Translating Popular Culture

The much-anticipated debut novel by literary Wunderkind
Helene Hegemann is out in English this summer. NBG reviewed the novel when it came out in German in 2010, and it was snapped up by Constable & Robinson.
We now hear from Hegemann’s translator, Katy Derbyshire, on the experience of translating the novel, and from her British editor Andreas Campomar.
On Translating Axolotl Roadkill
Under normal circumstances, it takes a little while to explain to people what I do. I’m a translator, yes, of books among other things, but no, I didn’t translate Harry Potter. No, you probably haven’t heard of any of the writers I’ve translated; I’m really only getting started out you see.
Things have got simpler now. I am Helene Hegemann’s translator.
People have heard of Hegemann. No more long explanations – Helene Hegemann’s been on the Harald Schmidt show. That’s like sitting next to David Letterman, only Schmidt thinks he’s cleverer.
And yes, we’ve even met. She drank vodka and chain-smoked, I drank cider and didn’t. In Franken on Oranienstraße – that’s like CBGBs, only still open. We gossiped about mutual acquaintances, publishing people and Clemens Meyer – he’s like Hemingway only not so good with the ladies. Yes, she’s lovely – tiny and fragile and angry and funny, and made me want to take her under my wing and fight all her battles for her.
But let me start from the beginning. I read the manuscript of Axolotl Roadkill for NBG under the Christmas tree with my family at the end of 2009. And was bowled over. What an astounding book, what an extraordinary narrator, what an iconoclastic piece of writing. Berlin as it is right now, with a vulnerable teenager bouncing like a pinball between drugs and abusive relationships, clubs and parties and bored conversations. And written with absolutely no respect for convention – in more than one way, as it turned out.
Little did I know, other reviewers felt the same way. Der Spiegel ran an interview with Helene by techno aficionado Tobias Rapp before the release date for reviews, breaking the dam for a tidal wave of enthusiasm. Critics stumbled over each other to praise this sixteen-year-old writer’s debut, eulogising its authenticity. And that drug consumption scene in the toilet of techno club Berghain – that’s real life, they told us.
Well, maybe it is. But the inevitable backlash came when someone discovered it wasn’t Hegemann’s real life – something she’d never claimed, incidentally – but the experiences of a man who calls himself Airen, a former techno freak who had charted his hedonistic adventures in Berghain and elsewhere on his blog. From which Hegemann had adapted some of her scenarios and phrases. And then all hell broke loose.
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked when I reveal my new calling as Helene Hegemann’s translator is, What do you say about the plagiarism? What I say is this:
When I received the version of the manuscript to be translated, it included a three-page list of quotes and sources. That means that in total, about three or four of the novel’s 200 pages are taken from other sources, mainly books by Airen, Kathy Acker and David Foster Wallace. I think that’s a perfectly acceptable proportion, one that many other writers probably match up to. What went wrong was that Hegemann initially neglected to reveal those sources.
In her defence – and I’ve already admitted I’m willing to fight all her battles for her – Hegemann’s book itself sets out her aesthetic manifesto. Openly acknowledging a debt to Kathy Acker’s ideas, the novel samples song titles as chapter headings, the characters are constantly referring to films, plays, T-shirt slogans and other cultural phenomena, and just look at this passage:
‘I steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels my imagination, Mifti. Films, music, books, paintings, cold-cuts, poetry, photos, conversations, dreams . . .’
‘Street signs, clouds . . .’
‘Light and shadows, that’s right, because my work and my theft are authentic as long as something speaks directly to my soul. It’s not where I take things from – it’s where I take them to.’
That was Jim Jarmusch. She just forgot to tell us so. And we were foolish enough not to notice, for a while.
The list of sources made the translation process easier. Which was a good thing, because Axolotl Roadkill was a very challenging book to translate. My usual fears were amplified by being almost twenty years older than the writer – could I capture that ‘now’ feeling in the language? I spent a lot of time eavesdropping on conversations in London and Berlin, reading blogs, and noting down words and phrases. Ultimately, though, it was more important to me to capture Helene’s voice. She doesn’t actually write like a teenager as such, she writes like Helene Hegemann. I hope that comes across in the finished translation.
And then there was the emotional burden. The narrator Mifti is a really messed-up kid. If you thought Charlotte Roche’s heroine Helen was messed up by her mum and dad – they may not mean to, but they do – think again. And then imagine spending months inside a messed-up kid’s brain, channelling her words and retelling the experiences that got her that way. It wasn’t pleasant. At times I felt like I was Mifti, hacking my way through my own life with a machete, sometimes writing emails in her voice rather than mine.
But there were compensations. The novel shines with humour, too, not just misery. I remember laughing out loud as I translated one sex scene, in which
‘His dribbling tongue licks my rib cage in such an uncivilised manner that his saliva gland secretions seem to drip off my skin by the litre on to the beige leather seats.’
And much of that humour comes in bitchy pop-cultural references. A sister like a cross between Beate Uhse, Alice Schwarzer and Mother Teresa. A taxi-driver with a tattoo of Rudi Carell. What the hell do you do with these people? No one’s going to have heard of them, and then they’ll miss the whole joke. My German translator friends were up in arms when I blogged about substituting other names that English readers would recognise. I should explain the references, they said, or add a glossary. But Helene wasn’t bothered. I found other references I thought were good comparisons, just like I’ve tried to do in the opening section of this piece. Then we went through my changes together and she approved them – the joke’s what counts for her. The principle of equivalent effect extends to the reader’s emotional response to her text. Kinda.
And now I’m waiting for the storm to break in Britain. Wondering how people will react to a novel I feel I put a hell of a lot of myself into. Hoping readers will get the book beyond the hype, beyond Berghain and heroin and, yes, even beyond Helene herself. What was translating Axolotl Roadkill like? It was like dancing all night – the elation, the exhaustion, the times I felt I was coasting on autopilot before reality kicked back in – only without the sweat.
© private
Katy Derbyshire

On publishing Axolotl Roadkill
There is no doubt that Hegemann is a prodigy, whose stunning debut, Axolotl Roadkill, is a work of literary fiction. It is unlike anything I have read in German, which makes it hard to classify within the German canon. Yet that is what makes the novel stand out: whilst having been written in German, the novel is un-Germanic in its tenor. The closest comparison would be Skins meets The Catcher in the Rye, but set in Noughties Berlin. Hegemann manages to convey the tragedy of an abused child with an adult sensibility, together with a freshness of prose.
Andreas Campomar,
Constable & Robinson