What Happens in Wolfenbüttel (when the translators come to town)

June 25, 2018

Because I’ve only been writing this blog for a couple months, I’m still catching up on some events I’ve been attending annually for several years. One such highlight my calendar is the annual meeting of literary translators in Germany. The organization behind this mixture of conference, workshop, and reunion is the VDÜ or the Verband deutschsprachiger Übersetzer literarischer und wissenschaftlicher Werke and could be considered analogue to the American association ALTA, or the TA.

It was my fifth time attending the annual festivities in Wolfenbüttel, a quaint, picturesque town in Lower Saxony and former official princely residence with a famous library with directors such as Leibniz and Lessing. More recently, Wolfenbüttel has achieved prominence as home to the Jägermeister distillery. However, there is no overlap between the distillery and the visiting horde of translators.

Due to teaching obligations on Friday, I unfortunately missed the opening words and keynote address. I did arrive in time for hobnobbing and small take at the punningly named Wok-In Chinese restaurant. Later, I served as moderator of one of the stages at the Lesefest readings in which translators read from recent publications. With the theme of Taste and Smell, some of the translators featured included Sonja Finck reading from her translation of Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s, The Smell of Other People’s Houses, Tobias Rothenbücher from Jonathan Balcombe’s What a Fish Knows, and Katharina Schmidt reading from Anthony Bourdain’s, Appetites. It was my first time moderating at this event and I felt honored to help introduce translators’ interesting work to their colleagues.

The next day featured a wide array of workshop offerings. My morning was spent in the “Found in Translation” workshop led by Bettina Abarbanell (whose translated authors include Jonathan Franzen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Rachel Kushner) and the award-winning Miriam Mandelkow (who most recently retranslated James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain). The workshop discussed various examples from the translator participants in which the translator was rather free and in the process, something was “gained” in translation. Throughout the conversation, we determined that many of the examples were in a gray zone are could also have been translated more conservatively.

In the afternoon I attended “Machen wir’s kurz … Zur Textökonomie” with Ina Pfitzner. This was more of a hand-on workshop that attempted to apply the principle of conscientious editing to sample texts. Although language clichés would lead one to believe that a translation into German automatically makes the translation longer than the original, the exercises provided us with some practical approaches to avoid unnecessary syntax acrobatics in the German.

Finally, the conference made their way to the edge of the town, to an odd event center. There Olaf Kühl was honored for his translations from the Russian and Polish, in particular Szczepan Twardoch’s The Boxer. Following the buffet, many translators who are somewhat inhibited or introverted in some circumstances let loose, cut a rug. In short, they danced their little hearts out. I could say more, but what happens in Wolfenbüttel stays in Wolfenbüttel!

Many were still able to make it to the final panel on Sunday. This year “An Author Meets Their Translators” featured German YA star Andreas Steinhöfel’s translators into Turkish (Suzan Geridönmez) and Polish (Elżbieta Jeleń). A final communal meal was served, and yet another enriching conference in Wolfenbüttel came to an end.

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