“That’s when the magic happens…”

New Books in German met with Charlotte Collins to chat about translating the work of Nino Haratischvili. #My Soul Twin, #The Eighth Life, #translators on the cover.

Helen Nurse: I know your translation of Nino Haratischvili’s My Soul Twin is coming out this November (2022). Can you tell me about it?

Charlotte Collins: Yes — I can really recommend it. This was the book that got me into translation. It was chosen for the BCLT Summer School workshop in 2012, which was the start of my journey into literary translation. It was where I met Ruth Martin and Katy Derbyshire and all my other wonderful colleagues from that year. 

Helen: Wow! What an intake. You’ve all risen to such dizzying heights in those 10 short years. That’s incredible!

Charlotte: Well, the funny thing was, when the Booker International changed format in 2016 and they brought out the longlist, there were 13 books on it, and several of the translators were ETNers [Emerging Translators Network, set up by Rosalind Harvey, Jamie-Lee Searle and Anna Holmwood], or on there with their first book. There was myself [NBG: Charlotte was nominated for her translation of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life], Roland Glasser [Tram 83], Ekin Oklap [A Strangeness in My Mind] and Deborah Smith, who won [with The Vegetarian]. Considering that the ETN was only set up in 2011, it was just amazing to see all these emerging translators, with the support of their peers, stepping out into their careers. I really have been incredibly lucky, given that that was my first book. It was an amazing book to start with. I was asked to read it for the publisher, and what a jewel to be handed! 

Helen: How did the commission to translate My Soul Twin come about?

Charlotte: We knew we were going to be doing the book for the BCLT Summer School, so obviously we read it beforehand, but we didn’t know anything about Nino. Katy had chosen the book, and Nino came along to the workshop. And it just blew me away. This was my first encounter with Nino and this Wucht, this forceful openness, this powerful, sometimes melodramatic, quite brutally emotionally truthful writing. The story is kind of a dysfunctional family/love story about a boy and a girl whose parents — her father and his mother — have an affair. The blurb for the book is a really good summary:

Eight years have passed since Stella last saw Ivo, but when he returns, the reunion of their unconventional family will change the course of her ordinary life. As children, Stella and Ivo grew close as their parents embarked on an affair that would shatter both families. Later, as teenagers, their own relationship would be the cause of further scandal. Now, as adults, they set out on an odyssey to uncover the truth about another family’s past, and to understand their own.

My Soul Twin is an intense love story about forbidden desire, the ties that bind us, and whether we can ever truly forget what we leave behind.

This was my first encounter with Nino and this Wucht, this forceful openness, this powerful, sometimes melodramatic, quite brutally emotionally truthful writing.

When we did the BCLT workshop, I forget how old Nino was: 20-something? It was her second book, and she’d already written some successful plays. I just thought: how has this young woman produced a book of such psychological acuity, so well written, so powerful? It kind of sweeps you along. The third section moves from Germany to Georgia, and I had some Georgian friends, so I was chatting to her about Georgia after the workshop. I also asked, in one of the Q&A sessions, how one might get into theatre translation, which is sort of what I was looking at then, having an acting background. And no one could really say. The few people there who’d translated plays said, ‘I was asked to do it,’ which didn’t really help! Nino came up to me after that Q&A session and said, ‘Well, actually, I just heard that someone who was supposed to translate a play of mine has dropped out. Would you like to do it?’ So I ended up translating her play Liv Stein for her publisher, and Nino and I stayed in contact. 

Then the translation for The Eighth Life came about because I had been to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2017 with Ruth Martin, and the book had just come out in German. There was a lot of publicity about it, and I went to find Philip Gwyn Jones, then on the Scribe stand, and said, ‘Do you remember me? Do you remember me talking about this Georgian-German author? Her book’s come out.’ I persuaded him to go and talk to them about it. And that was when he said yes, I want to buy this book, and asked if I could translate it. And I asked Ruth to join me on the project.

Helen: Can you tell me a bit about your process of working in general?

Charlotte: The way I work is: first, I’ll do a quick translation, with lots of question marks and things. The second time I go over it, I go over it very carefully, and things start to fall into place. That’s when the magic happens. You can look up words as much as you like, but to be able to look at a sentence and see that obviously it should be phrased likethis — you can’t force that. It takes time. That’s the whole difference — for me, anyway — from more commercial work, or even the journalistic translation I do for Deutsche Welle. It’s not particularly literary, it’s conveying information. It should be well written, but the style is not the most important thing. That’s why I think translators on the cover, acknowledging translators and visibility are important with literary translation. I really feel it’s different to other forms of translation, because you’re having to be more creative.

The way I work is: first, I’ll do a quick translation, with lots of question marks and things. The second time I go over it, I go over it very carefully, and things start to fall into place. That’s when the magic happens.

Helen: And it’s such a slow and painstaking process compared with commercial translation, isn’t it?

Charlotte: Yes. I’m always pleased if a reviewer just names the translator, somewhere. But I do sort of give a wry smile if that person then raves about the language and style of the author. You think: yes, that is the author, of course, but do you realise the effort that’s gone into reproducing that language and style in English? That is also the translator. 

Some people think it’s a negative thing to highlight the fact that a translator is involved in creating this piece of literature. They may say, ‘It’s not authentic, it’s not the original.’ But, really: if you can’t read Russian, or Swahili, how are you going to read the original? What you’ve got now is a composite piece of art that is the joint work of the author and the translator. Of course, no one would ever claim that the translator has written the original story, or had the ideas for the characters. Absolutely not — obviously that’s the author! But if you’re talking specifically about the language and style, it’s both. 

Pan Macmillan is now naming the translator on the cover, and Scribe is also putting translators on the covers of their literary fiction. Most people wouldn’t give it a thought. It doesn’t stop them buying the book. It also doesn’t mean that translation is constantly in their mind while they’re reading, or that they feel they constantly have to be considering the work of the translator. It’s just: here’s an added aspect to consider and appreciate and think about, if you want to think about it. Don’t think about it if you don’t. If you want to just read the book for this rollicking great story, fantastic. But I think that when we’re talking about books in a wider context, in reviews or in discussion programmes, you need to mention the translation, just so that people are aware that this is an aspect of what they’re reading. Then they can engage with it, or not. But it needs to be mentioned. 

I think some people think it’s about translators out for glory, and it’s really not. It’s just about wanting acknowledgement. And hopefully, if people do sometimes think about translation when they’re reading a book, if it’s being brought to their attention, it might also get them thinking about language, and about learning other languages! 

Thank you, Charlotte, for such a lovely chat; it has been a real pleasure,
 and you have been so very generous with your time!

A selection of Charlotte’s translations can be found here:

Nino Haratischvili, My Soul Twin, Scribe November 2022

Nino Haratischvili, The Eighth Life, Scribe, November 2019

Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life, Picador, October 2015

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Helen is a freelance translator from German to English and has been translating for over 30 years. She also works as a secondary school teacher for German and German Literature. To find out more about Helen, take a look at her website or follow her on Twitter.