Translators in the City: Part 1 – Berlin


Translators in the City (#xl8city) is a series of articles that looks at why translators choose to work in a certain city. Since freelancers can essentially set up anywhere in the world, the series seeks to find out what individual cities can offer linguists, and features testimonies from a handful of translators about how their city can motivate and inspire them in their work.

This first post showcases Berlin, the energetic German capital. Germany is not short of large vibrant cities – Munich, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Cologne and Hamburg to name just a few domestic rivals – so how does Berlin stand out from its siblings in attracting translators to work there?

Katy Derbyshire (@KatyDerbyshire) has been living in Berlin since 1996. Originally from London, Katy started out in Berlin teaching English, working in call centres, and doing other odd jobs before taking and passing the IoL Diploma of Translation in 2000. A few years later, Katy went into German literature translation to share the books she loves with those who can’t read German. She has since translated 14 book-length works of fiction, from children’s books to award-winning novels.

Sarah Fisher (@SarahWordNerd) is a German into English translator who has been living and working in Berlin since August 2011. Having graduated from her Bachelor’s in German & Linguistics the previous month, she packed her bags and headed straight to the airport. She also leads tours of Berlin that take a behind-the-scenes look at the modern culture and history of the city.

Susanne Schmidt-Wussow (@frenja) is a Japanese, French and English into German translator based in central Berlin. A native of the city, she studied translation at Humboldt University, graduating in 2000 and freelancing ever since. She specialises in medical and science translation, but also translates books – mostly non-fiction – for children and adults.

Freelance translators can set up anywhere in the world they want, provided there’s a reasonable broadband connection and a source of coffee nearby. Plenty of my linguist friends – not necessarily translators – have been pulled to Berlin like iron fillings to a magnet. What is this force that the city exudes?

I’ve always loved living here,” says Katy. “Coming from suburban London, I adore the huge buildings here with their ridiculously large front doors, and the boastful Prussian architecture in general. The rooms in people’s homes and workplaces are much larger than the poky spaces of my childhood, and I find that gives me space to breathe.” Architecture is one of the biggies in drawing people to a city – see the post on Barcelona to come in a few weeks. But Europe’s cities aren’t short of architectural marvels. What else can Berlin boast?

“As I’m sure everybody’s heard, rents in Berlin are more affordable than in many other European cities,” Katy continues. “That means I have a flat with enough room to live in, plus an office elsewhere. There are certain things I prefer to do at home – accounting, translating sex scenes – but essentially, I know I work much better at my office. And I doubt I could afford to do that in many other cities.”

For Sarah, it was Berlin’s up-and-coming, spontaneous, laid-back atmosphere that brought her to the city. “The decision to move to Berlin was based on a number of factors (including that nice German boy I’d met on my Year Abroad), and although I hadn’t really decided to become a translator at that point, I was attracted to the flexible work opportunities, a wealth of culture and history, good transport links and being a comparatively ‘green’ city were all on the list of plus points.”

There must be something about Berlin that prevents people like Susanne from escaping . “I have been working in Berlin for all my career, this being 14 years now. I was ready to consider other options in terms of universities. However, I soon learned that Berlin was the only place in Germany where I could take translation studies in Japanese and French as I had planned, so I stayed.”

Translators have to be self-motivated individuals. But there’s a certain amount of motivation that I think we can harness from cities. What I want to know is how Berlin stimulates us.

“Berlin is full of cafes with free WiFi and hordes of people (mostly expats) on MacBooks doing ‘something in media’,” says Sarah. “There’s a big market for start-ups and there are two co-operative working spaces on my street alone.” But what about at home, for those who prefer not to work from a Starbucks or a shared workspace? “For one thing, I love the view from my desk, looking out from the fourth floor over a tree-lined promenade with the TV Tower in the distance.”

Susanne too loves her native city. “It has everything: urban environments if you’re feeling hip, all the places to go in terms of entertainment, but also lots of quiet corners and lush nature. Tiergarten is my favourite. Its vast spaces, big trees, many animals – whenever I ride my bike through it, I feel like on vacation or at least like on a weekend trip. You don’t hear nor smell the city inside Tiergarten, just nature. I had my best business ideas while cycling through.”

Berlin is one of the most fascinating cities in the world in terms of history – well at least I think so. Was this perhaps one of the reasons our translators chose to move to or stay in the city?

Sarah is a big history nerd – her words, not mine. “Berlin is perfect for geeking out on history – you’ve got the legacy of Prussia and Bismarck, the “Cabaret”-inspiring 1920s, the Third Reich, the devastation and rebuilding after the Second World War, the division into West and East Berlin, reunification and the creation of a modern, united city all in one place – how can you fail to be inspired by that?”

When I’ve been to Berlin, I’ve found that it strikes a good balance between historical attractions and contemporary culture. Sarah adds, “There are dozens of great museums, which – although not free like some of the big London museums – are well-curated and always have new exhibitions and events, well worth the price of an annual ticket (from €25).”

Sarah continues, “I live beside Tempelhof Airport – the airport in the middle of the city, which was closed down in 2008 and the field is now open to the public. Without a doubt, it is my favourite place in Berlin – not only is the building an incredible example of 1930s architecture, but there is this huge, open green space in the middle of city – you just don’t get that in London. With the old runways still in place, it’s perfect for all manner of sports – currently cross-country skiing and kiteboarding in the snow, but in the summer you’ll see everything from running to football to windsurfing on skateboards. Then there are long summer evenings around the barbecue, flying kites, reading books, urban gardening, a nature reserve and a hundred other uses. When I feel like I’ve been stuck at my desk for too long then I’ll pack up my lunch and go for a quick walk on the field to clear my head. It’s funny what a difference half an hour of fresh air can do for you!”

So, we’ve just seen what Berlin offers the general public. But what about translators in particular? What can the Hauptstadt offer for linguists?

For Susanne, it’s the city’s several big libraries that prove most useful. “They have more often than not saved me when I brooded over a text in an especially technical subject area like metallurgy or marine biology. The internet only takes you so far when it comes to the really special stuff.”

Katy, on the other hand, tells us that Berlin has a large English-speaking community and a large translator community. “Many of the established English translators came here when the city was still under Allied command, or have worked in embassies and ministries. West Berlin was also a magnet for alternative types escaping the confines of their origins, whether America, the UK or smalltown West Germany. Then there are newer Anglophone arrivals who decide, like me, that they want to stay on and start working for translation agencies to get a foot in the door. There are a great many translators into German, as well.”

Translators love get-togethers. From informal meet-ups to the grander conferences. What kind of translator events does Berlin attract?

“There are a number of informal networks here,” according to Katy, “one mailing list for commercial translators into English, who meet up once a month for dinner at a restaurant and exchange work and translation tips. Then there’s another network originally arranged by embassy/ministry translators. Both are by invitation only as they’re concerned about quality.”

Katy herself runs a monthly “translation lab” for anyone interested in literary translation, where translators get together and go through texts they are working on. “We also have an online magazine of contemporary German-language literature in translation at and organize events at least twice a year – a presentation of the magazine and the annual translation talent contest Translation Idol.”

Having taken part in this competition herself, Sarah tells us about it: “Everyone was invited to translate a short piece by Deniz Utlu in any way we wanted – “fast and loose, slow and steady, straight from the hip, give it a dialect, put it into iambic pentameter, set it to music” as they put it – and then we read out our own translations (or had them read for us for people not in Berlin) at the live event and the audience voted to decide the winner. I was very nervous and my translation was quite conservative compared to others, but it was a fascinating event to take part in and it was brilliant to meet other translators and feel like part of a community.”

At an international level, Susanne talks about the BDÜ (the German equivalent of the ITI) having held two translator conferences so far in Berlin, attracting around 1,500 colleagues from all over the world. “I just loved the fact that I just had to hop on the underground to get there! And then there is the FIT World Congress, of course, which will be held in August this year and which I’m very much looking forward to.”

So, to round off, what makes Berlin better than any other city on this planet to work from as a translator?

From a native perspective, Susanne doesn’t know if Berlin is better than any other city, but she likes it at least. “Everything is at your fingertips. Berlin is special. You either love or hate it, there is no in-between. I love it. It is my place.”

“Berlin is what you make of it,” Sarah maintains. “There are so many facets to Berlin life that I’m sure everyone has their own individual Berlin. For me, I enjoy the networking opportunities that Berlin offers me in terms of translation events and making personal contact with clients.

There are, of course, less good things about Berlin – e.g. rising rents and gentrification, being far from friends and family, how my nearest U-Bahn station is closed for repairs for over a year, the -12°C we had one weekend.”

Katy sympathises. “A few things can be tough here – there’s a fair amount of bureaucracy to deal with and the winters are long, dark and very cold. But the cultural advantages more than make up for the weather, along with the sense of community and support I’ve always felt from other translators. I certainly benefit from being close to the writers I translate. I think there’s now so much cultural input available here in English, too, that we almost have to be careful not to end up in a language ghetto.”

Nevertheless, Sarah loves being surrounded by history and never running out of things she still has on her to-do list. “I love the creative community of friends I have found here and being able to take advantage of the freelancer’s flexibility. I love riding my bike through the city and being able to call this place home.”

Next week, Translators in the City will be in London, featuring Natalie Pearlman (@Nat_translator), Sílvia Slocombe (@LanguageOwl), Ana Sánchez (@astratrans) and Valeria Aliperta (@rainylondon).