Trans­la­tor-in-Chief

A brand new imprint, headed by renowned translator Katy Derbyshire, is publishing new German literature in English. Meet Berlin's most exciting literary start-up of 2020. By

Katy Derbyshire outside the Voland & Quist office in Berlin Schönefeld
Katy Derbyshire outside the V&Q Books office in Berlin Schöneberg. Photo: Anja Kapunkt for TraLaLit

“[A] Berlin-based pub­lish­er of Eng­lish-lan­guage books – what a bizarre idea.” So states a tongue-in-cheek entry in the Translator’s Glos­sary to Jour­ney through a Tragi­com­ic Cen­tu­ry (Reise durch ein tragikomis­ches Jahrhun­dert by Fran­cis Nenik), one of the first three titles to be pub­lished by the new­ly launched V&Q Books. Its appear­ance there gives an idea of some of the stand-out fea­tures of V&Q Books: inter­est­ing con­tent, bold trans­la­tion choic­es, and a good dash of humour.

V&Q Books is itself the new Eng­lish-lan­guage imprint of the indie pub­lish­ing house Voland & Quist Ver­lag. Its aim is to bring “remark­able writ­ing from Ger­many” to a UK and Irish audi­ence, and its first three titles were released this month. The ven­ture is spear­head­ed by Katy Der­byshire, an expe­ri­enced lit­er­ary trans­la­tor. She has been active on the trans­la­tion scene for many years, trans­lat­ing authors such as Clemens Mey­er and Christa Wolf and tak­ing an instru­men­tal role in launch­ing the War­wick Prize for Women in Trans­la­tion, and is now tak­ing the step into pub­lish­ing.

The idea stemmed from a desire to do some­thing that gave her more con­trol over her own work, and then became real­i­ty after men­tion­ing it to Voland & Quist at Frank­furt Book Fair two years ago. The con­cept suits Voland & Quist’s focus on less main­stream lit­er­a­ture, as Kari­na Fen­ner, one of the heads of the com­pa­ny, makes clear:

For us, think­ing out­side the box has always been very impor­tant … and we have a soft spot for trans­la­tions of cen­tral and east­ern Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture. At first, we found Katy Derbyshire’s idea of Eng­lish-lan­guage trans­la­tions crazy, and then crazi­ly good: and now we have this excit­ing imprint, an enthu­si­as­tic col­league, and some won­der­ful authors.

That enthu­si­asm was also clear­ly present when we talked to Katy Der­byshire about her expe­ri­ences of run­ning the ven­ture and pro­duc­ing the books. In addi­tion to her, the core V&Q Books team includes six peo­ple who most­ly work from their office in Berlin, han­dling the day-to-day details from accounts to cov­er design. Der­byshire describes her role as a bit of every­thing, includ­ing “every­thing that needs to be done in Eng­lish”, whether that’s com­mu­ni­cat­ing with trans­la­tors or hold­ing dis­cus­sions with their free­lancer pub­li­cist in Lon­don – and, of course, trans­la­tion.

She trans­lat­ed two of the first three books her­self, includ­ing Jour­ney through a Tragi­com­ic Cen­tu­ry, which retells the fas­ci­nat­ing life of the for­got­ten writer Has­so Grab­n­er. The oth­er two titles are Paula by San­dra Hoff­mann, a fic­tion­alised account of the author’s rela­tion­ship to her grand­moth­er; and Daugh­ters (Töchter, in Ger­man) by Lucy Fricke (trans. Sinéad Crowe), a dark­ly fun­ny nov­el about two women on a road trip deal­ing with dif­fi­cult fathers.

“Own­er­ship on the part of the trans­la­tor, if you will”1

The first three titles from V&Q Books are all trans­lat­ed from Ger­man, although the aim is even­tu­al­ly to include books from oth­er lan­guages, and Eng­lish-lan­guage lit­er­a­ture writ­ten in Ger­many. When it came to the choice of titles, Der­byshire says that there were a num­ber of fac­tors at play:

They have to work well as a cat­a­logue; you don’t want two very sim­i­lar books, and you don’t want too many sim­i­lar authors and back­grounds or styles … We chose books that would make a bit of a splash, but it also depend­ed on which fund­ing we could get.

The first run, then, cov­ers fic­tion, nar­ra­tive non-fic­tion and aut­ofic­tion. The impe­tus came large­ly from Der­byshire, with some input from Voland & Quist. Paula, for exam­ple, had been on her radar for a while; she had pre­vi­ous­ly tried to find a UK pub­lish­er for a trans­la­tion, with­out suc­cess. Add in the issue of obtain­ing the rights and look­ing for gaps in the mar­ket, and you have the first selec­tion.

To talk about how these books work as trans­la­tions, let’s come back to that ini­tial quo­ta­tion from the Translator’s Glos­sary. It’s an adden­dum to an entry on the Com­mu­nist writer Bruno Apitz:

His key work, the 1958 nov­el Naked Among Wolves, was set in Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp and trans­lat­ed into 30 lan­guages. The Eng­lish ver­sion (tr. Edith Ander­son) was pub­lished by Sev­en Seas, a Berlin-based pub­lish­er of Eng­lish-lan­guage books – what a bizarre idea.

This is Katy Derbyshire’s voice, which comes through clear­ly and unapolo­get­i­cal­ly through­out the glos­sary. Here, for exam­ple, is the entry on Rain­er Maria Rilke: “Dead white man, Ger­man poet. Liked big cats.” Anoth­er entry includes a com­ment about being “over­come with awe” when sit­ting behind the author Volk­er Braun, while the one about the Russ­ian writer Alek­san­dr Solzhen­it­syn details how her father was once mis­tak­en for him. Derbyshire’s posi­tion as head of the imprint gives her the free­dom to push this rad­i­cal kind of addi­tion: a third voice for the book, one that fits in com­fort­ably along­side the won­der­ful­ly strange tone of the main text and the final autho­r­i­al sec­tion describ­ing how Nenik chose the sub­ject mat­ter. It pro­vides her with the con­fi­dence to not only include the glos­sary at all, but to do so in a bold way that engages with the text rather than stand­ing back from it. Accord­ing to Der­byshire, this is the joy­ful thing about being a pub­lish­er trans­la­tor:

I have a bit more free­dom to make deci­sions. The glos­sary would have tak­en quite a lot of explain­ing!

“The author and I”2

This con­junc­tion of trans­la­tor and pub­lish­er adds an edge of inter­est to each of the books in the cat­a­logue. Paula, for exam­ple, which was at the top of Derbyshire’s wish list when it came to dis­cussing books with Voland & Quist, con­tains sev­er­al tricky trans­la­tion­al ele­ments. In the book’s Translator’s Note, Der­byshire talks about her dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the idea of “untrans­lat­able” words and books:

[They] demand cre­ative trans­la­tions, rework­ings, bold steps. Own­er­ship on the part of the trans­la­tor, if you will.

You can see this con­fi­dence in the very first lines of the trans­la­tion of Paula:

Schweigen ist anders als still sein.
We have a word in Ger­man: schweigen. It means delib­er­ate­ly remain­ing silent; it is dif­fer­ent mere­ly being qui­et.

Adding an entire­ly new first line to the book is some­thing of a dras­tic inter­ven­tion: one, how­ev­er, that pro­vides a sus­tain­able solu­tion to the prob­lem of trans­lat­ing the word “schweigen”, of such cen­tral impor­tance to the whole work. It is also one that comes with the approval of San­dra Hoff­mann, who Der­byshire con­sult­ed dur­ing the trans­la­tion process – a way of ensur­ing that both the author and the translator/publisher are hap­py with changes that push the con­ven­tion­al bound­aries of com­mer­cial trans­la­tion.

“[The] uproar­i­ous side of Ger­man lit­er­a­ture”3

That’s what Sinéad Crowe, who trans­lat­ed the third and final book of the ini­tial run (Daugh­ters by Lucy Fricke), empha­sis­es in her Translator’s Note: the desire to share the wit­ty side of Ger­man lit­er­a­ture with a UK and Irish audi­ence, who are far more used to encoun­ter­ing the dour and earnest edges of the Ger­man lit­er­ary scene. The desire to fill this niche is some­thing Der­byshire also empha­sis­es, say­ing it is “some­thing that has been annoy­ing me for many years; I think there is more humour in Ger­man writ­ing than is often acknowl­edged.” She also has a pref­er­ence for books with a sense of place (though not specif­i­cal­ly Ger­many):

I feel like trans­la­tions often need one. They need to have a spe­cif­ic set­ting, because oth­er­wise why would we both­er trans­lat­ing it, espe­cial­ly into Eng­lish, where so lit­tle is trans­lat­ed in the first place.

Enlarge

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The launch par­ty for V&Q Books at ocelot, book store, Berlin, on Sep­tem­ber 15. Left to right: Katy Der­byshire, San­dra Hoff­mann, Flo­ri­an Dui­jsens and Mag­da Birk­mann. Pho­to: Julia Rosche

These traits are very much evi­dent across the three books, from the wit­ti­ly nar­rat­ed road trip in Daugh­ters to the absur­di­ty woven through the trav­els of Has­so Grab­n­er in Jour­ney through a Tragi­com­ic Cen­tu­ry.

When tak­en as a set, the three books make a strong show­ing. They work well as a cat­a­logue, each unmis­tak­ably indi­vid­ual but shar­ing sev­er­al com­mon threads: a sense of place, a sense of humour, poten­tial­ly dif­fi­cult yet inter­est­ing trans­la­tion choic­es. The more vis­i­ble pres­ence of the trans­la­tors adds a rich­ness to the books, a con­fi­dence that does not detract or dis­tract from the strengths of the orig­i­nals. If all goes well, they will hit the mark with their tar­get audi­ence in the UK and Ire­land – and we can then look for­ward to see­ing what V&Q Books pro­duces next.

  1. Katy Der­byshire, Trans­la­tor’s Note to Paula, pp. 142–3
  2. Katy Der­byshire, Translator’s Glos­sary to Jour­ney through a Tragi­com­ic Cen­tu­ry, p. 187
  3. Sinéad Crowe, Translator’s Note to Daugh­ters, p. 201

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