Today’s translator is no stranger to lovers of crime fiction, as Katharina Hall (henceforth Kat) has been reviewing international crime fiction at Mrs Peabody Investigates since January 2011. I interviewed her as Mrs Peabody in 2016, when she edited the volume Crime Fiction in German, a book that resulted in a wishlist so long I’m still working my way through it! Not content with that, Kat has now turned her hand to translating crime fiction. Her first full length literary translation is Ferdinand von Shirach’s Punishment, a collection of short stories about the law and the unintended outcomes of due process. As a taster here’s Kat reading from her translation.
Welcome back to the blog, Kat.
Following the publication of Crime Fiction in German, you made the decision to leave academia and go freelance. What was the attraction?
There were ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, as they say. I’d been a German lecturer for a long time and my languages department was getting increasingly squeezed. When the university announced a voluntary severance scheme in 2016, I knew it was my opportunity to leap. I was still ‘young’ enough to be enthused by the idea of building a second career, and I was ready for a big change.
What preparations did you make before taking the leap? Which would you say is the most important to anyone contemplating the same move?
To anyone thinking about a midlife career change, I’d say: dare to dream big, but be brutally honest. Do the maths: how far will my severance package / savings take me? How long can I afford to retrain and build up a client list? How will being a freelancer affect my pension? And if you can, figure out a strategy – in my case it was combining academic editing work with translation, rather than relying on translation alone. You also need to let go of any ‘status’ you might have had in your first career, because you’ll be building up your profile more or less from scratch. I’m not sure which of these is the most important – I think of them more as a package. There are also very useful podcasts like ‘Smart Habits for Translators’, which can give anyone thinking about becoming a freelance translator a good idea of what it involves.
Looking at the list of past and current projects on www.peabodyink.com, there’s been no shortage of work. Do you have Mrs Peabody to thank for that, or is that all down to the power of networking?
‘Mrs Peabody Investigates’ was a wonderful bridge between my academic and freelance lives. Chairing and organizing panels with New Books in German and the Goethe Institut London introduced me to Charlotte Ryland, who was kind enough to recommend me for some crucial first jobs. Katy Derbyshire was another guardian angel. She was my tutor at the BCLT Translation Summer School in 2017 (which was fantastic), and helped me to get on the literary translation ladder by sending a couple of sample translations my way. I now have a great set of anchor clients, and the rest is word-of-mouth.
Still it’s taken a good 6 years before your first full-length literary translation. And bestselling Ferdinand von Schirach no less! How did you get the gig? Any pressure following in Anthea Bell’s shoes?
That one actually started back in 2018, when Ferdinand von Schirach’s agent asked me – on Katy’s recommendation – to translate a sample story from Strafe / Punishment. I made it as good as I possibly could, then sent it off and forgot about it. Two years later I got an email from John Murray Press asking me to translate the book. It was like winning the translation lottery, because that kind of thing is really rare.
I love the fact that Anthea Bell translated earlier books by von Schirach, such as The Collini Case. I don’t actually feel any pressure – it’s just a very precious link. And her translations have been extremely helpful to me in all sorts of ways – not least seeing how she handled the legal aspects of the text.
Reading von Schirach (in your English words) is very enjoyable. His stories are complex but the style is simple and cool. You have preserved that. Was there not a temptation to heighten the prose somehow?
Thank you – I’m really glad you enjoyed the book. There may initially have been a temptation to heighten the prose, but that (deceptively) simple style is such a hallmark of von Schirach’s writing that I soon realised I had to preserve it. After working on the text for a while, I started to see how many layers of meaning were incorporated into each story – the simple turned out to be unexpectedly complex.
These “simple” stories deliver powerful punches. For example the final sentence of the first story, The Lay Judge. 5 words. “The court refused her application.” In context, these words are absolutely devastating. How does von Schirach do that?
You’re absolutely right – those words are devastating. Von Schirach uses that technique in a number of the stories: a last line that provides a twist, or draws out the tragedy or pathos of a situation. In this respect, he reminds me a bit of Roald Dahl (if you’ve never read Dahl’s short story Lamb to the Slaughter, then now’s the time).
Many of von Schirach’s stories come from his experiences as a criminal defence lawyer. Thus the cases vary and involve different specialisms. Which works of reference did you use?
My bible was Foster and Sule’s German Legal System and Laws (4th edition!), which is an excellent and detailed guide. It answered most of my queries about German courtroom procedure, criminal law, and so on. And then there was a bit of bespoke research depending on the story: the role of ‘lay judges’, the kit that ballistics experts use, the mechanics of a Browning HP pistol…
What about the differences in legal systems? Were the stories self-explanatory?
The stories are largely self-explanatory, but I needed to get ‘behind’ von Schirach’s words to be sure that I truly understood the legal details. Getting those right – but with a light touch – was vital in terms of delivering the stories’ punchlines or encouraging the reader to think about themes like justice in the way the author intended.
You’ve spoken elsewhere of the need for careful reading, to preserve specific word combinations which are repeated or echoed later in the narratives. Can you give an example of this? The trickier the better.
This is a difficult one to answer, because some of my examples would give the plot away! So I’ll stick to a relatively simple one… The story The Wrong Side plays with notions of the ‘right or wrong side’ – in a very practical, evidence-based sense, but also in terms of being on the right or wrong side of justice. At the beginning of the story, there’s a throwaway line about the main protagonist, a lawyer: ‘Er hatte immer geglaubt, er stehe auf der richtigen Seite’. I ended up translating this very literally as: ‘He had always believed he stood on the right side’, rather than ‘…on the side of justice’ or ‘…on the right side of justice’. That way the first page gives you ‘The Wrong Side’ (the title) and ‘the right side’ (in the text), and establishes that central oppositional motif straight away.
I believe there’s more von Schirach in the pipeline. Tell me more!
There’s one more von Schirach translation on its way from me: Coffee and Cigarettes (also with John Murray Press). It’s a wonderful collection of stories, essays and snippets on topics ranging from justice and the nature of happiness to Coen brothers films and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The book’s 48 chapters are thought-provoking, moving and wry, and I’ve enjoyed translating them hugely – especially the fun challenges like a haiku!
Sounds good. I’ll look forward to that. In the meantime, I recommend Punishment to those seeking thought-provoking crime fiction that will have you pondering the vagaries of the legal system and whether justice is an unattainable concept ….