Friday, 24 April 2015

The Dead Ladies Show

I've been rather busy, had you noticed? Here's one of the things I've been working on.

My friend Florian Duijsens and I have invented The Dead Ladies Show! It's a show about ladies who were really impressive when they were alive but are now dead. We'll be inviting illustrious guests to tell us about dead ladies who have impressed them, to read from their work, show clips from their films, play their music, recite their speeches, put on slide shows of their art, stage parts of their plays, recreate their experiments and generally celebrate them in any appropriate way. Then we'll drink cocktails and dance to music by dead ladies. I'm sure you'll agree this is a very good idea.

Our first Dead Ladies Show involves Florian and myself and the German writer Daniela Dröscher sharing our love for Dorothy Parker, Irmgard Keun and Pola Negri. It's at the delightful ACUD Club on Tuesday, 19 May and you can buy yourself a Martini afterwards because that's what we think Dorothy would have wanted. Or indeed you can buy yourself a Martini before or during she show. DJ Johnny Stardust will spin blues, jazz and country tunes by dead lady musicians.

Here's the Facebook event. Please come along because it will almost certainly be a really excellent night out, and also the best opportunity to get dressed up in a fancy outfit on a Tuesday all month. It costs €4 to get in. And if you have a dead lady you'd like to rave about on stage in Berlin in an entertaining manner - in German or English - do get in touch.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Look Back at London

It was quite the fairytale of a book fair. In the spiffy Victorian palace of consumerism that is Kensington Olympia, the Literary Translation Centre hid round the back, its face streaked with cinders from keeping the fires of international literary transfer burning. With the fat cats away buying and selling rights et cetera, the mice played and played in what seemed like more space than usual, although chairs were at a premium. But we had our own little stage and nice toilets not nearly as frequented as at any other book fair I have ever attended. I didn't have to queue a single time, I kid you not. There was much socializing, some gossiping and some mourning of colleagues lost this past year, the occasional actual meeting – just the typical hard work to which the kitchen maids of the publishing world are accustomed.

And then came the big night. Our heroine had packed a party gown in a nutshell, so as to change out of her rags for the big ball. Heads turned as she made her entrance, conversations lulled and the like, but then Eugen Ruge distracted everyone at the ambassador's ball by talking about politics, literature and families pre- and post-89. There followed the usual spread of hazelnut-encrusted treats on trays, when lo and behold, three fairy godmothers in the guise of foreign rights ladies whisked our heroine away in a shiny black coach to an establishment in an Earl's Court basement.

There was a band playing, a raggle-taggle group of beasts who had escaped, at least temporarily, from the publishing industry and set out to play music and find something better than death. And that they did. There was some excellent guitar and a saxophone played so enthusiastically that its clip-on microphone fell off twice over. And the singing! The magic fairy dust apparently sprinkled in the ambassador's lemonade prompted our heroine to be a tiny bit over-critical when talking to one of the amazing singers in the break. What she meant to say was, please play more soul and blues and less Fleetwood Mac, because you really rock the soul and blues with your amazing vocals and I don't like Fleetwood Mac but I am having a bizarre but lovely time nonetheless. Tragically, though, our tongue-tied heroine heard the clock striking eleven. Eleven, you say? To which I reply: eleven, if you happen to be staying with your mum at the very end of the Central Line and then have to catch a bus from the station. The noble partygoers no doubt whispered amongst themselves, wondering who the mysterious unknown woman in the vintage-look Belgian dress was who had to leave so suddenly and smiled so beatifically when the barman tried to short-change her.

As she tripped outside, our heroine found her shiny black carriage had vanished and so she stumbled onto a Picadilly Line train. The night was so late that it even stopped at Turnham Green, followed by a trundling bus journey edging her further and further away from the dizzying lights of the international publishing industry cover band, past scores of fried chicken retailers puzzlingly restyled as "Peri Peri chicken" shops and the all-night supermarket that boasts Halal meat and Polish bread under one roof, surely something found in neither Warsaw nor Medina.

Oddly, our heroine didn't lose her shoe until two days later, at which point a friendly ice-cream man at Marble Arch magically produced a tube of superglue to stick the heel back on. But he wasn't much of a prince and she had a birthday party to go to.      

Monday, 13 April 2015

Anne Weber: Ahnen


In Ahnen, Anne Weber attempts to write a biography of her great-uncle, Florens Christian Rang, whom she renames “Sanderling” after the bird that follows the tidal line on French beaches. Her subject studied law and began a career in the civil service before becoming a Protestant pastor near Poznan in modern-day Poland, at that time part of Prussia. He then abandoned the church and wrote an angry “reckoning with God”. Rang was a friend and contemporary of several great early-twentieth-century thinkers, including Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Martin Buber and Walter Benjamin, and his papers are now in the Benjamin archive in Berlin. This does not, however, result in a straightforward biography.

As the subtitle suggests (“a time-travel journal”), one of Weber’s problems is that her forefather lived from 1864 to 1924, requiring a significant mental leap to understand his personality and motivations. From the beginning, it's clear that the main hurdle to be breached is German history since his death, summed up in a single word alluded to but not printed in the book until the very last pages: Auschwitz. Did Sanderling lay the ground for the Holocaust through his part in “Germanizing” Poland, however minor that role may have been? Or did his friendships with Jews make him a counterexample to those Germans who went along with the Nazis? 

Significantly, Sanderling’s son – Anne Weber’s grandfather – was one of these opportunists during the “Third Reich”. As she continues her research, Weber tells her own story of a grandfather she never met, because he refused to acknowledge his son’s illegitimate daughter. While reluctant to conform to clichés – “Should I perhaps write the hundred thousandth Nazi grandfather or father story?” – she obtains his files and establishes that he was friendly with the SS and built a good career as a librarian, compiling political reports on books to be banned. Almost as importantly, he wrote poorly and smoothed over his father’s faults.

In Sanderling’s notes for his “reckoning with God”, Weber is shocked to come across a description of a visit to a mental institution, where her forefather asks aloud, “Why don’t you poison these people?” Conscious that any quote must be seen in its full context, she reproduces a long passage from the original. Despite all her attempts to understand the man, she cannot help but draw a direct line from this question to the Nazis’ campaign of murdering the mentally ill, and the question is repeated at various points in the book as it comes up in her mind. Weber visits memorial sites where the mentally ill were gassed, including the concentration camp in Poznan. Eventually, she concludes that there is a difference between asking a question and putting it into practice. Yet the existence of the question seems to show that history is a matter of continuity and that ideas do not come out of nowhere.
 
By the end of the book, Weber has moved from fascinated admiration for her unknown great-grandfather via horror at some of his ideas to a more realistic viewpoint based on wide reading and conversation with friends and relatives. While there is no room for hero-worship, she still admires his passion and lack of conformity. The final section consists of a long description of a research trip to Poland, visiting the village where Sanderling preached and once again adjusting her image of him. And then comes a beautifully written closing passage depicting All Saints’ Day in Warsaw; a magnificent and thoughtful climax. 

The book is written in loose journal form, in the first person throughout. We follow Weber’s research chronologically but she frequently interjects references to literature and philosophy, from Nietzsche to Sebald to Susan Sontag and André Stasiuk. All of the book is very personal, detailing conversations with Polish, French and Jewish friends and with her father and reflecting on what it means to be German. And the final passage samples Weber’s outstanding descriptive skills to great advantage. I felt it was a very wise choice to close the book not with a summary or a personal statement, but with a beautiful evocation of people honouring their dead. 

This is an extremely original and intelligent piece of writing, going far beyond the popular “Nazi grandfather story”.  At times I was reminded of Lydia Davis and Lisa Appignanesi, perhaps by the very subjective and intelligent way of writing. I found it thought-provoking and revealing, and ultimately also very moving. And look, you can read a sample from the book, in my translation, courtesy of Fischer Verlage.  

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Lazy

It's the school holidays this week, which makes me instantly relaxed and slows me down. Rather a blissful state, to be honest. And next week I'm going to London to do three things:

First of all there's a one-day event called Translating Around the World at the Society of Authors, on Monday. It's sold out though, so I'll see you if I see you. I'm going to be on a panel about continuing education for established translators, with Ros Schwartz and Sarah Ardizzone.

Then on Monday evening I'm holding a (cough) "masterclass" at the London Review Bookshop, called Spot the Translation. That's sold out too, apparently. Which is nice.

And after that it's the London Book Fair, where I'll be having a lovely time all round, I hope, and also taking part in a panel called Where Are the Women Writers in Translation? on the Thursday, with Joanna Walsh, AM Bakalar and Carmen Boullosa.

So I'm probably not going to blog.

Erpenbeck/Bernofsky, Kehlmann/Brown Janeway Shortlisted, Brambach/Kinsky, Showghi/Waldrop Longlisted

Lists! The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist is out, and features Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days, translated by Susan Bernofsky, and Daniel Kehlmann's F, translated by Carol Brown Janeway. Guess which one's my favourite?

And also the American sort of equivalent, the Best Translated Book Award, has announced its longlists. No German writing on the fiction list, but two titles on the poetry longlist (if anyone runs a blog called Love French Books, they'll be really pleased about both lists, though): Collected Poems by Rainer Brambach, translated by Esther Kinsky, and End of the City Map by Farhad Showghi, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop.

Congratulations to all the nominees!




Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Ocelot Reopens

My favourite bookshop has opened up again, as of today. It's all looking strangely neat and tidy but it's still ocelot, despite having closed for several weeks (prompting waves of melancholy every time I walked past, which was fairly often).

Trade mag Börsenblatt revealed last week that the insolvent business has been bought by a company that runs four other bookshops in Germany and isn't planning to change much at all. There were plenty of people in there earlier today, browsing and drinking coffee and chatting and ordering books, which made me very happy. I hope we can look forward to more of ocelot's likeable events in the future.

If you happen to be in Berlin-Mitte, why not pop in? It's not so often you see an ocelot that's risen from the ashes.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Some More Statistics on Translated Fiction

As you may know I'm part of a team trying to get a prize off the ground for fiction by women in translation. We've all noticed that books by women don't get translated as often as books by men, and we're still puzzling over why that is and what can be done about it. But in order to make our case more convincingly, we need some statistics. 

So for that purpose, I’ve done a count of books published in the UK and Ireland in 2013. I culled the main part from the British Library catalogue by searching with “translated by” and “translated from” and “2013”. Because we want to look at fiction in a fairly limited sense for our prize, I didn’t include children’s or YA books, poetry, plays, reprints/reissues or memoir/literary non-fiction (for example, Florian Illes’ 1913 is not included). I did include books published by houses based elsewhere but with a UK/Ire office (Seagull, Dalkey Archive, Europa Editions). It was immediately obvious that there were some titles missing, so I also looked at those catalogues I found online for 2013 from publishers that were already on the list, plus things like an English PEN blog piece featuring UK editors talking about the translations they were looking forward to publishing in 2013. I’m certain there are still gaps in the list, but here it is:

List of UK/Ireland-published translated fiction, 2013

There are now 307 books in total, 82 of them written by women (in the case of anthologies, they all included more men than women so I counted them as male). That gives us a figure of 27%.

I also went through the stats collected by Literature Across Frontiers, on translated literature published in the UK and Ireland in the years 2000 and 2008. This data is different to my list for a number of reasons: It includes children’s books, translated books on literature, poetry, plays, reissues and a few duplicates like large-print editions. For our purposes, I only listed each name once, even when a writer had several books out in one year, and I didn’t include writers where I was unable to establish via a quick search whether they were men or women. I also left out Latin, ancient Greek, Old Norse and Old English, because I figured women really couldn’t write in those days.

For both years, 24% of the authors whose books were translated into English were women.

Here are a few observations I’ve picked up along the way:

Women writers are better represented in translated children’s books and crime fiction.
Northern European women are better represented than women writers from other parts of the world.
In 2013, I found no translated fiction by Russian women but all three Greek writers I found were women.
In the literatures that are traditionally more heavily imported, 13 women were translated from German (out of 44), 12 from French (out of 52), 7 from Italian (out of 28) and 6 from Spanish (out of 25). Yay German!
Classics tend to be a male-only domain (no surprises there).

I haven’t found any international statistics on books originally published in the various languages. My assumption though is that the imbalance in part reflects that women are actually published less in certain cultures. However, they are also less recognized in most literary cultures (as in the Anglophone world), which adds to the imbalance.

I'd like to ask people, translators and publishing people especially, to take a look at my list via the first link above and check whether there are any books missing. You can let me know in the comments section. Many thanks - and enjoy browsing!