On Becoming A Translator

On Becoming A Translator

I first wrote this post in 2015, after completing my MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. Nearly four years on, I feel this article may still be of some relevance today, so I am sharing it once again on my new website in the hope that my experiences might prove useful or inspiring to someone out there!

After just over eighteen months of working in a translation agency, I decided to shift my focus to literary translation and return to university to do an MA. I had sort of always assumed I would do an MA at some point and I was keen to get back to the library and start studying again. With its outstanding reputation for creative writing and translation, the University of East Anglia seemed like the obvious choice and after attending an open day I submitted my application and that was that.

Moving to Norwich felt very much like the right choice, but still it wasn’t easy to uproot my life and start over, although having a very supportive boyfriend who decided to join me for the adventure definitely helped! I was also lucky that my best friend from school was living in Norwich too, so that made the transition that much easier. We moved into a lovely big house right in the city centre (the rent in Norwich is a very depressing reminder of how bad the situation is in London!) in May 2014 and settled in over the summer before I started my course in September.

Although I didn’t yet have an MA in translation, the fact that I had in-house experience as a translator (having worked my way up from a proofreader) was invaluable as it allowed me to set myself up as a freelance translator. I signed up with a few agencies and soon had enough work to keep me busy full-time over the summer. As I was planning to pay for the course myself, it was very reassuring to be able to save a bit before starting so that when I reduced my hours to part-time work once the course began I would have a bit of a cushion in terms of savings. Even so, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy year, as I was determined not to take a loan out and add to my already very high student debt! It can be very difficult returning to education, especially as student loans (in the same sense) are not available for master’s degrees, but I was convinced that it was the right path for me and so I decided I had to just go for it.

It didn’t take long for me to feel sure that I had made the right decision. Everyone at UEA was extremely welcoming and there were only four other girls on my course, which gave it a very intimate feel. Overall, four of us spoke German, but there was still a good variety of languages between us (Japanese, German, Turkish and Dutch) which would make for some very interesting discussions and comparisons over the year.

The first term was very theoretical, with two modules Translation Theory and Stylistics for Translators providing the basics of literary translation. We all came from different backgrounds in terms of what we had studied before; we had all attended different universities, which meant we had taken varying modules ranging from literature and film to linguistics and translation, so it took a little while to adjust to this and find a pace we were all comfortable with. It was certainly a bit of a baptism of fire, as I had done hardly any translation at university and certainly no theory, so I was very much starting from scratch. There were also times when I struggled with the comparatively slim proportion of practical work, but once that grew more intense in the second term I was definitely grateful for already having the theoretical background in place! We did work on a portfolio of translations leading up to Christmas that were then workshopped by a member of staff at the end of the term, which provided some useful feedback.

Just before Christmas we had to submit our first two essays, one for each module and each 5,000 words in length. Coming from Royal Holloway, where we had never written more than 3,000 words in one piece of work (studying two languages meant I was able to escape a BA dissertation!), this initially seemed very daunting but I soon warmed up to it. It was tough a first as I felt like I was using a part of my brain that had been asleep for two years since finishing my BA, but I found the freedom of choosing our own essay topics and texts very liberating. I was able to explore both my passion for contemporary fiction, by writing about style in Daniel Glattauer’s novel Ewig Dein (English version entitled Forever Yours, translated by Jamie Bulloch and published by MacLehose in 2014), and my interest in East Germany, by looking at the translation of East German literature, focusing on Christa Wolf’s Was bleibt and Julia Franck’s Der Hausfreund. This definitely went a long way to increasing my enjoyment of the course, as I could pick texts that I had particularly enjoyed or wanted to explore in more depth, rather than being given a title. This was one of the advantages of being in a mixed-language class, as there really was no way of (or no point in) regulating what we chose to write about, so we were each able to go in our own direction. Several of us had not come straight from a BA course so were a little rusty in our essay writing – as always, Facebook proved a great help for us pooling ideas and helping each other out with practicalities. Another advantage of the MA course was that, unlike my previous degree, our essay deadlines were before Christmas rather than afterwards, leaving time to enjoy the holiday without an impending deadline!

The second term was much more practical and allowed us to build on what we had learned in the previous term. We took another two modules, Case Studies and Process & Product. In Case Studies we worked through different genres, looking at historical fiction, crime fiction, children’s literature and feminist texts, for which we discussed texts such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Harry Potter, and each presented our own short translations for each genre, which we presented to and discussed with the class. This gave us an insight into the translation of various text types, which was incredibly useful. I surprised myself by particularly enjoying the children’s literature section, which I actually really appreciated because it opened my eyes to something I had not really considered much before. Of course, I had been a big reader as a child, but I certainly hadn’t considered translating children’s fiction before, whereas I would now. Our other module, Process & Product, allowed us to be more creative and to work with rewriting as well as translation, focusing on the writing process and exploring how texts are created. For the assessed project, for example, I chose to work with Erich Kästner’s book Das doppelte Lottchen (and the new translation by Anthea Bell, entitled The Parent Trap) in which I experimented with rewriting the text for adults, by adding plot details and changing the voices in the story. I was really excited by this as it forced me to analyse the text in detail and to explore just what makes a text suitable for children or for adults. I was also very happy to work with a translation by the incredible Anthea Bell. Continuing the Erich Kästner theme in my Case Studies essay, I looked at his famous novel Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives), focusing on the translation by Eileen Hall, and looking predominantly at the issue of paratext and of cultural adaptation, in particular for a child audience. I loved Erich Kästner as a child myself (long before I thought of studying German and without really knowing anything about the concept of literature in translation) and it was amazing to be able to take a trip down memory lane and revisit his work, and to explore it from a new angle.

The first two terms of my MA were very busy for me as I continued to take on freelance translation work three days a week to pay the bills, and from November to April I also worked as an intern for the magazine New Books in German (NBG). This amazing experience opened my eyes to numerous contemporary authors from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and gave me an insight into the work of publishers and editors. I met some great linguists and attended a couple of editorial meetings at which I was able to watch translators, editors, publishers and literary agents discuss titles and what would work best in translation for the UK/US market. This was a fantastic internship and, as it was mostly carried out remotely, was one which could be fitted in around my other commitments. I was also able to contribute an article to the magazine, to interview literary translator Jamie Lee Searle, and to write a reader’s report, which was a great experience. All in all this was a very good practical way to supplement my course and provided me with invaluable contacts for the future.

Another great opportunity I had in the spring of 2015 was to participate in the Emerging Translators Programme (run by New Books in German). After entering a competition for which I submitted a short translation of a supplied text, six entrants were chosen to complete a longer sample of various novels from the latest issue of New Books in German, for which we were then given a workshop by NBG editor Charlotte Ryland and translator Shaun Whiteside. This one-day workshop allowed us to explore a variety of contemporary works, to meet new people and to receive great advice from Charlotte and Shaun. It was very encouraging to be selected and really added to my enthusiasm to become a literary translator. There are quite a few similar initiatives and competitions for emerging translators, all of which offer invaluable support from peers and experts alike, which I would definitely recommend.

In the final term of my MA I worked on my dissertation, which allowed me to focus on another of my interests – the Second World War and the Holocaust. I selected another contemporary novel, Nagars Nacht (Nagar’s Night), by authors Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler, which I had actually come across through my internship at NBG. This novel is an incredible work of fiction which follows the story of Shalom Nagar, prison guard and hangman of the infamous Nazi Adolf Eichmann. The novel uses an extensive factual background on which to tell a very important story, set in the present day, focusing on the fact that the Holocaust is not something which has been (or should be) assigned to the past, but rather still has an effect today and should continue to be remembered into the future. I found the text fascinating to work with, exploring the use of fact and fiction in the Holocaust novel, and the way in which contemporary writers can approach such topics and how these can be translated. The advantage of working with a work by contemporary writers is that I was able to get in touch with them, and both authors were very willing to talk me through their writing and answer any questions, for which I am very grateful.

The dissertation, whilst stressful and hard work, was an amazing experience. I was very happy to be able to translate 10,000 words of Nagars Nacht and to write a commentary roughly the same length, thus allowing me to really get into the text and the translation. The MA course included other additional aspects, such as the editing workshops we attended once a fortnight, taking it in turns to present a translation that enabled us to improve our editing skills and get used to discussing the nitty gritty of translation, and overall there were an impressive number of opportunities available to students. Norwich itself also offers a plethora of literary events – talks by authors, readings, literary festivals, among others – which meant that there was never a shortage of things to get involved with. We were also given the opportunity to read our own work in the Book Hive (a lovely little independent book shop in the centre of Norwich) which none of us had done before, and which we very much enjoyed, and to attend the Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School, run by the British Centre for Literary Translation, which provided another chance to work with great translators and authors and meet numerous other literature and translation enthusiasts.

It can be extremely difficult to study today for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is related to finances, but I can say that I have never regretted going to UEA to study literary translation for a second. I have gained confidence, knowledge, experience and contacts and have had some fantastic opportunities. Taking this course has also made me certain that I do want to be a practising literary translator, and has given me a firm foundation on which to hopefully make this happen. If you are considering the course, or another similar master’s course, go for it! I have certainly gained a lot in the last year and look forward to seeing what the future brings.

The English translation of Nagars Nacht, titled Eichmann’s Executioner, is now available from The New Press (co-translated by Helen MacCormac and Alyson Coombes). More information is available here.

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