Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation?
You know, in this case the book itself stood alone, perhaps because I now know Clemens’s work so well. For previous translations I’ve read Hemingway short stories, sex workers’ writing, a gangster memoir, e.e. cummings, Grimms’ fairy tales, David Peace, Wolfgang Hilbig translated by Isabel Cole, and I think parts of the Qur’an. For While We Were Dreaming, I did try watching Top Boy to get a feeling for how teenage boys talk, especially about drugs – but it felt too much of its own time and place. It wouldn’t make sense for boys in 1990s Leipzig to sound like Dushane and Sully.
What was your path to becoming a translator of literary fiction? What would you say to someone who is considering such a career for themselves?
I started translating non-literary stuff because it was one of the few steady jobs I could do in Berlin without German qualifications, back in the late ’90s. So I was earning a living and enjoying the mechanics of translation, but not necessarily the material. As my German got more sophisticated I discovered more and more books I wanted English-speakers to be able to read – I became a real evangelist! But from there to actually getting literary translations published was a leap. I didn’t have any connections to UK publishing at all. The turning point was twofold: A German publisher recommended me to a British house (the great Anthea Bell was busy) and I attended the British Centre for Literary Translation’s summer school, where I met some amazing people, including Stefan Tobler, who later set up And Other Stories and published my first translation of Clemens Meyer, the collection All the Lights. It took me a long time to say out loud that I wanted to translate literature, and a lot of sample translations, submissions to journals, organising of events and general graft to get there.
If you’re considering it, I’d say: make sure you have a day job, work on writing you love, spend time in the country or countries of your source language, try and cultivate a thick skin but keep on keeping on. And read, read, read, in both languages!
Why do you feel it’s important for us to celebrate translated fiction?
I don’t think translated fiction has any inherent value that un-translated fiction doesn’t have; reading it won’t make us better people or necessarily teach us anything about its settings. But if we’re celebrating fiction, why should we limit ourselves to work created only in one language? Why restrict our horizons when there’s a whole world out there? I like to imagine translation enabling a criss-crossing of ideas between writers and readers – and writers and other writers – around the globe. Perhaps the best comparison might be music: put simply, if Jamaican musicians hadn’t melded New Orleans-style rhythm & blues with mento and calypso (themselves composed of many influences), we wouldn’t have reggae and all its many offshoots. Translated fiction helps that cross-pollination to come about, helps keep literature vibrant.
If you had to choose three works of fiction that have inspired your career the most, what would they be and why?
Conrad the Factory-Made Boy by Christine Nöstlinger, translated by Anthea Bell, is the first translated book I remember reading, in class at middle school. It’s an anarchic tale of a perfect boy wrongly delivered in a tin can to a chaotic single woman, and aside from not quite understanding the layout of their block of flats, it seemed like a perfectly normal – if wildly outrageous – book at the time. I assume I didn’t even know it was translated, or indeed set in Austria. But it certainly enriched my childhood reading, and my son loved it later on. I’d say that experience taught me that translated fiction isn’t necessarily exotic.
I love Breon Mitchell’s 2009 retranslation of The Tin Drum, Günter Grass’s classic. It’s so exuberantly done, really embracing the possibilities the English language grants us. Even the first page features gorgeous words such as cartilaginous, impales, manifold… and the rhythm is deeply satisfying, with one paragraph ending ‘and drops his polychrome plans’. To me, it’s an example of how deep respect for a book doesn’t necessarily mean opting for the most obvious translation – Mitchell celebrates the narrator’s tone in each of his choices. It has been genuinely inspiring.
The most recent work of fiction to inspire me, career-wise, is Jen Calleja’s Vehicle. The author translates from German, writes poetry and prose, runs a small press and is also a musician. Her novel is great feminist fun, part let’s-get-the-band-back-together roadtrip, part a Scooby-gang of rogue researchers in a dystopian future, part experimental narrative. I’m reading it for the second time right now and it’s seeping into my dreams. The book centres translation as a creative act of rebellion – against a closed and conservative society, and also against personal isolation. What could be more inspiring for a literary translator?