Diaspora Q&A Series: Katy Derbyshire

Image © Ulrike Brauns

Image © Ulrike Brauns

Tell us a little about your cultural influences. What place(s) do you consider ‘home’ and where are you based now?

I was born and brought up in suburban London, and I suppose that’s the place most like home to me in the sense that it has all my childhood memories tucked into it, and most of my family too. My parents are both locals – my dad comes from Acton and my mum’s from Shepherd’s Bush – which is unusual in the area. Almost all the kids I went to school with had parents from elsewhere, India, Pakistan, Ireland, the West Indies, Turkey, Greece, all over, so my sense of British culture might be different to other people’s. Then I moved to Berlin immediately after graduating, at the age of 23, so the city is very much my home as an adult. Again, it’s not a city like the rest of the country, not as typically German as other places. I like that overlap.

What language(s) do you translate from (and into, in the case of bilingual translators working into others besides English)?

I translate only out of German into English; I don’t really have any other languages, although I tried learning French, Russian and Polish when I was younger.

What do you love most about being a literary translator?

I love having a licence to dig myself right into a piece of writing, really submerge myself in it and lose sight of everything else. It feels very intimate and exclusive. I love the creative side of the work, finding solutions that really fit or jiggling and jiggling until things fall into place. I love the times when I go into a trance and everything flows and it seems like automatic writing. That’s probably what I love most, although of course it doesn’t happen every day. 

Image © Ulrike Brauns

Image © Ulrike Brauns

What is your daily work routine like? Do you work from home/in a library/in a co-working space?

I share an office with a journalist friend, which gets me out of the house and makes sure I speak to another human being. I get up fairly early, especially when my daughter is with me, and try and take a walk to clear my head, then pack up my laptop and go to the office. I sit at my desk for a long time and don’t take enough breaks except for lunch (usually something I’ve brought along; café lunches are a special treat). Usually I like to get non-literary translation work out of the way first. And then I plug away at the book I’m working on until I feel I’ve done enough. Ideally about ten pages if I have all day, sometimes more or less depending on how much research needs doing, how tricky it is, and so on. I get faster as I go along. In the evenings I like to go to readings to keep an eye on the literary scene, or I read or watch German TV. If a book is set in Berlin or within easy reach, I’ll often take a day to visit the locations to get an idea of the physical spaces.   

Do you attend translation events in the UK or U.S., and if so how often?

I only really attend translation events in the UK if I’m invited specifically, to talk on a panel, lead a workshop, take part in a reading, etc. I try to stay a bit longer and take in other things because I can stay with my mum in London, so accommodation’s not a problem. But flights aren’t getting any cheaper and I find I can’t work well away from my usual surroundings, so I really have to weigh up the cost.

How do you maintain and strengthen your working relationship with UK/U.S. publishers while living abroad?

That’s probably the hardest thing. I think living in Berlin is a slight advantage because people actually want to come here, so I occasionally get emails from editors saying hey, I’m visiting, let’s meet up for coffee! Otherwise it’s email, reader’s reports, book fairs (I go to London and Frankfurt). I send little pitches now and then and I have my blog love german books, which seems to have established me as someone to ask if you want to know about German books. 

Is there an active translation community in the city/country where you are based?

We do indeed have a very active translation community in Berlin, and in Germany. There’s a lot more literary translation going on into German, and the Verband deutschsprachiger Übersetzer (VdÜ) is very active and sociable. There are also a lot of translators into English here, mainly commercial and academic and again very supportive. And then we have our “translation lab” once a month, where anyone interested in literary translation can come along and bring texts to workshop or just join in the conversation. It’s been going for seven years now, I think, and has become a very close-knit but I hope still welcoming community.  

How is the literary translator regarded there? Are there organisations and initiatives (such as the TA in the UK and ALTA in the U.S.) working to improve translators’ status, rights and visibility?

Literary translators are more visible here, partly because there are simply more of them. There are major prizes and grants, the European Translators’ Collegium in Straelen with residencies, and the VdÜ is affiliated to the service sector trade union. At the same time, perhaps because there are so many people capable of translating on the supply side, pay is low compared to the UK. There’s not so much mystique about the job – people will say things like, Oh, I’ve thought about doing a bit of translating, I watch American TV series all the time so it shouldn’t be a problem. The VdÜ and the publishers have been going to and fro on the pay and royalties issue for years now, and progress is slow. Visibility is improving at a faster pace, though.  

Are there any initiatives there which you think UK/U.S. translation organisations could implement or learn from?

The Deutscher Übersetzerfonds (German Translator Fund) is an incredible government-subsidized institution started by translators, which funds grants and prizes and a guest professorship, and also runs seminars for both emerging and experienced translators. The most amazing workshop I’ve ever had the privilege to take part in was part of their “Vice Versa” programme, a week spent in the Swiss translators’ house in Looren with six German-English and six English-German translators, led by the wonderful Karen Nölle and Shelley Frisch. Each of us was in the hot-seat for a whole morning or afternoon, with the group going through a translated passage we submitted in advance. So nerve-wracking! This kind of intense focus activity for experienced translators is lacking in the UK, I think. Once you’ve found your feet you’re expected to improve of your own accord, which of course we probably do to some extent, but there’s also a lot we could learn from each other. The VdÜ also runs an annual get-together in Wolfenbüttel, where translators lead practical workshops for each other. There’s usually also one session with an editor and one with an outside expert on specific topics, like firearms or American football or prison life. And there’s an evening of readings and a big party with food and drinks and dancing. I don’t think UK translators do enough dancing.   

Depending on where you live, you may be immersed in the language of your source language(s) and distanced from your target language, or perhaps even distanced from both. What do you do to keep your mother tongue and other languages active and evolving?

It varies, actually. My daughter and I only speak English to each other and my office mate is American. So at the moment I have to make an effort to speak German. Keeping up my English has got much easier, with journalism, film and books within easy reach. On visits to London I like to sit on the 207 bus and eavesdrop, but actually I can now do some eavesdropping here in Berlin, what with the volume of tourists and longer-stay Brits, Americans, etc.

And, finally, what are you working on at the moment, and what book would you still like to translate? 

I’m finishing off a book of Christa Wolf’s diaries; it hasn’t been as much fun as translating fiction. I’d still like to translate David Wagner’s Leben, a strange hybrid between fiction and non-fiction about a man who gets a liver transplant. Sadly, the whole hybrid thing is fine when American or British writers do it but it seems to put off the kind of editors who’ll publish translation. Too many risks at once, I suspect.  


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