The Translator Relay: Stefan Pluschkat

Written by Anna Schüller, NORLA

In the sixth round, the translator's baton goes to the devoted translator Stefan Pluschkat. In the interview, Stefan, who recently was awarded the Hamburg Prize for Literary Translations, reveals when he faces translating difficulties.

Stefan Plusckat, Photo: Privat

Translators have made outstanding contributions to the worldwide success story that Norwegian literature has become today and we are deeply grateful to them. To cast a light on their demanding work and get to know the individuals better, we have initiated a series of interviews with the men and women who translate from Norwegian into German. We have entitled the series ‘The Translators’ Relay Race’.

Stefan was born in Essen on New Year’s Eve 1982. After school, he worked in a theatre for two years and then studied comparative literature and philosophy in Bochum and Göteborg. He spent a few years in Sweden but since then he has been living in Hamburg, translating Swedish novels, non-fiction and children’s books. To translate Norwegian literature is a recent opportunity. Just now, he has dared for the first time, to take on a play – actually, just extracts of a play and only because he'll be working in tandem with Elke Ranzinger, a dear colleague who, he's glad to say, is very experienced in writing for the theatre. The original text is by Kathrine Nedrejord and Mari Hesjedal.

So, Stefan, tell me: when did you decide to focus on translating literature and what motivated you?

Ah, well – how did all that begin? When I was at school, Latin was my favourite subject. I thought it was uncannily exciting to play the detective and gradually unlock the Latin texts until they could be turned into German. In upper school, I managed to blag myself into getting a note permitting me to do a foreign language instead of sports. Still, for a long time I didn’t think about going in for translation. As a student, I thought of becoming an academic but then I attended an introduction session to publishing. Part of the presentation touched on the novel idea – to me, that is – of literary translation. In a fit of youthful hubris, I thought: I can do that! I just about put my name down for an internship in a publishing company but felt chronically homesick for Sweden, went back at the last minute and stuck here for a few years. But the longing to work with literature returned in force and I dared to try my hand at translating for the first time. My motivation is presumably that I always have been deeply interested in storytelling and in languages. True, once I did want to be a vet but I would surely have keeled over at my first operation, if not before.

Stefan, you are at the start of your career as a translator and have shortly been awarded the Hamburg Prize in support of literary translation for the translation of The polyglot lovers by swedish Lina Wolff. How do you plan to establish yourself in the profession and pull in new tasks?

By now, I’ve been translating for around four years and so far, I’ve been lucky enough to get a new job every time if looked like there was a threatening lull. It is naturally hard to get hold of the books one would really love to work on – and those that would be the most fun to translate. Look, I’ll be honest: it not that I’d have necessarily would bring every book I’ve translated to that famous desert island but, all the same, it is possible to learn something from every text and grow with ever task! The jobs come my way by all sorts of different routes, like recommendations from colleagues or because I have reported on books to editors. Twice, I suggested a book I liked to publishers. To become seen as established, it is also helpful to visit book fairs and getting to know commissioning editors but these are things I truly find quite hard going. I have never been all that good at approaching people cold, as it were, and tend to feel out of my depth in situations like that. It is a skill I have to learn to be better at.

How do you get started with a translation? Do you begin working on the text right-away in order to keep being excited about what might happen next? Or do read the entire book first before getting on with translating it?

I try to read every book through, without hurrying. The idea is to to get a feel for the text and the voices in it, and also a grip on how to deal with any research challenges. I make an exception for crime stories, though, because the narrative tension matters so much. Then, the actual work on the translation begins, and goes through several stages. Finally, I go through a printed copy of the whole book. This is important to me but I do envy those colleagues who can work without wasting paper.

Apart from your translating work, do you have to find time to deal with other commitments?

I was working as a teacher at Hamburg university during the winter but it was right from the start planned as visiting session only. So, my rather boring answer is simply, no. Or, wait ... sometimes I offer my services as a dog-minder but, truly, not for financial reasons.

Stefan Pluschkats desk in Hamburg, Photo: Private

Is there any translator that you especially look up to as a model – and, if so, who? And why?

There are of course many translators from any number of languages, whose work I always look forward tremendously to reading. Then there are the colleagues who have helped me to find my feet in the profession, and to herm I’ll be eternally grateful. There is a group of colleagues that I correspond with or simply chat to, almost daily, in the case of quite a few of them. All, in their way, model figures. I have been very lucky to know so many from whom I always learn something more about our trade.

Which is the literary work from Norway that you feel matters particularly to you?

Goodness, there are several. But as always when trying to reply to this kind of question, I will probably forget the most important ones. I’ve fallen head over foot for Johan Harstad and Gunnhild Øyehaug (whenever will a publisher buy the rights to Knutar by Gunnhild Øyehaug?). But I must name one other writer and his most recent book – neither is well known in this country: last year, Jan Grue’s Jeg lever et liv som ligner deres ("I Live a Life like Yours", an autobiographical collection of memories and reflections on the author’s congenital muscular dystrophy) impressed me very much. I read it on the train from Amsterdam to Hamburg, and tears had come to my eye already at Osnabrück or thereabouts. I was so pleased to learn that Grue’s work has been nominated for the Nordic Council’s Prize.

Your colleague Nora Pröfrock handed on to you the baton in the translator relay with a question related to the fact that you will soon do a joint translation from Norwegian. She was keen to find out when you might feel that you have reached the limits of your capacity as a translator? Do you believe that there are situations or concepts that are just about impossible to translate? Or is it only a matter of being creative enough?

When I reach my limits as a translator? OK, I’ll reveal all: it happens on a daily basis. Translations can feel especially perverse in the beginning. To start with, the original text will of course become more or less wildly ripped apart and messed about – at least by me. And every time the rough draft doesn’t read ‘beautifully’, I just about get buried in self-doubt: have I caught the tone right? Did I grasp what the text said in the first place? It is dealing with this kind of insecurity that makes up the greatest challenge of my working day. And it is of course hard to handle writing that lacks conviction in itself, whether it because the narrative perspective is somehow unreal, or the way things are expressed is woolly – that can often be the case in non-fiction – or because the error-count reaches surreal levels. When it a matter of creating fluency in a text that is hardly there in the original. Not that this should be taken to mean that one couldn’t despair about some greatly demanding text as well. But a well thought-through text also carries one in a certain way. And, as I’ve already said, my limits are definitely reached at bookfairs.

To whom would you like to hand on the translators’ baton? What question would you like to have answered?

I would very much like to hand the baton on to my dear colleague and fellow Hamburg citizen Ursel Allenstein and find out what it was like to live with Johan Harstad for more than 1,248 page.

The Translator Relay