Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!
This month’s interviewee is Jen Calleja, British writer and literary translator, nominated by Rosalind Harvey.
1. You’re about to conclude your residency at the British Library (you are their first Translator in Residence). How was the experience?
I feel really happy with what I managed to do at the BL one day a week for a year during the residency – it actually took a year to believe and appreciate that I had got this residency.
I held open forums with staff about the languages they used at work, wrote poetry based on the poet-translator Michael Hamburger’s archive, created and led a weekend creative masterclass for writers and translators, and organized and chaired three panel discussions, and some other things.
Coming from a DIY music and grassroots activism background has informed my compulsion to demystify translation and empower people to try translating who may not have thought it was – as a thing or as a practice – ‘for them’. I tried to always envision an audience comprised of the generally interested but monolingual person, multilingual people who have never explored translation and/or haven’t seen multilingualism celebrated and nourished in the UK setting, and those interested in literature but who didn’t necessarily have any knowledge of translation.
I am indeed in a phase of concluding – and a new resident is starting this month – but my residency has actually been extended to match the new resident’s day-and-a-half-a-week allowance, enabled by the Institute for Modern Languages Research joining the BL and the Arts and Humanities Research Council as a third partner for the residency going forward. I’ll use the time to mentor the new resident, write some more Hamburger poems and complete a video project. Oh, and create a movement performance. And maybe something else.
2. What’s your story with the German language?
Well, I often get asked if there’s any family collection, but I just always liked the way German was put together and sounded, and the way it expressed things. My dad’s Maltese but my brother and I weren’t brought up with Maltese or Italian, only English, but it’s probably why I ended up going into languages.
I studied it at GCSE and A-Level – along with French – and actually ended up being the only student doing any language at my school post-GCSE, which was a bit of a lonely and disheartening experience. They actually wanted to cancel languages that year but there weren’t any other local colleges that could take me. My teachers were overworked and they tried their best, but a mixture of our lack of motivation ended up with me passing with a B in German and C in French at A-level.
A former student at my school who had gone on to study modern languages and had then moved to Munich came to visit teachers and we were introduced and she casually said that if I ever wanted to spend some time in Germany I could come and live with her. Literally two months after finishing my A-levels I moved to Munich. I lived with her for two weeks, a morose and clueless 18 year old, then was a terrible au pair, then got a nice office job as an editor and typist working predominantly in English. When I got there I realized that a B-grade A-level in German was useless, my German was awful. I ended up living there for eighteen months, got my own place, got a social life – I started going to gigs three or four times a week – started seeing a guy there, and my German obviously got better.
I then moved to London to take up a place studying Media and Modern Literature with Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, but in my second year I missed the German language so decided to read German literature in my spare time (I’d read only English literature in Munich). The first book was Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser (The Reader) and it took me about a year to get through it. By the time I finished my degree I knew I wanted to specialize in German so did a Masters in German Language, Culture and History at UCL taking courses in German art and literature, and also took a life-changing course in Translation Theory and Practice, which I ended up specializing in for my dissertation.
I graduated in 2012 and got my first book translation job – a YA book – while finishing my MA because a friend remembered me saying I wanted to translate German literature and told a friend of a friend who needed someone to translate a book.
I would say I’ve learned how to translate literature on the job, literally by doing it. I’m now on books 11 and 12.
3. You are such a diverse professional: writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry; literary translator; columnist for literature in translation; editor; co-director and trainer; and last by not least musician! I’m curious, just like Rosalind, who nominated you, how do you juggle everything “with such aplomb,” according to her words?
Ha, it’s nice of her to say, and it’s a question I get asked quite often. I suppose I started by doing everything I wanted to do (writing, reading German lit, starting a band) when I was about nineteen to see what I liked the most – but then I didn’t want to compromise so ended up doing everything, and each thing is important to me. I like always having one foot in and one foot out of things – different ‘scenes’ and expertise such as poetry, music, translation – because it helps me keep perspective and view things from the outside. I just have a compulsion to do it all, and I know other people who have similar lives. Each thing also informs the other thing. Not an average day, but a day I’ve actually had was when I had to be at the BBC at 8 in the morning to speak on live TV about the anti-harassment campaign I help coordinate, then go to the British Library to send some residency emails and finish a sample translation, and then I got picked up to go on tour for a couple of days. I would say it’s getting harder to deal with the lack of balance and the stress though – something’s going to have to give this year I think.
4. Do you think that being a writer helps as a translator? If so, how?
I started as a writer – I’ve been writing stories and poems since I was about 17 – and I approach translating as a storyteller passing on someone’s story the best way I can. To me the processes are extremely similar. As a writer you’re used to trying out different words and sentences to see what works best, and you do the same thing when translating. Every sentence starts with ‘how would I say this if I had to say it immediately’ and then you go from there to make it fit in the context, make it fit the voice and the tone, while making sure the intention and vital information behind that line or word isn’t lost. There’s really just one additional starting layer – the original text! I’m also aware of what’s happening in writing and poetry and can see connections and threads leading from German literature into English literature and vice versa. Being a big reader in the language you’re translating into is so vital – after all, you’re creating something that has to fit within the English literature context.
5. You voluntarily coordinate the Good Night Out campaign, an organization that tackles harassment in the night-time economy. That seems quite interesting and fitting for this series (being it focused on women). Could you tell us a bit more about it?
Good Night Out was founded by someone I knew from the DIY music scene called Bryony Beynon and then two years ago she brought on a few people to help run it. We’re now a community interest company and are all Directors. We train staff in pubs, student unions, clubs (bar staff, managers, door staff, cloakroom staff and glass collectors, everyone!) how to handle disclosures of harassment – predominantly sexual harassment, but importantly how this also intersects with racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism etc. We know that anyone can be harassed on a night out, but statistically it will be women and those who identify as LGBTQ+ who are harassed the most. Staff aren’t usually trained in how to react or handle this kind of situation, so we want them to feel comfortable to handle it professionally and calmly and that someone who has been harassed isn’t left feeling even worse after reporting it. Belief is the biggest issue, and not taking it seriously enough – a lot of the time people try to brush it off because they don’t know what to say or do, and because we don’t take it seriously as a society.
Harassment is everyone’s problem.
I give training and train new trainers, plus act as a spokeswoman and coordinate a couple of our partnerships. I’d like to work on getting literary venues and event spaces involved.
6. According to your website, you are “keen to mentor emerging writers and translators from less privileged backgrounds, those who haven’t attended university, or are the first in their family to attend university.” That is very kind and thoughtful of you! How does your translator mentoring work?
As soon as I felt like I had knowledge to pass on I wanted to mentor, and wanted to try and do it as part of the BL residency but didn’t have time. Then I was offered to be a mentor for the British Council’s Translation Fellowship, and also received a translation mentee via Goldsmiths Alumni services after I signed up to be a mentor. We know from the great research and data gathering people in the literary scene and publishing sector have been doing that. The literary world we inhabit is disproportionately white and middle-class, and I’d like to help more people basically like me – I was the first person in my family to go to university, I’m from a working-class background with Maltese and Anglo-Irish parents – and from various and non-traditional walks of life help getting into literary translation and writing. I tend to give around five hours of my time so the mentee can pick my brains, see some of my reader reports, learn some do’s and don’ts, and so we can discuss one of their sample translations and edit it together if they like. I’d like to do more in the future.
7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.
I’d like to nominate Nicky Smalley, translator from (mainly) Swedish and publicist for publisher And Other Stories. She is not only a translator but someone who works tirelessly to promote literature in translation and has been super involved in AoS’s Year of Publishing Women – which has for them been a big year of publishing women in translation. She also mentored for the British Council and I’m always happy to see her at events and out and about.