Silke Scheuermann, Cornelia Travnicek and Ulrike Ulrich On Translating, Traveling and Tangible Words

The Knickerbocker Hotel is a storied landmark; it shares a block with The Drake and is hidden on Walton Street. Presently, the face of the hotel is undergoing renovations and is hindered by scaffolding. The hotel lobby has a quiet glamour that dates back to its heyday, with a full mirror that circles the bar and oak cabinets varnished in a mahogany glaze.

Christiane Tacke greets me, alerting me to the fact that Silke Scheuermann, Ulrike Ulrich, and Cornelia Travnicek are on their way. In a few moments, they arrive. Together, the three women give off an electrical charge. They are superstars.

They’re in Chicago for Literaturlenz, a literary event at the Goethe-Institut that aims to bring together contemporary voices in German literature.

Scheuermann was once a jury member on the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, and her novels and poetry have been translated in various languages. Ulrich edited A Literary Anthology on Human Rights, and also won the Walter Serner Prize in 2010, and the Lilly Ronchetti Prize in 2011. Travnicek won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize last year and works as a researcher at the Center for Visual Reality and Visualization.

Each woman is at a different point in her career, which made for unique answers to the questions I posed. We covered everything from traveling to translating. I hope you’ll enjoy what they had to say as much as I did.

On translating:

UU: I find the biggest problem (in translation) to be word play. Certain things change or drop away, altering the entire context. I feel like there’s different beauty in different languages, you cannot just transform one to another. Now that I’m here, I wish I could write in English. I think it also has something to do with the context of language and culture, and how the culture evolves, the German language has so many nouns. I love compound nouns, but sometimes it makes an aesthetic that’s not bad, but it’s different.

CT: Translating itself is an art, so you have to find a very good translator so that he or she can find their own rhythm in their own language. Of course, some things may not always transfer to the new text, but it’s necessary for the reader to feel an originality and authenticity in his own language.

I think there are also some words in English that you can’t translate to one word in German, you have to use phrases and paraphrases. When you’re translating, you shouldn’t just be using a dictionary, you should be using a knowledge of the whole culture, background and of the society of where the prose comes from, and if you are living one life and know a little bit of the other life, and the culture, I think you can find an equivalent.

SS: I’ve had a book of poems translated, and I found it’s harder to translate poetry because certain meanings get lost, but I feel with novels it works better.

On what inspired them to become writers:   

CT: With me it was reading. I started reading when I was very young, before all the other kids in my class, I would take the textbook, ask my mom how to pronounce words—and just teach it to myself. When I got older, I would go to the public library every week and I would rent seven books, and I would read a book a day and that was how I spent most of my time. When I hit puberty I switched to grown-up books and I was really impressed with how another author could touch me with his or her words, how they could implant different ideas in my head and teach me something without even knowing it. I wanted to be capable of doing the same thing, and so I began trying it on my own.

UU: Reading is the most important thing, I think. When I read as a child, I was amazed by words and my grandfather wrote poems, most of them funny, and I liked them a lot. I feel he inspired me.

SS: I was always moved by poems and novels more so than by music. It was inspiring to me to, and I wanted to be able to do it, too.

On their favorite word in the English language:

SS: I love that there are certain unique words that you just know what they are like, “sneaker”, or “bagel”, or all the nicknames there are for things. I also love the word, “cactus”.

CT: One of my favorite words in the English language is, “tumbleweed”. I also love, “fudge”, I love how the English language has tangible sounding words.

UU: On the cab ride over here, I heard, “fair enough”, which I liked.

On traveling:

 SS: I’m always inspired by travel, I love how going to another place can change your whole point of view. I loved visiting Shanghai because it was completely different from anywhere I’d even been, it mesmerized me and inspired me.

UU: My first book had a lot to do with traveling. I traveled a lot before writing it and I’ve traveled even more promoting it. I visited Paris and wrote a story which I could not have written in Switzerland.

CT: I think traveling has a great tradition in literature because it opens you up to new ideas and forces you to see things from a different angle. I love to travel.


Silke Scheuermann, born in 1973, lives in Offenbach. She studied Drama and Literature in Frankfurt, Leipzig and Paris. Her poems, short stories and novels have been translated into various languages. She was member of the Jury of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. For 2012/2013 Silke Scheuermann will be holding a Poetics lecturing post in Wiesbaden. (Photo©Kirsten Bucher)

Ulrike Ulrich, born 1968 in Düsseldorf, lives in Zurich. She studied German Literature and Language and afterwards worked in Computational Linguistics. In 2010 Luftschacht Verlag published her first novel fern bleiben, which will be followed in february of 2013 by her second novel Hinter den Augen. She is the editor of a literary Anthology on Human Rights and a member of the Zurich-based group of authors “index” ( Ulrich has received numerous awards and stipends, including the Walter Serner-Prize 2010, a Zurich Literature Prize 2010, and the Lilly-Ronchetti-Prize 2011 for Hinter den Augen. In 2012 she received grants from both Pro Helvetia and the canton of Zurich. (Photo ©Ute Schendel).

Cornelia Travnicek was born in 1987 in St. Pölten, Lower Austria, and lives in Traismauer and Vienna. She studied Sinology and Informatics at the University of Vienna and now works as a researcher at the Center for Visual Reality and Visualization. She has received several prizes and awards for her publications, including third place in FM4 radio station’s 2009 Wortlaut Wettbewerb - the most important prize for young talent in Austria - for an excerpt from her novel ‘Chucks’. She also won the audience award in the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize competition 2012 for her text ‘Junge Hunde’. (Photo ©Hermann Rauschmayr)




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