Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast

As you no doubt know, Birgit Vanderbeke’s novella The Mussel Feast is shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, in Jamie Bulloch’s translation. It was first published in German in 1990, and apparently can be read as an allegory for the collapse of the East German state. I know that because the text is standard reading at high-school level, so there is plenty of material available on it. Also, Lizzy’s Literary Life has interviews with the author, the translator and the publisher, Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press, which I found very interesting.

I read the book in a couple of hours, and you should set aside an afternoon to read it in one go – although not more, as it’s only 100 pages long. The reason being that the outstanding thing about the novella is the way it builds tension. We begin with an apparently nondescript family awaiting the father’s return home from a business trip. What makes them stand out is that they’re originally from East Germany and left for the West – presumably before the border was closed in Berlin, although this wasn’t quite clear to me. And the mother makes mussels because that’s what the father likes best, although at the beginning neither mother nor daughter “much care for them”.

But the father doesn’t turn up and his wife, son and daughter end up criticizing first the mussels, which they admit to finding disgusting as the evening proceeds, and then the authoritarian father. The details of his iron rule emerge in a long monologue narrated by the 18-year-old daughter, and the tense atmosphere as they get drunk waiting for his dreaded return is wonderfully rendered. I admired the way Bulloch kept the weighty feeling of Vanderbeke’s original long sentences, without keeping quite all the length – that’s a tricky thing to do. I think there are times when it’s important to keep German sentences at their death-defying lengths in translations, but here readability came first. That seems like a wise choice.

In the end we witness a turning point, the kind that makes you jump because the tension is so high. Vanderbeke won the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for the piece, her debut. What troubled me, however, was that I found the characters rather one-dimensional. Perhaps more nuanced characters would weigh down a short text unnecessarily – or perhaps the allegory is something that requires one-dimensional characters. If it worked for Brecht, maybe it works for Vanderbeke too. The allegorical reading is rather imposed upon us by the jacket copy:
'I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.' Birgit Vanderbeke
Sadly, I found the story – or perhaps the comparison – rather too simple and almost patronising in the light of all we know about the complexities of the East German revolution, almost twenty-five years on. I think I'd have enjoyed it more at face value.

I certainly don’t regret reading the book, though, and I wish the team behind it well for the big prize.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Daniel José Older on Diversity in Publishing

The American writer Daniel José Older has a depressing and inspiring piece at Buzzfeed about race, power and publishing in the U.S. Read it. He writes about the hurdles authors of colour have to jump to get published in America's white, middle-class dominated industry, about agents and editors who "can't relate" to characters who look different to them, about how an amorphous entity called The Market is blamed for the homogeneity of what gets into print. There are a lot of paragraphs that got my blood pumping (as did Older's great stories about working as a paramedic), but this is the one that made me think the most about the situation here in Germany:
We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism. To go beyond this same conversation we keep having, again and again, beyond tokens and quick fixes, requires us to look the illness in the face and destroy it. This is work for white people and people of color to do, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It’s work for writers, agents, editors, artists, fans, executives, interns, directors, and publicists. It’s work for reviewers, educators, administrators. It means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines.
So I'm thinking about diversity in German publishing, and remembering an article I wrote a few years ago about how the portrayal of "ethnic" characters in German literature is left up to writers with first-hand experience and whether that matters or not (I'm still not sure but I'd write that article differently now), and remembering a panel discussion on "the problem with homosexuality" and a recent publishing party, at which a couple of friends and I tried and failed to come up with a list of successful gay writers in German (it was towards the end of the evening – and define "successful" – but still). And of course I'm remembering the recent debate about the class backgrounds of Germany's creative writing students, which I felt hugely missed the point, possibly because Germans are not as willing to utter the word "class" as the British, for example.

I know too little about America but here's the thing about Germany: it is a country with extremely poor social mobility. The education system and the way the working world is structured mean that if you're born disadvantaged in some way, you're likely to stay that way. That's why it was a no-brainer for me that the kids who study creative writing at university level are from wealthier backgrounds. But here's the thing about publishing: you don't need a qualification to write a good book. Now I'm aware that publishing as an industry is more interested in making a profit than in making the world a better place. And individual publishing gatekeepers probably do unconsciously follow that behavioural pattern, at least some of the time, that keeps women out of positions of power: this person is like me, so I will support them; this person is not like me, so I will not actively support them. Call it human nature, call it the old boys' network, call it discrimination. However you refer to it, it makes the books that end up on shelves less diverse and, yes, to me, more boring – how many books in one season can be about aging white men lusting after younger women? A lot.

I was pleased when Hanser's new head Jo Lendle said he wants to publish more women, and I hope he and other gatekeepers, and you and I, can try harder to make publishing not only fairer but also more interesting. There is room for improvement.
  

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Reasons to be Proud of Fellow Translators, Part 1

My friend and fellow translator Tom Morrison sent me this, and I share his sentiments: 

Ceremonial presentation of the Tarabaya awards for Turkish-German translation in the flash new Turkish embassy building in Tiergartenstrasse in Berlin on 12 February 2014. The traditional Turkish music is lovely, the speeches for the most part less tedious than one has come to fear, the black-suited diplomats on the whole professional and smooth. A placard from the Turkish board of tourism reminds us (just in case anyone was wondering) that there is nary a cloud on the horizon, Istanbul's Taksim Square a distant, irksome, dream. A grand bunch of prizewinners, and you admire them all. They tell their own stories as they talk about the stories they translate.

And then, introduced with affectionate aplomb by Joachim Sartorius, Sezer Duru -- bright face, big hair, words of thanks concise and clear as she talks about a career that began in the 1960s. And by the way, she casually winds up, it's time that Turkey installed the rule of law. It's an utter disgrace that XX has been in jail for the past four years just for translating such and such, or that XX was imprisoned for writing an article on this, that and the other. (To my own shame I can supply neither names nor titles.) The diplomatic smiles suddenly look frozen. Did I hear a pin drop? The applause from many members of the audience is notably animated, and you think, not for the first time, that there is reason to be proud of fellow translators.

Do send me other reasons, if you have them.

Friday, 11 April 2014

I Found Inspiration at the London Book Fair

It's counterintuitive, the title of this post. Book fairs are places where publishers go to monetize things. And London is a place where money goes to multiply itself. But at the risk of sounding twee - although I don't care much if I do - I found there were people and projects on the margins that inspired me.

I'd been doing a short publishing-related job that made me unhappy, for various reasons, and I was feeling cynical about the book world, not least because no publisher has had the guts to go for either of the two books I love most in the world right now. And there were moments, I have to admit, that made me despair, like when an Anglophone publisher raved about a German book I think is ridiculous or another publisher was a wet blanket about a German book I really admire, or rights sellers with fabulous books on their lists were exhausted by editors fending them off. Or there was the overheard snippet of a panel when the Daily Mail books editor said something along the lines of "our readers love anything to do with World War II". Or the fact that you couldn't swing a cat without hitting apparently nice people who just happen to work for Amazon. Or all those people who blanked me.

So under normal circumstances, I would probably fly back from the London book fair deeply mired in gloom. But actually I was in the kind of affectionate and forgiving mood that prompted me to be especially kind to the woman on her first ever shift at the airport food outlet, who took ten minutes to scan my bottle of Coke. Shall I get round to telling you why that was?

It was because of the Literary Translation Centre. I think it was bigger this year, although there were no free sandwiches but that's OK. It was a wonderful place to bump into friends and colleagues and gossip and talk shop. And it also had a programme of events that was remarkably well put-together. The panels were cleverly composed of people from across the various spectrums - spectra? - so from commercial publishers to shoestring enterprises, from super-experienced translators to just-starting-outers, from newspaper literary editors to feminist poets. There were four events that have left a lasting impression. The first was the first panel of the fair, Meet the Publishers, which feels like a long time ago now but made me think, hey, there are publishers and editors who really want to do translations and are as passionate about this stuff as the rest of us are. Isn't that great? Then there was one about co-translating books, which suddenly made a whole lot of sense to me. Then there was one about translators as agents, which sent out mixed messages. In a nutshell, we learned that editors in houses with even the slightest whiff of commercialism to them will probably not take a translator's advice on fantastic and amazing books they ought to buy, which rather confirms my depressing experiences. On the other hand, people in the more experimental enterprises would prefer recommendations from translators to recommendations from foreign publishers. And if you're good friends with a publisher that helps too. I am not, although I did have a rather dangerous close encounter on the escalators up and down from the International Rights Centre, but that story has been told with much hyperbole elsewhere.

But the number-one inspiring hour at the London Book Fair was Where Are the Women in Translation?  As the chair Sophie Mayer commented, they were pretty much assembled in the Literary Translation Centre at that very moment. The space was packed to the gills with interested women. There is, of course, no shortage of female translators, but as Alison Anderson pointed out last year in Words Without Borders, the Anglophone world falls short when it comes to publishing translated books by women. Anderson was on the panel along with the writer Krys Lee and Jane Bradley of For Books' Sake (would it be lowering the tone here to note that she and Rosie Goldsmith share this year's prize for best book fair outfit?). So there was some talk about what the problem is and what causes it, and some about what we can do about it. What I got out of it was: if women – despite writing more titles, selling more copies and reading more books – get less review coverage and award glory all around the world, then it is up to us to do several things.

Firstly, we can pitch books by women to publishers, who may be less aware of them because of the above problem (although if I put my cynical hat back on for a moment, it's probably not worth doing so with commercial publishing houses). Secondly, we can draw attention to the books by women that do get translated, and I shall try to bear that in mind here. And thirdly, we can praise publishers who are doing it right, like Peirene and Other Press. Well done! (By "we" I mean anyone who cares about the issue, really, and despite the gender breakdown of the event's audience I don't think that's only women.)

What I would like to see is a literary award especially for women in translation. I don't know how to make that happen - and I'm aware that it potentially falls into the tabloids' "black lesbian in a wheelchair" category - but I think if such a thing did exist, it would be good for all of us. It could be coupled with a best practice prize for publishers who showcase diversity, or something along those lines.    

In the meantime, I'm infused with enthusiasm by all the people tweeting on #readwomen2014 and #womenintranslation. And everyone was excited to learn that the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, never won by a woman ever, has a fifty-fifty shortlist.

Here's the thing: commercial publishing is not the kind of place I really want to hang out, but its existence provides the centre to my periphery, if you see what I mean. If there was no London Book Fair there would be no Literary Translation Centre, and if there were no misery memoirs or whatever is selling like hotcakes right now, it would be harder for us to get our hands on Inka Parei's books, for example (assuming we continue to live in a capitalist world). And the margins are the places where the people gather who are motivated by passion and excellence, and those are the people and the projects that inspire me. Thank you.   

Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize

The publishing house Harvill Secker runs an annual award for translators between the ages of 18 and 34, working from a different language every year. And this year it's German! The winner gets a mentorship from top translator Shaun Whiteside and a thousand pounds and what looks like a trip to a festival in Den Haag, which probably makes sense in a way I don't quite grasp.

Funnily enough, to enter you have to translate Julia Franck's short story "Der Hausfreund", which I once translated for fun back when I was (possibly) under 35. It's an inspired choice because it's really difficult. You don't seem to have to come from a particular country but you must not have previously translated more than one full-length work.

It's all pretty darn fantastic, so I expect all you whippersnappers to participate. 



Monday, 7 April 2014

London Book Fair

I am going. It starts tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it.

I might spend a couple of hours counting books about Nazis.


Friday, 4 April 2014

A Speedy List of Recent Favourites

Someone asked on Twitter about tips for contemporary German fiction. I don't know what they want them for but it's hard to put book recommendations into 140 characters. So here's a short and speedy list of books I've loved recently:

Saša Stanišić: Vor dem Fest
Lots of tiny stories in one place

Daniela Dröscher: Pola
1930s movie star, fictionalized

Deniz Utlu: Die Ungehaltenen
Angry young man goes to Turkey

Annett Gröschner: Walpurgistag
So many great characters!

Navid Kermani: Große Liebe
1980s schoolkids meet medieval Persian poetry

Also, I wrote something for New Books in German about the two books I'd most like to translate, for their "translation wishlist" feature.