Mentoring in translation

John-Baptiste Oduor and Jen Calleja discuss the mutual benefits of mentorship.

John-Baptiste Oduor © Frances Easter-Brennan
Jen Calleja © Sophie Davidson

Jen Calleja: So, what made you reach out about a mentorship with me?

John-Baptiste Oduor: I was in between two translation projects, one was an academic book, the other a political essay for a left-wing journal, when I contacted you. The latter turned out to be my first published translation and I found the whole process so fun that when I’d finished that I was really eager to find some more work. But the problem was that all of the good translation work that I’d found so far had sort of fallen into my lap. It wasn’t clear to me how one goes about making a living from translation. I stress making a living because it was pretty clear to me how one goes about not making a living through doing translation. Then a friend of mine who knew you from your poetry in the Spells collection, edited by Rebecca Tamás and Sarah Shin, told me that you were looking for mentees, particularly non-white ones. I thought that all of your work in translation as well as the work published under your own name – all of which was new to me at the time – was really exciting. So I wrote to you and was very happy when you agreed to work with me. 

From my perspective the experience has been incredibly enriching: we get to talk about one of my translations or writing and I ask you a bunch of questions. But I wonder what you get out of the experience. Do you think having to answer quite fundamental and sometimes basic questions about translations changes the way you think about the practice and the industry?

JC: Yes, that’s definitely part of the reason why I mentor. Allowing emerging translators a chance to ask me questions about things I now take for granted helps me look afresh at aspects of my practice that I might have started to do automatically. It also keeps me aware of the aspects of the publishing industry that remain opaque and even inaccessible to those starting out in translation. I want people who’ve become skilled at translating literature to go away from a mentorship knowing different approaches, what further steps they need to take, and how things work behind the scenes so that they will have a fair chance at getting to publish translations if that’s what they want to work towards. I try to keep the mentorships as affordable as I can, and always offer a free mentorship when I open my books to translators from traditionally excluded backgrounds. Overall, I want to do my bit to help make literary translation more inclusive, and as I said, every mentoring session is actually training for me. I honestly get so much out of it. I recommend it to all established translators, and it’s been nice to see more translators offering mentorships in the last year.

What are your short and long terms goals as a literary translator? What kind of work would you most like to translate?

J-B O: I think that like most people from my generation I grew up quite frustrated by how static my society was. This has led to me idealising the literature and history of the 20th century. I think, in a certain sense, I haven’t really outgrown my adolescent obsession with the novels of James Baldwin and Saul Bellow, and I’m still attracted to these distinctly 20th century narratives. The writing in translation which has had the greatest effect on me has been those that have attempted to reflect on the experience of the last century and try to make sense of it. I loved Alison L. Strayer’s brilliant translation of Annie Ernaux’s The Years, and really enjoyed Michael Lucey’s translation of Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims. So I guess the kind of stuff I’d like to translate in future are literary memoirs written by authors with a sense for history and an interest in the social. I just finished reading Steffen Mau’s brilliant Lütten Klein: Leben in der OstdeutschenTransformationsgesellschaft and I’ve become interested in accounts of the former GDR. I’m really curious about the experience of minorities (sexual, racial, religious) in East German. In the future I’d like to do some translation of fiction and literary non-fiction writingthat tried to make sense of it.  

In the short term, I have a couple of titles of contemporary German fiction which you and I are hopefully going to work on pitching in the coming months. In the long term I’d like to set myself up so I’m translating fiction and literary non-fiction on a regular basis.

What are you translating at the moment? Do you see any consistent thread linking together the work that you are interested in translating? 

JC: I’m currently translating Raphaela Edelbauer’s Das flüssige Land for Scribe and Helene Bukowski’s Milchzähne for Unnamed Press, and at some point, need to edit my translations of a few short stories by Michelle Steinbeck coming out as a pamphlet called The Return of the Lobster from Makina Books. I think a practical thread running through a lot of what I translate is that they’re commissions, so they’ve found me rather than I’ve found them, though I’m lucky that I’ve enjoyed working on (almost!) every book. I seem to have got into a run of translating experimental or highly idiosyncratic authors – Steinbeck, Kerstin Hensel, Wim Wenders, and I thrive on the challenge, though it can be intense and time-consuming. At the moment I’m most interested in translating women as they’re under-published in English translation, so I hope my run of incredible women authors will continue. I don’t often get the chance to do research and pitch books, but in the future I hope to have the time to search out more underrepresented authors, the ones left off of prize lists and absent from dominant review culture in the German-speaking world.

Jen Calleja is a writer and translator based in London. She was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019 for her translation of Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize 2018 for her translation of Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel. She was the inaugural Translator in Residence at the British Library and writes a column on literature in translation for the Brixton Review of Books.  I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For, her first collection of short fiction, is published by Prototype.

John-Baptiste Oduor is a writer and translator from London. He is currently completing a PhD on Hegel.

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