Wednesday 25 August 2010

Franzen's Freiheit and the Multiple Translator Phenomenon

The whole world's in Franzen Freedom frenzy, and Germany's no exception. And of course somebody has to do the job of translating the book in record time - because while the author took nine years to produce the book, the German version has to be finished yesterday.

I've written about the multiple translator phenomenon before, specifically the six-man team who had to translate Dan Brown in ten days. Which may or may not have been a success, I don't know. But now there are a couple of rather more literary titles being translated by team effort.

I have a sneaking suspicion this is not an entirely new phenomenon. I know of one prominent North American novel that was translated by two different people to get it onto the market quickly back in 2003, and the name of the translator at the front of the book is a pseudonym. But now publishers seem to be more open about doing it.

The prime example at the moment is Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals/Tiere essen. The book was translated by Isabel Bogdan, Ingo Herzke and Brigitte Jakobeit, and my friend Isabel accompanied the process occasionally on her jolly good blog. Which takes us back to the subject of translators building buzz for their books.

The German publishers Kiepenheuer & Witsch have garnered huge amounts of publicity elsewhere too and are setting up a new online readers' community for the book along the lines of their successful, groundbreaking, etc. etc. DFW site unendlicher spass. I look forward to seeing the site and whether the translators will be as involved this time as DFW's translator Ulrich Blumenbach. Certainly, it'd be interesting to find out how that collaboration worked.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Franzen's previous translator Bettina Abarbanell has been working with Eike Schönfeld on changing Freedom into Freiheit. It's due for release on 17 September, just over two weeks after the official US publication date. As in the case of Foer's book, the German publishers Rowohlt have chosen excellent translators for the job - but one wonders whether an 800-page novel can be translated excellently by two different people. Won't we be able to see the gaps? Schönfeld gave a couple of clues about the process in an interview with the Hamburger Abendblatt last month, if you read between the lines:

Not every author is suitable for every translator, says Schönfeld, and sometimes you work under exceptional conditions, somehow. For instance when a writer like Franzen speaks quite good German himself. Or when you have to translate a book faster than you'd actually want to.

Obviously, translators are always under time pressure, but as it becomes easier to get hold of the original versions, publishers are in an even greater rush to reap their investments on the home market. If I were a bestselling American author though, I'd want to know that my book was getting the best possible treatment in the translation process. And I'm not sure that includes being chopped into sections and then stuck back together again, no matter how talented the translators and editors working on it may be.


Anonymous said...

"Schon tot" von Denis Johnson wurde auch schon zu zweit übersetzt, das war im Jahr 2000. (Und Fritz Mergel ist natürlich ein Pseudonym.)
Die eigentliche Arbeit bei der Übersetzung von "Freedom" macht, das sollte nicht übersehen werden, die Lektorin. Die heißt Ulrike Schieder. Eine These, die zu beweisen wäre: die deutsche Ausgabe ist jetzt besser als das Original, weil U. Schieder eine so gute Lektorin ist...

kjd said...

Yes indeed, as was Johnson's "Tree of Smoke", in both cases Bettina Abarbanell working with a second translator. So there is at least that continuity.

Editors - another invisible profession. Whether Ulrike Schieder has done the "actual work" of the translation is perhaps a moot point, but I'm sure the multiple translator approach can only work when a good editor puts the pieces back together.

And wouldn't it be great if someone - perhaps Franzen himself, I bet he has time to put his feet up now and then - put your thesis to the test?

Unknown said...

I can't see how this can work to the advantage of the author. A novel takes a long time to write, the author gets inside his characters' heads, inside the world of the novel and this is what happens when translating a novel. Sometimes you start translating and then make a decision 50 pages in and have to go back and re-edit the beginning. It is not an instruction manual. Those of us who chose literary translation over the better paid commercial translation had very good reasons to do so!

kjd said...

Penny, I agree. What's at issue here is the time pressure. Because I know of cases where two translators have worked together very well - often one native speaker of each language.

Just that they had more time to get the job done, so they could reap the benefits of two pairs of eyes reading and working on the text.

I suppose the editor's job is to ensure that the translation is written in a single voice, so her contribution is doubly important in this case.

isabo said...

For those who can read German: I interviewed myself about Foer's book and also touched on the subject of team translation.

bab said...

oh yes, dear Anonymous, Eike Schönfeld and I surely did a lot of "uneigentliche Arbeit" on Franzens Freedom!
Seriously, there is no doubt whatsoever that the editor is immensely important in a case like this, and Ulrike Schieder did an absolutely wonderful job.
But! Let me put it like this: first Eike and I did our "eigentliche Arbeit", putting our hearts and minds to the task because we love and admire this book, and then Ulrike did her "eigentliche Arbeit" in the same spirit. Whether we, as a team of three, achieved what we wanted to achieve, ie to preserve/recreate the author's voice in all parts of the novel, remains to be seen by the readers.
And yes, sure, all three of us would have been more than happy to have had more TIME!!!

kjd said...

Hey, Bettina! Thanks for commenting. I was wondering whether anyone was going to get het up about that comment.

And Isabel, thanks for answering my unasked question.

bab said...

Hi Katy! Yeah, that had to be commented on ... and you are absolutely right: time is the main issue. It just would not be possible to translate a book like that in five months' time all by yourself. And if two translators - plus the editor - work hand in hand, it is very well possible to go back to the beginning and edit - and re-edit, and re-edit ... we did it all the time. Which is not to say that it would be preferable, in most cases, to have only one translator...

kjd said...

I assume the contact was direct, as Michael Orthofer doesn't link to a source, but the Literary Saloon has the following update on this story:

"The Germans apparently really like to get a lot of people involved: Sam Savage reports that his Firmin -- which only comes in at 216 pages in the German translation (see also the Ullstein publicity page) -- was tackled by a team of four (!) translators. That apparently didn't work out too well in the first instance, but, admirably, corrections and improvements were made in subsequent printings."

Unknown said...

Oh how wonderful to have the German possiblity of more printings. In the UK if the first book was not hot to trot, it would have been remaindered and never seen again.