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The Berlin translator: Katy Derbyshire

With Helene Hegemann's "Axolotl Roadkill" counted among her successes, Katy Derbyshire makes great literature available to the German-challenged among us.

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Whether expat or native, German or English, e-publisher or champion of paper, this series of six Berliners represents the many facets of publishing. Each at the forefront of their field, they all contribute to make the Berlin literature scene what it is – forward-thinking, versatile… and above all, exciting!

Katy Derbyshire makes great literature available to the German-challenged among us.

The kettle steams and bubbles. “I can’t make tea at all. My mum complains about it when she comes to visit. Maybe it’s the water here,” says Londoner Katy Derbyshire. But the tea is good: PG Tips, hot, with a drop of milk. She settles on the sofa, surrounded by books. Many, many books, 14 of which she has translated from German into English.

Hers is a familiar expat story: Derbyshire moved to Berlin in 1996, fresh from graduation in German literature from Birmingham University, and worked in “various crappy jobs” until she needed to find a means of making a decent living without German qualifications. Starting small by translating short stories and submitting them to magazines, eventually she began receiving contracts to translate whole novels. She went professional in 2001, and has worked at bridging the gap between German and English literature ever since.

When did it finally feel like she had achieved success? Her face breaks into a broad smile. “Well actually, today hasn’t been bad – I just found out that a novel I translated, Axolotl Roadkill by Helene Hegemann, has been long-listed for Dublin’s IMPAC literary prize.”

She would not be sitting in a living room in a flat in Berlin if a high school German teacher had not imbued her with a love for the language. “The thing I like about German is that it’s almost mathematical in its precision, but there are enough exceptions to make it colourful and lively. You can be very creative; you make up words, much more easily than in English. There’s a fun side to German that not a lot of people see.”

Last year 600 novels were translated from English into German, versus only 51 novels from German into English for the US market. Derbyshire believes this means we are missing out on potentially great literature. “If nobody had read Madame Bovary, people would be writing differently in English now. And if nobody had read Kafka all sorts of other writing wouldn’t exist in many different languages. The ideal literary world would be run without language barriers. Translation is the closest you can get to that.”

Her wisdom for aspiring translators: “Find writers you can get excited about. You won’t get better if you try and second-guess the market, rather than working on something you love. You need passion.”

Recent favourite book: The King of China by Tilman Rammstedt (translated by Derbyshire). Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz by Maxim Biller.

Favourite Berlin literary place: Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. “Excellent readings out in a Wannsee lakeside villa. They have fantastic summer festivals and support writers and translators with residencies, workshops and events.”

Originally published in issue #122, December 2013.