Translating foreign works is a tricky business, and not just because the magic of a foreign author’s work must be lovingly preserved. In part two of our interview with Anthea Bell, we learn more about how she works, the challenges she faces when language itself becomes a barrier, and which recently translated books she feels have the potential to become best sellers as they enter our markets.
Part 2: Interview with Anthea Bell
Q: How do you receive the text? What is your process?
A: When I have the whole text in its final version – and it is going to be a big, long book again, a really satisfying read – I’ll set aside time in my schedule to get straight down to it. I know I can ask Cornelia any questions as they arise, and in fact we’ve already been discussing names in English for some of the characters. Most have already appeared in Inkheart and Inkspell, but there are a few new ones. Then she and her agents and the publishers will all see it, and the publishers’ editors will comment too.
Q: Does much change after the agent, editor and publisher comments? Can you give us an example of what may pose a “sticking point” for them?
A: I don’t think I have a good answer to that. No, probably not much does change. Cornelia is such a careful worker. In books with complex plots like her trilogy, it is important to her for her time scheme to connect up, since the chapters often move from one set of characters in one place to another set somewhere else.
Q: Are there any special considerations when translating German to English? Have you had any unique challenges with any of Cornelia Funke’s books in particular?
A: German to English. Sometimes German does presents difficulties in translation, but not really significant ones in Cornelia’s work. (I think, however, of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. Sebald deliberately writes an intricate German sometimes described as almost nineteenth-century, and breaking up his long sentences would not have been right; one of them goes on for no less than nine pages, and is meant to, because it describes the totally pointless hurry and bustle of the Nazis working away to make Theresienstadt look like a happy holiday camp for Jews, for the benefit of a visiting Red Cross commission. The long sentence is part of the effect.) But Cornelia writes a clear, straightforward style, with lovely descriptive passages for the settings of the story and excellent dialogue. In Inkspell I did come upon one perennial difficulty: German has two words where we have only one for “prince” in English. Fürst is the word for the ruler of a principality. Prinz is the courtesy title of a close male relative of such a ruler. The ruler of Lombrica in Inkspell is a Fürst, a ruling head of state. The Black Prince is a Prinz – his is a name given him or adopted by him as a nickname, but if he were a real prince it would be a courtesy title only. In fact Cornelia took the name of this character from the fourteenth-century Black Prince of British history. But that word Fürst is the bane of my life! I had it in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s last novel, published in English by Penguin Classics as The Life and Opinions of the Tom-Cat Murr, which is full of princes and princesses of both kinds. And I have just had it again in a very entertaining adult historical novel by Robert Löhr, to be called The Chess Machine in English and coming out both sides of the Atlantic next spring, about the famous Mechanical Turk chess-playing automaton invented by the Austro-Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen. (It ended its days in the States, where Edgar Allan Poe saw it and worked out how it operated; Kempelen pretended to have invented a genuine thinking machine, a forerunner of the chess-playing computer, but in fact there was someone hidden inside making the chess moves.) Conversely, German has one word, Stadt, where we have to choose between “town” and “city” in English, and one word, Wald, where we have “wood” and “forest. In Inkspell the original German for the Wayless Wood is der Weglose Wald, and if you found that phrase in a sober work of non-fiction you might well translate as “the pathless [or impassable] forest”. But that didn’t sound quite magic and mysterious enough, and I wanted to keep the alliteration, hence Wayless Wood. There were in fact some particular challenges in Inkspell in the names – that ruler of Lombrica in German was ‘the Speckfürst’, literally, “the Bacon Prince” or “Blubber Prince”, because he was such a tub of lard. Neither sounded right in English. After a lot of thought, and consultation with Cornelia and her English-language editors, he became first “the Laughing Prince”, as a kind of Bluff King Hal figure, and then, as he fell into depression on his son Cosmo’s death, “the Prince of Sighs”.
Q: What an interesting process! Did she have a name change for the prince in the German version of the story also, once Cosimo dies?
A: Yes, he is later called der Fürst der Seufzer in the German, meaning the Prince of Sighs. The name doesn’t occur a lot, but it tells us a good deal about his devastation at the death of his son.
A: I translate mainly from German and French. I’ve done a few Danish stories for young people, but I don’t really consider Danish one of my languages; I have mastered it on the printed page but can’t speak any. I ought to try learning the pronunciation along with my twin granddaughters, who are half-Danish, and we hope they will grow up bilingual – I listen hard when my daughter-in-law says something to them in her mother tongue. Like almost all Scandinavians, she also speaks English better than most native-born English people! I’ve translated a great many books over the years, from the Asterix the Gaul saga (not unknown in the States but not, I think, as hugely popular as in Europe) to Freud, a volume in the New Penguin Freud series recently.
Q: I see you’ve translated some of the Brothers Grimm texts! That must have been interesting, as I’ve been read some of the original texts are quite shocking. Do you ever feel tempted to act as editor as well as translator? What was the Grimm experience like for you?
A: Yes, I have translated a number as separate stories, and several in a volume to be called Magic Fairytales in English, selected and illustrated by Henriette Sauvant (German, in spite of her French name), mainly Grimm, two Perrault – I went to the original French for those, of course. Sauvant has illustrated in her unique, slightly surreal style. Egmont are publishing it in the UK this fall, and I’ve added a few notes about the origin of each tale. The point about the grimness of the Grimms is that these were never children’s stories in the first place, but traditional tales that the brothers collected and wrote down, although they did a little editing in the process. I am particularly fond of allegedly the most horrific, “The Juniper Tree”, a version of the House of Atreus theme: the boy cooked in a stew by his wicked stepmother, unknowingly eaten by his father, revived from his bare bones by magic and the love of his little stepsister who gathers them up. (I did a translation of this one a little while ago, although in the end the project asking me for it and half a dozen other tales fell through, and I think I have cracked the way to translate the difficult verse that recurs at the end. It’s in Low German in the original, and was given to the Grimms for their collection by their friend the painter Philipp Otto Runge.) And I always remember how my younger son, then aged seven, told his family on the drive home from visiting his grandparents all about the wonderful, fascinating story he had read in a book on their shelves the night before … as I listened to his account of the plot, I quickly realized that the wonderful, fascinating story was none other than the notorious “Juniper Tree”.
Q: Are there any books you’ve read in a different language and thought, “Oh, this would make a great book translated into English!” or “This book SHOULD be translated into English!” What book(s)? And have you ever petitioned to do this work and had your request successfully met?
A: Yes, I do sometimes see a book which I love so much that I tell a publisher about it – but more often, publishers send me books to read so that I can give them an opinion. Watch out for the runaway German bestseller Die Vermessung der Welt, by Daniel Kehlmann, which is coming from Pantheon in the US in a translation by Carol Brown Janeway later this year, as Measuring the World (and later from Quercus in the UK). I am pleased to say I saw what a splendid book it was before publication in Germany, when I read it in MS. The British publisher who sent it to me and to whom I recommended it didn’t take it, feeling that a novel about the explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician Carl Gauss might be difficult to sell, but I have gleefully watched its progress up the bestseller lists in the German-speaking countries.
Q: Can you tell us more about it? What about this book excites you?
A: Measuring the World, by Daniel Kehlmann, is a historical novel about the very different parallel careers of the explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician Carl Gauss: both lived and worked in the late 1700s to early 1800s. The author writes fascinatingly about their work, and the book is also extremely amusing. It’s just not true, as so many people think, that the Germans have no sense of humour. While this is a serious novel, I laughed a great deal as I read it.
Q: Being so intimately familiar with great works of fiction, what are your impressions about what it takes to write such masterpieces? What are you most struck by?
A: That is a very difficult question to answer! But I am sure that while the spark of originality in thinking up ideas is necessary to produce great works of fiction, so is a great deal of hard work. And incidentally, I have found that among living authors the best writers are the easiest for a translator to work with, and are happy to answer questions (of course one can’t, alas, ask the dead. I had so many questions I wanted to ask E.T.A. Hoffmann about his Tom-Cat Murr.)
A: I think the attraction of being a translator is the sheer variety of the job. And working with books the whole time. In Willis Barnstone’s book The Poetics of Translation (Yale University Press, 1993) he says: “Reading is translation and translation is reading … Translation tends to be a certain kind of reading, an ‘intensive reading’ of the original text, which as a result becomes an ‘interpretative reading’.” Exactly: getting to know good books intensively is what I really enjoy.
Q: Have you ever thought about writing a book of your own, and if so, what would you write?
A: Far too busy to think of writing a book of my own, I’m afraid! I have a few short stories put away in a drawer, and I guess that’s where they’ll stay.
Thank you, Anthea Bell for a fabulous, enlightening interview!