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Translator Focus:

NBG Interviews the translator
Shaun Whiteside

© Jane Chilvers
Shaun Whiteside
How did you get into translation and how has your career developed?
I was working as a bilingual lexicographer (Margaret Jull Costa, the great Spanish and Portuguese translator, was working on the same project) when I happened to meet someone from Faber and Faber who told me they needed people to write readersí reports on German books. After Iíd been doing that for a couple of months, Walter Donoghue at Faber asked if Iíd be interested in translating a collection of essays by Wim Wenders. I was wild about German film and leapt at the chance. Michael Hofmann revised the text, which was published as Emotion Pictures. Shortly after that I was lucky enough to be picked up by Quartet, at the time a fascinating publisher of largely overlooked and often difficult classics, and translated Marlen Haushoferís The Wall for them, my first novel, and from there went on to translate books by Nietzsche, Freud, Schnitzler and Musil for Penguin Classics. I didnít become a full-time freelance translator until the turn of the millennium. I work regularly for a number of publishers, including Atlantic, Knopf and Serpentís Tail.
What have been your most enjoyable translation projects?
Thatís a tough one! I realise that I particularly enjoy translating the work of women writers, no idea why. The Marlen Haushofer I really enjoyed Ė a great book, it would be nice to see it reprinted Ė and Lilian Faschingerís Magdalena the Sinner, which won the Schlegel-Tieck a few years ago. Recently Iíve had a lot of fun with Susann PŠsztorís dark family comedy which I discovered through NBG, A Fabulous Liar (for Atlantic) and Judith Schalanskyís The Giraffeís Neck (for Bloomsbury), about a teacher in the former East Germany losing her faith in Darwinism. The Schalansky novel has involved a lot of research into outmoded scientific terminology, and I hope Iíve made the same kind of poetry out of it as she did. Iíve also enjoyed the gruesome thrillers of Zoran Drvenkar Ė Sorry, and You (Blue Door). Oh, and I had fun collaborating with Jamie Lee Searle and Samuel Willcocks on Frank Schätzingís monumental Limit. Iíd do that again.
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 suppose on the plus side dead authors canít ring you up and shout at you, but on the other hand you canít ring them up and ask them what they meant. I do usually get in touch with the living ones, yes, and there can be slight disagreements, often about English usage, but generally theyíre very helpful. Judith Schalanskyís comments have been invaluable.
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?
Iím currently working on two projects, an East German memoir by Maxim Leo for Pushkin (who make the most beautiful books), and a sprawling Swiss-Jewish family saga by Charles Lewinsky, called Melnitz, for Atlantic. I do sometimes have a couple of projects on the go at the same time, but try not to. I have this vague nightmare that characters from one are going to pop up in the other. (That doesnít happen.) The greatest risk is a kind of stylistic cross-contamination, so itís really best to immerse yourself in one project at a time.
Which book would you still like to translate?
I loved Blasmusikpop by Vea Kaiser (KiWi) Ė an astonishing feat for such a young author. Itís funny and surreal, a bit like the films of Guy Maddin. Given that much of it is written in Austrian dialect itís probably impossible, which is why Iíd like to have a go.
What advice would you give to new translators?
Find a book you love and match it with a publisher. Persistence and enthusiasm will pay off in the end. Stay in touch with other translators Ė much easier now than it was only a few years ago. Keep an eye on the websites, like Love German Books, which is consistently brilliant. Most importantly: read, read, read.

Interview by Sheridan Marshall.