The Beauty of Language – translations, post 3 of 3 (Edith Parzefall)

We read translated books all the time, but what goes into translating fiction stories? 

After writing in English for  years, German author Edith Parzefall translated her thriller, “Strays of Rio,” into German. Recently, she took time off from promoting her latest book, “Crumple Zone,” to describe the translation process.

It is my pleasure to host one of my favorite suspense/thriller writers. Please welcome Edith Parzefall.  


Ever since I attended college in the United States, I felt limited when writing in German, my mother tongue. No matter what I was writing, English phrases popped up in my mind. Working as a technical writer for a German software company, I started writing professionally in English when we were bought by an American company.

Two American friends kept encouraging, nudging and prodding me to write my novels in English so they could read them. And finally I dared to take on the challenge and much enjoyed it. One friend edited the first draft and didn’t find an awful lot of errors, but plenty of room for stylistic improvements. Finally I mustered the courage to look for a wider audience and found The Internet Writing Workshop. Boy, was I nervous when I started submitting my writing, but as I did, my English kept improving and my story-crafting skills as well. Since then I have written four novels in English and co-written four more.

Toward the end of last year, after toying with the idea for quite a while, I finally started translating my thriller Strays of Rio, published by MuseItUp Publishing.

I expected to suffer and give up soon. But I’m stubborn, and about twenty percent into the translation, I started enjoying the work.

As the author of the original, I probably took more liberties than a professional translator might dare. If the German version just didn’t flow in a literal translation or was too echo-laden for a lack of synonyms, I made content changes, but only minor ones that wouldn’t affect the story or character development. For example, if a description of the clothes of a character sounded bland in German, I wrote about facial expression, hair or posture, weaving in the outfit later.

At first I labored over every sentence and word, but then decided to get the first draft down quickly so I could put away the English version and do an editing round on the German text, taking even more liberties. During the translation and editing phase I only read German books and listened to German audio books and even avoided watching movies in English.

I’d say nothing needs to get lost in translation, except possibly a very specific wordplay or joke that can’t be easily replaced. And a translation can be better than the original. Of course, that depends on the quality of the original, the experience and skill of the translator and the time allowed to finish the work. And a good translation needs polishing by a line editor who
doesn’t know the original work and language, so they’ll stumble over errors like literal translations that make no sense in the target language.

Even professionally translated novels by big publishers have those sometimes, which can get very irritating. For example a literal translation of “cover your ass with paper”. An image hard to get out of your head when you’re not familiar with the metaphorical meaning of the phrase. Someone is chopped up by a serial killer but readers don’t take in the bloodshed because they see the victim with paper stuck to his or her bare ass. Yes, I stumbled across this one in a published novel, although there was no serial killer around. Another real-life example: “rib cage” literally translated as “Rippenkäfig”. Well, we call it “Brustkorb”, which literally translates to “chest basket”. Imagine reading a book where the heroine’s chest basket heaves and you’ll know how annoying such errors can be.

Have I started translating the next book yet? Well, I was tempted to get the translation of Crumple Zone done in time for the release of the English edition on February 22, but I shied from another two-month translation spree this soon after finishing Die Streuner von Rio. First I need a new writing fix. But in which language?


14 responses to “The Beauty of Language – translations, post 3 of 3 (Edith Parzefall)

  1. Great article, Edith. I wondered why you didn’t write or contact me all that time. I see it all now– my English would have thrown you off your bent.

  2. Hi Edith, I read your book The Strays of Rio and really enjoyed it, so I was very interested to hear your experience translating your own novel. It absolutely bugs me to read literal or wooden translations, and you are right – good translations are extremely difficult to find! You’re lucky in that you can afford to take liberties with your own work. Usually translators don’t have that luxury – and I speak from experience, as I have worked as a translator – from German into English! But my German is nowhere near good enough to write a novel in. Congratulations to you, and I look forward to reading your other novels!

  3. Really interesting to read about your process. I’ve always felt that my native English is the best language for succinct expressions. We’ve stolen phrases from every language and kept ours lively. To go the other way, especially in a very literal language like German, is a monumental task..

  4. Right, Francene, you’d have totally confused me. :-)

  5. Wonderful article, Edith. As a modern language major–French and German–still I can’t imagine translating anything…either direction! My single attempt at corporate translation–a prospectus of a dairy farming operation in the south of France darn near landed me in a mental institute!

  6. Ausgezeichnet . . . uh, I meant excellent. Peter.

  7. I see the beauty of translations in the process you describe here, Edith, and the beauty of pure hard work! Your stories are wonderful, your tenacity admirable. Can’t wait for Feb 22 and your newest!

  8. Everything Beth Camp said! I enjoyed reading this article, Edith.Thanks

  9. Thanks so much, everyone, for dropping by, reading and enjoying this article. And of course, a big thanks to Silvia for hosting me.

  10. How wonderful to have this terrific thriller in two languages. Who better to do the translation than the autjor herself. Only you could take the liberties you do. I’m sure you wouldn’t have allowed another translator to do so. Now to have it translated for the Brazillian readers. How will you know what liberties this translator will take. Oh no, Edith, does this mean you’ll have to learn Portugese. Congratulations.

  11. I can’t even imagine:) ~ It’s hard enough getting the story down in English (my native tongue) Fascinating Edith, and congratulations on getting through the process!

  12. I found Edith’s article really interesting, These comments struck me: “Ever since I attended college in the United States, I felt limited when writing in German, my mother tongue.”
    “I’d say nothing needs to get lost in translation, except possibly a very specific wordplay or joke that can’t be easily replaced. And a translation can be better than the original.”
    Also, the specific translations “chest basket” etc.
    Thanks to Edith and Silvia for the post!

I welcome your thoughts.

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