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Loving German Books: an Interview with Translator Katy Derbyshire

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose By Jaya Bhattacharji Rose Published on August 28, 2017
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photo credit Anja Pietsch

Katy Derbyshire comes from London and has lived in Berlin for more than twenty years. She translates contemporary German fiction. She was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 for her translation of Clemens Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar. She has translated 23 books of fiction so far, by writers such as Inka Parei, Helene Hegemann, Christa Wolf, Simon Urban, and Annett Gröschner. She usually manages two or three books in a year, depending on the length. She also maintains an informative blog that focuses on “biased and unprofessional reports on German books, translation issues and life in Berlin”.


Why and how did you become a professional translator? Do you consider translation as an art or a craft?

I was in Berlin but didn’t have a sustainable way of earning a decent living. So I thought about what I could do, and translation seemed a possibility. I began with commercial translation and really enjoyed the act of translating, but quickly grew tired of the material. And then I tried hard to move into literary translation, which worked out after five years or so.

I don’t want to draw a line between art and craft in translation. Part of it is inspiration and part of it is a question of practice. Rather like writing itself, I’d say.


How do you select a text for translation?

Texts have to grab me; if I find myself translating in my mind while listening to or reading a writer, I know I’d like to work on their book. But they also have to “work” on the English-language market because I have to convince a publisher to buy the translation rights and commission me. So again, it’s a mixture of personal passion and pragmatic aspects.


Are translations "ageless" or, to use Haruki Murakami's phrase, do they need to be "rewashed" depending on the time they are published?

I think books that stand the test of time usually benefit from new translations. As a craft, literary translation passes through fashions but we’ve also got better at it as new resources have become available to us. It’s far easier for us to research on the word level now, and we can communicate readily with our writers. Scholars have teased out meanings that might have been missed previously. Editors are no longer as brutal with translations as they were in the 1950s and 60s, either, when whole passages were cut. So new translations often sparkle in a way earlier ones didn’t, yes, to pick up on the washing metaphor.


What happens when you come across phrases that are untranslatable in the destination language? Do you incorporate the phrase from the original text in the translated text as is or do you attempt to translate it?

That really depends on the nature of the book, the style of the writing. I translate almost exclusively contemporary writers, so the most common example I come across is pop-cultural references that won’t be familiar to a non-German readership. There are times when I’ll insert a subtle explanation of what’s meant, or on other occasions I’ll substitute a similar phenomenon or phrase that still makes sense in the context. Or I might leave things the way they are and translate literally, perhaps adding an “as the saying goes” or perhaps not. There’s a lot of weighing up of what might work, trying different things out.


You have translated texts set in or written during different periods of time including the recent past, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. How important is historical accuracy in using the right word in vogue at the time the story is set or written as opposed to using a more appropriate but perhaps a modern word in the translation at the time of publication?

Again, I let the original text be my guide. If the writing has a linguistic patina, if you like, I’ll try to use words that are equally dated. Translators who work on older material spend a lot of time researching word origins and whether their choices might be anachronistic. But there’s also an argument for modernising older writing, making it more relevant to today’s readers, as many translators of Shakespeare or Classical texts have done over the centuries.


At which point when you are revising the translated text do you give up looking at the original text and only focus on readability of the final text?

Actually, fairly early on, after the first or second draft. Because I work with living writers, they’ll sometimes look through the translation and find occasional points where I’ve veered further away from the original. They usually don’t mind. The English version has to work, that’s the most important thing to me.

I suppose my ideal reader would be someone who admires the writing as much as I do. But first I have to render that writing beautifully and get the style across in English.

When you translate do you have an ideal reader in mind?

Not consciously, no. I’m never sure how much cultural knowledge my readers will have of German settings, for instance, and I find it hard to judge how much might need explaining and unpacking. That’s one of the reasons good editors are essential. I suppose my ideal reader would be someone who admires the writing as much as I do. But first I have to render that writing beautifully and get the style across in English. So I suppose what I have is a sense of duty towards my unknown readers, and a desire to please them.

There is no complete satisfaction. Translation – and writing – is never perfect. 

When do you know a translation project is complete and to your satisfaction? How many drafts does it take to reach this stage?

There is no complete satisfaction. Translation – and writing – is never perfect. I write about four drafts, then the book goes to the editor and there are two or three more versions and a copy edit, and even then there are things that make me cringe in the printed book. I’ve learned to let it go. It doesn’t keep me awake at night as often as it used to.


When you translate does the subject of the stories affect you as a person? Does it impact the quality of translation?

The subject affects me very much, yes. To translate requires a kind of mental immersion into the stories, shucking on the characters’ skin, and we have to relate to and re-narrate their experiences. It’s hard to tell whether that impacts the quality of the translation. I think it’s unavoidable – certainly for me – so I don’t know what a translation would look like if I managed to switch it off.


What kind of research does a translation process require?

That depends very much on the book. Sometimes we need to find terminology or understand procedures; boxing or geology or medical matters have all come up over the years. Sometimes it’s more a question of reading around the novel to find a similar voice, or reading the writer’s inspirations. I like to know more than one of each writer’s books, if they have more than one, to help me work out what devices they use deliberately. Sometimes it’s as simple as blocking out movements described in a novel or visiting a real-life setting.


Do you translate more than one book simultaneously or is it in quick succession? If the latter, how much time do you give yourself between projects?

I don’t work simultaneously on more than one book project; I’d be worried they’d bleed into one another, style-wise. But I do let translations steep for a couple of weeks before I do a final edit and send them to the publisher, to get a fresher look at them. And after that I’ll try and mark the occasion in some small way, and then I’m ready to move on.  

An international publishing consultant and book evangelist. I am passionate about the world of books and anything to do with words. My blog since its launch recently has acquired nearly 4.5 ... Show More