Friday, 30 January 2015

Anthea Bell Gets Cross

Our favourite translation heroine, the "grand dame" Anthea Bell, has been awarded the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for her great and lasting contribution to the promotion of German literature and services to translation.

You can read the ambassador's speech here, and while you're at it you can also read a rather fabulous Guardian article about her here. Anthea translated the first German book I read, The Factory Made Boy by Christine Nöstlinger. And of course she also did the Asterix series, with such incredible aplomb. And Sebald, and Freud, and Ruge, and Biller, and Funke, and Stanisic, and Franck, and just so many good writers that it's hard to stop. One of my favourite impressive things about Anthea Bell (OBE) is that she was a single mother when she started translating seriously, and raised two sons on the proceeds.

Three cheers for Anthea Bell! 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Advertorial: Inka Parei's The Cold Centre

Typograhical Era is apparently looking forward to Inka Parei's latest book in my translation, The Cold Centre, which comes out in February. They say:
Parei’s novel is set to deliver a timely reminder about how we tend to react in the face of disaster. It seems a bit White Noise-y in premise, but with a real accident and the desolate setting of East Berlin before the wall was torn down serving as its focus, this one appears to be primed to deliver much more realistic shocks.
As in her previous two novels, Inka explores German history and gets us all worked up in the process, this time returning to Berlin for a furious race against time, if you like. I adore it, as you can imagine.

If you'd like to find out more about Inka's work – and see some startling photos of the novel's key setting, now lost to the world – you can read a conversation she and I had at Music & Literature.


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

ACF NY Translation Prize to Tess Lewis!!!

Hooray for my buddy Tess Lewis, super-top-translator of the year for Austrian literature!! She's won the Austrian Cultural Forum New York's $5000-award for a translated extract from Maja Haderlap's Engel des Vergessens. I translated a short section of the novel when Haderlap won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize with it, and let me tell you it's very hard to do. Haderlap uses hunting and forestry vernacular, combined with the traditions and the feel of the Slovenian minority in the Carinithian mountains after the war. Layers and layers of language, first Austrian German, then the Slovenian hidden underneath, then the sociolects and ideolects and the jargon – a feast of fun and fury for a translator.

Tess can deal with Austrian German no problem at all, of course, having published translations by Peter Handke, Julya Rabinowich, Alois Hotschnig and others. You can read an interview she gave me in 2011 here, in which she had the following to say about Austrian writing in particular:
Austria is a gorgeous country, highly civilized and gemütlich, but you don’t need to scratch the surface very deeply to find some very dark undercurrents. I find it refreshing to read Austrian writers who engage with the ambiguities and unsavoriness under their culture’s veneer. The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is to accuse them of Nestbeschmützen, but the best and most nuanced Austrian writers willing to explore these less fortunate aspects of their culture and their history do so out of a very sincere, if sometimes disappointed, love for their country.
Austrian-German is to me more playful and, as you note, more elegant than German-German. Of course you can find plenty of Austrian and German writers who disprove my theory. But in my experience as a translator Austrian-German wears its irony more lightly and its humour is subtler and more biting.
Tess picks up the prize on 24 March in New York, and the author will also be attending. I'm really pleased she's won this honour and I hope the award helps her to find a publisher for this unusual and beautifully written book. 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Lukas Bärfuss: Koala

The German independent publisher Jörg Sundermeier has an interview in Buchmarkt magazine, in which he complains about the quantity and quality of serious book reviews in the German press. Wisely, he admits that he's not the first to do so; I suspect criticizing criticism is like complaining that the youth of today have a short attention span – it's been the done thing since the ancient Greeks. But still, I too have my problems with German literary critics, the main one being that they're still very shy of writing in the first person and thereby admitting that what they're saying is necessarily subjective. The German language allows them to do so, with the indefinite personal pronoun man suggesting a universality that simply can't exist in judging art. I find it dishonest and something approaching arrogant when a critic writes, for example, "Man würde gern die Form dieses Romans zerschlagen, damit seine Figuren und ihre Schöpferin wieder atmen können." Wrong: the critic would like to smash the novel's mould so that its characters and its writer can breathe again, not a non-existent generic reader.

That quote is from a negative review, something not as unusual in the German press as in the Anglophone media, I would say (although Sundermeier complains that there are too many diplomatic pieces that dodge the quality issue). Certainly, it's perfectly fine to trash established writers' work, although I have the feeling debut novelists (and particularly young women) get a little more mollycoddling. I don't have a problem with that, to be honest; why be an arsehole and pick someone's first book apart when you can just refrain from writing about it? But I've been thinking about negative reviews and what to do about them myself, prompted by a friend accidentally pointing me in the direction of a Bret Easton Ellis interview in Vice. Ellis – do you need to know what I think of his writing? No, not relevant – talks about the young generation not being as good as his generation, and calls them "Generation Wuss":
It’s very difficult for them to take criticism, and because of that a lot of the content produced is kind of shitty. And when someone is criticised for their content, they seem to collapse, or the person criticising them is called a hater, a contrarian, a troll.
In a way it’s down to the generation that raised them, who cocooned them in praise – four stars for showing up, you know? But eventually everyone has to hit the dark side of life; someone doesn’t like you, someone doesn’t like your work, someone doesn’t love you back… people die. What we have is a generation who are super-confident and super-positive about things, but when the least bit of darkness enters their lives, they’re paralysed. (...)
I think David Foster Wallace is a complete fraud. I’m really shocked that people take him seriously. People say the same thing about me of course, and I’ve been criticised for saying these things about Wallace due to the very sentimental narrative attached to him since he killed himself.
But it all ties into Generation Wuss and its wussy influence on social media to a degree; if you have a snarky opinion about anything, you’re a douche. To me, that’s problematic. It limits discourse. If you just like everything, what are we going to talk about? How great everything is? How often I’ve pushed the Like button on my Facebook page?
Is it BuzzFeed who said they’re not going to run any negative reviews any more? Really, guys? What’s going to happen to culture then? What’s going to happen to conversation? It’s going to die.
I rarely post negative reviews on love german books, the main reason being that I prefer not to spend more time than necessary on books I don't admire in some way (enjoy would be the wrong word). But I said that I'd read Lukas Bärfuss's Koala after it won the Swiss Book Prize and after a couple of people had enthused about it to me. And it turns out that I didn't admire the book. At the same time, I was reluctant to write about it because it's a novel (or so it says on the cover) about the writer's brother's suicide. And while I haven't noticed a "sentimental narrative" around the book, the very personal subject matter made me think twice. Yet if I'm convinced that criticism can only ever be subjective – until we've agreed on a definition of the perfect novel – then I have to be able to criticize a novel about the writer's brother's suicide. Equally, if the writer had intended his book to be an entirely private matter, he needn't have published it. I'm guessing Bärfuss is not someone who wants to be liked by everybody.

So what happens in Koala? Bärfuss (he has given an interview saying there's no gap at all between his narrator and himself in the book, not unlike Bret Easton Ellis and Patrick Bateman, apparently) sees his brother one last, unspectacular time in their home town and then hears that he's committed suicide. He has trouble dealing with it; there was no note and they weren't close, half-brothers who didn't grow up together. We find out a little about the brother's unspectacular life, an unsuccessful one in conventional terms: he took and sold drugs, collected comics, worked in a homeless shelter. Bärfuss gives us a first tangent by looking at other suicides, then moves on to the next one by investigating his brother's nickname, Koala. We get an imagined story of how he was given it, which then moves on to a long section on the koala itself. This takes us, probably unavoidably, to Australia, with lots of historical imaginings of the first European settlers, based on journals. And then back to his brother's funeral in Switzerland.

Bärfuss has two hypotheses, both of them presented as fact. Firstly that his brother was in some way like a koala: not leaving his home town, ingesting poison, never expending more effort than necessary. OK. He can say that; it's an interesting idea, at least, and seeing as we didn't know the brother we can hardly say it's not the case. Yet to me it seems a little presumptious, perhaps even downright rude, to assume that the childhood nickname stuck because the kids who gave it to him knew he was going to become that way as an adult, or even that the kids were doing anything more than picking on him. Or is the idea that the nickname acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy? I'm not quite sure; I don't think the idea is expanded fully. Either way, what we're getting is Bärfuss's view of his brother, very possibly ignoring aspects of his life of which he wasn't aware; his job, for instance, isn't really explored. Perhaps because Bärfuss didn't consider it prestigious or productive? And yet he was actually helping others directly, in a way that writers can only do obliquely.

The second hypothesis goes further. Bärfuss decides, in the course of his research into Australia and suicide, that society rejects suicide because it removes the individual from the work force. We all have to work, so (Calvinist? Swiss?) society tells us – so Bärfuss tells us – and anyone opting out of that cycle is harming society. The writer presents this hypothesis too as though it were fact; he's established it, so it must be true. In my experience, suicide has a different effect, upsets me and makes me personally angry for a different reason. It feels like a rejection, like someone is saying: none of you could help me and I don't care enough for you to spare you my death; you go on living and taking responsibility for others, I'm leaving you behind to miss me. It feels like someone is ending their own pain and by doing so inflicting pain on others. It makes me angry and upset not because suicides are refusing to participate in productive work – there are plenty of people who do that while still alive – but because they're deliberately taking themselves away from their friends and family. Perhaps I'm confusing my dislike of critics' pretense at objectivity with the author's here; perhaps a novel is allowed to do that. Still, I don't have to like it.

A few other things prevented me from admiring Koala. The material on Australia, while fascinating in its way, went too far beyond the koala for my taste. It felt like the writer was veering very far afield and it took a sharp manoeuvre to get back on track. And then there's the language. Particularly at the beginning, Bärfuss uses very old-fashioned sentence structure and word choice, almost harking back to Thomas Mann with all his jeners and vornehmlichs and – oh yes – mans, his free indirect speech. Again, a matter of taste; it's not to mine and it made the narrator seem strangely removed and arrogant, prevented empathy. Towards the end, then, Bärfuss tends towards pathos. Both leave the door wide open for cliché.

And then there's what I experienced as intellectual arrogance, most notably at either end of the book. The novel opens with the narrator being invited to hold a talk about a German poet who committed suicide. Neat bracket, OK. But Bärfuss never mentions the writer's name, assuming we'll know he's referring to Heinrich Kleist. Because of course his readers will know instantly who he's talking about, unlike his brother, who showed no interest in attending the talk. And then at the end he describes the funeral and a song played there, again giving us enough clues to work out it's Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" but not saying so outright. Why do that? Why not just tell us? It made me angry, and it made me feel that the narrator hadn't lost any of his arrogance in the course of the book – although why should he?

To round it off, the book ends with what I experienced as a cheap punchline. Having celebrated the rebellious art of not working (in his view), the author drives home, sits down at his desk and starts working. It all made me say a loud "huh". And that's what the whole book felt like to me. One big "huh". Having admired Bärfuss's Hundert Tage enormously, I was all the more disappointed.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Chamisso Prize to Fatah, Grjasnowa, Kordic

Literary award of the day number two is the Chamisso Prize, which goes to "authors writing in the German language whose literature is affected by cultural changes". They changed the definition in 2012, apparently, and again I didn't notice; it was previously awarded to writers who wrote in German but had a different native language. I'm pleased they've made the change. Very pleased, in fact, because I hope it will shift the conversation from the lazy "So you grew up speaking Bulgarian, huh? How did you end up falling in love with German?" to something more interesting and possibly less pigeon-holing. 

Anyway, this year the main prize goes to Sherko Fatah. Hooray! Martin Chalmers' English version of The Dark Ship comes out from Seagull Books next month and you should definitely read it. Very exciting and political and well written. Some cultural changes occur. Fatah gets a nice €15,000 prize and will no doubt take place in the award's excellent programme in schools and elsewhere.

They have two prizes for emerging writers, which they've awarded this year to Olga Grjasnowa (All Russians Love Birch Trees, tr. Eva Bacon) and Martin Kordic (Wie ich mir das Glück vorstelle). I bet they're both happy about getting a €7000 boost to their bank accounts.

I'm happy too. 

Droste Prize to Schalansky and Präauer

Today is obviously literary awards day out there in German literature-land. Number one is the Droste Prize of the Town of Meersburg. It's awarded every two years to outstanding women writers, and I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never noticed it existed until today.

According to the trade mag Börsenblatt, this year's main prize goes to Judith Schalansky, whose novel The Giraffe's Neck you can read in Shaun Whiteside's translation. The judges praised the versatile and radical nature of her work, which stretches between writing and graphic design, very nicely showcased in her Atlas of Remote Islands. Schalansky is also in charge of a very attractive mini-imprint for the indie publishers Matthes & Seitz, Naturkunden. She gets €6000 and a slap-up meal.

They also have a junior prize worth €4000, which this year goes to Teresa Präauer. Hooray! Sadly you can't get either of her books in English. Boo!

The award honours Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, obviously, a nineteenth-century poet whose work I have not read.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Greta Kuckhoff

Moby Lives alerted me to a fascinating article on the BBC website by the grandson of James Murphy, the translator behind one of the first unexpurgated English versions of Mein Kampf. John Murphy writes about his grandfather's motivations, which were essentially to assure that people understood the threat that Hitler presented. He also mentions Murphy's assistant, Greta Lorcke, who in 1937 became Greta Kuckhoff. As the article reveals, Greta was a member of the resistance organization the Nazis dubbed the "Red Orchestra", and had her own reasons for getting involved in the translation. You can read a brief biography here.

I was excited to read the English side of the story, because I've long been interested in what happened at the Berlin end. I have Greta Kuckhoff's 1972 autobiography, Von Rosenkranz zur Roten Kapelle, although it's been years since I read it. But one page is turned over in my edition, and that's p. 180, in case you're interested – it was a hit in the GDR and second-hand copies are available cheap. Anyway, on that page Greta Kuckhoff introduces the Irish translator "Mr. M." She gives us some detail on his previous work:
I knew that Mr. M. has translated Planck into English. He was said to have a rare ability to bring shine even to such dry texts through his unusually abundant vocabulary and linguistic beauty.
Mr. M. was looking for someone to help him with his translations, preparing rough drafts that he would finish and polish. She began with articles and speeches, which she tried to translate in such a way as to make them less impressive:
No one could hold it against me that my English was not as good as my Irish client's, who made even stupid nonsense sound good. Who could have blamed me that the endings were usually lifeless and not the climax like in the original?
She used the work to gain insights into Nazi institutions, and shared the information on political tendencies she reaped from them with her friends. Then Mr. M. asked her to help him with Mein Kampf. Greta went to Arvid Harnack (not exactly a "Soviet contact" as described in Murphy's article) to talk her decision over. She writes that Harnack, one of the key figures in the resistance group, wasn't initially convinced the translation would further their cause. Kuckhoff writes:
Although I could understand that further distribution of this terrible book, which Hitler wished to be "the bible of the German Volk", was certainly not our task, our friends had to appreciate that all decent people would summon up only disgust for this awful piece of writing, unabridged.
"No one," I argued, "will forgive us if we don't do everything to make the full truth available."
Could anyone believe it would be fun for me to spend my time with this book dripping with toxic racism, with hate for other peoples?
There followed, coincidentally or not, a tea party at the Harnacks' apartment with a man from the Soviet embassy, whose identity wasn't revealed until he'd left. Not a word was spoken about politics, apparently.
Kuckhoff began work on Mein Kampf shortly after that, according to her memoir.
The material Mr. M. had prepared, which I had in front of me, was of such excellent quality that one could only sense the semi-literacy if one compared it with the original. Mr. M. was not only a well-read natural scientist; his knowledge of history was also broad, and there was barely any literary work from which he, gifted with a phenomenal memory, could not quote. All this, however, aided a bad thing. I tried to convince him that the work would lose its "primitiveness", its "common touch", if he put too much of his knowledge into it. I wanted it to be understood in its shameless demagoguery. My objections were not always effective.
In her autobiography, Kuckhoff puts events in a slightly different order to Murphy's version – although we shouldn't forget that it was written in the GDR, or that people's memories can be unreliable. According to the book, at any rate, she read the Soviet ambassador to London Maiski's memoir at a later date and found the anecdote Murphy mentions about Lloyd George being unaware of Hitler's true intentions due to reading an abridged Mein Kampf. The Red Orchestra's contacts to the Soviet Union were fairly limited, I believe, although the Nazis claimed otherwise, so Murphy's father's line "So the Russians had said to Greta, 'You must help this man - get this into English!'" doesn't quite ring true to me.

Whatever the case, Kuckhoff's motivations are clear – like James Murphy, she wanted the English-speaking world to understand Hitler's intentions and the threat he presented. She doesn't seem to have known whether the version she worked on was ever published, at least not in 1972. Presumably she wasn't credited in the publication (female "helpers" rarely were, in many cases). One of the things I find most interesting is that she argued, for political reasons, for what we might now call a "foreignizing" translation. She wanted to retain the book's rough character rather than adjusting it to the English readership's perceived tastes by adding explanations, as Mr. M. seems to have preferred. Perhaps I'm stretching the point, but to me Greta Kuckhoff has always been a quiet role model. She was courageous and stood up for her ideals, and she tried to translate faithfully a hateful piece of demagogy so that the world would see its true nature.