DIE GERMANISTIN: Riveting Forays into German-Language Literature by Sheridan Marshall: February 2024. Shida Bazyar talks to Ruth Martin

Thursday 8 February was a dismal day in south-west London, with leaden skies and relentless rain, but that did not prevent a healthy turnout of audience members to see the German author Shida Bazyar in conversation with her English-language translator, Ruth Martin, at the Goethe-Institut in South Kensington. The event was seamlessly moderated by the director of New Books in German, Sarah Hemens, with expert interpreting provided by Clarissa Howe.

The evening was organised to celebrate the publication of the English-language translation of Shida Bazyar’s second book, Drei Kameradinnen (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2021), published as Sisters in Arms by Scribe Publications in October 2023. The German novel was longlisted for Germany’s most prestigious annual literary award, the German Book Prize, in 2021, and was one of the titles featured by New Books in German that year – meaning it was guaranteed to receive translation funding should an English-language publisher buy the translation rights. 

Ruth Martin was commissioned to translate an English-language sample text from the novel by its German publisher, Kiepenheuer & Witsch (available to read here). She described how she fell in love with Shida’s writing during that first encounter, sitting down to read the manuscript and only looking up from it after five hours had passed! Ruth singled out the narrative voice as the novel’s most appealing feature, praising its warmth and humour, as well as its fierce, uncompromising nature. She explained that although she went on to talk about Drei Kameradinnen ‘to anyone who would listen,’ it was really just good fortune that led to an editor at Scribe reading her sample translation and subsequently inviting her to translate the complete novel.

Sisters in Arms is about three women, Hani, Kasih and Saya, who have been friends since childhood. When the women meet up for the first time in a few years, something happens to change the course of their lives forever. The powerful novel focuses on the women’s shared experiences of marginalisation, exposing daily experiences of racism and sexism that are integral to their lives in contemporary Germany. A short reading from the novel in German from Shida Bazyar was accompanied by the text of Ruth Martin’s English translation in parallel on a large screen. The audience was amused by the entertaining episode, detailing an awkward encounter between one of the characters’ fathers and a teacher at a school leavers’ ball, and enjoyed listening to Ruth’s comments on the translation.

Shida responded to Sarah Hemens’ question about whether reading the text aloud made her recall the writing process by saying that, in fact, reading the text makes her feel as though she is looking in on it as an outsider. She explained that once a text is complete and has been sent to the printer’s she forgets all about the writing process, so that reading the words aloud can be like reading them for the first time. Sometimes she has even embarrassed herself by laughing at her own jokes! 

There followed a lively discussion of Sisters in Arms, including of the novel’s title – which in German is a deliberate echo of the title of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Drei Kameraden (‘Three Friends’); its unreliable narrator; and the relevance of its themes of racism, sexism, and classism in the context of the current resurgence of wight-wing tendencies in German politics. Ruth shared her experiences of working on the translation, explaining that she usually contacts the author before she starts translating a novel to ask whether there are particular points they would like her to bear in mind during the translation, as well as inviting them to share any insights they may have gleaned if their novel has already been translated into languages other than English. She recounted how she had benefited from bringing a translated extract of the novel to a Vice-Versa translation workshop in Switzerland, and reflected that literary translation is a much more collaborative and less isolated process than people often imagine.

This wonderful literary evening was certainly a testament to the spirit of creative collaboration that prevails in the translation publishing industry, bringing together the many individuals who have contributed to Shida Bazyar’s book’s journey into English.

By Sheridan Marshall

You can read New Books in German’s recommendation of Shida Bazyar’s Drei Kameradinnen / Sisters in Arms here.

Shida Bazyar’s Sisters in Arms, translated by Ruth Martin, is available to buy from Scribe.

Sheridan Marshall works as a translator from German into English, and as Editorial Consultant for New Books in German. She was Deputy Editor of The Austrian Riveter.

Read previous posts in Die Germanistin series:

DIE GERMANISTIN: Riveting Forays into German-Language Literature by Sheridan Marshall: December 2023. Buch Wien

DIE GERMANISTIN: Riveting Forays into German-Language Literature by Sheridan Marshall: November 2023. Interview with Christine Koschmieder (at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2023)

DIE GERMANISTIN: Riveting Forays into German-Language Literature by Sheridan Marshall: Frankfurt Book Fair 2023

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