Regan Mies interviews Berlin-based translator Lucy Jones about Brigitte Reimann, outsider characters and two new German-language debuts.
Regan Mies: I first grew familiar with your name last winter, when I was seeing interviews and wonderful reviews around your translation of Brigitte Reimann’s GDR-era novel Siblings left and right. Published by Penguin Modern Classics and Transit Books in February 2023, it was the first translation of Reimann’s fiction into English. Could you tell us a bit more about Reimann and your experience working on that translation?
Lucy Jones: Reimann wrote thinly veiled autobiographical fiction. She is particularly good at writing about interactions between men and women. What I like most about Siblings, and what may have surprised readers about a novel written in the early 1960s, was the humour and modernity of her writing. The main character, Elizabeth, is a young woman with integrity and political vision, but also a sharp sense of humour. I made the dialogue as contemporary as possible, to reflect the modern feel of the original, trying to imagine how Elizabeth would sound nowadays.
It was hugely useful to know the historical backdrop to her fiction. Anyone who reads the diaries can see how much work went into them. So kudos to Seagull Books for championing Reimann in the beginning. I was very glad I had translated the diaries as it gave me a good handle on the setting of Siblings. I knew many of the references she was making and this knowledge helped in world-building when I started translating her fiction. It’s about the small details, as well as the bigger picture, such as the style of a GDR building that no longer exists, or her affinity to jazz or Russian authors, for example, that I knew from her diaries. The bigger historical events, such as the building of the Wall, are barely mentioned in the diaries, but the division of Germany was ultimately the reason she wrote Siblings – to explore the personal emotional cost of that political and geographical split.
Reimann wrote a vast unfinished novel, Franziska Linkerhand, before her death from cancer at age 39. I’d love to know – are there currently plans for a translation?
Yes, I’m delighted to be well into the translation already. It’s going to be the same team as worked on Siblings. You’re right, it’s a much longer book – 600 pages – so it’s like running a marathon rather than a sprint. It requires a different kind of concentration and organisational skills as a translator. I’m finding the process interesting and am discovering resources I didn’t know I had! It requires discipline, just as if you were training for a marathon. When I finish, I’ll probably not know what to do with myself – but that’ll be a while yet.
I find the span of your translations so exciting. Reimann’s work takes place in the East Germany of the late 1950s and early 60s. Anke Stelling’s Higher Ground is a darkly humorous contemporary novel about class differences in Berlin. Both set in the 1920s, Theresia Enzensberger’s Blueprint is about a female architecture student’s experience of sexual politics, and Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s Lyric Novella is about a sapphic romance in Bohemian Berlin. What are some of the challenges you feel are unique to translating novels across time periods, and what’s especially rewarding?
I don’t classify myself either as a translator of contemporary fiction or historical fiction. What I enjoy is good writing, which is hard for me to define and each person has a different definition. All I can say is that with each of those very different books, something leapt out at me and caught my imagination. That’s very rewarding.
Before I became a translator, I used to be a photographer and I liked experimenting with fashion. I wasn’t into mainstream looks or classic beauty; I preferred models with unusual faces and flaws and stylists who used a mix of haute couture and streetwear. When I looped back to my interests in language and writing – I studied German and Applied Linguistics – I took the same approach, looking for writers who were not necessarily doing (or had done) what everyone else was doing. There are many similarities between the fashion and the book industry. Both rely on hype and when seasons change, what has just been billed as the latest book or look is forgotten in the onward rush. I guess a modern classic is the perfect book to create some space in that process – a book that spans eras rather than sums up the zeitgeist.
Are there any other elements you consider when deciding on authors or works you’d like to translate next?
Apart from what I answered above, I have to emphasise that I can’t always choose what I translate. It’s probably the exception rather than the rule. But if I can choose, then I like to translate books about outsiders, or characters who are flawed or have to struggle in some way, no matter in what the time period.
You’ve translated samples of a couple of new German-language novels recently. I’d love to speak with you about Sly Dog, Lion Christ’s debut novel, which is set at the height of the AIDS epidemic and which you’ve described as a ‘powerful, touching story about a young queer man running away from the provinces to Munich.’ Can you tell us a bit about what drew you to this novel initially?
Sly Dog is a classic outsider tale with a redemption arc and bitter twist. Flori, the protagonist, is such a complex figure. He’s running away from the countryside towards sexual liberation in the city, so it’s a queer coming-of-age story. But his emancipation takes place against the backdrop of the nightmare and tragedy of the AIDS crisis. I’m interested in that setting for personal reasons and didn’t know much about the scene in Munich before reading the book. I think Lion Christ manages to pull off something difficult, which is to stick close to his main character’s emotional journey and make him sympathetic, even funny, despite his sometimes questionable behaviour.
I’ve also seen lots of attention surrounding the German Book Prize-nominated Gittersee by Charlotte Gneuß, a thriller set in the former East Germany for which you’ve also written a sample translation. Is the thriller a new genre for you?
I think the label thriller should be used lightly, and it’s probably a little misleading. Gittersee is a thriller in that it has some very noir elements, not least of all a cynical and manipulative Stasi officer who is recruiting all the teenagers in a town to do his dirty work and inform on each other – all the while exploiting their precarious family situations, such as divorce and alcoholism. But it also has elements of fairytale, parable, confessional and YA novel. The protagonist, Komma, is a teenage girl who just can’t bring herself to be completely open with the reader. It keeps you guessing right to the end and for this reason, I guess it can be called a thriller.
I can’t help but notice that Sly Dog and Gittersee are both debut novels. Is that something you’re very conscious of as a translator – either as an advantage or as an obstacle?
I’ve never really thought about this – I don’t pay attention to whether a novelist is a debut writer or not. I guess a publishing exec can find the right words to turn ‘debut novelist’ into a good thing? Perhaps this would be a good conversation to have with publishers as I’m not sure what their take is on it.
I think Gittersee is an unusual book because the GDR is the trigger for what happens rather than the setting. For me, it’s a big ‘what if?’ experiment: what if a bunch of teenagers all started informing on each other? What if the state is manipulating them?Lucy Jones
I understand English rights are still available for both novels. What aspects of Sly Dog and Gittersee might catch the attention of English-language readers, and why do you think publishers should pay attention to them now?
I think Gittersee is an unusual book because the GDR is the trigger for what happens rather than the setting. For me, it’s a big ‘what if?’ experiment: what if a bunch of teenagers all started informing on each other? What if the state is manipulating them? Other than that, the voice is captivating. I think the combination of these two elements would appeal to English-language readers. As for Sly Dog, I think that queer coming-of-age stories set in the 1980s have been very successful in the English-language world – I’m thinking of the series It’s a Sin. Sly Dog celebrates queer sexuality and we’re currently seeing the erosion of many advances made in the LBGTQ+ community. Hate crime and opposition to drag are on the increase. I think books like this can create a space for readers who are searching for or exploring their own identity.
Sly Dog celebrates queer sexuality and we’re currently seeing the erosion of many advances made in the LBGTQ+ community…I think books like this can create a space for readers who are searching for or exploring their own identity.Lucy Jones
On another note – about why now. Luckily, there is enough breadth in publishing to find a home for all kinds of writing, not just what’s in, going back to what I said earlier. Luckily, many small and mid-size presses publish niche and experimental literature in foreign languages. I am a big fan of broadening reading experiences rather than just reproducing what’s already out there as a recipe for success. Maybe these books also expand what English-language readers expect from German literature.
Lastly, I’d love to ask whether you’ve read any other contemporary German works or any translations recently that you’d recommend.
I am currently reading Dubravka Ugreŝić’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Celia Hawkesworth and Mark Thompson from the Croatian, which is darkly funny. I want to read more work in translation. Otherwise, I admit that I have had my head stuck in mostly English fiction, essays and craft books, to try and improve my translation and writing skills. As it’s the target market, I try to read as much English-language literature as possible. There is a massive stack of books next to my bed which I absorb by, erm, osmosis when sleeping.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Only that I am so grateful for this opportunity to waffle on about translation and writing, and I’d like to shout out to all the great translators I read about working with all sorts of language combinations who expand the ideas we have about other cultures and people. Despite it being hard to make a living in this business, it’s one of the best jobs in the world.
Thanks so much for sharing your time with us, Lucy, and for giving us a glimpse into your work.
Read Lucy Jones’ sample translations for Sly Dog and Gittersee, and check out our New Books in German recommendations for each title: Sly Dog and Gittersee.
Click the book covers to find out more about the translations mentioned in the article
Lucy Jones is a British-born translator who has lived in Berlin since 1998. She has translated novels by Brigitte Reimann, Anke Stelling, Silke Scheuermann and Theresia Enzensberger among others. Her own writing has appeared in SAND, Pigeon Papers NYC, 3AM Magazine and LitroMag.
Lucy Jones photo © Oliver Toth