Thursday, 8 November 2012

Time for a Rant: Actors v. Translators

I forgot to say at this interview that a blog is a wonderful platform for a nice private rant. And here's one that's been brewing for a while, after we talked about it at our recent workshop: when publishers or event organisers fly a writer in for readings (mostly to Germany) and then put her on stage with an actor to read the translation - often even in the actual city where the translator lives.

I've heard similar anecdotes a number of times, and even accompanied translators to events where they sat unacknowledged in the audience while an actor read the words they wrote. Let me tell you, that's pretty humiliating. It seems that people aren't picking up on the idea of simply asking the translator whether she'd like to do that job, at least if she's going to be there anyway. Is it a communications breakdown?

My German translator friends tell me they sometimes get an email from an editor they work with saying, Hey, guess what, your author's going to be in town on Tuesday! Would you like to come along? Worse still: Hey, guess what, your author was in town last Tuesday! Why didn't you come along? Whereas what ought to be happening, in an ideal world, is that the editor informs the translator the minute they know the writer is coming over, and asks her whether she'd like to read from her translation.

German publishing houses will often have people who take care of events specifically, because readings are very important for the literary landscape here. And I'm guessing that these people may sometimes be the loose connection where things are going wrong. I don't know enough about how these things work so I'm moving on thin ice here, but my next guess is that if someone other than the publisher organises an event with a translated writer, which is very often the case, they won't have the information about the translator. And that's where I think the publisher's events people could easily step in and say, Ah, my file here says the writer's translator lives in your city! I'll send you her contact details so you can ask if she'd like to read.

Or, as a friend pointed out, authors will often have had some contact with their translator in advance. They could possibly get in touch too and ask that all-important question.

Of course not everyone's going to say yes. Some people would rather not read in front of an audience, which is fine. Or they might hate the writer's guts, in which case they probably wouldn't want to share the same space. But in many cases, a translator of a specific text has specific insights and can read that text better than an actor could. A case in point is Ingo Herzke, a Hamburg-based translator who holds readings with his writer A.L. Kennedy. In fact - as if by magic, the perfect best-practice example - he's chairing an event with her at the LCB next Thursday. And need I mention Hamburg's most famous translator, beardo extraordinaire Harry Rowohlt? A man who makes a living out of reading his translations better than anyone else possibly could? The German translators' association offers regular events helping people to train for readings. Event organisers - think of all you're missing out on!

In the other direction, i.e. when translated writers get invited to the UK, I've had some very positive experiences of being put on the podium, not only to interpret and read but also to share a couple of insights. I try not to hog the limelight too much. But of course translated literature has a very different status there than it does in Germany, where it's much less exotic.

I shall be reading in Berlin soon. I just thought I'd mention that. I was delighted to be asked.

Update: Please read the comments section for a detailed description of the event organiser's view!


Stefanie Ericke-Keidtel said...

So, as promised – here I am, trying again. Well, first of all let me say that I agree with your rant as such, but just for fairness’s sake let me still try to give you an/my event-organizer’s perspective and shed some light on some of the why and why nots... So yes, ideally, if I’m planning a reading with foreign authors (I curate and organize the youth section of the international Harbour Front festival in Hamburg, for example), I personally prefer to have the translator of the book on board – either as the one reading the German parts, or even as both host (Moderator?) and reader. Apart from the fact that I think it is interesting and of added value what the translators do and think, they know the book best, and I’ve had great events where that just worked out brilliantly: Ingo Herzke with Kate de Goldi come to my mind immediately, Timothée de Fombelle with Tobias Scheffel, Andy Stanton with Harry Rowohlt*, and more. These are all great translators who also read and discuss really well and (*if in good mood ;)) make for wonderful pairings on stage.
But now for the „but’s“. First of all, you made me think of how the whole thing actually starts – I look at the new programs of the publishing houses, talk to some editors, but mostly talk to the people in the pr/events-departments. And I am just thinking that they probably don’t have as much to do with the translators as the editors do, and they mainly have to think of „selling an event“, if you know what I mean. So what often happens, especially if the author might not be so super well-known, is that you try to find someone who will make the people notice your reading a bit more, and that is where the actors etc come in. You know that they will read well, because that is their job, but they also might get the media and the potential audience to notice: „Oh, I don’t know Chad Harbach yet, but I do like Tom Schilling and hm, that sounds interesting and I’d like to see him live, too“. So that is definitely one major reason to hire actors – it’s a lot about costs (of course, some of them are more expensive in the first place, but you also expect them to sell out the theatre or whatever more easily) and also about visibility and marketing. And I don’t think that’s necessarily bad or wrong, I’ve often done it like that myself and that can also lead to really lovely and interesting readings (and has the bonus feeling of some odd sort of stardom ;). You just want to get people interested in whatever book or author it is, and try to find out what works best for that. I just think that it shouldn’t automatically be like that, you don’t always need actors.
But so costs are a big reason, and what we also do is that we generally, or in most cases, try to get people who live in the same city. So if the translator lives in Munich and the publishing house doesn’t want to or cannot help with the costs, plus maybe I don’t even know the person, than I’d rather look for someone else in the same city. I guess it often comes down to financial reasons in the long run.

Stefanie Ericke-Keidtel said...

But I think you are right that in Germany translators don’t get as much attention as they should. It might be easier for the ones translating from more exotic languagers (I guess they are also asked more often to participate in readings), but especially with English I suppose it’s hard, since everyone assumes we all speak it so well. Oh well. ;)
Oh, and just one another thing – sometimes authors or publishers really want a certain translator up there because the autor appreciates the person so much, or he or she is „important“ and really wants to do it or whatever, and then of course we do that – but the sad truth is that there are some who really don’t read well, don’t lead a discussion well, who just shouldn’t do it. And especially if you work with children and teenagers like I do, that can really kill a good reading. Kids just get bored so easily. So there are (very, very few) that I just won’t invite. But as you pointed out, there are seminars for learning how to do that, too. Someone should tell x§“%$.

Well, so in short: We sometimes use actors and actresses hoping that it will lead to more attention being paid to a book or an event, and to try and make sure the reading sells out, but if there are great translators, I personally would always be happy to have them. (You could also use the translator as the host and to translate the conversation and have an actor read the German text; if that doesn’t feel to weird to the translator..). But the publishing houses could definitely help to propose the translators participating in the readings more. And we eventers can maybe try to remember and credit them more as well.

So, let’s see how the 2013 festivals will work out for all of us – I hope to see many translators up there on stage. Fingers crossed.

kjd said...

Thank you so much, Stefanie, for your comments. They're very illuminating about the event organiser's point of view. I can see it would be difficult if the translator is a bad reader, but I really hope that's only a tiny minority - and that as many of us as possible take advantage of any special training courses on offer. I do wonder what readers think - would it make a difference to them? I like to think it would.