‘Let’s keep on painting flowers on the walls, watering the carpets and sliding down the bannisters of the literary community’
The first time I read a German book I had no idea it was a translation. It must have been in the mid-eighties and it was a children’s book handed out in class, chosen by our teacher. It was Christine Nöstlinger’s Conrad the Factory-Made Boy, translated by Anthea Bell. I remember being confused at how the neighbours could communicate from one flat to another – the flats in our part of London were made of concrete and I couldn’t imagine a heating vent like in an Austrian apartment building. But I was also captivated by the idea of a perfect boy delivered in a huge tin can, who has to turn naughty to stay with his eccentric new mum.
I have forgiven myself for not realising the book was translated, or even noticing it was set in another city. My horizons at the time were limited, but in fact the publishing world didn’t make things easy for readers to work things like that out. Even now, with a paperback reissue fresh out in July, I had to turn to the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature to find Nöstlinger’s translator – neither the publisher nor Amazon provide that information on the web.
Thankfully, this is an exception these days. Anthea Bell has been profiled in the mainstream press (and on these pages most recently on pages 26-27 of this issue), has run translation master classes, won numerous prizes, and is more likely to have her name on the cover – of Andrea Maria Schenkel’s The Dark Meadow or Marie Jalowicz Simon’s Underground in Berlin – than tucked away in the fine print. And although very modest in person, Bell is something of a figurehead for translator visibility, revered for her broad body of outstanding work.
That development has taken in the rest of us, too. An increasingly confident presence in the literary world, translators are proudly claiming recognition for our work. That means not only decent pay and royalties but also mentions in reviews, seats on festival panels, name-checks in marketing material – not quite star treatment but at least acknowledgement that we play an essential and creative role. Literary translators are active in our own right, holding sold-out translation duels, working with schools, promoting our books on social media, starting small presses and in some cases standing in for our writers when they are not available – for instance Ann Goldstein for Elena Ferrante or Katrina Dodson for Clarice Lispector.
There are two highly encouraging signs for the future. The first is the advent of the ‘emerging translator’. In the old days people tended to fall into translation by accident – friends and relatives of literary editors who happened to speak more than one language. Now, however, there are people who aspire to careers in literary translation. The community provides training and networking opportunities for these enthusiasts and they are becoming a force to be reckoned with. Two of my former BCLT summer school students, Ruth Martin and Charlotte Collins, have just handed in a mammoth translation of Nino Haratischwili’s The Eighth Life. It was thanks to their advocacy that Scribe picked up the book in the first place.
Secondly, literary awards are beginning to recognise translators’ contributions more publicly. The International Dublin Literary Award is open to all books published in English and gives a quarter-share of the large prize to any winning translators. And the most recent arrival, the new Man Booker International Prize, is split down the middle, giving equal amounts to its winning writers and translators. The inaugural champion Deborah Smith perfectly embodies the new breed of highly visible translator activists. Having brought the Korean writer Han Kang to the UK, she launched the Tilted Axis publishing house to ‘shake up contemporary international literature’.
Like Conrad the factory-made boy, literary translators have learned not to stay quiet and unobtrusive. We are speaking out, acting up, fighting for our place in the world – and making that world a more interesting one. Let’s keep on painting flowers on the walls, watering the carpets and sliding down the bannisters of the literary community.
Katy Derbyshire is a literary translator from German and is behind the blog lovegermanbooks. Her forthcoming translations include Jan Brandt’s Against the World Seagull Books) and Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Fitzcarraldo Editions).