Life takes us funny places. Decades ago I played in the Yale Symphony Orchestra with Linda Marianiello, who had transferred to Yale and had the reputation – more than well-deserved – as a phenomenal flautist. I recently learned that Linda has turned her musical training, liberal arts education, and other considerable skills to literary and book translation, a field that constitutes 3% of all book publishing in the US today. I grabbed the chance to catch up with Linda to find out not only how her life took this turn but also learn something about what exactly literary translation requires of a writer.
TZ: What types of books do you translate?
LM: Historical works, biographies, and fiction. We’ve had two complete books published this year: Gertrud Kolmar: A Literary Life (Northwestern University Press) and Germany’s Prophet: Paul de Lagarde and the Origins of Modern Antisemitism. (Brandeis University Press). Fiction translations to date have consisted of translating large sections of novels by several interesting German authors with an eye to publishing. Most editors in the US do not read or know any German, so extensive samples of works that authors and their publishers want to see published in translation must be submitted to various publishing houses for consideration….There have been many, many other book translations, including what one might call “coffee table” books – but good ones. Topics include wine, Prohibition and whiskey, art history, cook books, travel, children’s literature, health (yoga, diet/nutrition, physical fitness, alternative medicine), and history.
TZ: I think of you, and knew you, as a musician. How did you end up doing this kind of work?
LM: I am still a professional classical flutist. In fact, I manage The New Mexico Performing Arts Society, which includes a chamber music series, New Mexico’s first and only Bach Society, and an annual flute masterclass. In essence, this means that I have two, full-time jobs! Music is still the principal passion that drives my life. I have been a professional musician for more than 35 years, starting with the New Haven Symphony while studying at Yale. Languages other than English have also always been a part of my life. After all, music is also a “foreign language,” another way of expressing in sound what might otherwise be inexpressible.
My husband, opera conductor Franz Vote, and I began to translate full-time in 2003. Prior to that, I had done both translation and interpreting (oral translation into and from English) in the music field. We lived in Germany in the 1980s and 90s, which is why we are both very fluent in German. Franz has a B. A. in German and Music, and I studied French, German, and Italian at Yale, all of which I used extensively in Europe, along with Spanish from five years of study in high school. Later, when we were living in Chicago, we decided that we wanted to start a business in which we could be self-employed. We spent time reading books from the library and realized that we both had skills in foreign languages, German in particular. So we began our translation business with work in the music field for a piano builder friend in Bayreuth, Germany. Since then, the business has grown to include other major arts institutions in the German-speaking world. So we have the best of both worlds: a solid translation business and ongoing careers in classical music.
One thing that translation requires, apart from a deep understanding of the source language, is excellent writing skills. Without realizing it, I had developed these writing skills at Yale. They have been a huge help to me in literary translation.
TZ: How does the experience of translating a work of literary biography differ from translating a novel or short story?
LM: Both literary biographies and novels/short stories require the ability to capture the style of the German author and to convey that in English. The goal of the final translation is that it must read as though it had originally been written in English, easier said than done. In both cases, my musical background has been very helpful in terms of understanding the style of a composer or an author. There are many parallels. It’s really all about understanding style and meaning, of being an “interpreter,” regardless of the subject matter. The main difference between these two genres would probably be the historical background required in translating German biographies, which include much more historical detail than one generally sees in English-language texts. Thus, a great deal of historical research is involved in translating biographies.
TZ: Gertrud Kolmar was a poet and so, not surprisingly, this biography involves a fair amount of her poetry, translated into English. Since poetry is based so much on the words themselves, is it really possible to translate a poem? How did you handle this challenge?
LM: As you will note, the title page lists Franz Vote as the poetry translator. Poetry is not an area in which I am comfortable as a translator. It’s entirely different from prose, and the requirements for translating poetry are outside my comfort zone. Franz, on the other hand, has an extensive background in German literature. He has read poetry in the German language for decades. Interestingly enough, the German author of Gertrud Kolmar just wrote to us that he thought Franz made an excellent choice by not attempting to preserve the rhyme scheme.
People have asked Franz how he translates poetry. His responses are quite interesting: He says that he reads a line or two in the German, then closes his eyes and allows images to go through his mind. Poetry is about feeling, intuition, playing with the language, the sounds of words, rhythm, and so on. The German author said that he read Franz’s translations and felt they had captured the essence of Kolmar’s poetry. Nevertheless, the truth is that poetry is untranslatable in certain respects. But there are still good and less good poetry translations into English. My feeling is that it’s better to read a great poet’s work in English – or one’s native language – than not at all!
TZ: Gertrud Kolmar: A Literary Life begins with what the author calls a “factition” – an imaginary letter from Gertrud’s father to her younger sister. Can you explain what a factition is, and how it differs from pure fiction?
LM: For anyone who has never run into “factition” before, I believe it’s something unique to Dieter Kühn, the German author of the work. Before he begins to write a book, he does voluminous research in libraries and on location, and he often communicates with surviving family members or friends of the person he is writing about. When his subject matter is farther removed from the present, he goes to the places where the people he is writing about lived and attempts to get a feeling for the world in which they lived. He also learns what material about them has survived and hunts it down. The reason he calls them “factitions” is that he intersperses the work with made-up letters between various persons who are central to the story. These letters are, however, based on historical fact. Thus, he is not simply inventing letters based on fantasy, but is filling in the historical gaps with letters that could have been written by the persons involved.
Kühn’s “factitions” include a lot of factual information that he has captured in his research. For example, Gertrud’s father wrote letters that have survived, so Kühn has examined these closely to get a feeling for how he actually thought and wrote.
TZ: You have a unique combination of skills that undoubtedly help you as a translator, including fluency in both English and German, both theoretical and performance background in the arts, and strong writing skills and experience. What type of background do you think makes for the best translators? Any advice for novelists who think they have what it takes to work as translators?
LM: One thing about translators is that they often come to translation from other fields, including classical music. Others may have worked in a field for years, then decided they wanted to make a career change. Their specialized knowledge in a certain area helps them to translate with a focus on their area(s) of expertise. For this reason, we have a number of important clients in the music field.
There are translation training programs in the U.S., and even more of them in Europe. So you can actually get a degree in translation. The German-speaking countries are much more careful to certify their translators, so there are plenty of tests and ratings if you live in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. The U.S. has been slower to put such credentials in place, particularly for those of us who do not have translation degrees. NYU is, perhaps, the most important U.S. university to offer degrees in translation.
I would say that anyone who is considering translation and is based in the U.S. should first join their local translators association, then the national one, which is the American Translators Association. Many colleagues are very good about mentoring entry level translators in the profession. Our language pair, German to English, is one in which there are fewer high-quality translators than there are jobs. That is less true of Spanish, for example, but there is also much greater demand for Spanish translation in the U.S. Many Spanish to English translators who we know use certification to set them apart, as there are many more people working in this language pair.
Another important thing to know is that, at least in theory, all translators associations and language companies require translators to translate only into their native language. In our particular case, many Germans believe they know English better than they do. So they attempt to translate into English with varying degrees of success. German is such a complex language that many native German speakers don’t realize that English is not as easy as it seems. In fact, one of our clients, a German piano builder, has told us as much. He has come to realize that what we do is not as easy as all that, and he understands that his English is OK for conversational purposes, but less so for specialized, more complex written texts.
For novelists who wish to look into translation as a career option, I would say that living in their source language country for at least a year or two is essential. It is truly not enough to have taken courses in your source language, because there is so much that one has to learn “on the ground,” as it were. I cannot tell you how much one absorbs about a culture by living in the source language country/countries. There are many intangibles that one can only become aware of by living there. For example, what are the products that people buy in stores, including brand names? What types of food do people enjoy that we don’t eat in America? How do people raise their families? What do they believe? What are their values? How do they interact socially with others?
In the case of Germany, I lived in Munich for nearly a decade. The city’s architecture became part of my daily experience. The lifestyle was great, very different from our own. People are much more politically active in Germany than in the U.S. People from all walks of life go to concerts, the theater, museums, etc. They all have 6 weeks’ paid vacation per year and many social benefits that some Americans call “entitlements.” Germany is a Socialist country – not Communist! This means that their entire society is not only concerned about “rugged individualism,” but also about the quality of life for all citizens. This means guaranteed health care, well-funded retirement programs, excellent unemployment benefits, paid vacations, and time off from work when people have children – not only for the mothers, but often for the fathers as well. So how people live each day affects how they think in their native language. The language is an outgrowth of their cultural and historical roots. That is why it is impossible to be a really fine translator without having lived in the countries or countries in which one’s source language is spoken.