Walter Moers' Zamonia novels are some of the most creative humorous Fantasy I have ever read. Yes, even better than some of Terry Pratchett's work. Moers is also one of the biggest authors in Germany, but in the English speaking world he has more of a cult following. To date there have been four Zamonia novels published with the fifth The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books coming out November 8th. I'd recommend on checking out the first book in the series, The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Blue Bear first or The City of Dreaming Books, not to be confused with the latest Labyrinth. Though all except Labyrinth standalone quite well
Today joining us is a very special guest. I'm use to interviewing authors and editors, but this is a first for me with translator John Brownjohn sitting in the hot seat.
John Brownjohn: In an age when translation has become an academic subject in its own right, I hesitate to admit this after translating the better part of 200 books from German and French, but I came into the trade quite fortuitously. I started life as a classicist and won an open classical scholarship to Oxford, then spent ten years in a commercial job in the City of London. Around halfway through those ten lucrative but uncongenial years, a cousin of mine who happened to be a director of the venerable publishing house of Jonathan Cape said to me, “You write decent English and have a knowledge of German and French, how about trying your hand at translating a book for us on the side?” The book was a juvenile novel for which I earned the princely sum of £70.00. I enjoyed the challenge, Jonathan Cape liked what I’d done, and one thing led to another until I was being offered so much translation work by several publishers that I chucked my City job and have devoted myself to the keyboard ever since. Incidental note: I didn’t translate Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, though I did do his Momo.
MH: The internet led me astry yet again. How does the translation process work for you? Are you generally in contact with the author? Do you go through multiple drafts? Are you approached by publishers about translating or do you try to pitch them?
JBJ: It varies from author to author. I’m regularly in touch with Walter Moers, for example, but my only contact with the onetime bestselling author Hans Helmut Kirst, sixteen of whose novels I translated including Night of the Generals, was a brief letter from him thanking me for my efforts. (Dead authors can present a problem. I once caught one out in a bad bit of continuity. Being naturally unable to contact him, I corrected it on the assumption that he’d have been grateful!) No, I don’t make multiple drafts. I compose my translations as I go, then print out my drafts and give them a final polish before delivery. I have to read and correct everything in hard copy - can’t assess what I’ve done solely on the screen. As to sources of work, the first move always comes from my publishers. I’ve tried to pitch books but never succeeded.
MH: Were you aware of Walter Moers’s work before you were asked to translate The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Blue Bear?
JBJ: Yes, but only of his work as a cartoonist.
MH: The Zamonia books are quite wacky and strange. There are literally hundreds of made-up words, names, and anagrams galore. How did you handle it all?
JBJ: Producing English versions of Walter’s made-up names certainly taxes one’s ingenuity. Sometimes I have to diverge completely from the original German. Elsewhere I often draw on the remnants of my classical education and resort to Latinizing bits of them. For instance, the “Living Books” in German became the “Animatomes” in English. As for the anagrams, which are great fun to do, I took Walter’s advice and got out my old Scrabble set, which proved a great help!
MH: Did the illustrations ever come in handy while translating?
JBJ: Yes, they’ve often provided me with an insight into the author’s wealth of imagination.
MH: Will we ever see Moers' Hansel and Gretel novel in English? Also, do you know the status of the next Zamonia book given The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books ends on quite a cliffhanger note?
MH: Is there a book or series you'd love to see translate into English?
JBJ: No, I don’t have anything special in mind.
MH: Why do you think in other languages about half of the published books are translated from English, but the percentage of books translated into English is less than 10%?
JBJ: Sadly, if it’s a toss-up between two books of roughly equal merit, one of them written in English and the other in some foreign language, US and UK publishers will ten to go for the former. This is partly because translation fees represent a not inconsiderable part of the production costs, and it’s possible (I don’t know) that British and American translators are better paid than their European counterparts. I suspect there is also, even now, a hangover from the days when a lot of very poor translations appeared after World War II, often done by European expatriates whose command of idiomatic English was less than adequate. This created a prejudice against translated works in general. My own “philosophy” - though some would disagree - is that a translation should read as if it were an original. After all, readers who are continually brought up short by unidiomatic turns of phrase will soon lay a book aside in disgust.
JBJ: I’m taking a few weeks off while awaiting the imminent arrival of another two new German novels by existing authors of mine, Alex Capus (Leon and Louise) and Alain Claude Sulzer (A Perfect Waiter).
MH: You're certainly keeping busy. Thank you for all your time. Is there anything you'd like to say to close us out?
JBJ: Yes, I’d like to thank all the US publishers and reviewers who never fail to mention the names and appreciate the efforts of those who render foreign literature accessible, i.e. translators. The same cannot, alas, be said of UK reviewers and literary editors, whose neglect of us is shameful.
MH: Thanks for making it possible to read so many foreign works.
You can catch-up with the whole Walter Moers Blog Tour at these fine establishments:
Thursday, Nov 1 - Introduction to the Blog Tour - BookSexy Review
Friday, Nov 2 - Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews will post an Overview/Presentation of Moers’ Books
Saturday, Nov 3 - TNBBC will post a review of The City of Dreaming Books
Sunday, Nov 4 - BookSexy Review will post a Travel/Tour Guide to Bookholm
Monday, Nov 5 - SJ @ Book Snobbery will post a fan letter to Optimus Yarnspinner
Tuesday, Nov 6 - Anastasia at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog will post a review of The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books
Thursday, Nov 8 - Theresa will pot the giveaway at the Winged Elephant blog (Overlook's Blog)
You Might Also Like:
REVIEW | The Alchemaster's Apprentice by Walter Moers
REVIEW | Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
REVIEW | The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington
REVIEW | Couch by Benjamin Parzybok