05 Apr 2012

42: Translating The Method

This week’s blog is written by Sally-Ann Spencer, translator of The Method by Juli Zeh.

I arrived at the European Translators’ Collegium in Straelen with an almost-finished translation of Juli Zeh’s Corpus Delicti and a list of questions for the author. This was enough to alarm me on two fronts. First, was it really a good idea to attend a three-day translation workshop on a novel for which I already had a final, edited draft? And second, what if my favourite living author turned out not to be the astonishingly smart person that I had always assumed her to be? On the latter count, I am pleased to report that Juli Zeh is every bit as sharp and funny as you might imagine from her books. As for my worries about the translation, my final, edited manuscript had a new title and a re-christened character within the first two hours. Clearly the workshop was going to be bad news for the remaining 200 or so sheets of carefully checked translation, but an excellent thing overall.

The European Translators’ Collegium has been organizing regular translation workshops since 2007 with the aim of bringing together the translators of a particular book and providing them with everything they could possibly need, including the presence of the author, lots of strong coffee, a library with over 110,000 specialist volumes, and bedrooms with two huge desks each. Most of the time we worked around a long table in the main building and discussed the novel page by page. The translators were all at different stages: the Dutch version had already been published, the Swedish edition was at the printers, the Turkish manuscript was almost finished, and the Taiwanese, Brazilian and Polish translators had yet to start work.

The title – Corpus Delicti – was the first thing to exercise us all. Until then I had assumed it could be left in Latin, not realizing that its meaning is different in English law. Under other circumstances this might not be a problem, but Juli has a doctorate in law, and the legal aspects of her novels are carefully thought out. The term also has more widespread colloquial usage in German, usually in the sense of incriminating evidence (a football lying on the floor among shards of glass, or suchlike), which gives it a different feel. In the end we decided on The Method, drawn from the name and form of the society in which the novel is set. Later the Taiwanese translator wondered whether she should translate “the Method” (“die METHODE” in German) with the Taoist concept of “The Way”. This was only one of many dilemmas posed for her by the book – almost every passage revealed new difficulties stemming from different philosophical and linguistic traditions. I would love to read her finished translation, but of course I can’t. For most of us, the common language was German, so we had to explain to each other in German how we were proposing to render a particular German word or phrase – a peculiar form of back translation.

Translators are licensed to ask all sorts of questions to which an author might not otherwise reply. On several occasions Juli explained (in what for her was probably painful detail) the exact meaning of a particular passage, the associations of a particular word, the precise source of an allusion, and so forth. One of the first surprises for me came with a character called Bell. The name hadn’t struck me as unusual: it was only when another translator queried the English origin that the allusion to “bellen” became clear – German for “to bark”. This is the strength of the workshop format and the benefit of working with other translators rather than corresponding with the author by email or phone. If you are ready to identify the question or problem, you are already halfway there. For me, the really important insights came through questions posed by others about the details of the text.


In recent weeks, the issue of surveillance has resurfaced in the UK news and also here in New Zealand. The Method engages with pressing social and political issues, but also with broader themes – how we define freedom, what matters to us individually and collectively, and how we balance those needs. As I translated the book, these questions took on a particular form: what is “das Menschliche” – and how the hell do you translate it?*

* “Der Mensch” – the human or Man; “das Menschliche” – humanness, the human condition, being human. Also: “die Menschheit” – humanity or humankind; “die Menschenwürde” (human dignity); “Menschenrechte” (human rights); “der gesunde Menschenverstand” and so on and so forth…