Translating

Worldcon & Work Done

Attending Worldcon 75 in Helsinki made the deadline of my last translation project a real challenge (and I had to switch to translatorbot mode upon my return). But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Welcome in HelsinkiHelsinki was quite welcoming, giving out free public transport rides and a warm, fuzzy feeling in between the frequent showers. While it felt a little bit disorganised in the beginning, Worldcon got better by the day at managing its huge crowds of fans.

A workshop about societies in post-apocalyptic fiction taught by dramatist Taj Hayer was a great way to start the con and meet new people. It wasn’t only fascinating to learn about all the different backgrounds people brought up that got them interested in post-apocalyptic settings. We also did a cool group exercise about world and plot building and ended up with a world reminiscent of Mary Rickert and Octavia Butler stories, where only children are able to communicate, and form an anarchist society. I wonder which one of us will end up writing it … Anyway, I really appreciated Taj’s teaching, so if you’ve got the chance to attend one of his classes, go for it!

I could totally relate to the things stated in a panel about writing while multilingual (with Ken Liu, among others), fell in love with the sheer display of knowledge in “The Times that Shaped the Science” (mostly about the birthing age of modern science and how it came to pass), and had the best of times with an epic snark battle-panel between Babylon 5 and Star Trek, shortly before rushing back to the airport (no big spoiler: Babylon 5 won).

But my favourite panel was “True Grit: The Appeal of Grimdark Fantasy”. So much thoughtful input here, especially from Scott Lynch, on a fascinating topic. You can watch it on Youtube, too (with appropriately gloomy lighting).

Posing with Major Ursa

Posing with Major Ursa

Apart from that, there was a small Taos Toolbox meet-up, a visit to a glorious steampunk bar, meeting old and new friends, and discovering cool Finnish artists and a really flourishing sff scene. I didn’t know that so many books are translated into Finnish (and they’re beautifully designed, too).

Oh, and the Hugos were a blast, of course: I loved the fact that many of my favourites won, and they were dominated by women this year! Bam!

When you look into the abyss …

There is one question I really dread when I talk about my job as a literary translator: “Of the works you translated, what would you recommend?”

First of all, I usually don’t get to choose. Translating is my day job, and as much as I love it, it has to be well-paid work. Um, as well-paid as it gets when you’re at the bottom of the publishing industry’s food-chain. So I can’t be picky. Also, as long as it’s genre, I get paid roughly the same, whether it’s a super easy quick and dirty text without linguistic finesse, or a complex work testing the limits of language. So what I want is a good mixture of quality and quantity: I don’t like to get bored to death by samey, bland stuff, but I also can’t afford to spend forever and a day on a demanding text.

I got lucky a few times. Or that’s what I thought. I got to work with a few of my favorite authors – some of them I adored before getting the chance to translate them, some I discovered on a job. But then the book market happened, and there’s nothing much left to recommend anymore.

But that said, I have to admit I tend to find something to appreciate in nearly every work I translate. I look very, very closely at all those texts, by doing several drafts and chipping away at the surface until I can hope to capture the real thing. During this process, I stumble upon the annoying traits of my heroes (because I notice every over-used mannerism and every lazy phrase). But more than that, I always discover something worth reading, something charming, something working really well. I might not be thrilled in the beginning, but at the second draft, I have an idea about what the author set out to do, and I can see where she succeeded.

Whatever it is, whatever it does, I get attached. And I get sucked in in ways that are not entirely healthy.

Every line of thought, every development of plot and character, every plunge off imaginary cliffs, I have to follow. I have to incorporate the whole thing, and articulate it anew. But I can’t do it by my own rules, with my coping mechanisms, my ways. I have to do stick to whatever works for somebody else.

That’s a good thing, in an on itself. It’s what I love most in fiction: It shows me the world in a way I can’t see it myself. I learn a lot this way. But I also have to swallow things I don’t like. I have to stay on track when I’d rather run off in another direction. It gets hard when there’s not much common ground, and even harder when the text hits home due to entirely individual reasons.

I suppose that’s one reason why I write in English. German fiction is work, it’s adapting my voice to the demands of another person’s ideas. After some hours of doing this, it’s often difficult to step out of this mode again.

So in this weird, complicated relationship I develop with my translations, recommendation is a category that doesn’t fit anymore. But even after going through all of this, there are some texts I still love.

Setting sail

I need a place to share my love of stories (and good storytelling) in all their incarnations and talk about translating and writing speculative fiction, which is what I do because there are never enough good stories. And because I’m allowed to work at home at odd hours wearing jammies.

So stay tuned.