Dresden by Way of Texas: An Interview with Rachel Hildebrandt

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?

Rachel Hildebrandt

Rachel Hildebrandt

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 mr-faustini-takes-a-tripauthors 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


Wolfgang Hermann

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.

Maggie Zebracka is a graduate of Wellesley College and Vanderbilt University.zebracka2Originally from southeastern Poland, she currently lives and writes in West Texas.

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Chicago Area Translators and Interpreters Assocation April 2016 Conference




Presented by Dr. Evelyne Accad, Author and Translator
Moderated by Prof. Cynthia Hahn, Lake Forest College

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Lake Forest College, Hotchkiss Hall 100 (Meyer Auditorium)
Middle Campus, 555 N. Sheridan Road, Lake Forest, Illinois
Parking is available on campus.

11:30 PM – 12:30 PM Lunch with Dr. Accad at Boomers Café, Mohr Student Center

12:45 PM – 1:45 PM Presentation and Discussion, Meyer Auditorium

Program Description: Dr. Evelyne Accad, author, activist, singer/songwriter and Professor Emerita of French/Women’s Studies/African/Middle-Eastern Studies/Globalization Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a native of Beirut, Lebanon, of Swiss French mother and Egyptian-born father. Her award-winning novels, critical works and translations, in French and English, address issues across the globe, in particular with regard to women’s rights and gender inequality, as well as with the link between cancer and the environment.

Speaker Bio: Dr. Accad has translated Algerian author Noureddine Aba, as well as her own work, into French and English, working additionally with Dr. Cynthia Hahn, Professor of French at Lake Forest College, on the translation of 4 works of prose. Several of her works have been translated into multiple languages, including Arabic, Korean and Spanish. Accad gives workshops worldwide to inspire peace and the building of cultural bridges, singing and translating her songs for a varied audience in French, English and Arabic.

Directions to Lake Forest College, Middle Campus:

By Car: See the following link (See map of campus also on this page, buildings # 14 and # 22). http://www.lakeforest.edu/about/ourcampus/directions.php

By Train: Take the Metra line Union Pacific/North Line (UP-N) to Lake Forest Station. From the train station, it’s a 10-15 minute walk east on Deerpath Road to Sheridan Road. Turn right (South) on Sheridan, walk to second entrance for Middle Campus (near a flashing crosswalk), next to Blackstone Hall gate (or come through the first entrance, between pillars for Middle Campus). The Mohr Student Center is the first building after Blackstone residence hall; it has large glass windows. Park and enter from the East side of the building and walk downstairs to Boomer’s Café (for individual purchase of food items and drinks). Or enter from any door and look for the large open space with pool tables, walk down the stairs to Boomer’s Café.

Hotchkiss Hall is close to the Student Center. Exit from the East side, continue down the sidewalk to the large, modern library, walk through the library, and continue down the sidewalk to reach Hotchkiss Hall; it resembles a purple castle. There is also parking near the front door. Walk inside and Hotchkiss 100 (Meyer Auditorium) is on the main level, behind the elevator.

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Translatory: A Poetry Translation App


After more than a year of hard work, and many iterations, versions and beta-tests later, we are extremely proud to announce that our new app, Translatory, is now available for free on the App Store and Google Play. Get it now!

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to translate the work of a famous French poet? Do you burn to get your creative teeth into the intricacies of a Lithuanian rhyming couplet? Or are you just curious about how translation actually works?

Translatory is your way in, and you don’t need to know ANY languages to get the most out of it.

Expect regular updates with new poems to test your translation skills and introduce you to new languages, cultures and ideas.

translatory.jpg video

Note: ALTA believes in human translation over all, but this does look pretty neat!

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Croatian, ASL, and Optimistic Translation: An Interview with Sara Nović

ALTA blog contributor Ken Bruce interviewed author and translator Sara Nović, whose novel Girl at War has just come out in paperback in both the US and UK. 

To start with, you’ve been translating a number of poems from Izet Sarajlić’s Sarajevska Ratna Zbirka (Sarajevo War Journal) from the Bosnian.  Those of these I’ve read are fairly short but quite pointed and very (darkly) funny.  Were there any difficulties rendering the full impact and humor of Sarajlić’s poetry into English within such a condensed, sometimes claustrophobic form?  

novic headshot

Sara Nović

Definitely. Sarajlić’s humor, and the way he presents such strong narratives in small spaces, are what drew me to his work.Translating from Bosnian to English in general can be difficult because Bosnian’s seven cases afford a lot more flexibility with word order than English, and it requires significantly less pronouns and prepositions. I think every translator develops priorities for a project that best reflect the author’s original intentions–so I tried to keep the language as spare as I could, at the possible expense that an American reader might not get every reference. Working with these poems forced me to focus on economy of language, and I feel that reflected in my own creative work now, too–if a word doesn’t absolutely need to be there, I cut it.

If there is one thing that the American people know less about than the state of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, it’s probably the state of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian literature.  Are there lesser known writers from these countries already translated into English you think deserve more attention?  Are there as yet untranslated authors of poetry or fiction who should be brought to an English-speaking audience, maybe even someone whose work you’d personally like to tackle?   

There is so much great literature coming out of all the ex-Yugo countries. Everyone should read everything by Dubravka Ugrešić, of course. Slavenka Drakulić is great, too. These two I know already exist in English, as do really famous writers like Ivo Andrić and Vasko Popa. Unfortunately the reason why a lot of Americans don’t know about the state of literature in ex-Yugo is because much of it is untranslated. I suppose this is the case with much of the world’s literature, given the tiny percentage of things Americans read in translation. I’d really like to get Sarajlić’s work out to a wider audience; then I’d love to tackle some prose, maybe a contemporary Croatian novel.

You studied translation and fiction at Columbia University for your Masters.  How far back did your interest in literary translation go before this?  Was there any translator’s or author’s writing or guidance that particularly inspired you? 

I’ve always had a love of languages, and I’ve been lucky to have three in my life substantially–English, Croatian and American Sign Language. (There was a time in college where I could read novels in Spanish, but unfortunately I haven’t stretched that muscle in quite a while!) And to be Deaf, too, is to live a life in translation–I was used to having interpreters translate my signs into English, and others’ English into ASL on a daily basis. That said, though, I never considered translation as a literary or career endeavor–it just didn’t cross my mind somehow. It was luck that I arrived at Columbia while the translation program was just beginning, and the faculty was pretty phenomenal. Susan Bernofsky and Idra Novey were particularly encouraging of my work in the early stages, when I was still working out what translating poetry even entailed, and their positive responses kept me going. Susan was also very inclusive of ASL, whereas at the university level Columbia doesn’t even give students language credit for studying it. We did an exchange with Gallaudet where we translated GU students’ creative work into English and they translated ours into ASL. That experience made me feel like the translation world was a community of which I wanted to be a part.

In addition to being an author and translator, you also founded/edit for Redeafined, a “blog concerned with restoring the balance of information surrounding deaf issues.”  Not out of line with this philosophy, you have written a number of short stories focusing on d/Deaf characters.  In an article from last year you wrote about the obstacles of promulgating the Deaf experience in written English, as opposed to using sign languages, but conveyed hope that there is room in the English language/literature for such expression.  How has your writing and your relationship with written English evolved as you’ve tried to carve out a space for the d/Deaf experience in the seemingly hostile environment of the English language? 

My relationship with English is a bit of a fraught one because in a way I feel like it can never be truly mine. On the page I can understand and control all its elements, but out in the world only about 60% of spoken English is comprehensible through lipreading–the rest is context and guesswork. In that way, I think my engagement with English is always from a Deaf perspective to some degree.

I’ve written Deaf characters, and have played with dialogue in a really basic way, like in the removal of quotation marks from hearing people’s speech, and characters who speak and sign simultaneously, but say two different things. The project I’m working on now, though, has many Deaf characters and addresses the ASL/English divide more directly. I am experimenting with a way to translate ASL into English but still feel distinct from English. I haven’t figured out how to do it, yet. But I think it’s important that I do it in a way that takes ASL from three dimensions to two without flattening it, because I want hearing people to understand that there is a linguistic richness in ASL one can’t find elsewhere–it’s not just gestures or broken English.

Are there are ways your experiences of translating between ASL and English for yourself and writing characters’ ASL dialogue out into English have influenced and/or been influenced by your experience translating from the Croatian and Bosnian into English, or do they remain independent of each other for you?

ASL obviously has a very different grammatical structure from either English or Croatian/Bosnian, because it operates as a 3-D mechanism. If you are telling a story in ASL, you can set up characters and objects in space and then move them around. So beyond a single sign, where you place it or the way you move it conveys a lot of indirect information beyond the denotation of that one sign. This movement is what makes ASL unique, and I’d really love to be able to figure out how to capture that via English. I’m not sure that my translation from Croatian has given me any clues as to how to approach that particular question, but without having learned about and practiced translation and overcome challenges between languages, I probably would’ve just discounted it as an impossible task. Translating has made me more optimistic about translating, and about writing.


Sara Nović is the author of Girl At War (Random House; Little, Brown UK), now out in paperback. girl at warIn 2014 she was an ALTA Travel Fellow for her work on Bosnian poet Izet Sarajlić’s Sarajevska Ratna Zbirka (Sarajevo War Journal). She has an MFA from Columbia University, where she studied fiction and literary translation. She teaches writing at Columbia, Wesleyan University, and with the literary nonprofit Words After War, and lives in Brooklyn.

Ken Bruce lives in Cincinnati, Ohio where he studiesken bruce philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, writes short fiction, and enjoys reading and learning about translated literature from all parts of the world.

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Bookfair Bingo: Celebrating Translation at AWP 2016!

Looking forward to some great translation at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference this year? So are we!AWP16Thumbnail

Here’s your chance to win some excellent books in translation. After last year’s incredible success, ALTA is thrilled to present our SECOND Bookfair Bingo on Friday, April 1 (no jokes here!), and Saturday, April 2. Come by the ALTA table (#707) at the conference bookfair and pick up a bingo sheet that features 24 presses that publish superb works of literature in translation. Go to those tables, connect with some great publishers, get them to sign off on your sheet, and one lucky person each day will win 24 free books, generously donated by the participating presses. Be sure to leave room in your suitcase!

What’s more, the AWP conference in Los Angeles is offering a lot of fantastic panels andalta_logo events that feature our favorite thing, translation. You can find a handy-dandy calendar here that contains all these events. Good luck choosing between them!

We’ll be following these events on our social media: Twitter, Facebook, and Storify. During the event, Tweet or Facebook at us using the hashtags #AWP16 (not #AWP2016!) and #translation.

We hope to see you there, and happy translation hunting!

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