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Scene in Berlin

Finding Berlin in translation

Literary translation is generally a solitary, even an intimate pursuit. So what happens when it's done in front of an audience? DW's Susan Stone got on stage in Berlin to find out.

Translation Idol comes but once a year. The event is put on by the literary magazine "No Man's Land" and our MC for this evening is Katy Derbyshire, an accomplished translator who works with some of the contemporary literary lights of the German language, including Clemens Meyer, Helene Hegemann, Inka Parei, and Tilman Rammstedt.

Katy is also my friend and the reason I'm here on stage, stumbling over a clever reworking of a German text, although I'm not actually a translator. It's like some kind of poetry slam, but the words aren't my own, or the words of the original author. Or are they?

Fifteen translations are up for the prize tonight. Six translators are present, and nine are far flung, so stand-in readers are needed. I'm appropriately given the Americans and I'm to read four of them (though it feels like 40). Lucy Renner Jones of translators collective Transfiction, has five. Hers are British and Australian.

Our venue, Alte Kantine Wedding - a former cafeteria for workers of Berlin's public transport system, BVG - is full of waiting faces. The cabaret-like setting features the odd juxtaposition of a podium embellished with the transport firm's logo, low-slung, tangerine-colored plastic couches made from refurbished bus seats, chicken soup, and a crowd full of skilled translators.

Colored lights add a touch of gaudy festivity. The judges are the audience and the author, Hannover-born writer Deniz Utlu, whose first novel is coming out next spring.

Faithful and free

Contributors to Translation Idol are encouraged to be as "faithful or free as they like" with their versions of the challenging source text, Utlu's unpublished short work, "Verlusttiere" (literally, "Animals of Loss"). The title is variously and creatively rendered into English by the 15 contestants, with suggestions ranging from "Beasts of Pleasure" and "Wasted" to "In'sense" and "Loss Freaks" - which gives you an idea of the poetic license afoot here.

The text follows a narrator voyaging through the gritty urban underworld, searching for a high, traipsing through decadence, with stops (real or conceptual) in Berlin, Istanbul and Paris. He ends his journey in a China Town opium den, served substances of solace by a delicate young woman. The writing is stylish, lyrical, and evocative.

Glasses resting on a book, Photo: Calado/Fotolia

Translation doesn't have to happen behind closed doors

One by one, the translations are read out. These agents of change have transposed Utlu's street-smart German into an Albuquerque hipster, or a louche Londoner. In Steph Morris' version, the opium den's fragile Chinese girl becomes a knowing drag queen; in Emma Rault's, the British children's show "The Magic Roundabout" is coaxed into metaphor.

A few lines emerge through the transformations nearly identical: "We touch with elbows and with genitals. Elbows by day, genitals by night." And nearly every version ends with the same line, uttered by our fix-seeker upon inhalation: "Now I can smile."

'It felt like music'

Scott Martingell, a poet and ad-lib performer known as MC Jabber, takes top marks, Joseph Given garners second, and Steph Morris is awarded both third place and the Poet's Prize from Utlu in absentia. (It's a repeat win for the Spain-based Brit.)

"It felt like music when I saw it, so it was just an interesting challenge to see if I could take what this guy had said, and make it sound like an English person had said it," comments Martingell, after confessing to the crowd this is the first thing he's ever translated from German into English.

Katy Derbyshire thanks everyone and passes out the prizes - solar-powered waving lucky cats from the Asian grocery store, along with warm cans of Tsing Tao beer.

I take the mic and joke that I've never said the word "genitals" so often in my life. Now I can smile.

Lost and found

Afterwards, many of the competitors approach Utlu for a chat. I wait my turn, and see that he's written notes on each page. He's considering taking on one of the competitors as a translator, though he says the decision will be a tough one.

We talk about some of the translations I had a chance to read on stage. He points to one, saying he was a bit unsure of the new title, which included the word "generation," though he liked it as a whole. I consider his objection, and then explain some of the clever wordplay in the opening sentences; he looks surprised and pleased, and says he will revise his opinion.

Feeling the need to promote some of my other readings, I point out some of the choice American references Utlu might have missed, like "dollar drafts" and "park your carcass."

Then I ask him, "Who is Joanna?"

Microphone, Photo: Fotolia/nikkytok

Still, live translations aren't likely to make you a star

The small group we're sitting breaks into laughter. It turns out the line "gimme dope, Joanna" isn't an exhortation to an ex-lover or partner in crime, but a pun on the 1983 Eddy Grant song "Gimme Hope Jo'anna" - which was actually an anti-apartheid song, as it turns out.

To salvage my pride, I decide that few if any of the American translators understood this either, since many left it out of their text, or omitted a musical reference.

Lucy Renner Jones says she thinks the American translations seem less fetid and nasty than the British ones, that the drink and drug use feels more party-related, maybe even a bit funny, and not quite so desperate.

Translation tango

At the end of the evening, I feel intoxicated by all the words I've had in my mouth. They've rolled around my tongue, made my throat dry, and teased my eyes with their sly differences. I have flashbacks of select sentences for several days to come.

From outside, literary translation is akin to a dance, a back-and-forth, a tango of two tongues, or the famous quip about Ginger Rogers - she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.

Translation has been compared to ventriloquism, or even digestion, but for someone like me it feels more like magic.

It's worth keeping in mind that only about three percent of books published in English have been translated from another language. German books make up a small fraction of this small fraction. Passionate wordsmiths like the Translation Idol competitors are doing their best to change this, and to bring the best out of every book.

Listen to audio 03:53

Scott Martingell aka MC Jabber reads at Translation Idol in Berlin

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