Interview with Sally-Ann Spencer
Interviewer: Simon Litten
Background: this interview was conducted in association with the release of the English
language edition, translated by Sally-Ann Spencer, of The Dwarves
by Markus Heitz
SL: How long have you been a translator?
SAS: Since 2005. It wasnt a conscious career choice I fell into
translating. I had an M.Phil in European Literature and worked in publishing. The director
of the publishing company was looking for a translator and I said Id have a go. I
discovered I enjoyed it.
SL: Can you pick and chose your projects?
SAS: Sometimes youre lucky enough to be approached to do more than one
project at once and youre in a position to choose, but normally you agree to do
something and then another project comes up just after youve committed yourself to
the first one.
The work of a literary translator comes in fits and starts you dont have
the routine or stability of a commercial or technical translator. When I started out, I
picked up bits and pieces. My first book was Culture Industry, an
introduction to twentieth-century German philosopher Theodor Adorno. My big break came
with The Swarm, an environmental thriller by Germanys
biggest selling author, Frank Schätzing, whose latest novel briefly outranked Dan Brown
in the Amazon charts. The Swarm was a really interesting project
that needed a lot of research.
SL: Why research?
SAS: As a translator, you need to understand the details of what you are
translating. The Swarm included a lot of science, including
lengthy sections about tsunamis and freak waves. The term "freak wave", for
example, has a specific meaning within oceanography, and I had to get to grips with all
this in order to translate the book. After all, a translation is an interpretation
if I, as the translator, dont understand what Im translating, then the reader
SL: What size is your usual project?
SAS: Book length. Ive completed six major projects and bits and bobs of
Two of the books Ive translated are non-fiction, four are fiction. Recently, all
my work has been in the genres of thriller or fantasy.
SL: Do you enjoy these genres?
SAS: Yes. I read Lord of the Rings at age 10, and found
the description of evil was terrifying not at all Harry Potter.
SAS: In most childrens books there is a clear division between good and
bad characters, but in Lord of the Rings any character can become
evil and for me, as a child, it brought the realisation that the world isnt
divided into good people and bad people, and that evil is much more complicated. Lord
of the Rings is a world where characters move between the two categories.
SL: What are you working on at the moment?
SAS: Ive just finished proof-reading the next volume in the Dwarves
series. Its scheduled for publication in March/April next year.
SL: How did you find The Dwarves?
SAS: Really fun despite being over 700 pages in length (which was short
compared to the 1000 pages of The Swarm!). The names of the
characters and places gave me lots of room to be creative. The original German names
wouldnt mean anything to English-language readers, and a direct translation
wasnt appropriate. For example, the fantasy continent that is home to the dwarves is
called das Geborgene Land, which directly translates as the safe or
secure or snug country, from the past tense of the verb bergen
to save, rescue, salvage etc. Geborgen has
shades of meaning in German that dont immediately translate to English, so I came up
with Girdlegard, which echoes some of the sounds in the German name and alludes to the
double girdle protecting (or gu(a)rding) the dwarves homeland.
Translating the character and place names proved interesting as the author used
SL: I noticed that. I pronounced one pair of names using English pronunciation
rules as the diacritics over the vowels didnt follow German language rules.
SAS: There were two groups of characters whose names had a fascinating
provenance. Heitzs dark elves are called Albae (singular: Alb) in
German. Alb is similar to the old word for elf, Elb, and its also
linked to the German word for nightmare, Alptraum, because the Alb of German
mythology is responsible for bad dreams. Of course, this association isnt possible
to recreate in English, but I wanted to demonstrate the relationship between the elves and
the dark elves. I couldnt very well call them alves (singular: alf!), so in the end
I went for älfar (singular: älf), which has echoes of the álfar of Norse
mythology and sounds similar to elf. Heitz also invents a set of characters called boglins
(an anagram of goblins), but Mattel produces toys of that name, so we went with bognilim
(singular: bognil) instead.
As a by the by, the German for dwarf is Zwerg, but a garden gnome is
a Gartenzwerg, i.e. a garden dwarf, which seems a more accurate
description to me!
SL: What was your personal view of The Dwarves?
SAS: I got really fond of the dwarves. I spent eight months translating the book
and have since completed volume two in the series (there are four volumes in total
and the author is talking about writing a fifth
How did you find the book?
SL: Bit slow to start with but then it picked up as the story got going a
bit like German films Ive seen.
SAS: I think that is reflective of the German fantasy tradition of a long
prologue and introduction before the action starts. The second volume is more fast-paced.
SL: Why the choice of American English?
SAS: That was a deliberate choice on the part of the publisher. Publishing is an
expensive business and most publishers dont bring out separate UK and US editions
unless the book was originally intended soley for the UK market. If a UK language edition
of a mass market book is released in the US, the publisher will receive sacks of mail
complaining about the grammar, spelling and unnecessary vowels from readers
who seem unaware that British English exists.
When I was translating I deliberately avoided British English expressions, e.g.
damn and bloody as expletives. But afterwards the manuscript still
went to an American copy-editor, who checked for American spellings and so forth.
SAS: Publishing is still very much paper based. Documents are sent as paper
files, with changes marked in pencil and a different colour for each editor. Then the
manuscript has to be mailed or couriered back (which isnt cheap).
SL: What was the most enjoyable part of translating The Dwarves?
SAS: The humour the book was a great source of humour, especially the
character Rodario. Whereas the hardest part was the detailed description of castles (and
battlements and parapets etc.), which required a lot of research.
SL: Do you have any plans to write any fiction of your own?
SAS: If anything, I would be more tempted to write non-fiction maybe
biography or literary criticism. I like the creative writing involved in translation, but
for the moment, Im happy to re-tell other peoples stories.