Translator Focus: Ruth Martin

Ruth Martin - photo
NBG interviews the translator Ruth Martin

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

In 2009, a publishing friend who knew I spoke German asked me to translate a piece for a literary journal because she couldn’t afford to pay an ‘actual translator’. It was the most intellectually rewarding thing I’d done for years, and after that I spent a long time ham-fistedly bothering publishers until someone gave me some work. I started with samples of novels and German publishers’ foreign rights catalogues, and I’ve now translated a pretty wide range of books: serious academic monographs; memoirs; novels; children’s poetry. I owe a huge debt to the late Carol Janeway at Knopf, who really kick-started my career by commissioning me for two big non-fiction books. She was a brilliant editor and is greatly missed.

In 2011 you were one of the first participants in NBG’s Emerging Translators Programme. Has this shaped your path into literary translation?

Absolutely. The programme gave me lasting friendships, useful contacts, and a confidence in the quality of my work that I hadn’t had before.

What have been your most enjoyable translation projects?

My favourite to date is probably Michael Köhlmeier’s Two Gentlemen on the Beach (Haus). It’s the story of a mostly fictional friendship between Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin, who both had quite idiosyncratic speech patterns. I spent a lot of time with their respective autobiographies, shoehorning bits of their vocabulary and syntax into the novel wherever it seemed like a legitimate choice. Eichmann Before Jerusalem, Bettina Stangneth’s major revisionist biography of Adolf Eichmann, was fascinating if not exactly enjoyable − I am in awe of Bettina and her determination to uncover the truth about some of the darkest bits of German history. A good working relationship with an author can make all the difference, too, and she is both immensely kind and very perceptive. Ultimately, any book can be a pleasure to translate if it’s really well written, whether it's a thriller or a philosophical treatise. The variety is one of the things I love about this job.

How do you pick translation projects?

Translation projects tend to pick me − which is usually down to a combination of luck and furious networking. I think that's how it works for most translators. Most of us also have a book we've completely fallen in love with and will talk about to anyone who'll listen, but it's quite rare for the stars to align in such a way that a) it gets picked up by an English-language publisher and b) you get to translate it. Mine is Chris Kraus’s new novel, Das kalte Blut. It’s a work of genius, but it’s also nearly 1200 pages long, and that’s quite a gamble for any publisher. 

You recently co-translated Nino Haratischwili’s Das achte Leben with Charlotte Collins. Can you tell us a little about that experience?

Charlotte and I met Nino on the BCLT Summer School in 2012, so we’d worked together on her writing before and knew we were compatible. Charlotte was the one who really championed the book, and asked me to collaborate when Scribe bought the rights. The process has been hugely enjoyable and a bit of a journey of self-knowledge – you don’t realise just how individual your personal lexicon is until you have to match up your choices with someone else’s.  

Do you have a favourite translated work by somebody else?

It’s difficult to pick just one, but I’ve been re-reading Susan Bernofsky’s translations of Jenny Erpenbeck recently (Visitation and The End of Days). What a fantastic partnership − I really recommend both books if you haven’t read them.

What advice or tips would you give to new translators?

Join the Translators Association − or if you’re not eligible, the Emerging Translators Network. Both are wonderful sources of advice and support, and people to have a beer with. That’s important when you work freelance.

Interview with Rebecca DeWald