Q&A with Translator Becky Crook

By   Jantien Abma 15 min read

We spoke to Becky Crook, a writer and literary translator of Norwegian and German novels into English. She has a degree in Linguistics from Seattle Pacific University. In 2010 she founded SAND, a biannual English literary journal in Berlin, now in its 6th year. After moving to the Netherlands in 2012, she began working primarily as a literary translator, editor and creative project manager. Her family moved again in 2014 to the pacific northwest in the U.S., where she has continued translations while writing her first novel. She lives on Bainbridge Island with her husband and young daughter.


1. How did you begin your career in professional translation?

I was living in Berlin, working freelance on business translations for various clients, such as betterplace.org and The Humboldt Viadrina School of Governance, but my real passion has always been in literature and the arts, and I was working on such creative projects in my spare time. But it was incredibly challenging to break into the German literary translation market as a newcomer, since there are so many German-English translators out there. There was one moment that I remember, it was following another business translation interview in Berlin, during which the German company asked me to do Norwegian translations for them because they couldn’t find anyone who was able to translate Norwegian or Danish into English. I was standing in a coffee shop in Akazienstrasse mulling it over, and as I stirred in the cream I remembered that I had studied Norwegian literature extensively at University after teaching myself Norwegian by reading Ibsen and Undset and Vesaas at the age of 16. I was actually qualified to translate literature from Norwegian into English, and there seemed to be a real need. I had simply never considered doing Norwegian translations while living in Germany. One month later I was on a plane to Oslo to meet with publishers. They were all like “who the hell are you?” So it took awhile to get things going, but that’s how it worked out. I’ve never regretted giving up business translations for literature.

2. After having lived in Berlin and the Netherlands, you currently work from your home on an island off the coast of Seattle. What is life on your island like?

How should I put it? There’s this phrase in German, “reif für die Insel” (lit. “ripe for the island”) which means that you need to get away from everything and go relax. And that’s pretty much how it is. I mean, there are everyday stresses on an island too; our daughter has to be groomed and prepped for daycare; sandwiches must be made; vegetables picked and chopped for dinner; work contracts still have to be sorted out; and the trash must be emptied once a week just as on the mainland. But the difference is: you live on an island. You are surrounded by water. And beaches! We go for a beach picnic at least twice a week in the nice months. And even in the rainy months. I take walks and see orca whales and sea otters. I bike to the ferry. There are also two pretty spectacular mountain ranges that run on the west and east sides of the island, the Olympics and the Cascades, so the views never get boring. Working and living on an island provides me with the natural space that my mind requires for the daily acrobatics that it does with translation and writing. It isn’t surprising that there are a lot of writers living on this and nearby islands, David Guterson and Annie Dillard, to name my two favorites.

Of course I miss some things about city life in Berlin and Delft (near Rotterdam). Mostly, I miss the art museums. I used to have an annual pass to all the museums and pop in to exhibits two or three times a week. There is such richness in art. But I still keep those images in my mind, it’s not like living on an island has made me a numbskull.

I also miss the public transportation; the ease of traveling between all those European countries; and the plethora of late-night bars. One thing about living on an island: people tend to go to sleep pretty early, apparently. It’s something we’ve still never gotten used to. I don’t know what our neighbors must think. It probably doesn’t matter. 

But we are fortunate to live on an island just across the bay from downtown Seattle, which has a lot to offer. We walk from our house to the ferry boat, get on, and after a lovely brief boat ride, we step off in the heart of downtown. We don’t even have to pay for parking because we can go on foot. My husband commutes this way nearly every day to Pioneer Square, the historic part of downtown. When I work from Seattle (I currently have a writing residency based in the Seattle Public Library), I meet friends for drinks in the evenings before hopping back on the boat and retreating to my quiet little island. I feel like it’s really the best of multiple worlds.

3. What was the driving force behind your nomadic life? Have your translation services been the primary means of income throughout your moves?

I’ll tell you, but you have to promise not to take it as advice. I gave up a great career and a promising graduate school program (!) to move to Berlin for love. This, I later learned, almost never works out well. Even if I am still together with my partner, amazingly. But if my daughter were ever to consider a similar undertaking, I would warn her. Don’t get me wrong: I’m into love, and I’m into travel; it’s the abandonment of one’s independence that I can’t support.

When I quit my stable job and moved to Berlin in the late summer of 2008, it was two weeks after Lehman Bros went bankrupt. Though Germany wasn’t hit as hard as other places, I nonetheless faced terrible unemployment for years, struggling to make ends meet. My boyfriend (now husband) and I were under considerable financial stress, and to top it all off there were no equivalent graduate programs that Germany would allow me to apply for, for various complicated reasons (I had earlier planned to get a masters and then a doctorate in clinical psychology in the U.S. and had already been accepted to graduate school).

In the end, I finally managed to found my own business in Germany for business translation and editing services, but while it felt good to be working again, I never earned as much as I had previously been making, and we relied quite a bit on my husband’s part-time income (he was getting his PhD in engineering part-time). We lived frugally, like skinny squirrels. But rent and food and Hefeweizen don’t cost that much in Berlin, so we managed. At some juncture or other, I had a baby. We used the very generous German Elterngeld (parental leave pay) to move to the Netherlands, where my husband focused full time on his PhD for two years. So you could say that having a baby financed our move. It was only when I started my literary translation services after that trip to Oslo, that my income truly started helping us out in a significant way. And now yes, I would say it is a primary source of income for our family, which is terrific. On the flip side however, this means that when publishers fail to pay me or don’t pay me until six or twelve or twenty four months after I submit my invoice (as can happen to translators in this industry), we run into financial trouble!

4. What are the most important qualities to have when working successfully remotely and freelance? 

First and foremost I find it is very important to develop a strong sense of discipline. Working remotely, from home, requires that you get up at a decent time, put on the coffee, and sit down the same way you would if you had an office cubicle and co-workers and a micro-managing boss staring over your shoulder. I get up at 6:30 on weekdays, after dropping my daughter off at daycare I go running and then get showered and dress up. I wear the kind of clothes that I would wear for an important meeting with London publishers, because I feel as though my work is that valuable. I try to forget about the laundry, emptying the dishwasher, all of that, and really discipline myself to maintaining an 8-hour work day. This is vital, and helps me to get an extraordinary amount of work done.

Equally as important is a commitment to quality. This is something I’ve learned over time, the way that I’ve also developed my taste for reading. When I was younger, I mentally scarfed down entire Nancy Drew detective series and bland brainless, poorly written novels. But after those kinds of existential crises, in which you realize that “man is unexpectedly mortal,” as Bulgakov puts it, I understood that I only wanted to spend time reading truly amazing, quality literature*. I became relentless with my reading, and never forced myself to finish a book I didn’t like. So why would I ever expect a publisher to be interested in a book that I may be translating which is only marginal? I take on all kinds of projects to earn money, but I only pitch the books that I think are truly worth a publisher’s time. In my translation work and writing as well, I always strive for quality. If this is my life’s work, if this is what I am going to spend those unexpectedly short mortal days doing, I better be doing a damned good job. And I push to improve my work and my method of working as often as I can. For example, I have a personal goal to always finish my translation deadlines at least one day early. It’s like squeezing in an extra push-up. Sometimes I end up delivering two weeks early. I like to have that little extra challenge for myself to work toward. Of course, there have been one or two instances when I ended up requesting additional time, because a high quality of work is always my most important priority, and I would always choose this over submitting my translations early.  

*(I don’t mean to imply that my tastes and judgments are the be-all of literary standards. It’s not like I only read Simone de Beauvoir or Tolstoy at the beach — I’m a huge mystery/crime novel fan, for example, I love Henning Mankell and John Le Carre on vacations.)

Another value that comes to mind in working as a freelance is doggedness. Until one has been a freelancer in an industry for decades, I think you have to be kind of scrappy, and tenacious. Thick-skinned and bold. I take a lot of initiative in writing to publishers; I am launching a Norwegian book blog; I send cards to publishers via snail mail and recommend books to various editors that I’ve met over the years. One seasoned translator, Ros Schwarz, once advised me to mail all of my recommendations to publishers by post, in real tangible envelopes, and I try to do this as often as possible. I have conversations and really listen to what various publishers are looking for, what gets them excited. And I have learned the importance of valuing your own skill set and work by saying No to unreasonable requests. Even if it would be nice to translate this or that particular prestigious author, I have learned to become wary of publishers who don’t value the work of translators, or who are unwilling to be fair. If that is their model, that may work well for them, but I am doggedly consistent about taking only solid jobs and returning a solid quality product on the basis of mutual respect. You have to have a thick skin if you do this, I feel, particularly if you are a woman in this industry. Bold, initiative-taking women are judged by their personalities more than by their work. I’ve had people say terrible things to my face, I assume because they feel threatened. I am naturally a very sensitive person, so I went out into an old growth forest and got a piece of three-inch-thick bark that had fallen off of an old cedar tree. I clipped it directly above my desk, and I look at that thick bark every time I am facing negativity, to remind myself to be strong like that, and not to cave in to agreeing to rotten contracts, or receiving insensitive remarks, or to lowering my standards.

There’s one other thing that I find invaluable, if freelancers can manage it, and that is carving out a work space or office in your home that is exclusive for your job. In our Delft maisonette, my office took up one entire side of the loft. In Berlin I had my own separate room for a work space. And in our current town home, I have an alcove office off of the bedroom. Not only do I get tax rebates for having a separate office space for my business, but I also have a place to go to shut myself off from the house. When I am in there, it is as though I am going to the office in the city. Other people rent flex office spaces, and this is another creative way to do it. Though I find that I require absolute silence when translating, so that my mind can unfold completely, so I tend to stay away from places with people and noise. I love to imagine literary translators around the globe, all pasty and un-sunned, holed up in their tiny isolated alcoves, silently translating the world’s golden literature.

5. While in Berlin, you founded an English language literary magazine called SAND, which is currently in it’s 13th print issue. Can you tell us a little bit about the magazine and the process behind setting it up?

Yes. SAND (www.sandjournal.com) was founded in May 2010 after a few other English literary journals came and went in Berlin. I had the idea to start it up after various conversations with former editors of one such magazine, Bordercrossings. At the time, I noticed that there was an abundance of international artists and writers living in Berlin, and it seemed like a good idea to create something for the English-language vacuum. In retrospect, the project probably could have used one or two more years in the development phase, as it was a bit of a hodgepodge when it first got off the ground. But it has since developed into something dynamic wonderful, especially after a grant from the EU in 2012. The Berlin writing community has really come together around the journal, and there have been several collaborations with other wonderful groups, The Reader Berlin, literaturfestival.de, Broken Dimanche Press, Dialogue, to name a few. And I love that the three editors in chiefs so far have all been women, myself and the Christina Wegener and now Lzy Pfister. Berlin now has several different English literature offerings, small publishers, quarterly journals, literary agencies, artist collectives, bookstores. It’s a great place to be as an international artist and writer, I think, and I feel some measure of pride at being involved in starting something that continues to play a part in that scene.

6. Do you have any advice for publishing specialists considering a similar move away from publishing hubs, towards less metropolitan dwellings?

It certainly depends on what, precisely, you are out to do. In the U.S., the major publishing hub is New York, so if you want to work in Publishing with a big P, it might make the most sense to go cram your life into an expensive square meter flat to pursue that there. But Al Gore’s World Wide Web has opened up a lot of opportunities for working remotely in many industries, including publishing, and certainly in literary translation and writing. Personally, I find that being away from the distraction of big cities has helped me to focus and hone my style with more concentration and space, and this is extremely valuable for me as a writer and translator. I could probably live on an off-grid island somewhere, in an Annie Dillard-like shack mere inches from the water with no Internet and only candlelight, and still do translation as long as I took my rowboat and thumb drive across to the mainland to email my manuscript off by the agreed upon deadline.

Now that we are settled in the U.S., and now that I am almost finished writing my own first novel, I have plans to attend the American literary festivals and book fairs starting this fall. I am excited to meet new U.S. based publishers and to continue having conversations and collaborations in that way. Whenever I have the chance, I try to meet up with clients when traveling. We will be in Berlin and Amsterdam this spring to visit my husband’s family (who live near Cologne), and I have set up several appointments to visit clients. If you are going to be remote, which is possible and has its benefits, you just need to work a bit harder to connect in a meaningful way with others in your industry. But it really isn’t too hard. I actually find that I may even spend my time together with clients more deliberately, because it does require an extra effort to see them.

The most important professional action for me in my move to the wild west, and which I would advise anyone who plans to move and work more remotely is to take extra measures to stay in touch with colleagues and clients. I regularly put reminders on my calendar to send postcards or letters to editors and publishers, to check in, simply so that they know I haven’t fallen into the ocean and been swallowed up by the Kraken. In fact, I think I have had more work since moving to this island than when I was living in the middle of Berlin.