Monday, 14 June 2010

Wanted: Lively Young Men. On A Translators' Get-Together

It's that time of year again. Every summer the German literary translators meet up in the small medieval town of Wolfenbüttel for workshops and socialising. This year there were about 170 of us, plus a smattering of editors and interested parties.

The fun starts on the Friday with a lecture, this time an impromptu talk on the influence of translation on the European image of the Orient in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, the "translators" of 1001 Nights and other texts did more than a little compiling and inventing, which has a knock-on effect to this day - Aladdin and Sinbad, for example, aren't actually mentioned anywhere in the existing Arabic manuscripts. The Arabic translator Hartmut Fähndrich did a great job of filling in for a speaker gone AWOL, entertaining and informing us in his own inimitable way.

Friday night is time for readings. This year I attended the block on fantasy - not a genre I'm terribly informed about. Stephenie Meyer's translator Silke Hachmeister had us giggling with her reading from the fourth volume of teenage vampire love, and I was particularly impressed by Angela Plöger's reading from Troll, Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo's utterly literary love story with a twist. As always, I was bowled over by the effort translators put into their work, even in cases where the text may not be quite up to Shakespearean standards.

And on to Saturday, which is workshop day. In the afternoon I attended VDÜ-chairman Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel's session on moderating, which was productive and reassuring. I now know that even consummate professionals wet their pants before going on stage. So it's not just me, then.

My personal highlight, however, was the morning session with Arche/Atrium editor Tim Jung. Entitled "How to help your translation to success", the workshop looked at what translators can do to push their books. Now this subject was not uncontroversial. A few of the participants were very sceptical about the level of support they get from publishers - and whether it's the translator's job to help market their books. At first I thought it might be a generation conflict - certainly in the past, translators were widely treated as lowly cogs in the works, expected to deliver the text and shut up. So many of my more experienced colleagues tend to be rather cynical and resignatory, unsurprisingly so.

But then Jung told us what his - admittedly small-scale - publishing house does with its translators: they ask them for feedback. About the title, about how to describe the book to their sales reps, about how to sum the book up on an advertising poster, about all sorts of possible marketing stuff. And one very experienced translator told us how she'd felt about that: at first she was irritated, put out her spines as she said. She'd given up making suggestions and decided it wasn't her job and wasn't her problem. But in fact, this new attitude on the publisher's part is a sign of respect. For Jung, translators are authentic experts on their books and have a great deal more to offer publishers than the basic translation of a text.

This is something I feel very much a party to. OK, I translate into English, which makes me some kind of very exotic creature. I'm also a person who can get rather enthusiastic about things (as you may have noticed). And I don't always ask what's in it for me - partly because I genuinely enjoy sharing my enthusiasm with others, so I do get an immediate emotional reward for pushing my books. Of course it's a delicate balance. Translators are right to be wary about being exploited for free. I can understand the reaction one colleague expressed - that if an advertising exec thought up a slogan they'd get huge amounts of money, but a translator ends up doing it for nothing. Ideally, of course, translators get royalties, so it's in our own interest to sell more books. Unfortunately, it's not always that simple - but let's not go there.

I'm seeing more and more cases of translators being treated as experts on their books, rather than just lowly ferrymen transporting the text from one language bank to the other. Ulrich Blumenbach, for example, has been feted for his David Foster Wallace translations into German, Sarah Adams gave all sorts of interviews about her Faiza Guene book, and Susan Bernofsky does a great deal to share her love of Robert Walser's work. And German publishers are beginning to credit translators more prominently, some (including Arche/Atrium) including their brief bios after the writers' in their catalogues and the books themselves and even using their names as part of their advertising material, in the case of prominent people like Harry Rowohlt, Henning Ahrens and Silke Hachmeister.

I'd say that as we become more confident and organised as a profession - with institutions like the VDÜ or the PEN Translation Committee behind us - so the publishers and the media in general are coming to view us with greater respect. I was recently invited onto a panel and asked to write an article for a literary magazine, I've been asked for radio interviews and interviewed by other bloggers. And love german books has been featured in the Perlentaucher online literature and culture magazine three times (to my great delight - I nearly went to their office to thank them on bended knee, but they'd moved away. It'd probably have been embarrassing anyway.). My daughter thinks I'm famous.

To my mind, we translators can only embrace this development. And by helping to promote our books, be it on our websites, in email footers, on Facebook, at readings, through newsletters, by writing articles or translators' notes, or by whatever comes into our heads, we are ultimately confirming this new-found respect.

So. To round off the report, the Saturday evening was party time. Vera Bischitzky was awarded the Helmut M. Braem Prize for her new translation of Gogol's Dead Souls and gave a brief reading. Then there was food and then myself and my colleague Steph Morris magically transformed into DJs Lang 'n' Scheidt and made all those translators dance like their shoes were on fire until 3 in the morning. Much fun was had.

Having been forced to stay up past my bedtime, I didn't really appreciate the Sunday morning event, a talk between the German writer Wilhelm Genazino and his French and Dutch translators Anne Weber and Gerrit Bussink. But apparently it was very entertaining. Anne Weber also writes her own novels in French and German and then translates them herself, which she said tends to make them much shorter and more precise. And Bussink told us he only ever translates via dictaphone, apparently a great method for keeping the language real.

Finally, there was an appeal - the organisers of the weekend are seeking lively young men to join their ranks for next year. I too would not be adverse to a few more lively young men in Wolfenbüttel. Translation is a female-dominated profession, for reasons I won't go into here. So our get-togethers are veritable harems of highly attractive and intelligent women from 25 to 75. Which is great, don't get me wrong. But sometimes it's nice to have a bit of a garnish to look at.

For another view of the events, check out the VDÜ's Twitter thing.


Jan Groh said...

Very nice read as always, Katy, especially about the translators getting more respect as experts for their books! :-)
It nevertheless sounds like a mixed blessing, and not only because translators don't get paid for their PR contributions. Over the last years publishers have sourced out (fired - and sometimes hired back on a freelance basis) a lot of their editors. In fact, AFAIK, the editors' daily chores today are mainly done by literary agents in Germany and only the final work on the books that made it into the program is still done by internal or external editors of the publishers.
Now translators seem to fill in the editing gap regarding translated titles. Of course this shows respect for the translators' expertise, yet at the same time the work of two people is done by one (with or without an appropriate financial compensation). But at the same time s step of control and improvement is eliminated. Translators without doubt are authors. Yet, they might end up as authors without editors - and, imho, that's by no means helpful for the quality of books. At least I'd highly mistrust any publisher who should ant to publish my works without a thorough discussion with an editor and probably lots of major and minor changes to the book (although discussions like that always hurt my ego). A well-meaning editor is a great invention for every author. So I hope publisher won't cancel additional editing of translations.

kjd said...

Jan, I don't see that happening. Translations are still being edited, perhaps by freelancers, perhaps less intensively than previously. But it's still happening in Germany (unlike in many other countries, where neither writers nor translators ever have the support of an editor.).

Anke Burger said...

DANKE fuer den Superbericht, Katy! Lieber Gruss von Anke Burger

schultzie said...

Define young...

kjd said...

Under 50? We're talking translators here, not male models.

Brad said...

Hey Katy, great description. Steph had mentioned it when I was at the translation lab a couple months ago. I will try to go next year (is it always in Wolfenbüttel?).

kjd said...

Thanks Brad. Yes, it's been in Wolfenbüttel for several years now and will be in the years to come, as the town is very accommodating and welcoming.

Gregor said...

I'm 28, male, and last year I was there. I wouldn't have minded some more young male garnish to look at either. hehe! next year I'll be there again and try to make for a decent Amarena cherry. btw, thanks for this very entertaining report!