ALTA blog contributor Maggie Zebracka interviewed with translator Rachel Hildebrandt.
MZ: You were born and raised in Texas. How did you come to be interested in German, and specifically German translation?
RH: I’m originally from Texas, but I grew up in both Texas and South Carolina. My interest in German stems from my family, all descendants of German and Swiss immigrants to Texas. My grandparents grew up speaking German, and my father spent extended time working and traveling in Germany. Although I didn’t grow up speaking German, I took German once I reached college, and then pursued an internship in Germany and later spent a year studying there during graduate school. As for translation, I started translating for acquaintances and some nonprofit organizations during my year in Dresden. Once I returned to the US, I continued to dabble a little in translation over the years, and over time, that aspect of my professional life increased.
Have you continued to work commercially as a translator or do you focus only on literary work now?
I focus on literary work as much as possible, for example, I’m working on a fiction sample for a German publisher right now. However, like most freelancers, I pick up whatever I can along the way, time allowing. I have done academic editing work for the past ten years, and I continue to do that for certain clients. I also recently translated some old family letters for a client, since I can read some of the old German handwriting styles. With that said, I would love to have enough literary work to make these other endeavors less critical.
In 2014, your translation of Thilo Wydra’s biography of Grace Kelly, Grace, was published. Has the experience of translating a biography been any different from translating a novel?
Translating fiction is, for me anyway, quite different from nonfiction. I consider the two biographies I did for Skyhorse to have been my crash course in book translation. Before these two books, I had never translated anything of that length. Just the sheer volume of time and words was overwhelming, but I loved the work because I’ve always loved books. Moving into fiction, I am much more aware of voice, flow, and style. This in part is thanks to the opportunities I have had over the past year to work closely with the authors themselves, who have provided invaluable feedback and encouragement. It is one thing to create a sentence that makes sense and accurately reflects content, and it is something completely different to craft it to reflect the beauty and nuance of the fiction writer’s skill. With fiction, I feel both more intuitive and more intentional than I have in the other kinds of translation I did in the past, whether the biographies or the commercial translation.
How did you choose to translate Herr Faustini Takes a Trip?
The story behind this novel is rather serendipitous. Like most of us, I have a LinkedIn account, and at some point last year, I decided that it would be interesting to attempt to connect directly with various German-language authors through that network. One of the authors whose profiles I looked at and then linked to was Wolfgang Hermann. After reading about his impressive body of work, I contacted him directly to ask if he was currently working with a translator. I learned that although some short stories had been published several years ago, none of his longer works had been. It was through my communication with Wolfgang that I became aware of the Faustini series, and after reading the first installment, Herr Faustini Verreist, I was so taken by the story and the voice that I knew I wanted to translate it, if I could find a publisher.
What have been the most challenging aspects of translating Herr Faustini Takes a Trip?
At this stage of my career, I think that one of the most challenging aspects of my work is gauging how much linguistic and structural leeway I have as a translator. I have worked with several authors at this point on samples, stories and books, and with each of them, the amount of creative space to play with the text has been different. Thus, here in the early days of my involvement with fiction, it has been knowing where and how I can deviate from the original sentence structure and syntax that has been the hardest part. I
worked very closely with Wolfgang on Faustini. His English is very good, and I would send blocks of chapters to him for feedback as I worked my way through the novel. Since this was the first full novel I had translated, I was constantly wanting to check on voice and consistency. Was this how Faustini was supposed to sound? Was this an accurate reflection of the narrative voice? Wolfgang’s style is wonderfully rich with images and sensory experiences, while at the same time focused on quiet details: the glint of a cat’s eyes, a flower just out of reach from a window, the feeling of carpet rubbing under the palm of your hand. Besides structure, the other challenging part was making sure that I accurately retained the connection between the physical world and Faustini’s mental spaces. This is a quiet, contemplative work which mainly plays itself out in Faustini’s mind, thus it was always critical make sure these two spaces were connected the way Wolfgang intended them to be, as reflected in various word choices and repetition. Once again, Wolfgang was able to provide the critical support I needed to achieve this.
I think all translators consider how much their personal style is going to influence the way they translate, either consciously or unconsciously. Were there times you and Wolfgang disagreed with one another or were you mostly in agreement?
We were mostly in agreement. Working with Wolfgang was a wonderful experience, because he was so supportive of what I did with his text. He never nitpicked any sections apart. Instead he would share how much he liked a passage or how it made him laughed. That was a very enabling and positive experience for me as a new literary translator. I would sometimes feel doubtful about some part or the other, but Wolfgang would always reassure me that what I was writing truly did capture his tone and the essence of Faustini’s story. Of course, there were details – occasional word choices, idiomatic nuances, etc. – that had to be worked out, but all in all, there was great consensus between us about the translation.
Is this book the first time you have collaborated so closely with the author over a text? Are you typically very close to the authors you translate?
This is the first novel I have published, but Wolfgang is not the first author I’ve worked with so closely. A few months ago, I published a short story by Andreas Izquierdo, and we collaborated directly on that text. I love Andreas’ magical novels, as well, and I have written samples from several of them and completed one of them for which I’m still looking for a publisher. As with Wolfgang, I would send blocks of chapters to Andreas for feedback, and he too proved to be a marvelous sounding board for the translation process. Besides Andreas and Wolfgang, I have also worked on samples from various other authors with whom I’ve had very little, if any, contact, except perhaps through the rights editor at a publisher. I have enjoyed working with Andreas and Wolfgang so much and benefited so greatly from their advice that I know this is my preferred work relationship. The opportunity to dialogue about a work with the author directly is both enlightening and invaluable, and I personally favor this collaborative model over any other.
You may find ALTA’s review of Herr Faustini Takes a Trip here.
With degrees in art history and historic preservation, Rachel Hildebrandt worked for
years as a historical consultant and editor before transitioning to literary translation. She has published both fiction and nonfiction works in translation, including Grace: A Biography by Thilo Wydra and Staying Human by Katharina Stegelmann (both from Skyhorse). Rachel is currently working on a translation of Merle Kroeger’s bestselling novel Havarie, which is due out in Spring 2017 from Unnamed Press.