Bramble Fox, published by Pushkin Press earlier this year, is a portal fantasy set in Wales. It was written in German by Kathrin Tordasi and translated by Cathrin Wirtz. Cathrin joins us to talk about what she learned in the process of translating this middle grade novel…
by Cathrin Wirtz
The Translation Process
I was reminded that translating is a bit like immersing oneself in a (word) puzzle: to begin with, one is looking at the complete (original) text as a whole, to then take it apart, followed by creating duplicate pieces, before beginning the process of putting it back together – and the result: now a new version in a different language exists next to the original. As a translator, one is shifting between being a close reader, a creator, and an interpreter, or rather: being an amalgamate of all three things at once, and none of those things entirely. Working on the text, word by word and sentence by sentence, one sees the story itself shift and morph into a different shape and form – it tells the same story, but it has taken on, say, a different color, as it were. Sometimes, editing a sentence – moving and replacing words – would feel like attempts to light a lantern – and once all words seemed to be in place and order, the sentence would light up and glow.
What was especially interesting in this case: translating a book written in German by a German author, while the book is set in Wales, in a place that the author seems to know well and love quite a bit. It was quite special to meet the characters, get to know them, accompany them on their journey, worry for and with them, root for them – and feel a fondness that makes them stay with you for a long time after finishing the last sentence. I believe by translating a book, one is offering a wonderful service – making a lovely story accessible to even more readers.
As one delves into the story in one’s capacity as “reader” within the translation process, what stood out for me from the beginning was the setting – a place I’ve never been to. And while I sadly could not travel there in person (at least not yet), I did extensive online research to get a better idea of where our characters live and roam. Of course, a part of the story takes place in a fictional world, but one that’s in parts still inspired by the real world.
That said, I learned some facts about Wales, and specifically about Eryri (known as Snowdonia in English, however no longer officially), the mountainous region in Northwestern Wales, and Wales’ largest national park, which covers a total of 823 square miles and is home to over 26,000 people, a landscape “steeped with culture, tradition, history, and heritage, where the Welsh language is part of the day-to-day fabric of the area.” The green rolling hills and groves and lakes one can see in pictures online come alive in Bramble Fox as well.
Writing Bramble Fox, the author must have been inspired by folklore, mythology, legends, and tropes and variations and interpretations of classic characters, spiritual beings and mythical creatures – a beautiful hodgepodge that comes together as whole, and there’s so much to find out about.
I learned about runes: “a word that comes from Old Norse term meaning a secret letter that was used for casting spell”, but also: “runes are letters in the runic alphabets of Germanic-speaking peoples, written and read most prominently from at least c. 160 CE onwards”. As also described in our novel, I love that writing those ancient alphabets was often seen as magic, and how spiritually, runes are used as a method of “connecting to one’s higher self, inner guidance and tapping into intuition as a method of foretelling what the future may hold”. It’s amazing to know that the origins of the runic script are basically shrouded in mystery – and yet we know that runes were also used to write various Germanic languages (with some exceptions) before they adopted the Latin alphabet. A favorite runestone I found pictures of online is the 9th Century Rök Runestone in Sweden.
I learned about the Welsh language – and spent some time practicing and pronouncing Welsh words with the help of the internet. I found out that both Welsh and English are Wales’ official languages, that many people in Wales are bilingual or multilingual, and that Welsh developed from the Celtic language known as “Brythonic or Brittonic”.
I learned about some of the representations of “the Underworld” – in Bramble Fox, Ben decides to go there, against all odds and fears, hoping to find and get his dead father back, and Portia follows him to make sure he doesn’t get lost there. There are many, often conflicting, visions of the Underworld in literature, traditions and records, and much of what we know about how the Ancient Greeks and Romans imagined the Underworld we know from Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. The Underworld – or Hades – is most commonly known as “distinct, invisible realm (one of the three realms that makes up the cosmos), the dark place where the souls of those who died went after death”, the kingdom of the dead in Greek mythology, hidden deep within the bowels of the earth and ruled by the god Hades and his wife Persephone. In terms of its structure, according to several sources, there are five rivers and four regions in the underworld, and several entrances. Because it’s mentioned in Bramble Fox, I also read up again on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice – an ancient legend about a singer and poet who, distraught with grief, descended into the underworld determined bring back his beloved wife, who had been bitten by a snake and died on the day of their wedding.
Related, and as part of the research, I fell into some rabbit holes (which often led to more rabbit holes) of select reading – here are some notable books and pieces and topics inspired by Bramble Fox, which I read while translating:
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Gnomes by Wil Huygen, Fairies in Tradition and Literature by Katharine Briggs, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente, The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren, the Cornell Lab Website on Birds of the World, The Hidden World of the Fox by Adele Brand, and several articles about Ancient Libraries (such as the Libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum), the most beautiful existing libraries (such as the New York Library, the Royal Danish Library or the Trinity College Library in Dublin), unusual libraries (such as Westbury-sub-Mendip’s Phone Booth Library, the Open Garden Library in Tel Aviv or the Library of Water in Iceland) as well as fictional libraries featured in novels (such as the Hogwarts Library in Harry Potter or the The Aedificium Library in The Name of The Rose, or in Doktor Who).
About Cathrin Wirtz
Cathrin Wirtz was born near Cologne, Germany but has lived in the US (where she works as a literary scout) for more than a decade. She divides her time between Brooklyn, New York and coastal Maine.