A reader asks:
I just heard a report on Deutsche Welle about Tellkamp meeting his translators and had to wonder about how they are chosen.
I suggest that translators who are willing to be interviewed by the "German World Service" and complain that they don't really understand a lot of the GDR references (the exasperated question "what is Pittiplatch?" was one of my favourites - even Wikipedia in English supplies the answer to that one, though I think it was the Spanish translator who was feeling a bit lost) was on and that makes it all too complicated need
- a bit more cultural education;
- to learn to use google;
- to consider whether they are translating the right kind of books;
- to consider what they say into a microphone as this could affect how people see their competence.
So: how do translators get picked? Is it often a coincidence?
I'd like to answer KMS's question in more detail. And to call your attention to a related Deutsche Welle article here, which looks at some of the difficulties involved with translating Der Turm.
Translators get picked, essentially and to my modest knowledge, by the publisher that buys the translation rights to the book. In some cases writers have their own translators who work on all their books, for example Ingo Schulze is translated by John E. Woods. But others, like Günter Grass, have been translated by all manner of different talented people: Breon Mitchell, Michael Henry Heim, Krishna Winston, Michael Hamburger, Ralph Manheim.
In this case, though, Uwe Tellkamp pretty much shot out of nowhere, so there was probably nobody out there with experience of translating him, which would presumably have helped matters. So I assume the publishers started asking around for translators. If a publishing house is experienced with translations they'll have people they've worked with before, who they know and trust. And they'll be the first people they turn to. With an award-winning book like Der Turm there's probably a certain amount of time pressure involved to get it out within a decent interval, so if their regular translator from German is tied up they'll keep asking around until they find someone else.
I can't comment about Spain or Bulgaria, but in Germany literary translators often specialise in a certain field, for example Latin American literature or books by young writers or chick lit or books with lots of equestrian terminology in them or the Beat Generation. In Britain and the States that's not so much the case, as so few translations are published. So you get someone like Ross Benjamin, who's translated Hölderlin and Vennemann and is working on Joseph Roth and Thomas Pletzinger, a fairly eclectic smorgasbord of German-language literature. Or indeed Michael Henry Heim, who translates out of about fifteen different languages.
In other cases, translators will tout titles they'd like to translate to publishers, and I'd say that this, when it works, is the ideal case as the translator will be extremely familiar with and passionate about the book. Some people are reluctant to do this though, especially if they're not very established themselves, because they fear the publishers will say, "Thanks, great idea, we'll get X to do it for us!" But that's just the risk you have to run. In most cases when I've done this, I've been happy to get even a rejection letter, but I do hope there are others out there who do the same, as a kind of Chinese water torture method of infiltrating the publishing market.
The short answer, then, is: yes, there's a certain amount of coincidence involved.
The other point I want to make is in specific defence of the poor Spanish translator...
Not everyone has the fortune to live in Berlin, where Pittiplatsch is an everyday sight and an eternally boring subject of conversation (you know those conversations Brits get into about children's TV shows as soon as two people of the same generation are in one room? Pittiplatsch is the East German equivalent to Mister Ben in that context, only odder). So not knowing a fairly obscure thing like that is something translators come up against every day. She probably did google him, but does Wikipedia give you a true idea of all the associations a certain character or term conjures up in the (East) German reader's mind?
I wouldn't want to question her ability on the basis of this one question, no matter how it appears to reflect on her competence. But of course translators are notoriously bad at blowing their own trumpets. I bet none of them turned up at the workshop in Straelen saying, "Actually, I didn't find it that difficult, as I'm an expert on the bourgeoisie in 1980s Dresden, and my medicine degree and military training came in handy for all the specialist terminology too..."