Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Making of... The King of China

So I have a new book out (she says casually): The King of China by Tilman Rammstedt. We had a fabulous event to launch it, if I do say so myself, attended by very nearly fifty people. I certainly enjoyed it and I think some of the others did too.

As I've written before, I intend to write a little making-of piece here in lieu of a translator's note whenever a book I've translated comes out. It seems like a useful thing to make available on the internet. Please feel free to crib from it if you're writing a review. So here we go.

Tilman and I first met officially when we were both involved in a panel discussion in Berlin. It wasn't a very good panel discussion. It was about why so few German books get translated into English, and was one of those chest-beating occasions on which Germans blame the complexity of their literature for the fact that British and American publishers don't translate it. Whereby they are both a) misjudging the Anglophone market, as in fact German is the second-most translated language for novels, it's just that there's not much translation as a whole, and b) actually showing off about the complexity of their literature. Sadly, I was too nervous to say this in public at the time. What Tilman said on that panel, however, was that he didn't really want to be translated all that badly, didn't really care either way. When I mentioned this at our launch event on Saturday he commented that it sounded a terribly immature thing to say; but it was about four years ago, and it was one of the more interesting comments made on that panel. In any case, I read Der Kaiser von China in preparation for that panel and enjoyed it very much indeed.

What happened next was down to the foreign rights person at Tilman's publishing house DuMont, Judith Habermas. Like many of the people whose job is selling translation rights, Judith is a bit of a whirlwind, in the most charming way. Judith talked to the publisher I work with a lot, Seagull Books, and recommended Der Kaiser von China. Seagull liked the look of it and asked me about it and I was very enthusiastic about the idea, and the deal was practically done.

And so I sat down to translate the novel. There were two main challenges: the very special rhythm throughout the book and the travel-guide tone in the letters the protagonist Keith writes to his family, pretending to be in China. The latter was easily overcome because Tilman had used the Lonely Planet guide to China as a source, and simply lent me his English copy. At the beginning of the novel there are a couple of short phrases lifted verbatim, which I found with little difficulty and transcribed into my own version. As the plot moves on the letters become increasingly fictional, with more and more bizarre imaginary details, but having worked with the guidebook to begin with, I had found the tone by that point. Recreating the rhythm was a question of listening carefully to the original sentences, trying not to chop too many of them down to size, and being brave enough to allow my English versions to run on and on until they reached their sometimes punchline-like climax or anti-climax. Tilman disapproves of the word punchline in this context, I believe, but I think it fits if you don't take it too literally.

The last issue was the title. If you pay attention to such things you'll have noticed it's not a literal translation. The German Kaiser is of course an emperor, and of course that's what they had in China, not kings. There were several reasons why the title was changed, in the end. Firstly, it refers to a bit of wordplay that crops up in the plot, which I tried to rescue in English by tweaking it slightly. Having found a solution I could live with, it seemed to work rather well as a title because it reflected the main character's slapdash attitude to facts and also the book's all-round kookiness. And the other excuse I found was when talking to an American book rep, my friend George Carroll. He said it would be excellent to have a title that wasn't already taken, so that when people looked up the book they would find it immediately. And The King of China wasn't already taken. I told Tilman we'd changed the title when we were both a bit tired and emotional towards the end of the launch of his most recent novel, Die Abenteuer meines ehemaligen Bankberaters. He nodded and seemed untroubled by the idea.

I hope you enjoy the book.

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