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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.