Literary translator and lit-fest founder Sandra Hetzl talks about the challenges of translating from a language still marginal to the contemporary German literary scene:

By Leonie Rau

Sandra Hetzl is a literary translator, researcher, writer and project curator with a focus on contemporary Arabic literature. She has translated short stories, poems and non fiction by Rasha Abbas, Kadhem Khanjar, Aref Hamza, Bushra al-Maktari, Aboud Saeed, Assaf Alassaf and Raif Badawi. She has translated over twenty theatre plays, including by Mohammad Al Attar, Maya Zbib, Zoukak Theatre Company, Wael Kadour, Hoda Barakat and Mudar Al Haggi. She is the founder of the of the 10/11 collective for contemporary Arabic literature and the mini literature festival Downtown Spandau Medina. She lives in Berlin.

Photo courtesy Sandra Hetzl

In addition to taking part in our panel on “Arabic Literature in Berlin” at the “BILA HUDOOD” festival, Sandra kindly answered a few questions about how she got her start in literary translation, what she’s translated, and how she sees the German translation landscape.

How did you get started with literary translation?

Sandra Hetzl: I grew up bilingual (with German and Italian) and always read a lot. To move closely between two languages and two worlds often put me in a situation where I found something beautiful in one language, song lyrics or a book for example, but wasn’t able to share it with the other side. So the urgency and practice of translating literary texts into another language came into my life relatively early on. I have always written a lot – diaries (crutches for thinking!) and poetry (which I sometimes also set to music). Later, while studying Art at the Berlin University of Arts, I began learning Arabic autodidactically and couldn’t even really say why. Not knowing why, however, was starkly contrasted by my obsession with studying – I kept my diary in Arabic for two whole years, for example. All I knew was that I wanted to be able to absorb Arabic literature and culture. I thought that there weren’t enough paths between the two languages and cultural scenes. That was in 2005. There was a gap I wanted to see filled. And then it all came together little by little. In between my interest for literature, my desire to translate things for my friends and my aspiration to fund my artistic practice only through jobs that had to do with Arabic, I received my first commissions. Slowly, working with texts and all the questions that develop from such work started to take up more and more room.

What kinds texts have you translated?

SH: Besides more than 20 contributions to literary magazines and anthologies, I have translated the following monographs:

6 prose works:

  • 2022: Die ganze Geschichte [al-Qissa al-kamila] by Aboud Saeed (short prose & status messages). Mikrotext.
    2018: Eine Zusammenfassung von allem, was war [Mulakhkhas ma jara] by Rasha Abbas (stories). Mikrotext.
  • 2015: Abu Jürgen – Mein Leben mit dem deutschen Botschafter [Abu Jürgen. Yawmiyyati ma’a al-safir al-almani] by Assaf Alassaf (episodic novel). Mikrotext.
  • 2015: Lebensgroßer Newsticker [Hayat ‘ala hajm khabar ‘ajil] by Aboud Saeed (short stories). Edition Volte – Spector Books.
  • 2013: Der klügste Mensch im Facebook by Aboud Saeed (short prose & poetic status messages. Mikrotext.

2 volumes of poetry:

  • 2019: Dieses Land gehört euch [Hadhihi al-ard lakum] by Kadhem Khanjar (poetry). Mikrotext.
  • 2018:Du bist nicht allein [Lasta wahidan] by Aref Hamza (poetry). Sezession-Verlag.

3 non-fiction books:

  • 2021: One Way Ticket [Rihla fi ittijahin wahid] by Firas Shamsan (autobiography). DeutschSchweizer Pen Zentrum (forthcoming later this year).
  • 2020: Was hast du hinter dir gelassen ­– Stimmen aus dem vergessenen Krief im Jemen [Madha tarakta wara’aka – Aswat min bilad al-harb al-munsiyya] by Bushra al-Maktari. Ullstein-Verlag.
  • 2015: 1000 Peitschenhiebe – Weil ich sage, was ich denke [Alfi jalda ­– li’annani aqulu ma ufakkir] by Raif Badawi. Ullstein-Verlag.

Additionally, I have ghostwritten Aeham Ahmad’s autobiography „Und die Vögel werden singen“ (And the Birds Will Sing) together with Ariel Hauptmeister (Fischer-Verlag 2017) and translated more than 20 plays by, among others, Mohammad Al Attar, Rabih Mroué, the Zoukak Theatre Company, Maya Zbib, and Mudar Al Haggi.

Which kind of text do you most enjoy translating?

SH: I like stylistically interesting, contemporary prose. Texts that take a stance, that have lots of subtext, that deliberately work with different registers of language. I also like good poetry, most of all serious, laconic, dark, but also funny poems. I like clever plays. Generally, texts that touch and surprise me. Also, a new word I learned today: Marginality.

What does your typical translation process look like, from discovering a text to its publication?

SH: The amount of texts I translate is, of course, not always congruent with the amount I would like to translate. Often someone approaches me with a text and a request to translate it, in many cases originating with the authors themselves. They know me from somewhere and express to the publisher that they would like me to translate their text. Many translations are also follow-up commissions for new texts by authors I have previously translated. Then there are of course the texts I “discover” and love so much that I take the initiative start a potentially lengthy process: I translate an excerpt, organize readings, and try to raise interest any way I can. At some point, I might be able to place a text in an anthology and then the publisher might want to do a volume of poetry. This is what happened with the Syrian poet Aref Hamza, but it took seven years.

Literary magazines or initiatives also often ask me to suggest authors and texts which gives me a chance to introduce a text to more people. Sometimes such a publication even generates the money to do a translation sample for potential publishers in the first place. It is difficult to find a balance sometimes between practical constraints, publishers’ and literary actors’ preferences, and the often more interesting texts languishing in a drawer. I live exclusively off of literary translations and remunerations for readings and their curation. Because of this, I often face the dilemma of having to push the texts in my drawer – which I find much more interesting but which haven’t found a publisher yet – to after my next deadline. Translating sample and writing exposés that are needed to approach publishers takes time, plus you’re doing it at your own expense and risk.

How do you see the current German-speaking market for translated literature?

SH: In Germany, the percentage of translated literature in the last 10 years was on average 25%, with 70%, however, being translations from the English. During these 10 years, Arabic was in the top 20 most translated languages only four times, and every time behind Latin and Ancient Greek. Still, I see a rising trend towards Arabic literature, even if this does not take place in the annual publication cycle by big publishers. Instead, it mostly disappears in perfunctory or smaller publications, such as anthologies, theater productions, and literary magazines. In the past years, independent, involved publishers especially have opened up towards Arabic literature and I assume that bigger publishing houses will follow suit. I see the reason for this trend in the growing number of connections between Arabic-speaking authors and workers in the German cultural and literary sector due to the growing Arab diaspora in Germany. I also see an increasing number of German cultural institutions that recruit Arabic-speaking creatives as well as the many new Arab initiatives that emerged in Germany and especially in Berlin these last few years. All this contributes to a more dynamic scene. I also have the theory that every translation will bring about new opportunities and more translations.

Which Arabic book in German translation would you recommend everyone read?

SH: From among my own translations, maybe Dieses Land gehört euch by Kadhem Khanjar and Eine Zusammenfassung von allem, was war by Rasha Abbas. Apart from that, Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail in Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation, The Book of Sleep by Haytham El-Wardany (tr. Robin Moger), and Using Life by Ahmed Nagy (tr. Ben Körber).

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Leonie Rau is a Master’s student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and hopes to pursue a PhD after her graduation. She is an aspiring literary translator with a particular interest in Maghrebi literature. She also writes and edits for ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.

More on Arabic Literature in German Translation:

An Introduction: Arabic Literature in German Translation

Translator Hakan Özkan: Immigrant Translators in Germany ‘Don’t Get a Chance’

Publisher Stephan Trudewind of Edition Orient, on How the Translation-support System Should Be Restructured

Translator Larissa Bender: On the Clichés and Media Interest that Overdetermine Arabic Literature in German Translation

A List of Arabic Literature in German Translation

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