The Three Rs in translation: Katy Derbyshire

April 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the next few weeks, literary translators will be revealing their reading and writing habits. The first translator to take part is Katy Derbyshire, who works from German to English.

How did you learn your source language?

I learned German as my third foreign language at school, after French and Latin. So I started at the age of 14, I think, and had a wonderful teacher who actually brought along cake. At that time it was compulsory for a year at the school I went to, a London comprehensive. Which is a pretty strange thing today, when British children don’t even have to learn any languages at that level, let alone several. Anyway, I was an au pair in Berlin for six months and then went on to do a degree in German Studies at the University of Birmingham. My year abroad brought me back to Berlin and then I moved here for good immediately after graduating, which is 16 years ago now. I think it was the combination of academic learning and spending time in Germany that helped me to learn German well.

How did you come to translation in general, and literary translation in particular?

I began translating – other than early experiences as part of learning Latin and during my degree – after I settled in Berlin. At that time it was hard to find work here without German qualifications and I’d had a series of dead-end jobs. So I sat down and thought about how I could earn money in a way I enjoyed, and translation seemed a viable option. I got a postgraduate qualification in translation (the University of London’s Diploma of Translation) and started freelancing after I had my daughter, getting work through agencies and colleagues. I certainly enjoyed translation as a full-time job but I wanted to move into translating literature because that’s what I really love, and because translating contracts and advertising copy can be slightly soul-destroying at times. One way I got into it initially was by contacting German publishers and offering to translate samples from their books, which they send out to international publishers to try to sell translation rights. That got me my very first full-length fiction translation, a young adults’ novel. Another tactic that worked for me was building up my resumé by translating short pieces and submitting them to literary magazines. So I had some publications to show for myself and publishers could judge the quality of my work. The other thing was making contacts in the literary translation world, which probably started when I attended the literary translation summer school at the British Centre for Literary Translation.

What does your day look like while you’re translating a novel?

I get up early and go to my office, which I share with two very quiet people. Usually I’m the first to get here so I’ll sneak on to Facebook, check a few blogs, and so on. I supplement my income with other kinds of translation, which I try to get out of the way beforehand. Then I start working on the novel by reviewing what I translated the previous day. I’m quite fast so that can be up to about ten pages, depending on the text. There are always a fair amount of changes to be made at that stage, the second draft. Then I get stuck into translating. When things are going well I’ll be immersed in the text and my office mates can’t talk to me because I don’t really hear them. I research things as I go along, mainly on the internet but I also have a fairly large collection of different dictionaries and reference works. For things that need more in-depth research, I’ll get hold of books and read them at home. At some stage I’ll contact the author with my questions, but I like to save them up and ask them all in one go, so ideally (if the writer is in Berlin or is visiting) I might meet up with them one evening to discuss things.

What are your favourite contemporary books in the source language?

Two of my very favourites are books I’ve translated: The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei and An Invitation to the Bold of Heart by Dorothee Elmiger. Other translations I’d recommend are Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel (trans. Philip Boehm) and Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas (trans. Brian Zumhagen). And for those who read German, my hit of the moment is definitely David Wagner’s Leben. Wagner writes extremely well on the boundaries of fiction and essay, and here he writes beautifully about having a liver transplant. It’s impossible to say whether it’s fiction or autobiography, but it’s certainly very moving and oddly funny.

What have you read recently in English that you loved?

I loved Will Self’s Umbrella. I really enjoyed the style, so unashamedly ripping off modernism with its snatches of song and speech, and I loved Self’s wonderful meandering sentences. And it’s funny, and it’s fascinating.

What novel have you translated most recently?

I’m currently working on Inka Parei’s most recent novel, Die Kältezentrale.

What were its particular interests and challenges?

Parts of the novel are set in East Berlin, in the air conditioning building for the communist party newspaper. So there are a lot of technical descriptions, which are hard for me to understand, let alone render in English. Inka writes in great detail and that helps matters but I do like to visit settings if I can, and the building itself has since been demolished. Luckily, Inka went there herself and took photos, so I can use those for my research.

Which is your favourite novel of the ones you’ve translated, and why?

It’s very hard to say, but if I have to choose I’ll pick Helene Hegemann’s Axolotl Roadkill. Hegemann caused a stir because she was only 16 when she wrote the book and then it turned out she’d neglected to name some of her sources. Plagiarism! That was kind of secondary to me for the translation because I was very affected by the style and the plot, about a teenage girl who’s survived physical abuse but is spiralling towards self-destruction. And despite that it was great fun to translate because the narrator has a very distinctive, witty voice. And that needed to be translated very freely. Sadly, the translation went almost unnoticed when it came out last year.
Do you do any writing apart from translation?
I don’t write fiction. I write a blog ( and I write very occasional articles about German writing and translation. I know a number of translators who write and writers who translate, but I don’t think I’d dare to write a novel of my own. I’m very picky and judgemental and I couldn’t bear to write a mediocre book. Whereas when I translate novels or short stories I have a creative input in terms of the language, although obviously not the structure or the plot or the style. And I do really love most of the books I translate, and I swoon over them and tell everyone how wonderful they are and basically evangelise all over the place. I know I wouldn’t feel that way if I’d written them myself – I’d be riddled with self-doubt and my life would no doubt be terribly unhappy.

What’s your third R, and why?

Research! I need to really understand the writing I translate and to do that I have to look things up, go to places to experience the atmosphere, talk to the writer, read supplementary material, sometimes read other work that inspired the book, try things out that the characters do – all kinds of things. For me, translation isn’t entirely about what happens at my desk.


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