Literary translation: somewhere between manic precision and unbridled playfulness

Without them, many people never would have been able to read bestsellers like Harry Potter and The History of Bees. They open doors to other worlds, make foreign-language literature accessible and yet usually remain in the shadow of the authors. We’re talking about literary translators. In this interview, literary translator Patricia Klobusiczky reveals what fascinates her so much about this profession and what difficulties translators need to master again and again.

Julia Biermann: Why did you become a literary translator?

Patricia Klobusiczky © Frankfurter Buchmesse / Bernd Hartung

Patricia Klobusiczky: I was essentially born into the profession: My mother is French, my father Hungarian, I was born in Germany and parts of our family live in England and the United States. Practically all of them are crazy about books and read in several languages, so I already knew what I wanted to become when I was just 15, 17 years old. After finishing secondary school, I studied for a degree in literary translation in Düsseldorf and, in 1993, was given my first translation assignment during an internship with Rowohlt. Siv Bublitz, who was an editor at rororo at the time, asked me to translate Paula Jacques’ novel Deborah et les anges dissipés (Die leichtsinnigen Engel, Rowohlt, 1994) — and everything else followed from that. Who knows what would have become of me otherwise.

“A good translation requires lively language.”

What’s special about the profession and what makes a good literary translator?

Even though I’ve always been an avid reader, I found that you only really get to know a text when you translate it. This profession teaches you to see, hear — use all forms of perception, really — and shows you everything that language can do, both in the original and target language. The many brilliant literary translators in the German-speaking world all have very different personalities, but I think that what most of them share is a mix of meticulousness and faithfulness to the original and an anarchical craving for freedom. After all, your job is to push to the limit, sound out and — as the case may be — even expand the possibilities of the German language every day. So a combination of manic precision and unbridled playfulness is ideal.

Latest translations by Patricia Klobusiczky

Translators often go unnoticed — even in the case of bestsellers — even though the authors’ thoughts and stories only reach us through their words. How can translators step out of the shadows so that people become more aware of their importance to the book market?

A great deal still needs to be done in terms of better informing the public — it starts with the publishers and continues with the reviewers, event organisers and booksellers. Each translated work has two authors: the author of the original and the translator — we’re considered equal as authors. So anyone who publishes, sells, discusses or presents a translation without mentioning us in the previews or programmes, in the bibliographic information or on the websites is actually infringing our copyright. But the really terrible thing is that by not mentioning us our work becomes separated from us. To this day, many translators still experience not being associated with something they have achieved — indeed created — through months of gruelling work, even though there is no longer any doubt that it is a creative feat and that translators are artists. Luckily, a change in awareness can already be seen among countless players in the literary industry. For example, in Berlin alone, I know many event organisers, critics and booksellers who not only value our efforts but also like to involve us in promoting our titles because they have seen first hand that no one can provide more profound and lively insights into the works than those who translated them. This attitude towards translators should serve as an example, not least because it is in everyone’s best interests — including the original authors, publishers and readers.

“I shamelessly eavesdrop on other passengers when I’m on the U-Bahn or S-Bahn.”

You translate from the French and English. What specific characteristics and difficulties does each language present?

German is more precise than French, it requires unambiguous references, which always becomes a problem when the writer is playing with the nebulous nature of the French language. Another typical challenge is the polysemy of French words. Sometimes, for an adjective or noun, you would have to use ten words in German to reflect all the nuances. We don’t do that, of course, but try instead for example to compensate with the German language’s extremely expressive verbs. With English, it’s often the brevity, the speed — the rhythm that can be created with its many one-syllable words and participles — that leaves us racking our brains. Direct translations never really exist. Even a word as mundane as “bread” triggers different associations in each language, as the masterful translator Esther Kinsky vividly explains in her essay “Foreign Languages” (Fremdsprechen, Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2013). The problems you evoke have to be solved over and over again — and the solutions always depend on the context. I read and listen to German as much as possible so that I’m up to the task. I read idiosyncratic originals, daring translations, listen to the radio and German music with German lyrics — from Schubert’s Lieder to gangsta rap — go to the theatre and shamelessly eavesdrop on other passengers when I’m on the U-Bahn or S-Bahn (underground or suburban trains). The richer my vocabulary is, in all registers, the more possible syntactic variations I’m aware of, the more likely it is that I will find solutions that are both creative and plausible. Because a good translation requires lively language.

What book did you enjoy translating most?

I have a soft spot for books with richly varied language. I enjoy creating different voices and drawing on all available resources, and lately I’ve been very lucky in that respect, with novels like Quand le diable sortit du salle de bain (Als der Teufel aus dem Badezimmer kam, Ullstein, 2017) by Sophie Divry, a true linguistic playground, or Petina Gappah’s collection of stories Rotten Row (Die Schuldigen von Rotten Row, Arche, 2017), which is set in Zimbabwe and reflects the society there, with a wealth of pitches and perspectives. But I also like to translate prose that borders on poetry — that is, very dense and musical — like Ruth Zylberman’s La direction de l’absent (Vermisstenstelle, Secession Verlag für Literatur, 2017).

The participants of the Goldschmidt Programme 2018 © Caroline Roussel

Since 2016, you’ve been director of the translation workshop of the Frankfurter Buchmesse’s Goldschmidt Programme, a programme for young literary translators from Germany and France. What advice do you give young translators and young people who aspire to the profession?

The same advice I would give budding poets and writers: Read, read, read, all across the board, but with your senses alert. Take literature and language seriously and approach them playfully. It really should be a passion, a vocation, because the demands are great, the material rewards (as is widely known) limited, you need a tremendous amount of sitzfleisch and should enjoy solitude. At the same time, you should regularly seek out human dialogue and companionship. As I already mentioned above: Translators have to reconcile contradictions. Those who have already been bitten by the bug will usually choose this or that relevant course of studies, but various roads lead to the same destination. The Goldschmidt Programme is the royal road, of course.

Did France’s participation as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurter Buchmesse 2017 have an impact on literary translators?

President of France Emmanuel Macron at the Opening Ceremony of the Frankfurter Buchmesse 2017 © Frankfurter Buchmesse / Marc Jacquemin

Yes, all of the French translators I know worked to the point of exhaustion in the run up to the fair since the translation rights to so many titles were sold — more than usual — and many of them also came to Frankfurt. Unfortunately, not all publishers and organisers made sure that they were treated properly. The renowned translator Brigitte Große, for example, had to sit on the floor at a reading by her author Gaël Faye. No seat had been set aside for Tobias Haberkorn either at the major reading by his author Didier Eribon, even though Haberkorn was the pioneer who brought him to Germany in the first place. And the French Pavilion was decorated with wonderful quotes in both languages, but unfortunately without any mention of who translated them. Preposterous, especially considering how much Emmanuel Macron emphasised and paid tribute to the importance of our work in his opening speech. Naturally, we were all very happy about that — except that words really should lead to corresponding actions.

This interview was conducted by Julia Biermann, Trainee Marketing & Communication at the Frankfurter Buchmesse and translated into English by Sophie Schlöndorff.

About Patricia Klobusiczky

Already as a young girl, Patricia Klobusiczky wanted to become a translator and, after completing secondary school, she studied towards a degree in literary translation at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. In 1993, she translated her first book, the novel Deborah et les anges dissipés by the author Paula Jacques. Since then, she has translated numerous novels from the French and English, including works by Marie Darrieussecq and William Boyd. From 1996 to 2005, she also worked as an editor at Rowohlt Verlag. Patricia Klobusiczky is a strong advocate for translators and, since March 2017, has been national chair of the Verband deutschsprachiger Übersetzer literarischer und wissenschaftlicher Werke, the professional association for German-language literary translators.