During this residency, I have been translating a new hybrid non-fiction book by the German author and translator Gregor Hens. I translated Hens’ essay-memoir Nicotine for Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2015, my second ever book translation and first for adults, which explored how his long-term addiction to smoking was intertwined with his memories, his sense of self, and his thinking and creativity. Hens, primarily a novelist and translator of English-language authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Will Self and Leonard Cohen, has now written and recently published Die Stadt und der Erdkreis (the title is a German rendering of the papal address ‘urbi et orbi’ – ‘to the city [of Rome] and to the world’ – a title that’s proving tricky to translate or replace, meaning the translation is currently title-less, something to explore once the translation is near completion) and I was very glad to be asked to translate this follow-up for Fitzcarraldo and work with Gregor again.
In this psychogeographical hybrid work, Hens is looking at the city: from below, from on high, in the context of the universe, from the perspective of a sewer-system; the uniqueness of his home-city Berlin, model cities, cities as art, and cities becoming doppelgangers of one another through globalisation; the city as a panopticon and creator of city limits and outskirts, the city as a library and as a home.
Incidentally, or perhaps not incidentally at all in the context of this post, this is the first time in almost twenty book translation commissions that I have had a recommission from a publisher. There are a lot of factors involved, and I will take a calculated risk here by claiming that they were very happy with my translations(!). It might have been that they didn’t connect with the other work by the author I’d translated previously, or don’t have space on their list. Some of the publishers don’t commission a lot of translations of German-language literature or foreign-language literature at all. Those publishers that do frequently commission translations including German-language works might wish to use specific translators for specific books as each book has different requirements, or they might only publish works by a select few German-language authors who already have an ongoing working relationship with specific translators.
What does it mean if recommissioning hasn’t been something I can rely on when translation is 50-75% of my income (writing and teaching workshops and courses being the other 25-50%)? Well, it means that I am consistently seeking out and lining up new translations and translation adjacent projects: reading new German-language books that are coming out, offering to do reader reports, both as additional income and to see what publishers are interested in (as well as the chance of being commissioned to translate the book if my report is positive and they are looking for a translator), mentoring, reviewing, pitching the odd project that I feel very, very passionately about if I feel I can do some unpaid work for the prospect of paid work, and also doing sample translations from other works.
What can be especially tricky is often I have to do these while actually working on a book translation! That’s right: say I’ve once more had the miracle of being commissioned to translate a book (I never take this for granted), all I want to do is be with this book and work on my translation, and yet I need to consistently interrupt it to hunt down and do other work to fund the gap between receiving the first half of my fee (given on signing the contract) and the second half (on delivery of the translation), or for future dry spells, or savings (ha!). Sometimes translations can be like buses. Having more than one book translation on the go is, I can tell you, bittersweet.
These interruptions aren’t always unwelcome, while translating a book over a period of typically 3 to 12 months. While working on my translation of Hens during this residency, I have translated two short samples from new books. As Hens’ book is written in meticulous, hypnotising sentences and overflows with critical references and citations, it needs a deep focus that can be difficult to sustain. Getting to translate sections from a funny coming-of-age memoir that is also a story of transitioning and becoming an actor by German author Henri Maximilian Jakobs and a new dark, surreal and poetic novel by Swiss writer Michelle Steinbeck has helped me to pause my main project without stopping translating and potentially mistaking fatigue for a lack of capability. It can really renew my confidence as a translator. It’s also fun to try different styles and voices and have translation ‘playtime’ that is also productive and paid. To be fair, even admin can be a welcome break from isolation, some days I even look forward to emailing other human beings out there in the world beyond my desk.
When you’re translating a book, you’re sometimes not translating that book, and this reality can be both a financially necessary distraction and a mentally beneficial diversion. The residency stipend has been a wonderful support during the last few months and has relieved the pressures of finding and accepting other work, so I can translate a book that calls for every bit of my nerve and attention as a translator with extra special focus.
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.