Writer, translator and musician, Jen Calleja, talks to Elodie Rose Barnes about her journey into translation, working on the Booker International shortlisted novel The Pine Islands, her PhD and fairy tale-inspired pamphlet, Goblins.
Jen Calleja is a writer, translator and musician. Her latest collection of short stories, I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For, is out now with Prototype, and her pamphlet essay Goblins has just been published by Rough Trade Books. She has been shortlisted for several awards, including the Booker International Prize 2019 for her translation of The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann. She is working on her first novel, The Islets, and also plays in various punk bands as both drummer and vocalist. Forthcoming translations include Milk Teeth by Helene Bukowski (Unnamed Books), Return of the Lobster by Michelle Steinbeck (Makina Books) and The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer (Scribe).
You’re a writer, a translator, a musician – what happens in all of those in-between spaces for you?
It’s a question that I get asked quite often! It seems normal to me to do lots of different creative things and they definitely overlap. All I know is that my brain feels the same when I’m doing any of these things. I consider translation to be just one part of my creative writing practice: the skills that I use when I’m translating literature are very similar to those I use when I’m writing my own work. It’s all about finding inspired turns of phrase, and ways of communicating something that has previously been in another form. For instance, if I’m writing a short story, my thoughts or inspiration are the seed of that process, but I then have to find a way of putting it on paper. When I’m translating a story that part of the process has already been done, but I have to repurpose it so that it’s more accessible to other people. So I describe translation as a form of constrained writing. You have parameters, but it’s still very highly creative.
I also have an intense need to collaborate very closely with other people, which I think must come from playing in a band. I feel like I need to be part of a writing scene, and to be in constant contact with other writers. I think that’s why I prefer working very closely with authors whose work I translate, making the translation process very much a collaboration between two equal players.
How did you get started in translation?
I didn’t do a language degree. I’d done an A Level in German, but I wasn’t a very good student. It didn’t put me off going to Munich for a year, though, after finishing school. When I came back to the UK I did a degree in modern literature and creative writing, but I still had that thirst to know more about German language and culture so I did an MA in German Studies. It was more focused on German literature and modern art, but I was able to do a module in translation theory and practice and suddenly discovered this thing called literary translation. It wasn’t something I had ever thought about. We’d read Kafka and Proust on my BA course, for example, and Thomas Mann on the MA course, but we’d never discussed the fact that these were translations or what that actually meant. I realised that it was the perfect thing for me, as a writer with German language skills: my first attempts at live-translating parts of Joachim Meyerhoff into English for my now husband felt like magic.
After that, I got an offer out of the blue for my first book from an editor at Bloomsbury and I said yes – without any experience whatsoever! I sat down and just did it. It was intuitive, and I’ve learned from doing it as I’ve gone along.
You recently translated The Pine Islands [by Marion Poschmann, shortlisted for the Booker International 2019], which obviously was written in German, but is mostly set in Japan and has a strong Japanese influence. How was that to translate? Were there any particular challenges?
It was a really fantastic experience. It was one of the few times when I’d seen the book all the way through the publishing process; from the publisher being interested in it, to commissioning me to do a reader report to tell them what I thought of the quality of it, to then being commissioned to translate it. It felt like it was meant to be, somehow, although that ignores a lot of the work that goes into getting a book published in translation!
It’s a very ornate and beautifully written book. It definitely had its challenges, but I feel like it largely translated itself because Marion is such an incredible writer. She’s so skilled that her prose flows beautifully. There’s never any confusion. One of the worst things as a translator is having to work through vague narrative, where the writer hasn’t thought about what they’re trying to get across. But I knew that Marion had worked hard to craft every single sentence, and that came across in the text. It was so pleasurable to work on a book that was so well written.
When I first got commissioned, I went into a panic thinking that maybe I should go to Japan! I felt like a bit of an imposter, having never been to Japan while Marion had spent months living there (which had inspired her to write the book). Then I realised that, of course, most readers aren’t going to go to Japan either, and yet they can still understand and experience the book. I couldn’t afford it and didn’t have time, so Google was my friend instead – I used Google maps, Google image search, I watched documentaries. I went to Japan via the internet. But even though it’s a book set largely in Japan, it’s not so much about the country as about belonging and not belonging, about being a fish out of water, about being outside of yourself. I spent more time on the character of Gilbert – not a very likeable man – but from the first couple of pages I understood who he was and why he was the perfect character for that situation. My biggest challenge was recreating that in translation!
Do you have a process that you go through with each translation, or does it vary depending on the piece?
It’s usually always the same. To start with, I sit with the book open and I just translate. If I don’t know what a word is, or a turn of phrase, I put ‘…’ and keep going. That’s the first draft, and it’s basically a manuscript full of holes. Synonyms and alternative versions of sentences will also be in that draft. It looks awful, but it’s to stop me working too slowly. The hardest thing is always getting the first draft down as a working foundation. It can be really disheartening if you start off by looking at the dictionary every five minutes, and then it gets to the end of the day and you’ve only done one page.
In the second draft I look at the dictionary and fill in those holes, and I also double check that I’ve understood turns of phrase and so on. Later, I’ll decide on alternative sentences, word choices and so on, once I feel like I’ve understood the voice and the style.
You’re also working on a novel, in which languages and language politics play a big part. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
The novel is inspired by two main things. My dad is Maltese, and throughout my childhood I realised how absent Malta is in the British consciousness – as a country, as a culture, as a language (I wasn’t brought up to learn Maltese as my dad thought it would be too confusing). Even Malta’s history is absent, despite it playing such a key part in the Second World War. It’s essentially known as a tourist island, but it has such a rich history, and has been settled and colonised over and over again because of its strategic importance and geographical position in the Mediterranean. This absence bothered me, and I also wondered what would happen if Malta went through some kind of crisis – a climate related crisis, say, which could be a real possibility. Would Malta be helped by the international community in the same way that Malta has helped others? Would anyone actually care?
Being in a band also inspired part of the novel. As a touring musician, you have a lot of access, crossing borders relatively easily and travelling to places that tourists perhaps wouldn’t go. You generally have the luxury of freedom.
In the novel, then, I turned Malta, and other islands throughout the world, into a fictional archipelago called The Islets. Each Islet has, in some point in history, been colonised by different settlers, but have now collapsed in crisis and are seeking help from the international community. The story follows a polyglot musician, who is tasked by a governmental agency to assess the world’s reaction to the situation.
Language is a huge part of it. The Islets have their own language, and it transpires that Islets art, technology, culture, literature has been stolen throughout the world. It’s also experimental in style – it has prose sections, but also diary entries, transcripts, documentation, adverts, and newspaper articles. It’s a really fun thing to play with, and has a lot of my experiences woven in.
You said the main character is a polyglot – what other languages would you like to speak?
I’ve been learning some Italian. I’d like to eventually have a grasp of Maltese, and while that has an Arabic sentence structure, something like 40-50% of the words are Italian. There are also remnants of the colonial history in French, Dutch, and English influences. I’d also like to start reading more Dutch and Swedish, because they’re quite similar to German. But even learning one language well is a lifetime job!
I loved your pamphlet Goblins – which seems very different, very much based in fairytale and fable, and how those styles have influenced you.
I’m obsessed with fairytales and fables. I think of them as archetypal, bare bones literature, from before writing stories became so complicated! I love the fact that they’re so symbolic, but also that they were meant as practical knowledge to be passed down to children. And they can be terrifying! Hansel and Gretel, for example, was apparently the result of repressed shame around cannibalism – it started to be told after a time of real hunger and poverty in Germany, when people did occasionally turn to eating each other. But I also think they’re only as scary as real life is, and I often find myself mapping lived life in the 21st century onto these stories and seeing if I can find connections. It also links back to my translation practice. I think of myself now as a storyteller – sometimes telling my own stories, and sometimes telling other people’s in a different time and a different place – and that’s my place in literature. Goblins was the result of all of that thinking.
You squeeze in a PhD as well – how do you find the time?!
Since lockdown I’ve actually had a much better routine! I translate in the mornings, and do everything else in the afternoons. That’s done wonders. I also take good breaks so I don’t get too worn out with it. The PhD is a creative-critical one, and I’m writing an experimental translation memoir. It’s set in a fictional building – part funfair, part high rise, part art museum – where each room tells a different story about translation. It’s about my experiences as a translator, how I started translating, and my relationships with other translators and writers. How do we, as translators, write about our practice for a general audience? How do we make it more accessible? I’m obsessed by those questions, so that’s really what the PhD is about.
I’m focusing on women and non-binary literary translators. I’ve noticed there are issues of exposure and accessibility, especially with texts that have a gendered significance such as those that deal with sexual violence. There are differences in approach, and differences in the translator-author relationship when both are women or non-binary. And these translators are producing some of the most crucial writing on the craft. Kate Briggs, Khairani Barokka, Emma Ramadan…there are so many that write incredibly embodied and honest work about what translation is. I love reading these writers, and the way that they bring feeling and personal experience into their practice. Translation isn’t something objective.
Has that approach impacted your own practice of translation?
It’s something that I felt like I’d been doing for years anyway. I wrote a column about literary translation for The Quietus, where I wrote very honestly and personally about the experience of translating. It really excited me when I saw other people writing the same way! I felt reassured that there were others who felt the same as me about translation, and who also wanted to change the way we talk about it.
You also mentor translators. How do you approach that?
I feel quite strongly that translation should be accessible as a career. There are degrees and short courses available now in literary translation, but these aren’t suitable or accessible for everyone. The time and cost commitments can be huge. Obviously I don’t ‘train’ people in the same way as a formal course, but I wanted to be able to offer some support and advice. Mentoring sessions can cover anything from pitching, to writing reader reports for publishers, to sample translations, and I work with people who translate from any language into English. Although I can dig much deeper into the translation process with German, the questions about the practice and the industry are usually very similar no matter the language. I also often give people creative writing tasks – I don’t let them get away with not writing! For me, creative writing is an essential skill for translators. Mostly, though, I hope to be able to build people’s confidence in their own abilities and their own intuition when approaching a translation.
Jen Calleja’s I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype) is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK now.
Lucy Writers and Elodie Rose Barnes would like to thank Jen Calleja for allowing us to publish this interview.
This interview was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages