German author's success a combination of tenacity, fate

Mar 20, 2014

Jan Philipp Sendker has spent most of his working life as a journalist for a German magazine.

But he never lost the desire he's held since childhood to write a novel, and his work as a reporter helped lead him to his goal.

Sendker's novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, is inspired by the landscape and culture he discovered while reporting from Burma. The book tells the story of Julia, a New Yorker whose Burmese father mysteriously disappears. Julia's story explores the significant role of fatalism and destiny in Burmese culture.

And ultimately, so does Sendker's.

"In Burma I went to an astrologist and asked him about my fortune," Sendker said.

"I said, 'I’m a journalist and I would like to be a full-time novelist, and I’m writing a book here set in Burma.' I asked if it will be a success. And he made some calculations and said, "Don’t worry, this will be a big success.'”

The book was published in Germany about twelve years ago ... and it did well.

Sendker's first novel

But there was another part of Sendker's dream that hadn't yet been realized-- he wanted an english translation of his book to be released in United States.

Sendker went to the international offices for Random House and explained his goals to the foreign rights editor. "She just smiled at me and said, 'Yes, Mr. Sendker, many authors would like that.”

So Sendker took matters into his own hands-- he bought himself a ticket to New York with a suitcase of 20 German hardcovers. He visited all the major publishing houses, giving everyone this pitch:

“I have this wonderful love story between a blind boy and a crippled girl in Burma.” (Which is admittedly not the easiest story to sell.)

Sendker says across New York, publishers “were quiet for a moment, and then they’d say, sounds intriguing, Mr. Sendker. Why don’t you leave it at the front desk and we’ll get back to you.'”

When Sendker didn’t hear from anyone, he decided to pay out of his own pocket for someone to translate the book to English.

He came across Kevin Williarty and sent him an excerpt to translate.

“He sent me a sample translation of 30 pages," Sendker said, "and then I looked up the original  because I coulsn't believe I wrote that well. You know, because it was done so nicely by him. He did a fantastic job.“

Williarty, who works in educational technology at  Smith College, had never translated anything professionally before. But he enjoyed the artistry of it, focusing first on the overall tone of the story and then on as direct a translation as possible.

His goal as a translator, he said, is to essentially be invisible. A good translation is like a pair of glasses-- they help you see better, but you shouldn't really notice they're there.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is now available in more than thirty languages.The sequel, A Well-Tempered Heart, has just been released.