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Translator Focus:

NBG interviews the translator
Charlotte Collins

Charlotte Collins
Photo: Jaime Stewart
How did you get into translation, and how has your career developed?
I was living in Germany and doing a lot of voiceover work. A translated text can look fine on the page yet sound clumsy when read aloud, so studios like to hire ‘speakers’ who can also translate. Then I worked as a journalist for DW Radio in Bonn, and journalistic translation gradually became my bread and butter. About five years ago I asked myself what I could do that would make me love my work. I realised that I wanted to translate drama and literature. I went to the BCLT Summer School in 2012, and it all took off from there.

What have been your most enjoyable projects?
Translating A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler was a dream come true. I was asked to do a reader’s report for Picador, and I absolutely fell in love with it. I told Picador they had to buy it, and asked if I could translate it. They took a chance on me because I was so enthusiastic. I gather that translators often feel very strongly that a book is theirs, which is how I felt about this.

What do you make of the great success of your translation of A Whole Life?
Naturally, I’m over the moon. I wanted others to love it as much as I did. It is so exciting that they do, and that I have been able to be part of that. I had a strong feeling that it had what it took to be a bestseller, but I had virtually no experience of publishing, and people kept saying that translated literary fiction doesn’t sell on that scale. I hope this is proof that that’s changing. The independent bookshops definitely played a big part – as did Matthew Garrett at Picador’s art department, who created a beautiful object that people want to pick up.

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’ve just translated another Seethaler novel, Der Trafikant (The Tobacconist). It will be published in Canada by House of Anansi, and by Picador in the UK. I am also working on an amazing family saga for Scribe UK: The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischwili, which I’m co-translating with Ruth Martin. Normally I’ve got both books on the go, but I prefer to immerse myself in one for a chunk of time.

Which book would you still like to translate?
I would love to translate Mirjam by Luise Rinser. Miriam (Mary Magdalene) recounts the story of her life, and sets the record straight – about herself, Jesus, the miracles, the origins of Christianity. The language is both direct and poetic, and Miriam is such a strong, believable, unexpected character. Mirjam was a massive success in Germany in the 1980s, and several writers – Colm Tóibín, Naomi Alderman, Philip Pullman – have had similar successes recently with Biblical retellings.

What advice would you give new translators?
Do reader’s reports! Initially, I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea of reading some lengthy, possibly tedious book and writing a report on it for not a lot of money, but it really is a good way in. You need to get to know UK and US publishers, and they need to get to know your work. You should definitely join the Emerging Translators Network (ETN), a mostly online community that’s a great source of advice. And I highly recommend doing one of the summer schools, at the BCLT or Birkbeck. They’re very intense: you’ll learn a lot.

Interview with Johannes Hartmann

Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life translated by Charlotte Collins has just been longlisted for the Man Booker International Fiction Prize 2016.