Thursday, 21 May 2015

Women in Translation Update

Things are ticking over in the world of thinking about how and why women writers are underrepresented in translation, and how to change the situation. We had a panel on the subject at the London Book Fair in April. The video isn't online yet but I'll add it to this post when it is.

Then there was a panel in New York called “Who We Talk About When We Talk About Translation: Women’s Voices”. I've linked to the video, and Susan Bernofsky also wrote about the event at Translationista. There's some useful statistical material compiled for the event on the basis of the Three Percent data on translations published in the US, available online at Women in Translation.  In addition, Margaret Carson also provided these figures:
Of the titles in English translation last year: 
19% are by women authors translated by women (WA - WT)
13% are by women authors translated by men (WA - MT)
25% are by men authors translated by women (MA - WT)
43% are by men authors translated by men (MA - MT)
 Of the titles in translation by women authors: 
60% were translated by women, 40% by men
Of the titles in translation by men authors:
63% were translated by men, 37% by women
Very soon afterwards, Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio posted her own statistics on the US and some thoughts on what on earth is going on – plus some useful advice on what individuals can do about it. Interesting observations: in the US, the balance is better in poetry, and women don't actually dominate as translators.

I'm still interested in finding information on the gender balance in literary publications in other countries, but am finding it tough. So far, I have no reliable information on Germany, for instance, but I do have this article that I can't read on the Netherlands. The piece has statistics on literary fiction by women and men, saying that in 2012, only 35% of publications in this sector were written by women (about the same ratio as award nominations for women). That's not all that useful if we want to include "genre fiction" in our considerations, or indeed overcome these stupid categories in the first place. It also says something about books authored by women making up 51% of sales revenue. I think.  

So what I think we're looking at is an accumulation of biases. Sexism is a thing all over the world, with different faces in different countries and cultures. If we're honest we have to admit that women aren't being published as widely as men in many places, but we can also see that of those fewer published women writers, fewer are being translated into English. Because they're not thought of as appealing to a perceived readership, because they're not getting critics' attention, because they're not winning prizes, because they're not going on international residencies, because because because. But if we bear in mind that Amazon Crossing is the only US publisher to do more books by women than by men, we can assume the bias is not because they're selling fewer books.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Dead Ladies Show Tonight

Dear all,

Tonight is our first ever Dead Ladies Show at ACUD. Please come. It will be partly an excuse to get dressed up (optional) and partly an excuse to celebrate women who were wonderful (mandatory) and have a great night out (you know you want to), with dancing (ditto).

Daniela Dröscher, Florian Duijsens and I will be sharing our love for the actress Pola Negri, journalist and writer Dorothy Parker, and writer Irmgard Keun. Then there'll be dancing. And martinis. 

See you there,


Friday, 15 May 2015

Prizes, Nominations!

So many prizes! Here's a little catch-up.

First off, the Gutekunst Prize for Young Translators (from German to English) has gone to Sophie Duvernoy, a New York writer, editor and translator. Congratulations on getting that "wow factor" down!

Then there's the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize, sort of a grown-up version for actually published books translated out of German, and that will be awarded to Catherine Schelbert for her rendering of Swiss writer Hugo Ball's "rollicking, zany, melancholy story of about the rise and fall of a troupe of performers in the louche world of cafés, taverns, nightclubs, and vaudeville theaters in a Switzerland where the Great War is only a distant rumble," Flametti, or The Dandyism of the Poor. Congratulations go to Schelbert in Switzerland!

And then we have the nominations for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, an award for literary translations from any living European language into English. The eight nominated translators include two from German: Susan Bernofsky for Jenny Erpenbeck's novel The End of Days and Anne Stokes for Sarah Kirsch's poetry collection Ice Roses. I'm pleased for them because this is one of those prizes where everyone's a winner, celebrated all together at Oxford Translation Day.

I have a feeling I may have forgotten something.

Thursday, 14 May 2015


A while ago, I was thinking (aloud) about page-to-stage adaptations of German novels, a fairly popular phenomenon, and about ownership of texts and how writers (and their descendants) react to meddling by translators and directors. And now there's a symposium in Berlin on this very subject: RealFiktionen. Last night I went along to the second of their three events, excited to see my friends, the writers Deniz Utlu and Olga Grjasnowa, talking about their experiences of having their novels adapted for the stage.

The evening began, however, with Wolfram Lotz and Hannes Becker, two young men who've been getting a whole lotta hype recently. And they were sexy and silly and made all the girls laugh, but I found they tested the patience of the older members of the audience, myself included, who seemed to have a different sense of comic timing, let's say. Still, I did actually love, love, love their 27 Demands for The Theatre, for its almost achievable utopianism and for addressing the horribleness of hierarchies. (I recently spent a day in a foreign country with some German theatre people, purely by coincidence, and was amazed that the dramaturg ("the guy who re-writes the plays," said the electrician) refused to sit at the same table as the technical staff and didn't exchange a single word with them. What an idiot.)

And then came the podium discussion with Olga and Deniz and the directors Nurkan Erpulat and Hakan Savaş Mican, who are staging their respective novels at the Maxim-Gorki-Theater (which the NY Times says is "leading an immigrant vanguard", but hey, I suppose they have to write something eye-catching in the headlines, even if it makes you feel like you're stranded in the seventies). And the discussion, while it could have been tighter, was interesting for several reasons.

First of all, the writers were both totally laid-back about having their novels adapted. Maybe because they know the directors and trust them, or maybe because they recognize that the stage versions are going to be radically different to the originals anyway and so can relax into the whole experience. Olga Grjasnowa actually said she prefers the play of her first novel to the book; there's one scene that simply works better, for her. Novels are finite, nailed down to the page and can't be changed, while plays can come out differently at every performance, have the potential for constant evolution. I don't know whether that means constant enhancement; I can imagine there are nights when the actors are more jaded than others, but what do I know. And she pointed out that publishing a novel means surrendering control over its interpretation because every reader understands it differently; writers can only hope readers will even finish their books. Plus, the editor and the publisher and even/especially the sales reps have the power to cut entire characters and plot strands (although maybe that changes as writers become more established and have greater punching power). So a director reaching in and wrenching out the "soul" of your novel, as Hakan Savaş Mican put it, is only one in a long line of interventions.

Interestingly, Deniz Utlu sees things differently when he writes directly for the stage, because there he has more of a vision for his work in the context. But everyone on the panel agreed that there are two huge differences between page and stage: time and space. In a novel, everything happens in the reader's imagination and a writer can slow down or speed up time, focus on a hummingbird's wings for two pages or have characters age within a paragraph. And theatre in particular has to find a way to compensate for that. The example given was Elyas and his Uncle Cemal in Utlu's Die Ungehaltenen, who in the novel meet up over and over and sit and drink tea in companionable silence – something the director said he doesn't want to recreate in real time (Lotz and Becker might, though), so he has to condense those encounters, which are important for the respective characters.

And the space element is the fact that there are real people up there acting things out, moving closer and further away from each other and the audience. What they didn't mention was sound; I think music is not unimportant either, but maybe that's more of a film thing. Or lighting, or stage design and costumes. What I didn't realize is how theatre people go about making novels into plays, sometimes: according to Nurkan Erpulat they all read the book (actors and designers and directors and assistants; Lotz and Becker say the technical staff do/should too, but maybe they don't, I don't know) and then they go into a rehearsal space together and think about how to make a play out of it, and only after a few weeks does anything get written down, I think by the dramaturg but I'm not sure, and even then that initial version is still very flexible. 

It was fun to listen to directors talking; they seem to be a different species to writers. At one point Nurkan Erpulat pretended to be a moderator, intoning an inane but not uninteresting question into the microphone, and the best moment of all was when Hakan Savaş Mican proclaimed it impossible to adapt a novel for the stage. I'm very much looking forward to his production of Deniz Utlu's novel now, what with my translator's realistic love for performing impossible feats.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Alfred Döblin Prize to Natascha Wodin

The Döblin Prize is an award for as yet unpublished prose, launched by Günter Grass. It happens every two years in the form of a whole day of readings, each followed by discussions. In the past, this event has been by invitation only but this year – whether because Günter's not here to tell anyone off or for other reasons – it was open to the public. That was a good thing.

I was party to an invitation to the two previous competitions, so I can compare. Previously, there was a small audience of critics and editors, publishing people. There was lunch in the middle and a barbecue in the afternoon and there was stilted smalltalk during the breaks. This time the audience was slightly larger, although not huge because the train drivers were on strike, which made getting to the Literary Colloquium tricky. Plus, you really have to be keen to attend a day of readings from 10 in the morning to 6 in the evening. Another thing: there were far fewer critics this time. Maybe they were offended at having their privileges taken away.

The idea of the format is to re-create a workshop atmosphere, in a kind of homage to the Gruppe 47, with people asking questions of the writers and offering praise and criticism. So there were six finalists, four of whom I saw. Their manuscripts were at various stages, some unfinished and open-ended, others with looming publication dates. I was most impressed by Sascha Reh, who read from his forthcoming novel Gegen die Zeit. But then, I've actually read the whole of that manuscript and I really like it – set in 1973 Chile, it asks all sorts of questions about politics, national identity and computing. All the other finalists were female, which is a good thing considering that the award has only ever gone to three women since 1979, and made it look very far removed from a Gruppe 47 workshop.

The great thing about allowing the plebs public to attend was that, after a while at least, non-critics joined in the conversation. So that when one of the judges, Sigrid Löffler, commented that novels reflecting on history are patronizing and that everyone knows all about 1977 and 1973, the sparks really started flying and countless people pointed out that she was talking nonsense. Novels aren't written for critics, or at least I hope not, and why is the third German novel about the end of the Allende government or the second German novel to touch on East German women's relationship to the RAF less relevant than the six thousandth German novel about an old man falling for a younger woman? Who knows, maybe Löffler was getting bored and wanted to play devil's advocate; apparently that was what Grass liked to do too.

What she was fond of, however, was Natascha Wodin's manuscript; she even compared it to Sebald (prompting quite some confused murmuring in the audience – surely the all-powerful Sebald comparison should be used sparingly?). And Wodin did in fact win the €10,000 prize in the end. I wasn't quite as convinced; the book is a biographical project tracing the life of Wodin's mother. Now, I'm certain it will eventually become a fascinating piece of work because Wodin's mother had a fascinating and horrific life, as the daughter of a once-rich family in the Soviet Union, who was brought to Germany as an "Ostarbeiter" – a Nazi euphemism for forced labourers recruited either by violence or under false pretenses, exploited to the utmost in private homes and German industry. What Wodin read was essentially non-fiction with a personal touch; her mother committed suicide when she was only ten or eleven and never told her daughter her story, so we got a lot of general facts in the ten-page extract. And the author seemed almost immune to criticism, shrugging off every question and consideration from the audience. But I'd say that the nature of the book project also almost exempts it from literary criticism; how can anyone suggest changes to a text as highly charged and personal as a book about a real dead mother whose life was ruined by the Nazis? And comparing a text like this to five literary novels seems to me a rather bizarre thing to do.

Which underlines, of course, the absurd nature of literary prizes. Why on earth would anyone have the temerity to proclaim one unpublished manuscript every two years as the best one and give its author a large sum of money? If only it weren't for the fact that Eugen Ruge and Saša Stanišić won the Döblin Prize with two great novels in recent years, going on to pick up the German Book Prize and the Leipzig Book Prize respectively...

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

German Poets and Prizes

The dam has broken and prizes are going to poets! Following Jan Wagner's surprising receipt of the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair after everyone thought even nominating a poet was an act of iconoclastic tokenism, they've gone and done it again. This time it's the Kleist Prize for Monika Rinck. Rinck has published mainly poetry and essays but also some rather odd other things, and you can find quite a lot of her poems in Nicolas Grindell's English translations at no man's land if you click on the first link above.

The Kleist Prize is an interesting one because it's awarded by a different individual every year, to all kinds of writers for their entire work. I kind of like the idea because it means there are no compromises. This year it was the president of the German Academy of Language and Literature, Heinrich Detering, who chose to bestow a big fat €20,000 on Rinck. Hooray!

And then – perhaps less surprisingly – there's another German poet on the poetry shortlist for the Best Translated Book Award: Farhad Showghi for End of the City Map, tr. Rosmarie Waldrop. The winners are announced on 27 May.

Incidentally, Jan Wagner's Regentonnenvariationen made it to number 5 on the Spiegel bestseller list after he won the Leipzig prize and spent several weeks in the charts. That hasn't happened to a poet before; not even Tranströmer after he won the Nobel.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Bookshop Sleepover in Berlin

I got quite excited when I first read this a moment ago, and then I remembered that I'm too old to sleep on the floor. But maybe you're not, so...

They're having a sleepover at the Buchbox bookshop on Helmholtzplatz. They list a number of highlights that you might actually be able to get without sleeping on the floor, such as talking to a bookseller, drinking wine and eating Flammkuchen. But Isabel Bogdan tried it out a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and then that company that is ruining Berlin ran a similar thing at Waterstones in London after a tourist got locked in overnight, so who knows.

It's free, but there is of course a drawback. You have to belong to a thing that calls itself "Yelp Elite" and claims that "it's chic to be elite". I have no idea what this thing is, either because I'm too old to sleep on the floor, or because I don't agree that it's chic to be elite. Very possibly both. If, however, you would like to spend a night sleeping on the floor in the company of people who think it's chic to be elite, you could always sign up very quickly to the Buchbox newsletter via their website, which offers you a chance to win a ticket without signing up to Yelp Elite. Good luck to you.