In May 2014, I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar destined for young translators into German. Within the Hieronymus program, organized by the German Translator’s Association (Deutscher Übersetzerfonds) and sponsored by the Robert Bosch Foundation, 12 translators, accompanied by their mentors, spent a week in Straelen, the ”flower town” which has no more than 15.000 inhabitants. Situated in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, at the German-Dutch border, Straelen hosts the only German institution dedicated entirely to translators: the European Translator’s College (German: Europäisches Übersetzerkollegium, in short: EÜK).
In apparence, the EÜK is a tiny and old building whose windows and walls tremble when you wander around its corridors. However, its library harbors about 110.000 volumes, all distributed throughout the main hall, working spaces and private rooms – it’s a translator’s heaven. Among the books, there are 25.000 lexicons in over 275 languages and dialects. From lexicons covering S&M, slang and youth language to encyclopedias about extinct crafts, there is virtually no term, however specific it may be, left to speculation. Many professionals spend a few weeks or months in Straelen when they are involved in bigger projects and looking for the ideal place to concentrate on their work. Apart from that, the EÜK also hosts literary events such as workshops (so-called Atrium Talks) with different contemporary writers. Among those who gratified the College with their presence were Günter Grass, Saša Stanišić, Julia Franck and many others. Within these workshops, translators can work together with the authors they are translating, exchanging ideas and ensuring the maximum quality of their work.
For us, every day was intense work. Each of the 12 participants was assigned a mentor – an experienced translator – with whom he or she would work closely, either in groups of three (each mentor had two mentees) or one-on-one. The mentors were: Ina Kronenberger, Paul Berf, Cornelia Holfelder-von der Tann, Marianne Gareis, Svenja Becker and Olga Radetzkaja. Some of them prepared different exercises for us, and in the spare time we were at liberty to work on our texts. Our guests, Isabel Kupski (S. Fischer Publishing House) and Thomas Wiedling (Nibbe&Wiedling International Literary Agency), gave us valuable insight into the publishing industry. This plethora of information left us feeling overwhelmed at times, but on the other hand, at the end of the week we spent together, we could all agree on one thing: the outcome of the seminar had exceeded all our expectations.
There’s a very fine line between being faithful to the text you are translating and betraying it. Sometimes, paradoxically, if you cling to it too hard, the effect is rather that of a deceiving intimacy – as one of the participants pointed out. One aspect is essential in writing, translating and even acting: you have to reach the heart of the character, otherwise the whole endeavour is doomed. You have to find that voice and do everything in your power to make it come to life. A child talking in abstract, pretentious, scientific terms? Not very character-like, except if we are talking about Safran Foer’s Oskar Schell, perhaps. Every phrase needs to flow naturally. Nothing should feel out of place. If a translator manages to do that, he can be quite satisfied with himself. On the other hand, and that is where the creativity of the translator is needed – after all, his role is to rewrite the text –, one should make full use of the potential the original has to offer. It’s up to you as a translator to dig deep and uncover hidden meanings, nuances that aren’t visible at first sight. A very explicit word in one language can have very different connotations in another. By searching for the connotation that fits the rest of the puzzle best, you can enrich the text, bringing its true colours to light and its imagery to life. But as I already said, it is a work in progress, and, most of all, a balancing act, a tightrope walk. Most of these things we learned during the discussions are fundamental not only in translation, but also generally in fiction and writing.
As our focus was on creating a coherent and vibrant text in German, regardless of the original language, we spent quite some time debating the structure of the phrase in German and how it relates to other languages. It is evident that you have to put a lot of effort into finding the best solution for problematic sections, such as very long or intricate phrases, for instance. Using too many relative clauses in German can make the text seem heavy and slow, depriving it of dynamics – because you are inundated with explanations and details instead of just captivated by the action. This is where a translator has the power to work his magic by tightening and loosening the ”screws” of the text.
Not only did we learn a lot, we also found time to laugh and have fun. A fellow translator’s interpretation of an Arabic rap song prompted an especially creative one among us to write a rap song dedicated to our group coordinator, Thomas Brovot, who never ceased to amaze us with his nuggets of wisdom. The lyrics included the famous phrase “show, don’t tell“ and “translator’s hell“ – it was something along the lines of: ”enough with explanations, show, don’t tell/or else you’ll land in translator’s hell“. There, I did a bit of translating of my own.
As you can imagine, when you put together a group of people passionate about language, inside jokes and puns start to pour out almost instantly. Imagine the fun we had while watching the Eurovision finale the day before our departure from Straelen. During the seminar, we found fellow translators and colleagues, but most of all, we found people with the same interests as ours – and it was the beginning of some wonderful friendships.