Katy Derbyshire

Translator’s Note: Abigail Wender on Iris Hanika’s The Bureau of Past Management

Sometimes books come with translators attached, and that was the case with The Bureau of Past Management. Before we even considered publishing it, Abigail Wender had already been brave enough to take on the daunting task of rendering this linguistically complex book into beautiful and intricate English – with great dedication and success. Here, she reflects on the process, its difficulties and rewards, and how the book’s message might change with its readership.

I met Iris Hanika on a cold February day in New York City in 2016. We took a walk along the East River to Harlem and back down the north end of Central Park, talking without a pause. Not long after, she gave me a copy of her fifth novel, Das Eigentliche. The opening chapter read like a lyric poem, a cry from the heart, and it drew me in immediately. Iris Hanika’s novel is about the psychic cost and legacy of collective guilt explored through the experience of Hans Frambach, a contemporary, middle-aged Berliner undergoing a life crisis.

An archivist, Hans works at the prestigious “Bureau of Past Management,” whose mission is to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust. The German title of The Bureau of Past Management is philosophical in nature. Das Eigentliche could be translated into English as “the quiddity,” “the essence,” “the essential” or, perhaps, “ the real thing,” but that is too colloquial. In German, conceptual adjectives are more easily turned into nouns than in English. As a result, Das Eigentliche, sounds interestingly abstract in German, and perhaps comes across as pretentious in English. For me, the book’s central question was not, “what does it mean to be German?” but, instead, “how do we understand the past, and what is the purpose of collective, historic guilt?” I looked for a title that would lead the reader to consider these issues, and, at the same time, reflect Hanika’s irony and sympathy.

The Bureau of Past Management is the brilliant central fictional device of the novel. I have carried the institution’s title into English with the irony that is implicit in the German, but Hanika’s Vergangenheitsbeschaftigung is also a pun. The actual German word is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, denoting a process, well-known to every German, which means “coming to terms with the disturbing events of the past.” Translating a pun is nearly impossible, and explaining a pun is as deadly as explaining any other joke, but it’s useful to know that the term describes an undertaking that began after the Second World War and continues still (provoking many complicated political arguments and responses). Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a portmanteau, made up of Vergangenheit, meaning the “past” or “history,” and Bewältigung, meaning “coming to terms with.” Hanika substitutes Bewältigung with Bewirtschaftung, and creates a pun, Vergangenheitsbewirtschaftung, which means the “cultivation” or “management” of the past. In reality, of course, there is no government office nor institution like the Bureau of Past Management that “manages” those disturbing events.

One of the surprising ways the novel handles these events is through citations, allusions, cultural references, and quotations, many in their original languages. Hanika’s novel brims with references in every genre: poetry, popular songs, opera, film, politics, philosophy, arcane facts about Berlin, and more. An early delight of mine was simply identifying them—a children’s song? Bertholt Brecht? Celan? Punk Rock? Hölderlin? The protagonist, Hans, is not only an archivist but also a polymath, an obsessive collector of trivia as well as facts. Some of his internal monologues mirror that knowledge reservoir in seemingly endless German sentences. Although it was important to me to keep a semblance of his overflowing sentences, I have changed the structure to reflect English syntax, and used dashes to indicate his breathlessness. His constant documentation, as well as his profession itself, is a somewhat ironic allusion to the Nazis’ well-known penchant for extensive record-keeping. While I did not want to footnote the novel, which I felt would weigh it down (among other issues), I have lightly glossed some references in-text to make their origins more available to an anglophone reader. These citations, allusions, and references add important layers of texture to the novel, and contribute to our sense that the work is an experimental collage of story, history, and culture

The sometimes painful (and sometimes hilarious) reiteration of distress and misery that characterize Hans served as an important anchor for me as a translator. Hanika portrays how history and Hans’ archival work have drained him as he works in the ‘vineyards of memory’. We see him archive the documents of a survivor named Wolkenkraut and the repetitious accounts of imprisonment in concentration camps. Conveying Hans’ despair over National Socialism, the Nazi “crime” as he puts it, alongside his personal misery was a challenge. I was very aware of how careful Hanika was to reveal his personal crisis through subtext and metaphor, and to not compare it to those who suffered as victims of the Holocaust. I tried to translate Hans’ misery through word choice and sentence structure. In an early chapter, for example, Hans sees that ‘Wolkenkraut had never dated these reports, so it was impossible to establish whether he would have broken the lines more sharply over time or found his way to a continuous text’. Hans, by analogy, is also lost, possibly even broken; ‘found his way’ seems to me to reflect Hans’ intense need for a coherent narrative—a sense of self.

Although Hanika’s novel is set in contemporary Germany, it addresses issues of memory and collective guilt that remain relevant in much of the world as we continue to grapple with the legacy of systemic racism, colonialism, intolerance, and injustice. For change to occur, history cannot simply reside in monuments and archives. As James Baldwin wrote in his 1962 essay, A Letter to My Nephew: “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” The effort to remember and memorialize should not lead to comfortable passivity; it must inspire meaningful change.

I want to thank the editors at Asymptote and Epiphany Literary Review for publishing excerpts of this translation. I am very grateful to the Bread Loaf Translators Conference community, and to the Deutsche Akademie Rom Villa Massimo for inviting me to stay there to work together with Ms. Hanika. Huge thanks to the many generous writers and translators and native German speakers who offered advice as I worked on this translation. Last, but not least, to Iris Hanika, my deepest thanks for her trust.

Translators’ Note: Ayça Türkoğlu and Katy Derbyshire on Selim Özdoğan’s The Blacksmith’s Daughter

The Blacksmith’s Daughter was our first co-translation, and proved to us not only that it can be done, but that it should be done! But how could two translators write one note for the back of the book? In dialogue, of course…

The Co-Translators in Conversation

Katy Derbyshire: This book has been with me a really long time, since it came out in German in 2005. That’s 15 years now – incredible! I remember it reminding me of Laura Ingalls Wilder, bizarrely, because of all the domestic detail and because of the way I really felt for the characters. I know it was one of the books that prompted my burning desire to translate literature, although back then I wasn’t in a position to get any translations published. But I made a big fat dossier about the book and sent it to British publishers, who had no idea who I was and either turned me down politely or didn’t respond.

How did you come to the book, Ayça, and can you remember your response to it?

Ayça Türkoğlu: I came to the book much later. Actually, Katy, it was through your blog. I spotted it again in The Edge of Heaven, one of my favourite Fatih Akın films, so I bought it and added it to my TBR pile, then forgot all about it for a while. I started reading it not long before you asked to co-translate it with me; it was an act of wish fulfilment, really. I remember I spent quite a lot of my first reading of the trilogy clutching my chest. I just love the sentimentality of it, I’m a real sucker for the Anatolian blues. I like the balance of foibles and virtues in every character, and how the story is peppered with these lit- tle village tales and bits of hearsay that I recognised from my own childhood (the baby and the safety pin, the man and the unfortunate dog…).

KD: I can definitely relate to the sentimentality appeal – our initial versions of the translation are dotted with comments by one or other of us saying basically: Awwwww!

AT: Did your approach to translating the book change in the 15(!) years between your finding the book and getting to translate it?

KD: I’m not sure how my approach changed over time. I like to hope I’ve honed my skills over the past decade and a half, so I was too scared to look at the very first translations I did from the book. But I felt a special kind of joy mixed with nostalgia for my younger self when I retranslated an early passage, about scrumping pears. I remembered agonizing over whether I could use that verb, scrumping, which back then I thought was very specific to English (how odd that German doesn’t have a single verb for stealing fruit off a tree…). I’ve learned in the meantime to use the riches of the language with fewer qualms – if we’re going to lose the occasional thing in translation, why not add extra flair where we can? You mention your own childhood memories of Turkey, Ayça, and they proved invaluable for our translation. Although Selim wrote the books with German-speakers in mind, he told me he hid subtle references to Turkish sayings and such, which Turkish-speakers would spot but I certainly couldn’t. Now we’ve re-embedded them – I hope – in a new version for Anglophone readers. Did you have Turkish-speakers in the back of your mind while you were translating, though?

AT: I think so. I could certainly hear certain people when reading some passages. I like that extra layer that’s available to Turkish-speakers in the text. Sometimes I’d get an inkling of what a sentence or an expression would be in Turkish and I’d translate that instead. Sometimes I’d find I responded differently to lines once I imagined them in Turkish, particularly the song lyrics that crop up. It was interesting to see the solutions we came up with for the Turkish pleasantries that English lacks, like the phrases used before a meal, or to greet someone who’s working.

Were there any sections of the book or aspects of Selim’s writing that you were apprehensive about translating before we started?

KD: I don’t think so! I think I was just raring to go after such a long wait… What I really wasn’t sure about was the co-translation process. I’d never shared a translation before except in workshop situations, where translating ends up so drawn out that it takes days to translate a single page. That’s a really valuable experience – because it makes everyone explain their word choices, advocate for certain tenses or prepositions, argue over punctuation… But it’s not viable for a book-length translation with a deadline attached! How on earth would we get a translation done well by two people in a fixed amount of time?

I asked a few people who have co-translated before but there didn’t seem to be a patent solution, and often it seemed rather hierarchical, with a junior and a senior translator, if you like. What I wanted was for the two of us to be on equal footing – we both bring different experiences, enthusiasms and backgrounds to the job and I hope they’ve flowed seamlessly into the text. And now – maybe because we divided the book up into quite short alternating chunks – I can’t necessarily distinguish the passages I translated from your sections, which I edited, and vice versa. Unless they made me cry. So it was a hugely positive experience and I think the result is a genuinely outstanding translation.

AT: Yes, I did wonder how the co-translation process would work – and I worried how you’d feel sharing a book you’d loved for so long with another translator! I can’t imagine I would have been as generous… I enjoyed working together so much, though. It was lovely to be able to share that instant feedback with another translator, to feel reassured that you’d made a good choice or just enjoy the other’s work. I loved how, every few pages, one of us would leave a little comment on some phrase or other saying, essentially, ‘Nice one.’ I also enjoyed the occasional bit of bitching when a character was misbehaving.

KD: Me too! What are your hopes for the book?

AT: Besides an English-language film adaptation by Fatih Akın, based on our translation…? I hope people come to love Gül and Timur as much as we do. Gül is such a survivor, the kind of woman almost everyone knows and loves but whose story never gets told. Timur is the archetypal Turkish father, fierce and soft in equal measure.

But what are your hopes, Katy? If that’s not cheating…

KD: It’s not cheating! Obviously, I’m totally with you on the film adaptation and on readers coming to love the characters. One other thing would be for the book to bounce back to Germany – often an English translation lends writers more respect in their own countries, and I hope that will be the case here, too. As I see it, Germany hasn’t sufficiently valued stories about the people whose labour helped build its economy in the 1960s and 70s – whether migrants or other workers – and I’d love for readers in Germany to rediscover this beautiful and important trilogy.

Berlin and London, September 2020

Translator’s Note: Katy Derbyshire on Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula

Our third translator’s note is by publisher-translator-blogmistress Katy Derbyshire, who enjoys referring to herself in the third person – another from our very first batch of books. Here, she asks the question: is anything really untranslatable?

The story of Paula’s translation is a long one. I first came across Sandra Hoffmann’s book when it won the Hans Fallada Prize, a German literary award for fiction with a political and social background. The premise of the book fascinated me and I swiftly got hold of it. What a devastating story, so beautifully told!

Sometimes translators read differently to other people. If I find myself trying to translate as I go along, that’s usually a good sign – that I want to take co-ownership of the book, put it into my own words. Here, though, there were two major hurdles. What to do with the Swabian dialect, so integral to the narrator’s emotions. And what on earth to do with the essential word schweigen, a notion that doesn’t exist in such compact form in English and yet crops up in the very first line.

The first step, though, was to invite Sandra Hoffmann to spend a week working with translators at the British Centre for Literary Translation’s summer school in 2018. I effectively passed on the conundrums to a fantastic group of emerging and early-career literary translators, who had five days to think deeply about them with Sandra’s advice and support. That was how the idea came about to retain some of the Swabian in the dialogue. When the groups read their excellent work aloud on the final day, the dialogue worked! And thankfully, having Sandra on hand helped us to decipher the meaning very easily and hear the sound in her own voice.

There followed a search for a UK publisher for a full translation. This has never been my strong point, but in my defence, it is difficult. Presses have restricted budgets and only so many slots, and taste varies wildly. Whatever the case, I didn’t find anyone who shared my massive enthusiasm. Ho hum, another one bites the dust. At least I don’t have to find a solution for schweigen.

Except then I had the idea of setting up an English-language imprint with a German publisher. Having found a sufficiently adventurous press, Voland & Quist, part of our initial conversation was my wish-list. Paula was at the very top of that list.

I’ll skip a bit because this is a translator’s note, not an emerging publisher’s note. Suffice to say, I did now have to find a solution for schweigen. The summer school participants had tackled it and found a very elegant way around it – after much discussion – but I felt I had to start anew and I wasn’t happy with anything I came up with.

I don’t really believe in the concept of ‘untranslatable words’. What we have to do is find ways to explain them or paraphrase them that don’t blow a hole in the original text. Likewise, ‘untranslatable books’ demand creative translations, reworkings, bold steps. Ownership on the part of the translator, if you will. It’s always an implicit part of our work to help readers understand a book’s cultural setting, by choosing words carefully and occasionally making discreet additions – inserting a gloss, to use the technical term. Saint Jerome, the horribly misogynist patron saint of translators, was a great fan of glosses in his biblical translations.

Could I do that in the first sentence? The German is:
Schweigen ist anders als still sein.
Rendered in the words English offers us, the literal translation would be something like:
Silence is different to being silent.
Which doesn’t cut it, does it?
After hours of fiddling with those first six words, and after moving on so I’d at least get started on finding the right voice for Sandra’s book, I returned to the beginning at the end. I came up with a very brief explanation for the word schweigen: ‘deliberately remaining silent’. And I built that into a sentence and a half in the tone I had found for the narrator, right at the beginning of the novel:
We have a word in German: schweigen. It means deliberately remaining silent; it is different to merely being quiet. Or that’s the final version, after workshopping the first page with my ‘translation lab’ in Berlin and after an excellent edit by my esteemed colleague Florian Duijsens. A sentence and a half that took over a year to translate. Sandra was happy with it, I’m happy with it, and I hope you, the reader, perceive it as the right opening to a German book all about deliberate silences.

Translator’s Note: Sinéad Crowe on Daughters

Next up in our series of translators’ notes is Sinéad Crowe, who translated Lucy Fricke’s great European road novel Daughters for our very first season. The joys and challenges of rendering humour are something many literary translators can relate to – along with anyone who’s ever tried to re-tell a joke to a new audience…

I first encountered Betty, Martha and Kurt, the sardonic, intractable protagonists of Daughters, at HAM.LIT, Hamburg’s annual festival of contemporary German literature and music, in February 2018. A large crowd had gathered in the darkened auditorium of a nightclub, bottles of beer in hand, to hear Lucy Fricke read from her new novel for the first time. Lucy chose one of the book’s early scenes: Betty, Martha and Kurt bickering about feminism, money and the perils of dating men with tattoos as they splutter down the autobahn towards a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland. It didn’t take long for the audience’s reverent hush to dissolve into gales of laughter at the gallows humour. Glancing at the people creasing up around me, I thought about how I’d love to share this uproarious side of German literature, so underrepresented in the English-speaking book market, with readers back home. I bought the book right after the festival, and reading – or rather devouring – strengthened my desire to share this wise and witty tale with readers outside Germany. The question was, would I be able to find a publisher willing to take a risk on a German novel that dared to be funny? Imagine my delight when around a year later, I received an email from V&Q Books telling me they had secured the translation rights for Daughters and would like me to do the honours. 

Once the initial elation subsided, though, the self-doubt began to creep in. Humour is widely considered one of the most difficult things to translate. Would someone as tragically unfunny as myself be able to render the novel as witty in English as it is in German? I pictured my translation as a bad stand-up comedian delivering dud one-liners to a heckling audience. Rereading the novel only deepened my trepidation as I realised how much of the humour is rooted in a specifically German context. What was I going to do with the references to the dive bars of Hamburg’s St Pauli, the gentrification of Berlin’s Kreuzberg and the fashion choices of the residents of Marzahn? What about the gentle mocking of the romanticisation of Italy and Greece by the postwar generation of Germans? How would I translate the joke about becoming a Tussi, a derogatory term for a certain kind of aspirational German woman for which I have never been able to find a satisfactory English equivalent? How would I manage the allusions to the bland department store Karstadt and the talk-show host Sandra Maischberger? Would English-speaking readers understand the various sociocultural connotations of beer, schnapps and Aperol Spritzes? Should I provide glosses to help them get the punchlines? No, that wouldn’t work; everyone knows that a joke ceases to be funny the moment you try to explain it. And then there was the wordplay and neologisms (such as Betty’s characterisation of the tightly wound Martha as a Linksheulerin, someone who only cries out of her left eye), not to mention Kurt’s ridiculous northern German pet names for his daughter. Every time I came across another instance of Lucy’s linguistic inventiveness, I gulped.

But as Betty points out, sometimes when a difficult journey lies ahead, you just have to say, “Let’s go.” So I got going, in the hope that I would figure out how to circumnavigate the roadblocks as I went along. And once I did start translating, I found the voices of Lucy’s characters so strong, so authentic and so true to my own experience that the cultural specificities no longer seemed so important. Betty and Martha’s midlife worries about ailing parents, stalled careers, ticking biological clocks and romantic disappointments echoed those of friends of mine back home in Ireland. Not only that, but Betty and Martha talk the way so many women I know talk. The characters’ resilience and refusal to lose their sense of humour, no matter what life throws at them, reminds me of dear friends scattered all over the world. Once I had found the characters’ voices, I realised that the tone and rhythm of their language is often as integral to the humour as the semantic content; after all, any comedian will tell you that it’s all in the delivery. So I focused on getting these aspects right, and solutions to the translation challenges outlined above began to present themselves. Sometimes I “domesticated” the cultural references to make them relatable to non-German readers – so the allusion to the fashion of Marzahn became a line about a trailer park, for example – but very often I found that this wasn’t necessary; the rhythm of the repartee is funny, I think, even if you are not intimately familiar with the culture in which the jokes are rooted. On a rare occasion, I reluctantly opted to let a joke go, feeling that this would be truer to the spirit of Lucy’s novel than forcing the point.

For all that I was concerned to make English-speaking readers laugh, I hope I have also managed to capture the sadness, longing and hope at the core of this story. I have reread the novel countless times by now, yet certain scenes still bring tears to (both) my eyes. Daughters is far more than a collection of dark jokes. At its heart, it is a moving exploration of ageing, loss, family and the consolations of getting drunk with an old friend – themes that will surely resonate with readers far beyond Germany’s borders.

Translator’s Note: Annie Rutherford on The Peacock

At V&Q Books, we’re proud of our translators and believe they should be seen and heard. So we’re sharing the notes they write for us, also published at the back of each book – as a resource for other translators, from aspiring to established, and to help non-translators understand the nature of their work. First up: Annie Rutherford on The Peacock.

Explaining the set-up of The Peacock to friends has prompted a surprising number of bewildered responses: ‘So, you’re translating it into… which language?’ The idea of a German book set in Scotland and translated ‘back’ into English was clearly a novel one.

And it did spark some interesting translation questions. The question of exoticisation versus localisation is a favourite – if rather tired – topic of translation seminars: do you try and preserve the ‘foreignness’ of a text or do you transpose the cultural references to something the reader will know? (Do your characters eat Germany’s omnipresent paprika crisps, or do they buy a packet of salt and vinegar?) With The Peacock, I found myself working the other way round. On the whole, the Scotland Isabel evokes is an extremely familiar one. The various higgledy-piggledy buildings turned into tourist accommodation – complete with slanting floors and wonky sinks – had me laughing in recognition. But there was the occasional moment when it felt like Britishness was being taken to extremes – a few too many cups of tea, for instance. And at other moments Germanness slipped in after all: when hot drinks which most certainly weren’t tea were referred to as such, or when Rachel told Helen, the cook, that the group would take a packed lunch and instead eat a bigger meal in the evening – as if lunch were the main meal of the day, as it is Germany. On the whole, I found myself softening these moments. I wanted British readers to sink into the book as comfortably as I had, without anything to jolt them out of that experience.

Then there was the question of dialects. Most of the novel is in indirect speech, with characters from London, ‘the foot of the Highlands’ and Poland, and with a whole range of ages and class backgrounds. Getting the different voices right was key to translating the novel – although the indirect speech meant I was able to soften Aileen’s broader Scots into Scots English (English syntax and grammar, but with Scots dialect words) for the sake of continuity.

We think about dialects as being about the catchphrases, all Haud Yer Wheeshts and Wae’ayes. But as any child in an unfamiliar playground can tell you, it’s as much about whether you say living or sitting room, and whether you’re going home for your tea or for your dinner. (Tea, obviously.) I’ve spent most of my life in Scotland, but with an English mum, a Northern Irish dad and a couple of formative years in Wales, I’m not always sure where different bits of my mongrel vocabulary come from. I shamelessly abused Facebook to find out what words different friends use, with my feed full of contextless questions, from ‘Leash or lead?’ to:

Me: What do you call pajama-type clothes which you specifically have for wearing round the house?

Anne: Either still pajamas, or ‘lounge-wear’ or my ‘comfy clothes’ or my ‘around the house clothes’

Tessa: Something I’ve noticed about this time is how I have no ‘house clothes’ – not even a slipper! So I have no name for them either. My granny always wore her ‘house coat’ though .

Annabel: Oh, the horror of the housecoat! Will we ever get old enough to wear one?! I hope not.

Some responses were fairly clear-cut; living room is on the whole more Scottish, sitting room more typical for the south of England. Other questions prompted answers which weren’t directly useful but sparked off associations which took me in the right direction. This was during the height of lockdown, and perhaps by virtue of their being Covid-free posts, my notifications were full of engaged responses, helping me to fill in a linguistic map of the UK and beyond.

On which note: the bulk of my work on The Peacock happened during the strictest phases of lockdown in Scotland. Translating is often thought of as a solitary activity, but for me it was translation which kept me sane, in a constant dialogue not only with Isabel, and with my ever-helpful friends, but also with the characters, allowing me to escape into a world where the worst that happened was – well…

For more fascinating details, read an interview with Annie.

Annie Rutherford on translating The Peacock

Translator Annie Rutherford tackled the impressive challenge of rendering Isabel Bogdan’s The Peacock – set in the Scottish Highlands but written in German – into English. Here, she talks to Gemma Craig-Sharples about how she went about it.

©Perry Jonsson

How did you come to The Peacock?

I was very lucky – V&Q’s publisher Katy Derbyshire actually got in touch with me to ask if I’d be interested in translating the novel. We’d first met at a British Centre for Literary Translation summer school, where I may have, erm, slightly fangirled Katy, and had stayed in touch. A couple of years on, Katy approached me about The Peacock because she wanted a translator who could work with Scots/Scots English. I hadn’t come across the novel before that, but spent a glorious afternoon reading my way through it one sunny day in the park, and I knew this was a book I wanted to translate.

A couple of classic questions here: what were the main challenges you came across while translating? And what was most fun about translating Der Pfau?

In terms of challenges, I was very nervous about getting the Scots and Scots English right in the novel – The Peacock is set quite a bit further north than where I grew up and where I now live, and not only can Scots vary wildly by region, but the Scots language communities are understandably very protective of the minoritised language variants. On top of that, there are real differences in class and background between the different characters (and we’ve got folk from the south of England, as well as from near Loch Lomond), so I was conscious of trying to get those little speech markers right, like sitting room / living room / lounge, for example.

There’s also a lot of talk about food in the book, and that was both mouth-wateringly fun and sometimes quite challenging. I’ve been vegetarian since I was quite young, so I’m pretty clueless when it comes to talking about meat – and there’s a lot about preparing and cooking different kinds of game! I spent a lot of time on google, and also interrogated my various foodie friends. (Big shout out to Megan Somerville here!)

There were so many fantastic things to work on in the book, but most fun was probably translating the humour. I used to work as a tour guide in this area of Scotland, so I had great fun with Isabel’s gentle mocking of the Scottish tourist board. And I think I brought all my frustration with ‘group work’ to the early teambuilding scenes in the novel, and I found a lot of glee in lampooning that.

Though there’s barely any direct speech in the novel – it’s all told through the various characters’ voices and you do such a brilliant job of capturing everyone’s individual style. What was it like finding all these different voices in English? Did you have any tricks or techniques for getting into character(s) while you were translating?

Thanks! I do a lot of talking out loud while I translate, trying to get the feel and the sound of the voice. I spent a good chunk of time wandering around the flat, pulling silly faces and trying to talk like a Scottish laird or a bank manager… (It’s probably a good thing I live alone!) I also used it as an excuse to read and watch a lot of books/films/series set in a similar milieu.

How much of yourself is in The Peacock and in your translations more generally? Is it a case of you taking on the characters’ personas and writing as them or is more a case of you listening for their English voices and writing for them?

Oh, that’s a good question, and I honestly don’t know – probably somewhere in between the two? I’d say ‘taking on the character’s persona’ feels like it fits most with the way that I, you know, wander round the flat muttering to myself. It also depends on the character, of course – I’m probably closest in terms of age and class to Rachel, so a lot more of me went into her than into some of the others.

Other than The Peacock, I’ve generally translated poetry, which of course is a lot less character-based, and although I try to capture the author’s voice, I’m sure that a lot of me goes into them – particularly as I tend to translate poems that resonate with me in some way. I once heard poetry translations described as ‘cover versions’, which I really liked as an idea!

In your translator’s note you talk about Isabel’s Scotland as ‘familiar’. Did this sense of familiarity differ from other texts you’ve translated, and could you say more about how this affected the translating experience?

Yeah, other narrative texts I’ve translated include (extracts from) Arno Camenisch’s The Last Snow, set in the Swiss alps, and Levin Westermann’s remarkable Regarding the Shadows, which is set in a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape. (I do seem to be drawn to mountainous, sparsely populated regions when it comes to translations!) In both of those I first of all had to imagine the landscape, to really try dig into the text and picture what the author was describing – and only then could I find the words for it. In some ways that actually allowed me to be a bit more interpretive. Whereas with Isabel’s text, I know exactly where she was talking about – I’ve been to places like the McIntosh’s castle, I’ve stayed in those holiday cottages, I’ve been on those walks. It perhaps sounds like a blurred distinction, but with Camenisch’s text, for example, I tried to find the closest English/Scots words to those Camenisch used, whereas with The Peacock I was trying to find the best words to describe the places she’s talking about. The thing this probably affected most was the editing process – I was really adamant about some of my translation choices! (One example would be calling the McIntosh’s house a castle, or “the big house”, depending on who’s talking.)

You describe people’s confusion on hearing that you were translating The Peacock from German into English and say that the idea of translating a book written in German but set in Scotland was clearly a ‘novel’ idea. I suppose the ‘bewildered responses’ suggest that people see translation as connected to some experience of ‘otherness’ or ‘unfamiliarity’. What’s your understanding of translation? What does, or can, a translation and a translator do?

Good question. I do think translation can be a window into a different culture, and it can grant us familiarity with people and places we otherwise wouldn’t know. But I think my favourite description of why translation is important, and what it does, comes from the fantastic translator Daniel Hahn: he described a fictional publishing house which only publishes authors whose surnames start with a vowel – and likened this narrow focus to a publisher or reader who’s only interested in books written in English. There are so many amazing books and stories out there – why on earth would you limit your reading by original language?

You’ve spoken before about translations being informed by the time and context in which they’re produced. Do you think the fact you were translating during lockdown changed or influenced your translation or translation process at all?

Hm, it probably allowed me to be a lot more focussed – in a weird way, it was a bit like having an enforced translation residency for a while. But it also meant that I couldn’t do some of the research I’d have wanted to do – I’d been looking forward to lots of eavesdropping in cafes to pick up on ideas for the different voices!

In your translator’s note you talk about translation as a ‘constant dialogue’ rather than a solitary activity, and this idea of dialogue feels really central to your translation approach. First off, you’ve got the dialogue with the author: how involved was Isabel in your translation?

Compared to the poetry I’ve translated, where I’ve really talked through poems line by line with the writers, this was much more hands-off. It was great working with Isabel though – particularly as she’s a translator herself, so she understood all the random specific questions that I had! I think I sent her through my questions once I had a fairly solid draft of the novel, and then later on she of course got to see the manuscript and come back with any points of her own.

And then there’s the crowdsourcing element, which I love. Could you say more about the role this plays in your translations? What are your thoughts more generally on what dialogue and collaboration can bring to translation?

I think translations are always informed by our interactions with other people – so often I’ll be chatting to someone about something completely unrelated and something they say or a word they use will spark an idea for how to solve a translation challenge I’d had running through my head.

I quite often more consciously enlist other people’s help with translation – my friend Ceris loves a good pun, for example, so I often chat to her when I’m struggling with wordplay. Even just the process of spitballing ideas with her may be what sparks the solution I go with. Apart from anything else, chatting to someone can be a lot more conducive to coming up with new ideas than staring at a blank page!

In The Peacock I used crowdsourcing specifically to get try make sure I had the different regional nuances right – I’d ask people what they called an evening meal, for example, and get them to tell me where they were from as well. It was great for building up a map of word usage across regions and generations.

Why should people read The Peacock?

It’s super fun! I feel like a lot of translated fiction can be quite grim or depressing – it’s like we value literary fiction more if it’s very clearly serious. We need more books in translation that can make us laugh – and The Peacock is a great starting point for this.

The Blacksmith’s Daughter: Author and Translators in Conversation

with Selim Özdoğan, Katy Derbyshire

Selim Özdoğan’s The Blacksmith’s Daughter was translated by Ayça Türkoğlu and Katy Derbyshire. The translation having been a collaborative process, we decided to conduct our interview in a similar way, in this case via Google Docs. This interview was first published in Jahrbuch Türkisch-Deutsche Studien.

Selim: When did you two notice that the written word was more important to you than for the average reader? Do you remember how and why your interest in translating started? 

Katy: I’m not sure it is more important to me than for other readers. I do know I had internal monologues as a child in which I narrated my life like in a book: “‘This car smells bad,’ she said to herself as she gazed forlornly out at the passing fields.” Maybe that’s a perfectly normal thing to do, though – perceiving the world through the windows we see it framed within, the way people said they dreamed in black and white during the early days of cinema, and switched over with the advent of Technicolor. I don’t remember imagining myself in a film or on a stage, though, so perhaps that’s a difference.

My interest in translation came much later. I grew up monolingual so languages other than English were a mystery to me, albeit an enticing one. We had swearwords at school from other kids’ languages, mostly Jamaican Patois and Hindi, which we thought our teachers didn’t understand. I learned French, then Latin, then German, then a tiny bit of Russian, and my first translations were in Latin classes. It was a fun exercise, nothing more. It wasn’t until I understood German well enough to translate it that I realized it was something *I* could do – I didn’t know any translators (or any writers). And then I was living in Berlin and reading a lot of second-hand books from junk shops. I read Bruno Apitz and found an English translation of Nackt unter Wölfen, which I gave to my dad. I thought it was a terrible translation, done in the 1950s, and I was convinced I could do better. I probably couldn’t have, actually, because it took years to get good at it.

Selim: I can totally relate to the I can do better part. I am a big fan of Orhan Veli. His poems are translated beautifully into German by Yüksel Pazarkaya but when I was about 20 I was sure I could do a better job. So I tried. And failed. I realised it right away that I failed. That was before I really started writing. And it didn’t stop me from writing. For some reason I had the same feeling with writing: I can do better. Maybe I am not good but I can easily beat the boring stuff I’m reading while looking for writers with that special spark. 

Orhan Veli statue, Beşiktaş. Photographer: Homonihilis

Ayça: Growing up with two languages around might have added to my curiosity about words and the way language works, but it certainly didn’t feel like that at the time. I do remember trying to decipher the lyrics sheet from one of my Tarkan cassettes, but I came unstuck quickly because Turkish is agglutinative and none of the words, as I saw them, were in the dictionary. I think there are a few reasons why translation turned out to be ‘my thing’, though. I’ve been writing since I was little and I’ve always really enjoyed mimicry. I love copying accents and tuning into peculiar aspects of people’s speech. When I was little, I would entertain my mum by reciting whole skits from definitely-not-age-appropriate comedies, doing all the accents. I think that’s why I took to French and German at school, not because I wanted to communicate, but because I wanted to copy the sounds. I think translation can be a kind of mimicry, an attempt to recreate a text as you hear it. And sound is an important part of that, of course.

On a nerdier level, I like noticing patterns and I like rules. At university, I realised that translation allowed me to combine writing with solving fiddly word problems: my idea of a fun time, basically.

There’s a degree of close observation required for translation that I feel is something I’m doing all the time: observing the rules of a social interaction, the moods, the tones, the class dynamics, etc. It just gives me great pleasure to inch closer to language that ‘fits’ all that.

Speaking of sound, a question for you, Selim: You can be found on social media @wortmachtklang and you created an Anatolian Blues playlist for The Blacksmith’s Daughter (available on Spotify). How do sound and music influence the way that you write?

Selim: Everything started with sound, that’s why we call it the Big Bang. That’s why some Yogis believe that the sound of om is the origin of the universe. What turned into literature was once tales and stories and myths which were passed on orally. So when I sit down and write, in a way I try to write music, I try to give the words a rhythm, a melody, a flow. I envy singers because they can sing something like I love you and make it really sound like they love the person. When you write down: And he said I love you, there is no emotion in it. You have to create the context in order to deliver what you are trying to say. So the words are my voice, my way of expressing music. Rumi says: Poems are rough notations for the music we are. We could say that everything the three of us do is translating one music into another. I know that Katy enjoys music, maybe she could tell us about her taste and if there is a connection to translating for her. And know very little about your preferences, Ayça … ?

Katy: My taste has evolved over the years, probably like many people’s. From mainly listening to Jamaican music (starting with ska then acknowledging the existence of reggae) to a slightly broader range, especially 1950s and 60s American RnB (which was what a lot of ska was built on, so maybe my nerdism is just bleeding at the edges). 

Whatever the case, music for me has always been about dancing, it’s always been something physical for me, I have to at least nod my head. Rhythm! Such an important part of writing and translating! A translation has to sound right beyond just the fitting word choices, and a lot of that is down to rhythm. I once attended a translation workshop on tapping out sentences, in the Ginger Rodgers sense. OK, I don’t do that in my everyday work but it’s something I try to be aware of, and little things like the final sound in a paragraph or a statement – is it stressed or unstressed, drum solo or fade-out? It’s good when that matches the original. 

I also feel like rhythm is important for bringing out humour. Translating Olga Grjasnowa’s Gott ist nicht schüchtern, which works with very dark humour, I tried to preserve her bathetic chapter endings, plunging from high drama to irony. In German, of course, a lot of writers play with putting the key information, the punchline if you will, at the end of a long sentence, which is fun to reconstruct and not actually all that difficult in English. It’s a very stretchy language.

Something a bit silly that I do – and I think a lot of other translators – is sneaking in personal favourites, for me often snatches of lyrics or song titles that can’t possibly have been in the original. I imagine readers might recognize them and smile. Or maybe just readers with similarly narrow musical horizons to my own.  

Ayça: It’s all about singing, for me. I’ve always sung constantly, from when I was very little, and my mum’s side of the family, the English side, sings all the time. I remember one summer in Turkey where we spent numerous evenings driving around with my little 80-year-old nene in the front seat and my mum and me in the back belting out Careless Whisper. I wonder what she made of it. Singing is catharsis; it’s like Selim says, there are emotions you can express through music that you can’t in writing. If I’m feeling fed up, I can sing for an hour or so and know it will soothe me.

I like all sorts, though I have a soft spot for folk music. There’s a lot more folk music in the mainstream in Turkey, so I was always exposed to that. I especially love Kazım Koyuncu, Sezen Aksu, Kardeş Türküler, Selda Bağcan, Fikret Kızılok, Ahmet Kaya… I spent almost every summer of the 1990s in Turkey, which, to my mind, was a golden age of Turkish pop. My dream is to curate a 90s/00s soundtrack for the last book in the Anatolian Blues trilogy (hint hint).

Sezen Aksu. Photographer: E4024

I also love a lot of the music that came out of the folk revival in England in the 1960s. I love how deeply radical a lot of it is, how it’s made to be played live rather than recorded; there’s an intimacy to that that I like. I love that it centres the act of playing and singing, as opposed to the finished product, it invites participation and enjoyment regardless of personal talent. I also love the weight it gives to simple stories about ordinary people’s lives, which is part of why The Blacksmith’s Daughter chimes with me so much.

I can’t listen to music at all when I write or translate, though. For one thing, it’s too emotional, and I feel I need to be listening to what the sentence sounds like, repeating sounds and rhyme and so on. I want the sentence to move me the way music moves me, I want my sentence to stir the same feelings in me as the original does.

Selim: Yes, some music is clearly about participation, about connecting and bonding with people, about resistance and resilience. I think this is inherent in music, you try to resonate with others. Immediately. Literature tends to be much slower and takes another route.
I consider myself lucky because I can listen to music while writing. Except for German rap, because I tend to pay attention to the words then and can’t concentrate.
I’ve picked up a lot of hobbies during this pandemic. One is taking singing lessons, which I did before, more than a decade ago until my teacher said: You’re hitting the notes now, we can start singing next. Maybe a big part of my life has been looking for my voice and what I can do with it. And that always starts with mimicking others. But I don’t think that finding one’s own voice metaphor really fits when you are translating? 

Katy: Not really, no, it’s more a question of finding someone else’s voice. My turn to ask a question: What about role models? Do you have them, in life, in writing, in translation? In The Blacksmith’s Daughter and the whole of the trilogy, Gül has it harder in life because her mother was no longer there to set an example for her. Her father guides her throughout, but their lives are very different. I don’t think she has role models, as such.  

Selim: Yes, I agree. Some role models are very basic and important at the same time. If you can’t learn how to be a good mother because you didn’t have one, it can be very hard to satisfy your children and yourself later in life I guess. It isn’t necessarily about stepmothers but about learning about nurturing relationships at a young age.
So first you have role models that you can’t really choose, then you start looking around for yourself, to determine the direction you are headed in. I wanted to be able to write like Philippe Djian when I was in my early twenties. But I wanted the spiritual quality in my work that I saw with Leonard Cohen. Nowadays I feel too old for role models but I admire certain qualities and traits in some people. 

Ayça: I’m not sure I’m great with role models; I can do idols, but that’s probably not as healthy. A person I’d love to be is Sarah Moss, who seems to be able to hold down a full-time academic job, before heading off on her annual rainy summer holiday somewhere in the UK and producing a thrilling novel out of it, generally one that manages to be hilarious while spearing British class dynamics and having a great sense of place. And she’s a fellow knitter – what a hero. I’d love to be that hard-working, but I like gardening too much.

That aside, I think Gül is a role model herself, really. She’s not showy like Fuat, so you might wonder at first what she’s actually achieved. But she does good in the lives of the people she loves. She’s not naturally brave, but she’s brave when it counts. She bears things, and sometimes that’s just what’s needed. She reminds me of a lot of the women who I love, and who I hope to be more like when I’m a bit older and less concerned about my ego. The other day I was translating something really lovely, something that slips effortlessly into equally lovely English, and I found myself wondering, ‘Is it really me doing this?’ Am I involved in the process at all? I’m not sure if it’s good for my ego, or bad.

Selim: Why should it be anything for your ego when it didn’t contribute to the job?

Ayça: I don’t understand, Selim, are you suggesting that the ego’s not involved in the translator’s work? That is very complimentary, if so, but I am a lot more smug than that!

Selim: If it goes smoothly like that I’d say it isn’t involved. But it likes to take the credit.

Ayça: Interesting. What about when you’re writing? And what do you think, Katy?

Katy: I take the credit even when it feels easy.

Selim: Sometimes I write and get into a flow and after I stop, it’s like: That’s good, how did I do that? I don’t know how I did it, if I knew I would do it more often. It just happens. I don’t really take the credit. It’s more like life wants to express itself in this way. And I happen to be the way. And I’m happy about that. Bob Marley says: Jah gave me song to sing.

Cologne, Berlin, London, June 2021

Sandra Hoffmann: Speaking Helps

Sandra Hoffman and her translator Katy Derbyshire on their book Paula, on music, the big wide world and the power of speaking.

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