On Tuesday 27 November 2018, acclaimed German author Olga Grjasnowa came to the Queen’s College to lead a translation activity on her latest novel.
Grjasnowa was in Oxford as part of a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) residency here and at Warwick, and the previous evening had given a reading from her latest novel Gott ist nicht schüchtern. Grjasnowa was fascinating and generous with her answers to the many questions that followed that reading – taking in questions of style, whether there is such a thing as ‘migrant literature’, and her reception within and beyond Germany.
As we sat in groups around the room the following evening, the atmosphere was buzzing with anticipation. This was the first time I had participated in a translation workshop with the original author present, and I was excited to learn directly from the source how to capture a writer’s flair and style when translating. Olga Grjasnowa was the perfect teacher, boasting an impressive writing résumé – she has published three acclaimed novels in Germany, two of which have been translated into English.
The workshop began with a series of questions posed to Olga, giving the audience an insight into the complexity of the translation process, particularly with emotive and polemical literary pieces such as hers. Passionate about the treatment of her works in translation, Olga revealed that she had waited years before she had the opportunity to work with her favoured English translator, Katy Derbyshire. Olga also detailed her experience of her time on the creative writing course at the German Institute for Literature in Leipzig, recounting some of the techniques taught to keep her writing both poignant and realistic.
After the interview, Olga read out two extracts from her new novel Gott ist nicht schüchtern, a story of two individuals living through and eventually escaping the civil war in Syria. Her voice lent an authentic feel to her written words. The audience leaned in, captivated by the tranquil quality of her voice and in trepidation of the arduous task ahead – how were we supposed to capture her hypnotic writing style in our own words?
The first passage centred around a character preparing a dinner party in Damascus, and included mouth-watering descriptions of the cooking ingredients and methods. Armed with my two teammates, paper and a poor knowledge of Arabic food terms, we dove into an initial crude translation of the extract.
Each group was given a different paragraph to translate. Towards the end of our first activity, common problems arose in the groups, from a lack of understanding of Arabic food terms, to the complexity of rendering German syntax to English. Each of these questions was met with patient understanding from Olga, and an enlightening explanation; she described her methods when researching different culture’s cuisine, recommending the use of authentic cookbooks. Eventually, each group read their translated passage out loud, resulting in an expressive and colourful English rendering of the German.
The next passage was a heart-wrenching shipwreck scene, with a brutal, tense description of the characters’ efforts to keep themselves and others afloat. Here, the difficulty lay in detailing the actions of the characters, and attempting to avoid melodramatic and unrealistic portrayals of their gestures. Olga revealed that her technique for writing an action-filled passage was to model each movement with her own body in order to gauge how realistic each gesture was.
Whilst I clung to the desk before me like a character to their life-vest, the rest of the room finished their reworkings of the passage. Finally, we all read out our polished translations, building a haunting image of a desperate sequence of events.
By the end of the workshop I felt that my understanding of literary translation had been broadened extensively, particularly in respect to an author’s view of their work being left in a translator’s hands or – perhaps more accurately – in their words. Carefully packing away our translations, we finished, satisfied that we had left our own literary flair on Grjasnowa’s captivating work.
Gott ist nicht schüchtern, by Olga Grjasnowa, will soon be available in an English translation by Katy Derbyshire (City of Jasmine, Oneworld Publications)