I’m lucky enough to have had my first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, translated into eight languages, with a few more on the way. Swimming Lessons, my second novel, has so far only been translated into German for the publisher, Piper, by Susanne Hoebel, and she has agreed to answer my questions about what it’s like to be a translator of fiction.
Claire: Hello Susanne. How did you come to be a translator of fiction?
Susanne: It′s what I always wanted to be. (Short of becoming a writer, of course.) French was my first choice, and I remember when still at school trying to translate the opening sentence of L′Etranger by Albert Camus and getting stuck immediately.
Claire: This may be a naïve question, but you only translate from English into German and not the other way around. Why not?
Susanne: This was a hard truth for me to learn: Translators of fiction only translate into their mother tongue. (Translators of technical or legal texts or conference interpreters go both ways, they also often have more than one foreign language). It turned out alright for me because as a student of English literature I was interested in translating works of English language fiction. But it meant I couldn′t continue living in England as intended while trying to establish myself with publishers and trying to find translation work.
Claire: When you’ve been given a book to translate by a publisher, what’s your process, and how long does it generally take?
Susanne: Publishers have quite a rigid timetable and assign a translation with a deadline. Usually I have four to five months for a project, and usually that is sufficient.
The process is quite mundane. I start at the beginning and translate every sentence and continue until I have reached the end. I don’t read the book beforehand, as I will be reading it four times at least before I am done with it. I do a first translation that gives me a good idea of what the book is about and what difficulties and tricky aspects there are. I then revise it bearing everything I have learnt about the book in
mind. Choice of vocabulary, tone, register, etc. Quotations, repetitions, place names.
I use real dictionaries, but most other research for which I used to have an encyclopaedia and go to the library, I now do on the internet, although I have books about plants, a technical dictionary, a pictorial dictionary in both English and German and various other reference books which I love. To get a better feel of a word I often use the ODE (a short version of the OED), and with an idea of what the German should be I use a German
thesaurus.Once the revision is done – which can take as long as the initial
translation – I read the whole text again.
The fourth reading comes later when I get the proofs. My last chance to
make changes, so I always take that stage very seriously.
Claire: What type of person do you think makes the best translator?
Susanne: Someone who loves books. Who loves language, both the language and culture of the original work and their own language. Who has the self-discipline to organise their working day and doesn′t get distracted easily. Who has perseverance and stamina. Who can sit down and write day after day (you don′t have to wait for inspiration, it′s all there on the page). Who is interested in details and niceties and never tires of caring for them. Who likes working in solitude and doesn′t miss the camaraderie of the office. Who doesn′t mind disappearing behind or in the original work. Also someone who doesn′t mind not earning a lot of money.
Claire: What is the hardest thing about translating from English into German? Have you come across anything that you would say was untranslatable?
Susanne: There is something untranslatable practically every day. I consider the art of translation as an approximation. Similar to communication, really. Take a word like “lunch″. There are many connotations, not one of which is conveyed if you translate it as ″Mittagessen″, which has a myriad of connotations of its own. Or consider the ambiguity of this sentence: “Flying planes can be dangerous.″ You need two sentences in German to render this. Okay, so you can translate both meanings, but the highly satisfying cleverness of the sentence structure is lost. Hence it is untranslatable.
Claire: What are you trying to achieve when you translate a book?
Susanne: I want the book to be as good a read in translation as it is in the original. Ideally I want the reader not to think of the fact that it is translation. (Most people don′t anyway.) I want the German to shine and be completely idiomatic. I don′t want the original to shimmer through.
Claire: You’ve translated over 80 novels, including books by Nadine Gordimer, John Updike, and William Faulkner. Which has been your favourite to work on?
Susanne: The Novel Light in August by William Faulkner is the highpoint of my life as a translator. Not only is it the most brilliant book I know, with the most compelling language creating incredibly powerful images and scenes and several storylines that are so cleverly intertwined that the reader is often unaware of being shunted backwards and forwards by the author. It is also the book that my partner Helmut Frielinghaus and I worked on together, and we gave it our complete attention and concentration and worked on every word and every sentence until we had the desired result. It was the most joyous and fulfilling time of both our professional lives. We both loved the book and the work on it.
But there are two – in terms of world literature far less significant – books that I loved to bits when I translated them, and these are Helene Hanff′s The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and Letter from New York. I was enthralled by Hanff′s loving and engaging look at England, her eagerness to explore everything about it, from leaky showers to Cream Tea at the Ritz, her enchantment with what she discovers. Perhaps this is so because it echoes my own enduring love affair with England.
Claire: Do you have any advice for anyone interested in becoming a translator?
Susanne: This is a question have been asked by young translators, and every time I have felt moved to say, ″Make yourself a sponge.″ Meaning, soak up everything you can about the culture, the literature and language of your chosen country. Never allow your curiosity to tire, learn as much as you can about it day after day. Read the dictionary. And the literature.
Of course they should also be proficient in their own language and broaden their outlook by reading voraciously in their target language.
Claire: And this is a bit of a cheeky question – were there any particular challenges in translating Swimming Lessons, or Eine englische Ehe?
Susanne: I loved Swimming Lessons from the start, although it has something decidedly weird about it. What fascinated me was the elliptical nature of dialogues and descriptions and the brevity and succinctness with which you render scenes and characters. I liked the peculiarly hovering language that rarely tells the reader what anything is and leaves everything to conjecture and interpretation leading to different readings of the story.
Sometimes I feel it is sufficient to translate faithfully what is there on the page. At other times I feel I want to creep inside the text and translate form the inside out. The result may not be that different, but obviously with the second approach you employ more empathy, and I felt that it was the best approach for your book.
Claire: Finally can you tell us anything about yourself and your job that would surprise readers?
Susanne: I still love my work and feel lucky every morning when I sit down to work.
I am incredibly grateful when an editor rings up and offers me a new project.
I am glad I am not a writer (despite of what I said at the start, but that was when I was very young) and glad that somebody else has worked out the plot and the action and is in charge of the characters.
I sometimes feel I have stolen the author′s book, because there it is, his or her book, but they haven′t written a single word in it, nor do they understand what is written.
I love being a translator although I often have doubts that translation is really possible or even exists.
Read my interview with a reader in a literary agency
Read my interview with a literary agent
Read my interview with a Publishing Director at Fig Tree / Penguin
Read my interview with an Art Director at Tin House
Read my interview with a Foreign Rights Agent in a literary agency
Read my interview with an Editor at Tin House