Women in Translation Month 2019: 10 Books

Looking back through my blog for this, I see that Women in Translation Month is one thing that has prompted a regular post (once a year is regular!) in recent years. This year, it seems to have really taken off on Twitter and in real life, with booksellers and publishers getting on board, as well as bloggers and translators. I’ve been asked to put together a list of ten recommendations by women in translation for our lovely local independent book shop, Kett’s Books. So here they are, in no particular order. They are, like Jane Austen’s History of England “partial, prejudiced and ignorant” – by which I mean that they reflect my tastes, what I’ve read, the people and languages I know, and so on. I am aware that they are very European and that there is a whole wealth of other writing by women out there, but I am ignorant of much of it. So here we are:

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland, tr. Rosie Hedger, Orenda Books: a slim and enthralling novel about the shockwaves that ripple through a family when Liv, Ellen and Hakon arrive in Rome with their partners and children to celebrate their father’s 70th birthday, and their parents unexpectedly announce their intention to divorce. It cleverly shows you the same events from different viewpoints, mainly those of Liv and Ellen, and sweeps you up in its spell. I didn’t want it to end.

Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger, tr. Frank Wynne, Pushkin Press: a joyous story of an unusual and touching friendship between functionally illiterate Germain and 86-year-old Margueritte, a retired scientist with a deep passion for books, that changes both their lives for the better. I loved the relationship between the two of them, which is gruff and warm, all at once, and I particularly appreciated Frank Wynne’s achievement in capturing each of their distinct voices and all the word play.

soft in the head

One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, tr. Jung Yewon, Tilted Axis Press: a modern fairytale and a non-sentimental love story with a faintly sinister fantasy edge. There is something elusive about the writing, which is in keeping with the slippery nature of the story. It relates the touching relationship between Eungyo and Mujae, who work at different electronics repair shops in a market in a Seoul slum. There is also something strange going on, with people’s shadows starting to “rise”, to take on a life of their own, in a rather sinister way. This is never fully explored or spelled out, and the story is all the more unsettling for that.

Tregian’s Ground by Anne Cuneo, tr. Roland Glasser and Louise Rogers Lalaurie, And Other Stories, 2015: a big, fat historical novel about Francis Tregian, believed by some, including the author, to be the collector of the pieces in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and subtitled “the Life and Sometimes Secret Adventures of Francis Tregian, Gentleman and Musician”. It is set in the Elizabethan and early Stuart era – up to the Civil War – and deals with plots and counter-plots, religious freedom/discrimination (the Tregian family are Catholics), and, naturally, a lot about music.

Tregian's Ground by Anne Cuneo, tr. Roland Glasser and Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Subtly Worded by Teffi, tr. Anne-Marie Jackson, with contributions from Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. In her day, Teffi was a literary superstar, and it’s easy to see why, because these short stories are witty, yet thought-provoking tales; she is inevitably called the “female Chekov”, although some have a bite that reminds me more of Saki or Dorothy Parker.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern, tr. Ros Schwartz and Emily Boyce, Gallic Books. A deeply moving epistolary novel about Parisian archivist Hélène, whose mother died when she was three. After finding a photograph of her mother at a tennis tournament with two men, she places a newspaper advert seeking information about any of the people in the photo. Unexpectedly, she receives an answer from Stéphane, a Swiss biologist living in Kent, who has recognised his father. The love story between Hélène and Stéphane is touching, while that of their parents – interrupted, frowned-upon and tragic – soon becomes devastating. There is also enough of a mystery in the quest to unravel the complex affairs of the past to keep the reader hooked until the end.

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hannah Krall, tr.  Philip Boehm, Peirene Press: a “remarkable true story of love and survival”. It is the story of Izolda, a Polish Jewish woman, and her determination to save her husband, Shayek, who has been imprisoned by the Nazis. This combination of a true story, an author with first-hand experience of her subject and the theatrical approach to its translation makes for a truly amazing book.

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, tr. Adriana Hunter, Peirene Press: a tiny book that packs such a punch. The story of a woman who’s fallen through the cracks of society and is not coping with motherhood, it is incredibly well written and carries you along with its immediacy. An uncomfortable, yet gripping read. It could be me. It could be my boys.

Little Red Hood by Marjolaine Leray, tr. Sarah Ardizzone, Phoenix Yard: a retelling, or reimagining, of Little Red Riding Hood.  Both story and illustrations are pared down to the bare bones, making it deceptively simple. Little Red Hood is a scribble and a couple of lines, yet she has a huge depth of character and no intention of being eaten. Sarah Ardizzone’s text also perfectly captures the stubbornness of a small girl and the way children can throw you off course with a single well- or ill-timed personal observation.

The Letter for the King, by Tonke Dragt, tr. Laura Watkinson, Pushkin Children’s: a Dutch classic for 50 years finally available in English. A story of knights, chivalry and adventure that grips from the first page to the last, taking in friendship, loyalty and questions of what really matters in life.

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Translation workshops in lovely places, part 2

Last weekend got known in our house as “the weekend with everything”. There was Cub camp for Son2, a first quarter peal for Son1, who is learning to ring church bells, a choir concert at the zoo at sunset and, on the Friday, for me, a day in London for a “DIY workshop” for translators from German to English.

The Goethe Institut reflected in the windows of Imperial College over the road

The Goethe Institut reflected in the windows of Imperial College over the road

The idea came from Katy Derbyshire and it ended up with 10 or so of us in the library at the Goethe Institut. We talked about retranslations and poetry before lunch, with translating voice, commas and swearing, and translation appreciation after lunch. And there was German food and beer afterwards. I learned some new words: asyndeton and asyndetic parataxis, which are to do with linking things up with commas for reasons of rhythm and balance, rather than the dreaded comma splice… We experimented to see whether reading an existing translation was a help or a hindrance in translating a text ourselves, and we wound down with an enthusiastic discussion of swearing culture and how it differs between English and German.

Yes, that was my part of the workshop. No, I don’t swear much myself. Yes, my work can be very sweary indeed. Chastity Riley, I’m looking at you… So: German swearing is very focused on bottoms and bodily functions. It can be surprisingly mild – “damned axe”, “damned hoe”, “piss dandelion” (that’s a very bad one) from rough-tough cops and gangsters – yet seems to start young (no, you can’t easily have “shit” or “damn” in an English children’s book), so Germans often go to town on English swearing instead, scattering F-bombs around their casual conversation and business writing like they’re going out of fashion. I have a lovely list of synonyms to work with now, anyway.

And we finished up by appreciating Breon Mitchell’s new translation of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, which does many things very well. See Katy’s list of things to look for in a good translation here.

We had fun, and here’s to next year!

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Translation workshops in lovely places, part 1

Bloomsbury Square Gardens on a sunny morning

Bloomsbury Square Gardens

This article first appeared in the ITI German Network’s newsletter and the ITI Bulletin, so sorry if you’ve read it already, but here it is again for anyone else interested…

On 2-3 May, 2019, I was lucky enough to be one of twelve translators taking part in the GINT Translab translation workshop held in the beautiful surroundings of the German Historical Institute in Bloomsbury. The event was focused on academic translation from German to English, organised by Frankfurt Book Fair, Geisteswissenschaften International Frankfurt, the German Historical Institute London, the Goethe-Institut London and New Books in German, and moderated by Dr Ruth Martin, literary and academic translator, and one of the co-chairs of the Translators Association of the Society of Authors. It was open both to experienced translators currently working on academic texts and people at an early stage in their careers or looking to move into academic translation as a specialist area.

To apply, we had either to submit a work-in-progress, or translate a sample text provided by the organisers. After introductions and a warm-up exercise (and coffee, of course), we began by looking at the very challenging text the “emerging” translators had tackled, in a kind of giant, 4-way translation slam. This quickly showed, as these things always do, that no two translators will ever translate any given sentence, never mind an entire text, in exactly the same way. It was fascinating to see the variety of approaches that people had taken to the passage, particularly to ways of breaking up enormous German sentences, or patching short ones together.

During the lunch break, we were also given a whistle-stop tour of the Institute’s library – obviously an enormously valuable research resource. This was also a chance to see some more of the fascinating building (for more on its history, see the 40th Anniversary publication, here). The staircases and ceilings are stunning and make you feel that a Jane Austen lady could appear at any moment…

View to the skylight up the John Nash staircase at the GHI

See what I mean about the staircase?

In the afternoon, we looked at the first batch of work-in-progress texts, which covered a wide range of subject areas and threw up a huge array of interesting questions for discussion. These ranged from how to tackle massive concepts that don’t map precisely from one language to the other, such as fremd and all its related terms, to do with “foreignness”, “otherness”, “alienation” etc, to the enormous amount of research work that could potentially arise from a single footnote. We could have talked about each of them for hours but Ruth kept us ably on track.

After tea, there was a panel discussion with GHIL staff, which focused mainly on their experiences of being translated, as well as translating themselves, and of ways that their research related to translation. This highlighted the benefits of establishing a good working relationship with your author as soon as possible, although this is harder if they have been dead for 600 years…

After this, most of us adjourned to our hotel before meeting up again for dinner, where the chatter and discussion continued to flow freely along with good Turkish food and wine (or beer).

The next day, we covered the last batch of texts (including mine). These covered much more similar ground and highlighted the particular challenges of the Second World War and Nazi-era terminology and subject matter – an occupational hazard in academic translation from German. It was extremely useful to be able to discuss resources and approaches to the same perennial questions that we all face, and I’m sure that the connections made during the workshop will continue in the future.

After coffee, we had a round-table discussion of academic translation in general, sharing tips and advice on all kinds of aspects. These included both very practical matters and also the importance of looking after your physical and mental health, particularly when translating the very emotionally demanding texts that come with the territory here. This is an area that the Translators’ Association is planning to consider in general this year.

The final session of the workshop was with Tom Bonnington of Berghahn Books and related to the nuts and bolts of publishing, as well as what happens to our manuscripts once they are submitted, how they select the books for publication and translation and many other areas.

Ceiling and chandelier in the conference room at the GHI

Ceiling and chandelier in the conference room

Thus it was with a tired but buzzing head that I set off back for Norwich and home after a fascinating and inspiring two days, looking forward to applying what I’ve learnt to my work and incorporating some of the brilliant suggestions made by other participants over the workshop.

Many thanks to Anke Simon of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, and Ruth Martin in particular for facilitating the workshop, Emily and Carole from GHIL for hosting and arranging the event, and everyone who was involved. It was marvellous!

Takeaway Points:

  • Focus on the argument and what the author is trying to say as a building block for writing.
  • Academics aren’t always great stylists… although they can be.
  • Discuss potentially sensitive terms with the author as soon as possible, especially with Nazi-era texts.
  • It’s generally useful to make abstract terms into punchier verbs in English, but sometimes this works in reverse too.
  • The Wikipedia test – is a German term well-enough known to have its own Wikipedia entry in English? Is the term translated in the headword or left in German?
  • For copyright reasons, if there is a pre-existing English translation of a text that the author quotes, you have to use that and not translate it yourself. If this causes problems, you can add to the explanation in a footnote or take the phrase out of quotes and paraphrase it.
  • In footnotes, don’t translate archive call signs!

 

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February Reads

So I didn’t read as much as I’d have liked in February, but there were some exciting things all the same. I got to read Simone Buchholz’s Mexikoring, on which more later… Watch this space! Likewise, Zugmaus by Uwe Timm, illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

My non-work-related book of the month was The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl, translated by Don Bartlett, having been lucky enough to be sent an advance proof by Karen at publisher Orenda Books.

In Oslo in 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden whilst the rest of her family is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, Ester’s childhood friend. A relationship develops between them, but ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.

And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter Turid. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

This stand-alone historical thriller is told with a split timeline that jumps between 1942, 1967 and the present day, skilfully weaving the threads together to reveal the chain of events that brings us eventually back to the point at which the novel began. It is tightly plotted with convincing characters and a compelling narrative that grips you from start to finish. And of course Don Bartlett’s translation is as skilful as ever, vividly conveying the voices and places we encounter along the way.

It’s such an interesting and shocking period of history that it offers endless possibilities to the novelist, of course, and Dahl is adept at showing how interrelated crimes of the past continue to send ripples, or even shockwaves, into the present. Highly recommended (unless you’re on public transport, in which case you might miss your stop – just saying).

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January 2019 Reads

I don’t know quite how it got to be 2019 when I wasn’t looking, and I don’t seem to manage regularly reviews any more, but I’m hopeful that semi-regularly round-ups of what I’ve been reading lately might be more doable…

So, January is a good month for reading as there are lovely piles of books accumulated as Christmas presents to work through.

The Night Circus  by Erin Morgenstern (Vintage) Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Mors, tr. Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin, 2017) Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Black Swan, 2019)

The Night Circus  by Erin Morgenstern (Vintage) – I don’t know how I missed this when it came out back in 2012. Apparently there was a massive hype around it, and it was longlisted for the Orange Prize. But miss it, I did. And I’m glad of that because I came at it without expectations. I’m also glad that the blurb I read isn’t the one that wound up a lot of earlier reviewers for being sort-of accurate yet misleading. Anyway, despite a few irritations with the overuse of certain phrases and shaky period detail, I loved this book. It’s atmospheric and slightly creepy and romantic and swept me up in its spell, leaving me slightly reeling at the end.

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Mors, tr. Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin, 2017)– this was shortlisted for the Man Booker International and is billed as a “bracing antidote to the cult of hygge.” It’s about a translator of crime fiction who suffers from BPPV – a form of vertigo that I have also experienced – so I possibly identified with Sonja rather too strongly! This style of book that meanders around for a while and then stops isn’t altogether to my taste though. I’d call it wryly amusing rather than hilarious, myself.

Sonja’s over forty, and she’s trying to move in the right direction. She’s learning to drive. She’s joined a meditation group. And she’s attempting to reconnect with her sister.

But Sonja would rather eat cake than meditate.

Her driving instructor won’t let her change gear.

And her sister won’t return her calls.

Sonja’s mind keeps wandering back to the dramatic landscapes of her childhood – the singing whooper swans, the endless sky, and getting lost barefoot in the rye fields – but how can she return to a place that she no longer recognises? And how can she escape the alienating streets of Copenhagen?

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a poignant, sharp-witted tale of one woman’s journey in search of herself when there’s no one to ask for directions.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Black Swan, 2019) – I already knew Lissa Evans could tell a story from Wed Wabbit and she is also very strong on characterisation. It’s an engaging look at the Sufragette movement and “women of a certain age” in search of a new cause. Very entertaining and I’ll be looking out for her other books all the more now.

Mattie is a woman with a thrilling past and a chafingly uneventful present. During the Women’s Suffrage Campaign she was a militant. Jailed five times, she marched, sang, gave speeches, smashed windows and heckled Winston Churchill, and nothing – nothing – since then has had the same depth, the same excitement.

Now in middle age, she is still looking for a fresh mould into which to pour her energies. …  but what starts as a brilliantly idealistic plan is derailed by a connection with Mattie’s militant past, one which begins to threaten every principle that she stands for.

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Attend by West Camel

First of all, full disclosure: West Camel is the editor of my translations of Beton Rouge and Blue Night at Orenda Books, who also publish Attend, and I was sent a PDF proof copy of by the publisher Karen a for review. This is my absolutely honest opinion of the book, though, and West submitted it to Karen under a pseudonym to avoid any potential nepotism.

 

Attend-275x423

So, to the book. Attend rather defies categorisation. A romantic, gangster novel with a touch of magical realism and a nod to Armistead Maupin. How’s that? As the cover image suggests, there are three strands to the story: Anne, Sam and Deborah.

Anne is a recovering heroin addict who is trying to rebuild her life and her family having got clean and escaped her abusive ex. Sam is a young gay man who has moved to London in search of a new life. They are both looking for new beginnings in Deptford, which represents a homecoming for Anne and an escape for Sam. Here they meet and become friends with the enigmatic Deborah, who has lived here all her life. But can she really be over 100 years old, and unable to die, as she maintains?

This is a novel of contradictions: gritty, yet beautifully written;  fantastical, yet down-to-earth; gripping and moving. I was instantly drawn in and could have read the book in a sitting if life and work hadn’t inconveniently intervened. There is brutal violence and touching romance, raw emotion and convincing characters, drugs, abuse, faith and the possibility of redemption. I felt for Anne, working through such a challenging situation and sometimes put in impossible positions by her family and best friend Kathleen. Sam’s relationship with gentle yet thuggish Derek also felt very real.

Yet it is Deborah who holds the whole thing together, telling stories, weaving spells and providing the literal and figurative guiding thread that brings things to a conclusion. I loved the way needlework runs through the book, and the firm grounding of its setting in Deptford.

Highly recommended!

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5 Questions: Recommended German Books and The Freer Use of ‘Scheiße’

September is #WorldKidLit month – here I am doing a Q&A for Marcia Lynx Qualey at the World Kid Lit blog!

September: World Kid Lit Month

Rachel Ward of Forward Translations (forwardtranslations.co.uk) is the translator of several books for young readers as well as the original translated kidlit listicle-maker over at her blog, “A Discount Ticket to Everywhere.”

She translates from the German and answered 5 questions about her work, German kidlit, and her recommendations.

Can you tell us about the book you’re translating now?

I’m currently working on “Zippel” by Alex Ruehle for Andersen Press. It’s about a boy called Paul who finds a little ghost living in his keyhole, and it’s for age 6+ and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, which is very exciting. There’s a lot of wordplay and silly rhymes involved which makes it both fun and challenging to translate. I still don’t have a good solution for the biggest of these challenges.

How do you discover new German kid lit? Do you discover great new kidlit differently from…

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