Back in the early ’80s (pre-Amazon), Werner Richter gave a friend traveling to the US a booklist to take to a bookseller to get recommendations for others he might like.
Among the recommendations was Water Music, by an up-and-coming author, T.C. Boyle. Richter fell in love with the book, and finally, after two years, persuaded a publisher to hire him to translate it for German-speaking readers. Boyle went on to become a world-renowned author, and Richter to translate his next 10 novels into German.
“I was quite lucky at the time,” said the 66-year-old Berlin native, although he admits there are clear caveats to this. Literary translation is an intensive, demanding job, and the conditions surrounding it not always ideal: It brings little recognition and is often poorly paid, and susceptible to unpredictable ebbs and flows of the publishing market.
Richter was given three months to translate Water Music, requiring the cancellation at the last minute of a long-planned trip with his wife to Mexico.
Such good-luck stories can make careers in the world of literary translation. The Norwegian translator Torstein Høverstad – a friend and colleague of Richter – had the enviable fortune of being offered the first of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Promising to do it in two months rather than three got him 25% extra on the page rate. Combined with progressive working conditions for Norway, Høverstad has done well.
Richter is on the board of the Austrian translators’ interest group (IG Übersetzerinnen Übersetzer), where he has helped to improve conditions for translators here, most notably being instrumental in a Supreme Court decision to require proper crediting of translators’ work in all formats, such as quotations in the media.
Although such work has taken up a lot of his time, a passion for translation will always flow through Richter’s veins. He still likes to read translated books aloud to his family in the evening – a technique translators use to proof their work.
“I still find myself ‘pre-editing’ even while reading aloud to someone,” he laughed. “If it’s not working, I just go ahead and change the wording myself.”