DIY Translation

The eagle has landed. Kilimanjaro Diaries has been translated into German and is now for sale in the Kindle store.*

Click image to see in Kindle store
Click image to see in Kindle store

When I say “has been translated into German,” that sounds SO professional, doesn’t it? Makes you think of my publisher hiring a professional translating outfit, sending them my book file, and voila – out the other end comes the finished work.

Well… It sounds professional and it sounds like heaven, but it’s not exactly what happened. Being a just-starting-out self-published author, I had to do it on the cheap. Meaning I myself did the translating, my lovely aunt – having retired from her teaching career just in time to sign on for this pro-bono project – did the editing, another relative helped with proofreading, and then it was back to me for the nuts and bolts of eBook formatting, a field about which I could soon write a dissertation.

I don’t know what’s more remarkable: that I finally finished this self-inflicted time sink without going completely insane, or that the German title is actually shorter than the original one. NOTHING is ever shorter in German (as evidenced by the total number of pages: 305 pages for the German version versus 257 pages for the English one), so shaving precious characters off that crazy subtitle felt like quite the accomplishment.

Had someone told me ahead of time how much work translating my own book would be, I would never have done it. I would have run screaming the other way.

The reason I started it was that I was being lazy. Yes, lazy. Writing a new travel memoir, the logical step after publishing your existing travel memoir, seemed like a monumental task. I’d have to come up with new sentences! I’d have to do more research, read up on the new country in question – Namibia – and learn its history! I’d have to come up with clever ideas for new cover art! And then I thought: Instead of all that, I could just TRANSLATE what I’ve already written and get an entirely new book out of it, for a new market, without much thought. How hard can it be?

Hard. Very, very hard. Translating my book was like my very own version of Groundhog Day. For almost a year I’d get up every day, and there it still was, barely having progressed a half a page. When I finally finished a chapter, all happy and relieved, I’d go back to the beginning and read it again, at which point I’d almost faint. Those were MY words? Sounding like something right out of Google Translate? Or perhaps the folded instruction manual that came with your child’s new Timex wrist watch – remember those? There was nothing to be done but to rewrite each chapter again, once removed from the original and therefore with a higher degree of freedom. Eventually that became my routine: translate a chapter sentence by sentence, clunky phrasings and all, including fifty commas, let sit for a few days, go back and rewrite each paragraph in a more fluid style, let sit for a few days, go back a third time and edit for mistakes and the last polish of fluency, send off to my editor,  go over it once more to incorporate her changes, then at the very end read the entire opus one more time from beginning to end. I got so thoroughly sick and tired of my book, you have no idea.

Why was this so difficult, in fact more difficult than just writing an entirely new book from scratch?

The pitfalls of book translations

There is the problem of structure, for one. German verbs often don’t make an appearance until the very end of the sentence, and by the time you get to the place where one belongs, you’ll totally have forgotten what it should be. And don’t get me started on the declensions of adjectives and uncertain articles. Mark Twain is known to have said that he’d rather decline two drinks than a German adjective, and I now know what he was talking about. Do it wrong, of course, and you mess up the whole meaning. Sort of like in Latin where you never could tell whether it was Caesar riding the horse or the horse riding Caesar.

Vocabulary was another problem. Having left Germany quite some years ago and doing most of my reading in English, my level of German is stuck on the words I’ve needed to raise bilingual kids: “Don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve, pick up your clothes, I will not listen to you talk to me like that, young man!” Fortunately, there are good tools out there for just this kind of problem. I heavily relied on a site called which points you to translations of entire passages so that you can find not just the correct word but also its placement in the proper context.

A few specific words and phrases became outsize obstacles. What to do, for instance, about the very word Kilimanjaro itself? That’s the English spelling. Germans spell it Kilimandscharo, phonetically. Tanzania becomes Tansania. However, Germans having become such worldly travelers, have begun using the English names of places more often, especially the younger generation. Would I come across as out-of-touch by using the German spelling? Like someone straight out of a Hemingway book (or, rather, the German translation of a Hemingway book) who’s stuck in 1938? Also, how should I address my readers? Formally or informally? Would I offend them by addressing them with “Du” like a group of schoolchildren, or would I again sound like my own grandmother if politely calling them by the more formal “Sie?” And, finally, how do you translate “I just have to open a can of harden-the-fuck-up” into ANY other language?

Another complication: Going through my book so methodically with a fine-tooth comb and an entirely new set of editors and proofreaders opened up the story to a fresh set of critics, and it wasn’t before long that I began to find faults with the English original. Logical inconsistencies suddenly glared at me, opportunities to let some characters become more prominent presented themselves, alpine flowers cried out to be named by their Latin genus. There were a host of improvements I incorporated into the German version, and of course I couldn’t leave it there. I HAD to go back and change the English version as well, adding almost twenty pages in the process. Which then meant, I discovered to my horror one day, that the cover art had to be redesigned, lest the writing on the now widened spine was suddenly wrapped around the back. I still get sweats just thinking about all of THAT.

Keeping track of my hero Hans Meyer, the first man on Kili’s summit, sent me off on yet another tangent. I had used his English-language memoir for all the quotes for the English version but now needed the German quotes in the original. No problem, I thought, until I laid eyes on the only online edition of his book I could find:

Hans Meyer

Finding the right quote reading through a few hundred pages of what Germans call Sütterlinschrift (there is a word for you!) was as impossible as reuniting all the missing socks in our house. It was a labor of love. Particularly once I discovered passages I’d missed before. Why hadn’t I told my readers what had happened to the rocks Meyer brought home from his third Kili expedition? Why had I totally overlooked the nickname his porters had bestowed on him? Those stories just HAD to be told, and of course they needed to be told in both languages, prompting me once again to go back and alter the original (and, in these cases, translating from German to English in the opposite direction for an entirely different experience).

Are you bilingual? And have written a book you might attempt to translate?

I hope I haven’t totally discouraged you. I just wanted to tell it as it is.

Is translating your own book in this way worth it? I really mostly did it simply because I thought I COULD. And I thought that Germany, with a ton of people who LOVE to travel but do NOT love to read anything in English, would be a good market for a travel memoir set in Africa. I don’t know if this is true. I don’t know if it was worth all the work.

Only time will tell.

*The paperback version will be out in just a few weeks.

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