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Katy Derbyshire on the art of translation

The renowned translator fills us in on V&Q Books, a new collection of English translations dedicated to contemporary German literature.

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Award-winning translator Katy Derbyshire is leading V&Q Books, a new imprint for German books in English. Photo: Anja Pietsch

Last month, a sold-out, socially-distanced, ever-so-slightly-surreal event at Ocelot bookstore marked the launch of V&Q Books, a new English-language imprint of Berlin-based publisher Voland & Quist. The imprint promises English translations of “remarkable writing from Germany” in commercial fiction, literary fiction and narrative nonfiction – Lucy Fricke’s Daughters, Sandra Hofmann’s Paula, and Francis Nenik’s Journey through a Tragicomic Century are all out now. Award-winning translator Katy Derbyshire is leading the new collection, and translated two of the three initial titles.

What motivated you to start V&Q Books?

I’d been frustrated for years that so much gets translated from English to German, but so little in the other direction. I was upset about Brexit. And I was looking for ways to have a bit more agency than when I’m pitching German books to British publishers. So in 2018 I came up with this idea of having an imprint – but at a German publisher, because I didn’t want to move to the UK [laughs].

How and why did you approach Voland & Quist of all publishers?

For a publisher, this imprint is quite a risky, daring thing to do. But I knew they were open to risks. They like doing new and unusual things. I spoke to them quite randomly at the Frankfurter Buchmesse and they said: “This is an interesting idea. Don’t tell anybody else about this.”

Is there something about Berlin that makes it the best place for such a project?

I hope so. There are loads of bookshops with decent English-language sections in Berlin – people want to read English. And I know a lot of English-speakers here who find it difficult to access German literature, because they don’t know where to start. So I hope we can introduce a few more German authors to English readers here as well as in the UK and Ireland.

As a translator, what draws you to a certain book?

I like experimentation. I like thinking, “This is going to be a new challenge for me, as a reader and as a translator.” Something that I think will push writing itself into the future. When you read a lot, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to read any more – you actually want to read more and more! But you want to read new things. I don’t want to read any more novels about men who teach creative writing and have an affair with a student.

How did you choose the first three books? Do you have more freedom now, with V&Q Books, when it comes to picking titles?

A little. There’s a rule, possibly unspoken, which is: Don’t do German humour. But Lucy Fricke’s Daughters is really breaking that mould. We’re also looking to widen the picture that people have of German writing and German history. Next year, in spring, we’ll have one book set in Turkey and one book set in Scotland, both translated from German. It might be complicated to market in the UK – but if Alexander McCall Smith can set his books in Botswana, then why can’t a German author set one in Scotland?

You co-host the Dead Ladies Show, an event series dedicated to remarkable women from history. But V&Q Books is only publishing contemporary writing. How involved are these living authors in the translation process?

It’s really up to the translator. Everybody works differently. I don’t ask a lot of questions, because I like to feel a certain ownership of what I’m writing. And some people work more closely with the writers. I think it’s important to have a trusting relationship between writer and translator, and so far that’s been the case for V&Q. I’m lucky enough to be here in Berlin, so if writers are interested, I can sit down with them and talk about it.

Berlin seems to be a hotspot for translators in many languages. Is it a strong community?

Very much so. The Literarisches Colloquium Berlin is very active in supporting translators, and bringing us all together. They have programs throughout the year, and twice a year they’ll have this big sumptuous dinner for translators out of German. We have a lot of different people translating here. Poland, for example, is not a very safe place to live for many people at the moment, so many German-to-Polish translators have moved here.

And we hear V&Q will be publishing a book from Croatian?

Yes, in 2022. It’s a novel Voland & Quist published in German translation, and I absolutely love it. The writer, Ivana Sajko, lives in Berlin. It’ll be the first time we translate out of not-German, but we’ll be looking for more. I would love to have a translation from Arabic – a lot of people are doing great writing in Arabic in Germany, and often their work gets less exposure than it should. To me, German writing means writing done by people in Germany. I don’t know why you’d block people with other languages from your community of writers.