Friday, 21 March 2008

Buying Rights

I read yesterday (embedded deeply in this article) that Piper have sold the rights to Hape Kerkeling's mega-bestseller Ich bin dann mal weg to the USA. Now before I let loose I have to admit that I haven't read the book. It's an autobiographical account of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela by a popular German comedian.

And it had sold about 2.7 million copies by January of this year, apparently - making it Germany's highest-selling non-fiction book ever.

So here's how the system seems to work: one country's publishers present their bestsellers to US/UK/Egyptian/Slovenian publishers. Because the books have sold well in the country of origin, the foreign publishers assume this will be the case in their country too. That means they have a vague guarantee that it won't be a flop. See Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Bernard Schlink, Umberto Eco, etc.

But sometimes this system just doesn't work. Take, for example, the British book Is it Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? This is a fairly amusing compendium of things that are shit. The classic "bathroom book" for dipping into every now and then. Only the things that are shit are very British. Very British indeed. As I recall, they're things like the Daily Mail newspaper, Lemsip or the Mitford girls. But it was a Christmas hit (my dad got two copies in various stockings) and sold by the bucket-load.

So the German publishers Goldmann bought the rights and had it translated, by Elvira Willems. Apparently, she had a fairly wide brief to just make up German things that are comparatively shit to minor British royalty and brand-name products. And let's face it, there are plenty of shit things in Germany as well. But its Amazon site paints a sorry picture: five customer reviews, all with one star (I don't think you can award zero). Here's a little taste, proving my point:

There really are far too many annoying things in the world, and a few of them have found their way into this book. For example, Che Guevara merchandising, Big Brother videos, comedy clubs, film warnings, etc....There are a few things in this book that I can nod my head to. But then there are very many entries - things, brands, people, media - that are simply typically British and that nobody knows here. But that's hardly the authors' fault, seeing as they are British. It's still a shame. Or have you ever heard of Vernon Kay, Boris Johnson or Philipp Green? Unfortunately, there are far too many of them in this book, so that only about half of the content makes sense to the average German consumer.

Which brings us back to Hape Kerkeling. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but his is a celebrity book. It sold well because everybody loves him and is interested in his personal mixture of Buddhism and Christianity, what he ate on the road, how his feet felt at the end of each day and the strange people he met along the way. And again, correct me if I'm wrong, but a celebrity book by someone you've never heard of is, er, missing the point ever so slightly.

Plus, the subject has already been done to death in English. There's Tim Moore's Travels with my Donkey for the comedy take and Shirley Maclaine's The Camino: A Pilgrimage of Courage. And even that is only at number 30,112 in the Amazon US book sales charts. And Shirley Maclaine is really famous.

So despite being happy that another book has made its way across the pond, I can't help feeling someone might have made a bit of a mistake here. But judge for yourself. Here's a pdf extract (in German).


Anonymous said...

I was wondering about two English books recently and why there was no German translation so far: One is quite recent, Billy Bragg's "The progressive patriot" (Billy is definitely a celebrity in Germany as well) the other a lot older: Martin Gilbert's "The Holocaust", which was written in the Eighties and has been translated into many languages including Macedonian but strangely not into German.

kjd said...

Ah yes, my young man is currently struggling through The Progressive Patriot with a dictionary. I'm sure he'd be very grateful if it was available in German. On the other hand, it's very specifically about Britain/England and might only be of interest to die-hard Billy Bragg fans or big-time Anglophiles. Or whatever the sub-set of those two is... But maybe there's a publisher out there willing to take that risk. Perhaps Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf?

I don't know Martin Gilbert but I suspect his book has simply missed the boat - there must be thousands of more recent works on the subject, with research mounting up and up over the years. A shame really.

I suppose what really gets me is the strictly sales-led decisions on what to translate, without taking cultural differences into account. That's a low-risk strategy when it comes to just creaming off the bestsellers, but what if a book might work better in the culture of the target language than in the original? I think that's theoretically possible, at least.