Of the Translator’s Craft – An Interview with Anne Birkenhauer
In October 2011 in Frankfurt, Anne Birkenhauer was awarded the Jane Scatcherd Prize for her outstanding translation of the novel To the End of the Land (literally: A Woman Fleeing the News) by the Israeli writer David Grossman. The Prize is given by the Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt Foundation during the Frankfurt Book Fair for outstanding achievement in literary translation.
Mrs. Birkenhauer, you have translated many contemporary Israeli authors into German, including Aharon Appelfeld, Eshkol Nevo and last but not least David Grossman. They’re all very different writers with different themes and styles. How do you choose an author or his text?
Basically, I find everything interesting when I encounter it as literature. I read the first forty pages. If I have the impression that the language is subtly and precisely chosen, then I become interested in the text. There are some themes, however, I won’t take on because I don’t want to have to deal with them emotionally.
How do you approach a text?
As a rule, I don’t read it through beforehand, so that during the first translation it can unfold itself before me image for image, in high resolution. I don’t even skim a complete paragraph. After each image, I halt inwardly and listen to the questions that the story poses at this point. Not knowing whether a blade of grass on page three will play a role later enables me to take it more seriously. In this way my translation gains in depth.
Does the semantic charge thereby come into focus? How do you handle it?
I don’t translate merely the phrase; I also convey the emotion. I try to feel the mood of the phrase in the original text and then to recreate its function in the translation.
Are there any tools that have proven helpful in this?
Since my university studies, the modal particles have never let go of me. They are the little words that make up the mood of a sentence. Take the question: What time is it? And now add a particle: What time is it then? This little word makes all the difference in tone. My rough translations are full of modal particles because I’m still looking for the precise tone. It’s really one of the most beautiful moments when the melody of the original and that of the translation suddenly chime together.
In every Israeli novel there are allusions and points that the Israeli reader recognizes and understands intuitively. How do can you convey these connections to the German reader without explaining them?
To translate culturally specific things I’ve developed quite different tools. In Eshkol Nevo’s novel Four Houses and Longing , for example, there appear Israeli beauty queens, whom really nobody in Germany knows. I considered which international beauty queens would be known in a comparable social class in Germany. In this I profit from the globalization of culture and translate things that are quite Israeli and small-town to this level. I have, however, to be able to entrust the novel figures with these transferred associations.
What role does the author play in this process?
In essence, translating is a dialogue between the text and me. The first reading is like a blind date, during which I hope the text reveals itself to me. I talk with the author only later – for instance, when I have the impression that an image isn’t quite right.
Doesn’t that irritate the author?
At first I thought I daren’t ask him! But the author and I are like two collegial craftsmen, and it’s exactly for this reason that the relationship is very intimate. It may turn out that I’ve missed a little hint. Other times I may catch the author in an inconsistency. In the latter case, by the way, David Grossmann corrected these passages in the next Hebrew edition.
How do you experience this kind of intense literary translating, with all its consequences for the original text?
It’s my performance of the text. Sometimes I slip in the character of the author, the narrator or a figure in the novel. It’s a writing further of the original, as the literary scholar Peter Utz calls it. In this way every translation becomes in turn an original. I think that’s marvelous! After all, we translators now finally appear in Germany on the first page, along with the author.
What advice do you have for young translators?
You have to put your work up for discussion and exchange ideas with experienced colleagues. A good translation needs time. And with every new text you discover or invent a new tool that helps you on. Translating is a craft, and in a craft experience counts.
Eshkol Nevo, „Vier Häuser und eine Sehnsucht“ (Four Houses and Longing), dtv-premium, München 2007 (novel)
Aharon Appelfeld, „Elternland“, Rowohlt, Berlin 2007 (novel)
Sarah Shilo, „Zwerge kommen hier keine“, dtv-premium, München 2009 (novel)
David Grossman, „Eine Frau flieht vor einer Nachricht“ (To the End of the Land), Hanser, München 2009 (novel)
Chaim Be’er, „Bebelplatz“, Berlin Verlag, Berlin 2010 (novel)
conducted the interview in Jerusalem. She is a freelance journalist and lecturer based in Munich.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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