Interview with literary translator Imogen Taylor

Berlin-based literary translator Imogen Taylor talks to NBG about her career, rediscovered German books and some of her recent work.

I was wondering if you could talk first about how you came to pursue a career in translation, and what drew you to it. 

‘Pursuing a career’ sounds very purposeful. It wasn’t like that at all. I fiddled around translating Heine and Robert Walser when I was still at school, but thought nothing of it—and didn’t, thank God, keep any of the translations. Then in my early twenties I did whatever work came my way, including for a neighbour who paid me in bottles of wine. But not much of that work was literary. I fiddled around translating Jenny Erpenbeck and Antje Ravik Strubel and tried to focus on my PhD. It was only years later when I felt pangs of envy on seeing a book translated by Lyn Marven, who had taught me as an undergraduate, that I realised that was what I wanted to do. Soon afterwards I produced my first presentable translation sample and began to build up a very small, very shaky network.

What’s been your favourite translation to work on? And the most challenging?

Dana Grigorcea’s Dracula Park and Sasha Salzmann’s Glorious People are both books where the characters are so alive that the usual warnings about translation causing loneliness don’t apply. I still find myself imagining conversations with Mamargot and Tatyana.

The most challenging were Florian Huber’s Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself and Dirk Kurbjuweit’s The Missing—because of the subject matter. Huber’s book is an account of suicide in Germany in 1945 and The Missing is a novel about the serial killer Fritz Haarmann who murdered young boys and cut them up for meat. You can’t skim-read or skip pages as a translator, so working on those books was pretty harrowing.

I was interested to see you translated Two Women and a Poisoning by Alfred Döblin, which was written in 1921. How did that come about? Do you think there is much of a market for ‘rediscovering’ German books? 

I found a second-hand copy of Die beiden Freundinnen und ihr Giftmord (Two Women and a Poisoning) in the basement of Café Tasso, a café bookshop on Frankfurter Allee in Berlin where books used to cost a euro each. It’s a quirky true-crime novel about two women who have an affair and plot to kill their husbands. I think I knew even before I’d read it that I wanted to translate it, and when I pitched it to Text Publishing (I had read it by that point) they didn’t take much persuading.

I think there is a small market for rediscovering German books, but not big enough for all the books out there.

“All the books out there” reminds me of the opening image of Frank Witzel’s Meine Literaturgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts, which I’ve just started reading. He imagines an overwhelming sea of forgotten German authors sinking into oblivion, as he runs around trying to save them. How would you say you split your reading time between older books vs contemporary fiction?

I tend to read more older books. I pick up a lot of what I read on flea markets or in libraries and second-hand bookshops, where books are by definition older, and I also reread a lot. One of the joys of getting older is that good books seem to get better every time you read them. Then there’s the way one book leads to another. Terézia Mora’s recent novel Muna got me reading Elsa Asenijeff, Alma Karlin and Maria Lazar, all turn-of-the-century writers.

Are there any books that you’ve been wanting to translate for a long time, or are surprised haven’t yet been picked up by an Anglophone publisher? 

I’ve recently been working on a sample of Ellen von der Weiden by Gabriele Reuter, a novel of adultery in diary form that was a bestseller when it was first published in 1900. Reuter was a prolific feminist author who rejected sentimentalism and made it her mission to write about women’s suffering—but not without humour. I’d love to find an Anglophone publisher who would take her on.

You work across multiple genres. Does your approach vary much between translating a history book to literary or crime novels?

No, my approach is pretty much the same whatever I’m translating. I just tend to agonise more over more literary texts.

Finally, are there any books that you’ve recently enjoyed and would like to recommend?

The correspondence between Ilse Aichinger and her twin sister Helga. In 1939 when they were seventeen, Helga went to London on Kindertransport, while Ilse stayed behind in Vienna with their mother. Their letters give a delightful account of life in wartime England (Helga is very taken by English school uniforms, ashtrays in cinemas, etc.) and a devastating account of life in postwar Vienna, where things are, if possible, worse than during the war. Ilse Aichinger has some talented translators, so I hope one of them will turn their hand to this at some point.

Imogen Taylor is a London-born, Berlin-based literary translator. Her translation of Sasha Marianna Salzmann’s Beside Myself was shortlisted for the Schlegel-Tieck Prize 2020 and the 2021 Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize.

Lizzy Kinch is a documentary producer and translator. She lives in London and learned German while studying for a masters in Global History in Berlin.