Episode Six: Courageous Decisions
Katy Derbyshire’s skilful interpretations have made her a favourite amongst readers of German books in translation. Amongst her many works is Bricks and Mortar, originally written in German by Clemens Meyer, which was published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions and longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International.
Katy came to translation tangentially whilst seeking a way to remain in Berlin. After years “apprenticing” via commercial translation, she found her way to literary works and now, her love for what she does is contagious. In this episode she details her career path and shares tips on how to become a successful literary translator.
The Think in Translation podcast is a literary podcast series featuring international authors, translators, publishers and booksellers, with the aim of making translated books accessible to all readers.
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You're listening to Think in Translation, a literary podcast from Vagabond Voices in Glasgow.
The series is made up of conversations with international authors, translators, publishers and booksellers, with the aim of making translated books more accessible.
Episodes air every second Thursday.
This week's guest is Katy Derbyshire. Katy is a German literary translator and translation teacher. In this episode she talks about how she got started, her own process and the growing critical response to translation.
I’m Katy Derbyshire and I translate from German to English. I do actually have a favourite translation, and it is The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney. There are two things I love about it: the first is that the language really really sparkles in English. It’s very very witty which is often hard to capture, and the second is that Christina MacSweeney wrote her own chapter and added it on to the end of the book, because it’s set in Mexico City and there are all these strange goings-on that obviously Mexican readers understand, but non-Mexican readers might not, and she gives us this whole special timeline in the same kind of comic tone as the novel is in. It’s really innovative, very very funny, and just a really new and witty approach to that problem we often have in translation of, how will our readers understand what’s going on?
I kind of came to translation on a slight tangent. I mean I studied German literature in the UK, and then moved to Berlin, where a British degree in German literature is not really a very valuable asset, and I was doing various crappy jobs, and thinking, Okay if I want to stay here I do need to find a way to earn a decent living, and started translating kind of commercial texts, and I really loved the act of translating. I really still enjoy moving text from one language to the other, but the excitement palled rather when you get to the fifteenth annual report or the twenty-seventh set of advertising copy, and I wanted to move into literary translation – partly also because Berlin is a very very literary city so there’s always a wealth of events going on. It’s a very event-based literary culture actually. There’s a lot of readings. You could probably any night choose three or four events to go to.
And so I was surrounded by great contemporary writers, and wanted to find a way to be translating their work, sharing it – I think that’s a particularly common factor amongst translators is that kind of evangelical drive to share books that you love with other people who can’t read your source language, and that’s what I ended up doing. I had a lot of luck, and I worked hard, and I’m excited to be able to do it now.
I think literary translation is something that, like writing, you need a bit of practice to get good at it. And I know that a lot of translators also write, and learn the art of writing kind of in parallel to translation, but for me, it was very much part of the process. So when I was doing commercial translation, I kind of look back on that as an apprenticeship in different kinds of writing, which are equally valid, I think. That kind of dry, academic writing that I particularly disliked translating. Or advertising copy, or contracts, are also forms of writing. But then it took me a long time to actually get paid for literary translation. So I think the first couple of years was in that sense a writing apprenticeship in relating the writers – the German writers who I was translating – getting little extracts or short stories published in magazines. Translating samples for German publishers to send out. Helping editors around the world to read parts of novels that they couldn’t otherwise.
Making that move that I talked about from commercial translation to literary translation, I didn’t expect to enjoy it quite as much I think. ‘Cause I really do still, I think, maybe kind of eight or nine years in to the actual literary work, still sit down at my desk and feel kind of calmed, and feel like, Oh god, this is exactly what I want to be doing. And of course every day, you know, you have annoying little administrative tasks that I have to get out of the way before I can sit down and get down to the translation, but I didn’t expect, I think, to find a job that I would continually enjoy quite as much as I find myself enjoying literary translation still. So that was a surprise.
Probably what keeps it that exciting is, of course, every book is different, and every writer works differently, so although the task is essentially the same, the challenge is always going to be new, and always working with a new voice, changing every kind of, four to six months, depending on how long the book is and how hard it is to work on. So I suppose that’s what keeps it fresh.
I do have a kind of a basic process. How I do my translation drafts stays the same, but I do feel like I need to battle with my brain’s habits and say, Okay, I need to do this differently, I need to take a different approach for every book, because the brain is a lazy organism, and that’s why it works so well, because it has these well-trodden pathways, and I do try and take new pathways to achieve the right translation, so if that means... Sometimes I will change the place where I’m working and try and... If there’s a particular chapter or passage that I find quite harrowing I’ll try and do it in a place where I won’t usually be translating, so that that place doesn’t take on a kind of toxic aura from the content of what I’m working on. Also very occasionally I will not read the text through from the beginning before I start translating. If it’s short enough I’ll try doing that so I am surprised by the text as I’m working on it. But usually I’m not from that school of translation.
There are translators who swear by that: I’m going to dive in at the deep end. I’m not going to look at this book before. That’s not how I work. I often am the person who has brought the book to the UK publishers in the first place, so I’ve obviously read it – several times usually – before I sit down to translate it. And I’ve written reviews or reports on it, so that’s hard, and also, for me personally, it’s important to know the book’s rhythm, what repetition crops up where, where are words coming up that are going to be important later on, to see if I can nail them the first time round, which doesn’t usually work, but it’s all a process, and if I have five months to work on something, then that word on page three, when it comes up on page seventy-six, I might find a better solution. It’s all a kind of calm, repetitive, activity in a way. It does have the advantage that it’s creative as well as calm and repetitive. I don’t think everybody finds it calm and repetitive. Maybe that’s just me.
It is a truism that German has very long sentences, and often the verb is at the very end of that sentence. So, for interpreters for example it’s a complete nightmare because you kind of have to bluff your way through half a minute before you understand what’s going on, and that is quite difficult to render into English, but actually English has a lot of tricks that we can play to do that. So we can actually put a lot of information before the verb in English as well. We can kind of wiggle the sentences around, which is fun. And I think a lot of translators from German share this kind of crazy passion for trying to keep sentences as long as possible in English, which is fun. It doesn’t make it easy to read, but it kind of approximates the experience that a German reader might have when reading those very long sentences.
And the other thing that German and a number of other languages do, is have these two different forms of address: so we have a formal and informal, like in French as well. That’s always a challenge, to find a natural way to say at what point do these two characters in a dialogue switch from formal to informal, and how can I... Do I need to tell my readers that in English? If so, how can I do it? Can I have them calling each other Mrs and Mrs and then suddenly say, “Oh, call me by my first name,” which is kind of James Bond-ish... And I know from translators who work from English to German, they have to make that decision on behalf of their characters. It’s interesting when they do that has changed over the years, so if you watch old films dubbed into German, they’ll do that, so James Bond will make that shift very late in the relationship, just before he gets into bed with the lady, and nowadays that happens much earlier on. A challenge, but part of the fun.
When I’m teaching, the one thing that I want to do is break my students’ habits, so I teach literary translation, only one week a year, but a lot of people come with kind of preconceived notions of how writing ought to be, how translation ought to be, how we say things in English. And I quite often hear the words, “Oh no no we wouldn’t say that.” And my aim is to spend a week with those participants and to have, to kind of break down those fixed ideas about what translation is, and what English is, and what German is, and to say, Look, you need to go with the text and you also need to be courageous with your own voice, and you need to look at each project with fresh eyes and not do the same thing as you did last time, which is something I also try in my own work. But above all, I think, courageous, would be the quality I’m aiming for in my work, and something I want to pass on to other translators.
So there is something that is exciting me in the wider world of translation and translation reception at the moment and that’s that translators are getting increased recognition and that’s important to us I think. I can see that critics are making an effort to think about what we’ve done and to recognise our contribution to the success of a book as a whole, and I and other translators are also thinking about how we can judge whether a translation works well or not, in quite a pragmatic way, which is something that I hadn’t thought about before. And one of the things that I’m working on is just learning to appreciate what is a good translation and to be able to define what about it is good. So to say, Oh my goodness, this novel in English really captures a kind of particularly French mood, or something like that. Or to be able to say, It’s really really funny, and it’s translated from Hebrew, how on earth has the translator done that? And to kind of rescue jokes across languages is really really difficult. I’m thinking a lot about that at the moment and hoping that other people will be thinking about it too and kind of discussing it on Twitter and in various online places. So, exciting.
If we judge writing in itself according to its own parameters, if we try and assess what has the writer tried to achieve here and how well has she managed that? I’m starting to think maybe we can apply that same idea to translations – to say, Okay, what has the translator done here, and does it work? So I’m thinking about a particular example which is a German novel from the thirties: Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl, and it was translated into English a good few years ago by a woman called Kathie von Ankum, and what she did, she kind of relocated the language in a kind of Sex and the City setting, and really brought it up to date. So although we were reading about a young woman in pre-Nazi Berlin, the sound, the tone of it, was very contemporary to... 2011 I think it was published. And that was a really interesting thing to do. I think as a matter of taste, whether you like it – because some people might want to have the illusion that they’re reading something that was written and translated in 1931 kind of thing – but um, I think as an exciting experiment – and translation is a place where we should be allowed to experiment in that way – I think the publishing world needs to look at where it’s taking literature from that’s getting translated, so which languages, which countries, and to have a broader spectrum because for however many years, probably centuries, what gets translated into English is mostly from French, German and Spanish, and there’s actually a lot more out there. I think we’re moving in leaps and bounds towards that happening.
So we have people like Tilted Axis Press bringing us stories from Asia. We have a lot more coming out of Eastern European countries after a kind of a lull at the end of the Cold War when it was no longer politically important to hear those Eastern European voices, which I think happened in the Cold War – that those things were getting translated and then as we came into the nineties, the history had finished and there was no need for us to look any further than our own boundaries, linguistic and geographical. And I think now we’re moving away from that, becoming more open, but there’s still a long way to go.
My hope is that translations... the next frontier that translation crosses, is to start seeing literature as a global phenomenon rather than in terms of nations and languages. So that would mean for me, in a specific way, having, say, events where it’s not just translated writers on stage, but it’s, say, a UK writer with a writer from Nigeria, who writes in English as well, and then also a let’s say Estonian writer, and the three of them talking about, you know whatever people talk about at these literary events – writing itself, or poetry, or portraying women, or getting over writer’s block, you know?
I think it’s a question actually when we say “frontier” I’d like to actually knock down the boundaries between translated and non-translated literature and to understand writing and fiction as something global where writers from all over the place can influence each other, and I’m hoping that that will happen as we find it easier to live all over the world, that writers will come get into conversations with other writers in the places where they happen to be living at any one point. I don’t see it happening as much as I would like in Berlin, where I live, because there is somewhat of a language barrier still. But translation can only help, so I hope that we come to a kind of utopian language-free zone of literature where everything is just writing rather than “translated” or “original”.
Thanks for listening to Think in Translation.
This show is made possible by the support of The Space and Creative Scotland
For more information about Vagabond Voices and Think in Translation, including blog posts exploring translation from various angles, visit vagabondvoices.co.uk
Our music, “Puid Metsa”, is written and performed by Matthew Hyde and his Quintet.
The show is produced and edited by Alex Blott.