Thesis of the Month: The Currency of Translation

sally-ann spencer-2aSally-Ann Spencer reflects on the evolution of her PhD thesis and finds its end at the beginning as she follows an author across languages.


(Thesis Title: Books Across Borders: German-English Literary Translation in the Contemporary German and Anglo-American Contexts)

There is a chapter missing from my PhD thesis – or so I thought when I submitted the manuscript for examination earlier this year. In the absent chapter I map several different journeys of an author in the literary world, charting the translational reception of German-language writer Daniel Kehlmann and his 2005 novel Die Vermessung der Welt. The story of the book’s extraordinary commercial success has been told and re-told by journalists, scholars and in fictional form, notably by German-language writer Thomas Glavinic and by Kehlmann himself. My particular interest, though, was Kehlmann’s reception in English-language translation – and the role of translation in the German-language reception of his work. Had his success story translated into English?

And to what extent had the publication of numerous translated editions of his novel influenced his status in the German-language media and markets?

My questions about Kehlmann had short and long answers. I wrote up the short answers in a chapter about the production and reception of the UK and US editions of his novel. According to my original thesis plan, the next step was to examine the published translation at a textual level as part of the doctoral project about notions of difficulty in translation criticism. Instead, I worked on the long answers. Intrigued by how Kehlmann has been celebrated for his translatability, I started to look at wider accounts of the translational circulation of German-language books, comparing facts, figures and arguments from different disciplines and sources. I launched into a general enquiry into publishing practices for German-English books and set about developing a new research methodology. As a practising translator, I wanted to offer an empirically grounded account of the translation industry and to present a view of translation as an activity in which multiple dynamics and institutions are in play.

Although my thesis was rapidly changing shape, I still envisaged that its concluding chapter would be a detailed analysis of Kehlmann’s translational reception. I adopted a three-stage structure that would enable me to situate the study of an individual translated author within industry dynamics and global trends and at the same time to re-evaluate frameworks for translation scholarship. Accordingly, I started my thesis at the macro level and examined accounts of world translation, assessing past and present claims about the currency of German-language literature and exploring the place of translation in changing notions of literary quality and prestige. At the mezzo level I charted key developments in German-English translation publishing since 2000, tracing the emergence of new digital-era models and the growth of new initiatives for translated books.

When it came to the micro level, I found myself diverging once more from the plan. The preceding chapters had highlighted significant changes in German-English literary translation throughout the 2000s and into the 2010s. Finishing the investigation with a case study of a single translation published over seven years earlier did not make sense. Instead I examined the varying translational fortunes of winners of the Deutscher Buchpreis since its launch in 2005. The divergent trajectories of Buchpreis winners in translation allowed me to illustrate the developments outlined at the macro and mezzo levels, showing the diversity of current German-English translation publishing and promotion, different constructions of literary prestige and authorship through translation, and the workings of different dynamics and institutions in the circulation of books.

It was only when I read through my thesis in preparation for the viva that I came to see my work on Kehlmann as a productive starting-point and not as a dead-end. The finished thesis was a long response to my original questions about how success translates across borders: it replaced the short, specific answers of my case study with a wide-ranging account of changing translational practices in the digital age. I wrote my thesis with the intention of making an empirical and methodological contribution to translation scholarship and connecting with global concerns in German Studies, but I also hope that my approach and findings will prove useful to researchers following the individual journeys of books and authors from other languages into English. And perhaps I will re-insert my missing chapter as an introduction as I set about turning my research into a book.


Sally-Ann Spencer recently completed her PhD in Literary Translation Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. She was awarded the Women in German Studies First Book Prize for a proposed book version of her doctoral research which will be published by Peter Lang.



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