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Interview with Sally-Ann Spencer

Interviewer: Simon Litten

Background: this interview was conducted in association with the release of the English language edition, translated by Sally-Ann Spencer, of The Dwarves by Markus Heitz

SL: How long have you been a translator?

SAS: Since 2005. It wasn’t a conscious career choice – I fell into translating. I had an M.Phil in European Literature and worked in publishing. The director of the publishing company was looking for a translator and I said I’d have a go. I discovered I enjoyed it.

SL: Can you pick and chose your projects?

SAS: Sometimes you’re lucky enough to be approached to do more than one project at once and you’re in a position to choose, but normally you agree to do something and then another project comes up just after you’ve committed yourself to the first one.

The work of a literary translator comes in fits and starts – you don’t have the routine or stability of a commercial or technical translator. When I started out, I picked up bits and pieces. My first book was Culture Industry, an introduction to twentieth-century German philosopher Theodor Adorno. My big break came with The Swarm, an environmental thriller by Germany’s biggest selling author, Frank Schätzing, whose latest novel briefly outranked Dan Brown in the Amazon charts. The Swarm was a really interesting project that needed a lot of research.

SL: Why research?

SAS: As a translator, you need to understand the details of what you are translating. The Swarm included a lot of science, including lengthy sections about tsunamis and freak waves. The term "freak wave", for example, has a specific meaning within oceanography, and I had to get to grips with all this in order to translate the book. After all, a translation is an interpretation – if I, as the translator, don’t understand what I’m translating, then the reader won’t either.

SL: What size is your usual project?

SAS: Book length. I’ve completed six major projects and bits and bobs of shorter stuff.

Two of the books I’ve translated are non-fiction, four are fiction. Recently, all my work has been in the genres of thriller or fantasy.

SL: Do you enjoy these genres?

SAS: Yes. I read Lord of the Rings at age 10, and found the description of evil was terrifying – not at all Harry Potter.

SL: Evil?

SAS: In most children’s books there is a clear division between good and bad characters, but in Lord of the Rings any character can become evil – and for me, as a child, it brought the realisation that the world isn’t divided into good people and bad people, and that evil is much more complicated. Lord of the Rings is a world where characters move between the two categories.

SL: What are you working on at the moment?

SAS: I’ve just finished proof-reading the next volume in the Dwarves series. It’s scheduled for publication in March/April next year.

SL: How did you find The Dwarves?

SAS: Really fun – despite being over 700 pages in length (which was short compared to the 1000 pages of The Swarm!). The names of the characters and places gave me lots of room to be creative. The original German names wouldn’t mean anything to English-language readers, and a direct translation wasn’t appropriate. For example, the fantasy continent that is home to the dwarves is called das Geborgene Land, which directly translates as the ‘safe’ or ‘secure’ or ‘snug’ country, from the past tense of the verb bergen to ‘save’, ‘rescue’, ‘salvage’ etc. Geborgen has shades of meaning in German that don’t immediately translate to English, so I came up with Girdlegard, which echoes some of the sounds in the German name and alludes to the double girdle protecting (or gu(a)rding) the dwarves’ homeland.

Translating the character and place names proved interesting as the author used non-standard spellings.

SL: I noticed that. I pronounced one pair of names using English pronunciation rules as the diacritics over the vowels didn’t follow German language rules.

SAS: There were two groups of characters whose names had a fascinating provenance. Heitz’s dark elves are called Albae (singular: Alb) in German. Alb is similar to the old word for elf, Elb, and it’s also linked to the German word for nightmare, Alptraum, because the Alb of German mythology is responsible for bad dreams. Of course, this association isn’t possible to recreate in English, but I wanted to demonstrate the relationship between the elves and the dark elves. I couldn’t very well call them alves (singular: alf!), so in the end I went for älfar (singular: älf), which has echoes of the álfar of Norse mythology and sounds similar to elf. Heitz also invents a set of characters called boglins (an anagram of goblins), but Mattel produces toys of that name, so we went with bognilim (singular: bognil) instead.

As a by the by, the German for ‘dwarf’ is Zwerg, but a garden gnome is a Gartenzwerg, i.e. a ‘garden dwarf’, which seems a more accurate description to me!

SL: What was your personal view of The Dwarves?

SAS: I got really fond of the dwarves. I spent eight months translating the book and have since completed volume two in the series (there are four volumes in total – and the author is talking about writing a fifth…).

How did you find the book?

SL: Bit slow to start with but then it picked up as the story got going – a bit like German films I’ve seen.

SAS: I think that is reflective of the German fantasy tradition of a long prologue and introduction before the action starts. The second volume is more fast-paced.

SL: Why the choice of American English?

SAS: That was a deliberate choice on the part of the publisher. Publishing is an expensive business and most publishers don’t bring out separate UK and US editions unless the book was originally intended soley for the UK market. If a UK language edition of a mass market book is released in the US, the publisher will receive sacks of mail complaining about the grammar, spelling and ‘unnecessary’ vowels from readers who seem unaware that British English exists.

When I was translating I deliberately avoided British English expressions, e.g. ‘damn’ and ‘bloody’ as expletives. But afterwards the manuscript still went to an American copy-editor, who checked for American spellings and so forth.

SL: Manuscript?

SAS: Publishing is still very much paper based. Documents are sent as paper files, with changes marked in pencil and a different colour for each editor. Then the manuscript has to be mailed or couriered back (which isn’t cheap).

SL: What was the most enjoyable part of translating The Dwarves?

SAS: The humour – the book was a great source of humour, especially the character Rodario. Whereas the hardest part was the detailed description of castles (and battlements and parapets etc.), which required a lot of research.

SL: Do you have any plans to write any fiction of your own?

SAS: If anything, I would be more tempted to write non-fiction – maybe biography or literary criticism. I like the creative writing involved in translation, but for the moment, I’m happy to re-tell other people’s stories.

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