NBG interviews the translator Katy Derbyshire

Coffee cup and books
Interview with Vikki Beown

How did you get into translation and how has your career developed?

I started translating because I was living in Berlin with no useful qualifications apart from speaking English and wanted to get out of dead-end jobs. I took the Institute of Linguists’ Diploma of Translation at seven months pregnant. Once my baby was at kindergarten, I started doing commercial translation. I enjoyed the act of translation, but the material wasn’t stimulating. I wanted to translate literature. People laughed, but I persisted, attended the BCLT Summer School – which I now teach – contacted German publishers and did sample translations, submitted to magazines, and at some point, was lucky enough to get my first book translation. Now literature makes up the majority of what I translate.

I’ve been reading your blog lovegermanbooks. What kind of impact has blogging had on your career?

There have been two key benefits: first of all, I’ve made myself into an expert about German books. I have a degree in German Studies but we read little contemporary literature, so I was essentially self-taught. Now I have a good overview of who writes what in Germany, who I find exciting, whose work I admire, whose I can’t stand… Secondly, my blog has made me visible. I’m far from London publishers and editors, but they can still be aware of me. Some of my book reviews have functioned as part of pitches to publishers, sometimes that’s even worked out.

What has been your favourite translation project so far, and why?

That’s tricky. The answer is usually: what I’m working on now. At the time of writing, I’m translating a short story collection by Clemens Meyer, my third book of his. I love his style, the way he seizes his readers by the throat and plunges us into his characters’ minds. His prose is quite messy. I end up translating intuitively, listening out for rhythms, playing it by ear, trying to give my version the natural, near-spoken feel of Meyer’s work. It’s difficult – but that’s the fun part. In this collection he sides with outsiders and I find it deeply humane and moving. There’s no title yet; his titles are tricky.

Do you have a favourite translated work by somebody else?

I love Christina MacSweeney’s version of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth. It’s a lively translation, and bubbles over with energy and imagination with word choice and sound. MacSweeney has added a chapter of her own, a kind of in-character timeline to help us understand the novel which is funny and serious and full of great stories. This year you won the ‘Straelener Übersetzerpreis’, a prestigious prize for translators of German literature. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little about it? Thank you! I’m very pleased… It’s a great honour and immensely comforting, both the acknowledgement that I can do my job, and the unexpected windfall of €25,000. That new freedom from financial pressure has allowed me to start blogging again. I seem to have a lot of new dresses and shoes.

Do you have any ‘top tips’ that you would give to new translators?

I’d say it’s important to read a lot, in both or all of your languages. To see all the amazing things that writers do with words and find books you love. Sometimes new translators look for novels that will ‘work’ in the UK or US, rather than books they could spend six months working on. If you’re a crime fan, read crime, if you adore romantic comedies, read them. Literary translation might pay your rent eventually, but it will take time and you might as well enjoy yourself.