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Translator Focus:

NBG interviews the translator Isabel Cole


Isabel Cole Photo: Emma
How did you get into translation and how has your career developed? Have you worked closely with any particular publishers?
I was always interested in language and writing, but I never thought of becoming a translator until I moved to Berlin in 1995 and realised my only really marketable skill was my language. I began with non-literary translation jobs, while simultaneously discovering more and more interesting German writers. After a few years I began translating samples and submitting them to magazines and publishers, but it was a lot of trouble for meagre results. I was discouraged and ended up shelving my literary projects for a while. Instead, I decided to create a place to publish German literature in translation: org. In 2010, I was put in touch with Seagull Books. Their enthusiasm and élan were really a breath of fresh air, and Iíve translated several books for them since.

What have been your most enjoyable translation projects?
I most enjoy the thrill of discovering a major writer whoís unknown in English. I enjoy translating writing that resonates with me and carries me along, however dark or stylistically difficult it may be. But I canít cite one of my projects over the others, because theyíre all close to my heart.

Do you get in touch with the living writers you translate?
Yes. It saves a lot of trouble to establish a cordial relationship with the author from the outset, and ask them questions rather than use guesswork. I have translated a number of dead writers, like Franz Fühmann and Wolfgang Hilbig, and Iíve immersed myself in their lives as much as I could, researching, visiting their haunts, talking to friends and relatives if possible. Iím now at the Neusiedler See in Austria where my current project, Among the Bieresch, is set. I just met the author, Klaus Hoffer.

Do you tend to translate one book at a time, or have several projects on the go at once?
I donít like to juggle too much, especially not under time pressure, but I do lots of drafts and in between I need to be able to set the translation aside for a bit and switch to something else. Right now Iím translating this strange and wonderful Austrian novel, Among the Bieresch, set in a semi-imagined Austrian-Hungarian-Slavic-Jewish culture on the edge of the puszta.

Which books would you still like to translate?
I would like to continue translating the work of Franz Fühmann and Wolfgang Hilbig, two East German writers of incredible immediacy and originality. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I think we finally have the historical distance to appreciate the powerful writing that emerged from the pressures and tensions of that system, and realise that it has a great deal to say to us.

Do you have a favourite translated work by somebody else?
Let me instead mention a forthcoming translation Iím excited about Ė The Country Road, a collection of short stories by Regina Ullmann, translated by Kurt Beals, appearing this winter with New Directions. Ullmann was a protégé of Rainer Maria Rilkeís, and had a truly unique, slightly off-kilter voice and sensibility. Iím sure Beals will have done an excellent job.

What advice would you give to new translators?
This is a great time to start Ė translation is cool again and there are lots of new (and old) publishers in the game. Translate what youíre passionate about and learn to communicate that passion. Be patient and politely persistent Ė people in publishing are overworked and everything moves slowly. Donít be shy about contacting the authors and/ or their publishers Ė theyíll usually be thrilled to hear that you want to translate their work into English. Do be sure to settle rights issues, and so on, before investing time and effort. And if you are asked to do a translation, research recommended rates and contract terms. PEN America and PEN UK are good sources for model translation contracts and recommended rates. Iíve put together more detailed tips for translators on no manís land Ė check them out!
Isabel Cole was shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2014, for her translation of Franz Fühmannís The Jew Car (Seagull Books).
Interview with Alice Paul