TRANSLATION Christine Spindler on translating Help! I'm an Alien into German

In the latest Words and Pictures interview with children's book translators, we meet Christine Spindler who translates from English to German.
We've talked about translators who open other worlds to us English-speakers. Now let's meet one who works the other way around. Christine Spindler discusses her translation of Help! I'm an Alien! by SCBWI-British Isles member Jo Franklin. It was first published in German (and is very funny in both languages).

How did you become interested in English? 

When I was about eight years old and discovered an English course (i.e. a stack of vinyl albums) in my parents' bookshelf. To this day I can still remember the speaker’s voice when he announced “Interpreter training number one” in this lovely sophisticated accent. I was hooked.

Later, I started reading English books and watching English films and TV series. I honed my skills by reading novels by Martha Grimes and Dorothy L. Sayers, and also by watching “Star Trek - The Next Generation” and other series.

How did you become a translator?

I’m mainly a writer, with more than 50 books published. At some point I thought I’d love to try my hand at translating books, and mentioned it to one of my editors. That got the ball rolling.

What made you want to translate for children?

I’ve translated books in a variety of genres and quickly discovered that literature for children is the most fun to translate. So much fantasy and quirkiness!

How long did the translation take you? 

I only work part time as a translator. Therefore translating Help! I'm an Alien took about five weeks.

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Do you use translation software? 

I tried that once, out of curiosity. I wanted to know if I have to fear being replaced by an AI anytime soon. I was relieved to find that correcting a software-translated text took about twice as long as doing it from scratch. I think translation software is great for technical texts, but with literature, the software just doesn’t get the context right, and therefore creates some weird texts.

Were there any specific difficulties caused by translating humour? 
I love translating humour. Sometimes it’s a challenge, because a lot of jokes are created by wordplay, so finding an equivalent that works in German isn’t always easy. But that’s exactly what I like about it. Same as with translating poetry that rhymes. I require creativity, and that’s the fun part.

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What were the hardest parts to translate? Did you find any untranslatable nuances, cultural references or language play that you had to leave out?

One of the interesting aspects about Help! I'm an Alien is the fact that it hadn’t been published previously. So the editor and I had a bit of creative freedom. When something didn’t quite work for German readers, we’d ask Jo to make some changes or suggest alternatives.

What kind of sources do you use when you don't understand what something means?

I use an online dictionary and Google search. The Google AI seems to have figured out by now that I’m a translator. Whenever I search for any English phrase, the top link always takes me to a page where everything is explained in great detail.

What would you say is the message of the book?

I think it’s about family sentiment. Even if you feel that you don’t quite fit in, you still belong.

What do you hope to translate next, if anything?

I translated one picture book so far, and that was an amazing experience. So I’d love to get more of those.

What other translators do you admire?

I can’t really say because I always read English books in the original version.

Do you have an ideal project?

I’d love to translate a book that is later adapted as a screenplay. And on opening night, I’d meet the author and we’d have such fun. Just a little dream of mine …


Christine Spindler, born in 1960, grew up in a pretty town in southern Germany. Early on, she developed a love for literature and foreign languages. She studied in Heidelberg, where she met the man who has been her husband for 33 years now.

She is a translator, publisher and writer, using five pseudonyms. She co-authored the Falcon’s Bend series with award-winning US author Karen Wiesner.

She enjoys the freedom of choosing her next projects and working from home. In her leisure time, she paints, plays the piano and goes for relaxing walks.

Picture credits: 
English book cover by Aaron Blecha
German book cover by Der Anton

C3PO by Contando Estrelas at Flickr

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