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German is more than a sum of words

by Karen Witthuhn

Berlin, May 2009. How do you become a translator of theatre plays? It wasn't exactly the dream job for many – including myself. Most of us are career changers, many come from other areas of theatre, they are dramaturges or authors themselves, or have a different kind of experience in theatre. Many translate as a second, third or even fourth option in addition to other jobs. Many have been living in the country whose language they translate for a long time, others not. Some are authors themselves and have an individual, creative way with language.  All of this leads to us translators having different strengths and weaknesses – not every translator suits every play, and vice versa.

I myself completed my “Drama-Theatre, Film & Television“ studies at the University of Bristol in 1995 and returned to Germany after five years, in order to work in theatre and if possible, to live from it. I was (and still am) a dramaturge, stage director and production leader in some permanent theatres as well as for some  freelance groups and have worked two years for the international THEATERFORMEN festival.

My first question: How quickly must the translation be finished?
Since 2000, I've been regularly working as a translator from English into German. I mainly translate theatre plays, but I also accept other kinds of work. Back then I got into contact with the publishing company Rowohlt Theatre through a good friend, and after having completed a trial translation, was put on their list of translators. After six months I received my first translating job, and since then I translate one to two plays per year for Rowohlt. In the course of time more clients have been added through recommendation: The Berlin Stückemarkt (play market), the publishing houses Kaiser in Vienna and Theater der Zeit. For a few years I've also been preparing "overhead titles" for festivals.

From time to time my phone rings and I 'm asked if I have the time and interest to work on a translation. My first question is then how quickly the translation must be completed. If the job is from a publishing company, the deadline is usually quite generous and I have about three months. This is of course helpful when freelancing and managing five other jobs – which is actually quite gratifying. If the call is from the Berlin Stückemarkt there is much less time, because the translation has to be finished much sooner.

Then I receive the play by e-mail, read it and notify the client if I either want to accept or decline the offer. If I accept, the payment has to be agreed upon. The conditions of the publishing houses vary: Firstly there's a basic fee for the translation. Then the play has to bring in a basic amount again before the publishing house pays a royalty.

Sometimes it takes years until royalties are received
This can prove to be a frustrating matter from time to time: Many new plays have a world or German premiere at a theatre – and then disappear, as theatres are always on the lookout for "discoveries", and prefer not to re-enact new plays that have already been performed. So to accumulate the basic amount in royalties can take years, sometimes it never even gets as far as that. Unfortunate as this may be for the translators, it is tragic for the authors. Of course there are some exceptions like the plays by Simon Stephens or other "stars" of the theatre business.

In my experience with other clients a single payment can be negotiated. It is really important to be sure to keep the rights of the translation in case they are re-enacted or accepted by a publishing company. Nobody becomes a translator to get rich, that's almost impossible. I like translating, it's fun to connect both my languages, to think from one language into the other, to change associatively from one to the other. I enjoy wondering how to translate an English phrase into German, so that it doesn't sound like translated English, but rather like a sentence that was originally in German.


With television or cinema, or occasionally theatre I find myself translating dialogues back into English – because the translations are partly so literal, I hear English with German words, but no German. I try to avoid this by leaving the translations on which I am working alone for a while, so that I forget the original and can improve the translation itself.

Dialects, especially those of British English, are often challenging, as they have much more social connotation in English than in German. It is almost impossible to translate German dialects as they are usually regionally rooted and "dialect plays" are more considered to be popular theatre. For a play that is to be performed all over Germany dialects should be avoided. The social and regional differences in England can only be applied to Germany to a certain extent. German dialects give completely different associations, which don't relate to the play at all.

What is the equivalent to the phrase? What could it be in German?
Therefore I avoid German dialects and instead try to translate the social connotation in English into German colloquial language. I consider the situation who is the character talking to, what are their intentions and about their identity (age, sex). A subjective opinion and one's own experience are the only things that can help. This is exactly what defines the creative part of translating. I frequently discuss such general questions with the client before I start to translate. This also belongs to the creative part; considering what matches the play that is to be translated, to think about whether the language should be brief or dry, if it is formal, colloquial or playful. At this part experience and trust in one's own sense of language are a great help. I don't discuss these details with the client, only general thoughts.

This helps the client to guide me in the right direction for the type of translation I should go for, and it helps me because then I know if he agrees with my estimation – when in doubt different opinions can always be discussed and ironed out. Naturally it is helpful to work with a publisher (for example from a particular publishing company) over a longer period of time, as one then knows and trusts each other. Much can be learnt from an experienced publisher and confidence gained. I have been so fortunate.

Translation program or making notes?
When I have accepted a job I do a rough translation, which is sometimes still strongly orientated towards the original, even though I try to be as "German" as possible the first time. Then the finishing touches follow: I check, work on and change the translation, pay attention to the language devices, type of language, character's language, repetitions in the play, rhythm and grammar (which is important too).
It is also useful to make notes of the words or expressions that keep coming up in the play – especially if you can't work on the translation every day. I believe that many translators use translating programs that support these procedures. Up until now I haven't used one, as I think it's very technical and I prefer making my own notes.

In the course of the finishing touches I contact the author by mail and ask the questions I've gathered during the translation. The authors always answer my questions willingly and quickly – they have to trust an (often) unknown person, which is why I have the feeling that they are glad to use this opportunity.

When the translation is finished I mail it to the client. Sometimes the work is thereby done and everybody is satisfied, sometimes some questions occur. If the client is a publishing company the work continues, for the publisher ALWAYS suggests some adjustments. These are then discussed, and sometimes I can convince, at other times the publisher can convince. In some cases we agree on a third, better version. Then the play is put in the catalogue of the publishing company and everyone – publishing company, author and translator – hope that a large and respected theatre as possible will add it to its repertoire.

All the best to the Osnabrück audience and the Theatre of Osnabrück for "Fragile!"

Karen Witthuhn has translated plays by Zinnie Harris, Ben Musgrave, Nina Mitrovic, Stella Feehily, Tena Štivičić and Abi Morgan from English into German, including Tena Štivičić's Fragile, which will be staged as part of Spieltriebe 3.


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