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20 March 2024

Feedback & Complaints by Jen Calleja

Jen Calleja's satirical and razor-sharp lead feature, 'Custard Pies', published in our latest spring issue, Wasafiri 117: The State of the Industry, and featuring five pastel-coloured pies ('one for each heckle I've received at a panel discussion about literary translation'), dwells on the fallacies of an 'ideal translator' — including notions of fidelity, mentorship, and who has the right to translate. This short essay, similarly and characteristically spiky and acerbic, questions preconceived notions around the translator's role and work from a personal perspective.

Here are a selection of telephones where you can listen to feedback and complaints I’ve received.

On the peach-coloured phone you can hear students on my Masters course in German Studies complain about Germans:

They’re awful. When I had my year abroad, I couldn’t stand them, they’re so annoying. 

They loved learning the language, they loved studying the same German writers who had been dead for decades, but disliked German people, a weird festishisation of German as field of study. I couldn’t understand it. They wanted to analyse Germans and their culture and language. To be honest, that’s what studying can do. It can objectify things to such a degree you forget that these people once lived, that Germanness is fluid and alive. You even forget that German culture is living, not just what is in history books. That German-language books are being published every day, something I barely registered of English-language books at age 23. When you study books that aren’t wholly contemporary, you think literature all happened in the past. I wanted to do something that showed a love and appreciation of German culture, and I wanted it to be about now. I thought of all my British, American and Australian friends who appreciated something German, and vice versa. I made a magazine, Verfreundungseffekt, a neologism inspired by Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. Alienation/distancing effect (it has multiple translations, I prefer to name all of them to give you a fuller effect), transformed into friendation/bringing closer effect.

On the red phone you can listen to the complaints I received working in a call centre for a defunct fashion brand, in English and German, while doing my Masters part time.

My package hasn't arrived! The dress I ordered is the wrong size! 

My colleague, who handled the French complaints, would listen to my complaints about wanting to do something else with my life. We would take walks around the block complaining about our posh, sexist, homophobic, creepy man-baby boss. She wanted to be a curator. I told her about the magazine I had made, and she jumped into action. She found an empty launderette and asked the council if we could use it for a week. She helped me plan an exhibition and a launch event for the magazine. Friends’ bands played German-language cover songs. The photos and illustrations from the magazine were put up on the walls. A couple of years later I brought out the second issue (at this point I realised that Austria and Switzerland ought to be included, it took me this long to become inclusive, German-language culture not German culture) and I put on another launch, this time in a gallery, with bands and readings again. The German Affairs correspondent for The Guardian Philip Oltermann came. A few weeks later, he recommended me to his publisher Faber to translate Wim Wenders’ essay collection The Pixels of Paul Cézanne, which he largely wrote in poem-like columns. I think of them as prose-poems.

On the purple telephone you can hear complaints I received from reviewers and readers about my translation of Wim Wenders’ book, which I’ve turned into poems:

Michelangelo would never

Might some of these problems be down to Jen Calleja’s
shaky translation?
There is no Mann movie called ‘Man from the West’,
though — as the rest of the essay makes clear —
there is one called Man of the West.

Even after the stroke that eventually killed him,
Michelangelo Antonioni would never have said ‘doppo’
though he might have said dopo or
since he and Wenders were in a restaurant together, doppio.

And while we no longer frown upon sentences
that end with a preposition,
we can’t just dump any old
preposition there.

When Calleja has Wenders ask himself
‘What’s happening to the people in front of my camera?
What does their dignity consist of?’
she only confirms
Werner Herzog’s suspicion
that ‘film is not the art of scholars
but illiterates’.

Wim would never

 I. A friendly note to say something about prepositions and geography.

On page 37, you have the house ‘at Cape Cod’
but local usage trumps grammar
when it comes to geography;
so, no one from Cape Cod would ever say ‘at’

it is always ‘on’ – as in
I’ll be ‘on the Cape’.
The ‘at’ would come in into [sic] play
if I referred to my house –
‘I’ll be at the Cape house for a month.’

So far as I can tell
the shape of the land causes all this –
I deal with Baja California a lot
& it has the same issues as Cape Cod.

One is ‘in’ Italy, ‘at the cottage’,
or ‘on Baja’, but never
‘at Baja’, or ‘in’ Baja.

My suggestion is to ask locals how they say it
when dealing with or translating tales about
islands & peninsulas

and also to note that there is
a typo on page

That’s it.


The blue phone allows you to pick it up and scream either

Did every writer and person in publishing go to Oxbridge?

or, quoting the German-British writer Isabel Waidner 

Support non-Oxbridge talent (the final sentence of their novel We Are Made of Diamond Stuff)

and it will relay to a speaker at the other end of the Fair.

On the yellow phone you can hear a translator saying over and over that it is uncouth for translators to complain. What’s your complaint?

To read 'Custard Pies', the lead feature for Wasafiri 117: The State of the Industry by Jen Calleja, purchase a print copy of the issue, or subscribe to the magazine.

Feature image from Atlas Studio via

Jen Calleja is the author of Vehicle (Prototype, 2023), Dust Sucker (Makina Books, 2023) and the forthcoming critical memoir Goblinhood: goblin as a mode (Rough Trade Books, 2024).
Spring 2024
Wasafiri 117: The State of the Industry

We start our 40th anniversary year with Wasafiri 117, which has a special focus on ‘The State of the Industry’. Our spring 2024 issue reflects on the contemporary international literary industry through a variety of perspectives, from publishing to academia, via the work of writing, translating, editing, publishing, and teaching.

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