Adriatic East Coast by Martin Schneider-Jacoby and Borut Stumberger, book of a lifetime

Some translation work for the EuroNatur Foundation changed Nell Zink's life

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The Independent Culture

Before I wrote novels for money, I was a German-English translator. My work ranged from academic papers full of gratuitous wordplay to corporate reports full of lies. I demanded 70 euros an hour and got it. That's how much I hated my clients.

So when, in 2010, the penniless EuroNatur Foundation asked me to translate a book, I said yes. I was ready to suffer for a client I liked. Adriatic East Coast was intended to promote off-season ecotourism in coastal Albania and the former Yugoslavia, and it was full of never-before-seen expressions like "tawny pipit" and "little stint". It was hard work for peanuts. Then I came to the paragraph that changed my life:

"Under fire the moment they approach land, the garganeys [the only duck that migrates from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa] resort to flying back and forth off the coast. Ferruginous ducks, shovelers and pintails likewise wait on the open sea for a visa to enter Europe. You can see them from the coastal highway – tens of thousands of ducks at the mercy of wind and waves, with no drinking water and nothing to eat."

These were not seagoing ducks. They needed freshwater marshes to survive. But the marshes and even the beaches were lined with shotguns. I was moved. I was outraged. I was reminded of Frontex.

I became friends with the paragraph's author, Martin Schneider-Jacoby (pictured). With his help, I launched a guerrilla PR campaign to rescue the migrant refugee ducks. Newspapers and TV played along. Bosnian park rangers received a grant. A salt works was saved from hotel developers. Martin proved to be a wonderful man with a strange gift for taking people seriously, even me. My life seemed meaningful. I felt grateful. I resolved to make Martin an international star. I wrote a crafty letter to the novelist and journalist Jonathan Franzen, reproaching him for neglecting the Balkans. If he had ever truly cared about European birds, I insinuated, he would know Martin already and have written about him long before.

He repaid me with lengthy reproaches for neglecting my fiction, and he and Martin became friends. An article appeared in National Geographic. In February 2014, hunting was banned in Albania – a two-year moratorium with Franzen's name all over it – and I sold a novel for six figures.

My master plan didn't quite work out. Martin died of sudden, inexplicable cancer in 2012. Now I'm the star, doing PR for myself – of all people! But life is like that. Sudden and inexplicable, ruled not by stars but by hungry ducks on the Adriatic.

Nell Zink's novels, 'Mislaid' and 'The Wallcreeper', are out now as a box set (Fourth Estate, £20)

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