A Journal of the Plague Week 30

Sunday, October 11th, 2020

This time last year we were in Paris. We had been in Amsterdam the week before, Madrid and Edinburgh the week before that. In two weeks time we would be in Antwerp (and then Berlin, and then Vienna). And in between Paris and Antwerp, we spent almost a week in Frankfurt.

While all of the other European travel was for Jeremy to speak at conferences (and for the two of us to be tourists), the trip to Frankfurt was, unusually, for me. Specifically, it was for me to take part in the Frankfurt International Translators Program of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

I had applied for this invitation-only program in the middle of last year and was really pleased to have been accepted. There were 35 of us from all over the world, all of us literary translators (in the broadest sense), all of us translating from German into a total of 18 different languages. The organizers paid for us to travel to Frankfurt, visit the huge book fair, attend discussions and meet with publishers. It was a fabulous opportunity—and I found it all incredibly stressful.

I was so nervous ahead of the whole thing—nervous about meeting all these new people, about what the program would involve, about living up to whatever it was the organizers had seen in my application that prompted them to invite me. Jeremy kept reassuring me that everything would be fine, and I tried to reassure myself as well, telling myself that I had earned my place on the program and that translators are, in general, a pretty friendly bunch. I told myself I had nothing to be worried about. And then, at our first program get-together in Frankfurt, the organizers sprung a little getting-to-know-you game on us: our names would be drawn at random from a hat, and we had to go to the front of the room to introduce ourselves and talk about one of our translation successes or failures— in German, obviously. I mean, if you were trying to come up with a way to make me hyperventilate, that would be a pretty sure-fire way of doing it. Speaking extemporaneously in front of a group of people in ANY language is LITERALLY a nightmare scenario for me. It was so perfectly horrifying that I had to laugh. And then I got up and said my bit and didn’t keel over, but even just thinking about it now makes my stomach drop to my feet.

That first get-together also made it clear to me that I was very much the odd-one-out in the whole program. With the exception of maybe one other person, I was the only non-fiction translator; everyone else was immersed in the world of fiction publishing which, as it turns out, is quite different to my academic publishing world. There was a lot of talk about pitching novels to publishers and working through literary agents and developing relationships with authors, and various German publishers came and talked to us about their upcoming releases and the writers they were representing and the awards they were winning, and while it was all quite interesting, it all had pretty much nothing to do with my work.

I struggled to relate to most of it, and I found myself thinking back to the two-day workshop I had attended earlier in the year at the German Historical Institute in London, which was exclusively for German-English academic translators. I had been incredibly nervous before that event as well—but it turned out to be flat-out fantastic. I tweeted at the time: “Just spent two days in the company of other academic translators discussing everything from semicolons to the nature of consciousness and it was THE BEST THING EVER”, and that pretty much sums it up. We had in-depth discussions about citing archival sources and unpacking complicated scholarly sentences and coping with traumatic content (if you’re a German academic translator, you will probably have to deal with Nazis at some point) and navigating the specifics of academic publishing, and it was exhausting and exhilarating. I felt like I was truly with “my people,” like I really belonged. Kind of the opposite of how I felt in Frankfurt.

I’d always said that I might be interested in trying my hand at translating a novel if the opportunity arose, and I figured that this program in Frankfurt might be a good way of testing those waters. What I realized instead (somewhat to my surprise) is that even though non-fiction/academic translation is not nearly as “glamorous” or respected as fiction translation…I actually prefer it. I genuinely like it. When those German publishers were talking about the new novels they were releasing and the other translators were expressing their interest in translating them, I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm at all. I realized I had absolutely no desire to spend months of my life translating a piece of contemporary fiction. But the prospect of spending months of my life translating an academic account of, say, German soldiers on the Eastern Front in World War II? Bring it on! It is anything but glamorous, but it’s what I do. It’s what I want to do. And if I got nothing else out of that trip to Frankfurt, at least I got that insight.

To be honest, I did get more out of the trip than just that. I got to meet some nice translators, I got to speak to the publishing director of Aufbau and tell her how honored I was to have translated that Victor Klemperer book a few years ago (Aufbau was the book’s German publisher), I got to wander through endless halls of books at the trade fair and marvel at the sheer amount of literature there is out in the world, I got to practice speaking German, and I got to hang out in Frankfurt with Jeremy, my “plus-one” for a change, and we stayed in a cute hotel and drank German wine and ate German food and visited busy markets, because that’s how things were in the Before Times, just one year ago. One million years ago.

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