Navigation Kopfzeile

Translator Focus:

NBG interviews the translator
Donal McLaughlin

Donal McLaughlin Photo: private
How did you get into translation and how has your career developed? Have you worked closely with any particular publishers?
I got into translation by learning to read at the age of four, wanting to write by the age of nine, and by beginning, at the age of eleven, to learn French. I started learning German two years later. Within three years, I went from Sprich mal Deutsch and Wir lernen Deutsch to Tonio Kröger. Borchert, Böll, Andersch and Frisch then did things for me that Mann and the French Catholic Novel didn’t. And so, while still at secondary school, I was won for German.

At some point I started wanting to share things I was reading in German with friends who have no German – poems by the late Stella Rotenberg, for example. Shards was the result.

My postgraduate studies coincided with a renaissance in Scottish writing – and amazing readings in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Regularly being involved in events at the Goethe-Institut Glasgow and the Edinburgh International Book Festival also provided crucial experience. I often interpret on stage for authors – as well as translate. Recent years have seen me focus more on Swiss writers. I also translate the Iraqi-German writer Abbas Khider, and am about to accompany him on a ‘mini South Asia tour’. Three weeks after that, we’re in New York.

I work closely with Seagull Books and Dalkey Archive. Exciting new ventures like And Other Stories and Freight have also published my work.

What have been your most enjoyable translation projects?
My most unusual recent project was a Glaswegian translation of a novel written in the dialect of Berne – and great, great fun. Pedro Lenz, naw much of a talker (Freight) is the book in question.

Do you get in touch with the living writers you translate?
Always. I normally know them already. For me, translating is not just about the book. It’s about getting out there and reading to audiences. Bilingual readings, in my experience, do a lot to win readers over to literature in translation. It helps overcome any Berührungsangst or ‘fear of contact’ on the part of reader.

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?
I am in the final stages of my sixth book by Urs Widmer (In the Congo) and at an earlier stage in my work on Behind the Station; the second part of a trilogy by Arno Camenisch. I am definitely not a ‘multi-tasker’. I normally work on one book at a time – unless, that is, the copy-edited version, or proofs, of a translation I’ve already submitted turn up in my inbox.

How did you become a specialist for Swiss books?
The ‘specialist’ thing started off as a single sentence, written for a dust jacket, by someone else. It has been much-quoted since. How did I become what that person meant? I suppose by meeting a Swiss writer in a cave in Slovenia in September 2001 and, later, being asked (via him) to translate extracts by over 100 Swiss writers for the New Swiss Writing anthologies. I’m sure that being involved as a writer in a literary exchange between the cities of Glasgow and Berne also contributed. As did, and does, annual attendance at the Solothurner Literaturtage.

Do you have a favourite translated work by somebody else?
I have so many friends doing great work from German into whatever their mother tongue might be – and from English into German – I’d hate to have to single one out. My answer is therefore: Edith Grossman’s Don Quixote.

One autumn-into-winter a few years ago, I treated myself daily to a chapter over breakfast, while sitting out on a terrace in south-of-France sunshine. Frequently, needless to say, that one chapter became two – or even three.

What advice would you give to new translators?
In 2013, Donal McLaughlin was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (USA) for his translation of Urs Widmer’s My Father’s Book (Seagull Books). He is also a writer.
Interview with Kathinka Nohl