Goethe-Institut Award for New Translation
Winner 2020: interview with Kay McBurney

Winner 2020: Interview with Kay McBurney
Kay McBurney

Kay McBurney is the winner of the Goethe-Institut Award for New Translation 2020. In this interview she tells us what sets apart a good translation.

Congratulations on winning the Goethe-Institut Award for New Translation! What, in your view, are the most important elements of a good translation? 

First and foremost a translation has to read as if it had been originally written in the target language (which is why I was particularly chuffed when one of the jurors, Oliver Kamm, commented that my translation “reads like an original text”). This applies not only to literary translation, in business communications too you can’t afford to risk turning readers off with clunky prose. I think it’s important to take the time to read through the translated text multiple times and polish it to make it flow as seamlessly as possible. It’s all too easy to focus on individual sentences and forget about how they fit together overall, at the ‘macro level’ if you like. And to get away from pedestrian prose, I’d also make a plea for greater use of thesauri – English in particular is such a splendidly nuanced language, we need to exploit its riches to the full!

The passage chosen for the translation competition was from Sibylle Berg’s Die Fahrt ('The Journey', 2007). Was there anything you found particularly challenging or remarkable about this text? 

Mmm, where do I begin? There are lots of red lines under tricky bits on my copy of the original! The excerpt is essentially a vignette of the middle-aged male protagonist’s life with very little in the way of background to go on. It took me several readings before I began to build up a picture of him in my mind and get a feel for his disillusionment and detachment from life. He’s definitely not someone you’d warm to in the real world. Berg also employs some very unusual turns of phrase, for example near the beginning she refers to Frank’s “fröstelnde Anstrengung, sein Leben aktiv zu gestalten”. I had to choose between a more literal rendering – something like “trembling efforts to actively shape his life” – which would have preserved the strangeness of the original, and something that sounded less unusual in English. In the end I opted for the more bland “shaky efforts” for the sake of readability, but that leaves the reader without any idea of the strangeness of the original. Retaining the strangeness, however, risks alienating the reader, who will probably assume that any strangeness is down to a poor translation rather than the original author’s words. Another example is “Die Nacht begann leise zu regnen” (the night began raining softly), which is more akin to poetry than straightforward prose. Where exactly on the spectrum of ‘quietly’ to ‘softly’ does 'leise' sit? In the end, some things just came down to gut instinct rather than rational judgement.

Which German authors would you regard as being your current favourites? 

I tend to like writers who tackle wider social and historical themes. I would have to say Jenny Erpenbeck is my favourite author writing in German at the moment. I greatly admire the subtlety with which she weaves the broad sweep of European history into her novels, replete with random accidents of birth and shifting borders. I’ve been fortunate enough to twice attend events with her at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (and consequently also ended up acquiring signed copies of Susan Bernofsky’s superb translations Visitation (Heimsuchung) and Go, Went, Gone (Gehen, ging, gegangen). Like Erpenbeck, Saša Stanišić’s novels also touch on individual fates at the mercy of the cross-currents of history. Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone translated by the late great Anthea Bell) surely has to be a modern German classic and the author himself also reflects the ‘migration background’ typical of so many of the younger generation of writers who are bringing refreshing new perspectives into German literature. I’m really looking forward to reading his latest book Herkunft which again explores how much our origins are bound up in chance. But I also enjoy more light-hearted fare too. Ingrid Noll’s feisty female characters for example, and Timur Vermes’ satire on politics and the media Er Ist Wieder Da (Look Who’s Back translated by Jamie Bulloch) is laugh-out loud funny, which you don’t get too often in German literature!

Could you tell us a bit about your career in translation up to now?
I’ve actually been a professional translator pretty much all my working life, I just haven’t got around to trying my hand at literary texts until now (and I’m most grateful to the Goethe-Institut for providing me with an opportunity to do so). I followed what was a fairly conventional career path for my generation: a first language degree followed by a postgraduate translation diploma, then several years working as a staff translator – in the days when companies still had in-house translation departments – before taking the plunge into freelancing almost thirty years ago now. During that time I’ve been an active member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, and in particular I’ve been heavily involved in the ITI Scottish Network where I served as Coordinator for five years. I helped organize many professional development events for fellow freelancers, and I’m still helping to produce the network’s newsletter. I find that belonging to such a friendly community of fellow professionals is a great way of countering the inherent risk of isolation in a freelancer’s life.