Exploiting the Translator’s Mind Palace: Contemporary German Fiction 101

By Katy Derbyshire

As a single parent of a teenager, I am constantly on the lookout for ways to earn extra money without doing less literary translation work, which I love and which provides about half of my income. I am also convinced that we translators are experts in our respective fields, getting closer to the literature we work on than almost anyone else. The literature I work on is contemporary German fiction, and I live in Berlin. How could I turn my accumulated knowledge about today’s German writers and their books into hard cash, and at the same time satisfy my evangelical urge?

If you ever read a newspaper, you’ve probably noticed that Berlin is attracting English-speakers in droves these days. Parts of the city’s English-language literary community are becoming more professional, including a literary agency, several magazines, and a small company offering creative writing workshops and other “author and publishing services.” I noticed that this organization, called The Reader, was running an evening class in “English through literature” and thought: I can do that for German. So many English-speakers have asked me where to start reading German literature over the years that I guessed there might be enough demand to fill a class. I pitched the idea to The Reader, and as it turned out there was plenty of interest out there.

I set a limit of ten participants and very quickly had ten people signed up—writers, commercial translators, industry professionals, and plain-and-simple booklovers. There were to be seven meetings, in a friendly second-hand bookshop, at a price of €100 a head. I chose seven texts—this was probably the hardest part—which were very short and self-contained and hadn’t been published in translation. But they also had to be in some way representative of current trends in German writing, or simply outstanding pieces of work. In the end, the texts turned out to be mainly things that I love, written by people with whose work I’m very familiar. (You can read the list of authors here.)

The other challenge was “classroom management.” Some participants had overestimated their German reading skills or the time they had available for reading or even attending, which made things tricky. I tried not to take it personally when people didn’t show up. I was also very conscious that they were paying to be there, and I felt they expected more guidance and background information than in a typical reading group. The teaching experience I have is of leading translation workshops, a very different setting. So I made sure to prepare for each ninety-minute session by rereading the texts and making notes on the writers and the ideas their work highlights, plus thinking up talking points. It wasn’t easy; at times I felt the universe was getting its revenge for my own behavior in undergraduate seminars. But when it went well we ended up having fascinating discussions on everything from how literature works to sex to German politics. Selim Özdogan and Deniz Utlu prompted discussion of racism; Felicitas Hoppe on whether Kafka was writing about sexuality, and whether that mattered; Clemens Meyer’s prostitute monologue made us laugh. People enjoyed it; I enjoyed it.

It was an experiment. I intend to run another course in the future, this time letting more people join and using extracts from novels so that participants can go on to read the whole book if they like the text. One participant wished I’d chosen “less avant-garde” writing, so I’ll probably grit my teeth and make the reading material less representative of my own taste. I also want to suggest a minimum language requirement, but I’m not sure yet how to frame that. A splinter community has formed of people who want to read classics in a group, and a fellow literary translator is planning a course on reading Kafka in the original. The upshot is: yes, I can do this, because enough people are interested in contemporary German writing and I have enough to say about it. Perhaps it might be an interesting avenue for other literary translators, wherever they are.


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