Translating History
World Literature Today|Spring 2020
A Conversation with Isabel Fargo Cole
Andrea Bryant

Isabel Fargo Cole grew up in New York City, received a BA from the University of Chicago in 1995, and has lived in Berlin ever since as a writer and translator. Her translation of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant received the Kurt and Helen Wolff Prize in 2018, and her other translations of work by Wolfgang Hilbig and Franz Fühmann have been nominated for several awards. Since 2005 she has published short fiction and essays in German. Her second novel, Das Gift der Biene, was published by Edition Nautilus in 2019 and selected for the 2019 LiteraTour Nord, the 2020 Festival Neue Literatur in New York, and the 2020 Literaturlenz in Chicago.

From 2006 to 2016, Cole co-edited no man’s land, an online magazine for new German literature in English. In 2013 she was a co-organizer of the initiative “Writers Against Mass Surveillance.” In this conversation, she and Andrea Bryant consider the roles that historical context, location, and translation play in her writing.

Andrea Bryant: Our last interview concluded with a question about your involvement with Writers Against Mass Surveillance, an initiative that you co-started. I noticed that your novella, Ungesichertes Gelände, revolves around political activists. Would you say that political activism plays an equally important role for your characters in Das Gift der Biene?

Isabel Fargo Cole: A literature professor was just telling me about one of his students who enjoyed the book but was disappointed that the characters “weren’t more political.” The book is set among a community of ex-squatters, so the student might have expected them to be radical activists like most squatter groups in Berlin are now. But in 1990s Berlin, the squatter culture wasn’t always so ideological; it was sometimes just an alternative lifestyle. My characters started their squat in the final year of the GDR as a way of rebelling against the state. Now the new, social-democratic state has renovated the building and let them move back in with subsidized rents. So it’s a kind of modest little utopia where they can have their alternative way of life, and in that sense it is political. But these people have a complicated relationship to political ideologies, because they’ve just experienced the collapse of the socialist state they grew up in, and that has left them with a cynicism about all political systems, yet mixed with idealism about the possibility of finding entirely new ways of seeing things. They love to argue about politics and explore different viewpoints, but they’d be wary of activism.

Bryant: I couldn’t help but notice that after receiving the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for your translation of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant into English, you describe the process of writing and translating differently, with writing having more freedom but less security. Has this changed for you after completing your second full-length novel in German?

The blank page is blank, no matter what language you’re writing in.

Cole: No, it’s in the nature of the thing itself. Translation problems can be difficult (or even impossible!), but the difficulty lies in doing justice to what’s there on the page: the tone, associations, melody, wordplay, and so on. That’s often frustrating and humbling, but you’re never faced with the blank page like you are when you write. You don’t have to figure out what’s going to happen and find a form for it, or how to formulate ideas and construct logics. There’s always something there to work with.

Bryant: Would you say the process would be different if one were to write in a first or third language?

Cole: The blank page is blank, no matter what language you’re writing in. And developing characters, storylines, images, and so on happens mostly on a level below (or above?) language. But the process of finding words and formulating ideas can be different from language to language. Sometimes it’s easier for me to formulate ideas in German; sometimes it’s easier in English. But I’m not sure if there’s any particular logic to that.

Bryant: Do you think it’s a good idea for translators to work in groups or pairs?

Cole: There are some translators who work well as pairs, but I think in general it’s preferable for a work to be translated by one translator so that you end up with a seamless whole and a strong voice.

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