New Books in German met with Charlotte Collins to talk about translating Eva Menasse and Bernhard Schlink. We also chatted about her Zoom translation café, and the Facebook group Translators & Cancer.
Helen Nurse: Let’s talk about your lovely translation of Eva Menasse’s Darkenbloom I’ve read the German. It’s really beautiful, but it’s dense, isn’t it? It’s not easy; the sentences are very verschachtelt. I imagine it’s going to be quite challenging to translate.
Charlotte Collins: I’ve tried to make sure that I’ve given myself enough time. I really hope I manage to stick to my schedule, because, as you say, it’s incredibly dense. The sample took me at least three times as long as a sample of that length usually would. Eva Menasse loves wordplay. She loves to have layers of meaning. It’s just so delightful the way she’s packed them all in. And, as so often happens when you’re translating things like that, you can’t necessarily get all the layers in, so then you have to decide, ‘Well, what’s the most important? Is there some other way of doing it?’
I’d actually done a sample, just beforehand, of an earlier novel of hers, Quasikristalle. I read Quasikristalle when it came out, in 2013. I was in Cologne; I went into a bookshop and saw this beautiful cover, and I was looking for something new and interesting that maybe hadn’t been picked up by English publishers. I was just thinking about getting into translation and hadn’t really found my feet yet. And I read it, and I loved her style; I really felt a connection with it. And I thought: I would love to translate this author. I looked at what else she’d written, saw she’d written Vienna and that it had been translated into English by Anthea Bell, and thought: oh well, I can forget that, then!
Those two books are very, very different. Vienna is a bit like a shaggy dog story, sort of this crazy family story that’s semi-autobiographical. And there are all these characters who come and go, and it’s all a bit Tristram Shandy. Whereas Quasikristalle is very carefully structured. I thought: I’m never going to get to translate this author, because Anthea is her translator. Then, last year, the German publisher, to my surprise, got in touch with me, because I’ve done other stuff for them, and said: we’d like to have another push with Quasikristalle, and we’d like to ask if you’d be interested in doing the sample. I was just very excited: I love this author, and I love this book.
So I did the sample for Quasikristalle, and had some communication with Eva through the publisher. Then they got back to me again and said, ‘We’re going to be publishing her new novel in the summer — would you like to do the sample for that as well?’ And I said, ‘Would it be OK for me to contact her directly this time?’ So I had some wonderful communication with Eva, back and forth, about that sample; she was so kind, funny and lovely. She was also very easy-going. There was one multi-layered phrase where I said, ‘I just can’t get all of this in in English,’ and her response was, ‘Well, then cut it! It was just a little joke. You don’t need all my jokes; I’m too fond of them.’
That’s why it’s so great if you have a channel of communication with the author and they don’t mind being asked. Some authors really do love to get into the nitty-gritty of talking about it, and are quite enthusiastic about it, whereas others really hate it.
Helen: Your translation of Bernhard Schlink’s Olga come out in 2020. Can you tell me a bit about it?
Yes, it was an amazing opportunity, working with Bernhard Schlink. The publisher arranged a blind comparison of samples, because they were looking for a new translator, and I was lucky that Bernhard picked me. I was very nervous about doing the book, and spent ages honing it before it went off, so it was just such a relief when I got a message back from him saying that he loved the translation, and could we have a chat about it. He preferred to speak via Skype rather than to write back and forth. He sent me his edits, which were great because his English is extremely good; it wasn’t at all a case of the author interfering. There were a few I didn’t agree with, as there always are, so we just discussed those. It was a very, very easy process, and he obviously was happy with what I’d done. We had this long Skype call, and went over the edits and so on, and stayed in touch. I found him a delight to work with.
Helen: I am really intrigued to hear about the translation café you run.
I started that up during lockdown. It was at some point when, like many people who’d really been struggling to focus during the pandemic, I was in despair at myself, and I was chatting with a friend who lives in LA. I said, ‘Would you be up for working together via Zoom, just sitting next to each other and working?’ I got the idea from two friends’ children who were doing this while studying at home during lockdown. Zoom made it possible to have this sort of co-working arrangement with friends or colleagues on the other side of the world. So I started off just doing a couple of practice sessions with Emma Rault in LA, then put it out there for anyone to join. For a while, there were between four and eight translators showing up each time from all over the place. We did an afternoon and an evening session, and people in the States would often come to the [UK] evening session. It’s kind of fallen away a bit now, because most people have more or less gone back to ‘normal’ life, and people aren’t feeling quite as isolated, but there are a few of us who keep it going. We meet at 2 pm every Monday afternoon for a few hours.
Helen: And do you just have a chat? Or do you actually sit there and work with your cameras on?
We work with the cameras on. In the beginning, I followed the example of a friend who runs a writer’s café; she said you must be very strict, have 10 minutes to chat at the beginning, then work for 50 minutes, then break for 5-10 minutes, then work again. Now we tend just to chat for as long as we feel like it, then say, OK, we’ll work for an hour or so. That works well. We all find we get a bit done, then we’re ready for a break, which helps us focus again afterwards. The lovely thing is also that I’ve got to know some colleagues quite well whom I would never have met otherwise, because they live so far away. The café is for translators of all kinds and people who are editing translations. We wanted to keep the translation focus, but we’re not saying you have to be literary translator, or you have to be working on a specific project. It is more of a social thing, just to help each other concentrate.
Helen: And do you find that the pandemic affected working with publishers? Was there a lull in work, or did it just carry on?
For me, the start of the pandemic coincided with having cancer treatment. Mine is a relapsing and remitting cancer, so I go into remission and then it comes back again. It came back at the end of 2019. I had been having chemo — immunotherapy — for a couple of months when the pandemic started, and I was due to have a stem cell transplant in April 2020. It was then postponed until July, to my immense relief, because I really didn’t fancy going into the hospital and having my immune system stripped out at that point in time. Other than that, though, I think my workload stayed much the same.
Helen: Your output has been immense. Look at the books that you’ve done over the last couple of years! I don’t know how you’ve done it.
It doesn’t feel like it. It feels like I’m terribly slow. I mean, I had all these projects on the go [in 2020], and I was able to finish them, but there was quite a lot of pressure. I did just about manage it, but it was extremely stressful. The second time I had cancer was when I had just signed the contract to do the Seethaler — the first one (Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life, Picador, 2015) — in September 2014. Shortly afterwards, I found out that the cancer had come back, and I was going to have chemo and a stem cell transplant, so I spoke to the editor, Kate Harvey. I was afraid she’d say, ‘Oh, we’ll have to get someone else,’ but she was just lovely about it, and it all went very well, very smoothly.
Helen: I’m just completely in awe of how you’ve built this career for yourself against the background of the constant challenge of cancer. I imagine there is no real support in place, as a freelancer. It’s not like working for a big organization that has a duty of care to its employees and must offer reasonable adjustments.
Well, I think that’s probably true for most freelancers. I find the support of my peers incredibly important — the translation community, and everyone involved in the Translators Association and the other societies — because, as you say, we don’t have the structural support of being employed by an organization. I do find that, on the whole, publishers have been very supportive, and my dealings with them have almost all been positive when I told them I was ill. I found that very reassuring. I came to realize that a couple of my colleagues had also had different cancers, and that we’d all sort of been dealing with it on our own. And I thought: this is really tricky, because we all live far away from each other, and there isn’t really anywhere to talk about this stuff informally. So we set up a Facebook group called Translators & Cancer for people specifically in our industry.
Somebody got in touch with me last year because they’d seen that I’d mentioned cancer on Twitter, and they didn’t know any other translators in that position. They had just been diagnosed, and were a bit shell-shocked. Certainly, anyone is welcome to contact me if they find themselves in that situation. The Facebook group is not particularly active; we put a few sources of useful information up there, and if anybody ever wants to meet up or chat, or has a particular question they want to ask, they can just put it on there.
One of the things we talked about quite a lot at the beginning, as well as the illness itself, was that people were terribly worried about ‘Should I tell my editor? How will they respond? Does that mean they won’t give me the work? Will they give the project to somebody else?’ You can’t ever guarantee that an editor will respond in a particular way, but, on the whole, I think it was reassuring for people to know that they are human — they understand, and there are ways of dealing with it, whether it’s taking on another translator to help you out, or postponing the deadline, or just waiting to see how you cope with the treatment, and so on. It’s certainly doesn’t mean: that’s it, you can’t work, you can forget your career. That’s absolutely not the case!
Thank you, Charlotte, for taking the time to talk with us. It’s good to know that support is out there.
A selection of Charlotte’s translations can be found here:
Darkenbloom – New Books in German (new-books-in-german.com) publication date tbc