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Translator Focus:

NBG interviews the translator
Martin Chalmers

© Esther Kinsky
Martin Chalmers
How did you get into translation and how has your career developed?
I became a translator more or less by accident. I was working on a Ph.D. on German history but had run out of money. I was in a reading group at the time, looking at new social movements, and one of the other members of the group was an editor at Pluto Press, who asked me if I could take on a translation for them. The editor was Pete Ayrton who later went on to set up Serpentís Tail and Iíve had a very productive relationship with Pete over the years. At the moment most of my work is for Seagull Books of Calcutta. The publisher, Naveen Kishore, was looking for a translator from German, a mutual friend introduced us, we got on together, and things developed from there.
What have been your most enjoyable translation projects?
A lot of the work of translation is a hard, lonely slog. Reading and re-reading the original, re-reading and revising your own text again and again. Working on the Diaries of the German-Jewish academic Victor Klemperer had a particular compensation, because along with revising and expanding the notes, I was also invited to write the introductions to the three volumes published in English. Theyíre very much informed by my background as a historian and I think they were a help to readers of the Diaries.
Do you get in touch with the living writers you translate?
Is there a palpable difference between translating a living and a dead author? I donít go out of my way to contact the authors I translate. Sometimes, however, they get in touch with me, or sometimes I know a writer before recommending or taking on a book by him or her. I think differences in the kind of texts are more important than whether an author is living or dead. With a diary you establish a different kind of relationship with the writer irrespective of whether heís alive or not. When I was working on the Klemperer Diaries, Victor Klemperer was pretty much alive to me and I felt we got on reasonably well. I donít think you could have that kind of experience with a novel.
What are you working on at the moment? Do you tend to translate one book at a time, or have several projects on the go at once?
The next book to appear will be Sherko Fatahís The Dark Ship. The story of a reluctant jihadi, itís full of striking, shattering images and one of the most important German novels to appear recently. After that, I tackle Hans Magnus Enzensbergerís The Short Summer of Anarchy. Itís about the history of the Spanish Anarchists, focussing on the figure of Buenaventura Durruti. Itís always been one of my favourite books, but I had been reluctant to attempt the translation, because I saw difficulties with such a montage text. But I think now I was making too much of the problems. I think itís wise to stick to one book at a time, if possible, and enter into its language.
Which book would you still like to translate?
There are so many which should be translated or retranslated. For example, the 1930ís translation of Döblinís Berlin, Alexanderplatz is dated and unreliable and itís astonishing that no new translation has appeared.
What advice would you give to new translators?
Keep reading literature in your own language, both classics and contemporary, because thatís the idiom you have to communicate in as convincingly as possible. For translators from German a sense of the history of the German lands is important, an awareness of what and where the German lands were, what and where Prussia was. A grasp of musical history can be very useful, too, likewise and this is a gap on my part, the history of science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And the translator has to be prepared for disappointment, when the English-speaking literary world ignores the masterpiece they spent a year working on.