The Word Trove by Elias Vorpahl – Interview with translator Romy Fursland

Today on the blog we talk to translator Romy Fursland about her translation of The Word Trove by Elias Vorpahl (Iron Bird Publishing).

Claire Storey: Romy, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to us about The Word Trove. Could you tell us a little about the book?

Romy Fursland: My pleasure! The Word Trove is a blend of fairy tale and fantasy, based on an unusual concept: the story is set in the world of language, and the main character is a word that has lost its meaning and sets out to find it again. The book is full of puns, wordplay, intertextual references and imaginative surprises. It’s a great read for anyone who loves thinking about words and the amazing lives they lead!

CS: How did you get involved with the project?

RF: I got an email from a translator friend of mine who’d been contacted by the author, Elias. He had self-published The Word Trove in German and was looking to get it translated (it’s now been translated into Turkish and English). My friend wasn’t able to take the project on, but she put me in touch with Elias, and I did a sample translation for him.

CS: The German version of this book is absolutely jam-packed with wordplay. Could you share some of those challenges with us and how you went about finding solutions?

RF: That’s right – there’s lots of wonderful wordplay in the book (and in some cases, wordplay is pivotal to the plot) so there were some fascinating challenges involved in translating it. For example, there’s a major character in the original called ‘Esel’ (meaning ‘donkey’) and the word ‘Esel’ can be rearranged to form the word ‘lese’ (which means ‘read’). This obviously had to be altered in translation, and I changed the ‘Esel’ into two ‘hares’ (I’ll let readers work out the anagram!) Serendipitously, the hares lent themselves well to one of the riddles told in Chapter 3 which needed to be adapted in translation. And Elias had the idea of using the hares to make an allusion to Watership Down (there are several other references in the book to classic texts including Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story).

Some of my other favourite examples are from Chapters 5 and 6. In Chapter 5, the Word (the main character) falls into a river in which antiquated words sink to the bottom and encounter an ancient turtle called ‘die uralte Weil’. This is wordplay based on the German word ‘dieweil’ (meaning ‘whilst’ or ‘meanwhile’), which has now fallen out of use to be replaced by the modern alternative ‘derweil’. Literally translated, the turtle’s name would be ‘the age-old Because’. The challenge here was to find a way of playing with an archaic word in English in a similar way. My solution was ‘the Wise Old Wherefore’. I felt ‘wherefore’ was suitably old-fashioned, and the sound of the name as a whole made me think of ‘the whys and wherefores’.

I also enjoyed translating the wordplay associated with the city of ‘Langwich’ in Chapter 6. In German the city is called ‘Sprachen’, which means ‘languages’, but which also sounds a bit like the name of a city, since lots of German city names end in –en. I live in Norwich, so the –wich ending popped into my head quite quickly, and I was pleased to get to such a close approximation of the German pun! I also had great fun getting creative with the stalls in the streets of Langwich, where jewellers sell ‘silver tongues and golden silences’, and confectioners sell ‘vox popcorn and sugar-coated truths’. I added in some wordplay here where there wasn’t any in the original; I think that at the heart of The Word Trove there’s a kind of joyous fascination with the way words work and the games you can play with language, so it felt right to seize the opportunity for wordplay where it presented itself in English!

CS: Were there any places where you had to accept you couldn’t find an equivalent wordplay and still maintain the meaning?

RF: Yes, there were several! Some of the stories at the storytelling competition ‘the Linguistic Games’ featured wordplay that I couldn’t find a way to retain. One of the stories is entitled ‘Die Bleiwüste’, which is a lovely bit of wordplay – a ‘Bleiwüste’ is a long, unbroken chunk of text (literally a ‘desert of lead’) and the story itself is all about a desert (‘Wüste’). In the translation, however, the story is simply called ‘The Black Desert’. And in some cases, the whole premise of the German story was based on wordplay that just didn’t work in English, so Elias rewrote those from scratch and then I translated them.

CS: In the translation you have invented different characters and rewritten sections of the story to fit, complete with new illustrations along the way. Were you given free rein to create these characters and make the changes? Was the author involved at all? How did it all come together?

RF: Elias was very much involved. We discussed some of the major translation issues before I started the translation, and identified parts of the book that would need to be rewritten. Elias had his own suggestions about all of that, so it was a very collaborative process. We managed to find solutions we were both happy with via lots of Skype conversations, emails and many many drafts! It was interesting to work so closely with an author. Because of the creative challenges involved, and because of how far the translation had to diverge from the original, it was reassuring to be able to discuss things with the author and get his seal of approval, or his ideas about alternative solutions.

CS: Do you have a favourite part of the story or a favourite character?

RF: I think my favourite part of the story is Chapter 5, ‘In the Torrent of Words’, because I’m fascinated by the way language evolves and words fall out of use to be replaced by different ones. This chapter is a really interesting way of illustrating that, and it was great fun to translate because I had to think up lots of cool old words in English that are no longer in common use.

 CS: Are you working on anything interesting that you can share with us?

RF: In January I’ll be working on some texts for the next issue of the frankfurt magazine, which features articles about current trends in the publishing industry and roundups of exciting German-language titles.

Thank you so much for featuring The Word Trove on the blog, and for interviewing me!

Romy Fursland is a literary translator of fiction and non-fiction, working from German and French into English. She has translated novels for adults and young adults, and is the co-translator of three volumes of essays by and about Bertolt Brecht.