouchable icon.

LS: If you did find a German publisher, would you translate Magda yourself?
MZ: No way! I’ve done my job. Now a translator must do theirs! And I firmly believe that is to take the original text as a springboard and create a new text by translating not just the words, but the rhythm, spirit and voice into the target language. The two texts should sound very different.

LS: Do you like the Salt treatment of your book?
MZ: I’m hugely grateful to Salt. For their courage in publishing Magda and also for the cover. Magda Goebbels is typically regarded as a 1930’s glamorous diva and the image of her on the front jacket is so at odds with that. The blurriness fits the text which never really gets hold of her.

LS: Are you enjoying the literary circus that these days is de rigeur for an author? How does it compare to the circus you experience as a publisher?
That circus as you call it can be both mentally and emotionally exhausting, particularly when as an author you’re suddenly exposed to lots of other opinions about your work. However, because I have experienced it as a publisher, the fear factor has been removed and I can honestly say that I’m enjoying being a published author. I’ve also discovered another creative process – that of readers engaging with your work. That’s been an eye-opener. I know that I work with my subconscious a lot but I need the readers’ responses to really comprehend my own creative processes – and my work.

LS: One EIBF novelist said that the best piece of advice he was given was to have the 1st draft of his second novel ready before the first was published. That way he would avoid the infamous struggle with second novel syndrome. Are you similarly well-prepared and if so, can you tell us anything about your next work?
‘Magda’ is my first published work, but I have three more completed manuscripts in the drawer. I have written for a long time. Moreover, I have just edited a 200,000 word draft of my next book into a 30,000 word manuscript that I can now begin to share with first readers. It’s working title is Clara’s Daughter. More fraught mother-daughter relationships I’m afraid, although this time in a contemporary setting with the main character an ambitious woman struggling with her destructive mechanisms.

LS: You wrote 200k words! How do you find the time to do that as well as juggling your other roles: wife, mother, publisher, literary salonist, blogger, author, Grecian nymph ego-soother ….. when do you get time for Meike?
MZ: I need to work on a creative project in order to feel alive. I’d become a very grumpy person if I didn’t sit down and write every day. And so, I write 1000 words between 5-7 am every morning. Thereafter, I’m ready to fulfil my other roles.

LS: Well, thank you for fulfilling the role of interviewee today. And here’s wishing you every success in your role as Not The Booker Prize shortlistee. 
MZ: Thank you, Lizzy, for coming to my event in Edinburgh and for this interview.



Post-interview note.  
Magda was not eligible for the 2013 Booker Prize but, if published 12 months later, would have been for the 2014 Booker Prize. I’m not entirely convinced by the new rules but that little factoid gives me pause for thought.

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20130402-194817.jpgI know Donal. I’ve met him a few times at the Edinburgh Book Festival, whirling round Charlotte Square like a human dynamo, full of enthusiasm as he ambassadors on behalf of translated fiction. I couldn’t be more delighted that his latest translation, Urs Widmer’s My Father’s Book, has been longlisted for Three Percent’s Best Translated Book of America and I am, of course, dead pleased that he found some time in his hectic (you’ll see) schedule to answer a few questions of mine.

1) How did you become a literary translator?
Meeting a Swiss writer in a cave in the Karst region of Slovenia in 2001 was to prove to be the crucial moment. Prior to that, I read a lot as a kid and wanted to write; discovered foreign languages and wanted to translate. I then did the university thing. What was at least as important was attending hundreds of readings in Glasgow and Edinburgh in the 80’s and 90’s. Listening to writers read. To what they said about their work. Later, chairing events and interpreting for visiting writers at the Goethe Institute in Glasgow and the Edinburgh International Book Festival also helped. For me, it’s not just about the page, it’s also the stage – in the sense of reaching out to an audience.

2) Is your specialism in translating Swiss Literature self-chosen and influenced by your own reading preferences? If not, how did it come about?
My ‘specialism’ has done just that: come about. I remember reading for the first time that I specialise in translating Swiss fiction. The sentence didn’t come from me but there is a certain truth to it. How did this focus come about? Various factors – or steps along the way. Frisch and Dürrenmatt were among the first writers I read at school and university. Andersch – a German who became Swiss – was the subject of my PhD. His Franz Kien stories were a certain inspiration for my own Liam stories. Fast forward to that cave. I’ve also been attending the Solothurner Literaturtage since 2004 when I had a residency in Berne as a writer. I was later asked to translate over 100 writers for the New Swiss Writing anthologies (2008-2011). That literary exchange between Glasgow and Berne – which later opened up to all of Scotland and more of Switzerland – also meant that for seven years, we had regular Swiss visitors to Glasgow. Including Pedro Lenz whose novel I’m translating into Glaswegian.

3) What are the particular challenges of translating Swiss fiction?
The so-called Helveticisms. Though dictionaries can normally help. If need be, I ask. Also while, at university, I specialised in the Third Reich and the post-war period from a German point of view, translating someone like Urs Widmer requires research on the Switzerland of the same period. The political landscape etc. The actual landscape can be challenging too. Finding the words for it.

4) According to your website, you’re currently translating Widmer books 4-6? What’s the attraction? How did you become his translator?
If I may answer your questions in a different order: I became Urs’ translator because Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books asked whether I’d be interested in translating My Mother’s Lover, My Father’s Book and the Frankfurt lectures on poetics (due out this summer). A good friend and colleague, Katy Derbyshire, drew Naveen’s attention to me. I was thrilled, of course, not least because Urs’ play Top Dogs is an all-time favourite of mine. It’s both hilarious and heart-breaking. A brilliant and necessary take on the world of work.

The attraction of Urs’ writing? How long have you got? The great story-telling. The warmth, the humour, the colour. The historical / political context. The outrageous risk-taking, the things the guy pulls off. In the lectures on poetics too. Not just the fiction.

And yes: books 4-6 are currently happening. And we hope there will be more.

5) Your translation of My Father’s Book is currently long-listed for the Best Translated Book of America? Were there any particular challenges translating this book?

My Father’s Book is long-listed, yes. That might be as far as it goes, of course, but it’s great to get a mention. From memory, three Swiss novels (one written in Russian!) and four German-language titles made the cut – which is encouraging for those who do so much work, both paid and unpaid, to find English-language publishers for books.

Particular challenges? I heard Urs read for the first time while I was working on the Father book – and realised I needed to “up the ante” even more in terms of the energy in the text. I also had this book in particular in mind earlier when I mentioned the need to do research on the historical and political context.

6) Which of your translations gave you the most pleasure and for what reason?

Impossible to answer. I’m a lucky man. I’ve been offered great books. I’ve also managed to find outlets for those I “discovered” through e.g.  New Swiss Writing and the festival in Solothurn, or a study trip to the Leipzig Book Fair organised by the Goethe Institute.

Since I’m answering this question in the week of the 98th birthday of the author of my first translated book, I’ll single out Stella Rotenberg and Shards. Born in Vienna, Stella fled to the UK in 1939 and has lived here – divorced from her mother tongue – for over seventy years. Her poems are written in a language she has been aware, for decades now, of losing. I shall never forget how audiences responded to the poems – and Stella – when the book came out.

7) I’ve been trying to catch you for this interview since last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival – but you’re never in one place long enough. What have you been up to? Did you ever think that being a literary translator would be so jet-setting?

I think YOU decided last time that the interview should wait! That I’d enough on my plate!
Editor’s note: This is true. I saw your itinerary. Believe me, it was for your own good.

Jet-setting? I certainly didn’t expect to tour India one day with Urs Widmer. Or to go gigging in the States with Christoph Simon and Zbinden’s Progress. Or to be Tom Leonard’s interpreter when he was awarded the N C Kaser Prize in Lana. For me, that’s what it’s all about, though. Reaching out to audiences. Exchanging ideas with other writers and translators internationally. I am grateful to the LCB in Berlin, who like the Goethe Institute and Pro Helvetia, do so much to bring translators from all over the world together – in a bid, too, to improve the quality of translations. Those workshops / conferences – and translation houses like Looren in Switzerland – also help to foster to a greater sense of community among translators.

8) You’re an author as well as translator. Which role do you prefer? Have you thought of translating your own stories into German? Do you think they are translatable?

If I may answer your questions in the wrong order again.
Editor’s note: I can’t help asking them the wrong way around.  I was a breech birth.

Translate my own stories? No way! They’re hard enough to write. I have to dig so deep for the language. Translatable? Yes, by the right person. – Individual stories have been translated into different – often eastern European – languages. I remember listening to a Latvian version of an allergic reaction to national anthems at a festival in Riga. The translation was read by the translator’s husband. Andris is a radio man, and I could tell from his gestures, expressions and intonation that Valda Melgalve’s translation was something special. I knew at all times where Andris was in the story though I have just two words of Latvian. (“Labdien” and “paldies”, if you’re interested.)

As for author / translator and which I prefer: the trick is to get the balance right. To get to do both.

9)Which 3 works of German-language literature would you take to the proverbial desert island and why?
The dreaded question! On the assumption that German-language publishers and authors would find ways of getting their books to me, in glass bottles or via the ethernet, I’m opting for Raymond Carver Where I’m calling from, Bernard MacLaverty Selected Stories (forthcoming) and James Kelman Collected Stories(which will exist one day, I’m sure).
Editor’s note: I’ll allow that answer – we are talking about a fantasy island after all and I know how difficult it would be for you to recommend just 3 works of German lit.

10)You are allowed another book to take for translation purposes. Which would it be and why?
If you force me to choose, it has to be “the one that got away”: Rolf Lappert Nach Hause Schwimmen – an Irish-American novel by a Swiss writer, winner of the Swiss Book Prize in 2008 and shortlisted for the German Book Prize. The readers’ favourite, according to the FAZ. – Why? A translation is already overdue – and surely one day, an English-language publisher will get over the fact it runs to (almost) 450 pages!


Donal’s translations of Abbas Khider’s The Village Indian, Urs Widmer’s Frankfurt  lectures on poetics, On Life, Death, and This and That of the Rest (both Seagull) and Pedro Lenz’s naw much of a talker (Freight) will appear in the months ahead. His own new book, beheading the virgin mary and other stories, will be published by Dalkey Archive in 2014.

Hopefully his translation of My Father’s Book will appear on the BTBA shortlist on the 10th of April. Here’s  a link to a piece by Tess Lewis on why it should.

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As German Literature Month moves into genre fiction week, I’m delighted to introduce Sally-Ann Spencer, whose translated oeuvre is to be found mainly on the genre shelves (real or virtual).  We can argue later whether that should be true of her latest, Juli Zeh’s The Method, published in the UK in July 2012.

1) How did you become a literary translator?
I think this is the story for many literary translators, but it happened entirely by accident. I was working in publishing and we were looking for someone to translate a book from German. In the end, I started the job myself and discovered that I enjoyed it. For several years I translated in my spare time, but then I took on a 992-page novel and it became a full-time job.

2) Is your specialism in translating genre fiction self-chosen and influenced by your own reading preferences?
Again, this was more accidental than planned. My first big translation project was an environmental thriller, and after that I was offered a psychological thriller, followed by a fantasy novel. I guess the question as to what constitutes genre fiction is quite fraught, and I’m not sure I’d thought of it as my specialism. Mostly I read literary fiction (I’d count The Method in that bracket) but I read heaps of fantasy novels while I was translating The Dwarves.

3) What are the particular challenges of translating genre fiction?
It’s important to understand the conventions, of course, but that’s probably true of anything you translate. Different books come with different challenges. I had great fun dreaming up new names for the fantasy creatures in Markus Heitz’s Dwarves novels. On the downside, the length of the books was really testing. It’s difficult to hold 600+ pages in your head simultaneously, and you can’t read the script from start to finish in a single sitting, which I like to do in order to check consistency and tone. Translating the second volume in the series was even trickier as I had to keep thinking across both books. It’s also odd translating something that you know will have further instalments as you can’t predict the difficulties that a particular choice of word might create in future books!

4) You’re based in New Zealand – does the distance from Europe have any negative impact on your job or lifestyle?
Ah, it’s difficult to complain about the New Zealand lifestyle! Wellington is a really beautiful city, and life here unfolds at a slower pace than in the UK. With the Internet and email, you can translate from pretty much anywhere in the world. Initially, I felt a bit isolated, which is one of the reasons that I started a PhD at Victoria University, which has a centre for literary translation. Since then I’ve translated a couple of children’s books for Wellington-based Gecko Press and I’ve worked on a German-flavoured issue of the New Zealand literary journal Sport. Getting to know other people interested in translation here has been great.

5) Which of your translations gave you the most pleasure and for what reason?
Translating The Method was a wonderful experience for me, not least because I’ve always admired Juli Zeh’s work. I also had the opportunity to attend a workshop in Germany with the author and her various translators working in other languages. I’ve written a bit about that here.

6) Which is the longest work you have translated and how long did the translation take? Did you still like the book when you had finished the translation?
Frank Schätzing’s The Swarm comes to 992 pages in German but the volumes in the Dwarves series also run to 600+ pages, so it would be fair to say that I have indeed translated some very lengthy books. I spent about a year translating The Swarm, which included lots of time researching the factual elements of the novel – everything from the layout of Vancouver Aquarium to the science of freak waves. If you work with a book so intensely over such a long period I think you can’t help but like it – although ‘like’ is perhaps the wrong word. Maybe it simply becomes part of you. I still surprise myself and other people with odd facts about methane hydrates, annelid worms and oil rigs that somehow embedded themselves in my mind while I was translating Schätzing’s novel.

7) How did you become Juli Zeh’s translator?  What’s it like to follow in Christine Lo’s footsteps?
I’ve been a big fan of Juli Zeh’s work ever since Spieltrieb. Her German publisher and her British editor knew about my enthusiasm and gave me the opportunity to translate The Method, which was hugely exciting. It’s strange to pick up the work of someone who has previously been translated, particularly in the case of a writer like Zeh who has such a distinctive style. In the end I decided not to look at the previous translations, which I think perhaps is the only way. Later I read Christine Lo’s Eagles and Angels and Dark Matter (which I also love in German and in English) and it seemed to me that her voice was recognizably there in all three translated novels, which was what I had been hoping for.

8) Which 3 works of German literature would you take to the proverbial desert island and why?
Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities) and Juli Zeh’s Spieltrieb (as yet untranslated – I’m waiting for the call!). All three books are nice and long, wonderfully written and full of ideas, and I’m happy to read them over and over again. I might also take some comfort from the snowy surroundings of The Magic Mountain when I’m being scorched by the sun.

9) You are allowed another book to take for translation purposes. Which would it be and why?
Actually, this is something I’ve thought about previously (probably when I was supposed to be doing something else) and my answer was going to be Arno Schmidt’s hugely complicated Zettels Traum. It seemed like a suitably impossible project for an indefinite stay on a desert island, but I recently heard that John E. Woods has nearly completed an English-language translation. Obviously, I could still embark on my own desert-island version, but it rather undermines the idea of it as an unachievable goal that would occupy me forever.

10) Perhaps I could then persuade you to take Uwe Tellkamp’s 1000-page German Book Prize winning Der Turm?  I’m far too lazy to read it in the original.
Ah-ha! I bring good news…. Tellkamp’s novel is being translated into English as I type (http://frischand.co) by a poor translator, who probably isn’t marooned on a desert island. I think it would be a tough one to translate!

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