Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Interview: Hannes Riffel

Having been posting some of the questions asked by the translators working on Vellum/Ink, I thought it might be cool to turn the tables, and interrogate these guys for a bit. So in the spirit of what's turning out to be Translation Month here at the Geek Show, here's what should be the first of a short series of interviews with the translators of various editions. It's maybe not the most in-depth set of questions ever, but if nothing else, hopefully this'll cast some light on the hard-working people involved in the gnarly process. So without further ado, let's get on with it...

OK, let's start with the basic pimpage -- your name, the language you're translating the book into, which book and for which publisher:

Hi, I'm Hannes Riffel, and I'm trying to transmute Ink into German, after having cut my teeth on Vellum and losing quite a few in the process. It will be published as a paperback by Heyne and before that – hopefully – as a cloth edition in a small print run by Shayol.

Can you give us a little sense of where you live and what it's like. How would you describe it to a would-be visitor from foreign shores?

My wife Sara, an accomplished translator and editor herself, and I live in a 70 year old house in a rural area of East Berlin with a nice garden and way too many books. Sara comes from the countryside a bit further east from here, I come from Freiburg way down south near the border of France and Switzerland. From our kitchen and library windows you can see the tenant building blocks a few streets away to the north, from our studies you can see the garden to the south and not much else. It's nice and quiet most of the time, but not too far from Berlin center (or the centers, as there are quite a few), if it gets too quiet.

What kind of stuff do you get up to when you're not working? Do you write yourself? Any other involvement in the wider scene? Or other scenes, for that matter? Basically, what do you do for kicks?

Well, I have written and published two SF short stories, nothing special, but usually consider myself a craftsman, not an artist. I'll probably stick to translating stuff for the rest of my life, but who knows?

I have been scouting and editing SF for close to ten years now, for different publishers big and small. I moved to Berlin in 1998, am involved with the local fan scene and run a SF small press, Shayol, ( with some friends here. More important to me is the SF/F/H bookshop Otherland ( I run with my best friend Birgit and a bunch of incredibly nice and competent guys who work there mostly for the hell of it. It's good to work on the retail end of things; it keeps you grounded. Oh yeah, and I edit the German SF/F/H magazine Pandora (

Other scenes? I read a lot, lots of mysteries, old Greek dead guys (philosophy, poetry, drama), history, and I try finding some time for that 1500 page Biology text book making up for all the stuff I missed in school. We have lots of friends here in Berlin and like to meet them in bars and pubs. And I try to get back into running regularely, keeping the old body fit for a change.

So, how long have you been translating and how did you get into this line of work?

Close to twenty years now. I first started with the publisher I did my apprenticeship at, translating some juveniles and learning quite a bit in the process. They just needed someone who was better than the guy who had messed up a translation that had to be finished fast, and that, on the surface of things, turned out to be me. When I moved to Berlin I had just quit university the third time and started translating horror stuff to pay the rent (Barker, Lansdale, Brite). The bookshop we opened in Berlin did not make enough money to live on (as we expected), not for two, and so my colleague Birgit and I looked for other work. I was lucky, because smallish publisher Argument was searching for translators for their new SF line, and I got John Shirley and Sean Stewart. Birgit, as it turns out, is now a prize-winning science journalist.

What sort of range of works do you normally translate? Are you mostly focused on English-language genre fiction, or do you translate from other languages, other fields?

English only. I can barely understand a French newspaper and puzzle out letters in ancient Greek. Mostly SF and fantasy, which I try to get out of, just for diversity's sake.

Do you have a specific approach to a project, a daily routine?

I try to do a certain amount of book pages per day – usually ten to fifteen if the book's easy, four to six if it's difficult (like the stuff this Duncan guy writes). Punctuality is more important in this line of work than quality, because publishers spend a lot of money announcing their books to the trade, and if a book is late, especially at a bigger house, that's bad business. So if I do not get my page count done I work on weekends, and that cuts into other, non-paying projects.

I usually start at 9 am, read the stuff I translated the day before and then work away until it's done, usually around 2 to 4 pm. After that I line edit other people's translations or the work of German writers.

What sort of resources do you turn to? What's the handiest thing in your office?

I have the Muret-Sanders on my hard drive, the biggest English-German-English dictionary ever, and there's a great online dictionary called LEO. The Wikipedia is a big help and so are the search engines, because you can check most anything at a moment's notice. Having said that, I own two walls of encyclopedias and other, more specialized reference works plus lots of older lexicons on CD to double check online information. The Britannica, for instance, is still a lot more thorough on a lot of things than Wiki.

How much do you think is lost in translation? Do you think there are stylistic effects, for example, that just don't transfer between languages? Do you ever have to choose a looser translation over a more literal one to convey a better sense of what the author's trying to do?

A lot is lost. I don't want to diss the profession, but it is rare that a translation really comes close to the original. Or maybe that is just me and my constant feeling of inadequacy. Of course much depends on how difficult a text is. You can do a plain old non-fiction text justice, and most fiction is not that impossible either. But with something like Vellum or Ink?

An example: I just finished translating Shriek by Jeff VanderMeer, and that was not an easy book, believe me. But most of the time I got the feeling that my vocabulary and my ability to sling words comes close to what Jeff does. But your work is another matter. There is so much free association and splicing of other texts involved, it's hard to keep up. I would have to be more of an artist and less of a craftsman to really be a match for you. But then who is?

Yes, it's my opinion that you have to depart from the text on a word and syntax level from time to time. Translators discuss and argue over this a lot, and no two of them would agree on a difficult passage. But sometimes you just have to got for that one meaning if you cannot get across the two or three other implications of the original. Or your penchant for alliterations – lose some here, add some somewhere else.

Can a work ever gain something in translation? Let's say you're translating a doorstop blockbuster with dodgy prose; how much freedom do you have to fix bad grammar or clunky dialogue? Do you see translation as creative at all?

Ok, this is one of the few instances where I think the old »high and low« still applies. If the writer really knows what he's doing, stick to the text. If he (or she) is just clunking along, most editors will be very happy if you clean things up.

But real creativity only comes into play with prose (or poetry, but I don't want to get into that) of a higher order. And it's always a walk on the razor's edge – sometimes you fall off in the direction of »not close enough« and sometimes you are too cowardly.

How closely do you generally work with authors whose works you're translating? Without naming any names, have you ever had problems dealing with the writerly ego?

Luckily most writers are just an e-mail away and very happy to be of help. Naturally it is in their best interest to get a good translations. But I sometimes feel I bother a writer like you too much, that I should work harder on finding out stuff on my own. But on the other hand, why don't you write like normal people?

I have had one or two writers telling me to leave them alone or not answering at all, which is their prerogative.

Most writers tend to trust their translators too much, of course. They only see how hard they work and what great questions they ask, without being able to really check the translations. Which is, of course, fine by me. John Shirley once had one of my translations checked by an academic friend; luckily I only heard of this after the fact or I would have been scared out of my mind. And I got no complaints.

Apart, of course, from the work of blinding genius / unmitigated folly by yours truly, which book that you've worked on gave you the most pleasure to translate, and which translation are you most pride of? Is there a difference?

Well, there are quite a few. I have translated half a dozen books by Sean Stewart, and he is a wonderful, vastly underrated writer and a joy to translate. I did the first German translation of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, of which I'm quite proud.

John Clute's Appleseed was hell to do, but John is a great guy and a good friend, and in hindsight I am rather proud of that book (it won me a Kurd Laßwitz award as best SF translation of the year). And Shriek by Jeff VanderMeer, of course. Jeff's an incredible writer and I am proud to know him and his wife Ann.

And on the subject of ego... sorry, I have to ask: as the person who had to translate it, what aspects of VELLUM/INK were a) the biggest problems, and b) the biggest pleasures? Why?

(a) and (b) are mostly the same passages. I love it when you mix and rap ancient and/or classic texts, but I hate you for it as well. Especially since most of those texts don't have German translations that rhyme, so I have to do the rhyming; or I don't, because original and translation refer to a source, and the German source is different.

I totally love the Jack Flash pulp sequences, but it took me a while to get into the groove of those. And what to do about Finnan's dialect and all the damn useless wordplay on every page (which after the first shock turns out not to be useless, but has an intention behind it or at least sounds great)? I hate you, I fucking hate you, and I stand in awe of every sentence you write and love you for it. As you see, (a) and (b) tend to get mixed up a lot.

And to stir things up a little... as a reader of the original, if you were also a reader of the translated text rather than the person who created it, what do you think would be your biggest problems and your biggest pleasures with the translation? Would they be the same as with the original?

The translation of Vellum (let's talk about Ink when I'm through and my editor has ripped my head off) reads easier than the original. I'm a bit sorry about that, but when I feel I have to make a decision in either direction, I opt for clarity most of the time. Which means German readers get at least one meaning straight. But I think all in all the translation conveys what you intended, in terms of story, language, derailing of expectation, the lift-off from mythology et al. I tell people to read the German first and the original after that, use the translation as a stepping stone. But the translation has garnered quite a bit of praise, so I try not to be overly humble.

And a few wider questions to close things off. Ease of reading aside, do you have any preferences between languages? Are there qualities of the languages themselves that you appreciate?

English is a wonderfully flexible language. You have so many multiple meanings and levels of allusions, it's incredible! German on the other hand is very accurate, very useful for operating instructions. And it is one of the great difficulties of translating from English into German to conflate these qualities. To make matters worse, German has lost a lot of its versatility in recent decades. But I try to read some older writers to work against that.

In the spirit of internationalism, what writer in your own language (in whatever genre) are we missing out on in the anglophone world because they haven't been translated into English? Or who should we be reading that has been translated? What is it about them that rocks?

The only genre writer that has been translated recently is Andreas Eschbach, and his Die Haarteppichknüpfer (The Carpet Makers) has been translated. Read it; it is great. There are two incredible younger writers, Dietmar Dath and Tobias O. Meißner, which you are really missing out on. But the English language market is so flooded with native speakers – why translate stuff at all?

Dath and Meißner are both very versatile writers, using genre tropes to feed the story machine and to comment on life and politics etc. Both are now finally finding a wider audience, so there is hope.

And lastly, do you have any upcoming translation projects you're really looking forward to, or novels that you'd really like to work on if you had the chance?

Well, after Ink, I will swear off difficult books for a while. Their is a short novel by Robert Bloch on the horizon, for which I do not have a contract yet, but it looks very promising. I translated a bunch of stories by Joe Hill (last year) and his dad (this year), both of which are writers I'd like to go back to. And, without trying to ingratiate myself, I enjoyed translating your »Chiaroscurist« very much and would love to try my hand on more shorter Duncan stuff – it seems more feasible to concentrate on something of less than 500 pages ...

Thanks, Hannes!

Next: well... wait and see.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good tip to start with the german translation. I've read Vellum in german first (and I agree that the translation is very good). Now I bought Ink in english because I couldn't wait, and I am struggling with the book.
Usually I don't have a problem with english books, I enjoy reading Iain Banks, Charles Stross or Geoff Ryman in their original language, but this one is difficult.
Perhaps I'll set it aside and wait until Hannes Riffel has finished.
How long can it take?

9:47 pm  
Blogger Michael said...

Great article, Al, and informative - I just heard that my German publisher (also Heyne, dude!) have made an offer for the first Humantitys Fire book, so mebbe I`ll see if I can find out who the translator for that will be.

12:35 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Nice oe. Congrats, Mike!

1:23 pm  

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