Decoding and Encoding?

We take the ability that we can find the book we want in almost any language for granted, but have you ever thought about the progress behind translated work? How many languages can you speak fluently? And on the top of that, could you imagine writing beautiful sentences  between two of them?

Bradley Schmidt is an American translator, living with his family in Leipzig. He translates German literature into his first language, English. In this interview he discusses both his job and the real meaning of translation.

Ann-Kristin Rose: Since German is not your first language, how long do you need to translate one book? Also why did you decide to translate German to English? What other languages do you speak? What is it about German that made you to choose it?

Bradley Schmidt: Because books are different in terms of length, I tend to estimate how many pages of a rough draft I am able to complete in a day at around five book (printed) pages or between 2,000-3,000 words. However, I usually rework and edit the first draft several times. German is the only foreign language in am fluent in, although I have some basic comprehension of Czech (where I lived for 6 months) and studied some Latin, Ancient Greek, and Biblical Hebrew. My choice of German was partially circumstantial: although having German heritage (my great-great-grandparents emigrated in the 1870s) made it more accessible, at my small high school there were only two language offered. Spanish was the other. I only added German as a second major in college after I grew dissatisfied with my pre-med biology major.

Ann-Kristin: Especially when I read “Frank” by Lutz Seiler, I was wondering how much the translated story is allowed to differ from the original one. For example there are some german names which are kind of untypical for english names like Frank. Would you be able to change it? Is there anything that is un-translatable?

Bradley: Generally speaking translations shouldn’t omit anything essential to the story or add anything extraneous. I try to resist the urge to “explain” the text to potential readers and take it on faith that they will figure it out. Proper names are usually kept the same, with some exceptions if they have special meaning or are extremely hard to pronounce. There are individual words and concepts that are considered untranslatable. In literary contexts these are usually only addressed in a forward or postscript and virtually never with footnotes. For instance, the “bug” in Kafka’s Metamorphosis is called an “ungeheueren Ungeziefer” in the German original and the various translations render it as “gigantic insect,” “monstrous vermin,” “an enormous bedbug,” and monstrous cockroach,” all of which I find unsatisfying. But each translator had to make a decision.

Ann-Kristin: How did you get the idea to make translating as your job? Was it your “dream” since you are little?

Bradley: Although I was always an avid reader, I first considered translating as a profession after leaving a doctoral program and being unsure what I wanted to do. Even then, the path to literary translation wasn’t direct: I initially did an MA in applied translation at Leipzig University. Three years after graduating, I completed a summer school for literary translation in Norwich, England.

Ann-Kristin: Most people may think translating means to transcribe word for word. Since my first language is German, and I am an exchange student right now, I know that there are many differences in grammar and vocabulary. So what does translating mean to you? Can you describe the process of how you approach a translation?

Bradley: I really hope people can get away from the notion of translating meaning what every word means in another language. If it was as simple as “decoding and encoding” a text, then a computer could do all of that for us. For me, translating is about truly understanding the meaning or story of a given text, whether literary or otherwise, and finding a way to tell it in another language.

Ann-Kristin: In thinking about contemporary German fiction, poetry, prose, academic and commercial texts, what is your favourite kind of text to translate and why? Are there certain challenges or obstacles in each genre? Benefits?

Bradley: Before I started translating, I hoped to reach a point where I was only translating fiction, one novel after another. However, in the meantime I am glad I get to translate a wide variety of text types. So it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I would probably say fiction or poetry. And naturally each type contains its own challenges. You could also think about it as analogous to writers’ specializations: every different genre requires different skills and approaches.

Ann-Kristin: What is your favourite part of being a translator and what has been your biggest highlight in your work career?

Bradley: My favorite part has been getting the chance to engage with so many different authors and lend my voice to different narratives and perspectives. Although it’s possible to rank highlights in terms of which famous or highly-acclaimed authors translated (in my case it might be Bernhard Schlink), but the translation I’m most proud of is “Missing Witness,” a collection of poetry by Ulrike Almut Sandig published by Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn. In addition to being selected in an open submissions situation for poetry and not just translated poetry (two manuscripts were selected from over 700), I felt like every word was just right.

Ann-Kristin: From all the work you have translated, which piece do you like the most and why? Which piece do you think is your most loyal translation? Are they the necessarily the same text?

Bradley: In many ways I think the “Missing Witness” collection was the most loyal to original text, even though it is free with certain words and phrases.

Ann-Kristin: What’s a piece of German literature that you think everyone should read?

Bradley: It’s really hard to pick a favorite but I could recommend the list of 100 German books you should read assembled by Deutsche Welle. My personal favorite, “Austerlitz,” by W.G. Sebald is challenging it terms of narrative structure.

Ann-Kristin: Is there a personal line for you between your job and free time? Is your mind always translating?

Bradley: I have a family and attempt to maintain a reasonable life-work-balance, but there are frequently tough words or phrases where you know that your current, rough draft isn’t just right yet and sometimes you’re thinking about something else and then a solution occurs.

Ann-Kristin: What is something that always gets lost if you think about translating?

Bradley: I usually try to avoid talking about translation as being derivative and inferior to the original. We shouldn’t forget that writers aren’t perfect either. I recently came across an article that drew an interesting comparison between translation and love: it will always be less than perfect but we do it anyway. And there’s usually more won than lost.

        An American Translator.

Bradley Schmidt is an American translator based in Leipzig, Germany. In addition to translating contemporary German fiction, poetry and prose, he also does translations and editing of academic and commercial texts.