Q&A with award-winning translator Jozef van der Voort

By   Hannah Bickerton 6 min read

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Jozef van der Voort is a translator working from German, French and Dutch into English. In 2014 he was named runner-up in the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize and he came second in the 2020 Geisteswissenschaften International Non-Fiction Translation competition. Jozef studied for an MA in translation studies at the University of Sheffield and has worked as a copywriter at Amazon’s EU HQ in Luxembourg.

What was your journey to becoming a professional translator?

I took a slightly roundabout route into the profession: after studying languages (French and German) at A-level, I did a degree in English and then hopped around between different jobs for a while, as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do career-wise. Eventually I gave up trying to decide and spent a couple of years living abroad, setting myself the goal of properly learning my languages. That was a great experience and made me realise I wanted to work with foreign languages in some way, and translation seemed an obvious choice. So I came back to the UK, did an MA in translation studies, landed an in-house job as a translator and took it from there, really.

What projects are you particularly proud to say you’ve worked on and why?

I would say the project I’m most proud of is the set of short stories by Dutch author Maartje Wortel that I translated for Strangers Press as part of their VERZET project. This is a set of eight short chapbooks showcasing new Dutch writing and translated by a group of emerging Dutch–English translators. Each of us was paired with a more experienced translator who acted as a mentor – in my case David Doherty. It was hard work, as the texts went through multiple drafts and David really put me through my paces by making me think through every choice and pushing me to get the most out of every line. But the result was probably the best translation I’ve ever produced, and I learned a huge amount from the experience.

What does the process behind translating a book usually involve? What are the steps you take to translate a text?

I think all translators have their own ways of approaching books; some people I know like to dive in and start translating straight away, producing a quick and very rough draft of the translation as they read the text for the first time in order to capture some of the immediacy of the experience. But personally I like to read the book before I start translating. That helps me understand how it’s put together and lets me pick up more easily on any foreshadowing, for example, which is particularly important when translating detective novels and thrillers. It can also be helpful to read similar books in English to the one I’m working on, in order to help get a sense of what might be an appropriate style for your translation.

What are the different elements you need to consider when translating a text? What are some aspects that often prove to be the most challenging?

This can vary quite a bit depending on what you’re translating, but the core challenge always boils down to finding the right words in English for the given context. With fiction, that might be about finding the right voice: some books involve a lot of slang and humour, while others might be more lyrical or have have a narrator with a distinctive voice and perspective, and in all those cases, just one ill-chosen word can have a jarring effect and pull the reader up short. Whereas with non-fiction, the challenge often centres on terminology: you might know what the book is about and what the author is arguing, but there is often a lot of research involved in making sure you use the right technical language in English to describe the concepts in the book.

How important is it to understand the culture of the country whose books you are translating?

Usually very important, though it’s also reductive to speak about any country having a single culture. The way people use language and interact with each other and the world varies so much depending on their age, socio-economic background, where they grew up, where they live, who their parents are, etc. A novel about teenagers in inner-city Hamburg would be poles apart from one set in a retirement home in rural Bavaria, for example. And then (to extend the example) there is no rule to say that German authors have to write books set in Germany, which can add a further layer of complexity. So I think it’s more important for translators to do their research and make sure they understand the specific context of each text they work on.

What do you find most rewarding about translation?

Two things! First, translation is the closest form of close reading you can undertake. You can’t skim over anything; you have to read and understand every word of the source text, because you have to put that meaning across in English. I always find it very rewarding to engage so closely with a text, especially one that’s well written in the first place. And second, translation is an exercise in pure style. The plot or argument is already there; your job is to rewrite it in English in the best way you can. The focus is 100% on the language, and it’s always very satisfying when you find the right solution to a tricky problem.

How can you ensure that you are capturing the author’s unique voice, tone and message when translating their work?

I think it’s really important to think hard about the reader of any given text; both the target audience of the original text, and also the likely readership of the translation. If you understand the effect the text was designed to have, that will inform decisions about how best to translate it. That said, you can’t read the author’s mind, and you don’t always have the luxury of asking them questions either. But that is part of what makes translation interesting to me; every translation is ultimately a subjective and creative act of interpretation. If you give two translators the same text to work on – even an ostensibly straightforward one – they will almost invariably make different choices and produce two very distinct translations. So in some ways this idea of ‘capturing’ an author’s voice is an illusion. But that’s also what makes translation interesting to me as an exercise.

Why is it important that we translate literature from different countries and cultures? Should we be doing more to translate the works of lesser-known authors from all over the world?

I would put a slightly different slant on this question and say that we should be doing more to broaden the profile of who gets translated, given that the majority of books translated into English were originally written in European languages, and the majority of authors translated are men (you can find some eye-opening recent stats on this here). And I also think it’s important to ask who is doing the translating. Publishing in general and literary translation in particular are – bluntly – very white professions (for more on this see the Rethinking Diversity report from Goldsmiths, University of London), and this imbalance can take on particularly problematic dimensions when working from languages spoken in previously colonised parts of the world, for example. So I think it’s very important for the publishing industry to do more to engage with translators, authors, languages and regions that have hitherto been marginalised and overlooked.

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Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.