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Translator Spotlights: an Interview with Katy Derbyshire

Anja Pietsch

Our Translator Spotlights series sees us interview translators about their unique insights and perspectives on the field of translation today.

Katy Derbyshire translates contemporary German fiction and is publisher at V&Q Books. She comes from London and lives in Berlin.

Is there a specific topic you wouldn’t feel comfortable translating?

I’ve turned down a couple of projects in the past, yes. Texts that conflicted with my basic beliefs, texts that were misogynistic, homophobic, Islamophobic and anti-feminist. I spend a long time with the writing I translate and I get very emotionally engaged with it, so I won’t translate anything that makes me really angry. Aside from which, I wouldn’t want my name to be attached to the projects. As it turned out, few of the offending texts have made it to English publication in the end, so perhaps I wasn’t the only one who felt that way!

What were your favourite initiatives for this year’s Women in Translation Month?

Definitely the special focus at Translators Aloud – running videos of translators reading from their work, highlighting books by women writers all month long. It’s a simple format that goes a very long way and literally makes translators visible as part of the creative process. Charlie Coombe and Tina Kover set up the YouTube channel at the beginning of lockdown and it has really taken off.

Do you ever find certain registers of language or tone harder to get across/translate?

Dialect is always a killer! Do I decide to make a Berliner speak like a Mancunian? Do I try and recreate the dialect’s quirks? Do I plump for a sociolect – which is what I usually do – and then, how do I avoid it sounding stilted? Another tricky one is some German writers’ joy in either very complex or very simple sentence structure. I don’t want to change too much about their style, but can I expect readers to get through a whole book of baroque page-long sentences? Where do I intervene?

How do you judge a translation for an award?

Like all reading, reading as an award judge is always subjective. In my case, if the book’s language has a sparkling sound to it, makes me want to do a little dance when I read it, that’s a great sign. The book’s structure, ideas, plot and characters have to be fit for purpose too, obviously, but I want the language of a translation to be consistent and really sing.

As you have long been advocating for change in parity for more women authors in translation to reach Anglophone readers, and you spearheaded the founding of The Warwick Prize For Women In Translation, how do you feel about the award’s impact so far?

It’s hard to judge the award’s impact in terms of raising the numbers of women’s books translated. But we do know the prize itself is becoming better known and receiving more entries with every year. My hope is that it has also broadened the scope of our conversation about female-authored translated literature, along with other important initiatives like Women in Translation Month. We aimed to focus attention on the quality of women’s writing as well as its underrepresentation in translation. Listening to indie publishers in particular, it feels to me like they’re glad of another opportunity to call attention to their books and the great work they’re doing.

How did you decide to become a translator?

I was living in Berlin and doing soul-destroying, back-breaking jobs for not much money, so I sat down and thought about my skills and how to find work that would allow me to stay here longer term. I’d enjoyed my translation courses at university and after being turned down for a librarian apprenticeship, that was the route I took. Two years of evening classes once a week, an exam while I was pregnant, a break for maternity “leave”, and then I signed up with agencies and got started. Commercial translation was fun at first but got frustrating, so I tried hard to combine my literary evangelism with my passion for translating, and eventually that worked out.

What are some tips to leave behind a translating voice that you’ve refined for a certain author and approach a new text with fresh eyes?

I try to reread the new text first, listening carefully to put me in a new frame of mind, and I also read around the text, if I can: similar genres written in English, literature that was influential for the writer, background research. I talk to the writer if possible. And I suppose just taking it slowly to begin with, realising that the stuff I translate at the beginning will need more reworking than later parts once I’ve found my feet. But it’s all quite intuitive, not something I think about consciously.

Thank you to Katy for such illuminating answers and do check out her work and V&Q Books imprint. That wraps up our third interview for our translator spotlight series; be sure to catch us for our next one!



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