So my first trip to Switzerland prompted a bit of a mindfuck, if you'll pardon me saying so. First of all - surprise! - Switzerland is totally different to Germany. I guess I'd thought it'd be like the difference between Ireland and England. Different state, sort of similar culture, some difficulties but you can more or less get by. But no! First of all they do things totally differently. They put coffee in their alcohol and not the other way around, for one thing. And then I got to Zurich airport and couldn't understand a word people said to me. Apparently I have a Berlin accent when I speak German, but I found Swiss German totally incomprehensible. Different vocabulary, different structures, totally different pronunciation. People did make an effort when speaking to me directly but there were plenty of moments when I just stood there looking blank, clutching at contextual straws to figure out what they might have said. And on public transport I just relaxed entirely, letting other people's dialect conversations - otherwise a tad annoying, you might agree - wash over me in ignorant bliss.
The occasion was a translation workshop at the Translation House at Looren. Five German-to-English translators, five English-to-German translators and two very experienced and lovely workshop leaders got together to work closely on our texts. That meant devoting two hours to the respective four pages or so each of us had submitted as part of the application. Pretty gut-wrenching stuff. I arrived thinking I was fairly alright at my job and was plunged into a pit of self-doubt as my colleagues and I picked vulture-like over the carcasses of our craft. You'd be amazed at how many things there are to talk about in four pages of literary translation.
Back at my desk, however, I'm very glad I took part. I learned, at least, that all of us are in a constant learning process. Just as there is no perfect piece of writing, so there is no perfect translation. As my friend Isabel Cole pointed out, if translation weren't impossible we wouldn't enjoy attempting it. It's important for us to question what we do - phrases like "I tend to..." are poison for our creativity. And especially for those of us working with editors who don't read the original language, it's incredibly useful to have native speakers look over our translations. One of the most fascinating things was that all of us accused writers in our "opposite" languages of exactly the same crimes: using sloppy tenses, long sentences, comma splices and too many nouns. I'm now collecting long sentences in English writing - Paul Auster has a great one about his mother in Granta 117. Just to stop me giving a shit about leaving sentences long in my translations - when I don't think they'd work better shorter, that is. Because maybe sometimes you come out of things with your mantras confirmed, no matter how much the things mess with your head. And I'd still say, the only rule I want to abide by for my translations is that there are no rules.
Between, during and around the workshop sessions we also talked about other stuff. How to help reviewers remember we exist, how to cope with flawed originals and old translations, what to read alongside our work, what to do about all different people having translated extracts from one book. All rather inspiring, and you'll hear more about some of it here in future, no doubt. We also had a visit from Swiss writer Urs Widmer, who was utterly charming and delightful. To my shame, I haven't yet read his books, but I will. In My Father's Book, he writes about his father's obsession with translation and about his acquaintance, the farmer-cum-publisher whose house was converted to the Translation House. It was wonderful to hear him reading about the man and his books in the beautiful building where he once lived.
Translators! If you get a chance to apply for one of these Vice Versa workshops, which are run in various language combinations with German in various places by the Deutscher Übersetzerfonds, please do. It will be painful but incredibly good for you. And the food - at least in Looren - is delicious.