: An interview with – Will Firth, freelance translator in Berlin

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Credit – Will Firth

Welcome, Will, and thank you for accepting this interview. This is the first interview I do for my new blog Free to Write: Free to Read, (where I will be reviewing in English for the first time) so you are in a way my first test subject. But just like diving, let’s take a big breath and jump in.

GI: You are Australian, born in Newcastle in 1965. Tell us something about your childhood and your background.

Will Firth: I was born into a working-class family of British extraction. My parents got an education, left industrial Newcastle and felt they were somehow ‘better’. I started school in Scotland, where my parents worked and studied for three years, but most of my childhood was spent back in Australia, in the capital city of Canberra.

GI: Now tell us something about your studies and the course of events that led you to become a freelance translator based in Berlin. You studied in Australia, in Moscow, in Zagreb – what I find most striking, reading your CV as a translator, is the languages you work with, some of which are quite unusual, such as Serb-Croatian, Macedonian and Bulgarian (plus the more traditional German and Russian).

WF: It was like this: I learned German and French at school because my parents were very ‘Europhile’, but I wasn’t predestined for languages. In fact, when I started university I enrolled in social sciences, along with German. My turn towards languages was actually something political: it began with a stint in the Australian Communist Party. The Party was fairly liberal or  ‘euro-Communist’, but there was still a kind of reverence for the Soviet Union. I found this fascinating and decided to study Russian, so I dropped the social-science subjects. Although I left the Party less than two years later and found a new home in the anarchist movement, I stuck with Russian. I also used it as a springboard for learning Serbo-Croatian and Macedonian, given the close similarity between the three languages (a bit like Italian, French and Spanish, I expect). I imagined becoming a health-service interpreter or something like that, given the large numbers of Yugoslav immigrants in Australia, but then I had the good fortune of winning a scholarship to ex-Yugoslavia in 1988-89. After that I went to the USSR in 1989-90 to improve my Russian, and it was there that I met my partner (an East German), who I ended up moving to Berlin with.

GI: Any reminiscences from your student years?

WF: Lots. Apart from meeting some inspiring staff and fellow students, I guess it’s the specific times that I often think back to. I remember the intensity and the frustrations of being a left-wing activist in late-Cold War Australia (1983-87), like programming at the public-radio station in Canberra or getting arrested at a protest camp against uranium mining in South Australia. Immersing myself in ex-Yugoslavia, which felt very foreign, was an amazing experience at many different levels. The perestroika-era USSR was also fascinating. One of my favourite memories is of a brief visit to Vilnius (now Lithuania) and running into two other anarchists on the street. We were wearing badges and thus identifiable. It turned out that the two guys had come all the way from Kharkov in eastern Ukraine to arrange the printing of their organisation’s magazine, which was impossible at home due to paper shortages. That really gave me the feeling of a vibrant, cosmopolitan country.

GI: You work as a freelancer out of Berlin – how do you keep up to date on slang and idioms, how do you acquire a practical knowledge of older, historical usages?

WF: To keep abreast of current usage, I try to spend a few weeks in each of my language areas every year or so. Having good dictionaries and native speakers to consult also helps. I read widely and have a good general knowledge. If I need to become acquainted with particular historical styles or genres for a translation I try to read a smattering of works from those times and fields. Part of the skill of being a translator is being able to adapt like that.

GI: And what about reading for leisure? What are your favourite authors, what books do you love simply as a reader?

WF: I’ve never really been a bookworm, and even having become a literary translator I’m still a rather chaotic reader: I read a lot, but haphazardly. I like poetry and short stories above all. I guess Heinrich Böll and Isaak Babel would head the list of my favourite writers, but one of the writers I translate, Rumena Bužarovska from Macedonia, would also be fairly high up the list. She writes sensitive, witty short stories. Oh, and I’m also a Tolkien fan.

GI: How do freelance translators work with publishers? How does one go about getting in touch with a publisher? By sending a CV, joining a database? Or are the publishers actively looking for freelancers? Who takes care of selection? Is the competition very strong?

WF: Despite being a member of professional associations in Germany and Australia, I can only really speak for myself. I think the literary-translation market is very disjointed and random. Part of this impression may be due to me translating from smallish, low-status languages (even Russian doesn’t receive the attention it deserves), with most publishers being disinterested or sceptical. It may also be to do with me translating into English but not living in an English-speaking country. Most literary translators would agree that there’s no easy way to find regular, tolerably paid work. Approaching agents and publishers with synopses or sample translations from books you like is one way to start. Going along to festivals and book fairs to survey the scene is probably a good idea. Having a website of one’s own (which I do) and promoting one’s work through social media (which I don’t) are also worth considering.

GI: What about your workflow? What kind of set-up do you use, what’s your approach to deadlines?

WF: When I started out as a freelance translator in 1991, it took me about five years to organise a regular flow of work – and then another five years to make that a flow of work that I found interesting (texts from the humanities). Even then, the combination German-English was stifling my other languages, and it wasn’t until 2005 that I was able to switch to translating mainly from my Slavic languages. The main breakthrough for me came in 2010 when I was contacted by Istros Books in London, a specialist publisher of translated literature from south-eastern Europe. Istros Books has been my main client since then.
I work from home; I have a laptop but prefer the peace and quiet of my desk. I like my work and am probably busy with it fifty to sixty hours a week, but since I enjoy many aspects of it I don’t always perceive it as capital-W work.
In terms of timing, I plan conservatively so as to be able to stick to deadlines even if the computer breaks down or I have to take a few days off sick. Also, since the pay is not good, I also try to arrange deadlines so that I have the leeway to fit in occasional small, better-paid jobs along the way.

GI: I learned about your work thanks to your translation, from Montenegrine language, of Till Kingdom Come, by Andrej Nikolaidis, that’s being published on the 24th of August in UK, through Istros Books. How did you discover this book? Did you know the author already?

WF: Till Kingdom Come is the third slim novel (or novella) by Andrej Nikolaidis that I’ve translated. The Coming and Son were the first two. Nikolaidis won the European Union Prize for Literature for Son in 2011. The three books are being reissued in the original as a trilogy entitled Tamno pokoljenje, which means The Dark Generation (an apt title, I think, because Nikolaidis is a master of noir). Istros Books may do the same with the English translations, depending on demand.
I discovered The Coming about five years ago. I had heard of the author – he is a well-known critical journalist in the Serbo-Croatian-speaking region – but I hadn’t read anything of his. I was searching for a Montenegrin writer or two to approach, and, as banal as it might seem, I was drawn to the book by the cover graphic of the original, so I ordered a copy. The content was no less impressive than the cover, so I presented the title to Istros Books, who organised EU funding for the translation.

GI: I did not know Andrej Nikolaidis, but browsing the web I soon found out he is highly regarded, so I initially choose the book thinking the author was Greek and because of the cover: a man with an umbrella to the forefront (that reminded me of Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor) and a woman in red in the background. Being a lover of noir, it’s been interesting discovering an author from Montenegro using this narrative mode. As his translator, can you tell us something of his style?

WF: I’d say that the hallmark of his style is intelligent cynicism: scathing commentaries are his speciality, and occasionally he even strikes me as misanthropic, but he spares no one and nothing, so his witty nihilism is even-handed. There is often an element of black humour built in, which keeps the narrative lively, and he frequently employs asides. These are sometimes fairly intellectual, but he brings them down to earth again with a hearty dose of hyperbole. All in all, his writing is very entertaining.
The story of the surname is interesting. Andrej was born in 1974 to a Bosnian mother in Sarajevo and spent most of his formative years there. When the war broke out in 1992, he moved to his father’s house in Ulcinj, Montenegro. The surname comes from his paternal grandfather, who was apparently a Greek Orthodox priest. He migrated north up the coast, through Albania, and ultimately settled in Ulcinj, the southernmost town in Montenegro. Since the local population was (and still is) predominantly Muslim, he had to make a living as a baker instead. At least that’s the story Andrej told me…

GI: This is a noir book that deals with identity, and nothing is more ghostly and insubstantial. Discovering everything you knew about yourself, your family, your past, was a lie is, to say the least, unsettling. And this is also a book that speaks of the importance of truth, of wartime atrocities and of the sense of human existence. What did you love the most about this book, while you were translating it?

WF: I enjoyed translating this book mainly because of Andrej’s ‘dark’ style, as with The Coming and the Son before it. All three books deal with identity and inter-generational issues, but each has a different topic. In Till Kingdom Come, I was fascinated by the focus on the secret service – often a state within a state – and Andrej’s blend of facts (e.g. real killings he mentions) and speculation about the pervasive nature of such institutions. I loved the portrayal of the protagonist’s ‘grandmother’, who also works for the secret service: she adopts the orphaned boy, loves him as a child of her own, and ends up believing the lies that make up his fabricated family history.

GI: Can you tell us more about contemporary literature from Montenegro, which is very little-known in my country? What other authors would you recommend? Are they available in English? And if not, would you like to translate them?

WF: I think contemporary literature from Montenegro needs to be viewed in the context of the region – it is not separate from the literature of the other Serbo-Croatian-speaking countries. There were famous twentieth-century literary figures with a Montenegrin element to their identity, e.g. Danilo Kiš and Borislav Pekić, but the former is usually considered a Yugoslav and the latter a Serb. Today, too, there is a lot of exchange and mutual influence with writers, editors and publishers in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia.
I would highly recommend Ognjen Spahić, arguably the Montenegrin author best known at home and abroad. His first novel, Hansen’s Children (Hansenova djeca) was published in English by Istros Books in 2011. Spahić has just finished a large new novel that I hope to translate in the next few years. Other noteworthy writers are Balša Brković and Dragan Radulović, but unfortunately none of their major works have been translated into English. These three writers, together with Andrej Nikolaidis, are sometimes referred to as the Montenegrin New Wave in literature, and I’ve been able to have short pieces by all four of them published in the US anthology Best European Fiction over the last few years. Finally, I should mention Ksenija Popović, who has written two novels and is the first female writer from Montenegro to have made an impact in a male-dominated scene, but I haven’t yet read any of her work.

GI: Can you tell us what you’re working on right now?

WF: Currently I’m translating a lovely, meditative novel by the Bosnian writer Faruk Šehić, Quiet Flows the Una (Knjiga o Uni). It would have to be my favourite of all the books I’ve translated. Šehić won the European Union Prize for Literature for it in 2014.
This largely autobiographical book is very interesting from a ‘war and peace’ point of view. Šehić, actually a veterinarian by training, was caught up in the wars of the 1990s as a young man. He is saved from the abyss of post-traumatic stress by his love of his home region – a continental karst landscape in north-western Bosnia. A little boy fishing on the deep, clear river near his home is what keeps the grown man on the side of sanity. Writing is his therapy. It’s calm but absolutely heart-wrenching stuff.

GI: Thanks for your time and patience, Will, and best wishes for the future.

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