Prose Translations

Creative Adaptation: Kai Hermann’s “Engel + Joe”

I really enjoyed this book on first reading years ago, but it’s absolutely jam-packed with slang and colloqualisms. I thought it would be impossible to translate an extract and maintain its German context – because I have to swap the slang for something recognisable in English. I’ve gone for a London idiom instead. This book came out in the early 2000s, when Berlin was still experiencing a huge Punk vs. Skinheads problem. So I’ve swapped it for 80s/90s London, not that there are any particular time markers in the text so far. I’ve worked from my first handwritten draft and did not look at the ST at all in writing it up. I’ve added or taken away words and sentences at whim to try to create an ‘authentic’ voice: Joe is a teenage Londoner from a broken home. The end product is more of an imaginative adaptation than a translation, based on pp.14-17 of the novel.

Joe doesn’t hang around at the bus stop this morning. It would just get her down. There are loads of police around. Wailing sirens are weird for a Sunday. 

A couple of skinheads are standing in front of a Tescos trying to look hard. There’s lots of skinheads in these ends. Joe knows a few of the ones standing in front of Tescos. She wants to switch to the other side of the street, but one of the guys calls out to her. 

“Hey, Joe. Get over here.” 

The guy is called Killer. At least, that’s what everyone calls him. Maybe he started calling himself Killer at some point. To look hard. It’s better not to have any beef with the skinheads when you live in these ends. Joe doesn’t particularly like them. But at least the Nazis in this area aren’t the kind who kick homeless guys to death. She thinks. She’s known some of them since primary school. Boys who didn’t have the guts to talk to a girl alone or do any fucking thing alone. That’s why there’s always loads of them, beer cans in hand, safety in numbers.

Joe walks across the street on autopilot. Towards the guys, even though she absolutely can’t be arsed to let them chat her up. But that’s just how it is. That Joe sometimes automatically does things that these kinds of idiots ask of her. Skinheads, teachers, and even that Mike. When she wanted to show her mum a mock exam, that Mike said “give it here.” She gave him her exercise book on autopilot. Then she kicked herself afterwards. 

When Joe reaches the skinheads, Killer asks “Don’t we get a kiss?”

“Your breath smells like arse,” Joe says. She positions herself as best she can so the skinheads can’t see the swollen side of her face. One of them rips out an enormous burp, and the rest find it amusing. 

“Are you coming with? Squash some fleas?”


“The shitheads wanna kick up a fuss about our demo.”

“No time,” says Joe, “Don’t fuck up. See you around.” She pretends to be in a hurry. There’s nothing worse than bumming around Shoreditch on a Sunday morning. Even worse when you have no idea where you’re going. No window displays. Just dog shit. The big attraction is the posters in the used car salesrooms. At the corner, in front of a used car, a guy is squatting on the floor. Looks like a punk. Doesn’t really belong in these ends. Joe has to get a closer look at him. The guy has a bloody face. Joe wants to get past quickly. 

But the guy asks: “Do you have some shrapnel to call an ambulance?”

Any other day, you can walk about for hours without seeing or hearing a thing. See nobody you know far and wide. Nobody speaks a single word to you. Not even a single dirty builder to whistle at you. And you feel like a spare part. But when you don’t wanna hear or see anyone, suddenly someone’s chanking at you on every street corner. 

Joe rummages for some change in her jean pockets. Automatically. Although she shouldn’t give a shit about this guy. She gives him 50p and asks “Nazis?”

He says “Nope, police.”

The wound on his forehead doesn’t look good. It’s still bleeding. He wipes the blood from his face with a rag. Joe gives him some tissues. 

“You should get that sorted. It looks grim,” she says. 

The guy doesn’t respond. He pulls a rat from his bag. Presses his blood-smeared face into the rat’s fur. Kisses it. Puts it on his knee. 

Joe puts her bag down. Squats down automatically. Has a look at the rat.

“It’s cute.”

“Cute?” the guy puts some glasses on – the only have one lens – and looks at Joe. 

She turns the swollen side of her face away too late.


“No, my stepdad.”


Joe stands straight up again and hangs her bag over her shoulder. She has no idea why she bent down and told this guy (of all guys) anything. And then, to top it all off,  she said “my stepdad.”

“If I have to flatten him, lemme know.”

Joe rolls her eyes. She says “you can’t stay here. Nazis are coming.”


“Seriously. You gotta get away from here.”

The guy acts like he doesn’t give a shit. But he’s looking down the street a little nervously all the same. Says: “Thanks, by the way.”

Joe leaves without saying anything. The police cars are out in force again. She’s happy to get away from the guy. He’s probably an arsehole. Although he doesn’t look like one at first glance. How he looked at her through his broken glasses. A guy’s eyes are important to Joe. Not the only important thing, but important. But the guy with the glasses had kind of mocking eyes. Like he knew everything and was taking the piss out of you for it. Although he must have been feeling pretty shitty. He’s probably an arsehole anyway. Up himself. How he spoke to her. Like from his high horse. But the rat was cute. 

For a moment, Joe thinks about what the plan actually is. There isn’t one. Maybe she’ll throw herself in front of the Tube this evening. But that doesn’t seem likely. ‘Cause she doesn’t feel depressed, just lost.

poetry Translations

Finding Voice: Eimear MacBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

Another writing exercise to do with finding the voice in a text (and making it our own) came in two stages. The first was to copy out a section of the page with no punctuation at all. Then, we had to take ourselves away from the original text completely and read it to ourselves, looking for the natural breaks and patterns our mind would reorganise the text into. Then, we rewrote the text in free verse with our own punctuation and line breaks. I’ve added or taken away a few words and phrases in the process to streamline my poem.

The original, taken from the first page of MacBride’s highly experimental novel:

I wrote out the first two paragraphs completely without punctuation:

For you you’ll soon you’ll give her name in the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say mammy me yes you bounce the bed I’d say I’d say that’s what you did then lay you down they cut you round wait hour and day walking up corridors and stairs are you alright will you sit he says no I want she says I want to see my son smell from Dettol through her skin mops diamond floor tiles all as strong all the burn your eyes out if you had some her heart going pat going dum dum dum don’t mind me she’s going to your room see the Jesus what have they done Jesus bile for tidals burn shhhh all over mother she cries oh no oh no no no

And turned it into a free verse poem:

For you,

you’ll soon,

soon give her name in the stitches

and folds of her skin.

She’ll wear them,

and you’ll say:

“Mammy, me?”

and I’ll say:

“Yes, you.”

“Bounce the bed,” I’d say.

I’d say that’s what you did

when you laid down

and they cut you round.

I waited hour and day,

walking up corridors and stairs.

“Are you alright? Will you sit?,” he says.

“No, I want,” she says,

“I want to see my son.”

The smell from the Dettol leaking through her skin

mops diamond floor tiles,

as strong as the burning in your eyes.

If you had some-

her heart going



dum dum dum.

“Don’t mind me.”

She’s going into your room

she sees the Jesus.

“What have they done?”

Jesus, bile

for the tidal’s burn

which creeps softly

like Dettol down the throat-


“It’s all over, Mother,” she cries,

“Oh, no. Oh no no no…”

Historical Fiction Prose Translations

The Next Village

This is my reading of Kafka’s short short story “The Next Village”, rewritten.

My grandfather used to say “life is astonishingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village one day and never make it. Not in the span of his fairly normal, fairly happy lifespan. 

“That amount of time fell far short of what he would have needed to complete that journey. He set out that morning, on his bicycle, with only one thing on his mind: getting bread from the bakery in the next village. Not exactly earth-shattering, but this was rural Niedersachsen. Everyone made their daily pilgrimage. Sure, we had a bakery in our village, too, but this one was different. You could smell Frau Berger’s Laugenbrezeln from the end of the street. 

“So, there he was, making his way over there one Sunday morning – almost everything stopped on Sundays, but not bread. So there he was, nipping down the lane on his Dutch bicycle (the north German plains are very flat), and there’s a roadblock. We lived in the countryside, see, and in the grand scheme of things, the war barely touched us. No Red Army came marching in in 1945, spreading their liberating terror. There were no air raids. The closest we came to that was when an errant bomb landed on poor old Herr Schneider’s barn roof, blowing it to Kingdom Come, as they say. We feared there would be more, but there never were. As I said, the war barely touched us. We were far enough from the coast, and far enough from the East. Our closest neighbours were the Danes to the North and the Dutch to the West, neither known for their tenacity. But it did slowly drain our able-bodied men, local lads who went off to fight for their Führer and either never came back or were never the same again. 

“So, there he was in front of the roadblock. A few troops jump out of a van idling by the roadside. Not Waffen SS mind, but the normal lot. The Wehrmacht. They weren’t going to send the big shots out recruiting. It didn’t take much to intimidate some country boys then, and it still doesn’t now. Rustle the bushes at the wrong time of night, and you’ll see what I mean.

“So they say to him “why aren’t you out fighting for the Vaterland, my boy?” Your Uncle Hans replied something along the lines of ‘essential war work’. Up until then, he’d been working in the fields, as country folk do. A nation needs bread and potatoes more than it needs Lebensraum. 

“How old are you?”, they ask. He must have been around nineteen years old at the time. It was 1943. The Führer was getting desperate by then. Sixteen-year-olds were already driving tanks, with barely a shadow of peach fuzz on their lip.

“Hans got bundled into the van. They weren’t really asking him nicely. A few others left that day too, conscripted. It’s a polite word for press-ganged. Frau Becker’s son was among them. He never came back either, but for other reasons. He was only seventeen, shamed into fighting a losing war. 

“Hans never came back. He never made it to the next village. No, no, he didn’t die either. He just never came back. Somehow, he made it to New York with all the rest. I guess he needed a fresh start, too. I wonder how it must have felt to share a boat, maybe even a cabin, with the Juden. He never mentioned it in his letters. I never believed they were the enemy, but you have no idea what an effect that Party had on the minds of young and old alike. 

So, Hans had his Stunde Null. I stayed where I was born, and loved him from afar. He was only ever in the Wehrmacht. Hardly a war criminal. They were having a hard time sorting between soldiers and refugees at that point. So many had lost everything, including their papers. Others with blood on their hands had forged new ones. 

“He met an American girl, learned a trade, married. I guess you could call it the American Dream. But he never made it to the next village.”