Jamie Bulloch: How I translated LOOK WHO'S BACK

Jamie Bulloch on the joys and challenges of translating Look Who's Back.

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"As an exercise in translation, Timur Vermes’s bestseller Look Who’s Back was not only great fun, it also provided me with one of the stiffest challenges in my career. From the outset it was clear that three aspects of the novel would require close attention if we hoped to get anywhere near the success this book had enjoyed in the German-speaking world: the cultural and historical references, Hitler’s rhetorical style, and the humour.

            The first of these was partly addressed by a glossary I compiled for the English-language edition. This was a more elegant solution, we concluded, than trying awkwardly to cram additional material into the book itself, thereby interrupting the flow of the text. Replicating Hitler’s style in English was tricky, not least because the vast majority of the Führer’s written and spoken output is intolerably longwinded and dull. The aim here was to strike an old-fashioned, pompous tone without boring the reader. Fortunately the author deviated sufficiently from the historical script to compose passages where the Hitler character ties himself in logical knots, exposing the absurdity of his reasoning.

            Which brings us on to the humour. Before I embarked on my translation I was fortunate to spend a week in residence with Timur Vermes, his publisher and a dozen other translators (the languages varied from Chinese to Bulgarian), during which we discussed every possible facet of the novel, ranging from very general issues to the highly specific: for example, the precise position of an office door on a corridor. During that week we translators were given creative licence by both author and publisher, who urged us to do “whatever works in your language”, especially when it came to the humour.

            Emboldened and encouraged by this sage advice, I began to play around with the text in a variety of ways. Where there was no obvious English equivalent to a joke, either I substituted a different one or waited a few lines for the next opportunity to insert some humour. Freed from restraints of trying to be entirely faithful to the original, I found it much easier to translate in the spirit of the novel, which also meant adjusting the way some characters speak. For example, Hitler’s assistant in the book, Fräulein Krömeier, has a thick Berlin accent in the German. I didn’t want to transpose this voice into a specific English accent, but I was unwilling to neutralise Frau Krömeier’s speech altogether, so I plumped for a general metropolitan way of talking, which includes internet slang and the contemporary trend of the rising inflection (or “High Rise Terminals”, the Australian way of speaking) – everything she said ended with a question mark. Sensenbrink, a manager at the television production company, also underwent a bit of a makeover: in the English version he continually spouts ludicrous office jargon, emphasising the superficiality of his character.

            With such scope for experimentation, not everything worked at the first attempt and a fair deal of revision was needed before I ended up with a text I was happy with. Nonetheless, Look Who’s Back was one of the most rewarding projects I have been involved in from a creative viewpoint, and I very much look forward (I assume I am not alone in this) to seeing what Timur Vermes writes next."


Jamie Bulloch is also the translator of Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast, which won him the Schlegel-Tieck Prize, Kingdom of Twilight by Steven Uhly, and novels by F.C. Delius, Jörg Fauser, Martin Suter, Katharina Hagena and Daniel Glattauer. 

Elise Williams