Saturday, September 30, 2017

Interview with a Book Translator - #InternationalTranslationDay

It's International Translation Day, so what better way to celebrate than to interview a book translator. I met Jeannette Bauroth at Thrillerfest this July, and once we got talking, I realized she had great stories to tell about translating books - including mysteries from English into German. I learned a lot from talking with Jeannette and I hope you will too. 

What is your favorite part of translating books? What is your least favorite part?
My absolute favorite part is solving the linguistic puzzles in a translation, the thrill to come up with just the right words to make the text work in the new language. My goal is always to create the same emotions for the German reader that the book triggered in the original language. Some decisions are more invasive than others. Usually, we try to stick as closely to the source text as possible but sometimes a bit of cultural adaption is necessary. For example, Germans express some emotions with a different gesture than an American would. Or a name is used to characterize a person but has no meaning to the German reader. Then we try to explain the issue to the author and see if we can come up with a solution together.

My least favorite part are revisions. As much as I love these books, after five rounds of editing and proofreading I’m ready to move on. I guess that’s something authors can very well relate to.

How did you start translating books? 
I’m afraid my answer is really boring – I‘ve always wanted to be a translator, and I‘ve always wanted to translate English books into German. I didn’t get to do it right away, though. Growing up in East Germany meant that I was taught Russian at school, not English. But we were given the option to come in at our own time to take some English classes later on in 7th grade. The vocabulary was kind of odd, though, because our lessons were titled „Karl Marx in London“ and the like. Not exactly the kind of terminology you’ll find useful for translating novels.
After the wall came down, the career councelors discouraged us from becoming translators. They were convinced that within 10 years time everybody would speak English and there would be no more need for human translators. Luckily, that prediction turned out to be wrong.
However, back then I went and got a degree in physical therapy instead and for almost a decade I worked with professional athletes. All that traveling around with them on the bus gave me some free time and I ended up taking up some translation classes after all. I finally got my degree in translation in 2004 and have been working as a freelancer ever since, doing what I‘ve always wanted to do.

What are the hardest things to translate?
Word plays, poems, songs and puzzles. I’ve just finished translating a book about a treasure hunt in New York City (York: The Shadow Cipher“ by Laura Ruby). The hardest part was to make all the clues work (and sometimes rhyme) in German while making it sound natural to the storyline. When the editor wrote to me saying that she loved how I made that work, I was really relieved. It’s a fantastic book, by the way. I’m very much looking forward to translating the sequels.

Can you tell us the names of some of the books that you’ve translated?
As far as crime fiction goes, I have translated these books into German:
Watch Me Die by Lee Goldberg
Loose Ends by Terri Reid
Exhume by Danielle Girard
Lethal Bayou Beauty, Swamp Sniper, Malevolent and Sinister by Jana DeLeon
Twenty-Eight and a Half Wishes and Twenty-Nine and a Half Reasons by Denise Grover Swank 
plus several romance novels, new adult and non-fiction books.

Who are some of your favorite authors?
I love Agatha Christie. In fact, I have a huge collection of her books at home. I also really enjoy Jana DeLeon’s books, especially her Miss Fortune series. Harlan Coben is another favorite author of mine. I also like to read cozy mysteries; it’s a real pity that this genre is said not to do well in Germany, so publishing houses are rather reluctant in acquiring them for translation.
I’m currently reading the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch, and that’s also something I highly recommend if you like somewhat bizarre crime fiction. Think Harry Potter goes Bobby in nowadays London.

Jeannette at work?

What’s the funniest thing that you’ve had to translate? The most challenging?
Despite what people assume, humor translates really well, unless the jokes are rooted in some very specific pop culture reference. But if it’s funny in English, it’s usually also funny in German. I believe that’s the reason why shows like The Big Bang Theory are so successful internationally. 
The funniest scene I had to translate is probably the wedding scene between Libby and Noah in Denise Grover Swank’s contemporary romance The Gambler. Go read it – you’ll see what I mean. 
The most challenging may have been the treasure hunt story I mentioned above because of all the clues and puzzles. I also had to do an enormous amount of research for that one because the author set her story in an alternate New York City and refers to a lot of historic events that may or may not have taken place. The editor kept sending me notes, asking: Did this really happen? Did this person really say this? We have to be very careful not to infringe someone else’s copyright. If it is a historic text with an "official" translation we need to make sure we are granted the right to use it, or else make up our own. 
Another challenging translation project was the new adult novel Making Faces by Amy Harmon. It’s a story about losing friends in a war, and what happens to those who return. It was a very touching book and stirred up all kinds of emotions in me when I worked on it.
And Lee Goldberg’s Watch Me Die is the only story I‘ve ever worked on that’s told from a male point of view, so that was also an interesting and challenging experience.

A big thanks to Jeannette for sharing her stories with us. 


  1. Great post. I have read several translated books myself and really enjoyed Jeanette's answers.

    1. Thank you, Sharon! I often feel that I have the best job in the world.

  2. Thank you for answering all of my questions, Jeannette! Really fun to talk with you.