Did a murder take place here or was only a corpse photographed?
Translating literature is an art, as it is about much more than literally transferring a text into another language. Find out what makes literary translations so complex and why artificial intelligence cannot do the job.
By Christoph Schröder
Literary translation – and this is almost a truism – is far more than the mere literal translation of a text from one language to another. Translating requires context, sensitivity, research and also decisiveness. The writer and scholar, Alberto Manguel, once described translators as the ideal readers: “He or she can cut a text into pieces, remove its skin, cut it to the bone, follow every artery and vein, and then design a new living being.”
By contrast, supposedly flawed translations have repeatedly served as an occasion to celebrate the odd bon mot – as Kurt Tucholsky wrote on the occasion of the first German translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1927, either a murder had taken place or a corpse had been photographed. At a time when the rigid concept of a national literature seems to be dissolving in favor of a fluid concept of identity, translators play an important role.
Literature goes beyond borders
According to the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels (German Publishers and Booksellers Association), 9,802 titles were translated into German as first editions in 2019. In return, German publishers sold 7,747 translation licenses abroad. The database of the Verband deutschsprachiger Übersetzer*innen/VdÜ (Association of German Language Translators) lists around 850 members who translate books from more than 100 languages.
With regard to the possibilities of promoting German-language literature abroad, Friederike Barakat, who heads the Rights and Licenses Department at the Carl Hanser Verlag publishing house, sees a clear development: “The prejudice that German-language literature is so ponderous and introspective is off the table.” Hanser Verlag and its affiliated publishers conclude around 250 foreign licences per year, not just for literature, but also for non-fiction and children’s books. These include successful titles such as Herta Müller’s Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel) – a book for which around 60 foreign licenses were sold after she received the Nobel Prize for Literature – or Robert Seethaler’s Ein ganzes Leben (A Whole Life). Then there are also complex novels like Aus der Zuckerfabrik (Out of the Sugar Factory) by Dorothee Elmiger. In order to be able to sell a German-language title, according to Barakat, “you need a whole mosaic of components”, including reviews on the cultural pages of newspapers, but of course also good sales figures. It is also important for publishers to form networks in order to find the right publisher for a title abroad. And then, it goes without saying, there is also the need for translators who can do justice to the book.
The profession of translator is beset with an unusual external image – mainly because it does not really exist. “You basically don’t see or hear us when you read a book”, says Henning Ahrens. Ahrens is himself an author of novels and poems, but also translates books from English into German, including authors such as Colson Whitehead, Meg Wollitzer and Jonathan Safran Foer. Unlike actors or musicians, according to Ahrens, as a translator you remain in the background – in the shadow of the work. In addition, given the complexity of the work, payment is still below average: “You get paid per page for a translation. It makes no difference whether it takes you three months or six months to translate it.” That is why translation sponsoring and grants are particularly important.
Ursel Allenstein also speaks of the complexity of her job. Her translation of the Kopenhagen–Trilogie (The Copenhagen Trilogy) by Danish writer, Tove Ditlevsen, has just been published and has received much attention from experts and has also been highly praised. Without the corona pandemic, says the Scandinavian Studies expert, she would have travelled to Copenhagen several times to do research, delved into archives and taken a closer look at the locations of the novels. That is not always necessary, says Allenstein – sometimes there are books that leave no questions unanswered. In other cases, however, it is about “tiny details, about shifts in reality, about linguistic nuances.” In such cases Allenstein works hand in hand with the authors. Jonas Eika and his novel Nach der Sonne (After the Sun) were an example of this.
Identity and artificial intelligence
The question of who is entitled to translate which texts has recently become an explosive issue that was previously unknown. In March 2020, under pressure from activists, the Dutch translator, Marieke Lucas Rijnveld, backed out of translating a volume of poetry by the black US poet, Amanda Gorman. Patricia Klobusiczky, first chairwoman of the VdÜ and a translator herself, said in an interview that she just could not imagine not translating authors in the future who came from different worlds than herself – “if that were so, I could no longer pursue my profession.” Poet Amanda Gorman at the inauguration of US President Joe Biden in 2021. Under pressure from activists, the Dutch translator Marieke Lucas Rijnveld resigned from the translation assignment for Gorman’s new volume of poetry. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Carolyn Kaster Henning Ahrens and Ursel Allenstein also agree that the idea of artificial intelligence or translation programmes from the internet taking over the work of literary translators in the foreseeable future is just as unrealistic. “Machines just don’t have the ability to differentiate and empathise that is necessary to do the job”, says Ahrens, “and I don’t think we’ll ever see it happening.”