Straelen, the Mecca of Literary Translators

In the 25 years of its existence the Europäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium, described by Andrzej Szczypiorski as 'the most humane and important peculiarity of contemporary European culture', has become the Mecca of literary translators.

In the 25 years of its existence the Europäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium Nordrhein-Westfalen in Straelen, described in 1996 by visitor Andrzej Szczypiorski as 'the most humane and important peculiarity of contemporary European culture’, has become the Mecca of professional literary translators.

Foto: Straelen

​​Straelen, a small town of just under 16,000 inhabitants, is a few miles from the Dutch border and is the largest hub for flowers and vegetables in Germany. While Straelen (pronounced ‘Straalen') is surrounded by one of Europe's biggest horticultural regions, that is not the reason why literary translators from all over the globe flock here.

For 25 years professional literary translators have come to the Europäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium (EÜK) in Straelen which was founded in 1978 on the initiative of the Beckett translator Elmar Tophoven and the then chairman of the association of literary translators, Klaus Birkenhauer.

A meeting place

The founding fathers of the Kollegium wanted to create a place where literary translators, who generally lead a rather solitary working life, could come together to exchange experiences. The role model of the Kollegium was the medieval translating school in the Spanish city of Toledo, where translators from various language areas came to work side by side.
Today the EÜK is the world’s largest centre for literary translators. Housed in six old townhouses, its amenities include libraries, meeting rooms and 30 apartments as well as shared kitchens where guests can cook their own meals.

Those entitled to live and work here as professional literary translators who have published at least two major translations and are working on a project on the basis of a signed agreement with a publisher.

Every year more than 750 guests enjoy the atmosphere and working conditions in the Kollegium. Translators from over 50 countries, from Egypt to Latvia, from New Zealand to Zaire, benefit from the attractive amenities in this town in the Lower Rhineland.

A place for answers

While the Kollegium offers its German and foreign guests 30 PC workstations, the facility that gets translators swooning is EÜK’s special library.
Boasting 110,000 volumes, this 24-hour-access library offers everything a translator could ever wish for. 25,000 reference works in more than 275 languages and dialects from Afrikaans to Zulu are on the shelves. Mono and multilingual encyclopaedias and general dictionaries are side by side with a large number of specialist reference books and dictionaries. The library also offers 60,000 volumes containing literary works, both in the original language and translated, from all over the world, alongside 25,000 non-fiction books.

This library holds the key to mysteries that can drive literary translators to distraction when working alone at home. What is ‘Rommelspargel’? Where is the Island of the Great Mother?

An eventful place

More than 15,000 translations have been completed in Straelen. Here, Hegel’s Phenomenology Of Spirit was translated into Korean, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities into Hebrew and Michael Ende's Momo into Estonian. Proust’s Les plaisirs et les jours was translated into Danish, Shakespeare's Sonnets and Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater into German. In the spring of 2002 Grass’s Crabwalk was translated here into Finnish, Russian, Latvian, Bulgarian and Lithuanian.

However, translation is not the only activity in Straelen. The EÜK also hosts several seminars and training sessions for translators. The translator’s prize of the arts foundation for North Rhine-Westphalia, worth € 25,000, is awarded here. In addition, in 2002 this foundation set up the post of Translator in Residence, funding the presence of one translator at the EÜK who provides an insight into the work of a literary translator through readings, talks and workshops.

The commemorative publication marking the EÜK’s 25th anniversary, entitled Warum ich so oft nach Straelen fahre? (Why do I travel to Straelen so often?), contains elegiac descriptions of the atmosphere in this special place. As Oili Suominen from Finland comments, ‘The question is not quite right. It should read: Why don’t all translators travel to Straelen every year?’

Dagmar Giersberg

© 2003 Goethe-Institut

For further information about the Translators Centre, download a PDF file here.

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