Not easy but glorious: translating a book for the first time

Jo Heinrich tells us about her first experience of tackling a full length book translation. Jo's translation of Katja Oskamp's Marzahn Mon Amour is out now with Peirene Press.

‘It wouldn’t be an easy start, but it would be glorious, like all beginnings.’ This line from the first chapter of Katja Oskamp’s Marzahn, Mon Amour beautifully sums up the literary translation journey I’ve been on over the last couple of years, thanks to this lovely book.

When I wrote to Peirene Press, I’d been translating commercially for a few years, but apart from a couple of competitions, literary translation was entirely new to me. For months, I’d looked for a book that might be good to translate; I’d read that a good way to start out as an literary translator can be sending a short story to magazines, and as some online retailers classed Marzahn, Mon Amour as a short story collection, I bought a copy, and loved it. The chapters could certainly be seen as short stories, but they lead on to each other, and the book works so well as a whole that I thought I’d try pitching the book to some publishers and see what happened.

I spent a few weeks mulling over my translation of the first two chapters and working out what to say in my email. In the end it included a synopsis of the book, what I loved about it, its ranking in the SPIEGEL bestseller list (13 at that time), a brief biography of Katja and some details about myself, the German publisher’s contact information, and heaps of pretending-to-be-confident enthusiasm. Peirene was only the second publisher I’d sent it to, and I was feeling jittery when I pressed the ‘send’ button. Moments later I was mortified to spot that I’d sent the German version, rather than my translation sample… and amazed when instead of (understandably) assuming I was an idiot, Stella, Co-Director at Peirene, wrote back within minutes saying she was intrigued; did I have a sample I could send?

Covid came along and with months of my children home from school, all thoughts of literary translation were forgotten, until some time later Stella’s colleague Maddie from Peirene got in touch to say they were interested in putting together a collection of three books including Marzahn, Mon Amour. The words ‘We look forward to working with you’ were never so ecstatically welcomed. I’ve heard so many disheartening tales of translators sending pitches for years on end with no results, but I’m living proof that magic can (very, very occasionally) happen.

There are poignant sections, but it’s an ultimately life-affirming book; it’s funny and warm-hearted, the characters (mostly) feel like good friends and Katja’s writing is so well crafted that it was always a joy to retreat to.

Much of the translation took place during the lockdown last winter. It was great timing: I could have been daunted by the task ahead, but I had much less commercial translation work than normal because of Covid, and Marzahn, Mon Amour was the perfect lockdown project. It could have been so much worse. There are poignant sections, but it’s an ultimately life-affirming book; it’s funny and warm-hearted, the characters (mostly) feel like good friends and Katja’s writing is so well crafted that it was always a joy to retreat to. Just one chapter left me badly depressed after a long session working on it: the one about Frau Janusch and her husband (you’ll have to read it to understand).

There were, of course, challenges. Katja often uses repetition to pull a chapter together, but in slightly different contexts, making the translation trickier. It took me two entire afternoons of sifting through my thesaurus to christen Frau Blumeier the ‘queen of affirmation’. Another struggle was the Berlin or eastern German accents in all the characters’ dialogue: there were a few utterances that I needed to check with Katja. For example, no amount of googling could help me work out what ‘rumjenippelt*’ might mean!

Fortunately for a book about a chiropodist, there isn’t much about feet, but there were a few small paragraphs that did get technical. I did a lot of research, but I also ended up contacting a local chiropodist who looked through these sections for me: he got a well-earned copy of the book and a bottle of wine for the superbly descriptive toenail condition ‘ram’s horn nail’, instead of my explanations of Fritz’s ‘Holznägel’ (‘wooden nails’). An eagle-eyed good friend also read my entire version in return for regular coffee and cakes, helping to allay any novice-literary-translator fears before I sent it all off to Peirene.

The book was selected for ‘Berlin liest ein Buch’ (the ‘Berlin Reads One Book’ library initiative) and it featured in lots of events over a week in May 2021: it really was the book of the moment, bringing many Berliners together after so much isolation. I loved seeing an interview online with Katja and the man who was the inspiration for Erwin Fritzsche. The organisers contacted me for some excerpts to publish for non-German speakers living in Berlin, and at one point I was even contacted for a radio interview, although with my rusty spoken German, I was relieved they had enough material without me in the end.

Knowing my name would be on the cover helped me press for the wording I felt strongly about, but ultimately it became a better and better book after each stage, and I’m forever grateful to those attentive extra pairs of eyes with their remarkable grammatical knowledge.

Once I’d sent Peirene my translation, the editing phase started. There were moments of mortification and despair, and sometimes I had to focus on the fact that there were a few pages that had no crossings-out or comments at all. It turned out to be all about the commas: hundreds were cut, but after lengthy discussions, one was added to the book’s title. Knowing my name would be on the cover helped me press for the wording I felt strongly about, but ultimately it became a better and better book after each stage, and I’m forever grateful to those attentive extra pairs of eyes with their remarkable grammatical knowledge.

We’re now looking at some launch events and if Covid allows, Katja will be coming to the UK for them. It will be strange – but fantastic – to meet a complete stranger whose head I feel I’ve inhabited for a few months.

Seeing a copy of Marzahn, Mon Amour for the first time was surreal: it’s a very strange feeling to flick through a book and to see the words that you chose in there, and a very wonderful feeling too. I’m hoping this won’t be a one-off: I’ve heard too much about literary translators falling by the wayside after their first book, and I’ve read some great German (and French) books that I’d love to work on. Who knows what the future holds?

*sipped really slowly

© Jo Heinrich

Jo Heinrich translates from German and French into English and lives near Bristol with her family. She came to translation just a few years ago and as well as her commercial work, she was shortlisted for the 2020 Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize and the 2019 John Dryden Translation Competition.

Marzahn, Mon Amour is her first full – length translation.

You can visit Jo’s website at https://www.joheinrichtranslation.co.uk/

Book launch event! 15th March 2022 at 7pm GMT, Goethe-Institut London.

Author Katja Oskamp and translator Jo Heinrich will be in conversation with Sarah Hemens from New Books in German. There will be readings in English and German and a chance to ask questions and enjoy a drink. To find out more and sign up to attend in person or online click here.


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