On this week’s Behind the Book we caught up with translator, writer and editor Tim Mohr to talk about his work translating Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Sand. Read on to find out how translation is similar to transposing a piece of music from one musical instrument to another, why Wolfgang Herrndorf is the person Tim would most like to be stuck in a lift with, and why translation has made him a convert to kombucha tea.
Do you have a particular translating routine?
Not really. Translation is a very musical endeavor for me—I see it as similar to transposing a piece of music from one instrument to another, or one arrangement to another. So the way I work often depends on the particular melody and dynamics of a given book’s language.
Where are you at your happiest?
The Russian war memorial in Treptower Park in Berlin. I make a pilgrimage there on every visit to the city. Either that or standing behind a mixer whenever I come out of retirement and DJ a party—there are few things more enjoyable than pogoing around like an idiot while playing really loud music.
Which person (living or dead) would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?
Wolfgang Herrndorf. He was already gravely ill by the time I translated his previous book, Tschick, and the full extent of our interaction was him generously passing along his admiration for the English title, Why We Took the Car. I’d love to have a chance to talk to him about Sand—and perhaps to quiz him about the handful of invented epigraphs he sprinkled in among the genuine ones.
What is your favourite word and why?
As a translator, I like words that present riddles or challenges of different kinds. In that regard, I’ve been lucky. For instance, in her novel Feuchtgebiete (published in English as Wetlands), Charlotte Roche created a series of terms that I had to make up English analogues for. Alina Bronsky mentions all kinds of obscure food items from far-flung parts of Russia in her books, so I first have to try to figure out what they are and then find the correct English equivalent—or at least the non-Germanized version of the original Russian word. The fact that I have become a kombucha devotee is Alina’s fault…
What does being a translator mean to you?
This will sound corny, but I came to translation almost by accident, when I was casting about for ways to repay the sense of debt and gratitude I felt for all that I had taken from my years living in Berlin. For me translation represents a chance to expose the full breadth of contemporary German culture—Herrndorf notwithstanding, I translate primarily women writers, often with immigrant backgrounds—to readers who might not otherwise realize how heterogeneous that culture is.
Intrigued? Get your copy of Sand, translated by Tim Mohr, available now on the Pushkin shop >