Sunday, 8 March 2015

On Role Models

It's International Women's Day and I'm thinking about inspiring role models. Specifically, I'm thinking that the people I appreciate as role models have overcome certain hurdles to get where they are today. I think it's good to talk about our role models, spreading the love if you will, so that we realize that the straight path isn't the only one and women in particular can achieve great things via other routes.

I have some hurdles of my own. When I was a student of German Studies, merely being a woman was one of them. I was in a department (Birmingham University) with an all-male faculty, although the students were almost all women. Although my best friend and I got the best degrees in our year it was only men who continued their studies to MA level there – I think it simply didn't occur to us that we could have a career in academia, and none of our teachers suggested it to us. Actually that's not strictly true; I did happen to meet one then junior member of staff on the bus and he asked me if I'd be interested. I said no, I didn't like the academic atmosphere. Actually, what I said was (I remember it well), "I don't like the atmospheric academy – no, I mean academic atmosphere." I was a bit nervous.

It's OK, I know enough women in German Studies now to understand that it would have been tough for me, that career in academia, and wouldn't have given me the rich chain of experiences prompted by moving in to a one-room flat with coal heating in East Berlin with a trainee gardener rather than attending my graduation. But I'm glad that girls studying German nowadays are at least aware of the option, what with all the great women in the field to lead the way.

Now that I'm a literary translator, I can say that the things that have made it trickier for me are my slightly odd taste in books, my slightly odd sense of humour, being a single parent and thus really needing to earn decent money all the time and not being able to travel as much as some, not having attended the right kind of school or the right university and thus not knowing the right people, also because I'm in Berlin rather than London, and having a bit of a baby face when I do show it in public. None of them seem to be to do with being a woman – hooray!

So here are two of my role models, women who make me keep on plugging away. One of them will hardly surprise you: she's Anthea Bell. I love the way she raised two children on her own by translating, including children's books, and gave us her incredibly inventive Asterix translations and all sorts of other wonderful reading experiences, actively shaping my childhood without me realizing it for years. Here she is, very recently, on "Why Translation Matters". I'm thrilled that she's been gaining the recognition and honour she deserves, with prizes and an OBE and a big fat German medal and all-round appreciation. And she's still going strong. I suspect that if she hadn't divorced, we would never have heard of her – she'd have had no need to work so hard.

The other is a German translator, Karen Nölle. Karen has three children, including one set of twins (of course they're all grown up now) but she didn't let that stop her back in the bad old eighties in West Germany, when childcare was considered a sin and schools were out by noon because mummy was at home to make lunch. She moved out of academia to work as a translator from English to German and later edit too, and has been sharing her skills as a workshop leader for nearly twenty years. Indeed, that's how I know what a great translator she is, having benefitted from two awe-inspiring doses of her teaching. Karen is an active feminist, very supportive of other women in various roles, and enjoys translating books by women in particular, including Andrea Barrett, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, Barbara Trapido and Janet Frame. In 2010 she co-founded the publishing house Edition Fünf, which re-releases books by women that have been unjustly forgotten. They make beautiful bright red editions, and I love what they say about their all-female list:
We don't think a writer's gender is a qualitative feature of good texts. What we're interested in, though, is lines of female tradition. We want to read what and how women write.
Isn't that a wonderful statement?

So on International Women's Day, why not spend a moment thinking of your role models and telling other people about how they inspired you? I note, having written all this, that the hashtag for the day is #MakeItHappen, which is tricky to fit in here but these are – hmm – two women who have indeed "made it happen" for themselves, their families, other translators and of course all their many readers. I have a feeling neither of them took the straight path but both of them are probably glad of it.

3 comments:

John said...

You have never heard of the Bronte sisters or Jane Austin?

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