Goethe Institut Award for New Translation
Winner 2022: Interview with Sharon Howe

A photo of Sharon Howe
Sharon Howe

Our Information Officer Annemarie Goodridge caught up with Sharon Howe following Sharon's winning of the Goethe-Institut Translation Award 2022. The Interview is available to read below. 

What, in your view, are the most important elements of a good translation?

I would say the attempt to reflect the author’s voice as closely as possible and give the reader the same experience as they would have gained from the original. Paradoxically, that can mean shuffling things around a bit (e.g. if a pun doesn’t work in one place the translator might slip in an equivalent elsewhere); the key thing is to get the right balance between truth to the text and readability.

The passage chosen for the translation competition was from Ulrike Draesner’s Schwitters (Penguin, 2020). The jury described it as 'fiendishly difficult'! Which aspects did you find particularly challenging or remarkable about this text? 

That’s no exaggeration! The main problem was how to render a multilingual text in English: whereas most German readers can be assumed to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of English, that's less likely to be the case the other way round. To recreate the state of mind of an exiled German artist and writer trying to get to grips with a foreign tongue, Ulrike Draesner mixes languages in a text that reads more like a poem that a novel. Added to this is the attempt to reflect Schwitters’ Dadaist perspective – hence the nonsense words, rhymes and wordplay we all had such fun with in Ruth Martin’s excellent post-competition workshop (the title alone – “Schaf(f)en” threw up an array of inventive suggestions from "Sheepshifting" to "Baabaa Dada"). We all agreed that challenges like these are what makes the translator’s job so difficult yet so hugely enjoyable.

Could you tell us a bit about your career in translation up to now?

I have been translating for over thirty years, but the bulk of my work was commercial until relatively recently. I have always longed to do something more creative (if less well paid!), and am now attempting to realise that dream and worm my way into the literary market. A workshop organised by New Books in German at the Goethe-Institut in London gave me the push I needed, and the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School in 2016 did the rest. So far I’ve translated mostly nonfiction titles by authors including Steffen Mau, Aaron Sahr and Michael Butter. I particularly enjoyed translating Ronen Steinke’s Anna & Dr Helmy, the true story of a Muslim doctor who saved the life of a Jewish girl in Hitler’s Berlin.

One thing that has struck me along the way is how supportive the translation community is – especially given that we’re all competing in a notoriously small market here in the UK. I’ve had work passed on to me by thoughtful colleagues on several occasions, and have really benefited from the advice of more experienced translators – often through the Emerging Translators Network, which is an invaluable resource.

As we all know, it can be a lonely profession, and industry events such as the online talks organised by the Society of Authors/Translators Association are a great way to share knowledge and generally be nerdy about linguistic topics that bore other people. And it’s great that we’re cautiously returning to face-to-face events of course.

Talking of which, I’ve just got back from the International Translators' Meeting in Berlin by kind courtesy of the Goethe-Institut – an opportunity for which I’m truly grateful. It was a very intense week that gave me a fascinating insight into current trends in the German book market and really fired me up. Now to put all that inspiration into practice…

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

I love the moving simplicity of Robert Seethaler's Ein ganzes Leben and Der Trafikant. For similar reasons, I have also long championed Hans-Josef Ortheil's Die Erfindung des Lebens, a largely autobiographical story about the healing power of music and literature. Another favourite is Robert Schneider's haunting Schlafes Bruder. If I'm allowed to mention classics here, Franz Werfel's epic Die Vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh is one of the most compelling books I've ever read. That said, my trip to Berlin has yielded a long list of recommendations, and I'm really looking forward to working my way through some of the latest titles, starting with Antje Rávik Strubel's Blaue Frau.