Career Translation: An Interview With Literary Translator Katy Derbyshire

Career Translation: An Interview With Literary Translator Katy Derbyshire

What is it really like to work as a translator? Young Germany talks with literary translator Katy Derbyshire about the differences between literary and commercial translation, translation software, working in Germany, and living in Berlin.
by Nicolette Stewart

Katy Derbyshire was born in London and after spending six months as an au pair in Berlin, got a degree in German Studies at Birmingham University.  Those six months in Berlin convinced her to move back after graduation, when she got her Diploma of Translation from London University.  She has been living in Berlin ever since.

The exam, she says, was challenging, but worth the effort to get a head start on translation jobs.  “It’s a quite difficult exam,” Katy told me as we sat nestled in the relative quiet of her publisher’s stand at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair.  “I didn’t pass until the second time.  But its worth it. It’s not just a piece of paper. People know that it’s a good qualification.”

Since moving to Berlin in 1996, Katy has not only worked as a translator—she has also worked as an English teacher, a courier, and at a call center doing marketing research.  But none of these jobs were what she wanted to do with her life. “That was why translation offered itself,” she explained. “I have a degree in German studies, and that seemed to be my only skill. I could speak German and English, and I could write. It seemed like a good combination, so I took the exam and got work through translation agencies. It was a good way to start and get my foot in the door.”

Though Katy had spent plenty of time studying German, using German day-to-day was still a challenge at first.  “I came to Germany straight after school in ’92 as an au pair, so I was living with a family in Berlin. The mother did speak English, but nobody else did. They had a chauffer and two cleaning ladies, and the chauffeur and one of the cleaning ladies had very, very thick Berlin accents.  One was from the West and one was from the East—in ’92 you could still hear the difference quite clearly—and  that was a kind of baptism by fire because I didn’t understand anything they said.  I’d had six years of German at school, but that doesn’t prepare you for completely different words or accents and having to deal with that. That was probably the biggest leap that I made.”

But German classes and practice soon had brought her German skills up to a native proficiency. “I was going to classes every afternoon and doing serious grammar for three hours a day. I know my comma rules better than a lot of Germans.”

Having now translated over a dozen books—including Axolotl Roadkill by Helene Hegemann, The Shadowboxing Girl and What Darkness Was by Inka Parei, and Plan D by Simon Urban—Katy has since firmly established herself in the world of literary translation.  Though the pay for commercial translation is higher, Katy prefers the challenge of translating literature.  Her love of German literature and her passion for the translation profession is evident in the writing she does on her blog love german books where she writes “biased and unprofessional reports on German books, translation issues and life in Berlin.” 

Literary translation and commercial translation have a few major differences.  Where commercial translation, for example of a technical guide or a medical book, needs to be exact and consistent, translating literature involves more freedom, and more choices—though many of these are difficult.

A translator’s work day resembles that of any writer, but it also includes constant negotiation with the source text. Translators must make decisions about style, word choice, and the inclusion (or impossibility of inclusion) of literary devices like alliteration, rhythm, humor, and tone.  When multiple elements are at play, one will often have to be sacrificed in order to keep the other because of target language constraints.  While many writers prefer a translation that follows the original work exactly, many translators prefer a “free” translation so as to create a text that resonates well in the target language—even if that means deviating from the source text.  I asked Katy how she made those tough decisions.

“My theory there is that it all evens out. If you can’t get alliteration and a joke in one word, you can get the joke and the alliteration in another word, and it doesn’t even have to be on the same page.  At some point I ask questions like: ‘have we got enough jokes, have we got enough rhythm, have we got enough swearing?’ All those things have to balance out, but not in the exact same places. The Germans call it the Rosinentheorie. If you have a recipe for a cake with raisins in it, you have the measurements for the amounts of flour and sugar and butter and the amount of raisins. Every time you bake it you put the same amount of raisins in the cake, but in every single cake the raisins would be in a different place. So. Bear in mind when you’re translating: those raisins, they’re in there.”

The editorial process for literary translation is also different than that of a commercial translator.  For one, it includes contact with writers and publishers.  Though the manuscript does not typically return to the writer—during the editorial process for a translation, the translator takes on the role of the manuscript’s writer—the translator will often contact the writer with questions.

It takes Katy three to four months to translate a 300-page book, though, she said, “I’m very fast.”  Once Katy finishes a first draft of a translation, she rarely returns to the original text. “It has to work independently of the original. It will get a bit freer with every edit—and that will usually be three or four edits—before it then goes to an external editor or someone else who won’t know the German and won’t be able to compare.” After the first draft is finished and submitted, the publisher's editorial process begins, during which Katy goes back and forth with an external editor about changes to the manuscript.

While translation software is a must for most commercial translators—particularly those working in a technical field like medicine or engineering—it is not always useful for literary translators because of how it works. “It remembers how you translated something last time, and it suggests you do it the same way in little chains of words. You can also build up glossaries that will go from one project to the next. Of course it’s important, if its aeronautics, that the same part of the engine is called the same thing every single time in the translation. It speeds things up a lot.”  But Katy does not use translation software on principle. “Every single time I come across a word, I want to ideally think anew about how to translate that,” she explained.

Katy began her translation career in 2002 as a freelancer for translation agencies. As a British citizen, she didn’t have to deal with the hassle of visa applications or work permits.

“There weren’t any huge hurdles to freelancing,” she admitted. “It was more a question of getting the work, and at the time that worked because of my certification. That made it easier for me to get work through agencies, but I think it’s possible without a formal translation course as well. The next step was to go independent. That was the hardest step—harder than starting out—finding clients of my own and finding work that interested me. It’s been very, very gradual, and in fact led to me doing more literature and less of the commercial translation.”

For those interested in working in commercial translation, specialization will be a boon.  “If people have any kind of specialization from previous work or academic background then that will make it easier to find translation work,” Katy said. “One friend of mine does a lot of legal translation because she used to be a lawyer. People who’ve worked in architecture can get work translating for architects. Engineering and that kind of technical stuff is very, very useful.”

Katy got started in literary translation by translating short stories and submitting them to literary magazines.  Having published translation work on her resume helped her to get further jobs, for example translating sample texts for publishers.

Above all, translators need to be good at writing in their native language and at keeping deadlines.  And start collecting dictionaries—translators often need to become experts in obscure and highly specific vocabulary.  Katy has had to learn the vocabulary of sailor’s knots, regional hunting traditions, and air conditioning repair for books she has translated.

“I have a lot of obscure paper dictionaries.  I have a dictionary of the German police officers trade union. I have a dictionary of clichés. I use a rhyming dictionary quite a lot. I have old glossaries from the official East German language agency. I have photocopied pages from glossaries for things like the Free Trade Union Movement and the Marxist-Leninist Studies Department. All those things don’t exist any more, and how else would you find out what they were actually called at the time?  Those kind of obscure things come in handy.”

Berlin, ever a hub for Germany’s creative minds, has a small but dedicated translation scene with about a dozen translators who put on events and support each other professionally.  There Katy has, in addition to more traditional readings and book-ish events, started organizing a regular event called Translation Idol during which translators from around the world look at the same text and attempt to win over the audience and a jury with their translation.  If you want to find out why Katy loves living in Berlin Mitte, check out her mini interview on the Young Germany Blog.

Having recently had a discussion on the Young Germany blog about reading in German, I asked Katy if she remembered the first German book she ever attempted to read.

“I think it was Heinrich Böll, Ansichten eines Clowns,” she replied. “I know I didn’t finish it, but I remember thinking I could. I was probably about 17, and I don’t think I could actually do it. You know when you’re not concentrating on reading and you don’t really take it in?  That’s exactly how it felt. But I seem to have persevered. It seems to have worked out.”

Katy Derbyshire is a literary translator based in Berlin, and you can visit her at her blog love german books. She is also part of the editorial team of no man’s land, “the world’s only online magazine for contemporary German literature in English translation” and a reader for New Books in German.

Programs and links for aspiring translators

Heironymous Program, Robert Bosch Stiftung

GuteKunst Prize, Goethe Institute

Emerging Translators Program, New Books in German

Harvill Secker Young Translator's Prize, Goethe Institute

Emerging Translators Network

British Center for Translation Summer Workshops

Further reading

Finding a Job as a Translator in Germany

Getting Started as a Translator: Preparation and Training

by Nicolette Stewart