Sunday, 21 September 2014

On Visibility

Something has been niggling away at me from Friday's symposium. One of the panels was on "Translators' Status and Visibility", and was composed of a newspaper book critic, a publishing house editor and a literary translator. And of course the whole room was full of disgruntled translators, who seemed to feel that critics and editors are to blame for translators' lack of status and visibility in Germany. So that made for a rather difficult discussion, I thought. Because yes, as the critic pointed out, there is less and less space for reviews because, as the editor pointed out, fewer and fewer people are reading literature.

So there were a couple of things that irritated me. The first was the assumption in the room that print critics and editors are the only people with any influence over the public's awareness of translators. As I tried to point out but maybe didn't quite manage, there are other people out there, especially on the internet, who are aware of translators' existence and our work. I'm very grateful to the bloggers and online magazine people and tweeters and all those other people on the (Anglophone) internet who help spread the word about our work. There are too many to mention, and I hope the same thing is or will soon be happening in German. And part b of this section of my complaint is that we translators can also do things ourselves to make ourselves more visible, like the Love Your Translator people and Authors and Translators and all the blogging, tweeting, tumblring individual translators out there. Not just that – we can write translator's notes and articles and essays and we can help publicize our books, we can accompany our writers when they read in our countries, and so on. And these things are happening, much more now than ever before, and we are becoming more visible, in Germany and elsewhere, because we're putting ourselves out there, like with the Weltlesebühne and with translation slams and the Bridge Series and other events revolving around just us.

Having said that, I would like to pick holes in a couple of things the panellists said too, seeing as they can't defend themselves. Except maybe in the comments section.

So the critic said, newspapers don't commission reviews of translated books from non-critics, for example Sinologists for Chinese books, because they want critics to be generalists who can build a bridge to the reader. And that means that most reviewers don't feel qualified to comment on translation quality. And I was just sitting there and thinking, well – as the translator on the panel pointed out – online publications don't have spatial limitations, so if I was running a newspaper (let's call it the Utopian Times) I would commission several reviews of the same book (with my unlimited budget): one by a generalist critic, and others by people who know something specific so they can talk about non-general aspects such as translation, plausibility, etc. The same way they get other authors to write fiction reviews, or cardiologists to review non-fiction books about the heart. I might even commission translators to critique translations, if they were very brave. And in fact I don't see any reason why newspaper editors couldn't do exactly the same thing right now, other than "we don't do it that way". Because there are books that get huge long critiques, those event-type books, and why can't you split that half-page review up into two quarter-pages?

But what really got me worked up was what the publishing house editor said about why they don't put translators' names on book covers very often. The reason, she said, was that readers of genre fiction don't care who translated their book. She justified this statement with the example of a German crime writer with a fake French name and biography but obviously no translator's name in the front of the book, because there wasn't a translator. And she said that nobody noticed, ergo: readers don't care. Now first of all, that's a rather speculative assumption, and there was a suggestion from the critic that devoted readers of crime and fantasy actually are interested in their books' translators. But more importantly: even if readers don't care, why should it bother them if you print the translator's name more prominently? You'd make the translators happier, you might even make us take more pride in our work, and you wouldn't bother the readers because they don't care either way, allegedly.

Anyway, that's been preying on my mind for a couple of days and I haven't had any adult company to unload it on since, so here it is. Things are getting better, most publishers and some reviewers are helping translators to become more visible, which can only improve our status, and most importantly we're becoming more confident in ourselves. Hooray for us.

Update: I ought to point out, this fine Monday morning, that the symposium was very good, and in itself evidence that our status as literary translators is on the up. Firstly because the European Commission asked us to hold a whole symposium at their expense, and secondly because it was very well organized and very interesting.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Stefanie de Velasco: Tiger Milk

A teenage narrator shares her recipe for a good time:

One best friend
One carton milk from the school canteen
One bottle cheap brandy
One carton maracuja juice
One widemouthed container of Müller chocolate milk (empty)
Two pairs stripy stockings
One strawberry-flavoured condom.
Mix with a long finger and consume in Berlin's red-light district. 

Nini and Jameela call it tiger milk and they drink it like it's going out of fashion, while picking up punters on Kurfürstenstraße and fleecing them for less than they're worth, usually. They're fourteen and practicing for when they lose their virginity. It's enough to make a mother's heart stand still, but our heroines' mothers have other worries – something that might be agoraphobia or just plain depression, and in Jameela's case expulsion to Iraq. The girls have been friends and neighbours somewhere in West Berlin since they were kids and now they ponder on whether they're grown up; narrator Nini opens the novel with her first "childhood memory", a gritty moment involving a Barbie doll, a spat-out chewing gum and an unwanted sibling. And if she has a childhood memory, she reasons, she can't be a child any more.

She still is, I would say, although Stefanie de Velasco puts her through all sorts of perilous adventures in her debut Tiger Milk. There's a murder and a magic spell and a love story and a party, and that fun hobby on Kurfürstenstraße turns out to have its down sides, one of the most chilling scenes I've read recently. In essence, though, de Velasco gives us the story of a summer spent at the outdoor pool and the local playground, on the U-Bahn and on the streets of Berlin. There's a defunct phone box that serves as a message board because all the kids carry sharpies, and graffiti is a means of emotional communication. If you liked the film Prinzessinenbad (and who didn't?), you need to read this.

It's a book that inspires adoration, maybe because of Nini's fantastic voice. We read the prizewinning opening chapter when I ran a course on contemporary German writing, and one of the participants was inspired to mix us up a round of tiger milk. It's not bad at all. And one translator friend of mine fell for the novel pretty hard too, but in the end the job of putting it into English went to Tim Mohr. Tim has ended up kind of specialized in books with teenage narrators, after Wetlands, Broken Glass Park and Why We Took the Car, so you can see why that happened. And again, he's done an astounding job. I love the almost unpunctuated rhythm he's got going, and of course the wordplay and just the generally believable tone of a bunch of fourteen-year-old kids. I don't think I could ever aspire to do it. Sometimes it sounds very American for a British publishing house but that seems to me to be absolutely appropriate. But he never irons out the fact that it's all happening in Berlin. I am a fan.

The best thing about Tiger Milk? It's just plain funny. Although these kids are going through fourteen kinds of torture, Stefanie de Velasco never makes victims out of them. It doesn't feel like sociology, the way some German books look down on the poor proletariat; it never gets patronizing. I found myself laughing through my shock all the way through, right to the bitter end. Of all the possible reasons to read it – realistic portrayal of teenage terror, Berlin from below, exhilarating language – that humour would be my killer argument. And yes, someone's writing a screenplay.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

International Translators Day Extravaganzas

There are many, many things going on to mark International Translation Day this year, or Hieronymustag as the less heathen Germans like to call it.

Start the fun in Berlin this Friday, 19 September with an all-day symposium (you can still register until tomorrow). "The translation of literary works is the most complex form of translation. In three panel discussions," (one of them featuring yours truly) "we want to examine various aspects of the profession: How can I become a literary translator? Do I need formal training, how about further education? Is it worth translating literature? What's the situation with recognition for literary translators? What could and ought to change? Are there objective and content-related boundaries to literary translation? How do literary translators deal with apparently untranslatable cultural divergences?"

Then take the plane to London for another all-day fun-fest on Friday, 26 September, this time at the British Library - don't worry, this one also features your favourite blogger on adoring Teutonic literature. "Now in its fifth year, the International Translation Day symposium is an annual event for the translation community. It is an opportunity for translators, students, publishers, booksellers, librarians, bloggers and reviewers to gather and debate significant issues and developments within the sector, to discuss challenges and to celebrate success."

The actual St. Jerome's Day is Tuesday, 30 September. And if you're in one of 17 cities around the world and would like to see a real-live translator actually translating out of German, you're in luck. Because on that day there's a whole programme of translators actually leaving the house and interacting with other human beings:

Amsterdam
Ard Posthuma translating Ulrike Draesner and Jean Pierre Rawie

Bratislava, 6 p.m., Goethe-Institut library, Panenská 33
Zuzana Demjánová translating Katja Petrowskaja into Slovakian

Buenos Aires
Nicolás Gelormini translating Katja Petrowskaja into Spanish

Istanbul
Dilman Muradoğlu translating into Turkish

Cairo, 4 p.m., Goethe-Institut library
Dr. Ola Adel Abdel Gawad translating Jonas Lüscher into Arabic

Kiev (28 September!! 2:30 p.m., Goethe-Institut Ukraine, library, Wul. Woloska 12/4, 04655 Kiev
Nelia Vakhovska translating Robert Walser into Ukrainian

London
Jamie Bulloch translating Nora Bossong into English

Mexico City
Claudia Cabrera translating Arnold Zweig into Spanish

Minsk
Iryna Herasimovich translating into Belorussian

New Delhi
Namita Khare translating Jenny Erpenbeck into Hindi

Beijing (29 September!!)
Huang Liaoyu translating Martin Walser into Chinese

Rio de Janeiro
Marcelo Backes translating Saša Stanišić into Portuguese

Sao Paulo
Petê Rissatti translating Thomas Brussig into Portuguese

Stockholm
Aimée Delblanc translating Katja Petrowskaja into Swedish

Tel Aviv
Daphna Amit translating Jennifer Teege into Hebrew

Tiflis
Anna Kordsaia-Samadaschwili translating into Georgian

Wellington, 4. p.m., National Library of New Zealand
Maike Wetzel translated into English by John Jamieson and then by Ian Cormack into Te Reo Maori

You may not make it to all the events. But make sure you wear a donkey's ear in your buttonhole to remember St. Jerome, who chopped off his donkey's ear to make a bookmark-slash-ink blotter for his bible translation. Hence the German word Eselsohr for when you turn down the corner of a page to keep your place in a book. Jerome knew God would forgive him, and help the donkey to hear with her other ear, because he was doing a very important job that made him immune to purgatorial punishment for cruelty to animals. In days gone by, translators around the world pinned real donkey's ears to their clothing on 30 September but now most of us prefer to use a vegan version.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ten Books I Would Like to Translate

I got tagged, and seeing as I've been obsessively reading and then totally judging everyone by their lists of ten books that changed their lives or whatever it is – jeez, did you stop reading at fifteen; if I hate that book must I now hate you; would you please stop posturing and admit to reading trash now and then; OMG, Jeffrey Archer changed your life, really? – I thought I just wouldn't expose myself to the imagined ridicule of it all. But then I felt bad, so here is my personal cop-out: ten books I would like to translate. Some of them are books that lots of other people would like to translate as well, but I figured this is like fantasy football league, right, so you can just go for ridiculously unlikely things. I know that me translating many of these books, in real life, would piss off other translators, but this isn't real life. Most of the links are to my own reviews.

1. Clemens Meyer: Im Stein
It's just not going away. There's a reason it's at the top of the list.

2. Dorothee Elmiger: Schlafgänger
Actually, if all goes well I will be translating this one.

3. Annett Gröschner: Walpurgistag
Hundreds of voices on one day in Berlin.

4. David Wagner: Leben
Neither fish nor flesh, gorgeously written.

5. Lutz Seiler: Kruso
Except it would be really, really hard.

6. Teresa Präauer: Für den Herrscher aus Übersee
This one has a lot of admirers though, like the Seiler book.

7. Daniela Dröscher: Pola
I'd dress up in evening gowns every day.

8. Anna Seghers: Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen
Surprise! A dead white woman.

9. Selim Özdogan: Die Tochter des Schmieds
An old favourite.

10. Sven Regener: Magical Mystery
Because I translated a sample earlier this year and it was great fun and a real challenge to get the tone right. I saved it up to translate on my birthday. I don't think that's sad, or no sadder than a lot of other things.

If you'd like to join in the melancholy fun, you too could make a list of ten books you'd like to translate. You could put it online and post a link in the comments section. It might go viral and everyone who speaks two or more languages would be doing it.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Lutz Seiler: Kruso

The critics and I and most of my friends who care about these things agree that Kruso is the novel most likely to win this year's German Book Prize. Apparently, unlike Peter Stamm – who I learned recently has actually won something now – Lutz Seiler is a big winner of prizes. I'd be happy if he scooped this one too.

His young hero Edgar Bendler is a student of German literature in East Germany. His girlfriend has died in an accident and he runs away to the Baltic island of Hiddensee, hoping to find a job and a place to live to escape his obsessions. He does, as a dishwasher at the Klausner hotel (meaning: hermit). The work is backbreaking but the crew form a close team, a family. Their unofficial leader is the Kruso of the title, a young Russian by the name of Alexander Krusowitsch. Ed and Kruso become close, two loners who share a love of poetry. The new arrival gradually finds out his charismatic friend is running a strange system to provide shelter for the many people who head to the island in the hope of escaping via the sea to the West. Kruso’s sister Sonja disappeared into the water when he was a boy and was never seen again, and now he hopes to protect anyone from making often fatal escape attempts.


These “shipwrecked” individuals are given places to sleep for a few nights and experience the island’s unique freedom, take part in bizarre rituals and social gatherings. Ed has an exhausting and almost unwanted sexual awakening, taking young women into his bed and listening to their stories. Over the long summer, the island fills up with more and more visitors, official and unofficial. Yet as the radio in the kitchen gradually reveals, there are now other ways to leave the country; it is 1989 and the East German state is leeching around the edges. 

The island setting makes for great reading, aside from its structural role as a microcosm of society (with the church, the bars, the army, the Stasi, etc.). There’s the tangible temporary utopia of summer holidays, followed by the forlorn atmosphere of an empty seaside resort in autumn. Seiler also gives us a lot of loving detail about how the Klausner is run, even down to the finer points of the washing up process. He describes all the people who work there minutely – the crew of the ship, as he often puts it – detailing their strange tics and their roles in the team, their favourite drinks, in some cases the way they smell. We feel Ed's and Kruso's, while all this close description makes the atmosphere overwhelmingly powerful and moving, and can make the reading quite gruelling at times. 

Things come to an initial climax on the “Day of the Island”, when all the seasonal staff have a day off at the same time and stage a football tournament and a beach party. The border guards mount a show of strength, Kruso is arrested, and Ed is beaten to a pulp by a despised colleague. After that, nothing is the same. The seasonal staff who gave the island its sense of freedom begin to disappear, many of them travelling to Hungary and from there to the West. No more shipwrecked runaways turn up to the rituals and the Klausener empties of both staff and visitors as autumn draws in.

Eventually, only Ed and Kruso are left, bound to each other by their friendship and trying to keep the restaurant running on a shoestring. Drinking more than ever, they both lose their grip on reality and when Kruso too disappears, Ed is desperate. Things come to a head and then to a sudden and nightmarish ending.

In an epilogue, Seiler switches to a first-person narrator (Edgar Bendler), who tells the story of how he tries to find Sonja after learning in 1993 that Kruso had died. We find out that there are an estimated fifteen unidentified corpses that washed up on the Danish coast between 1961 and 1989, presumed to be East German refugees who drowned trying to swim across the Baltic. Twenty years on, the narrator finally tracks down the records.

Kruso is a highly literary novel, and yet very moving as well. It contains a great many literary references, above all to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Ed is perfectly aware that he’s Kruso’s Friday, his loyal assistant, and their relationship is one of the key aspects of the book – a close and at times latently homoerotic friendship between two men, one of whom is very much the leader and the other the follower. The novel also contains a lot of poetry, especially by the expressionist Georg Trakl, perhaps because of his presumed incestuous love for his sister. Seiler is extremely well respected as a poet, and his precision makes his descriptions shine. He writes about nature on the island, but also about stomach-churning details such as the mass of grease and hair that gathers below the plugs in the kitchen sinks, which Kruso buries beneath his herb garden in one of his obscure rituals – one of several key scenes in which the two main characters bond, naked.

This loaded style makes the book a slow read but a rewarding one. Seiler builds tension incredibly well as his characters drift further and further away from sanity, tying in with the political developments. The novel is too complex to be taken as a straightforward allegory for the breakdown of the GDR. But it does capture the mood in East Germany’s young dropout subcultures, namedropping the drinks and the music and the fashions of the time in among its many layers of detail. At the same time, much of the action is dreamlike, with Ed sharing his thoughts with a decaying fox cadaver or recalling snatches of drunken evenings.

Seiler himself worked at the Klausner on Hiddensee, a real establishment that was a haven for a number of East German intellectual dropouts, including other poets. I think his book is a great way to mark twenty-five years since the fall of the Wall, a literary tribute to a lost micro-culture that was perhaps only so free because it was surrounded by constraints. It raises ideas of what people miss about the GDR – and there are plenty of things they do miss – and why that might be. Kruso really is an outstanding book. English rights haven't yet sold, so now would be the time to snap it up. Publisher Suhrkamp has a long sample translation on its website, by Bradley Schmidt and Alexander Booth. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

2014's German Book Prize Shortlist Announced

They've announced the shortlist of six titles in the running for the big German book prize:

Thomas Hettche: Pfaueninsel
Angelika Klüssendorf: April
Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling
Thomas Melle: 3000 Euro
Lutz Seiler: Kruso
Heinrich Steinfest: Der Allesforscher 

That's most of my favourites out of the running, then. Just last night I had a drunken conversation with fab German writer Christiane Neudecker about who might win. We're going to make a bet. I say Seiler, she says Klüssendorf. Tilman Rammstedt said Nawrat but he wasn't going to join in our bet anyway. I think the winner gets a cake baked for her by the loser - of the bet, not the book prize.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Things To Do in Berlin This Week

You're in Berlin and you're stuck for something to do? What a good job you came here, then.

Tomorrow you can come along to my event at the ACUD Club featuring Brittani Sonnenberg and Christiane Neudecker, co-hosted with Slow Travel Berlin. Here's what they say about it. It's up to you whether to believe the hype.

On Wednesday you could go out to the LCB at Wannsee for the launch of Jochen Schmidt and David Wagner's new book about growing up in East Berlin and Bonn. What fun.

On Thursday you could learn about how beautiful books are made, in India and Germany, as part of the International Literature Festival at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. And you should because the panel is made up of Seagull Books' publisher and designer Naveen Kishore and Sunandini Banerjee (who designed the festival posters but the website is such a traincrash I can't find a link to them), plus Matthes & Seitz publisher and designer Andreas Rötzer and Judith Schalansky. Afterwards you might like to pop back East to the Ocelot bookshop for a mysterious thing called a Bookup – perhaps even just to find out what on earth it is.

On Friday I don't have a literary event for you, but if you like dancing to old-fashioned music you might like to try Das Hotel. I personally will be staying in.

On Saturday you can see Eliot Weinberger, Maren Kames, David Wagner and me reading from stuff in the basement of a hostel. If you're very nice I might take you out dancing afterwards.

You might like a bit of a break after all that, but you could start all over again on Tuesday the 16th, with New German Voices Karen Köhler and Marianna Salzmann at the book festival.