An Interview with Ros Woolner


Ros Woolner grew up in the Thames Valley. Having studied and worked in Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Germany and West Africa, she now lives in Wolverhampton, England, where she works as a translator. She is a member of Bilston Writers and Cannon Poets. She won the Guernsey International Poetry Competition in 2021 and was shortlisted for the Women Poets’ Prize run by the Rebecca Swift Foundation in 2022. Her debut pamphlet, ‘On the Wing’ was published by Offa’s Press in 2018 and her latest collection, ‘Earth Walker’, was published earlier this year by Offa’s Press.
Ros, I’d like to begin this interview with reference to your work as a translator. I see that you hold an MA in Translating from the University of Salford but your interest in languages must have begun earlier than that, possibly when you studied for your first degree which was in International Business and Modern Languages or maybe even earlier when you were at school. Please tell us a little bit about this and also why you chose to study German and French in particular.

At my secondary school, if you were good at French, you could pick a second language for O level: German, Spanish or Latin. I guess I picked German because I’d been camping in the Black Forest with my parents and had learned a few words. I remember I had a stick I’d picked up to use as a walking pole that I christened Weg (which means ‘path’). Left to my own devices, I would have chosen German, French and English for A level, but my teachers told me that languages on their own were only useful if you wanted to be a teacher – and I was adamant that I wasn’t going to teach. I would love to go back in time and add ‘translator’ to the career guidance booklets they used back then! I ended up doing maths instead of English, which was a real struggle. And now, when I’m talking about poetry with people who studied English, I often feel as if I’m walking along a pavement with loose paving slabs.

I always felt more comfortable speaking German than French. But after I graduated, I ended up in francophone West Africa. It was liberating, speaking French in a country where almost no one speaks it as their first language. And I loved the way the Beninese adapted French to their own uses. After all, if you can say ‘bon voyage’ and ‘bon appétit’, why shouldn’t you say ‘bonne assise’ (enjoy your sitting), ‘bon travail’ (enjoy your work) and ‘bonne digestion’. My boss objected to that last one – he said his digestion was no one’s business but his own!

When you worked as an in-house translator for Shell, and Computec Media UK, you would have become familiar with a wide range of business and commercial texts. Were these the main subject areas that you concentrated on for your translation work or were there other areas as well?

Yes, I translate press releases and other texts for German businesses, but also reports for research institutes, the website of an annual music festival and books for children.

How and when did you decide to translate children’s books for the publisher Schlauberger-Verlag?

The owner of Schlauberger-Verlag approached me in 2008 with a children’s book that they wanted to publish in a bilingual version, with the German text on one side of the page, and the English translation on the other. I loved the concept, so I said yes straight away.

Moving from translating commercial texts to texts for children must have required something of a different mindset. How did you adapt to the different approach that would have been required of you?

Even when I’m translating commercial texts, I have to think about the purpose of the translation. Is it going to appear on a website? Is the English version aimed at readers in the UK or an ‘international’ readership (which for German-to-English translations often just means everyone who doesn’t speak German). Is it a speech that someone is going to have to read aloud? With the children’s books, I did a lot of reading aloud. Germans start learning English at a young age and the books were aimed at primary school children. My own children were 4 and 6 when I started working for Schlauberger-Verlag, so it was easy for me to try out my translations on them. The bigger problem was the constraint of knowing that my translation would be printed alongside the German. Readers (children and their teachers/parents) would be comparing the two. That meant I had to stick more closely to the German than I might otherwise have done, while still trying to produce a smooth translation that read like an original English text.

Have you ever thought about trying your hand at translating poetry? Do you see this as a possibility for the future?

That’s something I’d like to explore. A few years ago, I translated a Wilhelm Busch poem that appeared at the start of a book about wind power, and I did have fun doing it:

Sod’s Law 
(translation of ‘Ärgerlich’, a poem by Wilhelm Busch) 

In his mill the miller’s fretting.
He’s got forty sacks to fill.
Outside though, the wind’s abating –
the sails stop turning, all is still.

Typical! the miller cries,
this is driving me insane.
When there’s grain to grind, the wind dies,
when it’s windy, there’s no grain. 

The original poem can be found here:

How did you end up in West Africa?

When I was at university, I fell in love with a student from Benin, so after I graduated, I moved out there. I travelled by sea! My reasoning was that if I was going to travel that far, and potentially stay for as long as a year, I ought to give my brain time to catch up. The journey took ten days because I went on a cargo ship that stopped off at several other ports between Tilbury and Cotonou. In the end, I stayed for five years, and I found a job as a trilingual secretary/bookkeeper for an international development organisation, which kept me busy.

You now live in Wolverhampton. To what extent, if any, does the place where you live influence your creative writing?

A few of my poems are about Wolverhampton (especially the canals), and some are set in the Thames Valley, where I grew up, or have been influenced by places I’ve visited. The landscape described in ‘The Last Changing Room’, for instance, is the Carding Mill Valley in Shropshire. But my garden is probably the biggest influence on my writing.

Describe for us your writing process. Do you have a favourite place where you like to write?

I like to write where I can see the garden, which may explain why so many of my poems feature wood pigeons. I always write by hand in a notebook first and I cross out a lot. I tend to use school exercise books because there’s less pressure to keep them neat.

I rarely think ‘I want to write a poem about x’. I tend to start from a prompt or from a word or phrase and just see what happens. I tried using this approach to write a short story the other day and it fell apart because I hadn’t thought about where I was going or what the story arc was going to be, or even whether I was writing for adults or children. It really made me think about the difference between writing poems and stories.

Two of my favourite poems in your latest collection, ‘Earth Walker’, are ‘In This Version The Hare Lives’ and ‘de:face’. Do you have a favourite poem from this collection, one that is very special to you, and if so, why?

I have a soft spot for ‘To Every Thing There is a Season’. It starts ‘One day, there’ll be no P.E. kits on the line’. My youngest child started university last September, so I have now reached the stage of my life that I was imagining when I wrote the poem. I took down the netball post last weekend. (The full poem is reproduced below with the author’s permission).

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been challenging people to finish my ‘Unfinished Sonnet’ from Earth Walker. So far, I’ve received nine fantastic sonnets from nine poets and I’m hoping to put them all online. If anyone else would like to have a go, they can email me for the opening lines:

To Every Thing There is a Season

One day, there’ll be no P.E. kits on the line.
I’ll take down the netball post, dig up the lawn
for beds of hollyhocks and lupins, swathes
of lavender, lay winding paths
of cobblestones (no good for cartwheels)
edge them with alyssum, aubretia and, in the corner
(where the footballs gather), an arbour
of wisteria. One day, I’ll sit there with a book,
pendants of lilac on every side, ignoring
the clatter of other people’s children
coming home from school. One day,
I’ll hobble back indoors, call someone else
to raise the beds to save my creaky knees,
swap cobblestones for level paving slabs.
One day, the paths will all be gone and children
not yet born will race across the new-laid lawn,
trampling seedling foxgloves that forget
they do not grow here any more.


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