Friday, 25 April 2008

Prizewinning Zaimoglu Translation

"Inspired" by three percent, I see that three American PhD students, Kristin Dickinson, Robin Ellis and Priscilla Layne, have won the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation - for their as-yet unpublished version of Feridun Zaimoglu's Koppstoff: Kanaka Sprak vom Rande der Gesellschaft. The website describes the book as presenting "the fictionalized voices of 26 women of Turkish heritage living in Germany... Koppstoff challenges readers to rethink conventions of religion, nationalism and femininity, and is globally significant for its contribution to debates on immigration, assimilation and discrimination–issues that resonate far beyond Germany’s borders."

A Jungle World review closes: "The rage is deep-seated. The language is wild, dense, associative, poetic. It describes the situation in accordance with the different professions, characters and temperaments: the good German is enjoying building up his hell again." What I find interesting is that the book is already ten years old, and as such reflects what was going on back then - the birth of a movement, perhaps, that I vaguely followed at the time. Back then, Zaimoglu was still moving in activist circles, and was in at the beginning of the "transethnic activist network" Kanak Attak. I'd say the claim on the Susan Sontag website that he founded it all on his ownsome is sightly exaggerated, to say the least. But the group's manifesto dates back to November 1998 - so was probably written around the same time as Koppstoff.

What struck me at the time was that people - like me, in fact - were beginning to reject the demands for assimilation or even "integration" and say: Why should we fit in with your society? And I think that's probably reflected in Koppstoff. From Jungle World again, a quote from the book:

Mihriban, 30, greengrocer: "If you live in a house and make sure the fridge is always full, keep on going shopping like a good girl, but people look daggers at you every time you want to open the fridge and take out something to eat, can you feel at home?"

Zaimoglu seems to have mellowed with age. His latest novel, Liebesbrand, is about an amour fou, a man obsessed by a woman who helps him after a coach crash in Turkey. I had to put it aside, it just didn't stoke my boiler. And the people at Kanak Attak have gone rather quiet too - their latest project seems to be a set of T-shirts. Of course, things have changed hugely since 1998 - 9/11 has shifted the focus to religion rather than ethnicity, and Germany has changed its citizenship and immigration laws (although not nearly to the extent being called for at the time). The media people work in have shifted too - there's Kanak-TV now and Zaimoglu is a critical member of the government's Islam Conference. His 2006 play Schwarze Jungfrauen (Black Virgins) was a collection of monologues based on interviews with neo-Muslim women - perhaps a continuation of the Koppstoff theme, but not as ground-breaking as it was ten years ago.

So, an interesting choice. As I see it, the book is almost a historical document - of a very exciting time. I wish the translators luck for getting it published, and will be fascinated to read it. If you'd like to read Zaimoglu's more recent fiction in English, try Margot Bettauer Dembo's translations on Words Without Borders.

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