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Shirley Kelly Discovers How We're Read Abroad
[...] Hans-Christian Oeser, who recently won the EU's Aristeion Prize for his translation into German of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy, is certainly a man in the right place at the right time. German interest in Irish literature, though always strong, was given a further boost at the 1996 Frankfurt Book Fair, which took the Irish diaspora as its theme. Oeser came to Ireland from Berlin via the UK in 1980 with his English wife and began work as a lecturer in German literature at UCD. His first translation, a poem by the English poet Adrian Mitchell, appeared in a German journal twenty years ago but his first full-length work, a translation of Christopher Nolan's Under the Eye of the Clock, was not published until 1989.
"It takes a long time to make it as a translator," he says. "I was taking on small projects, mostly poetry, and supplementing these with commercial assignments and teaching, for about five years. Then a German publisher approached me and asked me to do the Nolan book. Two other translators had turned it down because they thought it was too difficult - it wasn't just that Nolan had his own ideolect but very often the language seems to be going through a tumble dryer. It was very difficult, but completing a project like that gives you a lot of confidence."
Since then, Oeser has translated short story collections by Bernard MacLaverty, John McGahern and Brendan Behan, Jennifer Johnston's Fool's Sanctuary, Eoin McNamee's Resurrection Man, a collection of poetry by Paul Muldoon and three novels by Patrick McCabe (Carn, The Butcher Boy and The Dead School), as well as a number of English authors.
"As you become more established, it's easier to find work," he says. "But the translation itself becomes, if anything, more difficult. You become more aware of the nuances and intricacies of language, you spend more time agonising over things, and it all becomes more bothersome. It was particularly difficult to translate The Butcher Boy into German because, for starters, you don't find regional dialects in German literature. If a novel is written in a regional dialect in German the chances are that it would be so pronounced that only the people in that region will understand it. There is a distinct literary language which stems from classic German literature and in order to be understood on a national scale you have to work within that framework. With The Butcher Boy, I tried to overcome the problem of dialect by writing in the perfect tense, which is normally the domain of spoken German, to convey the sense of oral narrative."
Surprisingly, Oeser doesn't believe that living in Ireland gives him an advantage over German-based translators. "Living here I have more immediate access to the source language," he says, "but I feel at a disadvantage in that I am working at a remove from my own language. I read in German and I visit Germany as often as possible but I am not well versed in the latest slang or new uses for old words. Translators of English-language literature in Germany are generally very good - they are well-read in the source language and they spend a lot of time in the country where the work is set. Plus there is a strong tradition of translation in Germany - 45% of all literature sold in Germany is in translation. [...]"
(Books Ireland, Nr. 211, März 1998, S. 45-46)