Emerging as a Literary Translator

Dreamers Cover
By Rachel Stanyon

‘If my experience illustrates anything, it is that a keen love of language and literature in general can lead to work in the field of translation, and one sometimes reaches it along unexpected byways.’

Anthea Bell


It was a cold, dark day in Vienna, where I was completing the final semester of my Masters in translation. As I sometimes did when worn down by the motor manuals, mountain climbing catalogues or mortgage memoranda that I’d been set to translate, I navigated to the New Books in German website and saw a glimmer of hope: a competition for emerging German to English translators. Having never translated anything longer than a few hundred words before, let alone had a book-length literary translation published, I was certainly eligible. But an emerging translator? Even that sounded like a stretch for me. I’d been cautioned by my home university in Australia about the challenges of trying to forge a career in literary translation, an industry that, like many other creative fields, is notoriously hard to break into or earn a living from. But it was literature that had inspired me to study translation. The deadline was a week away. ‘Well,’ I thought to myself, ‘it can’t hurt.’ As it turned out, it felt pretty good when a few weeks later I found out I had won a place.

That was in 2016. Three years later, I am still emerging as a translator, helped along in no small part by the confidence gained from winning a place on the Emerging Translators Programme (ETP), and the experience of being commissioned to translate a literary sample. A key part of the programme for the six selected translators is a day-long workshop with the eminent translator Shaun Whiteside, and discussion between all the participants continues via a dedicated online forum. The task of literary translation can be a solitary labour of love. The workshop and forum prove the value of colleagues and collaboration, emphasise the importance of discussion when it comes to untying textual knots, and help create communities that can be hard to find beyond the walls of a university or formal workplace. Crucially, the programme also gives invaluable advice about building a viable career in literary translation.

2019 marks nine years and ten editions of the programme since its creation by NBG editor Charlotte Ryland. Many of its graduates have gone on to do great things in the world of German translation, with numerous published titles now under their belts, along with translation prizes, residencies and bursaries. The ETP has even directly helped launch the careers of some former participants, with Niall Sellar, for example, getting his first translation contract for Volker Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin after its publisher contacted NBG. And now New Books in German is revamping the programme in order to further narrow the gap between publishers and translators.

ETP 2019
ETP 2019

This year, for the first time, the ETP workshop is a two-day affair. The first day follows the same workshop format that has worked so well in the past. On the second day literary translator Alyson Coombes, who is managing this year’s ETP, accompanies the participants to three London publishing houses, where they will meet commissioning editors who publish fiction in translation. Another new feature is the chance to meet and talk with two ETP success stories: Translators Association co-chairs Charlotte Collins, whose translation of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize; and Ruth Martin, translator of several titles including Volker Weidermann’s Dreamers, recently published by Pushkin Press to great acclaim.

Emerging as a literary translator can certainly be a long and challenging process. Many literary translators get their first project through good fortune, or a contact, or both. New Books in German’s Emerging Translators Programme offers concrete opportunities for aspiring literary translators to create this good fortune by giving them what might be their first commission and a prize to their name, and by introducing them to new and established translators, sowing the seeds of what may become important networks in the future. The ETP now also gives these emerging translators a window into the world of publishing, and – perhaps even more importantly – encourages publishers to open their doors to new translators who may become the Anthea Bells of the future.

DreamersBabylon Berin Cover