In 2022, Frankfurter Buchmesse highlighted the topic of translation with the campaign “Translate. Transfer. Transform.” and the event stage at the International Center for Translation was exceptionally well attended, by newcomers and the general public. What is so fascinating about the art of translation?
Isabelle Liber: What fascinates me personally is the movement between languages, cultures, and not least between people. Dealing with this challenges not only the translators’ creativity, but also their ability to give the translated text its order in the target language, i.e. to maintain its coherence. This tension between freedom and “constriction” is a fascinating playing field. What makes me particularly happy here professionally is the possibility of always discovering something new, of always experimenting anew with writing.
Claudia Hamm: Translating is first and foremost an engagement with the other. What is required is openness, empathy, knowledge of the world and a very complex and very sensual way of reading – and writing. I am constantly dealing with a complex “film” and “soundtrack” that is still mute in my language. I get to help both take on new form and vividness. It is very fulfilling to explore every day the means by which this is possible in one’s own language. Moreover, translating confronts me with things that lie beyond my own horizon, I learn an enormous amount in the process. And I experience the contact with another language as a great freedom and pleasure. Translators hear, lend and convey voices that would otherwise not be heard in our language community; there is responsibility, politics and ethics in that. It makes one’s own world bigger.
Has this always been the case or is there perhaps a new tendency/quality to be recognised?
Claudia Hamm: There are historical tendencies within the expectations placed on translations. In the Baroque period, for example, a translation would never have been understood as a kind of copy, because there was no such emphatic concept of the author as there is today, except in the field of Bible translation. This changed at the latest with the aesthetics of genius. After that, there was much discussion about whether a translation should move readers more towards the source or the target language. Interesting are considerations according to which only the translation makes a text an original. Or those according to which translation opens the space to the one, common language before the “Babylonian Confusion of Languages”. And no matter when they were written, there are translations that find a readership for a very long time because of their linguistic beauty or suggestion. So, the self-image of translators as co-authors of a text has changed. Or as José Saramago said: world literature is made by translators.
The cliché conjures up the image of the lonely translator in a quiet chamber – but you are, on the contrary, a person who strongly networks in many directions. How important is it to network in this profession as well and where does this networking take place at all?
Isabelle Liber: Networking among colleagues definitely plays an important role: jobs are sometimes passed on, recommendations are made or cooperation is offered. Networking is diverse, from book fairs to professional associations to regulars’ tables, and sometimes unexpected. Therefore, it is important to remain open and have confidence in one’s own actions.
Claudia Hamm: There are numerous levels at which networking takes place. On the one hand, there is research. Often we translate things that we have dealt with less or differently than the authors of the source language. For example, if I have to deal with certain subject areas or jargons, I contact experts in the field – which, by the way, is rarely rewarded. Then there is networking among colleagues: The Translators’guild has created continuing education programmes, the professional association promotes regular exchange on poetological and professional-political issues, and there are informal translators’ meetings with text work… As a theatre maker and author, I am also interested in exchange beyond my own artistic medium: liveliness, for example, is a criterion that concerns visual artists and musicians just as much as it does writers; networks and sometimes projects arise here through common questions. I am also interested in how one can talk about such an intuitive process as translating and writing. When I give lectures, write essays about it or work in seminars with young colleagues, I get to the bottom of it – but for that I have to network again, and new contacts arise. And last but not least, there are the relationships with authors, publishing houses and people in the countries from whose languages one translates and whose works one tries to place in German publishing houses.
The conditions for professional literary translators are often described as precarious, in the sense of “poor pay”, “little recognition”… What concrete measures do you propose to change this in the long term?
Isabelle Liber: I think better inclusion in the profit from book sales is a long overdue measure. In Québec, for example, translators receive a share of the profits from the first copy sold. The recognition of translators has improved in recent years, but still: their name is not always highlighted when the book is mentioned, often only the author is invited to a reading, and so on. There is still a need for better visibility of the profession.
Claudia Hamm: That is also the first demand I would like to make: translators’ names on the cover. In this day and age, it is neither morally justifiable to exploit the work of translators but deny them visibility, nor is it fair to readers and authors. Translations can make an author’s work accessible to a wider readership with the highest literary quality, but they can also destroy it. Knowing that readers are reading a foreign language text in the voice of a second author is, in my opinion, their right. If the name of translators is built up accordingly, they are sometimes better known in their countries than new authors and can vouch for a certain literary quality; here, publishers deprive themselves of a marketing tool.
Measure 2: Rules have to be changed so that the translators’ federation can actively sue on behalf of its members, in order to get away from the exploitative but unfortunately customary conditions in the industry. Currently, postal workers who earn between €2,100 and €3,000 gross are on strike for 15% more pay because of inflation and loss of purchasing power. Literary translators earn about 1,500 € gross and as freelancers have to insure themselves and make provisions for old age and illness. That is simply impossible. We need an overall increase in fees and shareholdings and a nationwide collective agreement, as well as a library bonus that is about ten times as high – German libraries are almost in last place in a European comparison.
Measure 3, and this is complex: translation is a form of writing in itself, I would even say a literary genre in its own right. We need a corresponding theory, literary history and also literary criticism. We are still struggling to ensure that translators are mentioned in all reviews, but what is needed is the competence to be able to recognise and describe the work of translators in the work of authors. When I read in a review about the narrative pull or the tender, lyrical tone of a translated author, I personally first look to see who translated the book. After all, that is exactly what the next colleague may say in a completely different way. It is the responsibility of critics to appreciate, criticise or sweep under the table the months, sometimes years, of linguistic work done by translators.
To what extent do literary translators themselves have an influence on what will appear on the market?
Isabelle Liber: Fortunately, it happens time and again that books find their way to other countries on the initiative of translators, and that is a great advantage for diversity in the literary landscape. However, one should not forget the effort that translators have to put in. If one considers, for example, the French financial model for artists in the performing arts, which provides for state co-funding to compensate for periods without employment, something similar could be considered for translators so that they can devote themselves to this crucial activity of mediation.
Claudia Hamm: Literary translators often work in close contact with publishers. Especially with smaller publishing houses that don’t have their own literary scouts, they are often important mediators who bring proposals to the house in the first place, but this also applies to large houses. I recall the memorable case of Return to Reims (Returning to Reims) by Didier Eribon, a proposal by a graduate of the Goldschmidt Programme, Tobias Haberkorn. In the case of so-called small languages, which are not spoken in the lectorates, this role intensifies many times over. But practice shows that there is still much to be discovered in French literature that has not yet been on the desks of the editorial offices, plus new translations of older literature or sometimes even overlooked treasures. What appears is often due to the persuasion and then, of course, the translation work of these experts in the respective literature and culture. However, I see the problem that fewer and fewer young people want to or are able to take up this profession because of the poor conditions. In the Goldschmidt programme, we now have difficulties finding enough participants on the French side. If one can only pursue this profession with a certain financial cushion, then this also has consequences for the socio-cultural composition of our guild and possibly for the language worlds of translations. And perhaps even on international relations: If less is translated, we have fewer ideas about the lifeworlds of other countries.
One more question about the German-French tandem: Big names like Annie Ernaux, Michel Houellebecq or Leila Slimani are very well-known in Germany, often beyond literary discourse. How is German-language literature actually doing in France?
Isabelle Liber: Unfortunately, rather poorly. That is a big problem. Whereas in the past, larger publishing houses usually had someone in-house who knew German, that time is over, as you can see from the poor numbers of German classes in France. I have the impression that at the moment it’s rather the smaller publishing houses that are open to projects from German. That’s not a bad thing, of course, but it makes the contacts less visible than they used to be and there isn’t such a large volume of orders. That makes it all the more important that we translators from German become active – and can become active. A good example of meaningful support in this sense is, for example, the initiative grant from the German Translator Fund (Deutscher Übersetzerfonds), which allows us to invest time in a project that we then submit to publishers.
Claudia Hamm: There is also less and less interest in German-language books in French publishing houses for reasons of content. Clichés prevail that are also strongly influenced by the political discourses of the post-war period. France cultivates an image of Germany in which the Nazi era plays a major role, but the former existence of the GDR, for example, plays hardly any role at all. Conversely, there is little talk in Germany about France as a military and colonial power, so we are surprised at the election results and social tensions there… In short, we urgently need to fight to ensure that cultural relations between France and Germany do not fall asleep.