An amazing thing happened earlier this year. I read three books from the pen of the same translator one after the other. Rachel Ward translates Simone Buchholz, and catching up on the Chastity Riley series accounted for two of the three. The third is published today, also by Orenda Books, with the deliciously summery title of Tasting Sunlight. And just look at the promise of those hot summery hues on the cover!
I’m delighted to say that the book lives up to that promise. It’s less noirish, though no less addictive, than other Orenda Books I’ve read, While there are dark secrets lurking beneath the surface, in essence this is the story of the road to recovery. The teenage runaway, Sally, is given shelter by a solitary woman farmer and unexpectedly finds delight, purpose and satisfaction in the manual labour involved in running a farm. This cuts both ways, because Liss, the farmer, who has cut herself off from the human race for many years, gradually finds herself reconnecting. Tasting Sunlight is beautifully written, with gorgeous passages describing landscape, educational passages on farming, and plenty of psychological insight. Plus a happy ending, a welcome taste of sunlight for our anxious times.
I won’t say anything more because the book has recently been the subject of an extensive blog tour, so there are plenty of reviews available if you want to know more. The tour poster appears at the end of this post. Today though, it is the translator’s turn to shine. So without further ado, let’s meet the translator and her colleagues, because this interview, amongst other things, highlights just how supportive literary translation circles can be.
Welcome to the blog, Rachel.
How did your career in literary translation begin?
I’ve always been a book worm and enjoyed languages and puzzles, playing with words in different forms. I did a Modern Languages degree at UEA without any clear career plan beyond wanting to use my languages in some way. In the final year, we had a module on translation, which I enjoyed a lot, and realised a) that I was quite good at it, and b) that it was what I wanted to do for a living. I hadn’t had much translation training though, so I applied for the MA in Literary Translation there too. I was extremely fortunate that the book I worked on for my dissertation, Die Verräterin by Gudrun Pausewang was picked up by Klaus Flugge as it resonated with his own family history, and published by Andersen Press as Traitor back in 2003. I had another YA novel translation published but then there was a long period of working mainly on non-literary translations and bringing up small children, until I started working with self-published authors and finally got a big break with Orenda Books and Blue Night by Simone Buchholz.
What do you enjoy most about your chosen career? Are there any downsides?
I love word play, as I mentioned, and enjoy the actual process of translation, most of the time (punctuated with bouts of despair, pulling of hair and staring out of the window, convinced that something will never come right). I love a brainwave moment of a solution clicking into place for a tricky problem, and the feeling when the author’s style gels with mine and the words flow smoothly. And possibly best of all is when a review comes in where the reader has responded to the translation the way I did to the original text, because that means the translation has succeeded in what I was trying to do.
The downsides include a lot of things that are familiar to any freelancer – work flow, time management, making sure there will be a next job – plus others that are more specific to publishing and translation. There can be a large amount of work on spec which never comes to anything, and frustrations around pitching books, funding, making the right contacts and so on. I enjoy the actual translating a lot more than the business side!
How did you land the gig with Orenda Books?
I had been in touch with Karen Sullivan while she was working for Arcadia Books and she sent me various proofs for review. When she set up her own company, she felt certain that she needed to publish some German Krimis and I pitched her a few options. At that time there was a particular focus on the fact that only a tiny percentage of books published in English in translation (already a tiny fraction of publishing output) were by women, and Katy Derbyshire wrote a piece for Lithub on 10 German Books by Women We’d Love to See in English, which featured Blaue Nacht… The rights department at Suhrkamp flagged this up to Orenda and they asked me for a reader’s report. I was blown away by the book, they loved the sound of it, and the rest is history.
Hotel Cartagena, the 4th in the Chastity Riley Series, was shortlisted for the 2022 CWA Crime Fiction in translation. That must make it a milestone translation for you. Are there others that you regard as milestones so far?
The shortlisting was super exciting and definitely a milestone! There are lots of little milestones – my first publication (Traitor), the first time of working with any particular publisher and so on. Zippel (by Alex Rühle, illus. Axel Scheffler, pub. Andersen Press) had some lovely reviews and was picked as a Times Children’s Book of the Year. I also recently got my first royalty payment…
On your website, Forward Translations, you state that you create readable translations with an appropriate style for the text. At this year’s Ayewrite! event, Buchholz said that she wanted to write in the style of Dorothy Parker or Raymond Chandler, but that this was not possible in German. Yet your translations achieve that. What transformations does Buchholz’s German prose go through to become Chandleresque?
I think Simone is too modest about her prose – it is already Chandleresque, and that was one of the first things I noticed about it when I did that reader report for Karen. I said that a modern, feminist, German Chandler might sound like this! Perhaps that model of the snarky, wise-cracking detective already being there helps provide a model for the sound, but it doesn’t require transformation (except of course for the glaringly obvious one of rewriting every word to make it stay as much like the original as possible!). I always aim to filter the author’s voice through my head so that it comes out in English but still sounding like them, and it seems to work in some way, but I really have no idea how that happens…
Buchholz’s latest, River Clyde alternates between St. Pauli in Hamburg and the East End of Glasgow, with a short interlude in the Southern Highlands. The two city areas are the gritty parts of town. Did your translation need localising to bring out the Glaswegian in Glasgow? If so, where did you decide to draw the line? (Note: I noticed you didn’t go full-blown Scots.)
Yes, there was a lot of work to make the Glaswegian convincing. The Goethe Institut in Glasgow has been hosting a regular Stammtisch event – a kind of round table workshop – and this moved online at the start of the pandemic, so that I was able to join in from Norfolk. This was some time before work on River Clyde began, but it meant that when it did, there was a group of people I could consult about the dialogue in particular, and two of them were kind enough to act as beta readers for the manuscript and localisation consultants at the same time. I wouldn’t be able to write in Scots, and didn’t want to risk getting it wrong. My aim was to suggest an accent instead and allow the reader to fill it in for themselves, while never using anything too glaringly from south-east England! I hope it worked – all due thanks to Isabel and Jackie, while all mistakes are mine.
Then there was Tasting Sunlight, as rural a novel as the Chastity Riley series is urban, bringing with it different challenges. How familiar were you with farming techniques and associated terminology before you started translating? If you needed to research, how did you do it?
Not at all familiar! Again, I needed help from other translators, particularly on hunting, butchery and distilling. I’m a member of the ITI’s German Network, where people have an enormously wide range of specialisms, and of various online help and discussion groups. I had a little wine knowledge from a previous book I’d worked on, but the rest of the farming stuff was new to me. There is always a lot of research in a novel translation, so in some ways this was no different – you have to catch up with what the author already knows, or has researched for their book. The internet is amazing – you can find out so much, so quickly, that would once have required goodness knows what painstaking work in libraries and archives. Here, particular thanks go to Kevin Lossner, who had experience in an amazing number of the fields that come up in the book.
What about the generational differences between the two protagonists, Sally and Liss? Is this reflected in their speech? How naturally fluent are you in the lingo of a disaffected teen?
There is a certain generational difference in their speech, but it’s not particularly marked. Mainly, Sally swears a lot more than Liss! I have a teenager and a pre-teen at home, though mine are boys and not as troubled as Sally, I hope… But I messaged a few of my friends to ask them about the current swearwords of choice of 17-year-old girls. One friend’s daughter apparently rolled her eyes and said “It’s always the F-word, mum”, while another informed me that they do use “arsehole” as an insult, but would be more inclined to spell it “asshole”. Oh the joys!
So there I am, immersed in the rural delights of Southern Germany and a tricky relationship between the two woman, and suddenly, Thomas The Tank Engine makes a guest appearance. Now just how did he chug his way into these pages?
This scene was obviously very important as it’s a moment of tentative rapprochement after a big bust-up, but the book referenced in the original is not one that would be familiar to an English-speaking reader. We decided to go with Thomas the Tank Engine as he is pretty international these days. I remember my children watching Thomas et ses amis while we were on holiday in France, and Ewald assured me that he’s known in Germany too.
Last but not least, the change of title. What were the considerations that led to Alte Sorten (Old Kinds) becoming Tasting Sunlight?
In this context, the German title Alte Sorten means “heritage/heirloom varieties”, as in fruit and vegetables. In German it sounds intriguing, but was rather flat as a title in English. It refers to the trees in Liss’s pear orchard, and when Sally tries one for the first time, she thinks that “maybe sunlight would taste like that after a long summer, if it fell through the distant blue of the sky and then the ancient green of tall trees, and landed right on your tongue.” Karen felt that Tasting Sunlight was a punchier, less twee way of encapsulating that experience, and kind of what the book is about as a whole.
I agree. It’s a great title for a wonderful book. Thanks to you and Orenda Books for bringing it to the anglophone world. For readers wishing to know more, here’s the official blog tour itinerary. I hope no-one minds me gate-crashing!