Das Magazin is the best magazine in Germany. The women's mags are just as inane as their English-language counterparts, the news magazines are just as biased in various directions, and I don't much look at the top-shelf ones, although there are plenty of them. But Das Magazin stands out from the crowd, covering interesting subjects, showcasing interesting writers, and with the most fascinatingly addictive lonely hearts pages I've ever read.
Founded in 1924, it soon became Germany's most successful illustrated magazine, with Marlene Dietrich gracing the cover before she made it big. It kept going under the Nazis - although the Jewish founding editor was chucked out - by blanking out politics, but was shut down in 1941 "for war reasons". In 1954, Brecht allegedly suggested to the East German authorities that they reintroduce it, in reaction to the masses' apparent longing for glamour and luxury expressed in the 1953 demonstrations. Quite how a glossy magazine could lower the labour quotas, I'm not sure, but it became a great success, and its tradition of publishing nude photography (and the rest of the content) earned it a reputation as the most "sophisticated" East German mag.
After 1989 it kind of vegetated a bit, I have to say. I remember visiting Prague with a group of East German students in the early 1990s, and a blonde beauty read a slightly smutty story out loud from it, to the obvious pleasure of the only man in our group, who publicly sported purple underpants - in fact, either he had several identical pairs or he didn't change them all through the long weekend. But that's beside the point. It's now a very lively publication, and I can thoroughly recommend it. I particularly like the short relationship stories by Kirsten Fuchs, by the way.
This month's edition features an article about the literary translator Christa Schuenke (Shakespeare, John Banville, William Gibson...) by Sophie Diesselhorst. It's a very interesting and no doubt useful introduction to the pleasures and tortures of literary translation. Being an "Eastern" publication, the magazine makes much of her past history in the GDR - what was it like translating when one couldn't visit the countries in question, how did she survive the fall of the wall, etc. And, of course, Christa Schuenke gets a chance to raise the subject of decent pay for literary translators. She says she had thought about translating less "difficult" literature under a pseudonym to pay the rent. But she decided to use her own name, at the threat of spoiling her reputation - so that everybody knows that "you can't exist on what I do."
Good stuff. But the tone of the article does less for the translators' cause, I can't help feeling. The second sentence introduces Schuenke's physical suffering: "And now, after 30 years at her desk, her back is no longer playing along... It is only a matter of time, she says, until her shoulders can no longer bear the burden of responsibility for world literature. And then? What will Christa Schuenke do when she can no longer translate?" We then find out about her poky flat all full of books, her passion for her work, how she goes about it, how she got into it, what she finds fascinating about it - and then it's back to the suffering. Working hard every day of the week, never earning enough to feed a family or save for a pension. Campaigning for better working conditions. "Sacrificing one day a week, one seventh of her precious working time, for voluntary work on behalf of her trade."
I suppose the problem I see here is the way the article tugs at the reader's heartstrings. Of course Christa Schuenke does a great deal for the translators' cause, and as a prominent member of the VdÜ, she can get publicity - like this article - that others can't. And it's great that the translators' association and its work gets a mention too. Yet I can't help feeling that the sympathy vote is not the right way to go about achieving fair pay. Portraying literary translators as a kind of Dickensian clique of long-suffering artists - and thus suggesting we need rescuing by some kind benefactor? - is not exactly empowering, is it?
So while Das Magazin has countered the phenomenon of translator invisibility, it certainly hasn't shown us in entirely the light I would prefer. Despite the three beautiful photos and the attention paid to Christa Schuenke's great talent and experience, it makes much of her problems. The title "Kalte Sahne & Weltliteratur" refers to a not very flattering incident in which she translated "cold cream" rather too literally. And the closing lines are dripping with pathos: "Translators have always been on the short end of the stick. Christa Schuenke will fight on nevertheless - even though she herself will probably never benefit from the outcome of the battle."
What I wish they'd written is how Christa Schuenke deserves decent pay because she contributes to the success of the books she translates. That she is a creative writer and should be paid accordingly, including decent royalties. That book prices and pay in publishing have gone up over the years, but translation rates have remained at a stable and very low level. That the quality of literary translation in general - although not necessarily the work of extremely dedicated individuals like Schuenke - would benefit hugely from being better paid. There is no lack of good arguments - so why fall back on the sympathy vote?