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Joliet native moved to Germany and now translates German books into English

Leanne Cvetan said she took German classes at Joliet West High School in the early 1990s just like her older brother did.

Cvetan said she thought they could use German as their “secret language.”

“But that never worked out,” Cvetan said with a smile.

However, Cvetan fell in love with the German language.

“To me, it was just like a puzzle trying to figure out what all the words meant,” Cvetan said. She’s since used her skills to create her stay-at-home dream job: translating books into English for self-published German authors hoping to find a foothold in U.S. markets.

Cvetan wasn’t considering a career as a translator when she continued studying German at Joliet Junior College and at Illinois State University in Bloomington. At the time, Cvetan wanted to teach German in high schools.

But after teaching introductory courses in German at University of Illinois Chicago while working on her master’s degree, Cvetan decided she loved the language more than she loved teaching.

So, Cvetan changed her focus to German literature without any career goal in mind, she said.

Cvetan also spent a year at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Bonn as part of the Junior Year Abroad exchange program, which she called a “huge step in independence” by staying by herself in a foreign country with no parents to lean on.

It also tested her German language skills.

“I came home every day with a headache just from trying to make myself understood,” Cvetan said.

Cvetan’s first translator job found her while she was still at UIC. A company had contacted UIC’s German department needing a translator, and Cvetan said she thought, “That sounds like fun.”

She moved to Germany in 2001 with her husband after she earned her master’s degree and “we’ve been there ever since,” she said. Their three daughters, ages 18, 15 and 14, were born and raised in Germany and speak fluent German, Cvetan said.

Over time, Cvetan made contact with other translators, who sent some commercial jobs her way. But Cvetan longed to translate literature.

“I really like to read books,” Cvetan said. “I like all the symbolism, all the ‘lyricness’ of it.”

Six years ago, Cvetan made the leap. At the time, she was working “a little part-time job” all the while wishing she was at home translating books.

“So I finally quit my job, made a website and pretty soon I had my first book,” Cvetan said.

The book was “Three Brothers” by Joerg H. Trauboth and it was about 600 pages long, she said.

“I felt like fate was calling,” she said.

Cvetan said she needs two months to translate a 200-page book and she always translates from German into English.

“You always translate into your mother tongue because it’s just about innate. It’s not a learned language,” Cvetan said. “You already know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

That said, Cvetan said translating books from German to English isn’t necessarily a word-by-word translation but a translation of the essential meaning.

Not all words have a translatable counterpart, and translators must allow for variances in grammatical structures between the languages. The translator’s goal is always to create a smooth, easy-to-understand, enjoyable read that keeps the essence of the meaning intact, she said.

Even so, it’s difficult for self-published German authors to break into U.S. markets, she said.

“My mission is to change that,” she said.

So Cvetan has been pitching agents, hoping to get some of these translated books picked up by major publishing hours and “get some more German fiction books into the American market,” she said.

For information, visit cvetan.de.

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