The American translator Tim Mohr has a big hit on his hands with Wolfgang Herrndorf's novel Tschick/Why We Took the Car. He was kind enough to answer my questions via email.
To start with, tell us how you started off as a translator. Was it a lifelong ambition?
It was more like a lark. I spent many years as a DJ in Berlin and learned German (among a lot of other things) during that time. Then I decided to change gears and try working as a writer in New York. I started working for Playboy magazine, but I still felt I owed a sort of debt to Berlin for all that I'd taken away from the city and wanted to try to facilitate in whatever small way I could the flow of ideas between the US and Germany. You have to remember the landscape was totally different ten years ago than it is today--back then Berlin hadn't yet cemented its place as the coolest city on earth (even though I thought it was) and there weren't things like Nein Quarterly and Schottenfreude trading on the cool factor of German; also, many of the English-language publishers who specialize in literature in translation did not yet exist. It was always an uphill battle back then to explain to people--even in New York City--why I was so enthusiastic about German music and literature, and Berlin. So long story-short, while still working for Playboy I started writing reader's reports and doing sample translations on the side for German publishers trying to sell their English language rights to US presses. One thing eventually led to another, though that wasn't originally my goal and actually even once the idea of translating an entire book began to intrigue me I thought for a long time I'd never get the chance.
And how did you come to translate Tschick?
In the end it was a happy coincidence. I had read it soon after publication and loved it. Just loved it. In fact I wrote a reader's report about it--something I wasn't doing much of at the time--because I wanted so badly for it to get picked up for English publication. But it didn't happen. Then a few years go by and I answer my phone one day and it's Emily Clement, an editor at Scholastic who has just acquired the rights. It turned out she had read my translation of Broken Glass Park (Scherbenpark) by Alina Bronsky and thought I might do well with the voice of Tschick. I couldn't believe it. She had never seen the readers report I wrote years before and had no idea I was a huge fan of the book.
Can you remember your favourite scene in the novel?
I like different sections for different reasons. My favorite scene to translate was the discussion over whether or not Walachei is a real place or not, which meant having to come up with all sorts of English equivalents to things like "JWD" and "in der Pampa." As a reader I like the sections where Herrndorf's tenderness toward his characters--the quality that seems to define the tone of the novel--shines through. Off the top of my head, I think of the scenes with Mike and his mother, Mike's sardonic descriptions of school life, and the scene at the reservoir where Mike gives Isa a haircut.
Tell us about your typical working day - and my new favourite question: what does your desk look like?
I'm usually working on several things at once--I also help music celebrities write their memoirs--so my days can be wildly different. Once in a blue moon there are weeks when I'm flying around the world with a rock band, and then there are many, many more weeks when I'm working around the clock at my apartment, breaking up my day with trips to the coffee shop to read the paper for a little while. When I'm at home I don't use a desk--I work while standing in front of the (unlit) fireplace. I just plop my laptop down on the mantel. There's also a set of speakers there so I can blast music. I like noise when I work.
The English version is published by the children's book publisher Scholastic in the US, while the original was marketed to adults as well as teen readers, in two different editions. Did you approach it differently to your other translations because of the different target group?
I think this is largely a misconception due to the difference between children's publishing in the US and Europe. Here whether you are published as young adult (YA) or adult is an almost meaningless distinction. There's a lot of literary authors who launch their careers via YA here, and the market for ostensibly YA books here is largely adult. It's not just Hunger Games and Twilight that sells to adults, a lot of more literary YA stuff does as well. Given the age of the characters, I thought Tschick was best served being published this way in the US--I had suggested that from the time I did that initial reader's report. And there are no boundaries in YA as far as foul language or sex and drugs or whatever else you might think would be problematic for children's publishers. I didn't have to think about toning things down at all while working on the book, and Scholastic didn't push for any alterations once it was done, either.
I don’t know how well Wolfgang Herrndorf was when you were working on his book. Did you communicate or was everything straight-forward? Are you one of those translators who likes to consult the writer or do you want to retain control all for yourself?
By the time the rights were bought for English translation, he was nearing the end of his life. I didn't discuss the work with him, though I know he liked the English title. Although I should add this wasn't much of a change for me--generally speaking I'm not big on collaborating with the author. I'm more likely just to send a handful of queries. Though I recently worked directly with Stefanie de Velasco on her Tigermilch and found the experience surprisingly effective and, perhaps more surprisingly, painless. Even fun. I always expect it to be a hassle to work with the author, particularly because so many of mine have had excellent English. Fortunately none has been inclined to micromanage the translation.
I really like the title and as you say, Herrndorf did too. I remember you had a tricky time deciding on the title for Charlotte Roche’s second book, which ended up being Wrecked. How did “Why We Took the Car” come about?
Credit for this has to go to Emily Clement, the editor at Scholastic. I didn't even have a working title as I translated it. I really disliked a few titles suggested by the publisher, but then Emily saved the day by coming up with this one. Normally I take the lead on title, but this was an area where maybe the fact that it was published as young adult made a difference--I was wary of trying to figure out an effective title and figured Scholastic would have a better grasp of how to reach their audience.
When you and I talked to Herrndorf’s German editor Marcus Gärtner in Berlin, he pointed out a scene where he really liked your solution. The German word “Wetterleuchten” doesn’t have an equivalent in English - it means the reflected light of a thunderstorm - so you have a church tower actually struck by lightning. That’s a pretty radical change but I have to say it works for me, too. How respectful are you towards the original? Is it even a question of respect for you or do you think in other terms about your work?
Well, I'm definitely not the type of person to consider any given word sacrosanct. I guess I spent too many years as a magazine editor for that. But I also think my style of translation affects how I approach a problem like the one you've pointed out. For me, translation is something musical. I'm trying to recreate in English--in a highly unscientific, impressionistic way--the melody of the original, almost like transposing a song from one instrument to another or from one arrangement to another. Which is one of the reasons I take some liberties like simplifying "Wetterleucten." Sure, I could explain the phenomenon of "Wetterleuchten" in English even if there isn't an equivalent word, but to do so would change the melodic quality of that passage and detract from the overall musical cohesiveness.
I love the way you’re so good at capturing the voice of the original. How on earth do you do it?
I'm not really sure, though my work as a ghostwriter or co-writer (or whatever you want to call it) is predicated on something similar. Maybe I'm just a good listener, even though when it comes to translations I'm listening to words on a page?
What are you working on right now?
I just finished two projects back to back: Stefanie de Velasco's Tigermilch and Alina Bronsky's Nenn mich einfach Superheld. I'm trying to figure out my next move. The memoir I worked on with KISS frontman Paul Stanley comes out next month, so I'll spend some time enjoying that. Slightly bigger crowds at those events.
I always have a backlog of fantasy translations that nobody ever wants to publish. Is there a book you’ve always wanted to do?
Yes, though I found out a few months ago that Seagull is publishing it: Rummelplatz by Werner Bräunig. For a while I was also considering trying to put together a compendium of classic early-20th century German-language reportage--as a former magazine editor I find the origins of what in essence became the magazine feature quite intriguing, and American audiences don't know the stuff. Though I might possibly have other ideas up my sleeve...
Thanks again to Tim for the insights!