Tuesday, 28 May 2013

'No regrets, none at all, I wouldn’t change it for anything, you know.'

I have been enjoying the merry month of May and its green leaves and blossom, despite the fact we’ve been having what the Germans call “Aprilwetter” – changeable weather of the kind you’d expect in April! There’s been a lot going on this month: a lot of interesting work, the conference of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, and the launch of a book that I was lucky enough to be involved in over the past six months.

Destination UK - 'No regrets, none at all, I wouldn’t change it for anything, you know.'

While I am lucky enough to enjoy the vast majority of my work, now and again a project comes along that touches and engages me on a whole range of levels and ends up with a very special place in my heart. Photographer Marion Trestler’s  beautiful book Destination UK was one of these. An Austrian living and working in London, Marion travelled the length and breadth of Britain over a number of years to document the stories of Austrian women who immigrated to the UK between 1945 the the early 1960s. It is not widely known today that following World War II, the British and Austrian governments entered into a formal agreement that Austria would supply young unmarried women to work in the British industry, mostly in the cotton mills of Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Following this first wave of immigrants, many further young Austrian women came to the UK to work as domestic helpers, nurses or au pairs. Many of them married British men and had families; others recognised there was little for them in postwar Austria and decided to stay in a country they felt offered them better chances of making a good life for themselves. Marion took photographic portraits of the women and recorded interviews in which they shared their experiences, thoughts and feelings. She writes: “My intent has been to paint an authentic portrait of each woman, in pictures and words, and to create a tribute to each of them whilst preserving a part of contemporary history in the form of a book. “ 

I became involved in this project both as a language editor and a translator once the selection of quotes had been completed. It was vital that whoever was involved have an understanding not just of English and German, but also of Austrian dialect and culture – luckily, as I grew up in Bavaria not far from the Austrian border (and have a half-Austrian mother-in-law and a Viennese godmother), I fitted the bill! When editing the interviews, our concern was to “smooth” the oral language into a form that would be easily readable but nonetheless preserve the immediacy and authenticity of each woman’s voice. As some interviewees switched frequently between English and German, we also had to decide on where to translate quotes or parts of quotes and where to leave them. Our little team – Marion, myself and Karina Matejcek of KAMACO  quickly established a method of working on the files that suited us all (thanks the gods for Dropbox!). Excitement grew as our work neared completion and the graphic designers produced the proofs of the book, which contained not only the interviews and Marion’s photographs, but also pictures of the interviewees as young women and reproductions of their immigration documents as well a scholarly introduction by Dr. Jill Lewis of the University of Swansea.

Marion and I met in London on April 18th and she gave me a first copy of Destination UK, hot off the press. It was an emotional moment! I always feel that being given a book you have worked so hard on is a bit like being given a newborn baby. It was thrilling to leaf through the pages and see everything on paper for the first time. But there was still work to be done – for there was to be an official book launch and exhibition of Marion’s photos in Vienna in mid-May and another exhibition planned for London for November. So a press folder needed to be put together in both English and German and blurbs for the exhibition and the sponsors written in both languages. It was a rush, but finally everything was completed and the Vienna launch took place on May 16th.

So what was it that touched me most about this project? For one, I had the opportunity to collaborate with some wonderful people (thank you, Marion and Karina!). But above all I was fascinated by the stories told by the women themselves. As someone who has moved around a lot, I recognised some of the themes that appeared, such as intense homesickness ('Heimweh, that can be an illness, it can make you ill') as well as the sense of freedom gained from moving to a different country. I found myself smiling at former au pairs’ descriptions of Swinging London versus staid 1960s Vienna. I was moved to tears by the misery and poverty faced by some of these women back in their home country during and after the War; for many of them, the wages they earned in the cotton mills were the first pay they had ever received. Some of them were forced to leave sweethearts and children behind; others came and found sweethearts and husbands. All of them worked incredibly hard to build new lives for themselves and luckily, most of them found the British to be friendly and welcoming. I can only echo Marion’s words when she says: “All these women have my greatest admiration.”

To celebrate the launch of the book and exhibition (showing until June 8th at Galerie base-level, Heinrichsgasse 4, Eingang Rudolfsplatz 13, 1010 Vienna), I am giving away a free copy of Destination UK (normal price £25)! In order to enter, please leave me a comment at the end of this blog post. I will pick a winner from the entries on June 14th and will post the book out to the lucky person!