Translations Uncategorized

Translation as Palimpsest

Gerard Genette has often written about intertextuality and writing as a palimpsest. A palimpsest is basically where a manuscript is written over, perhaps multiple times, erasing or obscuring the words underneath. This happened a lot more often when paper, or vellum, was extremely valuable and therefore infinitely re-usable.

The idea of translation, and all writing, as a palimpsest is both incredibly seductive and broad. in writing, there is no such thing as immaculate conception, all writing is derivative. All writing works and builds upon what came before, the particular influences on the author or translator depends upon what they have been reading and in which literary traditions. The way a text is read can also vary hugely across times and cultures.

For this exercise, I copied out a couple of extremely fruitful pages of Swift’s Waterland, an incredibly expansive and genre-bending novel which spends a lot of its time preoccupied with historiography. I first highlighted the text, once in pink, and then once again in purple, picking out anything which didn’t stand out to me the first time but became more and more conspicuous on a second reading. I then added on my own writings in a selection of different fineliner colours, depending on the ’round’ of writing. I underlined parts as well as circling the most productive words, creating an end effect showing all the different branches of thinking that can shoot off from a single page of text.

I think this really goes to show that translation is just the writing of a reading, and demonstrates just how many levels our minds are operating on whilst reading. All texts remind us of other texts or experiences. No wonder translating is so tiring! Getting our thoughts down about a source text, and really stopping to think about it, can have a huge impact on our final choices.

Prose Translations

‘River’: A Creative Translation Project

This is a start of a collaborative project working from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘River’. It’s a translation chain, which means that, as the first link in the chain, I have translated Duffy’s original poem into German, providing a back-translation in English and a commentary. The next person in the chain will work from either my German text or my English back translation, and so it goes on, until eventually, everyone on our course has made a contribution. How exciting!

Here’s my response:


Bei der Biegung des Flusses

fängt die Sprache an, sich zu ändern,

ein unterschiedliches Geplätscher,

sogar ein unterschiedlicher Name für den gleichen Fluss.

Wasser überquert die Grenze,

übersetzt sich,

aber die Wörter stolpern und fallen noch zurück.

Und da, am Baum genagelt, gibt es Beweise.

Ein Wegweiser in neuer Sprache,

barsch am Baum.

Ein Vogel, nie vorher gesehen,

singt von einem Ast.

Eine frau auf dem Pfad bei dem Fluss wiederholt ein komisches Geräusch,

um den Vogelgesang nachzuahmen,

und seinen Namen danach nachzufragen.

Sie kniet sich hin für eine rote Blume,

pflückt sie,

später wird sie es vorsichtig zwischen den Seiten eines Buches pressen.

Was würde es dir bedeuten,

wenn du mit ihr dort sein könntest,

deine eigene Hände im Wasser baumelnd,

wo blaue und silberne Fische über Steinen hinwegflitzen,

Brocken, Kiesel, Schotter,

wie die Bedeutungen von Wörter,

einfach verschwinden.

Es fühlt sich so an als ob sie schon irgendwoander ist,


einfach wegen Wörter;

sie singt laut ihren Unsinnsgeschnatter,

und lächelt und lächelt.

Wärst du wirklich dort,

was würdest du auf einer Postkarte schreiben?

Oder in den Sand kritzeln,

in der Nähe von wo der Fluss ins Meer fließt?

Back-Translation into English

By the bend of the river,

starts the language, to change itself,

a different babble,

even a different name for the same river. 

Water crosses the border,

translates itself,

but the words stumble and fall still back.

And there, nailed at the tree, there is evidence.

A  signpost in new language,

harsh on the tree.

A bird, never before seen,

sings from a branch.

A woman on the trail by the river repeats a strange sound,

to imitate the birdsong,

and to ask his name after.

She kneels down for a red flower,

picks it,

later she will press it carefully between the pages of a book.

What would it mean to you,

if you could be there with her,

your own hands dangling in the water,

where blue and silver fish flit away over stones,

boulders, pebbles, gravel,

like the meanings of words,

simply disappear.

It feels as though she is already somewhere else,


Simply because of words;

she sings her nonsense-chatter loudly, 

and smiles and smiles.

If you were really there,

what would you write on a postcard? 

Or scratch into the sand,

close to where the river flows into the sea?

Original: Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘River’

At the turn of the river the language changes,
a different babble, even a different name
for the same river. Water crosses the border,
translates itself, but words stumble, fall back,
and there, nailed to a tree, is proof. A sign

in new language brash on a tree. A bird,
not seen before, singing on a branch. A woman
on the path by the river, repeating a strange sound
to clue the bird’s song and ask for its name, after.
She kneels for a red flower, picks it, later
will press it carefully between the pages of a book.

What would it mean to you if you could be
with her there, dangling your own hands in the water
where blue and silver fish dart away over stone,
stoon, stein, like the meanings of things, vanish?
She feels she is somewhere else, intensely, simply because
of words; sings loudly in nonsense, smiling, smiling.

If you were really there what would you write on a postcard,
or on the sand, near where the river runs into the sea?

Commentary: ‘Fluss’

In my translation of ‘River’ into German, I decided to focus more on playing with the format other than the words themselves. My initial rough draft was a lot of fun to produce because I ironed it out over a Zoom call with my German partner, looking for grammatical errors and any clumsy word choice or formulations. This was my first attempt at ever translating a poem into my second language, so I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of asking a native speaker’s advice.

I think the drafting process is a really important aspect of translation that, unfortunately, often becomes invisible by the publishing phase or the final version. We delete and type over our process, but I think the process should be celebrated just as much as the finished product. Here, I’ve used scans of my initial draft as a background to my translation to highlight the fact that all translation is a palimpsest. We work over and over our initial ideas. 

I have played with a few aspects of the words, but my main focus here was creating something visual. I printed out my final version and cut the lines into strips, arranging them in waves on the page. I then overlaid the poem with my own biro doodles and used watercolour brush pens to add a splash of colour.

When it comes to language, I have changed Duffy’s reference to ‘things’ in the third stanza to ‘words’, as I disliked the vagueness of ‘things’ and enjoyed the focus of this poem on translation and language. I’ve made up a word in German: ‘Unsinnsgeschnatter’ (nonsense-chatter) cannot be found in any dictionary, but German is intensely malleable and flexible, inviting the writer to neologism. The new word caused Jannis, my co-editor, to break out in a smile, and I don’t think this poem wants to be taken too seriously.

 In the final stanza, I’ve added the verb ‘kritzeln’ (scratch) to accentuate the image of writing into sand, and Duffy’s use of ‘clue’ as a verb in the second stanza has been replaced by ‘nachahmen’ (to imitate/mimic), as I thought this suited birdsong very well. ‘Clue’ (Hinweis) as a verb (hinweisen) would have taken on a whole different meaning in German, as it means something more like ‘to indicate’, or ‘to point something out’ instead of ‘to figure something out’, which is what I think Duffy intended here, although I cannot be sure. I also really enjoyed the beat the introduction of ‘nachahmen’ created across these two lines, with the threefold repetition of ‘nach’.

Prose Translations

The Benefits of Copying

Our writing task this week was two kinds of copying, and discovering what it can teach us about translation and writing more generally. We first read an extract from Ali Smith’s novel Autumn (2016) on the Brexit referendum result in the UK:

“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.

All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipped about in the air above the trees, the roots, the traffic.

All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: What is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications.

Ali Smith, Autumn, 2016

We had a couple of minutes to read and attempt to memorise this extract. Then, we attempted to copy out the text from memory. This was my attempt:

“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.

All across the country, people emerged, shocked, when the news whipped around like an electric pylon after a storm when one of its wires had been snapped and was whipping around everywhere.

All across the country, people thought it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people thought it was the right thing. All across the country, people thought they’d really lost. All across the country, people thought they’d really won. All across the country, people turned to Google: what’s the EU? Google, move to Scotland. Google, how to apply for Irish passports.

As you can see, I didn’t get everything, but I got the main ideas. I struggled with the extended simile, and missed some of the middle of the final paragraph.

Learning from Copying

So, what’s the point? What did I learn?

In short, repetition is memorable. Texts with a specific pattern of foregrounded words can be repeated from memory more easily. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it does teach you how important repetition is when appealing to a reader. It’s not the mark of bad writing.

The extended simile, on the other hand, was difficult to remember. It’s not difficult to see why. It stretches over several lines and uses some confusing imagery. However, not being able to remember something isn’t a mark of bad writing either. The pylons whipping around: It’s a long image. You can argue that this is a kind of stretching the metaphor. It lengthens the experience, and sometimes also the aesthetic effect, of reading. A simile or a metaphor invites us to put together two ideas which don’t usually belong together. Shklovsky’s ideas on defamiliarisation are linked to this. We need strangeness in art, and by extension literature as a form of art. It’s only through experiencing the strange, of juxtaposing ideas together, that we can feel and form something new.

I’ve also learned that syntax can be an expressive tool, a stylistic device. The order the words come in and the way they are arranged go a long way to whether we remember them or not. We tend to remember the beginnings and ends of sentences and not the middle section, and the same goes for paragraphs. It’s best not to hide my main ideas somewhere in the middle of my text.

Copying by Hand: What can it do for us?

Now we’ve talked about some of the benefits of copying, we can come onto some of the benefits of copying by hand.

Over the last year, I’ve turned into a bit of a writing purist. I’ve gone from hardly ever writing by hand to writing all of my first drafts manually. I have a specific type of pen I love (the Works, cheap blue or black gel pens), and specific types of notebooks (A5, hardback, not ringbinder, not too many pages, thick pages, narrow lines to keep my handwriting under control). I love the physicality of it all – I’m at my work desk, crafting something. I love filling up notebooks, I love how timeless and analogue it is. I love riffling through the crispy pages afterwards. I love stashing them on my bookshelves and pretending to be a published author, with my works nestled between Mantel and Harper Lee. I love how notebooks get thicker and fatter as you fill them up. I love how it forces me to slow down and think about my choices, and I love how all of my thought processes are visible, the editing is visible. If I add a word, if I take one away, this can be seen on the page. Drafting in a Word or Google Doc, is, on the other hand, invisible. The process has vanished. Creating a first draft by hand and then typing it up also forces you to edit. You suddenly notice which word choices feel clumsy, which arrangements fall short of lyrical. I like to put lots of word choices in a first draft of fiction or translation, and then pick one when typing it up. You edit as you transpose your text from the page to the screen. You realise what needs elaborating, and which passages are unnecessary.

But I digress, this was supposed to be about copying specifically. Copying this passage made many of us realise how laborious and unnatural the repetition feels. There’s so much repetition in this extract, and when reading it, we tend to just skip over the repeated words without giving them much thought. But when it comes to actually writing each one, that’s when we realise the weight of it. Copying repetition also meant that some of us, including me, were losing our places, forgetting which sentence we were on when a lot of it looked the same.

Copying by hand helps us to gauge the effect of some stylistic features on the reader. Some translators swear by copying some passages from the source text before they embark on a translation, just to see and understand what the author is doing, to get inside the text, so to speak. We can gauge the words better. Copying can be used in this way as a translation resource.


Walter Benjamin’s “One Way Street” and Translation

“The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out. The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks down the road on foot learns of the power it commands, and of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at the front.”

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (1979)

Reading is flying over a country lane. It’s easier to see the text as something whole, and we tend to reflect on the text as a whole once we have read it. We get an overall feeling of the book, and could comment on the general use of prose, language and effects. It’s rare that, having read a book, we would be able to make incredibly specific comments on particular uses of words in particular sentences. We would say, ahh yes, this book had a very claustrophobic feel. The authors tended to use short sentences, or the author switched between several narrative perspectives. That much most readers could say. You can see the lane disappearing into the distance, you can see the rolling hills in the distance. You see the book’s context, how it relates to its field.

Translation, on the other hand, is walking down a country lane (or getting lost in the woods). It’s not just walking down a country lane absentmindedly. Imagine you’re walking down a country lane and it’s your first time ever in the countryside. Maybe you’ve lived in the centre of London all your life. It’s your first time ever in the countryside, and you’re paying attention to everything, every little detail. You’re looking at every tree, every branch, every twig underfoot, every rustle in the undergrowth, thinking, wow, this is incredible, magical. Translation is first and foremost an incredibly close reading. We have to pick up every word and turn them over like rocks, looking for surprises underneath. We can’t afford to miss or misunderstand a word, because it could change the meaning or feel of a whole sentence.

There’s a domino or butterfly effect in translation. If we make one discoloured word choice or miss a word, it could still be having an effect on our prose chapters later. Sometimes we can’t see the woods for the trees. It’s easy for us to get bogged down in the details and forget to zoom out and have a look at the bigger picture, the wider landscape. Sometimes we get too close to a text. But you can’t translate without walking down all a book’s lanes, and sometimes you may get lost.


Translating Style

According to Katie Wale’s 2011 Dictionary of Stylistics, ‘style’ refers to a “perceived distinctive manner of expression in writing or speaking”.

For Roger Fowler writing in 1977, literary style was more about ‘mind’ style, reflecting the thought processes and patterns of the author or translator.

Of course, understanding style is crucial for all those involved in the text: whether it’s the translator, copy editor or critic down the line. On the MALT course at UEA, we were lucky enough to get a masterclass this week from one of the great minds of contemporary translation, Jean Boase-Beier.

It’s easy to confuse stylistics with poetics, and honestly, until this week, I wasn’t sure of the difference myself. But whereas stylistics is the study of how we read texts, how the stylistic features of a text have the effect that they do and how we interpret those effects, poetics constitutes more of a ‘step back’, referring to the system of beliefs and attitudes about how to put things into words.

Acclaimed linguist, philosopher and translator Roman Jakobson once stated “the poetic function projects equivalence from selection to combination”- but what the hell does that even mean?

It’s to do with the choices we make as translators. Our selection of a word, for example ‘kitten’ instead of ‘cat’, will affect the combination of words we can choose or use in that sentence. That’s what Jakobson means by equivalence, it’s equivalence across the text, not equivalence with the source text (the text being translated). It’s kind of like the butterfly effect. If we choose to translate Katze as ‘kitten’ at the start of a chapter, it may still be affecting the word choices we can feasibly make pages down the line, and has an overall impact on the way the words in a sentence, paragraph or book ‘hang together’.

Stylistic Features

There are an almost infinite number of stylistic features a text can have, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll only go into those which I didn’t fully understand until this week.

Foregrounding can be repetition, but it can also have a lot more to do with repeated patterning. It could be a repeated word, but it could also be a repeated image, prefix or suffix. It could the same letter occurring frequently across a poem or piece of prose, or it could be using many different words belonging to the same semantic field (e.g ice, snow, frost etc.)

Ambiguity is fairly clear to understand, but devilishly difficult to translate. Ambiguity with words and meaning rarely matches across languages. The ambiguity of ‘Absatz’ in German (paragraph, heel, section, sales, distribution, passage, terrace, indent, step….) is almost legendary.

Iconicity is where a word or image represents the way in which it functions in the world. It’s similar to a metaphor or a concrete poem, and one of the most basic examples of this would be writing loud in capital letters (LOUD). Because then it becomes loud, right?

Next time I have to translate a poem or piece of prose, I’m going to highlight the different foregrounded elements in different colours and have some fun with it.

Some Examples

In Kältere Schichten der Luft, Antje Ravic Strubel uses the word ‘blauschwarz’. Now, compounding is so common to German that it’s difficult to find a sentence without a compound noun or adjective. There are two immediately obvious ways to translate blauschwarz, ‘blue-black’ and ‘black and blue’. Which one works better? Well it depends what kind of mood you’re trying to evoke. ‘Blue-black’ is more neutral, and could be used to describe clothes and jewellery. ‘Black and blue’ is usually only used when someone has been beaten: ‘he beat her black and blue, your Honor’. It’s a small difference, but it could make a significant difference in combination with other translation choices, say in a scene with the undercurrent or threat of violence. The translator needs to ask themselves: what is being foregrounded? Before taking any decisions.

In the same section, we come across the German word trügerisch. This is an ambiguous word, it could mean either ‘deceptive’ or ‘treacherous’, depending on the context. The main difference between deceptive and treacherous is the level of intent denoted: something or someone can be unintentionally deceptive, but a person is never unintentionally treacherous. Similarly, ‘deceptive’ can be used to describe people, things or situations, whereas ‘treacherous’ only really describes people, or people’s plots.

In Sarah Kirsch’s poem März, we see an extremely difficult translation problem which highlights the priority of equivalence within the text rather than equivalence with the source text. There’s an image of snowdrop bulbs looking like white teeth in the Earth where a child is digging, and the child becomes disturbed thinking about ordinary words backwards:

Oh weh sagt mein Kind wenn es das Wort Gras rückwärts liest oder Leben.

Oh dear says my child when it the word grass backwards reads or life.

Read Gras backwards in German, and you get Sarg, or coffin.

Read Leben backwards in German, and you get Nebel, or fog.

So we see here that the poem is operating on many different levels simultaneously. The imagery is natural imagery, grass and life, reversed into sinister, more morbid imagery: fog and coffin. The child is digging in the garden, so the words chosen in English have to have some connection to nature or the garden. How do we solve this problem? I would propose finding two garden-related nouns in English with an innocent meaning one way around, and a sinister meaning when read backwards, ‘forgetting’ the German words altogether for the time being. Getting this layer of meaning is far more important than the words ‘grass’ or ‘life’.

However, a published translation apparently ignored all of this entirely:

“oh Christ says my child when he reads the word

Grass or life the wrong way round” (Wendy Mulford and Anthony Vis)

I don’t have any genius suggestions for words to put in this space just yet, but I wouldn’t have called this poem ‘finished’. It reads nicely, but misses the internal equivalence and therefore the stylistic effect of the poem – foregrounding the living and natural underlined by the dead and sinister. I love translation for this reason and many others: it’s like a complex word equation plus creativity plus context.


Translation as Process: Translator’s Notes and Reflections

The lines between translation and adaptation are blurred. Does adapting someone else’s poem, making it my own with my own words, layering on my own experience, count as translation? How does it change the folds of the poem?

When I’m writing my response to a poem, I think about the point at which the text becomes my own. I have a starting point: maybe I use the same title, or maybe the same theme, or maybe just the same structure, but I move past that point and the text becomes mine, too. I layer over my own experience and my own imagination, my own subjectivities. As translators, our texts belong in a strange grey space of ownership. Our texts are the author’s texts, and yet they are also our own. We cannot publish translations of a text without permission from the author and often also their publisher, but we cannot deny that the words we have put to the page or screen are our own. They follow the meaning of the author’s words, in a different language. Each word was our choice.

For my next re-writing of a poem, I want to start by changing one adjective and then seeing where that takes me, seeing how it can fundamentally alter the mood of a poem, like a butterfly effect.

Translator’s Notes and Process

Translator’s notes often highlight the process behind a translation, but not always. They can cover their specific translation approach and strategies; a close reading of the source; a discussion of translation problems, solutions and examples; an address to the target audience or reader; the intended effect of the target text on the target audience; references to other translations, translators or the context of production; or an explanation of the foreignness of the source culture references. They can contain all, some or none of the above. But to me, the most important thing about a translator’s note is how it offers personal space to the translator to reflect on the process. Translators don’t often get a lot of space to talk about translation and make themselves known, as the publishing world still likes to bury them in the small print. Granted, most readers may even skip over a translator’s note, especially in mainstream literature.

It’s also highly dependant on the publisher, type of literature and audience whether a translator’s note is likely to appear in a printed work or whether the idea is almost inconceivable. Smaller publishers tend to be more amenable to including a translator’s note, especially smaller publishers specialising in translated literature. Translator’s notes are more common in poetry anthologies, and far less common in mainstream prose fiction.

I wonder if translator’s notes describing the foreignness of the source culture may become less common as the dominance of the Internet and Google only increases. The translator may be an expert on these things, but wouldn’t we just be more likely to quickly google an unknown, untranslated term or cultural reference than riffle through the translator’s note at the start or end, hoping for enlightenment? It’s true that there has been a decided shift in translation studies towards the ‘foreign’ in recent years, where translators refrain from transposing unknown festivals, places, forms of address and cultural markers into something more familiar in the target language, or even translating these at all. I wonder: were another translation of Alice im Wunderland to be completed today, whether William the Conqueror would be kept as is, and not have been metamorphosed into Napoleon.

Translator’s Notes: Two Examples and Comparisons

More and more frequently, translator’s notes are taking on the forms of blog posts, YouTube videos or online interviews. They may not be contained within the published work itself. A great example of this is Tom Kuhn’s blog post on translating Bertolt Brecht’s “Die Maske des Bösen”, which I found charming and illuminating. I don’t often translate poetry, and I find it an almost insurmountable challenge when I attempt it. I find that, whichever words I choose, my solutions are never quite satisfactory. The original always seems to convey slightly more meaning than I could ever recapture in the target language. Kuhn’s agonising over a single word in Brecht’s poem, ‘böse’, felt very familiar. He calls translation, and translating poetry in particular, “the most wonderful and most punishing form of close reading”, a “rigorous delight”. Translation isn’t just a task you can turn the page on whenever necessary. You can’t just close the book and walk away. When I’m translating a longer piece of work, the work follows me. I’m thinking about it in the back of my mind when I’m in the shower, walking the dog or waiting for my toast to spring up in the morning.

In re-translating a previously translated work from a German literary legend, Kuhn also highlights the difficulty in shaking off the “forms and cadences of a previous established rendition”, something which I would heartily agree with. It’s one of the reasons I prefer to translate previously untranslated works. I like the freshness of it, I like the challenge. I also don’t like the idea of a previous translator looking over my shoulder, living or dead. I am always too tempted to refer back to previous translations, and then can’t clear my head. However, when I feel that a previous translator has ‘hit the nail on the head’, so to speak, I also feel jumpy, pressured to come up with a different solution for the sake of differentiation, of exhausting the thesaurus for synonyms.

Kuhn draws attention to the constraints he faced in translating the word ‘böse’, which is infuriatingly ambiguous in German. Its usual translation is evil, but it can mean cross, upset, angry or aggressive. The word couldn’t have been too long, as it would have been too ponderous in the final line. It also couldn’t have been two different words at different points in the poem (‘böse’ appears a total of three times). A lot of the power in the poem stems from the repetition of this word. It also couldn’t have been a high-register word such as ‘malevolent’, as ‘böse’ in German is either neutral or low-register, depending on its context. A high-register word would have seemed hugely overblown in comparison. Kuhn eventually settled on ‘angry’, and although this word choice doesn’t spark joy in me, I can’t argue with his process. It was altogether a thoroughly enlightening read.

However, to add an interesting dichotomy to this post, I also want to introduce you to a ‘bad’ example of a translator’s note, published shockingly recently in 2020. Lars Fischer’s translation of Ansgar Martin’s Ultima Philosophia: Zur Transformation von Metaphysik got me excited for all the wrong reasons. Granted, I have never read German philosophy, but this Fischer’s translator’s note is a hoot. It makes me wonder why it always seems to be male translators who enjoy trashing other’s work and efforts, and assertively laying out a set of rules for a ‘correct’ translation. Obviously, not ALL men (translators), but the most obnoxious peritexts often seem to come from them. Perhaps they feel emasculated in a predominantly female profession. I can only advise that if you are looking for a career in which you can set up a neat dichotomy between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, don’t choose translation. Fischer wastes no time in his damnatio memorae of all previous translations of Martin’s work, wherein he exclaims they suffered from “firstly, rather embarassingly, all too often, an obvious inability to grasp the more intricate nuances of the German”. However, I would recommend that Fischer first works on his parataxis, as I suspect it’s not being used as a literary device here. He then goes on to deride previous translators’ general ‘incompetence’, where Martin is made to sound “as though he could barely string a sentence together and consistently turned out clumsy and incomprehensible prose”. And not even the author is safe. Fischer proclaims that “the translator is ultimately forced to create clarity where an author may quite unintentionally and unwittingly have failed to express themselves with sufficient precision”. I am honestly at a loss as to how this translator’s note got published in 2020. I don’t think there’s much to add here, and I’ll let these citations speak for themselves.

To me, translator’s notes should be inclusive and seek to start a dialogue with other translators and readers. Translators should stand on each other’s shoulders instead of tearing each other down. I’ve included Fischer’s as an example of how not to write a translator’s note.


Translator’s Notes: A Small Selection

Translator’s notes are a great way to see into the mind and strategy of the translator. They’re usually positioned either at the start or the end of the translated work. Unfortunately, they’re not all that common these days, and there are signs that they are becoming even less common, just like putting the translator’s name on the cover of the book. The general modus operandi of the Anglophone literary sphere seems to be: translate as few works as possible, and pretend that they’re not translations in translation. Hide the translator’s name, reduce them to 8-point type on an inner page and don’t include any paratext from the translator. The reader does not want to be reminded that they are not reading the original. One of my most recent purchases, the Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyrö and translated by David McDuff, includes a whole interview with the author at the end without mentioning which language it was recorded in or whether it was even translated. Sadly, it took a bit of clicking around to even find the translator’s name to write here: It’s not on the cover, it’s not anywhere on the Waterstones site including the available reading sample, it’s not on its Amazon page, either.

So, I’ve been burrowing around my bookshelf to find examples of translator’s notes from a small variety of books, languages and styles, to find out what the translators are writing about their own translations.

Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

Look Who's Back: Vermes, Timur, Bulloch, Jamie:  9781782067832: Books

This is the most recent novel featured in this article, first published in Great Britain in 2014. I’ve read it in both the German and English, and I absolutely loved it. The premise is shocking yet simple: what if Hitler woke up in Berlin in 2012?

Unsurprisingly, this novel contains a wealth of specific historical and cultural references, mainly to big names in the German military or Nazi politics during the Third Reich and Second World War. Knowing what I know now about the tentativeness of British publishers to specifically ‘foreign’ books with lots of foreignness, I am surprised it even got translated. Jamie Bulloch attempts to address the British reader’s lack of knowledge in his translator’s note. He doesn’t say anything about his technique or style, or anything about the specific difficulties of translating a modern Hitler satire, but instead attempts to explain the various unknown figures and references in the book, from historical to modern, and from political figures to modern-day German stand-up comics given a dressing-down in the novel.

He also attempts to explain the multitude of acronyms used in the book. Germans LOVE acronyms for anything and everything they can use them for, so it was humorous to see my own observations reflected here by Bulloch. from NSDAP to CDU, the German acronym fixation has not lessened over the decades.

Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, translated from the German by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Fontane’s slow-moving classic is Marmite to the German student, if Germans had Marmite. I absolutely adored this book, and got one of the highest-marking essays ever received from our most mercurial lecturer. Other students and teachers I have spoken to hate the book with a fiery passion, calling it slow, obtuse and boring. I guess we’re all right in the end.

Interestingly enough, both translators are treated to a short biography on the inside front page. I couldn’t imagine this happening with a modern work of translated fiction. This makes me wonder: did we used to celebrate translators more? Has something changed since 1995? I can’t answer this question definitively, but it would certainly make for a good research project.

Of all four notes examined here, this translator’s note is the most ‘classic’ in form and style. In a translator’s note, the student expects to read a list of the difficulties experienced during the translation process, and the solutions the translator or translators arrived at. You would also expect an explanation of the differences between the source language and target language histories and cultures, which is also covered here. Chambers doesn’t hold back in her praise of the book, calling it ‘the greatest realist novel in German literature’, and doesn’t hold back in her criticisms of previous translations either, which ‘failed to render vital aspects’.

Chambers asserts that she has modernised the text and dialogue slightly to keep the ‘natural feel of the conversation’. She justifies this by pointing out that the effect of Fontane’s novel on German contemporaries would have been ‘anything but old-fashioned’. I suppose this means the translators were aiming for an equal effect on the modern English audience as the contemporary German audience when the book was first published, which is certainly a noble effort, but not an achievable one. However, I do think there is a case for updating the language of books as long as the reader is not lead to forget their historical setting. As with anything else, it’s a balancing act.

The translators also bemoan what I often bemoan with German: the vastly different sentence structures and word orders mean there is an unavoidable destruction of rhythm in the target text:

“Because of differences between normal German and English sentence structure it is impossible to replicate the rhythm of the German faithfully without doing violence to the idiom of the English”

Helen Chambers

The difficulties in translating, or not translating, titles and forms of address is also covered. I like how they left specific proper nouns such as Landrat well alone, otherwise there would have been a house-of-cards situation where, in replacing one specifically German institution with an English equivalent (such as District Council for Landrat), the translators soon would have had to have replaced them all.

The same exultation of loyalty to the text can be seen in almost any translator’s note, with Chambers stating that they have fulfilled the requirements of the reader ‘who seeks a reliable rendering of the original’. Translators are usually careful not to admit if they have taken a freer approach, as the English reader will then assume that more must be ‘wrong’, as if it’s a sliding scale. In translation as in any marriage, fidelity is prized above freedom.

Chambers also covers the untranslatability of humour, stating that ‘the puns in Chapters 17 and 23 were untranslatable’. Very strong wording, but humour is fiendishly difficult to try to carry across in any meaningful sense of the word.

They finish on a testament to how the translation process helped them to gain ‘new insights into the fine detail of how the text works’, which I think no translator can refute.

Alice im Wunderland, Translated from the English by Christian Enzensberger

Alice im Wunderland (insel taschenbuch): Carroll, Lewis,  Tenniel, John, Enzensberger, Christian, Enzensberger, Christian: Bücher

This translation isn’t all that fresh either, first published in 1980. He includes a fairly long afterword at the end, but which surprisingly doesn’t mention much about the translation process itself. His only nod to the difficulties of translating satirical Victorian nonsense literature come at the end, in the ‘Humour’ section. Enzensberger acknowledges that much of the humour in the text comes from its satirical mirroring of Victorian British society, with its strict rules and hierarchies. Only when the reader understands what it being mirrored do they understand that it is humorous when everything is suddenly turned upside down. I found this incredibly insightful and it made me want to re-read the text in German to figure out how he’d gotten around all of this. There’s not much mention of his problem-solving here, other than to state that the precision with which Lewis Carroll achieves this mirroring becomes the ‘desperation of every translator’ (zur Verzweifelung jedes Übersetzers werden muß).

Enzensberger refers to some of the changes he made to make the text more understandable to the German reader. He changes William the Conqueror, an unknown figure in Germany, to Napoleon, and the Menai Bridge to the Eiffel Tower. Personally, even as an English woman, I had to Google the Menai Bridge before I discovered that it’s in Wales. He admits that, at the time of publishing in 1865, the Eiffel Tower didn’t even exist yet (it wasn’t built until 1887-1889), but, he says, ‘who wants to look it up in the lexicon first and then laugh?’ (wer will zuerst im Lexikon nachschlagen und danach noch lachen?).

He ends with a note on how Carroll’s peculiarly English humour can also cause German readers to laugh at their own expense, hinting at universalities of the human condition.

Beowulf, translated by Howard D. Chickering, Jr.

Beowulf by Howell D. Chickering - Penguin Books Australia

This is the oldest translator’s note I found, as this translation was first published in 1977. The text is also unique in this list for many reasons. The authors or author of the original poem are not known. Therefore, it’s impossible to overshadow the translator here. This work is also ancient, around a thousand years old, although the story or parts of the story may have been told orally long before it was first written down. A name like Howard D. Chickering, Jr tells me we’re certainly dealing with an old school academic here, with an ego to suit. With most translated literature, there’s a distinct lack of translator’s paratexts, but this was not the case for Beowulf. There was almost too much to choose from here. There’s a preface, introduction, guide to reading aloud, a textual note, a background, a commentary, and an afterword. I skimmed around and discovered that the preface looks the most like a classic translator’s note.

The usual reason for translation is cited: making the text available for readers who do not know the source language, in this case Old English. He cites a huge number of translation problems in the preface, so I will list them here for brevity:

  1. The huge temporal distance between original and translation means that any rendering invariably sounds ‘quaint’ (Absolutely, the time is coming where we’ll have to decide whether or not to translate Shakespeare).
  2. Beowulf is so rich in meaning that no one Modern English version can capture them all.
  3. It was impossible to preserve the ‘clangor and magnificence’ of the original Anglo Saxon, ‘the very sound of its sense’.
  4. Beowulf was composed to be heard aloud, any translator has to take that into consideration. It has a highly sophisticated ‘sound texture’ and the translator should endeavour for the target text to also sound best when read aloud.
  5. The translation keeps pace with the original every five lines, resulting in an inevitable loss of nuances of meaning.
  6. He has reduced the instances of alliteration in the target text so as not to ‘stupefy the most ardent reader’. (Yes, devices such as alliteration are hard to preserve across languages because of the difference in word groups, but I hope he at least tried to keep some of the alliteration because of its importance when reading aloud).
  7. He has preserved the stress form of the original Old English lines with a caesura in the middle, resulting in some parataxis and which ‘give some inkling of the craggy sentence structure of the original’.
  8. He bemoans that he was unable to preserve the ‘flamboyant, highly connotative vocabulary of the Old English’. (I would raise a finger of dissent here, as any language has a wealth of vocabulary, the translator just has to come to terms with the fact that it sounds different and has a different rhythm or flavour across languages.)
  9. The epic nature of Beowulf means that it’s easy for a Modern English translation to sound overblown. Chickering has therefore attempted to capture the original’s restraint and brevity with words. (I would definitely agree here).
  10. The fact that the literal meaning of many Anglo Saxon words are doubted and debated did not make his life any easier. (Agreed. Nobody helpfully wrote an Anglo-Saxon dictionary in the 5th century, updated it regularly and preserved it in sand, so we’ll never know the ‘true’ meanings of some words, just as others can have multiple conflicting meanings which are still hotly debated by academics. Translating from ancient languages is not a walk in the park.)
  11. Much of the literary and cultural content, including connotations and references, have been lost to the Modern English reader, creating gaps in our knowledge which cannot easily be filled. Even scholars do not know every name and reference in the poem. In order to fill the biggest gaps, Chickering included a commentary after the poem. (I do really appreciate him for putting it at the end instead of filling the poem itself with footnotes like some academics).
  12. Re-reading is essential with a poem like Beowulf, both for readers and translators. (Agreed. We cannot pretend to know what was going on in Anglo-Saxon lore and the early medieval psyche on the first read).

There are the usual references to fidelity: ‘giving the plain sense of the original’, reflecting ideas about translation which were current at the time, and still plague translators in lay reviews to this day, but from which the field of translation studies has taken a decided step away since the 1990s. He does, however, acknowledge that sometimes a literal translation would have been unclear, and at these points he has rendered the ‘intended meaning as I see it’ in a nod to his subjectivity.

He acknowledges that a Modern English reader still may find Beowulf difficult, but that Anglo Saxon listeners probably also found the poem difficult to decipher at times. This does seem like a get-out-of-jail-free card, but what great work of literature made for light reading?


Reflections on Translation as Writing

The MALT Process and Product module at UEA is a brainchild of Clive Scott’s poststructuralism. It’s about what translation actually means to me and for me. Translators have their own subjectivities which are expressed through the creative medium of translation as writing. Translation strategies come from the text: they come from looking and listening, a close reading followed by a conversation. How does it want to be translated? What is it asking for? It’s great if we can collaborate with the author on a translation, but translation is a conversation with or without the input of the author.

But who speaks in a translation? The answer is both the author and translator. Sometimes it is impossible to unpick the voices from one another, indeed it’s what most translators aim for. Translations where the translator’s voice and influence is evident are often seen as ‘bad’ translations, where fluidity of voice is prized. Translations are a whole composed of manifold layers: layers of voice, layers of drafting and layers of style.

When choosing a work to translate, there’s something called the ‘jealousy test’. Do I wish I had written these ideas in my home language? Do I wish I had come up with something so clever and insightful? If the answer to both of these is yes, and I feel a pang of jealousy at not having done either of these, It’s a good indication I should have a go at translating it.

Defining Translation

Translation is a mode of expression for the translator as well as the author. The author has their words expressed in a new language for a new audience, but the translator is expressing them. It’s also useful to look beyond the conventional norm of interlingual translation, from one language to another, and start looking at other forms. There’s intralingual translation, between different forms and modes of the same language. For example, if I were to write a poem in English based on my response to another English poem, that would be a form of intralingual translation. There’s also adaptation, a translation either from one language into another which is only loosely based on the source language, or a new rendition of a work in the same language which introduces a new cultural or temporal setting, sometimes also known as localisation. For example, West Side Story as a modern American retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Some argue that this isn’t translation at all, I would disagree. Intersemiotic translation is also linked to these ideas. It includes translating a work from one medium into another, such as translating a painting into a work of prose. Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse contains an intriguing case of this, as the protagonist Lily Briscoe eventually manages to capture her vision of the lighthouse and her acquaintances on canvas. Woolf then translates this vision into her visionary prose.

Defining Translators

How do we define ourselves as translators? Do we tell others, “I am a translator and a writer?”, or just “I am a translator?” Is the writing part already clear? Or are there still translators who do not even consider themselves writers? In my experience, it’s far from obvious to others that all translators are writers. Many still see translation as a purely linguistic and grammatical exercise, a uniquely constrained form of word substitution. But Jean Boase-Beier points out that all writing is done under constraints. Authors have to choose how to tell a story. Are they going to write a story as creative non-fiction, using a more detached, journalistic style to relate events? Are they going to intersperse factual writing with creative scenes? Or are they going to turn a project into a novel, maybe even a historical novel? All genres have conventions, and choosing the wrong path for a writing project can result in a huge amount of wasted creative effort, time and money.

Writing can be seen as a conversation just like translation. You are always building on what came before, working from what you have already read. You may be taking inspiration from another style, genre or author, or you may be writing against a particular concept. Translations build upon a source text, they are never the same as the source text.

Translation as Writing

There was a time when I didn’t see translation as writing. At university, the focus of my translation seminars was about being as ‘accurate’ as possible, about figuring out what we had gotten ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Collaboratively, we then used bits and pieces of each of our target texts to create a ‘perfect’ text, a completely ‘correct’ model. I liked the collaborative nature of these sessions, and our tutor was careful not to tell us too often that our suggested translations for a particular word, phrase or sentence was ‘wrong’, but at the same time we got a clear sense that there was a hierarchy of target texts, from best to worst, most to least accurate. There wasn’t much emphasis on the text as a whole, on the way it knitted and flowed together. There was no mention of the translator’s subjective creativity, of what they can bring to the text. When taught translation in this way, even at university, it’s not difficult to see why I didn’t see it as writing.

Computer-Aided Translation (CAT) applications such as TRADOS also didn’t help in this respect. These break up the source text into linguistic blocks, making a text much easier to manage and the words much harder to miss. However, it does make translation feel like even more of a linguistic and grammatical exercise. It was like a balance sheet of loss and gain which had to come out at zero in the end. I don’t currently use any CAD software to translate and I tend to translate straight from the paper copy. I’m not sure about going back to TRADOS after my MA year, I’m conflicted. I am aware that sometimes I miss words despite the best efforts of my conscious mind. However, it seems such a shame to destroy the structure and flow of a literary text in this way by putting it into a myriad of little rows and boxes, because we all know that literature is far more than just the sum of its parts.

The subject matter didn’t help either. We mostly focused on translating journalistic texts and updating and extending Wikipedia articles in English, based on pre-existing German articles. Literary texts were a rarity, a chimera. There were scarce opportunities for artistic flair. But the modules weren’t called ‘technical translation’, they were just called ‘translation’- further emphasising the belief that technical translation focusing on grammatical accuracy was the standard, the norm, and that creative or literary translation was the deviation from that norm.

Translation and Skill

Is it necessary, as Catherine Porter claims, to have ‘mastered’ another language and culture before you can translate well, or indeed should be allowed to translate at all? In This Little Art, Kate Briggs initially responds to her claim with pointed silence. She then goes on to describe her Dutch translation classes for beginners. They are ‘learning by doing’, they are experimenting with language through trial and error. It should not be about elite and exclusive literary performance, here. It’s about the joy of language. It’s narrow-minded to expect a level of literary and linguistic excellence beyond all capability for shortcomings. Translators, when they are even mentioned in reviews, are held to impossibly high standards. An emphasis on ‘mastery’ has problematic consequences.

Feeling Words

Erin Moure’s blog post illuminates what it’s like to feel words. How do we know that the word cabin has ‘longer legs’ than hut? Why do we feel that a cabin is lying down rather than standing up?

Do we, as translators, have the right to change a word to one which resonates more with us, even if it takes us further away from the ‘meaning’ of the word in the source text? I would argue so.

I often teach English as a foreign language where I cannot speak the mother tongues of my students. When we do vocabulary sessions, we start off by categorising adjectives on whether they express positive or negative attributes. What are the connotations of these words?

I ask them to feel the words. I tell them to tell me if they’re good or bad, dark or light. Say it to yourself, and you’ll see. The vast majority of the time they’re correct, even with a low level of English and no knowledge of the word itself. Why does ‘cheerful’ sound breezy, and ‘scaly’ sound creepy and dark? There are not many positive words which start with ‘s’ – there’s something suspiciously sinister about sibilance. Language is intensely and inherently metaphorical. The patterns of sounds represent things. Language is not a reality, just as literature is not a reality, it is an interpretation and an abstraction of reality.

When I look at my finished translation, I think to myself: what made me choose this word and not another? To quote Berman, there are underlying networks of signification everywhere, a genealogy as well as an etymology to words. Every word choice is a manifestation of a hidden network of connotations, collocations and meaning.


5 Must-Read Articles on Asymptote

Asymptote is an international non-profit journal specialising in translated literature of all kinds.

1- Zaina by Polina Zherebtsova, translated from the Russian by Irina Steinberg

Read here.

Genre: Prose Fiction

This story had so many layers it was like an onion. It’s set against the backdrop of the Chechen wars, and there was also a dark irony to the gender politics at play. The protagonist, Zaina, is the most financially independent and liberated woman in town. Conversely, she is also the most reviled. She is a sex worker, doing work which society still sees as degrading and shameful. Her neighbours are simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by her. They think she must have some tragic backstory to end up as a ‘fallen woman’, but Zaina is mysteriously reserved, at least until the final paragraphs. Zaina proves herself to be braver than any other resident when she puts herself between Russian soldiers and an old couple who are her neighbours. But not even her heroism is enough to quell malicious gossip about her situation and life choices.

At the same time as provoking reflection on the fate of sex workers in highly conservative societies and conflict zones, this story also provoked research on a fairly forgotten conflict in an unfamiliar part of the world, which I think successful international literature often does well. To me, a Westerner, the words ‘Chechen War’ conjured up nothing other than a vague sense of Russian imperialism, at least before reading this piece.

2- Epilogue by Irina Odoevtseva, translated from the Russian by Irina Steinberg

Read here.

Genre: Prose Fiction

First published in 1926, this story is beautifully situated within its own sociopolitical context. Having studied history, I am fascinated by the way in which historical events influence people’s writings. This is simultaneously a distinctively moral tale and a heartfelt testament to feeling adrift and uprooted. It’s reminiscent of Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace– a warning against the dangers of lusting after the veneer of a luxurious lifestyle without considering the consequences, yet it also offers a rare insight into the lonely life of a Russian emigré living in exile. The narrator has a difficult relationship with her home country. She hates what Russia has become, but has lost all sense of direction and agency. She has become passive, relying on men for her financial and emotional security, and realises too late how fickle and superficial her situation really is.

3-The Cut-off Caucasus – A Trip to the Village in the Mountains: Exploring Azerbaijan’s Xinaliq, Quba and the Five Fingers by Noémi Kiss, translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood

Read here.

Genre: Non-fiction essay, travelogue

This was a welcome bit of escapism after a claustrophobic year. I’m a keen traveller with a particular interest in southeastern Europe. I had to cancel my third Balkans trip in 2020 and I’d like to venture even further East whenever that becomes possible again. I find countries around the Caucasus so alluring because of their fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. These countries straddle Europe and Asia, not truly ‘belonging’ to either continent. They often have a serious lack of tourists and suffer under a new generation of dictators that have emerged since the collapse of the USSR. Azerbaijan, where this travelogue is situated, is even more mysterious for its political isolationism. I would be unlikely to ever go there specifically as a tourist. I do enjoy reading travel writing about countries which are difficult to visit or particularly remote, even if it is accompanied by a pang of jealousy.

Something which does jump out at me in this piece is the tension between cultures and languages underlying the region, most prominently between Azerbaijan and its closest neighbour and enemy, Armenia. Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country with various minority folk religions in the more mountainous regions, whereas Armenia is majority Apostolic Christian. A lot of people in Azerbaijan still speak both Russian and Azeri, a hangover from Soviet times. Many countries in this region are emerging from the long shadow of the USSR yet still feel the effects of political isolation and underdevelopment, partly due to their geography and partly due to the style of government which followed. I loved the references to Azerbaijan’s linguistic diversity, as I would never have heard of the Xinaliq and Juhun languages had I not read this piece. Preserving linguistic diversity of sparsely populated regions will be an ongoing challenge in the 21st century.

On Literature and Film by Volker Schlöndorff, translated from the German by Julie Winter

Read here.

Genre: Non-fiction essay

There’s a beautiful focus here on the interconnectedness of literature and film which details both their convergences and divergences. Reading novels is often seen as a higher and more noble pursuit than film, yet filmmakers have the ability to condense pages upon pages of prose into a single camera shot, the example given being a close-up of Julie Delpy in Homo Faber.

I found Schlöndorff’s excitement at filming novels often considered ‘unfilmable’ refreshing and challenging. I can see why he considered Günther Grass’ The Tin Drum unfilmable. Grass specialises in unreliable narrators and shifting, complex perspectives which stray into the surreal.

Schlöndorff also made me reflect on exactly what kind of secret energy a book has which pushes me to keep turning the page, sometimes hundreds of times. His preferred method of filming a novel includes close collaboration with the author (when alive), which reminded me of the translation process. In some ways, you can see the filming of a novel as just another form of translation. Translation works best when there is clear and amicable communication between the author and translator, or author and director in this case. Only then does Schlöndorff feel he is fully able to realise his and the author’s vision.

5- Disenchantment in Dirty Snow by Tomáš Forró, translated from the Slovak by Magdalena Mullek

Read here.

Genre: Non-fiction essay, conflict journalism

In all the drama of recent years (Brexit, Trump, Covid-19), it’s easy to forget about the Russian invasion and continued occupation of some regions in Ukraine. It was only when I visited Kyiv in October 2019 that I was viscerally reminded of the ongoing conflict. There are memorials and museum exhibitions detailing the names of every Ukranian casualty, some of the most recent victims of Russian expansionism and nationalist caprice. A strange mainstream media silence has settled over the subject recently, and one has to wonder why. Are we bored of hearing about Russia’s bully-boy tactics? Is the West scared of something?

I have a great respect for journalists who put themselves in danger, and sometimes even in the line of fire, in the pursuit of truth. War zones are some of the most propagandised places in the world, so Forró’s account of interrogation and eventual release at the hands of the feared Ukrainian Berkut forces is as impressive as it is nail-biting. Unsurprisingly, the geopolitical situation is still both incredibly complex and tense.

In some ways, Russia and the Ukraine are so similar. They have a very similar language, are geographical neighbours, have often been in some kind of political union (although not often consensual on the side of the Ukranians), and share many cultural and religious traditions. However, there is a deep, pulsating resentment there. Memories of the Holodomor have caused inter-generational trauma, and the invasion of the Crimea reopened old wounds. It’s almost inconceivable that this acrimony could be overcome in my lifetime.

Book Reviews Translations

Writing a Reader’s Report

Reader’s reports are a fairly well-hidden part of the publishing industry, but they can make or break a book. It’s important to remember that there are two main types of reader’s reports – those which review a manuscript in the same language as the manuscript, and those which review a published foreign-language book for consideration for translation. Obviously, I will be focusing on the latter.

Esther Allen, translator extraordinaire and prolific producer of reader’s reports, once called it “the most silent of literary genres”. You can read her delightful Guardian article on the subject here. Publishers who want to keep an ear to the ground of foreign literature commission book-hungry linguists to read a manuscript and write a 2-4-page report on whether they would recommend it for translation. Thus, a reader’s report is a mixture of plot synopsis and personal commentary. They don’t pay well – between £80-120 per piece, but if you’re someone like me who devours books in a couple of days for the sheer joy of it, being paid a few pounds an hour to read and do a write-up seems like a slice of heaven, am I right?

I’ve never been paid to do a reader’s report myself, but we’re currently doing workshops on them for my Research and Methodology module, wherein our tutor has passed on many tantalising nuggets of information. For next week’s workshop, I’ve decided to do a Reader’s Report on Tausche Dirndl Gegen Sari, partly because I’m currently reading an English novel and this was the most recent German book I’ve read, and partly because I can give it a very thoroughly mixed review. The fact that this book is so specific to the Indian/Bavarian culture clash is my ultimate reason for not recommending it for translation. I doubt British or American readers would get much out of it, as charming as the book was to me in places.

If done well, and if they are particularly positive, reader’s reports can help you to get a foot in the door with a publisher and could even lead to a translation commission. However, opportunities for reader’s reports won’t be advertised anywhere and you need to contact publishers in order to start receiving requests. Remember that when you are emailing publishers about doing reader’s reports, small indie publishers are much more likely to give you a positive response, or even a response at all.

I’m writing a quick list of things to consider and questions to ask oneself when writing a reader’s report, partly to refresh my own memory and partly to summarise my scruffy handwritten notes:

  1. Remember that there are different literary conventions for writing reader’s reports depending on the source language of the book. Unfortunately, the format for reader’s reports of German books is much more regimented and thorough than most other languages. Why am I not surprised?
  2. Make sure to research the specific imprints of the publisher you are writing for. What kind of books do they publish? What would they be looking for? What makes them tick?
  3. At the start of the report, remember to include basic information about the book such as its original publisher, date of publication, author, length and a suggested translation for the title. If the title is particularly difficult to translate because of its cultural specificity, make sure you inform the publisher about this.
  4. It’s important to situate the book within its literary context. Is this a particularly ‘trendy’ area of literature in the source language right now? Is it full of historical or political references?
  5. Author: What does the author usually do? Do they also write other things such as plays or poems? Is this a debut novel? Are they prolific or do they have few books on the market? Does the author write across genres or in one specific genre? Do they have a significant online presence? Do some background research.
  6. Point of view: What kind of point of view do I write from? Do I use the first or third person? It may be useful to switch between the two, for example between the plot synopsis and your own personal commentary. Remember to always use the present tense when describing the book’s plot
  7. Tone: Think about the tone of the book. Is it dark or light? Uplifting or though-provoking?
  8. Genre: Think about the genre of the book. Does it already fit neatly into a well-established or pre-existing literary genre? Does it transgress genres or straddle various different ones? Does it bring anything fresh to its genre? Have similar books already been translated into English, or would it be unique?
  9. Style: What kind of literary style does the author have? Does it remind you of another author or group of authors in the source language? Are the influences on the author clear?
  10. Structure: how is the book structured? Are there long or short chapters or sections? Are there any paratexts such as introductions, discussion questions or an interview with the author? Would I recommend translating these too, or not?
  11. Intended audience: who is buying this book in the source language? Check reviews for its reception. You might want to translated a couple lines from prominent reviewers. Would it appeal to the same audience in the target language? Why/why not? Is it high-brow or low-brow, and would this affect its target audience?
  12. Purpose: What is the book trying to do or say? Did it lead to any self-reflection or throw up pertinent questions?

Ultimately, you need to give a clear answer on whether or not you think the book should be translated into English.