Charlotte Wührer writes: I was lucky enough this year to take part in the Literary Translation Summer School, run by the British Centre for Literary Translation in partnership with the National Centre for Writing, and even luckier to receive a bursary from New Books in German that enabled me to attend.
I applied in early spring, having rung in the new year with a career-related revelation: I was neither willing nor financially able to entirely give up my translation work in order to focus full-time on writing, which had been as concrete a career plan I’d ever made. Besides rent money, I realised I need the structure deadlines give me, the brain gymnastics translation requires, the dictionary deep-dives, the heated idiom forum discussions. So I vowed to bridge the gap between my creative practice and professional life and “break into” literary translation. My first attempts were thwarted by my utter ignorance across the board: reaching out to publishers, writing sample translations and readers’ reports, foreign rights, contracts… But the literary translation Twitterati is the most helpful of all Twitterati, and I was directed first towards being mentored by an experienced literary translator, and then to apply to the Summer School.
There’s nothing like an intense week of collaboratively grappling with a beautiful German essay into English to make the time fly. Besides daily translation workshops, the programme included creative writing sessions, panel discussions, and much networking and socialising.
For the second year running, the BCLT Summer School took place online and so, on a Monday morning in July, I joined the 2021 cohort – zooming in from all four corners of the world – from the comfort of my living room. By Saturday afternoon, not only was I not suffering from Zoom fatigue, I felt surprisingly bereft that the week was over. There’s nothing like an intense week of collaboratively grappling a beautiful German essay into English to make the time fly. Besides daily translation workshops, the programme included creative writing sessions, panel discussions, and much networking and socialising. (Screen-triggered long Covid unfortunately meant I had to sit some of it out. Did I feel the sting of realised FOMO when open mic night was dissected the following morning? Yes, yes, I did. In terms of accessibility, however, the online format was wonderful, as were the organisers and staff.)
The German workshop group was led by the translator and publisher Katy Derbyshire, who popped in and out of break-out rooms offering advice and encouragement when things got sticky, and later in the week moderated the whole-group editing sessions in preparation for Saturday’s presentation. For the first time in my translation career, I experienced the surreal thrill of having the author present to witness the act of translation. Not the polishing, final-edits stage, but the messy first round. Asal Dardan’s essay, ‘Neues Leben’, from the collection Betrachtungen eine Barbarin, was both a challenge and a joy to work on, and having her present to talk through the significance of the essay’s first-person narration, of the active vs. passive voice, of the nuances of “Entfremdung und Fremdmachen”, made all the difference.
For me, translation has always been a very solitary undertaking. I’ve often asked myself if I’m doing it right: by the end of the week, I’d realised there is no right way. The respect with which the German group came up with a consensus translation – navigating, defending and consolidating a range of solutions – was heart-warming. As were the presentations given by the 10 workshop groups on Saturday morning. Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t to laugh, to cry, to see theatre, to be so bowled over by poetic renderings of the painstaking but rewarding process of translation.
On the flip-side of the Summer School, the German group continues to work on ‘Neues Leben’, and the literary translation stars have mysteriously aligned for me. Coincidence? I’m pretty sure not!
Read our interview with Asal Dardan, Katy Derbyshire and Duncan Large from earlier this year as they looked ahead to the online Summer School.
Charlotte Wührer received a New Books in German bursary for the Summer School. Her website is here. Any future bursaries or training opportunities will be advertised on our website. Charlotte photo credit © Charlotte Wührer.