Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Looking Back, Looking Forward

This will no doubt be my last post this year, and I'm pretty pleased with the way the past months have gone here at Love German Books. I feel I've made a number of virtual friends and shared my biased and unprofessional opinions on German-language writing with the world.

There have been a couple of developments that show optimistic little me that the world isn't all a bad place, at least when it comes to interest in international literature: the World Literature Forum (if you haven't been there yet, take a week off work and dive in right now), Amazon's Literature in Translation store, and Chad Post's ongoing attempt to provide reliable statistics on translated literature, the Translation Database (for the USA). Plus, here in Berlin we held our own little celebration of the art of translation - Translation Idol. Watch this space for more news on the Return of Translation Idol in 2009.

I'll be spending Christmas and the New Year with my family and an old favourite that makes me feel all warm inside: Selim Özdogan's Die Tochter des Schmieds. And after that, I'm looking forward to three new German books in January/February:

Zoran Drvenkar, Sorry
Daniel Kehlmann, Ruhm
and Selim Özdogan, Zwischen zwei Träumen

Apart from the fact that they're all by men in their 30s, I don't think they'll have much in common. Plus, I'm sure 2009 will bring stocking-loads of events and books marking the twentieth anniversary of 1989. Here's a review of two old ones to be going along with in the NY Times, courtesy of David Vickrey again. And if you can receive NPR, the new year will see the dawning of a new era in radio with The Berlin Stories. I'm certainly looking forward to that.

So here's wishing all my fellow German book-lovers happy holidays and a good slide into the new year, with plenty of time and great books to read.

Sunday, 21 December 2008


It’s short, it’s beautiful, and it was voted “book of the year” by Zeit readers: Siegfried Lenz’s Schweigeminute. David Vickrey at Dialog International enjoyed it too. Sadly, it didn’t rock my boat.

I can understand why people like it. It’s a touching and timeless love story, set in a coastal town with an air of perpetual summer holidays – all swimming and regattas and Blyton-esque islands and smiling photos on the beach. And it’s skilfully told; the Schweigeminute (moment of silence) of the title being a school memorial ceremony for the English teacher Stella Petersen, who died in a boating accident. The narrator, Christian, thinks back to the past summer, when he and his teacher had an affair. Or did they?

The narration is beautiful, switching to addressing Stella directly every now and then, with descriptions of all kinds of maritime goings-on and a very discreet love story. Being teacher and pupil, Stella and Christian are highly secretive about their affair. The encounter is sexual, but the poignant details we get are more of the intimacy of the situation: a shared pillow, hands entwined on a photograph, Christian’s plans for the two of them to move to an uninhabited island together.

Through the 18-year-old boy’s eyes, Stella is a heroine, forever diving into the water to save floundering children, telling him about Faulkner and Orwell, caring for her aged father. Christian himself seems to have little going for him. His pale personality consists almost solely of his obsession with his teacher. The couple come together without much ado, he following her to her hotel room with her tacit acceptance and simply staying the night. It is unclear what Stella’s motivation to start an affair with her pupil might be; she gives only tiny coded indications of her affection for him before her violent death.

And because there can be no witnesses to their love, its very existence is questionable. It could be just the product of Christian’s imagination. Many of the situations that arise could be quite innocent results of a schoolboy crush, albeit an intense one. Christian visits Stella at her home and she talks about Animal Farm, obviously embarrassed as his essay on the book has missed the mark by a long shot. He picks her up in his father’s car and they go to the beach and chat about literature until they are disturbed by some classmates. Stella’s reaction, which Christian interprets as embarrassment at being caught, could well be relief at being freed from his attentions. And most touchingly, Christian is not invited to Stella’s burial at sea, instead following at a distance in his own boat. He is excluded from mourning apart from at the official school assembly, where he steals her photograph for himself, prompting a telling-off from the headmaster. What we see through his eyes as concealed hints from others that they were aware of the illicit affair, but prefer not to mention it, could always be attempts to console him tactfully for the loss of his crush.

Throughout the novella, Christian is achingly naïve, hoarding provisions for the move to the island, suspecting a passenger on his boat of being Stella’s former lover. And the language he uses to describe their affair appears so deliberately vague that I wondered if the character knew anything about sex at all. All this is part of the appeal – that guessing game of did they, didn’t they? It is apparently Lenz's first attempt at a love story (at the age of 82, but why ever not?) and as such I suppose it's an interesting approach.

Perhaps I'm the world's greatest cynic, with a pinch of salaciousness thrown in. Perhaps I read it as too much of a puzzle and ought to have taken it at face value to enjoy it more. Perhaps one has to have experienced a crush on a teacher to appreciate the joy of its fulfilment, whether imagined or not. Perhaps the characters might have been fleshed out more in a full-length novel. But despite recognising its literary quality, I really can’t say I liked the book a great deal, and it comes nowhere near being my book of the year. But at least it didn’t take long to read.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

A Cold Berlin Love Story - Hitze

Sometimes writers pass you by, and then it feels wonderful to find someone with a whole shelf full of books to their name, just waiting to be discovered. My informer gave me a book for his birthday – and I’ve no idea how I can live up to it on mine.

The book in question is Ralf Rothmann’s Hitze. I had asked what felt like five thousand people for suggestions of books set in Berlin, and this was my informer’s tip-off. Rothmann is a poet and novelist – you can read one of his poems in English at AGNI online (trans. Elizabeth Oehlkers-Wright), a sample from another novel, Junges Licht, on Litrix (trans. Susan Bernofsky) – and his debut novel was translated into English as Knife Edge by Breon Mitchell.

I gather Rothmann grew up in working-class Oberhausen, moving to Berlin in the 1970s. Although he was never affiliated with any of the West German working-class writers’ organisations, he does consciously write about working life and proletarian characters, with Hitze being no exception. It’s rare to read a book where so much hard graft goes on – unless it’s a detective novel. But it’s not in the slightest bit didactic; there doesn’t seem to be any major political agenda behind the novel.

In fact it’s a love story. The enigmatic protagonist Simon DeLoo, tired of observing life as a cameraman, gets a job as a driver for a canteen that delivers meals all around Berlin. We see the cooks at work in the kitchen and at play in the pub, and all the people he delivers to on their lunch breaks – prostitutes, office workers, junkyard men and down-and-outs. He comes across a young woman who reminds him of whoever it is whose flat he still pays the rent for, now turned to dust. Lucilla is a Polish woman living on the streets, her only company and protection a dog.

In her hour of need, Lucilla turns to DeLoo for help and we next find them in an idyllic Polish summer by a lake, clearly in the throes of a passionate affair – the “heat” of the title, perhaps. But the veneer wears thin there too, with drugs, alcohol, property speculation and other complications rearing their heads and making the Polish countryside seem almost as grimy as Rothmann’s Berlin. Not before a breathtakingly erotic and very Catholic sex scene though.

The end of the novel, which has moved from winter to spring to summer and now to early winter again, sees DeLoo’s degeneration and death. Neatly biting its own tail, the book closes with the protagonist dying on the street opposite his former home, where he set out to get a new job early one morning on the first page. A woman leaning out of the window coldly refuses to call an ambulance. No heart-warming Bildungsroman this – in fact the little information we glean from taciturn Simon DeLoo indicates that his development moved very much in the other direction.

As the hero develops, so does his city. The area of Kreuzberg where he lives and works is gradually gentrified, a posh restaurant opening up and the buildings being sanitised (I choose that word with care). The catering company switches from hearty stews to exquisite finger food, and we get a glimpse of how the other half live when DeLoo delivers a party buffet to a divorcee in Dahlem. Rothmann doesn’t rail against this way of things – but nor does he spare us the sight of those who lose out en route.

Hitze may sound a tad dark. It is, of course. But it is shot through with beautiful and – doh! – poetic descriptions of Berlin, contrasted with rural Poland. And it’s these that make it a joy to read, expressing a love for the city that doesn’t need glass facades and clean pavements to feel at home. There are birds – pigeons and a heron, a hawk and magpies – and dogs and a cat. And there is a great deal of down-to-earth Berlin wit, from the cook who complains that a dog ate his dice to an aging prostitute who offers to take her teeth out. All set in authentic places mainly around Kreuzberg, from a Mehringdamm café to the Blaue Affe pub at Hermannplatz.

Read it! You know you want to.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Hope for the German-Speaking World

As Buchreport points out, three quarters of people in Germany read books! That's more than the previous survey found in 2000, when 28% said they never pick up a book all year.

A constant three percent read more than fifty books a year - the same figure applies to the number of translations in the English-speaking world, coincidentally. And 36% of us "individuals with a background of migration" read once or more a week, 11% of us every day (compared to 36% and 8% on average). You can download the study by Stiftung Lesen here.

The British National Literacy Trust offers various statistics, indicating that 34% of respondents never read books, although spending on books in the UK is rising faster than elsewhere (but books are more expensive than in the US and Germany). That makes the Germans and the rest of us living here pretty damn literate if you ask me.

Well, with all the amazing German and international books available here, can you blame us?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The Reader Re-Readings

There has been a flurry of renewed interest in Bernhard Schlink's The Reader as reviews of the film adaptation start coming out. I like the one in TIME, where Richard Schickel writes that the book "pretends to high literary seriousness while offering its readers — millions upon millions of them in the 37 countries where it has been translated — plenty of lubriciously rendered romps in the hay".

But the Guardian promises a deeper look in an article by the screenplay author David Hare, on "the tortured journey from book to film". Sadly, we learn little about the actual process of translating the (translated) novel into a screenplay, which would have interested me and perhaps other readers. Nor does Hare mention the novel's "first translator", Carol Brown Janeway, who has translated a number of big-selling German novels such as Perfume (with John Woods) and Measuring the World. Despite these failings, the article makes interesting reading.

And as the literary saloon pointed out, the New Statesman felt prompted to review Schink's latest novel, Das Wochenende, about a former terrorist coming out of prison and confronting old friends who have moved on. Rick Jones posits the theory that the book, although not particularly good, is at least well-timed - to coincide with the film and the release of the ex-RAF terrorist Christian Klar after twenty-six years in prison. What the reviewer fails to note, however, is that the book was published back in February, when it looked extremely unlikely that Klar would be released - after the president had rejected an appeal for clemency out of hand following a secret meeting with the former terrorist in March 2007. It came as somewhat of a surprise then that the Stuttgart higher regional court granted his release at all at the end of November. But still, it's nice to see a review of what must seem a rather obscure title - even though Jones, too, fails to mention the translator of Homecoming, Michael Henry Heim.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Artur Becker Wins Chamisso Prize

I feel I've mouthed off enough about my quibbles with the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize "for exceptional literary achievements by authors writing in German, whose native language or cultural background is non-German". This year's main winner is Polish-born Artur Becker (see press release), and the prizes for up-and-coming writers go to Maria Cecilia Barbetta (see my review of her Änderungsschneiderei Los Milagros) and the poet Tzveta Sofronieva.

Becker, who cuts an impressive figure in person, walks away with a tasty €15,000 - and the Goethe Institut has posted a nice interview with him in English. He talks a lot about the emigrant/immigrant experience and about his love of writing, infectiously:

The greatest thing for me is when I can work on a book day after day, night after night. It’s as great as sex or a campfire by Lake Dadaj in Masuria. People who think literature and art are a kind of fiction don’t understand a thing. Literature is reality. Robinson Crusoe is really alive.

Having said that I wouldn't mouth off any more, I'm afraid I have to go back on my word. Because look at the jury's reasoning for awarding Becker the prize:

His texts have given the language of German literature new colours and new shades of colour, while strengthening the close ties between the Polish and German cultural realms in a poetically compelling way.

New shades of colour! These dear dear foreigners with their quirky customs, eh? A literary Karneval der Kulturen at which the Germans can marvel at their ethnic minorities like at Hagenbeck's human zoo while celebrating the country's diversity - kebabs! jerk chicken! curry(wurst)! Polish-style poetry! No matter that we only have one (stand-in) non-white newsreader, appalling educational statistics for children who speak other languages at home, and regular racist attacks.

Am I overreacting here?

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

To Dub or Not to Dub

German culture is a dubbing culture. You can watch films from all over the world here, dubbed into German. Your average kid on the street is familiar with Danish gangs, Swedish rebels, Russian witches and French gendarmes from films - and that's all before they leave primary school. But as they get older and more pretentious, it becomes fashionable for Germans to reject dubbed films in favour of "watching the original" - either with or without subtitles. So Berlin's cinemas will show, for example, Vicky Cristina Barcelona in German, English with German subtitles and English without subtitles. You might even be able to watch it in Spanish as well, for all I know. I occasionally "watch the original" and am always amazed that everyone around me in the cinema is talking German.

I think there are so many advantages to watching a film dubbed into a language you understand very well. You don't have to read those annoying subtitles, distracting you from the action at the top of the screen. You don't involuntarily back-translate in your head (although this may be a translators' malade). You don't need your reading glasses. You can just sit back and enjoy Bruce Willis in his vest or whatever. And I think this is one reason why Germans are always incredibly knowledgeable about international cinema. They can just go along and watch the dang things, even before they get to reading age. Whereas in Britain, watching a foreign film is a chore for do-gooders and intellectuals.

Translating film and television dialogue has now become a real art form here. In the 1970s, it was seen as perfectly OK to pep up the rather dull scripts of The Persuaders, which ran as Die Zwei in German and had a huge following due to Rainer Brandt's unorthodox translations. Brandt added jokes of his own, coined neologisms (Tschüssikowski! - the stuff of a thousand school lunchbreaks) and generally ran wild with the material. I think there's still an argument for tackling dialogue in this way as a kind of cultural adaptation - if a joke just wouldn't work in the target language, why not replace it with one that does? But it's not done any more.

Nowadays, teams of professionals work on film and television dialogue. Babbel blog features a very informative interview with Frank Schröder on dubbing The Wire for German pay-TV, which gives a good impression of the process and some of the issues arising. Bear in mind that my knowledge here is all second-hand, please...

First off, a script translator (in this case the very talented Olaf Schröter) has a very short time to do a draft translation based on the film/show and a continuity sheet, not worrying overly about corresponding lip movements, etc. and perhaps providing a couple of different options for certain lines. The script translator has to have a good knowledge of the source culture and not only understand references but explain and transport them. Then the German dubbing authors take the draft and match it to the film, checking it makes sense and the lips aren't going "Oooh" when the German word is "Eeeh", or vice versa in fact, and making it sound as genuine as possible. As far as I understand, these editors don't necessarily speak the source language particularly well - rather like medieval translators from Arabic to Latin, who had Arabic-speaking dogsbodies to do the hard graft. Sometimes the authors also speak one of the roles too, as is the case with Frank Schröder.

But despite all that, the translation issues that come up are rather similar to those involved in translating literature: what to do with swearwords - tone them up or down, leave them in the original or take them out? Whether to use up-to-the-minute slang, which will date very quickly. How to deal with culturally specific terms. How to maintain a certain continuity of style across long stretches of text. And one very basic thing that I think probably troubles all translators - will it work in my language?

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

A Kehlmann Front on the Approach

The German-speaking world is gearing up for the release of Daniel Kehlmann's new novel Ruhm (Fame). I might even try and attend the premiere at the Berliner Ensemble in January. The book certainly sounds intriguing: nine separate modern-day stories that interlock at the end to form a novel. I rather like these kind of clever literary games myself, really well done in Ali Smith's Hotel World for example. But Ruhm is miles away from Measuring the World in terms of subject matter, and there seems to have been some concern over whether Kehlmann can stand up to the pressure to top his runaway international bestseller.

Meanwhile, Me and Kaminski has reaped fairly lukewarm reviews in the UK - but it was published in German a good two years previously to Measuring the World and, I suspect, translated into English purely on the back of the better book's huge sales figures. Not that I begrudge any extra translations, you understand.

The Financial Times ran a cutesy little interview with Kehlmann on the weekend, fairly devoid of content. Asked what he is most proud of writing, the author answers:

My new novel Ruhm. It will be published in German in January. I know that many writers always think their most recent work is the best – but this is my best. I am very clear and confident about that.

Well, anyone willing to use a photo as silly as the one on the FT site must have a healthy ego...

Friday, 5 December 2008

Top Five

I was asked whether I'm going to post a "top books of the year" list, and the answer is no. Because literature is not a competitive sport, don't you know.

Instead, I proudly present the top five loveliest German authors I have had dealings with this year, in no particular order:

Selim Özdogan - for all his support and for reminding me I'm not fifteen any more. I'm looking forward to Zwischen zwei Träumen early next year.

Antje Rávic Strubel - for the wine I didn't drink and a very entertaining evening.

Ingo Schulze - for asking an expert and understanding how one might be intimidated by sitting behind Volker Braun - and for the just plain enjoyable summer story Adam und Evelyn.

Ron Winkler - for providing the wonderful poem for our translation idols to get their teeth into, and for being the perfect guest.

And last but not least, because I'm a hypocrite at heart, Clemens Meyer, for my book of the year, Die Nacht, die Lichter.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Throw Away Your Telly!*

German book lovers! Make like the Stones and throw your telly out the window! For Germany's answer to Richard 'n' Judy, Elke Heidenreich, is now doing her show Lesen! on the internet.

I have to admit I'd never watched it while it was on telly. Tucked away on ZDF late at night once every two months, it wasn't exactly ever at the forefront of my mind. But now I've seen it on the web and it's utterly charming. There she is, all auntified and bespectacled, sitting in a pub with snow driving past the windows behind her. And she's funny. And she clearly loves books in a very unpretentious way. And... she invited the very attractive ex-punk Campino on the show, who raves about William Goldman's The Princess Bride. And who seems to be Heidenreich's nephew.

La Heidenreich, once crowned the most influential German-speaking woman, got chucked off the telly for being rude about all the other programmes after Marcel Reich-Ranicki got the ball rolling by refusing his TV award. "It's an embarrassment to be working for a channel like this at all. Why not just chuck me out right now, I'm fed up with fighting anyway," she wrote in the FAZ. So they did. And now she's gone and done the coolest thing and moved onto the rather excellent website litColony (lots and lots of other good stuff to explore here, by the way), which seems to be part of Cologne's literary festival litCologne. Which, judging by the website, is pretty dang good too. If only Cologne wasn't so incredibly far away from Berlin...

*Actually, don't. Because you'd miss Denis Scheck in Druckfrisch.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Every Book a Gamble: Ten Years of GBO

The Frankfurt Book Fair points out that its German Book Office is celebrating its tenth birthday. Hooray for subsidised translation promotion programmes!

Read all about it here; the most interesting soundbite from my point of view is from Grove Atlantic's Morgan Entrekin, with a titbit of sales information thrown in. I've highlighted my favourite part:

'We have had good success with Night Train to Lisbon and How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone and anticipate success with the Charlotte Roche book Wetlands when we publish it next year', says publisher Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic. The publishing company is expecting net sales in hardcover of around 12,000 copies of Pascal Mercier’s book by the end of this year, and 20,000 of the paperback edition.

Other German authors whose books actually sell well include W.G. Sebald, Bernhard Schlink, Cornelia Funke, Frank Schätzing, Daniel Kehlman, Goetz Ali, and the anonymous author of A Woman in Berlin.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Head to Head: Le Carré v. Fatah

The German papers are full of John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man (translated as Marionetten by Sabine Roth and Regina Rawlinson; in record time, I’d say). The unusual interest is understandable, as the book is set in Hamburg – and it’s about Islamist terrorists. Or rather it’s not, it’s about the spies who set out to catch them and the people who get caught up with them on their way.

I read it a while ago, almost in tandem with Sherko Fatah’s excellent Das dunkle Schiff. Much has been written about this great novel, even in English, and I don’t think its shortlisting for the German Book Prize was the only reason. See, for example, new books in german, the German Book Office and Litrix. Plus, as I’ve mentioned what feels like a million times, you can read an extract from the book on sign and sight (trans. Alexa Nieschlag). As you may well know, it was cruelly robbed of the big prize by Uwe Tellkamp’s doorstopper on bourgeois Dresden.

But that takes nothing away from this magnificent book. I won’t write about it in length here as so many have done so before me, but suffice to say I enjoyed it a great deal, as the adventure tale of a young man almost buffeted through life. Fatah describes the underbelly of life in Iraq and Berlin, painting a particularly oppressive picture of stowaways on a ship bound for Europe that reminded me of Traven. The book’s ultimate message – to me – was about the power of words and storytelling, from oral traditions to internet videos. In the end, its protagonist arrives in Berlin and unwittingly sows the seed of the jihad he was attempting to escape from.

John Le Carré’s Most Wanted Man, of course, is very different. Reading it, first of all, made me appreciate Sherko Fatah’s ambitious but sober prose all the more. But I gradually settled into that Le Carré frame of mind and began to enjoy it. OK, so you know from the beginning that the idealists are going to be disillusioned, just like in all his other books. But it’s the journey to that point that’s the interesting part.

It starts off with the very same constellation of characters that Das dunkle Schiff closes with: a confused young man from abroad (Fatah’s Iraqi tallies with Le Carré’s Russian/Chechnyan lad) making friends with a Turkish-German wannabe gangsta. From there, though, the two books’ paths separate and Le Carré does what he’s good at: a spy thriller with great characters and plenty of local colour. There’s the naïve and helpless Russian who becomes a honey trap by virtue of the zillions of dodgy roubles his errant father deposited in Europe, the attractive German idealist, the cynical German agent, the aging English gent who gets involved by accident, and a cast of espionage professionals from around the world in supporting roles. All with lots and lots of Hamburg in the background.

If I sound unimpressed that’s not the case – I think Le Carré does what he does very well indeed, and it was a great read and a great rail against common espionage practices. It’s unrealistic to compare the two books, but all’s fair in love and literature. And Das dunkle Schiff comes out on top for me – as an excellently written study of one tiny way in which militant Islamism finds its way from the Kurdish mountains to the streets of Berlin. Plus I was hugely impressed by the man himself at a reading, as you can read here.

No Zaimoglu Report

I interrupted my punishing schedule of reading books about Berlin (see below) for a spontaneous theatre trip last night. We wanted to see Feridun Zaimoglu and Günter Senkel's play Schattenstimmen at Ballhaus Naunynstraße. Only we weren't the only ones. After a briefly disturbing dogpoo incident and a lot of standing around in the street, it turned out there were no seats free. So nothing to report there then, apart from the fact that it's a very popular show. And the audience looked pretty damn cool.

The play premiered in Cologne this spring and has also been performed in a pared-down version in Kiel. Apparently, the authors were unhappy with the Cologne production and didn't turn up to the premiere. The critics have been pretty scathing, not just about the productions but also about the material itself: too vulgar, too clichéd, too one-track-minded. It's a piece of documentary theatre based, apparently, on interviews with nine illegal immigrants to Germany. The sans-papiers are dishwashers, dealers, rentboys and prostitutes; plus an ex-au pair-turned-party girl. Racism and homophobia are rife in the monologues, but the Cologne production at least was judged too pathetic. And there were voices who wanted a more "representative" choice of individuals. I have to say, the people I've known who weren't quite legal here over the years weren't prostitutes, dealers or rentboys - but maybe that's just the company I keep. But it all sounds like fairly typical Zaimoglu-Senkel fare - the more provocative the better, playing around with stereotypes and pigeonholes and with black men's masturbation providing a lyrical intermezzo.

We're going to Bist du schwul oder bist du Türke? next week instead, which translates roughly as "Are you a poofter or are you Turkish?" There is a slight chance I may feel out of place, if it has as narrow a target audience as the title would suggest.

Monday, 24 November 2008

city-lit Berlin

I haven't been posting much have I? But there's a good reason, honest. It's Oxygen Books. It was all started off by a posting on the British Council's sadly rather abandoned Literary Translation website. What Oxygen do is make travel books about cities, calling the series city-lit - and featuring "the cream of fiction and non-fiction, literary and popular, contemporary and classic, including journalism and blogs, with a big emphasis on translated writing." And they're doing one about Berlin. And they want people to send them suggestions and translations.

So. You can imagine I've been wallowing in Berlin literature ever since I read that. And what fun it is too, indulging one of my favourite pleasures - not just German books but books set in Berlin. Two of my favourite things rolled into one. Maybe I can find a passage somewhere in a German book set in Berlin where people eat loads and loads of cake and wash it down with coke zero. I think I'd probably die on the spot.

If anyone has any tips of their own, do contact the people at Oxygen Books (see the second link above for details). They not only have very good taste, they're also very friendly. And just think of the fun we'll all have when the book comes out!

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Treffen Junger Autoren

I had a rather bizarre experience this past weekend - I gatecrashed (at least I think we were gatecrashing) on the Treffen Junger Autoren. This is a programme that's been running for the past 23 years - and was initiated in the GDR. Basically, kids send their texts in and a jury chooses the best and then invites them all to Berlin for a weekend of workshops and other such fun and games.

And part of those fun and games was a slam night last Saturday. My friend and I just ducked in and sat down (OK, she knew someone who was actually entitled to be there...) and enjoyed the evening. It was hosted by a former participant - the charming and ever-entertaining Kirsten Fuchs. And she'd invited all sorts of other people to read on stage, including some of the jury members, the guy who does the catering, an under-20s slam champion and the like. She'd also set up a complicated piece of judging machinery: the totally objective Applause-O-Peter(TM). This consisted of a geezer called Peter with a touch of the delirium tremens, who held his arm side-on against a huge sheet of paper marked with a kind of thermometer, gauging the intensity of the audience reaction from 5 to 12 points. Luckily, there were ten judges dotted around the audience too with numbers to hold up, Olympic figure skating-style.

The evening was a major eye-opener for me. I have in the past complained about publishers favouring very young authors merely for their sexiness level. Now I know there are even 11 and 12-year-olds out there who can hold their own with the big guns. Or at least will be able to do so very soon if they carry on the way they're going. Most of the participants were probably more like 15 to 18 though, and just as impressive. The writing ranged from comical to bizarre to melancholy to wildly rhythmic, with form occasionally taking precedence over content. But even then, the performances were great.

Probably the nicest thing about the evening was the atmosphere. It felt like a school trip, only without the cool kids. There seemed to be free food and drinks (Germany's alcohol laws are less restrictive than in many other places), and the boys at the back became more and more rowdy as the evening continued, with the occasional burp benignly ignored by all. As time passed and whistles were wetted, the Applause-O-Peter grew increasingly sensitive to clapping, so that after about halfway through everyone scored 12 points. Or maybe we really did just clap more. Whatever - it seemed like the young authors were having a very intensive weekend.

Who won? Er, it was one of the jury and another former youthful participant: Antje Strubel. But she was the best.

Monday, 17 November 2008

No Man's Land #3 Online

How could I forget? There's a new issue of no man's land ("more than just an online literary magazine") online now. It's an all-poetry special featuring the likes of Bert Papenfuß, Monica Rinck and Daniela Seel - translated by Donal McLaughlin, Sarah Tolley, Kay McBurney, Rosemarie Waldrop, Cathy Hales, Nicholas Grindell and Ken Cockburn.

Plus contemplations by the editor, Isabel Cole, on dialect.

Swiss Book Prize Goes to Rolf Lappert

The new Swiss Book Prize, dreamt up as a marketing instrument for the book trade, has been awarded to the booksellers' favourite Rolf Lappert for Nach Hause schwimmen. The book was also shortlisted for the German Book Prize, so you can read an English extract (trans. Donal McLaughlin) on sign and sight.

As the Berner Zeitung reports, there were a number of similarities with the German Book Prize: one of the nominees, Adolf Muschg, pulled out at the last minute although his book wasn't a favourite with the jury, and the reluctant winner commented that literature is not a competitive sport.

The judges said of the winning title, now tipped to garner soaring sales figures, "It is a magical book with a long echo."

Friday, 14 November 2008

Turn Again, Hasan Kazan: Café Cyprus

London is a man-eater of a city. She swallows people whole, chews up their wallets and spits out the bones. And she has pretty cosmopolitan taste – the Irish, Hungarians, Turks and Berliners have all fallen under her spell.

There would appear to be a whole genre of novel that I’ll call “Frankie goes to Haringey”, for want of a better title. Young person moves to London from abroad and has exciting but ultimately rather banal adventures. Think Joseph O’Connor’s Cowboys and Indians for a start, with punk shenanigans aplenty.

Moving further afield than Ireland, there is Ronald Reng’s enjoyable Mein Leben als Engländer, in which the German author tells the story of a Hungarian who moves to London and ends up hanging out with Australians in Acton and posing as a doctor. You can catch Reng reading in London this coming Thursday, by the way.

Then there’s the Turkish view, in Esmahan Aykol’s Goodbye Istanbul, which I’ve read (or started at least) in German translation. I found it incredibly depressing and had to put it down, as it tells the story of a young woman who leaves Istanbul for London, dreaming of streets paved with gold, and ends up in a dead-end job in Crouch End or some such place.

The latest potential Dick Whittington is Hasan Kazan, the hero of Yadé Kara’s Café Cyprus. Kara was widely feted for her debut novel, Selam Berlin, in which Hasan witnesses the whole shebang of German reunification from his unique (or fairly unique in German literature) perspective as a Turkish-German Berliner. Now, as you may have guessed, Hasan’s off to London.

Set in the early 90s, the book opens with twenty-something Hasan singing Eddy Grant’s Gimme Hope Joanna at Charing Cross, out of sheer joy at being in London. The implicit Apartheid reference fits rather nicely with the book’s theme of crossing of cultures and racism – and its optimistic tone. Hasan sings along with buskers, bristles at English girls with no tights, admires Brixton style, and works in a kebab van on the weekends, serving football fans (“Vikings”) who don’t appreciate the subtleties of Turkish cuisine.

He gets a couple of other jobs at a Turkish-Cypriot supermarket, the café of the title and on a stall at Portobello Market, and scrapes together enough money for an English course and a sublet council flat in Lewisham. And he makes friends – not just his old mate from Berlin Kültür Kazim and his wife Sukjeet, but Betty and Khan and Miss Liverpool, and the delightful Hannah. A romance blossoms and fades, Hasan turns from an observer to an insider, and we see London from the Turkish-German-Cypriot perspective. Not one you get every day, and very nicely done at times: “big red double-decker buses roared along the windy road, shining out like fresh red chilli... a piece of West Berlin.”

There are lots of entertaining comparisons of London, Berlin and Istanbul – BMWs are a luxury in London but every last chav drives one in Berlin, the streets of Istanbul and London are full of litter and loiterers. And Kara goes into a fair amount of detail on the regulars at Café Cyprus, their religious, political and philosophical conflicts. Hasan, coming from both Istanbul and Berlin, is the perfect mediator between the Greek and Turkish fractions, but fails to calm the café’s troubled waters.

The narrative style is fun; a mix of yoof-speak and contemplation peppered with italicised English and Turkish, often curses. Hasan slips into song, raps, addresses the audience and is generally a very likeable narrator. At times the tone doesn’t quite ring true, the voice of the forty-something female author slipping in here and there, but it never grates as I initially feared it would. And there are lots of laugh-out-loud moments.

The author’s main thematic focus is what she calls “the new Londoners” – for some reason, the interview I’ve linked to here is unexpectedly unavailable in English. I wonder if anything can be done about that? Asked why almost all the characters have that lovely German thing, a “background of migration”, what she says is:

No, they’re Londoners and they’re the new Londoners, they’re part of the city like everything else. There’s a new London now that has nothing to do with our clichés from Hitchcock films. If you get on the tube in London’s inner city, you’ll see half the world on the trains, and it’s so absolutely normal – you can only guess at people’s ethnic origins. They’re Londoners, they live their lives there, they work there, they read the paper, pay their taxes and bring their children up there. So what!?

It’s true – but it’s something I, as a Londoner, have always taken for granted, as Kara says. In fact I always felt slightly sheepish and dull at primary school, as the only kid in my class whose parents both came from down the road, rather than Jamaica or Kenya or India or Greece or Turkey or Holland or Ireland. But living in Berlin suddenly makes that seem rather exotic, and Hasan certainly revels in London’s ethnic diversity, as does the author. Some of the descriptions of black mammas, Indian girlies and Chinese chefs, related in Hasan’s over-eager vernacular, come across as slightly clichéd and embarrassing, not blasé enough for a long-term Londoner, but perhaps that’s all part of the fun.

Yet despite Hasan’s blue-eyed enthusiasm, Kara doesn’t turn a blind eye to British racism. Sukjeet, a British Asian from – you guessed it – Southall, is the book’s cynical voice of reason.

“Cosmopolitans with gold credit cards and homes in London, Madrid and New York and marriage problems. They’re the hip white Western cosmopolitans. And when these guys go into politics and do something for the 'ethnic minorities', like street parties with Caribbean or Arabic food in Brixton and Notting Hill, yeah, then they celebrate multiculturalism. But as soon as an Arab or a black person turns up on their doorstep or is even made their boss, oh yeah, then they suddenly remember controlled immigration, start insisting on assimilation, etc etc.”

By the end of the novel, Hasan’s eyes have been opened to “rip-off London” but he still loves the place and stays on. The last scene, almost inevitably, is set at the Notting Hill Carnival. It’s a Bildungsroman of sorts, punctuated by music and fashion and parties and love affairs. But it has a flaw that seems to be inherent in the entire going-to-London genre – the plot is too weak. Hasan’s adventures in love and employment just aren’t quite enough to keep the story ticking over, and it rather peters out at the end. As fascinating as her observations of London may be, I feel Yadé Kara would have done well to give her novel a stronger focus than her hero’s anecdotes. A modern Dick Whittington needs to either luck out or lose out big-time.

Of course London, being London, doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks of her, and so we’re unlikely to see any of these novels translated. Which is a great shame, because there’s a lot we could learn from them.

Aravind Adiga: Nie Wieder Deutschland

Julia Kospach of the Frankfurter Rundschau interviewed the Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga, asking whether he'd cancelled his readings in Europe because his novel had prompted so much criticism in India that he couldn't leave the country (perhaps revealing a rather interesting view of Indian literary culture). The answer (in my translation):

No, I'm leaving for Spain and Holland soon. I've only cancelled Germany and the other German-speaking countries. To be honest, I wasn't very keen to come to Germany in the first place. During my degree in England I travelled a lot and stayed in Germany as well. I had a lot of trouble all the time there because they thought I was an illegal immigrant. It was very unpleasant. At the time, I broke off my stay after three days and went back to England. I have no interest whatsoever in ever coming back to Germany or Austria. I think I won't ever do it. And apart from that I can't write while I'm travelling.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

John E. Woods Live

My informer has sent me a marvellous link to an event at the Goethe Institut in Chicago: An Evening of Literature by and about Arno Schmidt with his translator John Woods and publisher Bernd Rauschenbach. You can listen to an audio file, which I haven't done yet but will very soon, and I know for sure it will be very entertaining for all you German book lovers out there. I once experienced this double-act live and will never forget it...

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Berlin Publishing: One to Watch

Remember my unbridled enthusiasm over Eichborn Berlin? It seems to be experiencing some turbulent times. Head honcho Wolfgang Hörner is leaving (along with his co-editor Esther Kormann) to set up a new imprint under the roof of Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Galiani Berlin. Apparently, it'll publish contemporary German-language fiction (yay!), non-fiction and classics of world literature.

There's been some speculation over why Hörner is leaving the house he grew up in, but it seems he'll have a lot more freedom and control at Galiani. The taz has an interesting article on the whole affair. I'm certainly looking forward to it, as I almost feel Eichborn Berlin might have got stuck in its ways, spoilt by the success of the authors they discovered - not that they aren't excellent writers. Maybe Galiani will launch a few new voices, fitting in with the impeccable taste of Wolfgang Hörner. He'll certainly take with him his incredible enthusiasm for literature, if not necessarily all his protege authors. And let's hope they have as much success marketing their books to foreign publishers as Eichborn has had.

Plus, of course, I really hope Eichborn can find people to fit into Hörner and Kormann's shoes and continue their excellent programme.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Keto von Waberer: Schwester

Do you know that feeling when a book feels like it’s been written exclusively for you? When it touches so many nerves you think someone has stolen your non-existent diary and fictionalised it?* And then as the book progresses, you realise that perhaps other people have just had similar experiences to you, and this is one of those realities, but with an alternate ending that you really hope you can avoid?

Keto von Waberer and I have few things in common, but those things we do share are really quite terrifying. I recently finished reading her clearly autobiographical book, Schwester. (I'm afraid there's nothing in English I can find on either the author or the book.) For those with absolutely no German who are thus unable to guess from the title, it’s the story of her difficult relationship with her sister. One blonde and asthmatic, the other a dark-haired survivor, the two girls are the best of friends and hate each other’s guts. They develop different strategies for claiming their unfair share of their parents’ love – sickness and coping. And those strategies become personality traits in the adult women, influencing the way their lives progress.

The book, published back in 2002, opens with a bang: “At the supermarket, by a shelf of washing powder, I start to cry and can’t stop.” The narrator is crying for her sister, who died two years ago. So we know how things will end, and it’s the power of this story’s searing honesty that keeps the momentum going up to the last chapter. Von Waberer writes as if her mental stability depended on it, in sober prose - autobiography as therapy.

There isn’t a plot as such, other than the two women’s lives as children, as adults, their relationships with their parents, partners, themselves, and each other. The only structure as the narration swings back and forth in time is the chronology of the narrator’s own life, marked by events such as going away to school, falling pregnant, starting a writing career, leaving her husband, the loss of her parents, and overcoming writer’s block. I didn’t feel the lack, partly because the book is relatively short at 168 pages.

There are things here we might not want to know in such detail – about ourselves or anyone else. How the narrator’s father wants to sleep with her, how she hates her sister’s unappealing body and hates herself for feeling that way. All the resentment, the worry as her sister sinks into illness and depression, the rare shared happy memories spoilt by cutting remarks or guilty conscience. And all told so openly that it feels like you’re the therapist listening to one woman’s painful story, with the benefit of hindsight – many chapters close with a phrase to the effect that “I know that now; I didn’t then.”

Yet although it’s so plainly and painfully autobiographical, the book doesn’t seem self-indulgent; the agony of a married mother falling in love with someone else, for example, is perfectly contained in a half-page chapter. I can’t say reading it was a pleasure, but it was certainly an experience that taught me a few things about myself as a sister, and I don’t regret it or feel I wasted my time on it. Keto von Waberer is probably a “woman’s writer”, and an excellent one at that. If you like books about testosterone-drenched action, it may not be your cup of tea. But I can certainly recommend this book to any women with sisters of their own. Or in fact to only daughters who feel hard done-by; after this, you won’t.

* Actually, a guy I used to know swore blind he’d lost his diary while staying in Vienna, and got really angry when he saw Before Sunrise.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Stanisic* - Wise Beyond his Publications

This month's Words Without Borders features a magnificent piece from Sasa Stanisic on myths of immigrant writing. Not unlike myself in my less erudite rant on the Chamisso Prize recently (which Stanisic received last time around), he criticises the expectation that writers from elsewhere should enrich their adopted language, more so than native-language authors. He also rails against the myths that there is a category by the name of "immigrant writing" at all, and that immigrant literature deals (or should deal) solely with the migrant experience.

Great reading matter, nicely packaged, and - in an ironic twist - rather well translated from the German by the author himself. I do find it slightly amusing, though, that an author who has written one (excellent) book can be so worldly-wise. But I suppose I haven't written any books at all and I still spout my opinions here on a near-daily basis. Still, it's a great feeling when you realise you're not the only person to hold a certain view.

If we must have a word for one category of "immigrant writing" at least, why not post-migrant literature? I'm rather inspired by the upcoming Dogland festival at and around Berlin's Ballhaus Naunynstraße, which features post-migrant theatre and the latest developments in dance, film, music and literature - including a new play by the ubiquitous Feridun Zaimoglu and Günter Senkel on sans-papiers. I know, I was trying not to mention him, but it's hard sometimes. Or an "evening of scenic songs" directed by Neco Celik (the very interesting interview behind this link goes some way to explaining what post-migrant might be in the German context). I can't spot any actual literature in the strictest sense on the programme as yet, but I live in hope.

*I do apologise for the lack of accents, etc. throughout this piece. It's been a long day, so you'll have to imagine them all for yourselves.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Translating Erotica - The Group Effort

Did I ever mention that wonderful institution, the no man's land literary translation lab? We meet up once a month to brew up our texts together, experimenting, inspecting and letting off steam upstairs in the lovely library at Max & Moritz in Berlin.

And this evening proved the true test for the lab - would anyone turn up, despite the large number of "fun" US-election-related events scheduled in competition around the city? Weeeeelll, a couple of people did, albeit no Americans. As a reward, we went through my erotica translation together.

Imagine a small room filled (OK, not actually filled on this occasion) with translators. We wear glasses. We like our food. Most of us are over 40 and have sensible haircuts (present company excepted). We lead the kind of lives no one's going to write a screenplay about. Then imagine said group sitting down with a couple of beers and discussing alternative verbs to "throb", whether the word "cock" jumps out at you more than "dick", whether the author's girlfriend being away in Bolivia for a year might have influenced his choice of vocabulary, how DH Lawrence would have put it, whether the subjunctive might be more suitable for the phrase "as if sex was a harmless pleasure". It was fun. And extremely productive. Now I'm feeling all loved-up out of the sheer joy of sharing a stimulating translation with like-minded individuals.

Incidentally, my phone conversations with the author proved less excruciating than anticipated. He was terribly blasé about it all, which made me feel rather like a giggling teenager, but at least we got through all my awkward questions. I blushed much less than I had initially expected. And I think the end result might be rather good, actually, thanks to the support of by fellow lab-rats.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Aufbau Again

Things have calmed down since my last post on the publishing house Aufbau. They've been bought by a new rich newcomer to the world of literature and will be moving from Mitte to Kreuzberg, albeit the more boring part on Moritzplatz. I do find the whole thing slightly crazy - the idea that an "independent" publisher is entirely dependent on the whims of its single owner almost makes me believe in the benefits of corporatism.

Susan Bernofsky has the goods on the house's history here.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Anthea Bell at the Vienna Café

Last week saw a literary evening at London's Royal College of Art, as part of the multidisciplinary Vienna Café Festival, aiming to "redefine our understanding not only of the arts in Vienna, but also of modernity and modern life more generally." Sounds good, eh?

Demel had set up shop, serving coffee and cakes from behind an ornate bar, and the chairs and tables were café style. Sadly, though, all that was left for the evening was the quiet clinking of staff shutting up shop for the night behind us in the background to the reading. Sad because if you're going to an event about Viennese café culture, it would be even lovelier to enjoy the smells and tastes while you're at it. But I could have got there earlier, I suppose. I did enjoy eavesdropping on the two Austrian ladies chatting next to me though, which added a little of the flavour I craved.

The evening started with original fiction by Deborah Levy, a witty and entertaining encounter with Freud's Vienna. But I suspect I wasn't the only one in the audience looking forward to Anthea Bell, translator extraordinaire. The lady herself, small and endearingly modest like a favourite great-aunt, was talking about fiction in Freud's Vienna from her viewpoint as a translator. She was gushingly introduced by the boss of Pushkin Press, who have published a great deal of fin-de-siècle Austrian writing. But wouldn't you gush? I know I would (and probably will here), faced with the high priestess of German literary translation.

Launching into her talk by describing herself as "a mere translator", Bell started by telling us about the task of re-translating Freud for the general public, as part of a team for Penguin in the 1990s. She chose to translate The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which is one of the more cheerful, she assured us, describing it as a gripping series of detective stories based on Freud's own experiences and those of his friends, rather than his patients. Bell jettisoned the uncomfortable jargon-y term parapraxis (for Fehlleistungen, a translation approved by Freud but not suitable for today's lay readers, she felt) in favour of more colloquial solutions such as slip of the tongue, pen, mind, etc. - the Freudian slip itself.

By coincidence or serendipity, Anthea Bell was offered more Viennese texts after this one, sarting with Lilian Faschinger's novel Vienna Passion, where Freud hovers in the background at the turn of the century. Another modern take on old Vienna she has translated is Eva Menasse's Vienna. This, Bell commented, is one of those books she uses on her crusade to convince the British that there is such a thing as a Teutonic sense of humour.

Moving back to the early twentieth century, Bell introduced us to her translations of Stefan Zweig for Pushkin Press. He's not an easy writer to translate, she noted, as one has to think hard over every sentence. One gradually gets to know an author's favourite adjectives, though, and one of Zweig's is dumpf - which often means sombre. She is especially fond of Amok, which reminds her of Kipling and Conrad, and Leporella. His only novel, Beware of Pity, she told us, shows Zweig's great interest in medicine, psychology and Freud, which was shared by Arthur Schnitzler, a Jewish doctor-writer. Another Jewish author in Vienna was Joseph Roth, translated of course by Michael Hofmann, whose Radetzky March she warmly recommended.
At a distance of only 155 miles away in Prague, Bell generously subsumed Kafka into Viennese café society, attesting him a similar mindset to the Viennese. She has just handed in her new translation of The Castle to OUP, she told us. As other translators will know and Willis Barnstone points out in The Poetics of Translation, translation is an extremely "intensive reading of the original text". Actually, Anthea told us that, I haven't read it. She said she had never before been struck by the book's topsy-turvy atmosphere, leaving her feeling almost like Alice in Wonderland. From Kafka we leapt to Ernst Weiss, another Jewish doctor in Vienna, whose Franziska Anthea Bell recently translated, again for Pushkin. She was truly impressed by Weiss's very strong heroine, and wondered what he would have made of Jane Austen.

Weiss committed suicide in 1940 as the Germans marched into Paris. Zweig committed suicide in Brazilian exile in 1942, Roth killed himself with drink in Paris in 1939, Freud died in London, and Schnitzler had the fortune of dying in 1931. All their books were burned - a sobering end to a very creative era.

All in all, I was impressed to experience Anthea Bell in person. She seemed incredibly busy and dedicated, mentioning that she always works on more than one book at a time - a change is as good as a rest. So at the moment, she has Stefan Aust's Baader-Meinhof Complex on her desk, along with Stefan Zweig's long memoir and an outtake from Volker Weidermann's Buch der verbrannten Bücher to go with an upcoming Times interview (and perhaps Uwe Timm's Halbschatten?). Perhaps the occasion didn't merit it, but I was nevertheless a little disappointed that she didn't go into more depth on some of the themes and ideas in fin-de-siècle Viennese literature. But my cup was very much half-full, as she did give a very good idea of what it's like to translate some of these writers, and gave the books on sale that evening a very hearty push. If I wasn't so stingy I'd almost definitely have bought Franziska.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Ross Benjamin on Close to Jedenew

I recently read Ross Benjamin’s translation of the short novel Close to Jedenew by Kevin Vennemann, and was so impressed I wanted to share it with you. But I knew Ross could do the book justice much better than me. So I interviewed him – and I was right.

Ross Benjamin, by the way, is a translator, essayist and literary critic based in Brooklyn. For more information, see his unsurprisingly classy website.

Ross, tell us about the book...

It's an account of a pogrom against a Jewish family by their neighbors, who had been their longtime friends, in a fictitious village called Jedenew near the Polish-Lithuanian border during the German invasion. This horrific incident is recounted in the first-person plural -- "we" -- and the group of characters indicated by this pronoun expands and contracts at various points, but the point-of-view of these passages is aligned with a single female protagonist who remains nameless. During the onslaught, she and her sister Anna hide in their unfinished treehouse in the woods, where they witness the destruction of their home. Having lost their loved ones, they recall the events of their truncated childhood and especially stories that have been told to them by their father and their older brother. Different voices, tales, and memories interweave as the narrative moves forward and backward in time, the scenes and speakers often shifting unexpectedly in the middle of a sentence. The novel never departs from the present tense, even when this means violating grammatical convention. The effect is a sense of simultaneity that heightens the harrowing loss at the heart of the novel.

How did you first come across it?

I attended a reading by Kevin Vennemann from his second novel, Mara Kogoj, at the Frankfurter Biennale at the Literaturhaus Frankfurt in June 2007. I was immediately intrigued, so I bought both novels and began reading Nahe Jedenew, and was intensely moved and struck by its originality and power.

Did you know the author personally before you started the translation?

I met the author at the Frankfurter Biennale, and we got together soon thereafter in a cafe in Berlin, where we discovered certain common interests and got along quite well. At the time, he was translating an anthology of writings from the magazine n+1 from English into German, and I was translating Hölderlin's Hyperion from German into English, so we discussed translation. Several months later, I was asked to translate his novel. Having read it and been so impressed by it, of course I accepted.

The subject matter is pretty weighty. I know for me, translating a piece often takes me right into the text and I feel more deeply with the characters than in a normal reading. How did writing the translation affect you?

The power and intricacy of the German text became all the more evident to me as I sought to render it in English. I did feel a more profound attachment to the characters after retracing their fates so many times during the process of translation and revisions, reliving their painful experiences and gaining increasing insight into them. This probably allowed me as a translator to get closer to an author's relationship with his characters, though of course I did not invent them, so it was not exactly the same creatively or emotionally. Still, an acute experience.

You've kept the very difficult grammatical structure (all present tense, confusing sentence structure) more or less untouched, as far as I can tell. Were you tempted to take a more interventionist approach? If not, why not?

I felt strongly that the exclusive use of the present tense was an essential feature of the novel, so I was never tempted to alter it. Even when German grammar would usually require another tense, whether past, future, or indirect discourse, the novelist stayed in the present, and if this was at times awkward in the original, the awkwardness was clearly a deliberate effect. So I reproduced this to the best of my abilities in the translation. Of course, this posed a challenge. Overall, I had the impression that the German language was more conducive to Vennemann's technique than English, for both the historical present and the ability to refer to future events in the present tense are available, conventional options in German more often than in English. So at times something that was only somewhat jarring in the original would be more intensely jarring in English. But I thought this still reflected the author's aesthetic better than to restore grammatical fluidity and familiarity would have. Though I tried to keep the level of estrangement close to that of the original, at times some degree of enhanced awkwardness in the English version was inescapable. But since the device was used as a grammatical Verfremdungseffekt in the German version, this felt justified. As for the complexity of the syntax, some degree of confusion is endemic to the novel. Again, such intricate, long sentences are less unusual in German than in English, but my rationale for retaining them was similar to my approach to tense. The labyrinthine nature of the sentences in the original was intentionally disorienting, and to efface this by composing more easily readable sentences would have been to dispense with a key aspect of the experience of this novel.

How did the work compare to translating the very different Hyperion?

The process was radically different, of course. Above all, it was much less lonely, being able to consult with the living, and very helpful, author. And if I could have asked Hölderlin (when he was still sane) half the number of questions I posed to Kevin Vennemann, I might well be a more enlightened individual. At least it might have saved me hours and hours of doubt and irresolution. But in fact I love the experience of contributing to the afterlife of a classic novel and trying to communicate with the great poet's ghost as much as I enjoy working with a living novelist and being able to introduce as important a novel as Close to Jedenew and as talented an author as Kevin Vennemann to English-speaking audiences.

Many thanks to Ross Benjamin for the interview! I really recommend the book.

Going to London

I'm off tomorrow and will be back next week. To tide you over, here's a disappointing item on publishers' lack of interest in translations from the Guardian books blog. Note the much-repeated reader's response that translations are impure and thus inferior to "well written English prose". Gnnnn.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

No Escaping Zaimoglu

You may have picked up on the fact that Turkey is this year's guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In fact if you live in Germany, you probably can't help noticing - huge posters all over the place, newspaper articles galore, and hundreds of new books in translation. Plus a boycott and calls for freedom of speech from Germans and Turks.

There's one writer who seems to be everybody's darling in this context - Feridun Zaimoglu. His Liebesbrand was longlisted for the Book Prize, and nominated for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in spring too. I personally was disappointed by it, finding it had a really great opening but fizzled out about halfway through. But why not try for yourself - there's an extract in translation (trans. Zaia Alexander) available at Litrix.

There's also a good piece about Zaimoglu and the literature of migration on the website of Swansea University, where he spent June as writer in residence. Tom Cheesman writes: "Within contemporary German literature, Feridun Zaimoglu is now the figure of a Turkish background to have become fully integrated in the literary scene." And deservedly so, I have to agree. He also happens to be a very charming man. But I often get the niggling feeling he's everybody's favourite token Turk.

Take the review of Liebesbrand from the Goethe Institut I linked to above, for example. It includes the sentence: "...we find in Liebesbrand a masterful and very modern employment of oriental storytelling with a plot that is a bit wild, unashamedly romantic and linguistically intelligent, original and witty." OK, it's only a short review, but there is no indication of where these elements of "oriental storytelling" are. I certainly didn't notice them, finding the novel fairly standard German storytelling stuff. Why does the reviewer seem to feel the need to get the word "oriental" in there? At readings, Zaimoglu is also often asked questions about Turkish politics. This is a man with a German passport, who's lived in Germany for the past thirty-odd years. He may well follow Turkish news, but he's far from an expert on the subject, as he readily admits.

And don't get me started on the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for writers whose native language or cultural origin is not German. It's an admirable idea I suppose, but if people have issues with the Orange Prize, what on earth would they make of this one specially for foreigners? Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the authors don't deserve it. What I object to is the whole ghetto-isation that goes on here. You can look at the winners down the years on the website. What strikes me is that these are by no means unknowns in need of a literary leg-up: Saša Stanišic, Rafik Schami, Ilja Trojanow, Emine Sevgi Özdamar - all of these names have made it into English, for God's sake. Into English! So don't tell me they're of marginal interest. Many of them are household names, in a certain kind of household... If you ask me, the Chamisso Prize has become obsolete - and a good thing too.

Germany (or parts of it) seems to be finally realising its migrants are part of society as a whole, and of the literary establishment. OK, two authors "with a background of migration", as they like to put it, on the twenty-name longlist for the German Book Prize may not sound much in comparison to the Booker, for example - but for Germany, that's pretty fantastic. So I was astounded to read Ilma Rakusa's feature in New Books in German, Notes on Contemporary German-Language 'Migrant' Literature. Rakusa, herself a one-time Chamisso prizewinner, writes: “
...it is the writers who have come to German culture from elsewhere who are substantially enriching, expanding and stimulating that culture – not only through their unusual literary subjects but through their courageous, at times risk-taking, use of language." Jesus, can they not just be writers? Do they have to be expanding the bloody culture all the time, adding linguistic spice?* Or, to turn that question on its head, does every good writer not expand and stimulate the culture?

Zaimoglu, at least, seems to be riding the wave, using his almost rent-a-quote status to put his often contentious points across. He welcomed Turkey's role as Guest of Honour, but gave the presentation itself a thorough slagging off, saying it would do "zero" to improve Turkish integration in Germany. He recently gave an interview to an up-and-coming journalist and blogger, Eren Güvercin, reiterating his anti-assimilation stance (I wrote about that here). I'm with him most of the way there, actually - certainly, you don't get told how to live your life half as often in Germany if you're actually German. And he also told Güvercin: "I've got another 30 or 40 pages to go to finish my new novel. ... It's about great yearning and where it takes you if you're not careful - and nobody ever is."

Sounds like full-on hot-blooded fiery oriental stuff. I'm looking forward to it.

*Don't worry, she's not that banal. I added that bit about the spice.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Translating Erotica

Out of the blue, I find myself translating erotic fiction for the first time - a short story by one of "my" authors. I had agreed to translate an unspecified piece for an exhibition catalogue, and yesterday the text arrived. Seven lines in, the phrase "halberigierte Penisse" made me choke on my Coke, and it went on from there.

The story is beautiful, very sexy and melancholy, very, um, erotically effective. But sadly, the translating process has killed the magic for me. Grammatically, German and English deal with bodies very differently. So while we say, to give a squeaky-clean example, "She washed her hands", German-speakers say "She washed herself the hands". Hands, feet, mouths, other body parts are generally used with the definite object and not with possessive pronouns. So in descriptions of things people do with their bodies, I often have to check back with the author exactly who is doing what with whose body parts. Not just for erotica, by the way, as German gives you the option of leaving things slightly vague, which can be interesting.

Or take body hair. Now the Germans have had a very different relationship to their body hair from the British, for example - as anyone who remembers watching Nena on Top of the Pops* will recall. Things are slightly more similar now (although sociologists are no doubt watching out for a body-hair backlash in the wake of Wetlands), but the word "behaart" (used of a man) is still relatively neutral. So what do I do - Hairy? Hirsute? Downy? Setaceous? I want to achieve an effect as equivalent as possible, without changing the content of the text. But the effect of the word "hairy" is more "Eeew" than "Oooh" - although not the idea itself, strangely. Or not for me anyway. I do have a solution actually, but I'm not telling you what it is.

So, all this means I can no longer read the text as erotica; it is now a rather dry collection of translation challenges. I really hope the end product works in the same way as the original, but I'll have to put it aside for a while to find out. And it also means a long and presumably awkward phone call with the author. "So whose hands exactly...?" I will be blushing.

*Just spent fifteen minutes staring at Nena's armpits on Youtube. Actually she was wearing a jumper on TOTP, but other footage is more revealing.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Der Turm

So, Uwe Tellkamp's Der Turm has won the German Book Prize. I am slightly nonplussed, although it was no great surprise. My "impressionistic dismissal" of it based on the extract available (trans. Rebecca Morrison) was: "Everybody's raving. I'm snoring." And while I do appreciate that it's well written, I still can't summon up any enthusiasm for the book.

But - and this is a big "but" - I think it would be wonderful to see Der Turm translated. The subject-matter is something we insular Anglo-Americans really haven't bothered with in the past: everyday life in East Germany. Billed as a Buddenbrooks of the GDR, it's about that class that people from the West think didn't exist there - bourgeois intellectuals. And although the Stasi presumably plays some kind of a role in the 900-odd pages, the book is neither a sensationalist look at repression nor an example of Ostalgie. While we still source many of our ideas about the GDR from films like The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin, Der Turm is a more reflective, insider's view.

It has certainly garnered plenty of critical praise (see the Complete Review for an overview), although much of it has been along the lines of "so true to life, just as I remember it" - which won't work for readers from other cultures. But I for one hope it might just open the gates for other books by East German writers, from Clemens Meyer to Wolfgang Hilbig. I won't have time to read it though.

You can watch a charming little interview with Uwe Tellkamp at the FAZ lounge thing.

Monday, 13 October 2008

And the Winner Is...

Just to conjure up a tiny bit of the same 55-minute tension I've just been through, I thought I'd explain the whole process of my finding out who won the German Book Prize.

First there was a wild scramble to find Deutschlandfunk on medium wave, after the lady on the FM version told me she wasn't going to broadcast the ceremony. The dash to the radio, the fumbling with the dial, the brief elation that subsided immediately on realising that no, this was the Voice of Russia, and the relief at finally finding Deutschlandfunk, not a moment too soon.

As I chopped half an onion and some garlic, the first speech was given by the mayor of Frankfurt. Interestingly, she was the only speaker who didn't make any nervous jokes about the financial crisis. She probably doesn't find it very funny right now. The onion and garlic were frying and I was struggling with the tin opener when the next speaker came on. He talked about the controversies surrounding the award this year, and how the organisation behind it does attempt to at least make the process transparent - especially compared to the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Mashing the tomatoes in the pan with the side of the wooden spoon, all the speeches seemed to mush together. I really can't say who said what, or even how many of them had something to say. The tomato puree was a suspicious colour at the top, but I put it in anyway, then boiled water for the tagliatelle. Literature is not a sport, it is impossible to measure superiority, the jury changes every year, oregano and basil. In between, the applause sounded wooden and arhythmic, and you could hear every footfall when someone new walked onto the stage.

A quick dash to fetch the offspring, who was surprisingly patient with Deutschlandfunk. As she spooned parmesan directly into her mouth while I wasn't looking, someone or other continued with the abstract speeches. Very possibly, this was the fourth or fifth speaker. By the time we got to "I'm not hungry any more, can I have some ice cream?" though, things had got slightly more specific. A man with a very young voice had moved on from Hegel's suggestions for literary critics ("What on earth is he talking about mum?") to introductions of the shortlisted authors and their books. This was actually a lovely recap, with a few sentences from each book followed by interviews and a different critic singing their praises each time.

The offspring had left the room and I was getting nervous. Displacement activities - that old butter needs throwing away. I had just grabbed a handful of butter out of the dish through kitchen paper, despairing that they would ever announce the winner, when they announced the winner. Or at least, they announced they were going to announce the winner.

So there I stood, the butter gradually seeping through the kitchen paper and giving off a faintly rancid smell, as someone announced:

Uwe Tellkamp, Der Turm.