The road that led me to translation: An anti how-to guide.

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  • , Non-Fiction

When I started this blog just over a year ago, I intended one of my first posts to be about what led me to translation. I ended up getting sidetracked by other topics, but my mind was recently nudged back to the idea by a post I read on the Gallic Books site about the merits of studying literary translation versus learning by doing.

Today, there are an increasing number of initiatives which raise the profile of translation, from specific postgraduate courses to International Translation Day and the London Book Fair’s Translation Centre, as well as mentorships and regular workshops. Experienced translators are frequently invited onto panel discussions at these events, and are sometimes a little flummoxed when asked to provide a clear-cut ‘How To’ of getting your foot in the door. Because, as the Gallic Books blog post pointed out, literary translation has traditionally been a career that people ‘fall’ into. Perhaps, though, times are changing. The growing number of postgraduate courses and the popularity of the evolving ‘Emerging Translators Network’ certainly suggest so. Perhaps the increased visibility of translation is highlighting it as a career to the extent that, in the near future, ‘literary translator’ will no longer be an unusual response to the question: What do you want to do when you grow up?

I don’t think there is any ‘right’ route or method. I imagine most peoples’ stories start very similarly, with an insatiable love of literature from a young age. But after that, the paths diverge. Everyone I’ve spoken to has come to translation from a different direction. I, for one, started reading German-language literature in my early teens. I soon realised that the English-language literary world was missing out when it came to many of the great titles which were still un-translated. I knew I wanted to do something to help bring these to a wider public. I just didn’t know how.

Several years later, after graduating from my German BA, I needed to find a job fast. I spent 18 months working for Reuters, translating financial news updates from the German, Austrian and Swiss stock markets. I was happy to be using German on a daily basis, but I needed more creativity: more words and less numbers. I then spent almost a year working as a text editor for a design agency whose main client was based in Germany. I would receive translations of texts from translators commissioned all over the globe, then edit their work to upload onto sites prepared by the web designers. The editing was of a formatting nature, rather than linguistic, but it was good experience in managing projects and developing a good eye for accuracy. It was during my time there that I really started to think about what I wanted from a career. Researching online, I discovered an MA course due to start that year, in Anglo-German Cultural Relations at Queen Mary University in London. I hadn’t wanted to do postgraduate studies after my BA, but this one grabbed my attention; it was a subject I was passionate about, as well as being surprisingly vocational. I selected modules in translation theory, studied the history of Anglo-German relations over the years, and focused my dissertation on Timothy Garton Ash and his writing on the GDR.

Alongside the MA, which I took part-time, I started to work for the German Welfare Council, a charity originally set up in the early 1950s to provide support to German refugees who had settled in the UK. This was fascinating work and brought me into contact with a number of Embassy-funded cultural projects. In my spare time, I looked into initiatives linked to German literature, and began to write reader’s reports for New Books in German after contacting its former editor, Rebecca Morrison. She became an unofficial mentor to me, and it was through her that I was commissioned to write a report for BCLT’s In Other Words on the impact of NBG. I also jumped at the opportunity of being the editorial assistant for her final issue in autumn 2009. Fairly convinced by that point that I wanted to go into publishing (and promote German literature from the inside), I spent my time-off interning with publishing firms, such as Hamish Hamilton. I took on reader’s reports for publishers, as well as the occasional sample translation. I loved the process of translating and it quickly became my favourite pastime. But back then, after a few years of juggling my MA, a demanding part-time job and side projects, I saw translating as my hobby and was convinced I wanted a structured full-time job. I found the juggling act exciting, challenging, rewarding, but thought it wasn’t for me, not long-term. Part of this could be connected to my upbringing; when I was five, my father left his job to set up independently as a graphic designer. As I grew up, I saw how stressed the work could make him, how his clients would expect him to work at any time of the day or night, pull out all the stops. Often, in frustration, he would tell me: ‘Whatever you do when you grow up, don’t be a freelancer.’

As my MA drew to a close, I applied for several full-time positions which I thought were perfect for me, some related to Anglo-German cultural relations, some in publishing. I was shortlisted, and made it to the final stages in the ones I most coveted. But I didn’t get them. The interviewers said they felt my heart was really in the freelance, that I would get bored of a fixed role. I was bemused, surely it was obvious I wanted to focus all my energy on one position? I carried on searching, and was offered a freelance project and some German teaching roles along the way. I also became involved in the early days of a new initiative, working to help set up the independent publisher And Other Stories. More translation projects gradually trickled in. Feeling confused, I phoned my Dad (as I often do in confused moments). After I shared my frustration that freelance opportunities kept coming up when all I wanted was a full-time job, he suggested that perhaps the thing I thoughtI most wanted wasn’t right for me. He said that, despite his attempts to dissuade me in the past, freelancing could also be incredibly rewarding. And that I owed it to myself to give it a go.

It took a while, but it gradually dawned on me that I’d had several interesting full time jobs, but none of them had held my interest in the long-term. It turns out that I’m just not a 9 to 5 kinda gal. I also realised that the times when I’d felt most inspired were those when I was juggling several projects. So I gave the freelance translation thing a go. And once I did, it got better and better, because I opened myself up to the support and interaction of the translation community. I started to go to workshops, a Goethe Institut translators trip to Leipzig and Berlin, the excellent LCB Sommerakademie, the BCLT Summer School. I stopped pretending it was a stop-gap and admitted I loved it. Like the boy next door the girl realises she loves in the oh-so-predictable final scene.

I’m sure there will be times when it gets tough; too much work, too little work. But I know now that this is 100% right for me. Looking back now, it feels like all the jobs I did along the way prepared me for this. I just didn’t know it at the time. So I don’t think there is any right way to go about it – but if you know you want to be a translator, then you’re already half way there. Seek inspiration from other peoples’ stories, follow your instincts and work hard. As is so often the case, I’m very glad I listened to my Dad.