Jamie Bulloch is an historian, and has worked as a professional translator from German since 2001. His translations include books by Paulus Hochgatterer, Alissa Walser, Timur Vermes, Friedrich Christian Delius and Linda Stift. Jamie won the 2014 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for Best German Translation for Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m forty-seven, married with three daughters and live in London, where I was born. Outside of books I love cooking, gardening and cricket.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
Like many children, I adored Roald Dahl’s work, and then came my first taste of translated fiction when I devoured the Asterix series. I read them over and over again. Later, when I went on a school exchange, I got the chance to read them in the original French. In my teens I was a big Stephen King fan.
Why do you translate?
I enjoy the intellectual and creative challenges it provides. I love working from home and the flexibility the work offers fits my life perfectly.
Your advice to new translators just starting out?
First be aware that this is a precarious career. In fact you might argue – as David Bellos does in his excellent Is That a Fish in Your Ear – that it’s not a career at all, that it’s very difficult to earn a proper living. It’s only in the last couple of years that I have earned more than I did as a schoolteacher, and that was over twenty years ago. So long as you go into the profession with your eyes open and accept that it might be a real struggle at times, you’ll be better prepared. Second, try to establish a relationship with German publishers, who are always looking for samples of their books to be translated into English.
How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
I fell into literary translation really. Having done a PhD in inter-war Austrian history, I wanted to stay at university and pursue an academic career. I did teach German and history for a number of years, but these were only ever temporary posts, filling in for those on sabbatical. After a number of years with no permanent job prospects I gave up and moved abroad for a couple of years with my young family. When I returned to the UK it was time to look for something else. I had done a bit of technical/academic translation, but fortunately had good contacts in the publishing business. I was asked to do a sample, the editor liked it, and I got the job.
How and why is the role of the translator important as a British editor engages in the acquisitions process? And how important is funding?
Often the British editor lacks the necessary language skills to read a book in its original language. The translator can provide an objective report before any contract is signed. Funding appears to be incredibly important nowadays, especially if the book is not a surefire commercial success. It is a brave (or foolhardy) editor who acquires a literary work without the prospect of a translation grant.
What are you most proud of translating?
Probably Kingdom of Twilight, which has just come out. It’s twice the length of an average novel, highly lyrical and experiments with different styles. It was a major challenge to translate, but an incredibly satisfying one.
What is your biggest failure?
When a novel you love and really believe in appears and vanishes without trace it feels like a big failure. Unfortunately it happens too often in this country.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished the autobiography of the German and Arsenal superstar, Mesut Özil. And I’m halfway through the first in a series of Black Forest crime by Oliver Bottini.
Your views on book publishing and translation?
Great business to be in because of the wonderful and fascinating people you get to meet. It’s also a joy to be working with books. Also slightly depressing, however, when you see how tight the margins are in publishing and how lots of great books fail to find their way into English.
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?
I think so, yes, and for the better. I suppose there will always be some sniffiness about translated books, with some people arguing that they can only be pale imitations of the original. It is a prejudice we will always have to fight. But a number of translated works have been big hits over here in the past few years and I hope this gives publishers more confidence to choose more widely. Having a high-profile prize for translated literature – the Man Booker International – has given it a real boost. Review space in the major newspapers is much more cramped than when I started out, but fortunately there are some reviewers who focus on translated literature.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your translating life?
There are passionate online communities devoted to fiction in translation, which are great for spreading the word. Personally, I wouldn’t be able to work at half the speed I do without the internet. Research can be done instantaneously and online dictionaries and thesauruses make life much easier.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
Not really. I have to sometimes for work, but I much prefer the real thing.
How involved are you, in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
I do whatever I can to promote any book I’m involved in, whether through events, or on Twitter. When I first signed up for the latter about six years ago, I thought it would revolutionise the marketing and promotion of books. It didn’t take me long to realise that there’s a lot of shouting and very little listening. I still use it in the hope that something, one day, catches fire. Twitter is, however, an incredibly useful tool for gauging if there’s a buzz about a particular book.
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?
I think it’s too early to tell, but I can only imagine downsides. The role of translation is to build bridges between countries and cultures. Brexit is a sinister move in the opposite direction.
Your bedside reading?
Far too much. Quite a lot in German – recommended books that could end up being translated – and also plenty in English, because that’s one of the best ways to improve as a translator: read, read, read.
Your favourite prose author?
Tricky one, as I admire so many writers. My favourite classic writer would probably be Balzac; amongst contemporary authors I’m always keen to read the latest novel by Jonathan Coe or Ian McEwan – two very different writers but both masters of language.
Your favourite poet?
I read hardly any poetry to my shame.
Your heroes in real life?
I’m getting to that stage in life where you stop having heroes.
Your chief characteristic?
Like my father, I’m always on time.
Your chief fault?
Saying yes too readily.
Your favourite motto?
To thine own self be true.
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