Four literary translators in a beer garden. And what do they talk about? Well, the significance of the year 1866 in German history, why on earth anyone would want to drink Berliner Weisse, children and grandchildren, books - and translation issues.
And quite a controversial discussion ensued. There's one issue in my translation of Helene Hegemann's Axolotl Roadkill that's causing me a few headaches. Fairly often, the narrator or other characters will namedrop German celebrities. And the choice I face then is to leave them "in the original" or to replace them with some other, more international celebrity. So far, I've come up against Beate Uhse, Alice Schwarzer, Uschi Obermaier and Rudi Carell. And possibly others who I can't think of right now. Hegemann uses them as a kind of shorthand - all her German readers will understand what narrator Mifti means when she describes her sister as a blend of Beate Uhse, Alice Schwarzer and Mother Theresa. But will anybody else?
On the other hand, the novel is very much tied in to its Berlin setting. The characters are Germans and their cultural framework is German - although of course, this being 2010, there are huge overlaps, with other famous people cropping up including Madonna, Brian Wilson and Bryan Ferry - just to list a few off the top of my head. So would it not seem odd if the celebrities scattered in didn't include any Germans, for local colour if you like?
Things get really tough when you go deeper into the moral and philosophical side of translation. With whom do my loyalties lie - the writer or the reader, the original or the translation? Is it disrespectful to Hegemann to replace her celebrities with people British readers would be more familiar with - or am I doing the readers of the translation a disservice if I don't help them to get the joke? Because in the case of Rudi Carrell, for example, it's hugely funny that someone would get a tattoo of a deceased Dutch entertainer who once came second-to-last in the Eurovision Song Contest.
In a certain kind of book, translators can work around this issue. Translator's notes, footnotes, building in three-word explanations - there are various options. But when characters are talking crap on Class-A drugs, the translator really can't slip in a quick bit of background detail on Uschi Obermaier. Or at least this translator's not going to. And there's always that tricky question of who's going to read the book in English - what level of knowledge about German society can I assume in the target audience? Who is the target audience? Am I being patronising or dumbing down the text?
I'm fairly convinced I really do have to come up with replacements. So far, so good - but who are the equivalents? Here's what I've come up with to date (bear in mind the translation is for the British market, and it's not finished yet):
Beate Uhse: Ann Summers
Alice Schwarzer: Germaine Greer
Uschi Obermaier: Bianca Jagger
Rudi Carrell: OMG, I have no idea. Terry Wogan? Bruce Forsyth? Dudley Moore? Actually, none of these will work very well - because why would a German taxi-driver get a tattoo of a British television personality? Oh, drat.
Any suggestions gratefully received, while I continue to lie awake at night wrestling with my translatorly conscience over the issue of intervention.