Tag Archives: Translation

Closely Watched Trains – Bohumil Hrabal trans. Edith Pargeter

Milos has just returned to work as a signalman after three months off work recuperating from an attempt to take his own life.   His impotence, the cause of his attempt, still weighs heavy on him.  As does the laziness of his forefathers.  He feels constantly watched.  He worries the townspeople and travellers passing through his station in Czechoslovakia are whispering about him.

His station is strategically positioned and trains restocking the German front line or bringing the injured to field hospitals rumble through during the dying days of the 2nd world war.  Some trains are “closely observed” and heavily guarded due to their cargo.

At 22 Milos worries he will remain a virgin forever.  He doesn’t know how to resolve this.  He doesn’t know how to rid himself of his ancestors’ reputations.  And then, suddenly, opportunities present themselves and he acts with decisiveness and passion.

Bohumil Hrabal’s 1965 novel is slim at 96 pages.  Symbolic references to an oppressive dictatorship, national and individual powerlessness and an unwelcome occupying force run through every page.  Yet there is wry humour here, making it a pleasure to read.

Once I finished it, I realised it qualifies for Simon and Karen’s #1965club and having said I had no time to write a review, I found my commute to London this morning was better used to write this than trawl endlessly through Twitter 😉.  And it’s forced me to write my first review since January.  Winning all round.  Head over to Simon’s or Karen’s blogs for more books from 1965 – there are some crackers.

The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler trans. Charlotte Collins

In an effort to write up some of the scribbles I’ve penned in my notebook this year, I’m shamelessly stealing an idea I saw at The Tate bookshop in November.  More of these to come.

P.S. I know my handwriting is appalling – sorry.

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakmi (trans. Allison Markin Powell)


Do you ever feel you’re not a fully paid up member of the Grown-ups Club?  I know I do despite being almost half way through my 40s; I regularly behave immaturely, have toddler type meltdowns or completely forget I’m no longer an invincible 24 year old.  Tsukiko, the narrator of Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo feels the same.  She seems to have regressed over time.

His behaviour was commensurate with his age….I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult….as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person.

Tsukiko is unsure about many things; how she came to be 37, alone, uncomfortable in her life and around others.  She is a loner and lonely.  One thing she becomes certain of is the importance of her friendship with Sensei.  Mr Matsumoto is Tsukiko’s old Japanese teacher from school, widowed and in his 60s, to her he is only ever Sensei – teacher.  They meet by chance in a bar and strike up conversation.  They continue to meet at the bar, but never by design.  Kawakami describes the development of their relationship through a series of short chapters outlining unspectacular excursions to markets, art galleries and amusement arcades until it is clear that this is no longer just a friendship, but love. Tsukiko declares herself early on and then immediately worries about it.

I had screwed up.  Grown-ups didn’t go around blurting out troublesome things to people.  You couldn’t just blithely disclose something that would then make it impossible to greet them with a smile the next day….It was somehow absurd.  Me declaring my love for Sensei to his face, Sensei taking it almost completely in his stride yet without responding to my declaration – everything seemed as if it was part of a dream.

The age difference between the two is never a huge concern; Kawakami doesn’t allow them to dwell on it instead she reminds the reader through the characters’ very sweet exchanges.  Sensei regularly teases Tsukiko and chastises her for unladylike behaviour and continued poor aptitude for identifying and reciting poetry.  He is reserved and she blurts things out without thinking.  He imparts his mature wisdom, making her feel even more childish and wonder at her behaviour.  She thinks he’s old-fashioned and deliberately behaves in a way she knows will irritate him.  Only near the end of the book does age become a concern for them both and they wonder how best to navigate around the issues they foresee – death and sex.

This book contains no sex (sorry for that spoiler), despite Sensei making it very clear to Tsukiko that physical intimacy is essential no matter how old you are, it’s extremely important but food plays a huge part in their story and I understood it as a literary substitute for sex.  Kawakami describes in great detail various dishes the two eat at the bar and elsewhere, different ways the dishes can be prepared and how best to source the best ingredients. The pair also drink an inordinate amount of sake.  Eating and drinking become the rituals that cement their relationship.

There is a dreaminess to Tsukiko’s narration and I was sometimes unsure whether she was sure of her reality.  Some of her dialogue is in quotation marks, some not – this made me wonder whether she was having some conversations in her head rather than speaking out loud.  She often talks to Sensei over distances, calls to him in the night, imagines a life with him.  She wonders at the stars and moon, she enjoys living in her own head which reinforces her childlike qualities.

I haven’t read a lot of Japanese literature, but what I have read, I’ve throughly enjoyed.  Strange Weather in Tokyo will now be added to my growing list of “Japanese books to haunt and admire.” There’s something quite comforting and satisfyingly challenging about the understated style, the magical realism and dreamlike quality of the writing from this region that pull me in.  The exoticism of a culture I’ve never experienced also intrigues me.  This short and gentle book about love that is destined to find its path was a beautiful place to start my reading year.

Vertigo – Boileau & Narcejac trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury 

A few years ago when my children were much younger and we were too skint and tired to go out much,  we started catching up with classic movies and foreign language films we’d never, but should have, seen.  Our LoveFilm subscription was well used during these years.  Flicking through the “films you must see” lists identified a Hitchcock sized gap in our knowledge of his back catalogue which we worked hard to plug.  Vertigo is a particularly disturbing one and based almost frame by frame on the chapters in this book (although the ending is different) by French crime writing duo Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac.

This is less a classic crime thriller and more a claustrophobic, psychological melodrama dripping in behaviour so obsessive it drives the main character, Flavieres, to the brink of madness. His innocuous task, carried out as a favour to an old friend, to follow and observe the friend’s wife who is behaving oddly and thought to be suicidal, swiftly spirals into stalkerish obsession with this ethereal creature. Even his eventual friendship with this woman does little to tone down his increasingly bizarre means to remain close to her. Several years later he impossibly catches a glimpse of her once more, setting him on his previous destructive path.

The stifling atmosphere of this book is made even more stark by the references to German invading forces moving ever closer to Paris and the later depressing descriptions of the post-war state of that beautiful city.  As Flavieres’ behaviour becomes more desperate, he begins to unravel, he’s unhinged, so the pace picks up hurtling the reader forward to witness the tragic end you know must be coming; I read the last pages through the gaps between my fingers, like I watched the end of the film, not really wanting to read/watch but having a gory fascination with needing to know how it all ends.

As a character Flavieres is rather pathetic,  but I had enormous sympathy for him.  He is used so abominably and thrown to one side by someone he thinks of as a friend. Over the course of the book his personality changes immensely because of this woman who he believes will alter the course of his life; she does have that effect, but not as he’d imagined.  And here’s the cleverness of this twisted psycho-drama; as you read on, you know this sort of thing could happen to any of us. Brilliant.

Pushkin Press have released a series of 20th century European crime fiction named after this book.  The Vertigo series jacket artworks are all similar to this one; bold colours and overlaid text very reminiscent of mid-century modern designs. Check them out here.

Max has also done a review of this one here. He’s recently done a review of another Boileau-Narcejac She Who Was No More here.

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler trans. Charlotte Collins


With a title like A Whole Life you’d be forgiven for expecting a much longer book.  It’s the economy of Seethaler’s prose that allows him to fit so much into so few pages (149), and what a beautifully quiet story it is.  Reminiscent in sentiment and pace of that ever popular Williams classic Stoner and comparable in content and tone to Train Dreams by Denis Johnson with a similar seam of sadness weaving through the prose, this is a restrained and unpretentious piece of fiction.

Forest and mountain man Andreas Egger’s life is the one we follow through this miniature epic.  Starting with his attempt to rescue an almost dead local goatherd, Seethaler returns to reveal the beginning and then the rest of Egger’s life with such a deftness and lightness of touch that you almost don’t realise you are reading, it feels as though the story is being orally related, like an old friend is acquainting you with the relatively uneventful tale of a mountain dwelling loner.  And here’s the thing with this book; other than a devastating avalanche and a period of internment in Russia during the war nothing much else of earth shattering consequence happens.  Yet the landscape descriptions and mountain village life portrayed in these pages draws the reader in more than many blockbusting tomes can.

There is also something slightly mystical and ethereal about parts of this book, particularly near the end, which made me think deeply about what it must be like to be old, alone and sometimes confused, how it would be very likely and understandable to start hearing and seeing ghosts from your past.

After living through Egger’s life with him, his choice of retirement abode is unsurprising if a little unorthodox, but absolutely the right place for him to spend his remaining days.  His ending befits his life, and for this I was grateful to Seethaler for not writing Egger an overly dramatic or morose demise; it is a quiet understated end just as he had lived his life.

A Whole Life is beautifully written, beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins and beautifully packaged by Picador (swoon at that cover), I absolutely loved it and I’d like to think you will too.



(I think that’s 11 sentences – need to get a grip!)


My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante trans. Ann Goldstein


The one thing you can often expect from Bildungsroman is little plot and that’s ok if the characters’ journeys are captivating enough to keep your attention from start to finish.  I’m generally a fan of this genre (although I have a secret dislike for Catcher in the Rye – there, I’ve said it!), I’m a patient enough reader not to be troubled by the lack of “action” and I’m very happy witnessing characters develop, grow and learn about themselves.  My Brilliant Friend, the first installment in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, introduces us to Elena and Lila, friends from an early age, this book charts the ebb and flow of their connection as the girls endure the hardships of post-war Italy and how the social norms in their small community shape their lives and choices – all narrated by Elena.

The thing Ferrante excels at is the detailed and spot-on depiction of the intensity of women’s relationships; mother-daughter and girlfriends.  Elena’s voice in this book, which ends when the girls are 16, was very reminiscent for me of that love/hate emotion and natural competitiveness that springs from close friendship during formative teen years; the realisation that your friend is brighter than you, more beautiful than you, expresses herself better, is more confident around boys, is all-round more popular and it pricks that oddest of mixed feelings, jealousy and admiration.  It either spurs you on to be better or leads you to detest your friend.  Elena feels all of these things towards Lila and sometimes we get a glimpse that Lila also feels jealous of Elena’s good fortune at being able to continue her education when Lila can’t.

Ferrante is not afraid of confronting ugly human behaviour and presenting it with shocking honesty.  The complacent violence towards women and girls in this book is treated with accepted normality as is Elena’s first and unsolicited sexual experience at the hands of the father of a boy in her year at school, but perhaps more shocking to readers could be how Elena feels about and reflects on this episode.

Mostly though, this book is about two girls finding their way in life, making the best choices available to them from very few options in a neighbourhood governed by hierarchy, violence and tradition.

“Was it possible that only our neighbourhood was filled with conflicts and violence, while the rest of the city was radiant, benevolent?”





Fatale – Jean-Patrick Manchette trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith


In the forward of this new edition, David Peace describes how, shortly after submitting his latest crime noir manuscript in 1977, Manchette realised that his editors didn’t like it very much.  In anger at their reaction, he requested it be published outside the legendary “Serie Noir” and wrote “This negative response clearly shows what I should never forget: I alone understand what I do.”  Manchette’s confidence in Fatale is not without foundation.  I haven’t read any other “Serie Noir” or Manchette books, but this one hits hard in its 112 pages.  In fact it feels like a 12 round bout stuffed into 3 rounds, climaxing with a KO; it’s a mini dynamo.

Provincial politics can be corrupt and nepotistic and if you are an outsider it is difficult to gain access and favour, but Aimee Joubert (a woman with dodgy motives) capitalises on the inevitable secrets in Bléville’s society and outwits the sweaty bourgeois fat-cats by extorting huge amounts of cash in a spectacular double bluff which involves her offering her services as an assassin.  She appears from nowhere, is disciplined in her research and training, infiltrates the community with her charm and good looks, then smacks the crooked officials between the eyes during a dizzyingly violent final scene.  I rooted for her from the first page when she confronts a woodland hunter in a spectacular and astonishing fashion.  This is more than just a cruel melodrama though, there is a political commentary undercurrent surging through this perfectly formed piece of crime fiction. I love it when a book surprises me like this and it only took a couple of hours to read.

Serpent’s Tail have just released this edition along with several other world literature titles, all with similarly retro pulp jacket artwork and I found it at my wonderful local library.


11 sentences – must try harder!

Neues Wilhelm Busch Album – Wilhelm Busch


Wilhelm Busch (1832 – 1908) was a German humorist, poet and illustrator.  His wood engraving illustrations satirised almost all parts of society but particularly Catholicism, religion in general, morality and everyday life in towns and villages across Germany.  This beautiful anthology belonging to my mother, was given to her by a neighbour when she was 12.  It was a firm feature of my own childhood.  I vividly remember my sister and I leafing through the fine pages fascinated and vaguely disturbed in equal measure, because like Grimm’s fairy stories, some of Busch’s cautionary tales end badly for his characters.


Busch is best remembered for Max and Moritz the cheeky twosome who terrorise hardworking folk in their local community.  This collection opens with the Max and Moritz series “Eine Bubengescichte in sieben Streichen”  my translation “A rogue’s story in seven pranks” This is Dennis the Menace in double.  Each “Streich” shows the boys carrying out pranks ranging from stealing cooked chickens, loading their teacher’s pipe with gunpowder or stuffing beetles under an elderly gent’s bedclothes.

All pretty fun and seemingly harmless until the last prank.  After slicing rips into a farmer’s corn sacks, the farmer catches them and stuffs them into a bag.



The farmer takes them to the miller who promptly tips them into his mill, grinding them into small pieces.


The ground up bits of Max and Mortiz are gobbled up by the ducks.  A really gruesome end.


Busch ends the seventh prank with the villagers rejoicing at the demise of the young irritants!

wp-1448828219987.jpegOther everyday farcical gems include the warring neighbours who beat the living daylights out of each other; the miller’s daughter who dispatches 3 thieves in grim fashion; the couple who trash their house while chasing a mouse; the guy driven to distraction by his toothache.

The series called The holy Antony of Padua told over 10 chapters guides us through this priest’s life from birth to arrival at the pearly gates all the while mocking the church and its hypocritical practises.

Most of the illustrated stories are accompanied with verse, which honestly I sometimes found tricky to make out.  This is due to the typeface which is a form of old German handwriting style called Suetterlin – really tricky to work out sometimes; even more difficult in Busch’s original hand (see below).  This is featured later in the book which covers his life, career and includes prints of his sketches in progress.  There is also some of his longer stories at the back of the album.


His illustrations are delightful if slightly grotesque.  The characters are either portly with rosy cheeks and bulbous noses or they are skinny and wiry and frankly not to be trusted.  The violence is slapstick.  There’s always someone being bashed with a broom, falling through the floor or tripping and injuring themselves in some foolish act.  All really good fun.

This is a beautiful anthology of a little known commentator of life in late 19th century Germany.  I’ve enjoyed dipping into it again after years of having forgotten all about it.

Thanks to my mum for letting me borrow it!

I read this for German Literature Month


The Collini Case – Ferdinand von Schirach (trans. Anthea Bell)


For German Lit Month 2012 I read Ferdinand von Schirach’s collection of crime short stories Crime & Guilt largely based on his experiences as one of Germany’s most prominent defence lawyers.  The Collini Case  is Schirach’s first attempt at slightly longer fiction (although it is still short at only 182 pages) and as with the stories in Crime & Guilt Schirach manages to portray the perpetrator of a vicious crime in a humane light by explaining his back story.  The investigation into a seemingly motiveless attack on an elderly industrialist goes nowhere.  This, plus his client’s unwillingness to talk, explain himself or defend his position, causes up-and-coming defence lawyer, Casper Leinen some sleepless nights.  Casper’s personal connection to the victim provides the emotional conflict and personal angle to this story.

Schirach cleverly reveals the moving yet horrifying back story of both killer and victim with such dignity that I could not help but feel some sympathy for the defendant and his decision to commit such a brutal act (in fact my face streamed with tears reading parts of this book as my train chugged through the Belgian countryside towards Bruges last week).  This is a tense and gripping yet precise courtroom drama with a bittersweet ending.  And despite its brevity it packed a punch in Germany; the shame associated with the very specific piece of German law featured and highlighted in this novella led to a review of the marks left on the Ministry of Justice by its past connections to the Nazi party.  Worth reading for that alone.

I read this for German Literature Month






Q&A with translator Jamie Bulloch

I read three books translated by Jamie Bulloch in quick succession, The Mussel Feast, Love Virtually Every Seventh Wave and so I asked him if he would mind answering some questions about the translation process and his experiences as a translator.  Here’s what he had to say.

Please give me a short biog of yourself.

Studied Modern Languages at undergraduate level, then Austrian history for MA and PhD. Worked briefly as schoolteacher, teaching French and German; later lectured at a number of different colleges, teaching German language, German History and Central European History. Translator of literary fiction since 2007. Twelve translations published to date (inc. two non-fiction) and two more in production. Author of Karl Renner: Austria – history book, part of Haus’s series Makers of the Modern World. Live in London with wife and three daughters.

 How did you first get into translating fiction?

During my PhD and for a couple of years afterwards I worked as a history lecturer, principally in London. My aim was to continue with an academic career, but prospects of a permanent job were very poor (I had till then been filling in for other people’s sabbaticals, teaching a wide range of history courses). I had already been doing a small amount of translation work, but this had been limited to agricultural econimics (a subject in which I am no expert, but have learned a lot about over many years of translating it!) My break into translating literary fiction came when Christopher MacLehose – for whom my wife had worked at The Harvill Press and was now undertaking editorial commissions – asked whether I should like to produce a sample of a psychological crime novel he had bought. He liked what I wrote and so the job was mine. Other jobs came on the back of this first novel and now I am fortunate – for the moment, at least – to have as much work as I can realistically cope with.

Could you tell me about the translation process?  Where do you start?

I do not have hard and fast rules or any particular theory about translation, as each book presents its own challenges. Usually, and ideally, I will read the book first and then I will dive straight in. My overall strategy is to translate fast, maintaining a good momentum, and then edit my work slowly and thoroughly, putting the German original to one side. At the forefront of my mind is the imperative that the book should read like a good piece of English, so I polish and polish until I’m happy. The copyeditor takes care of the rest.

 Where do you do most of your work?

I do have my own study at home, but at present I’m working in the kitchen because we have underfloor heating and it’s freezing upstairs.

When you first read a German manuscript, do you immediately hear the translation or is it not as straightforward as that?

Whenever I read a German novel, either in preparation for translation or to write a report on for a publisher, I can’t help stopping occasionally and wondering how I would translate that particular phrase. But first appearances can be very deceptive. What masquerades as a page-turner in German can turn out to be very tricky to translate, and vice-versa. Love Virtually and Every Seventh Wave are good examples here. Both come across as very simple when you read them in the original, but finding the right voices, conveying all the wordplay without sounding irritating in English took quite a long time. By contrast, Friedrich Christian Delius’s Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, which is a novella in a single sentence, looked at first glance like a nightmare, but ended up being a fairly straightforward job. Naturally, I was delighted when reviews praised my translation of that book, but I have to admit that the Glattauer novels presented the greater challenge.

What is your most important tool that you couldn’t work or translate without?

This is an easy one: the internet. How translators ever worked without it, I don’t know. They must have been squashed between hundreds of dictionaries and other reference books.

Do you ever suffer from “translator’s block?” If so, how do you overcome it?

Yes, but I don’t think it’s ever as bad as writer’s block. Often you come across a phrase which is incredibly difficult to translate. The best way around this is just to highlight it, move on, and return to the problem later.

You’ve translated several works by the same author (Glattauer and Hochgatterer), how much contact do you have with the author, if any?

It depends. Contact with the author can be vital as it is the only key to solving some apparently insurmountable problems. To be able to translate something you have to understand it in all its facets and in the most basic detail. Sometimes, therefore, I will ask an author what seems to be a really simple question. In the case of Paulus Hochgatterer, I asked him to make explicit some elements which were only hinted at in his novel The Mattress House. Only then could I reproduce the same nuance in English.

You translated Love Virtually/Every Seventh Wave with your wife Katharina Bielenberg.  How did that work? did you sit together or translate the two characters in isolation?

We translated Leo and Emmi separately, then edited both books together, which was a long process, but two heads work much better than one.

Was this your first translating collaboration? How did you find it? How long did it take compared to a translation you might work on by yourself?

Yes it was and we both enjoyed it. We were able to be as honest and critical as we liked of each other’s work. In that way I think we ended up with a far better text. Yes, it ended up being a longer process, but only because our work included this joint copyedit.

What attracted you to the Love Virtually/Every Seventh Wave project?

The prospect of combining forces to translate the books was very attractive, and we had both enjoyed reading them a couple of years earlier.

Love Virtually & Every Seventh Wave are made up entirely of email correspondence, did this present any issues with the translation in terms of the sort of language we tend to use in emails?

Overall these books have been incredibly well received, both in the German-speaking world and elsewhere in translation. One of the few criticisms that has been levelled, however, is that the email language used by Emmi and Leo is not particularly realistic, i.e. many of their messages are quite long and grammatically correct, whereas people generally cut corners and are often very sloppy when using this medium. To a certain extent that is true, but let’s not forget that this is fiction and that the books have more in common with old-fashioned epistolary novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Glattauer’s books may be very popular and commercial, but his prose is of high quality and anything other than sloppy. So, to return to your question, while some common features of email are certainly present in both books, where the prose read like a well-crafted letter we reflected this in the English translation.

Were there any parts of these books where you had to use some artistic license to get across the meaning, rather than use the literal translation?

I mentioned above that my chief aim when translating is to produce a good piece of English which does not read just like a translation. To achieve this you have to abandon the literal approach repeatedly. At the launch event for Mussel Feast, the author, Birgit Vanderbeke suggested that a translation had to ‘violate’ the original text to be successful. As a translator I would say that this is very encouraging to hear from the mouth of a writer, for in many respects you can only remain faithful to the original work by attempting something different. Jokes and rhyming verse are only two obvious examples of where the translator has to be very creative to be convincing. To follow on from what Birgit said, I would argue that two of the key attributes of a successful translator are self-confidence and courage. When faced with a tricky translation problem you cannot sit on the fence; you have to opt for one side or the other – so do it as if you really mean it.

 Do you ever worry about the loss of meaning in translation, especially when something is very specific to the original language and culture?)

Again this all boils down to the confidence of the translator. You have to believe that the English version will be as good as the original rather than a pale imitation. Sure, there will be cultural elements that may get lost for a large proportion of readers, but what you must bear in mind is that in some instances they may well go straight over the head of a proportion of German readers too. I firmly believe that there is a solution to every translation problem; often the key to finding it is to think laterally. Or if something gets lost on one page, the translator can try to recover it in a different form on the next one. Another important point is that reading foreign literature in translation opens a window on the world, allowing an insight into a wealth of different cultures. I read a great many translations and find myself frequently looking up things on the internet that are new to me. All in all, we gain far more than we lose through translation.

As the translator, do you have any say in the translation of the title of the book?  I personally think “Gut gegend Nordwind” is a much nicer title than “Love Virtually”!

That’s funny, because I came up with Love Virtually, having drawn up a list of about ten possible titles. We will often go for a direct translation of the original and I won’t have a say. In the case of Gut gegen Nordwind, the English equivalent ‘Good against the North Wind’ just smacks too much of a literal translation and was unlikely to attract too many readers. Aware of the commercial potential of the book, we decided we needed something far catchier. Just to be sure, we ran it past both the author and the original publisher, both of whom were happy with our solution.

I’ve also recently read your translation of The Mussel Feat by Birgit Vanderbeke, which is so very different from Love Virtually and Every Seventh Wave.  What attracted you to this piece of writing?

It’s just an incredible piece of writing. The author told us that she wrote it start to finish in three weeks! I also enjoyed the challenge of capturing the style, especially the repetition of words and phrases throughout the novella.

The Mussel Feast is a breathless monologue, did it feel exhausting to translate?

Sometimes! I like to break at the end of a section or paragraph. There weren’t any in this book. And some of the sentences were so long that you feared you’d never get to the end. What was crucial when translating Mussel Feast was never to lose the thread.

What challenges did you face with this translation and how did it differ from Love Virtually/Every Seventh Wave?

The words and phrases which are repeated over and over again like leitmotifs were incredibly difficult to translate, because my solution might work eight times where a word/phrase occurred, and yet on the ninth occasion it was simply wrong, or stuck out. So I’d have to go back and find something which worked throught the novella. We also had to change the punctuation in English – chiefly by introducing more full stops and semi colons – to avoid too much confusion. In fact, the Glattauer books also contain oft-repeated words and phrases, so there were more similarities than at first might be apparent.

What’s the most difficult passage you’ve ever had to to translate to get the sense of meaning right?

Anything written by my stepfather-in-law, Karl Heinz Bohrer, who is a German professor of literature and aesthetics. He writes unbelieveably intricate paragraphs, full of conceptual compound nouns that could make a translator cry. We have a good laugh about it.

Do you ever re-read your translations and see sentences you would prefer to change?

I don’t really have time to re-read my own work, as there’s always another to be getting on with. But I suppose my own confidence increases with every book, and were I to translate some of the early books again I might do things a little differently.

For your own reading pleasure do you read in English or German?  What is your favourite book?

I think it is imperative that a translator reads extensively in their own language, to improve their vocabulary, style and to get new ideas. For pleasure I read almost exclusively in English. But I also enjoy most of the novels I read in German for work. I’m very bad at citing favourite things, or top tens, but I have a very soft spot for Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up!, perhaps the funniest and most engaging novel I have ever read, and a dark satire of the greedy 1980s.

What are you working on now?

Timur Vermes’s Er ist wieder da, to be published by MacLehose Press next year as Look Who’s Back. This debut novel, which takes a satirical look at contemporary Germany through the eyes of a resurrected Adolf Hitler, has been a sensation in Germany since its publication in autumn last year, selling over 500,000 copies in hardback. It’s a very funny novel which also presents a serious critique of our superficial society, where style and medium is more important than the message.

Is there a German book you would love to translate – why would English readers like it?

One novel which I fear has slipped through the net is Kristof Magnusson’s Das war ich nicht (It wasn’t me), a brilliantly funny book set around the financial crash, whose three protagonists are an internationally acclaimed writer, a young banker and a literary translator (!). English readers would like it because it is plot-driven, very amusing and a complete page-turner.

Suggest a book that may surprise me – why should I read it?

If you are talking about books I have translated I would encourage you to try Katharina Hagena’s The Taste of Apple Seeds, which was recently published by Atlantic. I first read this book for another publisher, and was so charmed by the story that when I heard Atlantic had bought the rights I wrote to them immediately and begged to be allowed to translate it. It’s an enchanting novel set around an old farmhouse in northern Germany and its memories, some very dark, created by three generations of women.

A big thank you to Jamie for taking the time to answer my questions.