Taking over from Anthea Bell was always going to be a challenge. The grande dame of German–English translation had worked on Walter Kempowski’s final masterpiece, All for Nothing, to great acclaim, and had just started translating Homeland at the end of 2016 when she suffered a debilitating stroke. Granta had to find someone else to take up the reins. I was lucky enough to get the job.
Initially, I assumed that this would, in effect, be a co-translation, so I prepared to align my style with Anthea’s by reading her translation of All for Nothing. I didn’t compare it with the original German, but I read it very carefully, absorbing the feel of the text, listening to its rhythms. When I’m translating, rhythm is what tells me whether or not a sentence is right. It’s like listening to a piece of music: I may find myself sitting with my eyes closed, allowing it to echo in my mind, listening out for a false note or a slight stumble, sometimes even, bizarrely, passing its invisible weight between my hands. God knows what the person sitting opposite me must think.
In All for Nothing, I observed how Anthea had rendered Kempowski’s cool, often fractured sentences, the dry humour, the fluidity between the narrative voice and direct or indirect speech, the subtly shifting points of view. These are also characteristic of Homeland, written fourteen years earlier, in 1992. Both books are concerned, in different ways, with the German presence in former East Prussia and the chaotic flight from the Red Army at the end of World War Two.
Once I’d been commissioned, the editor, Bella Lacey, approached Anthea’s family and asked if they could send in what she had translated so far. It turned out that she really had only just started: there was a draft of the first few thousand words, but that was all. Consequently, Bella decided that the translation should be mine alone; but we agreed that, without feeling bound by it, I would keep Anthea’s voice in mind – the English voice she had given Kempowski so successfully in All for Nothing.
Until then, I had only ever worked with living authors. This was to be the first time I would not be able to ask the author questions about the text, either directly or via the publisher. I felt a degree of trepidation about this. My aim is always to cleave as closely as possible to the author’s original intention – or rather, what I believe it to be. Accuracy is of course essential in terms of translating content, but any reading is necessarily subjective. Literary translators don’t just translate the ‘meaning’ of a text; we translate the feel of it, which is inevitably filtered through our individual sensibilities. Every choice we make as we rewrite the text in English – trying to recreate what we see and hear (and smell/taste/touch) in our imagination as we read the original – subtly shifts the emphasis. So . . . should it go this way, or that?
If an ambiguous word or phrase seems particularly important, I like to be able to confirm with the author that I’ve weighted it correctly. Or perhaps I may feel that the English needs to pull a little further away from the German in order to create the right mood. I would be mortified if the author felt I had betrayed their text, so if they’re interested in discussing the translation, I’ll explain the implications of some of my choices and we make the decision together. Sometimes they’re too busy, or say they don’t need to get involved and are happy to leave these choices to me, but I do like to make sure. It’s not that I can’t decide, and it’s seldom the case that I don’t understand something. But if I had spent hours, days, years writing and perfecting the original text, I’d want to know that this, as near as dammit, was what my readers were actually getting. (I’ve heard tales of authors who overrule translators and absolutely insist on inserting formulations that don’t actually work in the target language, but fortunately I haven’t encountered one yet.)
Now, though, with Homeland, I had set myself up to ventriloquize the voices of not one but two people – Kempowski and Bell – neither of whom was in a position to give me feedback. This was going to be . . . interesting.
I’d already provided Granta with a sample translation of the first four pages. Now Bella sent me Anthea’s draft, and I compared the two. To my relief I saw that we were ‘hearing’ the same Kempowski, and had made many similar choices. I assume that Anthea’s version wasn’t final, but those first few pages certainly could have been. I’d love to know whether she had already polished them, or whether, after years of experience, she was able to produce something that good right off the cuff. I wouldn’t dream of showing anyone my first drafts – hideous things! Full of place holders and question marks (and occasional AAAARGHS, venting at the end of a long day when the cogs of my brain are seizing up). I bash them out at speed; I like to get the whole text down and establish the arc of the story before going back over it, slowly, slowly, checking, reworking, polishing, again and again and again.
Of course, there were also differences between our versions. Sometimes Anthea had found a word or formulation that was clearly better, smoother, more satisfying. These I incorporated. In other instances, though, it was less clear – and here I found myself struggling. I really wanted to stick with some of my own choices, but I didn’t feel confident about doing so. Anthea was far more experienced than I, and already familiar with Kempowski’s style. Surely the words and phrasing in her version, which read so well, even in draft form, must be better? Reluctantly, I made these alterations, too.
Thinking about the text, though, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. When a sentence isn’t quite right and I’m still trying to convince myself it’s OK, I get a sense of actual, physical unease. My whole body resists it, and the only way I can dissipate this tension is to make the change. Yes, these were good sentences: but they weren’t mine. I had to trust my instincts and go with what my gut was telling me. I needed to set Anthea’s draft aside until I’d translated – and polished – a good chunk of the text myself, and was able to compare the two with greater confidence.
By the time I’d translated a few thousand words, I had a better sense of what was going on: a feel for the meat of the text, a sharper awareness of its problems and eccentricities. I returned to Anthea’s draft. This time was different. I had questions for her – and she answered them. Look – you see? It’s OK to shake this up a bit. You can let it be looser. Have you thought of turning this around? That’s better, isn’t it? Yes, yes, it’s fine, you can break the sentence there without spoiling the flow. This one needs streamlining. Ah, but here – this should stay as it is. It’s supposed to sound a little off-kilter . . .
I never really met Anthea Bell. She died in October 2018, two weeks before Homeland came out. I’m especially sorry that I never got to attend one of her translation masterclasses; but the opportunity to study her draft pages while working on my own gave me an invaluable insight into and confidence in my own process as a translator. I’ll always be grateful to her for that.