I was always fascinated by words and languages, and English and French were my favorite subjects at school. My family spent the year I was sixteen in Zürich, where I started learning German too.
One small book
The fall I was twenty years old, I spent a semester studying the German language in Graz. My father had died of cancer a year earlier. I experienced the preceding two years of his illness, his cycles of recovery and relapse, as well as his death, at a strange remove from my own emotions. I didn’t work through what I’d lost.
Before my language-learning semester, I travelled on my own around Europe for weeks. I was adventuresome and fearless. In Paris, I stayed in a youth hostel and walked the streets, absorbing impressions of the city’s famous sights and varied neighborhoods. And I made a momentous purchase: a tiny French-German bilingual dictionary with a shiny black cover.
Arriving in Graz, I described my aspiration to the bemused director of the study program: to reach a point where I would no longer need the English language whatsoever. In high school, I’d been awarded prizes for learning French. During my time in Austria, I intended to deepen my German commensurately, and then kick away the scaffolding that had supported me until that point: English, my mother tongue.
It was an impossible aspiration in the first place, of course, to sever myself from my past, linguistic and otherwise. But I truly wanted to start tabula rasa and abandon my “native” language and country—presto chango, I would restart my life, without parents, without roots, purely by applying myself.
During that semester in Austria, I jotted down phrases from the radio, noted headlines in the tabloids, practiced reading passages aloud from the classic plays we read. I aimed to get the rhythm of the language down.
In my twenties, living in Berlin, I took literature courses at the university. I learned not to get stuck on individual unfamiliar words or grammatical constructions, and to understand most of what I read and heard.
One boyfriend made perfecting my German his pet project. His corrections of my German pronunciation, his support with parsing movie and concert reviews in a highbrow German newspaper, as well as in correcting the papers I wrote on Goethe and Kafka, bore fruit. In our years together, I basically cracked the language.
I took a translators’ exam, having reached a point where I was speaking and reading and writing both German and English every day, both in the office as an editor and translator, and at home with Jens and my stepdaughter.
Settling in Berlin
By the early 2000s, I’d arrived in Berlin. I felt an emotional connection to the city. I’d known the island that West Berlin had been; I’d experienced the euphoria of the Fall of the Wall. As the formerly divided city grew into one, I enjoyed watching neighborhoods change. I was amused by Berlin residents’ infamous big-city abrasiveness.
My translating from German into English focuses on complex texts published in both languages, like concert programs or art catalogs or contracts. Capturing the nuances in crafted written texts, or idioms and slang in colloquial spoken German, rendering them in English—the work suits me.