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Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin


Working Profile: Hans-Christian Oeser


Chris Oeser arrived in Ireland in 1980, to teach German at University College Dublin. For the following twenty years he continued to teach: at UCD, and the NIHE (now DCU), at the Goethe Institute in Dublin. Recently he has given up teaching to devote himself full-time to working with books.

      Not that he underachieved as a part-time bookman. In the last twenty years he has produced 81 titles, as author, translator, editor and even occasionally as publisher. He has done German versions of many Irish writers including McGahern, McCabe, Muldoon and Mac Laverty, and in 1997 he won the Aristeion Prize, Europe’s most important translation award. His voluntary work form Irish Translators’ Association and related groups (including four years as editor of Translation Ireland) would fill another article.

      Like many translators, Chris came into the profession “sideways”, as he says. Trained as a teacher at the Free University of Berlin, he took a job in Peterborough, in the East of England. Here he met Barbara, now his wife, who introduced him to the Mersey poets, and to a poem by Adrian Mitchell, “Revolution”, which he translated for a left-wing magazine in Berlin. The rest is history.

       Barbara and Chris settled in Ireland, being neutral territory as between England and Germany. When he decided to seek work as a literary translator, he approached the old Stuttgart publishing firm of Reclam, for whom his sister worked typesetting musical scores. Reclam agreed to try him, and commissioned a dual-language edition of the Sherlock Holmes story, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This appeared in 1982. His latest title from Reclam (2000) is an annotated student edition of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, with notes, afterword and bibliography. The combination of linguistic and critical work comes naturally to him; he also edits literary anthologies, reviews books for several publications, and has written five travel guides.

      The best thing about the translation profession, he says, is the creative satisfaction when a sentence, after a long struggle, finally jumps out from the page in perfect form. He was delighted to hear his German dialogue from Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy being used verbatim in a stage version of the novel put on by a theatre in Stuttgart – not one word had to be changed in order to rnake the parts speakable.

      What’s the worst thing about the profession? It turns out that there are several: chronic insecurity, dreadful pay – literary work earns one-third of commercial rates – and the need to fund one’s own pension and health insurance out of a modest income. (But on the other hand he points proudly to the inclusion of literary translators within the artistic tax exemption scheme: a concession for which he himself campaigned.) Then there is the growing pressure, the acceleration of pace in the publishing industry. German-language publishers want books to be translated in an ever shorter timescale, and look for complete reading copies three months before publication. There is no time to let the draft translation rest, to go back over it after a lapse of time. As a freelance Professional, you cannot afford to turn any work down, as they may never ask you again. Sabbatical breaks are likewise out of the question. So Barbara protests that Chris works all day, every day, including Sundays and holy days.

      Another problem is keeping in touch with commissioning editors. E-mail contact is not enough; to keep up a credible relationship you have to visit the publishers frequently, and be known to them as a literary person. Luckily, there is help now for Irish-based literary translators, through the Artflight Programme and from the Cultural Relations Commission of the Department of Foreign Affairs, so Chris can make half a dozen trips every year, meeting publishers and attending conferences.

      He has a good range of independent small and medium-sized houses, based in Germany and Switzerland, who give him work – one of the best, Diogenes of Zürich, even maintains a royalty fund from bestselling translations which they then parcel out among all their translators. But publishers no longer listen to translators as much as they used to, when it comes to choosing titles for translation. When he started out, Chris acted very much as a talent scout, proposing new authors to German publishers. Nowadays, subsidiary rights are promoted far more actively by agents, and the translator tends to come in at the end of the process.

      Asked about the technical innovations he has introduced over his working life, he laughs and says “None!” – but then admits that he did progress from an ordinary typewriter to an electronic typewriter to an Amstrad, and finally to a Dell Computer. He laments the fact that the ease of revision on a computer tempts the translator to think less about one’s sentences in advance. On the other hand, he finds himself slowing down, not speeding up, as he grows more
experienced at his craft and therefore worries more about getting things right. Clearly, perfectionism and word-processing make dangerous allies.

      One slightly surprising fact is that publishers often ask for a translation on disk, and then apparently typeset the whole thing afresh from the accompanying printout. So even the literary translator may be more technically advanced than his or her client.

      Would he advise a young person to enter his profession. "Yes," he replies instantly, “and I'll tell you why." He enumerates the good points. Despite all shortcomings, it’s a satisfying profession. Your vanity is flattered by seeing yourself in print, and more importantly, you know that you are doing something that is objectively necessary. If more young people joined the profession, there would be more
pressure on publishers to be enterprising and take on translations. The Arts Council and ILE should put up seed money for publishers to try foreign books on their lists. More prizes and bursaries are needed to encourage new talent.

       His eyes light up as he warms to his campaigning theme. How should young people train as literary translators? He gives four prescriptions. Read voraciously in your source language and your target language. Travel as much as you can. Experiment with translations—even do some to be buried in your desk drawer, never to be published. Discuss your work with friends, but even more importantly with colleagues who are prepared to take a critical view.

      Asked what the European Union's Aristeion Prize has meant in professional terms, he reveals that the financial effect—apart from the very nice sum of money involved in the prize itself—has been zero. The volume of work available to him, and the rates paid, have shown no increase. Much more beneficial was the sense of recognition—although the cliche of the translator’s invisibility surfaced at the award ceremony, which featured a writer (whose name has been suppressed for the purposes of the present article), and a translator named Hans-Christian Oeser. The two prizewinners were seated on the same platform, but while Chris sat in decent obscurity, a cluster of photographers flashed around the writer. Even in full view of the world’s press, the translator remains transparent.


(Translation Ireland, Spring 2001, S. 18-19)

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