Have you got German family? This question comes up and will maybe always come up when I say I translate from German. It would be the only thing that would make sense, the question seems to say, if it was part of me from birth, part of my heritage.
At school, I just felt like German attuned with my personality in some way. I liked the way it felt to speak its hard and soft sounds, I liked that it kept to its rules, French and Spanish were so fluid and flamboyant, whereas German felt stable and subdued.
I remember having a faltering conversation with someone while living in Munich and they queried why I didn’t know quite a simple word but knew the word Gleis/train platform. Waiting for trains and riding them was when there was a pause, a time when I could read the billboards and adverts running over the seats like pages from textbooks with their helpful text-and-image lay-outs and listen to the looping language–learning cassette of train announcements. Moving to a new country was a year and a half of having faltering conversations with people, which wasn’t so bad because I was used to having those as a teenager anyway, barely able to speak above a mumble in English.
When I came back to the UK, I improved my German by reading, reading, reading German–language poetry and novels. I had to speak it less and less. How we relate in languages with people can get fixed: it feels impossible to switch to German with Austrian, Swiss and German friends I made where we started in English. When I rarely do speak German now, my mind is constantly fighting it, I can feel the wires overheating, it makes me regress to being a teenager. I spend every day working from German to English, one way, doing the creating and expressing in English made from German, that it can feel difficult to create German from scratch. It’s like having to make a piece of art with unfamiliar materials or writing using my left hand, nothing comes out the way I want it to. I get asked if I write in German, if I translate myself into German. I know German so well, we’re intimately befriended. If German was a person, I could profile them and tell you everything about them, but I couldn’t impersonate or be them. I just don’t know German in that way, it’s not our relationship.
When people ask me where I’m from, which has been known to happen either based on my name or the way I look, and I say I’m from the UK, but my dad is Maltese, this makes more sense. Oh, why not translate from Maltese?
I was brought up in an English-only household, in fact, a British-only household. There was no sign of Malta at home, Maltese was like a radio playing in another room while my dad made phone calls. As can often be the case growing up in a mixed-heritage family in the UK, languages and cultures can get lost along the way, especially if there is no ‘community’ locally or nationally to be part of. When Maltese culture only comes up once a year at Eurovision.
It was only as of a few years ago when I met Kat Storace, a Maltese writer and translator working in publishing in London, that I felt like there might be chance to have that kind of community. We founded and now run a small publisher called Praspar Press, which publishes Maltese literature in English and English translation. The words I know in Maltese are strange, things I repeated to myself so they would become mine and would stay with me: fenek/rabbit, nuċċali/spectacles. Kat had to write out on a napkin in a cafe how to order coffee with milk and sugar for me. I’ve slowly started learning Maltese via an online course, and it’s funny when I can recognise words I’ve overheard in the past, before I got to know German.
Jen Calleja is a writer, literary translator from German, and publisher based in Hastings, UK. She has translated nearly twenty works of German-language literature by writers including Marion Poschmann, Wim Wenders, Raphaela Edelbauer, Michelle Steinbeck and Kerstin Hensel. She has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for her translations, and was the inaugural Translator in Residence at the British Library (2017-2019) and the Austrian Cultural Forum London (2015-2017). Her own books include Vehicle: a verse novel (Prototype, 2023), Dust Sucker (Makina Books, 2023) and I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype 2020). Alongside Kat Storace, she is co-founding publisher at Praspar Press, a small press for Maltese literature in English and English translation.
While Translator in Residence at the BCLT, Jen will be working on her translation of a book-length psychogeographical essay by German writer and translator Gregor Hens for Fitzcarraldo Editions (title TBC), her second collaboration with Hens and Fitzcarraldo. She will also be researching and presenting her current PhD project on literary translator memoirs – ‘The life-art of translation’ – which includes her own surreal and experimental memoir Fair. She hopes to be as available and accessible as possible to the MA Literary Translation cohort and fellow researchers while a resident, and plans to give workshops on how to edit translations and write creatively about one’s translation practice.