Seven Questions for Translator Tim Mohr


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I don’t say things like this a whole lot, but I feel relatively safe in saying that if Tim Mohr wasn’t translating, our image of contemporary German literature would be quite different. His first two translations were two of the most notable and noted books to emerge into English from Germany in the ‘00s: Guantanamo by Dorothea Dieckmann and Wetlands by Charlotte Roche. He followed up those two with two novels for Europa Editions by Alina Bronsky, who has quickly built a name for herself as a writer to be reckoned with in English.

Prior to coming on the translation scene in 2004 with Guantanamo, Mohr worked as an editor with Playboy, and, as you’ll quickly see, information he might have picked up there came to bear on his work. In addition to translation and editing, he’s also currently at work on his own book, a history of the punk music scene in East Germany.

Scott Esposito: I’m very curious as to why you wanted to translate Wetlands. The book is infamous, and some seem to like it quite a lot, but many people I know don’t think much of it at all. Where do you stand on this, and what drew you in?

Tim Mohr: I definitely supported the basic mission of Wetlands, which I saw as taking issue with a perceived American cult of feminine hygiene–the antiseptic vision of femininity promulgated by things like “Sex and the City.” The German press was full of references to that, suggesting that this hygiene cult was incompatible with feminism, and that Wetlands was a corrective to it. I was glad to be able to help bring that debate home. But as far as translating it, I came to the book in a roundabout way. An editor at Grove/Atlantic asked me to read Wetlands overnight and prepare a reader’s report on it for her publisher, Morgan Entrekin, who was over at the London Book Fair—there was a lot of buzz surrounding Wetlands at the fair that year as it was already approaching a million sales in Germany, I think. Once it became clear Grove was interested in acquiring the U.S. rights for it, I mentioned to the editor that not many translators would understand as well as I did the distinction between, say, the German word for “pussy” and the German word for “cunt”—an important distinction in Wetlands. The reason my vocabulary is a bit unique that way is because I learned all my German while working as a club DJ in Berlin. As you can imagine, in that world I learned the German terms for things like “nipple piercing” and “anal sex” long before I ever knew things like “gender politics.” And though Wetlands is really about the latter, it’s expressed mostly in terms like the former.

SE: When we were emailing prior to this interview, you mentioned that Wetlands has the one word in your career as a translator that you’d like to have back. Can you tell us now about that word?

TM: The word I’d like to have back is “ladyfingers.” I wish I’d used “madeleines” instead. But it will take some explaining to understand why I would agonize over baked goods in the midst of a hyper-sexual story about distended assholes and intimate shaving. Charlotte stressed to the German press that she hoped to help facilitate women talking about their bodies the way men do—she wanted to create a new vocabulary, in part by creating nicknames for various body parts. Probably the hardest part of the translation was coming up with English equivalents for the nicknames she invented in German. I had to jettison the literal translations of some of them since they wouldn’t function fluidly in English, the way any decent nickname needs to. For example, the literal translation of her nickname for the clitoris would be “pearl-trunk” or “pearl-snout.” But that sounds like crap in English. I just could not imagine English speakers adopting that term. So I started extrapolating from the base words in German, and bouncing various ideas off women friends. In the end I opted for “snail-tail.” The “snail” part rings true to the oyster association (the “pearl”) of the original, and the use of a body part (“tail” in my version) also mirrors the original “snout” or “trunk.” I also debated about the German word adopted as a nickname for the inner labia, Hahnenkaemme. Technically it’s “coxcombs” in English. But the fact that the English word derives from “cock” made it a rather unfortunate word to use to describe female genitalia. Yes, Hahn means the same thing as “cock,” but Hahn doesn’t have the instant association with male genitalia that “cock” does in English. It just means rooster. I thought about using “wattles,” which are the similar skin below a chicken’s beak. In the end I chose “dewlaps,” which, on the necks of some lizards at least, look similar to coxcombs. OK, now on to the outer labia, which were named after a type of German cookie. This is where I used the dreaded “ladyfingers,” which I figured were a kind of baked good English readers would know and which have a similar shape to the German cookie mentioned. But one female reviewer said “ladyfingers” made her shudder. And while some other reviewers with no knowledge of German took potshots at me for the frequent use of “pussy” in the book—not realizing that the German word Muschi, which Charlotte peppered the book with, is such a direct analog to the English “pussy” that it, too, can be used to describe a small cat—this reviewer’s reaction to “ladyfingers” struck me as both totally legitimate and spot-on. There was no way this term had any chance of becoming a viable nickname in English, meaning I made a bad call there. And it bugs me all the more because I had an alternative I kept plugging in and out while I tried to decide how to deal with those damn German cookies. Nobody would have shuddered over madeleines.

SE: So, let’s switch gears to Alina Bronsky, from whom you’ve translated last year’s Broken Glass Park and The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, just released last month. Given your remarks on Wetlands vis a vis the feminine ideal, I’m wondering if this was something that drew you to the two books of Bronsky’s that you’ve translated. The female characters presented here are certainly atypical.

TM: Actually, at the time the offer to translate Bronsky came along, I was already determined to work on something from the boom in what you might call German immigrant literature. I had been to a talk at Carnegie Hall during the “Berlin in Lights” festival a few years ago, and at one point the ostensible experts on the panel began bemoaning the fact that there wasn’t any immigrant literature in Germany. I sat there in disbelief, as I’d probably read ten books in the previous five years by writers for whom German was their second language–some of which had been spectacularly successful (Wladimir Kaminer’s Russendisko sold over a million copies in Germany) and others, like Yade Kara’s Selam Berlin, had received prestigious literary prizes. After that experience, I decided I would translate a book by one of these writers. That is what drew me to Bronsky initially; reading Broken Glass Park convinced me it was the right book.

SE: I’d like to ask you about how you, or you and your editors, marketers, etc, arrived at the title The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. It plays rather comically off the book’s story–about a decidedly undesirable young woman’s immaculate pregnancy–but to my ears it doesn’t quite sound right . . . something that, if I saw it in the bookstore, I wouldn’t want to read.

TM: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is actually a very direct translation of the German title. The only question was whether to translate it as “hottest” or “spiciest,” and since hottest had a more obvious double meaning, we went with that. Like English, there’s no word in German for the sensation we call “hot” or “spicy,” and they, too, are stuck having to describe it metaphorically–in German hot food is described as “sharp,” so the original title also had something of a potential double meaning given the barbs and jagged edges of Rosalinda’s personality.

SE: Can you talk a little about German immigrant writing, as I’m sure this will be something of interest to the people who follow this site, in particular books that should be translated into English.

TM: Well, I first became aware of it because of Russendisko, which was published in 2000. Russendisko was a collection of short stories based on Kaminer’s experiences following his emigration from the Soviet Union to East Germany just before the fall of the Berlin wall. Taken together, the stories created a kind of pointillist image of Berlin in the 1990s. Kaminer also DJed at Kaffee Burger, a great little sweatbox of a club where I had played, too, so I was intrigued by the whole thing. I suppose in part because his book sold so well, soon after came a wave of writers with Soviet-era East European backgrounds. But the trend also broadened to include writers like Kara, who grew up bilingual in Turkish, Sasa Stanisic, whose family fled war-torn Bosnia, and, more recently, Mariam Kuehsel-Hussaini, who has Afghani roots. What interested me in this writing wasn’t exoticism or the off chance of spotting linguistic innovation or the desire to find a common thread in works that didn’t really share one; I just thought Americans should know that voices beyond ethnic Germans were represented–and quite extensively–in the German publishing world. Particularly now, at a time when renewed anti-immigration sentiment has allowed statements in the political arena unthinkable just a few years ago–I mean, when the chancellor calls multiculturalism an utter failure, as she did last fall, you know things have changed–it’s important to realize that non-traditional voices have a stronger presence than ever before on the cultural front.

SE: If I’m not mistaken, Guantanamo was your first novel-length translation. What were the circumstances of you doing this book? Did you get involved with the idea of moving into translation more seriously, or was this more only the lines of a one-off project that drew you in to the world of translation?

TM: It’s sounds kind of cheesy, but when I moved back from Berlin I felt a strong sense of obligation to the city specifically and to Germany in general. Basically, I took away so much from living in Berlin that I wanted to try to repay that philosophical debt somehow. This was ten years ago, back before Berlin was known as the coolest city on the planet, and I wanted to help get the word out about what a great place it had become and facilitate the exchange of ideas between Germany and the US in whatever small way I could. One of the things I did–on the side, while I was still at Playboy–was to start writing reader reports and doing sample translations for US publishers considering buying the rights to German books. Guantanamo just sort of fell into my lap as a result of that work. Richard Nash at Soft Skull needed the book translated quickly and somehow heard my name. He had me prepare a sample of the first few thousand words. I had no further credentials, but he took a chance on me based on that sample. I’m very grateful he did.

SE: Obviously releasing a book titled “Guantanamo” in 2004 is going to evoke politics, but after reading a lot of the coverage around it, I get the sense that this isn’t a book strictly “about” torture, imprisonment, etc. Do you see this as a book tied to a particular historical moment, or more as a book that uses a very particular set of circumstances to make an interesting work of art?

TM: Dude, I’m just the translator. I’ll let others make that call. Though I will say the writing in Guantanamo had more musicality than anything else I’ve translated–Dorothea Dieckmann’s original text had a churning, rhythmic feel that I thought very important to try to recreate.

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[…] “Charlotte stressed to the German press that she hoped to help facilitate women talking about their bodies the way men do—she wanted to create a new vocabulary, in part by creating nicknames for various body parts. Probably the hardest part of the translation was coming up with English equivalents for the nicknames she invented in German. I had to jettison the literal translations of some of them since they wouldn’t function fluidly in English, the way any decent nickname needs to.” At Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito talks with Tim Mohr, translator of (among others) Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands a…. […]

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