Thursday, 29 May 2008

To Foreignise or Not to Foreignise

Cathy the Commentator pointed out an article to me on the really rather good blog Paper Republic, written by "translators of Chinese literature, living in China". The translator Bruce Humes takes a look at the mainland Chinese translation of Hosseini's The Kite Runner, and notes both censorship in play and a large-scale "domestication" of the Arabic and Afghan elements of the text.

What I particularly like about the piece is that Humes doesn't rail at the translator for taking his chosen strategy - he points out that it's common practice in China, but also explains why he thinks it's wrong. In other words, he treats his fellow translator as an equal.

The article also features a Q&A section with the translator, Mr. Li Ji-Hong. This is actually quite revealing, as he claims it took him "10+ days" to complete his translation.

I'm astounded by this. I can't help wondering how it can be possible to translate a novel in 10+ days. I was reminded of the "Korean Marshmallow Scandal", in which a famous TV personality credited with a translation of a bestselling book blew her cover by claiming to have translated 100 pages a night. But perhaps translating into Chinese is a very fast business. Humes doesn't comment on it, merely describing the translator as "efficient". I'll say.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

My White Nights

I finished Lena Gorelik's debut novel Meine weißen Nächte a few dark nights ago, and I've been finding it difficult to categorise the book. Which is probably a good thing.

First of all, it's a light and enjoyable read, with obvious autobiographical aspects. The narrator, like the author, came to Germany from Russia as a Jewish refugee in 1992. The book is made up of mostly humorous episodes outlining her life in Saint Petersburg - queuing, Perestroika and disappointment - Munich - very settled with a German boyfriend but constantly on the phone to her overprotective mother - and an asylum-seekers' home in South Germany, which are quite upsetting in part. It is all kept together rather expertly by a narrative thread on a will-she-won't-she affair with her ex.

The language is straight-forward enough, with the book really coming alive through the characters - notably the narrator's mother and brother, her Russian Casanova and her reliable German boyfriend - and their experiences. The perspective changes, of course, as the narrator grows up. Her childhood in Saint Petersburg seems to be one of discomfort, shortages and then inequality, punctuated by idyllic holidays. Small episodes illustrate the greater picture - how the children can't have caviar rolls with a slice of tomato at the theatre, as they're only for the dollar-customers, how the family decorates the living room with the faded wallpaper they are assigned after a two-year wait, how she is finally given a Barbie. But she's too young to experience genuine discrimination, and her voice always has a note of humour in it.

Then the asylum-seekers' home, poignant moments of misunderstanding and poverty; their first bottled water, getting ripped off by a dentist, making friends at school. And these sections are the parts I liked best. Obviously I've never lived in an asylum-seekers' home but I was in East Berlin student accommodation specially for foreigners (post-89). There, too, word about the Germans and how to deal with the system spread by word of mouth - you should probably avoid football hooligans, you can buy couscous in West Berlin, Kurzzug isn't a destination at all when it appears on the train announcement sign, and there's a cheap disco opposite Friedrichstraße station.

What stops the book from becoming melancholy is the episodes set in the present. The narrator tells us about her lovably irritating family, her mother who brings three weeks' worth of food whenever she visits, her grandmother whose conversations revolve around how beautiful she was in her youth, her brother with a new craze every six months. She might be living a normal German life, if it weren't for the Russian-Jewish family that reminds her of who she is with overly regular phone calls. It's all really very funny. I can't help feeling she could have explored her divided identity in a little more detail, but perhaps she was striving for the kind of subtlety that leaves you to do the thinking for yourself.

I'd say Lena Gorelik is a cross between Vladimir Kaminer and Sasa Stanisic. Genuinely funny but not at the cost of the plot, and with a lot to say about Jewish-Russian life in Germany. Her second novel, Hochzeit in Jerusalem, was longlisted for the German Book Prize last year.

She hasn't been published in English yet - but the good news is, she's the German writer-in-residence at this year's BCLT international literary translation summer school, in Norwich this July. In its ninth year, this summer school is an absolutely life-changing experience for translators. A week of translation workshops with an author and an experienced literary translator (in this case, Shaun Whiteside) - accompanied by seminars, readings and presentations. Unfortunately it's rather expensive, but there are bursaries available and it's actually worth every penny, especially the food. I'm a bit gutted because I can't go, but am consoling myself with the fact that I put on about a stone last time I was there. You can still sign up, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you do.

Brit Acknowledges German Sense of Humour Shocker!

In last week's Guardian, the British comedian Stewart Lee writes on that mythical phenomenon, the German sense of humour. Yes, he says, there is such a thing. A brave man indeed.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Events Round-Up

Excitement looms, with three interesting events on the horizon.

1. Übersetzer packen aus at the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin on Thursday night. This time it's a special on dialogue, starring Susanne Mende and Kristof Magnusson. Susanne translates mainly Latin American literature and teaches literary translation in Potsdam. She also writes and runs the Berlin Crime Writing Salon. And Kristof is actually from Iceland, writes plays, prose and essays in German and translates from Icelandic. He looks uncannily like someone I used to work with and is a bugger to translate. I'll be interested to meet him and will be behind the bar as usual.

2. Kraftfeld Moderne at the LCB this coming Monday. John E. Woods presents the translators Doreen Daume, Helmut Frielinghaus und Susanne Höbel on Bruno Schulz and William Faulkner. And perhaps John will bring along his glow-in-the-dark medal to reflect its light on all translators present.

3. Murder Farm at the Goethe-Institut in London on Tuesday. Andrea Maria Schenkel launches the English translation of the out-of-nowhere bestseller Tannöd. Apparently, although the press release doesn't tell you so, her translator Anthea Bell will also be there.

So, Berliners or anyone stuck in boring old London. Get your skates on for some fine translation-related evening entertainment. And don't say I never tell you anything.

More Michael Hofmann

Sunday's Independent features an interview with the poet, academic and translator (probably in that order) Michael Hofmann.
He says translation "takes the words out of you. It also takes your autonomy away, and I think it takes away your sense of when something is finished. On the other hand, if you survive it then it'll turn out to have been good for you. And that's probably my hope. You know that you'll
have acquired more writing muscle or a greater array of styles." Sounds like he doesn't enjoy it a great deal. The castor oil of creative writing. And he talks about his father, the German writer Gert Hofmann, a lot. Babelguides offers information on his books available in English.

I heard Hofmann speak at a VdÜ get-together a couple of years ago. He was on a panel of authors who don't write in their native languages, along with Jan Faktor and Artur Becker - the assumption being that Hofmann's native language is German, but he writes and translates in English. I found that position a little coy - after all, he's lived in Britain since he was four years old. As the Independent comments, he has "the assuredness of someone who has passed through the English public-school system. He is, too, a softly spoken, courteous host. Not quite English, and not quite German." In the interview, Hofmann claims he writes his poems to make himself English. On the podium in Germany, he said, as I recall, that he doesn't feel at home with the English language; that he dislikes it, even.

How sorry a fate, then, to be trapped within it as he surely is. Michael Hofmann has translated Bertolt Brecht, Joseph Roth, Patrick Süskind, Herta Mueller, Franz Kafka, Irmgard Keun and Wolfgang Koeppen. He has won so many awards it must seem normal to him. But what I find most remarkable is that he has translated his own father's writing, winning the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1995 for The Film Explainer. I'd have thought the feeling of sneaking into the author's mind you have when translating would be even stranger if that author were your father. Like cat-burgling your own parents.

Monday, 26 May 2008

David Dollenmayer Wins Wolff Translation Prize

The winner of this year's Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize is David Dollenmayer, for his translation of Moses Rosenkranz' Kindheit. You can read the press release here. Professor Dollenmayer joins the ranks of distinguished translators to have won this $10,000-prize. But of course the best thing about it is he gets to spend three months at the idyllic Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin. With a view of the lake from the breakfast table, although a bit of a way out of town for enjoying the nightlife. Unless you're interested in foxes, that is.

Moses Rosenkranz lived from 1904 to 2003, and was buffeted from state to state and camp to camp by the turbulences of the twentieth century. Originally from Austro-Hungarian Bukovina, he chose to speak German from the various languages spoken in his Jewish family home. He was a poet like his more famous compatriots Paul Celan and Rosa Ausländer. He eventually settled in West Germany in 1961, writing prose and poetry that was not published until this century. Kindheit was originally written in Bukarest in the late 1950s, and details his life in a large farming family up to 1920. His publisher, Rimbaud Verlag, has a good website with plenty of information on the book and his other works.

According to the prize jury, "Dollenmayer captures with great sensitivity and skill the lively, often poetic, sometimes ironic, always unexpected style of the original. To translate this text, Dollenmayer had to familiarize himself with the setting—rural Bucovina before, during, and just after World War I—and make sense of Rosenkranz’s elliptical and imaginative account of a childhood in which privation, cruelty, and danger might well have destroyed a less resilient spirit. Thanks to Dollenmayer, this extraordinary document is now accessible to readers who will find its perspective, language, and content fascinating."

Congratulations! Let's hope the prize drums up a little more attention for the book in the English-speaking world.


I'm generally a little sceptical of those new-fangled "readers' communities" powered by advertising. But today I literally stumbled across something along those lines - but so much more.

Walking up the tail-end of Ackerstraße, I nearly bumped into a chalkboard advertising Tubuk. It is "an online shop for books from independent publishers" in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Only that's not all. They have a real-life shop at the front of their offices - so minimal and tasteful I suspect I wouldn't have noticed it without the chalkboard. It seems to be part of a small but perfectly formed network of bookshops. They sell books there, hold readings, etc. etc. But they also run their own online platform.

Readers can comment on and recommend books, and there is a top ten of most frequently recommended books - with Finn-Ole Heinrich's excellent Räuberhände at the top of the pile. You can enter your age and gender and get instant book tips - which really worked for me - and there is no hypocritical pretense that you'll make new friends and your social life will suddenly blossom. There are sample texts from a lot of the books in PDF format. Plus you can sign up as a test reader and get a free book. So it's like Blog a Penguin Classic only with German indie books. How good is that?

The lovely thing about it is that the books on offer are genuine beauties. I find German independent publishers make absolutely gorgeous books - not just in terms of content but also when it comes to the whole look and feel of the things. I had to dash to the bank to be able to buy Axel Altenburg's Stinkehose - more on that at a later date. Or probably not, as it turns out.

I'm really pleased the German indies have got together for this project. Although things haven't quite reached the state of bookselling in the UK or US, small publishers are finding it harder to get their books onto shelves as the chains take over and friendly neighbourhood shops go bust. And Tubuk seems to be an innovative approach to tackling that problem. Now all they need is their own Reading the World-type festival...

Sunday, 25 May 2008

How to Be German

Aside from a piece on Charlotte Roche rather low in new content, today's Observer also picks up on a Spiegel report from last month. Apparently, the Germans are all much of a muchness. You can read the rather long original article here.

Spiegel compiled all sorts of statistical information on consumer behaviour from various sources and then filled in the gaps with its own survey of 1000 Germans. So that counts out a lot of the people living in Germany, for a start. But what they came up with were statistical averages - German women eat 57.3 kilos of fruit a year. German men walk 4.2 km a week. 2/3 of German women know what a probiotic yoghurt is. 43% of Germans make phone calls in the kitchen. The latest books on their shelves are Harry Potter, Moppel-Ich, The Easy Way to Stop Smoking and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. All very interesting for advertising companies.

But what does it tell us about the actual Germans? Just because the statistical average is 57.3 kilos of fruit a year, that doesn't mean that the woman next door eats more cherries on a Tuesday than I eat bananas, does it? It's a generalisation, and Spiegel admits as much. Joe Q Public and his wife Rhonda-Lou don't actually exist, they say. But - the Germans recognise themselves in those averages more than they find comfortable.

Join in the fun and find out just how German you are in the Spiegel's quiz. I scored 8 out of 10. Not bad, eh? Although some of the questions actually identified me as a functioning European adult - "Can you cook?" for example.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Translation Allergy Ramble

Really, I should read more translations. Then I'd have something to offer on excellent sites like the World Literature Forum. It's a whole labyrinth of threads on world literature in English translation. I've told you about it before, but now it seems to be very much up and running. Reading it feels a little like eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation - all those wise people chatting among themselves for all the world to hear. I'm racking my brains to find something to say...

But the problem is, I find reading translations out of German incredibly hard work. I have to make a conscious effort to just plain enjoy the damn book. Because with every phrase, my mind is going, "I wonder what that was in the original. I wonder why she chose that word. I wonder how I would translate that if it was originally..."

In the past, I've taken the trouble to compare originals and translations of certain books. Or originals and different translations. It's a fascinating thing to do, and of course you end up picking holes in the translations, but also in the originals. And you're sitting there thinking, "Sheesh, even I could do this better!" when of course you probably couldn't.

I have no problem reading translations out of other languages that I don't speak - so, er, any languages really. I recently read Jostein Gaarder's The Ringmaster's Daughter, translated from Norwegian by James Anderson. And thoroughly enjoyed it, with no nagging "I wonder" questions in the back of my mind whatsoever.

But I find it, if anything, even less relaxing to read English books translated into German. I try to avoid it but sometimes I just need a fix of trash really quickly. As in, no time to go to an actual bookshop, the supermarket will have to do. Our local supermarket sells about 20 titles - nothing like Tesco with its new power to make or break books. But you can rely on about three quarters of those 20 titles to be utter trash.

Actually, I once made a terrible error at the checkout. I scanned the 20 books and identified what I thought would be a nice fluffy piece of thriller trash - Pascal Mercier's Night Train to Lisbon. I thought it would be something like The Shadow of the Wind - eminently readable, enjoyable, predictable, forgettable. Only it wasn't - it's actually rather sober and serious. I can't say whether I'd have liked it if I hadn't been expecting something completely different. All I know is I was sorely disappointed. But it wasn't a translation.

German bookshops seem to do a roaring trade in books in English. Even Karstadt in Wedding - not Berlin's most salubrious department store - sells English books, for God's sake. Unfortunately, the titles on offer are never anything I'd want to read. Most of the covers are black, with knives dripping blood emblazoned across them and raised silver lettering. Next time I'm there I might just loiter around and see who buys them. I suspect it's all Germans who feel the need to read this stuff in the original.

For there is a strain of people - and perhaps I'm one of them - who are terribly snooty about "reading the original". It comes across as arrogance - oh, my English/German is so good, I have no need for a translation. I'd much rather read the pure, unadulterated, unfiltered version. Even if I understand less of it than I would in my own language. I often think about this at the cinema - when I'm the only person laughing in a huge room full of people, and then the lights go up and everyone starts speaking German. At an English showing. Bizarre.

It all stems from a deep-seated fear of translators, don't you know. Freud would have a field day. But until Britain and the US start publishing translations by the bucketload like they do over here, I have the perfect excuse - the books I want to read often simply aren't available in English.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Punk Rock Book Circle

Those musicians, eh? They all know each other, and once one of them starts off a trend, that's it. They're all at it.

I read in the latest Zitty magazine (don't you love that name?) that Bela B. of the big big German (pop-)punk band Die Ärzte likes nothing better after a gig than a good read. I was surprised. None of the punk bands I've ever seen live sat down with a book afterwards (unless it was a book of matches - boom, boom!). I was interested in what kind of books literate punk rockers read to wind down from a sweaty gig, so I looked into it. The result was a bizarre never-ending circle of collaborations between musicians who write.

Bela B. (actually Dirk) Felsenheimer wrote a couple of vampire books in the 1990s, which now seem to be out of print. But one of his first projects after Die Ärzte split was to produce an album for the great white hope Rocko Schamoni. And his book Dorfpunks was a pretty big hit in 2004. I haven't read it - but it's about punks in a West German village in the early 80s. He's written three other books but I suspect they're not as interesting.

Now Schamoni had already collaborated on the musical front with Christiane Rösinger's old band the Lassie Singers. And now she's written her own book, Das schöne Leben, with a recommendation by Rocko on the back. I haven't read it - but it's about a rural youth abandoned for life as a musician in 1980s West Berlin.

And who else was in the Lassie Singers, if only briefly? That's right, Funny van Dannen. And he's written an incredible seven books. I haven't read any of them - but they're mostly bizarre short stories and poems.

From Funny van Dannen we move on to Farin Urlaub and thus back to Die Ärzte. As that Wikipedia entry tells us in typical stilted English, "It is a never confired guess, but most people think, that he is the secret singer of the Funny van Dannen cover-song "Unbekanntes Pferd" (Unknown Horse) on the "Köpfer"-EP of the band Rantanplan." Farin Urlaub has only produced one book, a coffee-table photo book on India and Bhutan. Apparently it's sold out. I haven't read it.

Mr Urlaub made a guest appearence on the 1995 album Der Mettwurstpapst of a certain Heinz Strunk. And much, much later, Strunk wrote the "fairly autobiographical" novel Fleisch ist mein Gemüse. First published in 2004, it's just been made into a film. I haven't read it - but it's about a sad suburban kid who plays in bands in the 1980s.

In between those two points, Strunk worked for the German music channel VIVA. And gosh, so did Charlotte Roche. I don't have to tell you about her book. I have read it - and it's not about a kid who joins a band in the 1980s. Roche and Strunk even went on a reading tour together a couple of years ago, reading extracts from a dissertation on Penis Injuries Resulting from Masturbation with Vacuum Cleaners. Apparently, they made men in the audience faint.

And Charlotte completes our little circle for tonight. Because she recorded a single (1., 2., 3.) with none other than - Bela B. Watch the video - I hope you like it.

Incidentally, those six degrees of separation link to me, too. Because one of Die Ärzte walked into a pub in Berlin in 1993 and asked my (not fascist) young man and his (not fascist) mates to play Nazis in the video for their song Schrei nach Liebe. They refused - impolitely.


Watch Clemens Meyer swearing on a talkshow. That lovely accent. Hach.
Oh, and Roger Whittaker's on there too. They don't seem to interact though.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The Most Influential German-Speaking Woman...

...according to Cicero magazine, is the literary critic and writer Elke Heidenreich. The magazine apparently evaluated women according to their mentions in the "most important" German-language newspapers and magazines since 1998, plus internet hits and archive inclusions. Heidenreich presents a very influential TV literary magazine called Lesen! (don't you just love that commanding tone?) and has had an incredibly varied career in the public eye.

She is followed in the top ten by the feminist Alice Schwarzer, Nobel literature laureate Elfriede Jelinek, the writer and director Doris Dörrie, the writers Christa Wolf and Cornelia Funke, university boss and possible presidential candidate Gesine Schwan, the literary critic Iris Radisch, Bishop Margot Käßmann and Jutta Limbach, the former head of the Goethe Institut.

Note that Angela Merkel doesn't seem to be included. I'd have thought she actually has more influence over life in Germany than Cornelia Funke. It seems they're actually talking about women who influence German-language culture - and there are plenty of heavyweights in that department. But if you look at the top women, you can make out that we're more influential in literature (creating and critiquing it) than in any other field of culture. After all, we've been at it long enough and we can do it from home while bouncing babies on our knees - not like film or theatre or music.

So hooray for German-speaking women. Long may they influence us!

Monday, 19 May 2008

Apple Pips

Did you know there are scores of different regional words for apple cores in Germany? Ask two Germans what they call an apple core and you'll like as not get three different answers.

I don't think there is a single mention of apple cores in the book I've just finished, Katharina Hagena's Der Geschmack von Apfelkernen. But there are the eponymous apple pips, and apple sauce, and apple blossoms, and apple harvests, and apple flavours and scents. In fact, it's a very sensuous book. Heat and cold, dark and light, sweet and bitter - at the risk of being twee, all of life's contrasts are here.

I once heard a German bookseller saying that in this day and age, people don't buy books in response to newspaper reviews any more. If a book is reviewed in Brigitte, though, it's a sure thing. I don't feel quite old enough to read Brigitte yet. Or frumpy enough. But this is a real Brigitte book.

I had a long think about whether to review it, actually. It's kind of fluffy. But then I thought, jeez, you really enjoyed it, didn't you? The characters followed you around for days on end after you finished it, didn't they? OK, it might not be world-moving literature, but it was a damn good read, wasn't it? And you'd recommend it to a friend looking for a good easy read, wouldn't you? The answers were yes.

I bought it because I'd translated a children's book by the author, unfortunately not for publication - or perhaps fortunately, because the world probably isn't quite ready for my doggerel verse translations just yet. And because it was in a big pile at the front of a shop, with a lovely cover. It seems to be at number 4 in the hardback fiction charts too, so I obviously wasn't the only one.

It's a fairly unexciting story, tracing three generations of women in a North German village house. A garden, an inheritance, a romance, a traumatic experience in the past. But there are touches of "natural magic" that reminded me of Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits. Only a lot more teutonic. And there is a thread running through about memories and forgetting - the grandmother with Alzheimer's, the grandfather with a Nazi past, the things the first-person narrator chooses not to remember. The descriptions of the North German garden and landscape are lovingly detailed, very earthy and affectionate. And the narrator is very literate, a librarian who repeatedly comments on her own storytelling, explaining her memories and sources and how she mingles them:

Of course Herr Lexow didn't tell me about Agnes' butter cake. I didn't even think he knew Agnes had existed. I sat at the kitchen table in Bertha's house and saw my grandmother as a child and my great aunt Anna, who never had any other expression on her face than the one in the photograph. I remembered things over a cup of lukewarm UHT milk that Bertha had told my mother and she had told me, that aunt Harriet had told Rosmarie and Rosmarie had told Mira and me, things that we'd dreamt up or at least imagined.

The narrator has a charming sense of humour and self-irony. And the romantic plotline is a real emotional stomach-churner (I mean that in a good way). There's nothing like a good romatic plotline to get you through a book. The novel is very finely constructed, as you'd expect from an author who's an expert on James Joyce. A weepy happy end tops it all off. I'd say full marks for the lay-dies. And sometimes we're the only ones who count.

Friday, 16 May 2008

A Little Bit of Politics

A while ago, the German press was getting all het up about writers ignoring politics. They had forgotten Ulrich Peltzer's Teil der Lösung.

It is an excellent book, although I found it slightly too long. It's been a while since I read it, but I remember a vivid description of eyes meeting at a party that literally took my breath away. If I'd been wired up to a machine as I read, it would have been beeping frantically. It's a story about a romance between a journalist and a younger student. The journalist is one of Berlin's prominent "urbane Penner" - creative types living on the brink of poverty with very visible shared offices in Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte. The student leads a double life as a left-wing activist. And then there are the people around them - the university lecturer who provides the link between them, the activists, the intelligence officers locked in in-fighting. Lots of insight into the way their relationships work.

I found it a very good portrait of Berlin - say two or three years ago, before G8 in Heiligendamm. Gallery parties, anti-surveillance campaigns, Kastanienallee, Becks Gold. Actually, I'm not sure whether anyone really does drink Becks Gold in the book, it's just a vague feeling. The book was nominated for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, but Clemens Meyer won, as you may know. But Peltzer did win this year's Berliner Literaturpreis for "lifetime achievement", worth even more money and securing him a semester as a guest professor at the FU.

You can read an extract, translated by Martin Chalmers, at Litrix. I have no idea whether this is the kind of thing that interests English-language readers (and publishers), but I really liked it. I hope you do too.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Literary Paranoia

My young man genuinely believes that all traffic lights turn to red when their built-in sensors see him coming. I, on the other hand, have a different paranoia. I suspect that books about Germany published in English - whether translated or not - are all about the Nazis.

What with all that fuss about Jonathon Litell and now Belgian-born Paul Verhaegen winning the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with his Omega Minor about Nazi-era Berlin (among other things), I was starting to get a bit uptight. Looking at the German Book Prize didn't help. Last year's winner, Julia Franck's Lady Midday, is about the Nazis. The 2005 winner was not entirely Nazi-free either.

Then there's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. John Boyne's book has gone the other way, translated into a zillion languages. It's on my shelf but I haven't opened it yet. But I much enjoyed Michael Arditti's A Sea Change (refugees on the SS St. Louis). Admittedly, he's also written about the Red Army Faction days. My shelves are also weighed down with Jenna Blum's fairly enjoyable Those Who Save Us and Stephen Fry's Making History (which just plain annoyed me). And Random House writes in a discussion guide on Michael Wallner's April in Paris (sounded boring so didn't read it): "Scores of novels and nonfiction books have been written about World War II. In what ways is April in Paris distinctive?"

Running out of evidence for my paranoia, I looked up "Germany" on amazon uk. Woah. Right at the top is Philip Kerr's excellent Berlin Noir trilogy. It's crime fiction with Nazis. Then there's Sebald's Austerlitz (Nazis) and Buchheim's Das Boot (need I say more). And Aesop's Fables and Ford Maddox Ford. I suspect the system for sorting fiction by country is not entirely faultproof.

Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with writing about the Nazis. People genuinely should write about the Nazis, lest we forget... Fiction is a wonderful way to keep memories alive in people's consciousness, and to draw parallels to their own experiences. I have always been incredibly impressed when listening to people who experienced Nazi persecution at first hand, and they're not going to be around forever. So fiction is one way to tell younger people about the terrible things that happened without boring their pants off.

My paranoia is that nobody outside of Germany is interested in any other aspect of the country's history. German critics are quick to accuse writers of "writing for the international market" (as if there was anything wrong with that...) by putting Nazis in their books. I think I've read this levelled at Julia Franck and Michael Wallner. But if that's the only way they're going to get translated, it's hardly surprising, is it? I know there are plenty of German novels in translation that don't even touch on Hitler. But I'm racking my brains to think of books written by British or US authors set in Germany but with no Nazis (apart from Michael Arditti's Unity). Any suggestions?

I think I must repeat to myself a mantra of "Daniel Kehlmann, Daniel Kehlmann, Daniel Kehlmann". After all, there aren't any Nazis in Measuring the World, or are there?

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

A Message from School Holidays Limbo

Actually, as you may have noticed, I'm not posting this week. It's the school holidays so I have no time for blogging unless I plonk my darling offspring in front of the box for hours on end. Unfortunately from that point of view, the weather is very nice.

Anyway, I have to interrupt my self-imposed silence to tell you (completely stolen from the Literary Saloon) that Granta has an interview online with Charlotte Roche. Ha ha! (That's a joyful laugh, by the way, not a cynical snicker)

Two interesting points: firstly, the interviewer Philip Oltermann notes that "publishers are currently bidding for UK and US rights for Feuchtgebiete". So all those people wondering whether they'll ever be able to read Wetlands in English can heave a sigh of relief - or apprehension. Or excitement.
And secondly, Ms Roche claims she's had no time to read since she had her daughter. Poppycock, I say!

Otherwise, Charlotte Roche is her usual refreshingly low-brow self. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but either her English seems rather German at points or the interview was held in German and translated. Whatever, it's an interesting read. Having spawned only Howard Jones in the celebrity stakes, perhaps High Wycombe will have a new celebrity daughter to boast about in the UK before too long. How exciting.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Child of All Nations

It's actually a coincidence, but I've just finished a book by Irmgard Keun - one of the writers whose books were banned by the Nazis. It's Michael Hofmann's translation of Child of All Nations. Goebbels & co. weren't keen on her strong female protagonists, who had no time at all for Kinder, Küche, Kirche.

Nine-year-old Kully tells her story. Schlepped around Europe by her emigré parents but never despairing, she is a wonderful character with many astute observations to make. Her father is a writer, banned by the Nazis for saying nasty things about them. Her mother is her mother, and seems to serve no other purpose than to look after her and her father.

The life of German exiles, wonderfully captured in Anna Seghers' oppressive Transit, is an endless round of applying for visas, finding accommodation, trying to make money and applying for the next visa. In between, there is lots of sitting in cafés making a little last a long time. Irmgard Keun takes a different, perhaps less worthy view to Anna Seghers. We see Kully and her family as they put up a constant front of great wealth - staying in the most expensive hotels, sunbathing on the expensive beach, eating prawns and drinking champagne, with pet tortoises and a dolls' kitchen in tow.

Only the family is stone broke. Her father leaves Kully and her mother as a kind of deposit as he gallivants around Europe trying to drum up some money - perhaps a benefactor will start up a literary magazine with him as editor. Perhaps a distant cousin will lend them some money before realising they're not actually related. Perhaps his publisher will give him another advance.

The father, apparently modelled on Keun's lover at the time, Joseph Roth, is utterly dislikeable. A philandering alcoholic, but seen through the eyes of his daughter you can't help but feel a perverse pity - poor daddy, vomiting in the sink every morning. The mother, again, is wetter than wet can be, seemingly incapable of making her own decisions, a faded beauty tied to her once fine husband. Kully, as Hofmann points out in his excellent afterword, is the most adult of the three of them. The story traces the path Keun took through Europe herself, which makes you wonder whether Kully is voicing her experiences or the mother is a bleak self-portrait.

The plot? Oh the plot's not important. I was disappointed by the ending - as was Hofmann himself, which made me feel terribly wise to have second-guessed such an eminent writer and translator - but that didn't really matter. What I love about the book is Kully's voice. Clichés often abound when an adult writes as a child, but not here. Hofmann has a very light touch, with just the occasional deliberate grammatical slip - "my mother and me went..." - and thanks his son, "then thirteen, this translation's first reader and editor."

I was reminded of Daisy Ashford, whose book The Young Visiters I lost on the way home from school when I was about 14, which made me very sad. I never found it again until I came across a German translation in a junk shop a few years ago. And guess what, Hofmann namechecks her in his afterword too, which was just about the icing on the cake in the "feeling pretty darned clever" stakes for me, let me tell you.

So take my advice and read this book. You won't regret it and it's only short. I'm very pleased it's been published in the Penguin Classics series - as it is a genuine modern classic.

Sunday, 11 May 2008


Friday* was the 63rd anniversary of the German capitulation that ended WWII - celebrated with Russian music and speeches near the Soviet war memorial in Treptower Park. An interesting mixture of old men, black-clad youths and young parents.

And yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the Nazi book-burnings - marked with readings of burned books and new books, which I didn't manage to attend. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an excellent site all about it. It features a list of 58 authors whose books were burned, from Hemingway to Marx and including Vicki Baum. Here's a quote from her:

[The New Women] are healthy and happy, with no hysteria, no anemia, no nerves and sentimentalities. They are at home on the sports field and in the laboratories; they work a lot and do not make a lot of fuss over those emotions that meant so much to us in the old days because they proliferated half-hidden, suppressed and forbidden. -1929

*Actually Thursday, but who'd want Russian music and speeches on a Thursday night?

Thursday, 8 May 2008


Such a lovely name, don't you think? Yell-y-neck.

Elfriede Jelinek has put an entire new novel up on her website. Entitled Neid (Envy), it's apparently about "an older violin teacher left by her husband, who lives in a bleak Upper Styrian town. The book's themes range from the destruction of nature to politics to the bleakness of the Austrian provinces." (Heise online)

They also say it's estimated to be 900 pages long. I might take a look at it, but then again, I don't feel up to reading 900 pages on my computer screen. Elfriede Jelinek has threatened to take it off again whenever she feels like it, so you might want to rush to get a look before it disappears again.

I'm deliberately not including a quote, which I would generally do. The reason is that the website expressly prohibits any form of reproduction or quotes without prior permission. This has already provoked discussion on the Heise forum - and I find it just as counterproductive as it is ridiculous - and of course without any legal standing. Naturally enough, the author wants to protect her copyright, but a note saying that the texts are subject to Austrian copyright law would surely suffice. A case of extreme caution, I feel, rather than a genuine embracing of the internet as a medium for all.

Incidentally, the website also features a short text on the state of Austria after Amstetten. Called Im Verlassenen (Abandoned), it is well worth reading and very Catholic. In the introduction to Beneath Black Stars (see yesterday's post), Martin Chalmers writes:

Jelinek again: 'For me Austria is a nation of criminals. This country has a criminal past.' (...) One critic has commented that it is 'strange that it is precisely those who campaign so vehemently against nationalist activities, who appear to share the fetishization of national characteristics with their opponents'.

Certainly something to think about. But if you ask me, it is at least more legitimate for people living in a particular country to fetishise national characteristics than it is for people outside of that country. Maybe a bit like that whole "don't you dare criticise my mum/brother/husband - I'm the only one who can do that" thing.

Addendum: Perlentaucher rips the piss out of Jelinek's citation ban in its review of the German feuilletons. Way to go!

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Austrian Culture Perverted?

Stuart Jeffries very sensibly says "no" in this Guardian article in response to the Amstetten case. An interesting take on Austrian cultural history, from Freud and Musil to The Sound of Music.

Incidentally, if you're interested in contemporary Austrian fiction, you'd do well to get hold of Beneath Black Stars, a compilation edited by Martin Chalmers. Published in 2002, it doesn't contain today's rising young stars, but it might show you a side of Austria beyond basements, Nazis and singing nuns.

Everyone's a Winner, Baby

That's a fact. Last night's Translation Idol was a roaring success, if I do say so myself. Everyone seemed very patient and forgiving of my amateurish presentation skills, our poet Ron Winkler was an absolute star - very erudite and charming - and there were 14 versions of his poem. Plus our little library was comfortably full, banning my fears that only 14 people would turn up and they'd all vote for different translations. Berlin's translatorati were out in full force.

The translations we received were all of outstanding quality, and I was very pleased that some people had ventured quite far away from the original - but that others had strived for fidelity. As Ron pointed out, the nature of the contest meant that people felt they had to distinguish their version from the others - of course without knowing the other outcomes. They should all be online at no man's land soon. I kept getting blinded by camera flashes, so I hope there'll be a couple of photos up there too.

Ron Winkler chose his personal best for the Poet's Prize - Steph Morris was the delighted winner. And the audience also voted on their favourite. The tension was incredible, and in the end it was a draw! The talented two are both Scottish exiles - Tom Morrison and Joseph Danaghie. Tom and Steph were both in attendance, but we called Joseph via live Hollywood link - OK, live mobile phone call to Munich. And the audience was just as thrilled as he was to hear him laughing down the line.

I hope everyone who came had as great a time as I did. I want to do it all over again next year.

Luckily, I only found out that the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones had been in the audience after he left. Had I known, I'd have been even more nervous to start with. I expect he found it all slightly small-scale, what with being translated into 5 zillion languages himself. I will duly move Mr Pip up to second place in my "to read" pile - and the man himself is reading in Berlin next week: Wednesday, 14 May at 7pm at the Ingeborg Drewitz Bibliothek, Grunewaldstraße 3, 12165 Berlin - in partnership with the New Zealand Embassy Berlin. Apparently, it'll be the only one in Berlin, so it's well worth going out to Steglitz.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Tonite's the Nite

Just a quick one to say - if you're in Berlin, come down to Max & Moritz tonight for Translation Idol - no man's land sucht den Superübersetzer*.

If you're not, you'll have to just watch this spot to find out which of the incredible fourteen entries wins the top accolade and prizes galore.

My tummy's all twisted and tied with nerves already.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Neo-Housewives and Neo-Feminists

This was going to be a full-on rant. But then I realised every cloud has a silver lining. How twee.

What sparked it all off was the news that Eva Herman has got a new book out. She used to read the news but they sacked her for defending the Nazis' family policy - à la: it wasn't all bad, think of the autobahns...

In fact, what she said was:

"And above all we have to learn to value the image of the mother again in Germany, which was unfortunately abolished by National Socialism and the subsequent 1968 movement. The 68ers [abolished] practically everything, all the values we had - it was a terrible time, it was a completely crazed, highly dangerous politician who led the whole of the German people to their destruction, we all know that - but back then the things that were good, and that's values, that's children, that's mothers, that's families, that's sticking together – it was abolished. Nothing was allowed to be left standing."

She lost an appeal against her former employer last week.

Before she was sacked, she had taken a sabbatical to publish her book The Eva Principle. I didn't read it. It's about how women should be more feminine and shouldn't work if they have children, how they should fetch hubby his slippers when he comes in from work, devote themselves entirely to family life, etc. etc. There was some discussion among translators here in Berlin as to whether to take on a translation job for the book, which you can read about here. In the end, the publishers only got a sample translated (by a man) and it has not been published in English.

Her next book was called The Noah's Ark Principle. I didn't read that either.It's about how German women should have more babies to stop the Germans dying out. I think.

And now she's given the world The Survival Principle. It appears to be about surviving as Eva Herman, why she doesn't approve of early-years childcare, why she doesn't approve of 1968 and how she prays for her enemies, including Alice Schwarzer. I won't be reading it.

Anyway, all that made me realise that it all has a good side. Because the whole brouhaha seems to have prompted women in Germany to think about how they see themselves. The first reaction in book form was Desirée Nick's satirical polemic Eva Go Home. It was obviously written very quickly, but I thought it was the perfect reaction - why take someone like Eva Herman too seriously?

And now there are a handful of new books by young "neo-feminists" - perhaps kicking off Germany's third wave? Of course there's Wetlands, but also two non-fiction titles - Wir Alphamädchen and Neue deutsche Mädchen. What they seem to have in common is that they are written by confident young women in their mid-30s, embracing feminism but rejecting certain aspects such as the anti-pornography standpoint.

At the moment, it all seems to be about feminism making women's lives "more beautiful", as the Alpha-Girls put it. It's about sexual self-determination and powerful and fulfilling careers, all things I'm certainly in favour of. But I don't feel like I'm in their target group - in Germany as elsewhere, having a child puts women into a group apart where we experience genuine disadvantages on a daily basis - whether in work or on benefits. And as these young feminists are still referring to themselves as "girls", they haven't yet been through that. I'd say they're offering young middle-class women and girls of their age - and, crucially, younger - a model for modern feminist living. A lot more to my taste than Ms Herman, if still rather naive.

Which brings us back to Alice Schwarzer. The media have portrayed the young garde as anti-Alice. And if you ask me, there's nothing wrong with kicking over a few statues. I suspect the authors in question aren't quite as black-and-white in their iconoclasm as many people think, as this "peer review" would suggest.

But Alice was awarded the Ludwig Börne Prize yesterday for her combative spirit. And she sent a message out to the "post-girlies", as she calls them: "I am not, with all due respect, dear late girls, going to be toppled." Almost a "This lady's not for turning" from the iron lady of German feminism?

Saturday, 3 May 2008

March on Berlin

The Guardian is claiming one Tory compared Boris Johnson's London Assembly election victory with Mussolini's march on Rome in 1922.

After Bush's election, Berlin saw an influx of abhorred Americans. Apparently, there are now 12700 US citizens living here (and 9300 Brits).

So I'm expecting all those people who are worried at the prospect of London experiencing its very own Il Duce will soon be moving away. And what better place than here? Surely most of them know someone who's bought into the local housing market already - although prices will no doubt take a further leap now.

I hope at least some wily entrepreneur will open a decently-priced Marmite and PG Tips shop like there used to be here back when Berlin was full of British builders.

Despondently yours,