Karen Leeder

Karen Leeder © The Poetry Society Karen Leeder (FRSA) is Professor of Modern German Literature and Fellow and Tutor in German at New College, Oxford. She has published widely on modern German literature, especially poetry (with books on East Germany, Rilke, Brecht and a number of contemporary German poets).

She translates contemporary poetry and prose into English. She won the Schlegel-Tieck award in 2005 for her translation of Evelyn Schlag’s Selected Poems and the Stephen Spender prize in 2013 for her translations of Durs Grünbein. In 2015 her translation of Volker Braun’s Rubble Flora (with David Constantine) was commended for the Popescu award and in 2016 she won both an English PEN award and a PEN America PEN Heim award for her translation of Ulrike Almut Sandig’s Thick of it (Dickicht) which is due to appear with Seagull Books in 2018.


Three questions to Karen Leeder

Why did you choose to become a translator? Is it the profession you always wanted?

I never chose to become a translator and I guess many people don’t. I am lucky enough to have a full-time job as an academic teaching German literature: a luxury in a sense in that it means I only translate what I am passionate about and often things I am working on critically too. I first started translating because I was working on extraordinary contemporary European poetry that had not been translated into English and I was excited that other people should know it. Many subsequent commissions have been projects I have championed and taken to publishers. Others as is quite common I think have arrived serendipitously and chosen me.
Which German book do you like the best and why?

This is impossible of course.  I still think Durs Grünbein’s Grauzone morgens must be one of the best debut collections ever; it would be hard to beat Rilke’s Neue Gedichte or Duineser Elegien though. And I come to Kafka with an endless pleasure whenever I read him.
Is there a particular book you would like to translate?

Also hard as there is so much German poetry untranslated. I was asked this question about ten years ago and said Durs Grünbein. As it happens I am translating a volume of Grünbein’s recent poetry at the moment to follow on from Michael Hofmann’s brilliant Ashes for Breakfast (2005). My instincts were right and I have learned so much already from him. Ulrike Almut Sandig’s amazing 2016 volume ich bin ein Feld voller Raps verstecke die Rehe und leuchte wie dreizehn Ölgemälde übereinandergelegt was one of the books I took to a publisher and I think is on the point of being commissioned. I have a yen to do an anthology of modern women’s poetry in German. There are so many gems and so many of them untranslated.

  • Michael Krüger, Scenes from the Life of a Best-selling Author (Aus dem Leben eines Erfolgsschriftstellers). Harvill, 2002.
  • Evelyn Schlag, Selected Poems. Carcanet 2004.
  • Raoul Schrott, The Desert of Lop (Die Wüste Lop Nor). Macmillan Picador, 2004.
  • Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Fatal Numbers: Why count on Chance? (Fortuna und Kalkül - Zwei mathematische Belustigungen). Upper West Side Philosophers Press, 2011.
  • Wilhelm Schmid, High on Low: Harnessing the Power of Unhappiness (Unglücklich sein. Eine Ermutigung). Upper West Side Philosophers Press, 2014.
  • Volker Braun, Rubble Flora: Selected Poems (gemeinsam mit David Constantine). Seagull Books, 2014.
  • Michael Krüger, Last Day of the Year: Selected Poems. Sheep Meadow Press, 2014.