Translator Focus: Marshall Yarbrough

Yarbrough photo
NBG interviews Marshall Yarbrough, member of the translators’ collective Cedilla & Co.

Interview with Emma Rault

How did you get into translation and how has your career unfolded?

I started when I was interning at a publishing house. Having studied German, I was curious about translation, and looking for ways to be in the world of books. One of the editors introduced me to the translator Susan Bernofsky. She encouraged me to try it out. Her words were something like, ‘You just have to try it and be bad at it for a while.’

I started out by translating short stories and submitting them to journals like www.intranslation.org and SAND, and doing samples for the Festival Neue Literatur (an annual literary festival in New York which showcases new German-language literature). The way things took off from there was luck bordering on nepotism. Random House Germany decided to commission their own translations of two books by bestselling author Charlotte Link, and through my boss at the time I got introduced to the editor in charge of that project. After that I did Marc Elsberg’s Blackout for Transworld in the UK. Elsberg and Link have the same German publisher, which is how I assume Transworld got my name. At this point, six years after I first started, I do two-thirds literary translation, and one-third part-time work for a literary agency.

What have been your most enjoyable translation projects?

Right now, I’m working on revising an existing translation of The Death of my Brother Abel by Gregor von Rezzori for New York Review Books. Published in German in 1976, it’s a document of post-WW2 Europe that aspires to be a sort of novel of the age. The original translation from 1985 departs from the German in a number of places. My job is to make it a more faithful representation of the source text. It’s interesting to see the decisions that the other translator has made, and feel more justified in how I approach things while at the same time figuring out when to respect their choices and learning how to be comfortable with leaving things as they are.

You’re a member of Cedilla & Co., a New York-based translators’ collective. What does that involve?

One of the ideas behind Cedilla is that we create our own luck. We each have projects that we want to place with publishers, and we essentially function as a literary agency (though unlike an agency we don’t take commission): within the nine-person group we have smaller groups of three that pitch each other’s projects.

Having someone other than the translator submit a project creates a certain professional distance. And between the nine of us, we have a broad base of contacts – it’s a bigger Rolodex, basically. We can also help each other with contract negotiations, when another of us has already had experience with the same publisher for example.

A year from our founding, we have several books on submission, and these books are being reviewed in a way that just would not have happened without the collective. We’re already affording ourselves a chance collectively that individually we wouldn’t have.

Do you have a favourite translated work by somebody else?

The most recent translation I read which impressed me was Filip Springer’s History of a Disappearance, translated from the Polish by my colleague Sean Bye. When it comes to WW2 and the aftermath, we tend to focus – at least in the US – on the West. There’s very little about what was going on east of Germany, so it was an illuminating read. I also really like Annie Janusch’s translations of Wolf Haas. It’s hard to translate funny, and she did it well.

What advice or tips would you give to new translators?

The advice Susan Bernofsky gave me is pretty good. And I think starting with short stories is a good idea. It gives you a clear inroad, and even if it only gets published in a small online journal, you’ll have the experience of being edited.