I am very pleased to introduce Katja Blum, the person who did such a lovely, professional job translating Maids of Misfortune into the German edition: Dienstmädchen im Unglück.
She graciously answered some of my questions in my quest to get to know her, and I think you will be as charmed as I was with her answers.
1. Please tell the readers about yourself and how you got into translating.
I began working as a translator (English into German) while I was studying at Hamburg University in Germany – sheesh, that was almost twenty years ago. My major wasn’t translation, by the way, but American Literature and Women’s Studies. For my first job, I translated Harlequin romances into German. I’m fluent in English, I’m a writer – how hard can it be? The answer: Very. I learned many important things from working with those romances and my extremely strict editor – listening to the author’s voice and reigning in my own, being disciplined about deadlines (tough one) and writing to meet specific market requirements, while still creating a natural, flowing text in German.
After a few years working solely as a literary translator, I felt that I needed a different challenge and went into marketing and corporate communications for luxury brands. I was able to use many of the skills I had learned, because I was still dealing with fairy tales for adults, just that the perfect guy was being replaced by the perfect pair of very expensive shoes.
One of the very best parts of my job is that I can work in my pajamas. I don’t usually, but I could. Freelance work also allows me to make my schedule around spending time with my three-year-old son. Sam has a condition that makes it hard for him to learn speech, so in working, playing and learning with him, I now get to approach language, communication and storytelling in a whole new way.
Apart from family and books, the fiber arts are my greatest passion. I study textiles through the ages and how to make them today using the old techniques from spindle-spinning flax to tatting lace. The knowledge comes in handy when I translate historic fiction. Not only do I have a pretty good idea what people are wearing or making, but the study of textiles also comes with a lot of social history, which to me is as fascinating as it is useful.
Today, I mix it up in my job with marketing translations, usually time-sensitive, and bigger book projects (fiction and nonfiction) with longer deadlines. All parts of my job inform the others and continue to shape my understanding of the languages I work with and – hopefully – my skills as a translator.
2. What are some of the specific difficulties in translating novels from English to German?
One problem that all English to German translators have to wrestle with is the form of address. English has one (you) with the degree of formality being expressed through the language and by using a person’s first or last name. German has two – formal (“Sie” with last name) and informal (“du” with first name). In English, it is appropriate to address a business associate with their first name, even if the relationship is somewhat formal. In German, you have a choice between making the language of that relationship much more formal – a problem if the source text doesn’t give you the person’s last name – or much more informal than it really is.
Naturally, wordplay, jokes and metaphors work very differently in English and German. Sometimes I can translate a funny phrase as it is, but often I have no choice but to write a straight sentence. Since that could drastically change the tone of a book, my motto is “you win some, you lose some”. If I do have to skip a pun or other humorous line, I pay special attention to passages nearby where a similar line might be possible and appropriate in the German text.
Literary translators in any language need to work on cultural transfer. My goal is to make the setting, time and culture of the original novel accessible to German readers within their frame of reference, so that they can live in, say, late 19th century San Francisco without too many moments of “huh?”, which tend to snap them out of the story world.
One famous example of cultural transfer is the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. While peanut butter is now widely known and available in Germany (it wasn’t when I started), grape jelly is not. ‘My’ novel characters eat their PB with strawberry jam.
The same goes for sports metaphors. If translated literally, baseball phrases like “stepping up to the plate” or “throwing a curveball” make no sense to Germans. Good thing I like soccer.
3. Do you do anything special to prepare for a translation job?
I read ahead. I don’t read the entire novel before I start, because my translations tend to be better if I’m curious about how it all ends. But I keep reading at least a few chapters ahead to make sure that my translation decisions (e.g. formal vs. informal address) are going to make sense all the way.
I also read what I can about the author. Having been entrusted with the result of their passion and hard work, I like to get to know them a little.
In Maids of Misfortune, the biggest challenges were the voices of “Lizzie” and Mr. Wong. Translating the cultural or ethnic characteristics of a person’s speech is one of the hardest tasks for me. Literary dialogue is always about making it sound natural, even though people in real life don’t usually speak in so many coherent, complete and grammatically correct sentences. If you add dialects or other peculiarities of speech into the mix, the translation becomes a balancing act of getting the person’s voice, ethnicity and social standing across without sounding stilted and annoying. In the German version of “My Fair Lady”, Eliza Doolittle’s Cockney is brilliantly transformed into the dialect of working class Berlin, because it is as widely recognizable and familiar to Germans as Cockney is to the English. In the German Maids of Misfortune, Lizzie doesn’t speak dialect, but her attempt at sounding naïve and ignorant was great fun to play with in the translation.
5. Do you have any tips for authors who are looking for translators, how to find and evaluate a good translator, what to look for in the process?
Unless you speak the target language of the translation project very well, my advice is to go through a translation agency or publisher like Amazon Crossing. You need a translator who understands both languages and your work very well. And you need an editor with the same qualities, maybe even more so.
If you do want to find and evaluate a translator/editor team on your own, you can reach them through several reputable job portals for translators or industry associations in most countries. Candidates should be willing to provide a sample translation – you can ask for a very short unpaid sample, but consider offering payment, because you can ask for a longer one. Working as an editor as well, I know that pretty much anyone can keep it together for a couple of hundred words of a free sample, so a longer one is well worth the investment.
6. Do you have any advice for someone who would like to become a successful translator?
Get the best language and or translation education you can, read a lot in both languages. Take feedback from editors and clients as a chance to learn, own up to your mistakes and fix them. Respect the author. Above all, love language. If you are passionate about language and communication, if you spend rather a lot of time thinking about why there is no English word for “Schadenfreude” and why “oblivion” is really hard to translate, this might just be the job for you.
7. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to mention how important it is for any novel translation to be read by a good editor. Once I am done with the first draft of a novel and a couple of revisions, I know the text inside out, front to back. Given the production schedule, I often don’t have the time to let the novel sit for a few weeks to read it again with fresh eyes. Eventually, I lose the distance necessary to find my own mistakes and goofy passages. A good editor makes a translation shine. Maids of Misfortune had an excellent one. She edited the book with great care, attention to detail – and with zero tolerance for any of my shenanigans.