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2017 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Katy Derbyshire

By Eric M. B. Becker


Katy Derbyshire was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Clemens Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar.

Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to the work of your writer?

Katy Derbyshire: It was his debut novel, Als wir träumten, published in 2006. Like Bricks and Mortar, that book has its own furious sound, combining memories of a childhood in East Germany and wild teenage years after the fall of the Wall. There are boxing matches, drinking sessions and techno parties—and everything is interspliced and confusing and horrific and marvelous. Plus I knew people who’d led similar lives so it spoke to me on a content level. The book’s not available in English but you can read a rather old sample translation I did here, plus it’s been made into a feature film directed by Andreas Dresen, As We Were Dreaming.

I remember buying the book and reading it on the tram, and missing my stop because I was so engrossed. I contacted the foreign rights team at the German publishing house and told them how much I loved it and wanted to translate it. That hasn’t worked out yet but they did recommend me for my very first book-length fiction translation, a YA novel called Learning to Scream, by Beate Teresa Hanika. Then a few years later, And Other Stories brought out my translation of Meyer’s short stories, All the Lights, and Fitzcarraldo Editions took over for Bricks and Mortar.

WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you’d done?

Katy Derbyshire: It was quite grueling in a way, but rewarding in others. The novel is about the sex trade so I had to research the language used there and find my own literary precedents and equivalents, which I wrote about here and here. There was the question of getting into the heads of the characters, all of whose lives are very different to mine, and finding the right voices for them. Meyer uses a whole lot of different voices in the novel, so every new chapter meant a switch in tone, unlike in many books that have a stringent narration throughout.

The reward though was getting to play with language and style much more than in most prose translations. I very quickly became immersed in the text, working intensely and rhythmically, feeling the characters’ joy and pain. Plus all the puns in two particular chapters narrated by a john (or a “punter” as we call them in the UK)—I was laughing out loud as I worked on those. 

WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?

Katy Derbyshire: My hot tip right now is Lutz Seiler’s Kruso, translated by Tess Lewis. Should have been on this year’s list! I don’t know if Seiler will write more novels so you’d do well to read this one—a debut novel by a celebrated poet, with all the delightful implications that has for the writing. My friend Rachel Ward is working on a great Hamburg crime novel with a strong literary voice, Blue Night by Simone Buchholz, which I guess should be out next year from the UK’s Orenda Books. And I really hope an Anglophone publisher will pick up Olga Grjasnowa’s latest, Gott ist nicht schüchtern, a cut-glass story of two privileged Syrians and what the war does to them.

Read more interviews with 2017 Man Booker International Prize-nominated writers and translators

Read Katy Derbyshire’s translation of “A Time for Jokes” by Finn-Ole Heinrich


Published Apr 19, 2017   Copyright 2017 Eric M. B. Becker

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