ruth martin charlotte colins bookblast diary interview

Interview | Charlotte Collins & Ruth Martin | Translator(s) of the Week

The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili translated by Ruth Martin & Charlotte Collins, is published by Scribe UK on 14 November, 2019. @the_germanist @cctranslates @ScribeUKbooks

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
RM: I grew up in Cornwall, and did a first degree in English and a PhD in German literature. I’ve been a full-time translator for about eight years now, working on both fiction and non-fiction titles.
CC: I did a degree in English Literature, then went to drama school. I worked in theatre on and off for quite a long time. A schools tour took me to Germany in 1996, where I lived for nine years. I’ve also worked as a radio journalist, and started translating full-time in 2010.

When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
RM: My dad used to read the Just So Stories to me when I was quite little; he did the voices of all the animals. I think he enjoyed it as much as I did. Reading aloud to children is one of the best things a parent can do, in my opinion. I loved anything by Roald Dahl, too – he had a big influence on my sense of humour. Saturday was library day in our house and I would read my allocation of books, then my brother’s, then I’d start sneaking books off my parents’ piles and reading them in a tree at the bottom of the garden where I wouldn’t be found for a couple of hours.
CC: I was obsessed with Peter Pan. I was convinced that if I thought beautiful enough thoughts I’d be able to fly, even without fairy dust. My grandmother had to have a serious talk with me because I kept launching myself down the stairs. I had wonderful books – The Chronicles of Narnia, Maria Gripe’s Hugo and Josephine series (translated by Paul Britten Austin), Tom’s Midnight Garden, (I used to play in that garden; a schoolfriend lived in Philippa Pearce’s old house.) I loved Andrew Lang’s coloured fairy books; Yellow and Violet were my favourites. There were a lot of time-slip books, a lot in which a lonely child finds a friend, a lot with absent fathers who miraculously return. I can’t remember who started me off on the Brontës, but I read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre when I was about eight and would nag my poor grandparents to take me to Haworth every summer. Francis Spufford’s memoir The Child that Books Built beautifully explores the way we’re shaped, as children, by the books we read, the way we escape into their worlds.

Why do you translate?
CC: Literary translation is where all the threads I’ve followed at different points in my career come together: languages, literature, writing, reading, drama, dialogue, communication, creativity, the crossing of borders. It’s what I should probably have been doing all along, except that I wouldn’t have got here if I hadn’t done the other things first.

How did you kick-start your career as a translator; what was your strategy?
RM: I spent a lot of time bothering German publishers, and then translating samples of books and foreign rights catalogues and anything else they would pay me for. Eventually one of those samples landed on Carol Janeway’s desk at Knopf and she commissioned me to translate a couple of big non-fiction titles. She was a wonderful editor and I was hugely grateful that she took a chance on me.
CC: I started off in Germany, translating voice-over texts and articles for magazines, radio, and online websites, which I still do. When I decided to focus on literary translation, I went to the BCLT Summer School, where I met lots of other translators and joined the Emerging Translators’ Network. Everyone was very supportive and helpful, and it all took off from there.

What was the most challenging part of translating your first work?
CC: This probably isn’t the answer you’re looking for. Just before I signed the contract to translate my first book – A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler – I was diagnosed with cancer. I was very worried about telling the editor in case she decided to give it to someone else, but she was really supportive. Translating during treatment was obviously challenging, but I desperately wanted to do the book and it was actually very helpful to have that to focus on.

How and why is the role of the translator important as a UK editor engages in the acquisitions process? Does funding make a difference?
RM: Translators are often involved right from the start, either bringing a book to a UK editor’s attention in the first place or writing a reader’s report that convinces them to buy the rights. Or not! Editors value translators who can give them an honest professional opinion, whether that’s positive or negative. And funding makes a huge difference, especially for a small press: it can make translation a viable option, or just a bit less of a gamble.

Is winning a Translation Prize important and why?
CC: Yes; and so is being short-or longlisted. A seal of approval from your peers is very helpful when you’re pitching for work, in any profession. It raises your profile, too; people are more likely to offer you work if they’ve heard your name in a positive context. It’s also a big confidence boost; and if money is involved, that’s always going to be welcome! It’d be a mistake, though, to assume that it’s the “best book” that wins. There are so many factors involved in selecting an overall winner, not least the tastes of a particular jury. Shortlists are a better indication of the books and translators that should be attracting your attention.

What are you most proud of translating?
CC: Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life.
RM: Volker Weidermann’s Dreamers.

What is your dream translation project (or have you already done it)?
CC: I would really like to translate more great books by women writers. So far, the only woman I’ve translated is Nino. I’m so pleased that, when we brought The Eighth Life to Philip Gwyn Jones at Scribe, he immediately fell in love with it, just as Ruth and I had done.

What are you working on at the moment?
RM: I’m translating a volume of short stories by Joseph Roth, and a book about silence by a Swiss psychotherapist. The variety is what I love about this job.
CC: I’m about to start work on Robert Seethaler’s latest novel, The Field, and this summer I’ll be working with the German playwright Enis Maci for the Royal Court’s International Residency.

Has the perception of books in translation in both the book trade and the media changed during the time you have worked as a translator?
RM: It’s much more common now to see “world literature” or “new in translation” tables in bookshops, and it feels like more translated titles are getting reviewed. I think the Man Booker International Prize has made a big difference in the last couple of years, generating a huge amount of media coverage for the shortlisted and winning books. But for me, the ultimate goal would be for books in translation to be treated like any other books, to be eligible for all the same prizes and advertised and read in the same way as those originally written in English.

Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your working life as a translator?
RM: Machine translation is improving rapidly, but it’ll be a while before the robots take over – until they learn creative wordplay and humour and how to fine-tune the rhythm of a sentence, our jobs are safe. In terms of books in translation, I think the price and ease of purchasing e-books may have made people more inclined to take a punt on things they might not normally read. But that’s based purely on anecdotal evidence.

How important is the relationship between author and translator; and when you’re translating work by authors who are no longer alive, what needs to be addressed, and how?
CC: It depends on the translator. I like to be able to check with the author that I’ve got things right, and that they’re happy with how I’ve interpreted their work, so obviously it’s great if they’re up for that conversation. If the relationship is friendly, it’s a real bonus. I know that some translators prefer their authors dead; they feel it gives them more of a free hand. I’ve only translated one author who was no longer living: Walter Kempowski. There were a lot of things I would have liked to have discussed with him. For example: what degree of awkwardness could and should be retained in English in order to give the flavour of the original? Would he be OK with us (the editor and me) smoothing it slightly here and there to make it a little easier to read? I suspect the discussion might have been tricky.

How involved are you in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
CC: Until I started translating I had never done any public speaking (acting is a whole different ballgame). The idea terrified me. Then I was invited to the Edinburgh Festival for an event with Robert Seethaler and discovered that not only was it fine, but I actually enjoyed it. Now I love doing promotional events: it’s a treat to get to talk to audiences about the books, and about translation. I’m delighted that translators are increasingly being asked to do this – to participate and discuss our work alongside our authors, not just be their interpreters. As for social media: I post stuff on Facebook and I tweet; not just to promote my own translations, but my colleagues’ as well. I find social media distracting, addictive and stressful, but it’s a very useful marketing tool.

Nearly 80% of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit, what are the implications for book publishing and translation in your view?
RM: Practically speaking, there may be some sources of funding that won’t be available to the UK in future, but the publishing industry is just as outward-looking as it was before. Translation promotes cultural understanding, and we need that more than ever. I think Brexit just makes us all the more determined to bring great stories to the UK from Europe and the rest of the world.

Your bedside reading?
CC: At the moment: The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, translated by Jen Calleja, after which I’ll be treating myself to Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley and The House with the Stained-Glass Window by Żanna Słoniowska, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker has been sitting on my bedside table for months, but its basic premise seems to be that I’m killing myself by going to bed very late, so I can only read it if I get there before midnight, which I don’t.
RM: The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes. And Julia Copus’s beautiful new poetry collection, Girlhood.

Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
CC: I’d love to invite Emily Bronte, but I suspect she’d kill the party stone dead. I’m also not convinced Hildegard von Bingen or Camille Claudel would have the necessary social skills. Let’s see . . . I reckon we’ll have a great conversation if I invite Krzysztof Kieślowski, Amos Oz, George Eliot and Anthea Bell. Plus Zeid Ra’ad, who’s a tremendous talker and also very amusing; he’ll put everyone at their ease.

What are your favourite literary journals?
RM: SAND is far and away my favourite – it’s a beautiful English-language print journal put together by a small team in Berlin, and features art, photography, poetry and prose, including a good number of translations. And Modern Poetry in Translation, of course, with its huge online archive and interesting workshops.

Your chief fault?
RM: I find it really hard to say no to things, and end up working a lot of evenings and weekends.
CC: Procrastination.

Your chief characteristic?
CC: I talk a lot.
RM: Irritating, relentless positivity. (This makes us both sound mad, but we really are excellent company, I promise.)

Your favourite motto?
RM: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
CC: “Live carefully, with your eyes open, and try not to cause pain.” That’s Kieślowski. I used to think it was “Be kind, tell the truth, and try not to hurt people,” but at some point I realised that truth, alas, is never that simple.
RM: OK, yours is better. I’m going to write that out and pin it up somewhere.

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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